Fortress, Kristina Marie Darling’s new Sundress Publications collection, takes place within a spooked Versailles, a mansion containing not only elegant apartments overlooking the gardens, but private heartbreak. Darling bookends Fortress internally with erasures of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain. In the first of these erasures, which comprise both the Preface and the Epilogue, readers are told “this book has only / circles…” In some ways, these circles are echoes of influence throughout the poems.
The first page of the Preface borrows something from Louise Glück’s opening line in The Wild Iris: “pain it finds a voice…” The influence of Iris can be seen in the four “Books,” or sections, as well, as the evolution of the mansion’s gardens become a way to trace time. Darling’s speaker enters her pain in this first erasure, and thus may also remind readers of Sylvia Plath. This connection is enhanced in the voluminous images of poppies that dot the scene. The poppies, “those dark flowers still in bloom” survive, or survive in name, once all else is dead in the landscape. We also think of Plath’s “Tulips” later when the narrator states, “I could not endure the boxed geraniums beneath every window.”
Fortress is image-rich, despite its stunningly bold use of white space. The world created in the text might remind one of Sophia Coppola’s film, Marie Antoinette. Like the movie, Darling’s book is simultaneously excess and desolation. Each section is draped in silk, lace, sparkles, and decadence. Glass, shattered and refracted, appears in this Fortress, only to be covered up with a dress on the floor. Opium is a fascination, and Darling tracks how the Romantic poets, Keats and Coleridge, treated the drug in their poems. Wes Anderson’s fascination with menageries also comes to mind while reading Darling’s lists of carefully selected nouns. Her menageries include Polaroids, rings, glass, nightgowns, bouquets, and beds.
In fact, Books One and Three of Fortress are written entirely in captions, much like a silent film. However, in this case, the caption is the only presence on the page. The poems themselves, made of short prose paragraphs, are untitled, taking on tanka-like imagistic qualities that are reflected in lines like, “The dead flowers and their opium dust had become a test of will.” Poems labeled “Minor Plot” are the only titled pieces, and are employed as guideposts, much like Glück’s “Vespers” in The Wild Iris. In Books Two and Four, Darling chooses footnotes as an alternative to captions. In fact, the smallness of the speaker in the mansion and in the marital relationship depicted in the book is emphasized on the blank paper; the narrator’s voice is relegated at maximum, to only a third of each page, even in the erasures. Both captions and footnotes are traditionally subservient to what comes above them. The idea of Darling’s words being subservient to a partner who is now absent works well with this book’s storyline, which revolves upon a marriage breaking up.
Fortress’ use of explanatory text is akin to museum labeling. The book’s square shape enhances this effect. The huge rectangular white spaces on each page might remind one of Rothko’s color fields, the blankness of absolute zero, or the horizon line. In contrast, the narrator is aware she is nostalgic in lines like, “There is always a tendency to romanticize the past.” And indeed, she does romanticize the past through objects, as stated above. Thus, Darling’s words read lushly, like Rococo or Baroque art. These dualities of blankness and opulence, excess and sparseness, drive the book forward.
As Fortress tumbles ahead, the speaker hints that she is not subservient, but in control of her own destiny, even if that destiny is grim. The mentions of burned fields and ripped apart gardens permeate the collection. The speaker notes the “marriage bed was covered in ash.” The house has “caught fire” but the narrator admits, “everything else I burned,” owning her part in the disaster. And, instead of burning the opulence around her out of clichéd feminine frustration, she does it “for warmth”—a coldly logical reason.
Darling nods at many feminine and feminist myths and histories in Fortress, from Bluebeard to Persephone. The speaker is often in stages of undress in the book, wearing “silk” or “nightdress,” as if preparing for the marriage bed. As the destruction continues, the speaker begins referring to parts of her body as “perfect.” The narrator initiates the decay of the home, the garden, and finally, herself in the end. She, like Hamlet’s Ophelia or Plath’s speaker in “Edge,” is perfected in death, or in her proximity to it. Like Ophelia, Darling’s speaker becomes a detail in the landscape, “[laying] on [her] back in the meadow.” Sleeping alone in the “burned meadow,” “the words, ‘beauty,’ ‘ecstasy,’ and ‘magnificence’ became synonymous with ‘ruination.’”
Darling eventually hands over the key to this labyrinth of sorrow, perhaps hoping to be saved. In the last carefully organized compartment, the Epilogue, even the punctuation is given room to breathe, an after-effect of the scorching fire that runs its course through this book. Fortress’ symmetry, though, is still intact. The firebombs of “Dresden” are noted here and circles reprise their role, rotating “entire cities [to] become attentive to / the body…” The speaker metacognitively hopes “to deflect attention / away from what / lies behind the surface of that image.” However, in attempting to deflect our gaze, Kristina Marie Darling pulls us deeper into the picture, sinking us toward the ephemeral fortress and its contents that, now ash, seemingly never were.