In 1928, the story goes, Maurice Ravel sat down at the piano and began to play a tune for a friend. "Don't you think this theme has an insistent quality? I'm going to try and repeat it a number of times, [ . . . ] increasing the orchestra as best I can," he said. The theme became Boléro, an orchestral masterpiece in eighteen movements. The tune is introduced by the snare drum; additional instruments join in until, in the finale, the entire orchestra brings the piece to a crescendo—and a final crash. In her book-length poem, Melancholia (An Essay), Kristina Marie Darling echoes Ravel’s orchestration. Through sixteen “movements,” poetic fragments and concepts repeat and accrete meaning, crashing finally into footnotes. The speaker’s awareness and understanding of her relationship shifts and develops, providing an ever-changing context for the way she views the world around her.
In this slim but breathtaking volume, Darling orchestrates a cross-genre ballet, her language pirouetting on the line between the poem and the essay. Like Ravel, Darling begins by establishing a tune—in this case, the narrative of a relationship nearing its end—and with a series of words (machinery, necklace, charm, ocean) whose meanings shift as the story shifts. It is no coincidence that one of the objects Darling presents is a jewelry box, which “shattered // night & the ocean’s coldest shore.” The jewelry box serves as a symbol for the machinery—another word that Darling repeats throughout the collection—that propels the poem. A jewelry box repeats a musical theme, changing its pace as it winds down. This also changes the emotional resonance of each note, just as Ravel’s arrangement alters Boléro’s initial theme and Darling’s arrangement alters the meaning of her language.
The first word contextualized in Darling’s arrangement is noctuary. She offers two initial definitions: “1. To keep a record of what passes in the night” and “2. To wake from a dream—to begin a series of portraits instead.” As the speaker’s view of the relationship moves from fantasy to realism, so changes the speaker’s portrait of “the beloved.” In the next movement, Darling presents the record of objects in her noctuary. Her inventory stresses the importance not of the objects themselves but of her perception of the objects. Perhaps the most significant object in the poem is a necklace featuring a locket. Darling writes that it “contained only an empty frame,” implying that the way an object is perceived—the “frame” through which it’s viewed—is more a source of meaning than the object itself.
The beloved reminds the speaker “of Petrarch, driven by the necessity of pursuit”—the desire for the thing and not the thing itself. Darling writes of “the beloved as interchangeable, a vessel.” This fragment of a sentence reveals the true complexity not only of love but of the language used to describe love. The speaker asserts that the object of one’s love is just that: an object, a vessel for meaning that is not meaningful in and of his or her self. The fragmentation allows the reader to see that this is true not only of her beloved but also for the speaker’s view of her beloved. The beloved uses her as a vessel of meaning, and she uses him at the same time.
The speaker also describes love in terms of a chase or the search for possession, and of being chased or possessed: “she wished the pursuit,” Darling continues, “would continue indefinitely.” It is this pursuit—and the eventual collapse of it—that changes the meanings of the objects in the speaker’s life. When the speaker fell in love, “the music began. In every room a euphony of tiny silver bells.” The brass locket becomes a “love token,” “a field of red lilies.” In the fourth noctuary movement, the meaning of these objects shifts. “She remembered only the silver button on his black wool coat,” Darling writes, signifying that objects have become vessels for meanings limited to the speaker’s understanding. The beloved gave her the necklace with the intention that its charms “would document their courtship with unparalleled accuracy.” Since the meaning of the object shifts, this kind of objective accuracy cannot exist. Instead, the speaker sees “the locket as fated. A saint’s most daunting burden.” For her, the object symbolizes being owned. She continues the love affair, as “only when she fastened the clasp / would the music begin again.” Her wearing the necklace does imply some measure of consent, but the pursuit she once wished for has become a burden. The beloved possesses her, which means that the pursuit is over—and so ends this movement and its meanings.
In the next movement, Darling provides “A History of the Jewelry Box,” implying that the love affair itself has ended. The “charm,” which once “fastened at the back of her magnificently white neck,” is now “[a]n item most often used to evoke memories.” The clasp, once a symbol of possession, is now a “broken lobster hook” that “heralded his loss of interest.” She opens the locket and “realize[s] that its frame had always been empty.” The object’s meaning as a portrait disappears along with her relationship.
In the next movement, a previously underlying theme is considered: the nightingale, who produced music in its “magnificently white throat”—an image linked to the earlier image of the speaker’s throat. Darling writes that “[s]he caught the bird as the light began to fade;” as the relationship ends, the speaker comes back to herself, and she seeks “to discover the inner workings of the bird’s inscrutable music.” However, as soon as she begins to examine the bird, “its delicate feathers were crushed beneath my feet.” In seeking the source of love and the meaning it gives objects, the speaker finds that love and its meanings are missing: “[w]ithin each nightingale, an empty space where the heart once was.” Though the speaker at first attributes this to “the wicked nature of the beloved,” she realizes that the absence goes much deeper. She finds “only an unfinished nest. A silence where the bird’s strange music had been.” Only the small souvenirs of what’s broken remain, not the grand estate of the great gifts bestowed upon her by the beloved.
In the end, when the speaker contemplates her past with the beloved, the locket becomes the “object onto which her memories were inscribed.” “Only then,” Darling writes, “did she describe the recurring dream, in which his luminous cufflinks gave rise to a series of house fires.” Only in the end can she admit the danger she perceived all along. In order to move forward, she must destroy the objects and their associated meanings. Rather than seeing her house as “the most elaborate memorial,” she removes all of the objects associated with the beloved—his “cufflinks tarnishing on a white satin pillow,” “the wilted corsage"—until “[e]very shrine burned to the ground.” The world is washed clean of the beloved, “water rising and falling like the needle on a telegraph.” The “inland sea” within her rises, and the waves crash in a crescendo much like the end of Boléro, quenching the flames and returning the speaker to a world that is entirely her own.
Melancholia (An Essay). By Kristina Marie Darling. Ravenna Press, 2012.