Ravenna Press, 2012
Kristina Marie Darling is becoming one of the foremost practitioners of the little book, of the poetic text as miniature object, as a kind of fragmented memento charged with mystery. Her newest publication, Melancholia: An Essay, a 5 x 6, perfect-bound book from Ravenna Press’ “Pocket Series,” is another elegant piece of evidence to support this claim: it is, as J.A. Tyler says, “a new jewel in the continuing assemblage of sparse and bright words from Kristina Marie Darling.”
After reading Melancholia, I went searching through the big mass of books piled precariously on my desk and through the many volumes sprawled across my engorged bookcases to look for one of Kristina’s previous jewels: the similarly-sized, 52-paged Compendium that Cow Heavy Books published in 2011 (Kristina and I spoke about Compendium at length in an interview at Big Other last summer). To my chagrin, I couldn’t find the book, and, looking amid the cramped interstices of my personal library, I realized that perhaps the proper place for Kristina’s exquisitely small books was not on any conventional bookshelf but rather in an escritoire’s inner compartment among wax seals and pen nibs of various sizes or in a curio cabinet or Wunderkammer among shark’s teeth, rare feathers, and old apothecary jars.
One of the peculiar powers of the miniature is that it can productively alter our sense of scale and proportion—as if sending us through the looking-glass. In “On Miniatures,” Lia Purpura says, “Miniatures offer changes of scale by which we measure ourselves anew.” I had considered the likely possibility that I lost track of Compendium not because the book itself was too small but because all the other books on my shelf were too big.
Melancholia gives us a similar shock when we realize that its modest amount of pages conveys, in fact, haunting evocations of an enormous and weighty drama—as if we peered into a tiny diorama to discover the contours, traces, and shades of a rich emotional landscape. While re-reading the book or fishing for a particular passage I remembered, I constantly got the uncanny sense that there should be more pages, more text—that this material that I thought I remembered somehow got swallowed into the thinness of the book. Or that this book is kind of like a pop-up book: it simply expands when you open to read it. We might say that Melancholia is greater than the sum of its parts, but that’s not quite right either: it’s that its key parts are the blank spaces and omissions between each section, within each section—the negative spaces which reverberate and echo with a compelling suggestiveness. Indeed, Kristina is adept at knowing when, as the book says, “[t]o select and omit, as a poet would.”
Melancholia obliquely narrates the story of a woman mourning her departed lover and their ill-fated relationship through a series of stark and unconventional forms: glossaries, lyrical and gnomic epistles, footnotes shorn from the bodies of their texts, dictionary definitions that grow more idiosyncratic as the numbered sections progress. Most of such forms focus on miniature objects deeply imbued with personal history—a brass locket, a pewter earring, a silver button, cufflinks tarnishing on a satin pillow—objects that once circulated as gifts during the couple’s courtship rituals but now serve as reminders of loss. For example, the sixth footnote in “Footnotes to a History of Melancholia” reads: “Although she could no longer recall the origin of the turquoise necklace, she knew its significance to the greater world. Meaning, in this case, his empty champagne glass and discarded leather glove.” The book is filled with mentions of obscure and lost things that we cannot access, giving them the same kind of tantalizing aura that surrounds Kristina’s book as a whole: “[a]n unpublished manuscript,” “[a] little known version of the film,” “[t]he unfinished novel [which] was said to have been lost in a great fire,” “antique pendants…inevitably lost in the great avalanche.” But even if I were to lose my copy of Melancholia (like my copy of Compendium), it will still—I am sure—continue to exert its intriguing allure.
Michael Leong is the author of the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.