As its title suggests, Compendium, poet Kristina Marie Darling’s second book of poetry, is a short collection of poems compiling an incomplete history. Calling the book experimental, fails to tell the whole story. For unlike some experimental poetry, that shirks narrative, abandons traditional forms, and leaves an emotional distance between reader and text, Darling toys with traditional syntax, but leaves the reader curious, hungry, longing to restore the faded portrait that she keenly leaves unfinished.
Compendium has five untitled segments, the first containing a single poem, “Palimpsest.” This is the first of many poems in the collection that seeks to document the history of people and objects. “Palimpsest” is comprised of six prose stanzas, each subtitled Chapter One, demonstrating a dismissal of linear time in the succeeding narrative. The story told in the following pages is incomplete. In these pages, history, like the palimpsest, has been rubbed away, erased.
So, what then of the story that emerges? How do these poems communicate a narrative with so much missing? Darling’s deliberate choice of words in the second section’s six prose poems gives the reader equal parts music and silence. Here we are introduced to the heroine, Madeleine, as well as her nameless companion, the connoisseur. We aren’t sure about the nature of their relationship: lovers? former lovers? master and submissive? Perhaps. Darling’s nonlinear narrative avoids answering much, but the catalog of objects appearing and reappearing throughout the book give weight to the absence of plot structure. In the first poem, “The Box,” we are dropped into an unknown place and time:
That evening, the connoisseur presented
Madeleine with an usual box. Despite its array of
glass buttons and sheet music, he explained, one
must ever open the smallest compartment.
These window-shaped poems frame the repeated images texturizing the book’s themes of deliberate solitude, unfulfilled longing, and willful containment. Objects such as lockets dangling from red silk ribbon, countless rooms, silk gloves, music boxes, distant soirees, and black taffeta gowns, become clues that attempt to bridge the gaps between the reader the narrative.
While most of these objects’ specific histories are left unaccounted, Madeleine’s inaction in the poem “The Lockets” lends the objects their emotional significance. When the connoisseur dangles the locket’s photograph in front of her, Madeleine can, “do nothing but mumble before it’s sepia glow, her own blurred image, and the tiny pinhole from which the connoisseur had painstakingly suspended it.” This simple interaction hints at the connoisseur’s control over Madeleine through objects, thus layering the feeling of haunted containment. The items catalogued here are feminine in nature: silk gloves, embellished gowns, veils and broaches. Madeleine’s frustrating lack of agency is expressed through the objects she has some control over. She specifically chooses the “most somber gown” for the rustling noise it makes as she walks. A tiny slipper adorned with ribbons contains “within its past an elegy.” Curious rituals surround each object, the specific meaning of which has long been forgotten.
Darling’s focused use of punctuation and syntax deepens the pervading sense of restriction. Each poem is roughly six sentences, give or take one, and tightly ordered and structured. We enter each poem mid-scene or often following an event, as in the poem “The Homage” which begins, “It was only after the soiree…” leaving us to wonder who was invited and what they were celebrating. Each poem also contains a line of past or future dialogue, along with at least one fragment. These poems and their mysterious tone leave the reader longing for order, story, time, setting. Fragments are incomplete vessels; quotations marks act as containers for each character’s own words. On this deep linguistic level, these poems hold back. More specifically, the poems are not capable of offering more and that is quite the point. Mystery is not merely for mystery’s sake; this purposeful lack of context allows the reader to feel lost along with Madeleine in this house of endless rooms filled with faded portraits.
A series of six, small and untitled poems in the third section initially evoked frustration before a realization emerged: the poems were created from the prose poems of the second section. The effect is satisfying. The poems’ economy of language reduces the story to only the most significant words, while paradoxically opening the tightly-contained world of the previous narrative. Collected again are trinkets, accessories, and garments: “her sanctimonious blue / ribbons” “The lockets,” “tiny bells,” and “starched skirts” float in a sea of white space. The white space on each page says just as much as the handful of carefully chosen words; history also lies in what’s missing.
The penultimate section is entirely composed footnotes for missing texts, containing historical information, definitions, and unattributed quotes. Each begins at least halfway down the page, leaving a glaring mirror of white space. By now, we know we won’t have all the answers, but we accept this fact and allow these poems to assemble new, incomplete vignettes. Much like in real relationships, what is not said becomes just as, if not more important, than what is.
Kristina Marie Darling’s Compendium is a shadow box collection of antiques, each holding other worlds and histories. Darling achieved what she set out to do: write a concise and poetic compilation of a body of knowledge. In history, as in these poems, exact truths are impossible to attain. If, as Darling suggests, language fails to tell whole truths, perhaps experimental is a just word to describe Compendium. Darling has assembled a purposefully incomplete history filled with desire, mystery, music, and silence.