Fortress by Kristina Marie Darling
In my creative nonfiction class, we routinely read "Consider the Lobster" by David Foster Wallace and "The Body" by Jenny Boully. Both are texts, as you may well know, that uproot the footnote from its traditional scholarly context and replant it in personal essay terrain. What are the philosophical possibilities of the footnote? Wallace seems to ponder. Or the poetics of the footnote? Boully surveys.
Sometimes my students are overwhelmed by the Wallace essay and put forth some version of the following: It's too dense! We can't see the forest for the trees! Sometimes my students are overwhelmed by the Boully essay, too, but for a different reason: It's too spare! Do all these trees cohere as forest? Conversely, can you even have a forest without the trees, an essay without the body paragraphs?
The best essayists will tell you they're in it for questions like these. I think the best poets would agree. Since Kristina Marie Darling is unequivocally both an essayist and a poet, hers may be the most riddling exploration of footnotes yet.
Darling's new collection, Fortress, contains both a preface and an epilogue. Each is an erasure derived from Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985). Darling is especially interested in how pain "unmakes" us, dismantles the fortress of the human body, desiccates the human heart. Darling's application of the erasure technique to Scarry's text provides a compelling illustration of how porous our suffering makes us -- wounded ("the wound becomes a way of articulating // vulnerability"), yes, but also open. More open than we would be otherwise.
The printed body of the preface and epilogue, which sprawls across each full page like an unrolled scroll, become riddled with holes (questions), shot through with pain (emptiness), the ominous silhouette of a sheet at a target range. Alt. Lace in the form of curtain, doily, or veil ("I can no longer remember what I looked like before that veil descended").
From Darling's erasure -- on the nature of pain:
its unsharability, it s
resistance to language.
From Darling's erasure -- on the confluence of love and pain:
when she falls in love
physical pain does not simply resist language
but actively destroys it
Between the Preface and the Epilogue, Darling's literary Fortress is comprised of four books, perhaps mirroring the way a literal fortress is comprised of four walls. There is something solid about this structure, something complete. We pass through the preface as over a threshold. We pass through the Epilogue as under an archway.
Books One and Three present a story in the space typically allocated for footnotes. A "story," to be certain. Not necessarily a "narrative." This distinction for me hearkens back to another provocative essay, Joan Didion's "The White Album." There is a striking moment near the conclusion of that text where Didion writes, "In other words it was another story / without a narrative."
Although Didion's essay is prose and the line is not deliberately enjambed, in my copy "story" comes at the end of the line, and "without a narrative" stretches below it like a felled tree. The forest is falling, coming undone. Form mirrors content in this regard. "Story" and "narrative" are no longer synonyms. They too have come undone. For the sake of metaphor, let's call story the forest. Let's call narrative the trees. There are gaps between the trees in this story. Alt. The forest is shot through with light (pain)(emptiness) (openness).
For instance, in book one, the main story is unfurling this way:
It was no longer about marriage. The dead flowers and their opium dust had become a test of will. I could already feel the most startling numbness in every fingertip. That was when I began to pray. I woke thinking of Persephone, her lips hovering before tiny pomegranate seeds.
Then, a backstory sneaks in. The page is turned. In the space typically allocated for footnotes, this: "To enter the underworld, must I have left this one behind? I can no longer remember what my face looked like or the warmth of his hand through my dress."
Then, a bit of side-story extends onto the adjacent page. In the space typically allocated for footnotes, this: "MINOR PLOT (II) The event loses significance when history turns away from, becomes the sound of a harp playing delicate music as she walks toward the burned meadow."
Perhaps narratives are contiguous, and stories are not (?) Perhaps all stories contain narratives, but not all narratives culminate as stories (?) Perhaps stories are enduring like myths, and narratives are time-bound like journalism? (?)
Perhaps is a word beloved by essayists and poets alike.
Books two and four use footnotes in the space typically allocated for footnotes. These serve as the shadow texts of their predecessors, adding new details, planting new trees. The footnotes are numbered, but their antecedents are not. This suggests the multi-valence of seeds. This suggests that certain stories grow wherever they are planted:
Footnote #17 (Book Two): "There is always a tendency to romanticize the past. But as Jean-Paul Sartre once said, if we knew what the future held, the bridges would be overrun. Needless to say, there would be no survivors."
Footnote #17 (Book Four): "I remembered our marriage as a series of natural disasters. His disappearance seemed a fitting end to these inexplicable acts of God."
To which elements of the story do these footnotes correlate? All, some, or none of the above? And yet, curiously, none of the text in any of the books is Above. All of the text, escorted by a tiny numeral or no, is an extension of a singular, pervasive Below. Perhaps it is the underworld (?) Perhaps it is the collective unconscious (?) Notably, a certain hierarchy between the supra-text and the subtext has been dismantled in this presentation. Alt. A certain hierarchy between the supra-text and the subtext has collapsed.
A new riddle emerges: What do you call a fortress built from the collapse, deliberate or otherwise, of conventional forms?
Whether situated above or below, people always want to know what a book is "about." This is a tricky space for the hybridist to inhabit, this about-ness. But here's what I'd say to that question.
You've heard of an epithalamium, a poem written to honor a bride on her way to the marital chamber. The epithalamium celebrates a love newly sealed in word and soon to be sealed in deed. But what if the marriage in question did not last? What if the love in question burned up like a forest fire? What if the bride, abandoned at last, wanted to speak for herself? A new riddle emerges: What do you call an anti-epithalamium? Kristina Marie Darling's Fortress.
This: "When we married, I became his wife. I can no longer remember what I looked like before that veil descended, or the vow exchanged between us." And this: "She would walk through the meadow, her hands torn from so many thorns, the elaborate stitching on her white dress coming undone." And this: "Footnote #9 (Book Four): 'Last night I dreamed of the objects that would survive my body. A burned house, that scorched bouquet, the silver band on my finger.'" The final footnote of the fourth book is this: "In other words, the white dress."
When I reached it, I thought for a moment of George Herbert's "Easter Wings," which many of us were given as students to illustrate the concept of a concrete poem. Herbert's poem is arranged in the shape of wings, a visual instantiation of its subject matter ("Affliction shall advance the flight in me," etc.) Darling, who is an essayist and a hybridist, is also a poet. Fortress is also a concrete poem. The concept of a fortress is invoked by the walled sections of the book, but the post- or anti-epithalamium, the essential about-ness of the poem, comes down to this -- to a white dress so emblematic of a wedding.
What have all the words in this story been, printed below that firm line in the space typically allocated for footnotes, but the hem of such an emblematic white dress? We have a hem's worth of the Master Narrative. Alt. We have a hem's worth of the Whole Story.
I see at last: the white space "above" is the white dress. Perhaps it is the train trailing over the ground. Perhaps it is the blizzard of nuptial bliss, the possible purity, the possible emptiness, the world's largest and longest caesura.
What we know about anything, least of all the pain and love that are in marriage, comes down to about a hemline's worth. Somewhere is the woman would still "light candles and wait near the window." She is blinded by the white of that dress, that dream, those pure and bright connubial promises. But, as Darling reveals, the woman's own "violet nightdress [is] covered in ash."
When I was in grade school, our teachers often asked us to write a story on the lower lines of a long piece of paper. The top portion was blank -- let's call it the meadow -- and in that large open space, we were told to draw a picture to accompany our stories. Because I favored language over picture-making, I always resisted filling the white space and was sometimes forced to draw something quickly while the whole class waited for me to finish.
Once, I remember arguing with my teacher, in what seemed to my nine-year-old self a speech of great eloquence. To paraphrase: "But you see, if I use my words very well, I don't need the picture. My language alone will have a sufficiently powerful effect."
Mrs. Moak just shook her head and counted to ten while I found my Crayolas.
I'm going to have to find Mrs. Moak now, all these years later, and mail her a copy of Kristina Marie Darling's Fortress. I will put little flags on all the pages, with their meadows on top and their felled trees at the bottom. Alt. With their plain white train on the top and their busy hemlines on the bottom. I will mark This, and This, and This.
Fortress by Kristina Marie Darling