“The House by the Sea”: Daniel J. Cecil Reviews Petrarchan by Kristina Marie Darling


In short-order three works by the same author, Kristina Marie Darling, landed on my desk.

I feel a certain amount of hesitation when I decide to review another writer’s work. I almost get a bit itchy.

I was initially inclined by gut reaction to pass on this one—reviewing the same author (Darling) within a few short months seemed like the worst kind of folly. Against all inclination to leave it be, these works were too compelling to leave alone.

I come from the mindset that when reviewing the best kind of work, the meaning isn’t always definitive—you can only make a guess. The real crux of a work will, and always will be, hidden away inside the mind of the author—because even the author herself will have troubles expressing the meaning she was after all along.

On the flip side of this, and to answer the most obvious rebuttal to this, writing is for communication and no matter how much is hidden away, or unfound, there will (almost) always be a part of the work that says something clearly to the reader.

However, I would also make the argument that what is being communicated by a work is almost always personal–no two people will take away the same thing. The royal “we” will read some literature and agree on certain overriding themes, or that this action happens because another one does not; yet at the same time there will always be a flickering flame that communicates a unique, defining image for the individual. Good literature should do this. The idea that a literary work must communicate one static thing, and one thing alone, seems to me preposterous.

In this way, my review will be my reading of Petrarchan; it does not represent anything definitive. It is an exercise in learning and splitting hairs to find where the thin line between observation and knowing exist.

I bring this up because it is this idea—that of the ambiguous nature of language and discovery—that exhilarated me so much in Petrarchan.

First, I’ll tackle the obvious: Darling again employs footnotes in a similar manner to what we find in her previous work The Moon & Other Inventions (for simplicity sake, I’ll use the shorthand MAOI). The footnotes tell the story of a protagonist that exists in the margins of a larger narrative, one that is invisible and unknown to the reader, but the story in the margins still begs to be told.

I must admit—at first I was wary seeing footnotes again. Was it a deficiency in style that Darling that employs the same method again? The answer is no; though the tools are the same, the execution is more complex than that displayed in MAOI. The reconstructed poetry found in the appendix of Petrarchan—a wild swing in style—as well as the other manuscript from Darling I was handed—a collaborative work with Carol Guess named X Marks the Dress: A Registry, a text that uses an incredible array of poetic styles—tells us that Darling uses footnotes here with purpose. It is the only way in which this story can be told.

Petrarchan’s consistency of subject matter and the similarity of style to MAOI makes the work less a standalone affair, rather, it is more of an extension of the ground athletically covered in MAOI.

In a way, we see the suggestion that the histories built in Moon are a part of a grander narrative, one of women connected by powerlessness—in MAOI, that powerlessness stems from new technology and the drive to explore, while in Petrarchan the protagonist is powerless to the subconscious, love, and the complex language yet to be discovered on the blank page.

These similarities being covered, it is but folly to be fooled by them; Darling explores in Petrarchan new and exciting territory.

Describing the setting the young woman (our protagonist) lives in, Darling writes it is a place where rooms are “opening inside other rooms.”

This paints a picture of the physical dwelling as labyrinth—a place of endless corridors to be explored and subsequently, places to lose oneself in. This only comes into striking focus later when the physical dwelling also becomes subconscious space.

This is where my interest in the work really lies. There lives in this vein the possibility that the protagonist is not far removed from Darling herself. The narrative represents not only the protagonist’s plight, but also the struggle for Darling’s to compose, discover the characters, and the purpose of the work, which is trapped within her subconscious.

For example: the protagonist, while exploring her home, a “house by the sea,” and her tenuous relationship with her lover, discovers that her excavations in the matter “can be an unforgiving task.”

This makes us consider, for a moment, that Darling might be quoting herself, asking in the margins whether going through the same motions are worth it. Later, the protagonist remarks that “[t]he terrain seemed vast, and already I felt the floorboards shifting beneath my feet.”

Again, Darling suggests that the very act of exploration can be unsettling. When she goes on to speak of the infinite, she implies that doing such a thing is an unforgiving, depthless exercise.

Petrarchan and MAOI are similar, and in this is another point of interest; these stories seem to be trapped inside each other in a sort of twisting maze, very much like the rooms described in the house by the sea.

One major difference between the two is that our heroine seems to get the upper hand against her oppressor, if only for a moment—unlike the futile desperation rampant in MAOI. The contentious definition given in the work shortly after a sudden victory suggests an inner strength, a struggle against the rules of subconscious. This may be Darling claiming her own temporary victory by communicating something truthfully. However, like the very act of writing as exploration, this success has its flip side and failings, and our heroine is ultimately doomed.

Interestingly, in a section called “Correspondence,” Darling breaks from the footnote form and gives way to free verse. This, at first glance, include flares of creativity that spell freedom from the mysterious nature of the footnote, but ultimately the message is dire: it is peppered with mentions of rest, restraint, and death.

In the end, Petrarchan seems to me a statement; Darling begs us to consider the struggle of bringing the deeply buried and subjective thoughts to the page. Petrarch is not invoked in the title for nothing. Petrarch’s work in translation exemplifies a struggle: his sonnet structure is complex and beautiful when written in Italian, but difficult to express faithfully in English. Something is lost in language. In the end, communicating language is a barrier to the subconscious and in that, the true meaning. We are left to make our own discoveries in the text. Darling makes a beautifully told and compelling case that these walls can be broken if we ask ourselves to struggle forward, forget the narrative of the page, let go for a moment the idea that all can be known, and finally, to dig around in the margins for what suits us best.

Petrarchan, by Kristina Marie Darling. Buffalo, New York: BlazeVOX Books, forthcoming, 2013.

Daniel J. Cecil is an American writer living in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He is an editor for the literary and arts journal Versal. Daniel’s work has appeared in HTML Giant,Creature Mag, and several other publications.

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