Recently, I attended a wedding of a couple I didn’t know very well. The decorations were beautiful, the food was delicious and elegantly catered, and the music was tasteful and appropriate. Everything was exactly as it should have been, but when I left, I had a strong sense of things that should have satisfied me, but I never felt actual satisfaction. I missed the most important part of the ceremony, which was an emotional connection with the couple.
I feel this way about Kristina Marie Darling’s The Body is a Little Gilded Cage: A Story in Letters & Fragments. The book contains many gorgeous images and lines, and much about the book impressed me. Darling presents innovative narrative techniques, like footnotes to a missing text, letters between lovers or almost lovers, and glossaries of terms, but what is missing is any connection between the reader and the subject. I’m not entirely sure what the subject is, even after numerous readings and sincere attempts to get past the attempts at structural innovation. In trying to tell a story in letters and fragments, Darling emphasizes the letters and fragments, leaving a shadow of a story, a bride and groom whom the audience cannot see well enough to recognize.
This is what I know of The Body is a Little Gilded Cage: A Story in Letters & Fragments from repeated readings: 1. The first section of prose poems centers on a couple who attend a rich, fancy party. 2. Images from the party are possibly expanded upon by a series of appendixes, but the appendixes do not refer to the text, possibly creating a metanarrative, a hipster’s make-believe postmodernism, where we have footnotes that indirectly expand on images from the first section of prose poems. 3. The book, in part, is a biography of H.D., the great modernist poet. (I only know this through the author’s note at the end and a few Internet searches on Darling. I in no way learned this through Darling’s poetry. Beyond the book’s epigraph, H.D. is not mentioned.)
Still, The Body is a Little Gilded Cage contains many gems. “Soirée (III),” the strongest of the strong first section, reads:
The music begins & we watch dancers stumble beneath dim
chandeliers. Their faces blur in every mirror & I imagine us adrift
among the hall’s towering pillars. My heart a room opening inside a
darkened room. Now each balustrade glitters with empty crystal &
the guests can only murmur. The phonograph keeps turning & soon
the night is a pearl I’ve locked away with a silver key —
She describes small details of a larger encounter, noting such things as satin inlays on coats. She reports on every button she sees. When describing a cathedral in “City Walk (II)”, she offers, “Our eyes adrift along their beveled iron trim.” Later in “Aviary,” “The night has been opened like a box of exotic blue canaries & I’m brushing feathers from my long dark sleeves.” Darling employs strong ears and a penchant for strong images. These images reflect a world with over the top in bourgeois opulence, which I assume is where the biography comes in. Darling writes with incredible crispness, but the world she describes remains cold, stark, upper-class, and difficult to relate to.
Darling expands images this first section of prose poems through appendices. She takes images or something that was mentioned in the first section and offers a history, a glossary of terms, or other images that change how we view the first image. She also, in this process, gives us new ideas that she masterfully weaves through the miscellanea, such as a gorgeous exploration of lilies. In “Footnotes to the History of the Corsage,” the tenth note reads, “When she unpinned the lilies, a quiet upheaval. The most startling numbness in each of her fingers.” She goes on to say in “Notes of Fin de Siècle,” “In winter months, lilies continue to bloom under glass. Her insatiable interest in hermetic methods of preservation.” What she does, Darling does very well. So much of what can be found in this spare collection is beautiful, such is the sixth footnote of “Footnotes to the History of the Chandelier”: “Every house in the province contained a hidden staircase, which was lit by the most exotic chandelier. At night she would lie on her back and count the endless tiers of Bohemian crystal. The ominous smoldering of the candles.”
As lovely as the description is, and it truly is, I’m not sure what to do with it. I cannot decide how to assemble any meaning from the text, and it isn’t from lack of trying. It isn’t because I don’t understand how to read innovative texts. Both of the main techniques Darling uses, the fragmentation and the footnotes to missing texts, I have read and understood fully when I have encountered them before, namely in Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho, If Not, Winter, where Carson leaves Sappho’s fragments in tact, and Jennifer Boulley’s The Body: An Essay, which does the same thing Darling does with orphaned footnotes. The problem isn’t that I am not sophisticated enough as a reader. The problem is that I am given beautiful imagery and hints at a sound emotional connection in the work. However, like those strangers whose wedding ceremony I witnessed, I do not have enough emotional connection to the missing story or an intellectual connection to why Darling chose the poetic structures that she uses. For all of Darling’s obvious talent and power in her images, I know I could be satisfied with the book if I were only given something substantial to hold onto.
Read “A History of Melancholia: Glossary of Terms,” a Rumpus Original Poem by Kristina Marie Darling.