Kristina Marie Darling, Petrarchan, BlazeVOX, 2013
Reviewed by Lisa Ampleman
1 In his 1969 study of Petrarchan poetry, The Icy Fire, Leonard Forster, from his perch at Cambridge University, examines the great laureate's influence on (or appropriation by) Renaissance writers from Venice to London. Forster notes some of the conceits repeated by Petrarch in his work—my favorites are "the salamander (the lover living amid the flames of his passion)" and "the hooked fish (the lover)"—and he argues that
For Forster, Petrarch had constructed a great language of love that continued to color the way poets talked about their brown-eyed girls. (And yes, the poets are heterosexual men in this formulation.)
2 Some six hundred years after Petrarch's Rime Sparse, and four decades after Forster's musings, Kristina Marie Darling's latest book of poems, Petrarchan, exposes how out of date both are. Her project—six sections of poems-in-footnotes, two appendices of erasures and fragments from Petrarch's work—emphasizes the pastness of the Petrarchan mode, but notes how some remnants of it remain. Known for employing postmodern and genre-bending techniques in her previous books and chapbooks, Darling, a student at the avant-garde-friendly SUNY-Buffalo, does the same in this slim collection.
3 The bulk of the book consists of those six poems, which feature three to four footnotes per page. Those notes (in prose) include brief glimpses of scene: a love affair gone wrong, in a mysterious house with a marble staircase and "a lavish mahogany nightstand." Both lovers have things they keep secreted away in small compartments of one sort or another, an act of fragmenting itself. The hints at narrative are interspersed with what feel like excerpts from a Victorian novel. In fact, in the third section, "Songbook," one footnote declares that it references "a late nineteenth-century novel, in which the heroine was known to fabricate mementos. Her white armoire housed an assortment of disconcerting love tokens." So, no longer is the lady offered tokens of courtship; she collects them herself.
4 Despite these reoccurring characters (a "he" and "she"), there is no clear narrative line through the book—as there would not be such a path in any set of footnotes to any text. We wonder: did the "she" of the poem make up the lover? If so, how did her necklace get broken? If "he" is real, will they patch things up? But the gaps are what we have, not the whole, and Darling reveals that any attempt to build a narrative around a love story is a flawed endeavor in contemporary postmodern poetics. One footnote describes a documentary that examines the protagonist's mood and "reveals her fictive ‘beloved' as the source of this enduring euphoria." Love makes us euphoric, but it's false, the fragments say.
5 In fact, the text that those fragments serve as footnotes is gone—readers are left with a half- or three-quarters-blank page. What is missing? I'd argue that it's the text of Petrarch himself—we get none of the Petrarchan conceits Forster details in this Petrarchan, no icy fire or twisting salamander. The book does emphasize inaccessibility and coyness, a key aspect of the Petrarchan paradigm; in one footnote, the word inaccessible is glossed as "meaning that one seems frigid or unapproachable." Indeed, love fulfilled isn't quite as good at generating the iterative material of a sonnet sequence. But the vast emptiness of the page seems to argue for an unread source, one neglected or deleted.
6 When we do get Petrarch's work, it's in erasure, as if Darling had a fourteenth-century manuscript that was imperfectly preserved. Think of Sappho. (Darling tells us she did, citing Anne Carson's recent translation in her endnotes.) Here is the sweet spareness of love, what we do have of Petrarch now:
Even in fragment, we see Laura, dead from the plague, the ultimate inaccessibility—and how her absence generates even more song for Petrarch. His harp can sound because she was lovely and because she will continue not to be his. And Darling's harp can sound because Petrarch and his line of influence are part of an archaic past, one worth dredging up in pieces, but one that we do not have whole.
7 It may seem contradictory to ask for more, when Darling's work in Petrarchan emphasizes omission, but the collection would have been even stronger with more of the erasures in the appendices, more sections of the anti-narrative in footnotes, more of the project itself. Still, she handily shows us that contemporary poetry has lost the original Petrarchan text, erased by time and inattention, but that some of its memes have survived and live on in the themes inaccessible and fictional love, "blind desire, which destroys."