Scorched Altar: Selected Poems and Stories
by Kristina Marie Darling
Blazevox Books, 2014; 174 pp
Reviewed by Anne Champion


I’ve read all of the collections sampled from for Kristina Marie Darling’s selected collection, but she’s a hard poet to keep up with due to being stunningly prolific. To date, she’s published over 20 books in roughly 7 years. This collection samples poems from Night Songs, Compendium, The Body is a Little Gilded Cage, Melancholia (An Essay), Palimpsest, The Moon and Other Inventions, Correspondence, Brushes With, Vow, Requited, Fortress, and The Arctic Circle. Seeing some of her best work gathered together in one volume makes for a magical reading experience that allows the reader to witness how she uses her signature forms to explore love and loss in surprising ways and how she’s grown and pushed herself to new territory as a writer over time. If you’ve never opened up a Darling collection—this book is the perfect place to start.

Darling is certainly a poet who writes through poetic obsessions, and this book encapsulates her long held fascination with the destructive consequences of love. Each book explores the devastating aftermath of love gone awry, and she does this through a keen exploration of tokens and mementos that symbolize the love that once enticed and its fleeting, fragile nature. In “Noctuary (II)” the speaker considers a jewelry box:

“She wanted to understand the innermost workings of this strange machine. Their courtship was a system of pulleys, levers, and strings. Behind a little door, the gears were turning and turning.”

This quote seems to be a perfect encapsulation of the motives behind Darling’s work: she wants to understand how love and loss work; she meticulously examines every tiny intricate gear to garner a larger picture of how it all functions and how it all breaks down.

Darling also works within a series of forms that she created: footnotes, definitions, prose poems, erasures, indexes of illustrations, and glossary of terms. These forms make for a dynamic reading experience, in with the reader plays a vital role in imagining the narrative that lies within the white space on the page. I’m often stunned by her attention to miniscule details and the ways that attention takes on major significance. “Notes to A History of the Locket” seems to capture the philosophy behind this technique well:

“It was then she considered the array of miniatures. In all of them, a portrait. And each of these an ode.

Each small detail, each motif, each footnote or erasure seems to be a study of love through miniatures, and readers are invited to paint their own portrait with the miniature pieces given to them, all the while understanding that the pieces of wreckage presented to us is also an ode to a love affair. In “Footnotes to a History of Dress,” Darling presents us with “A broken chain. Every primrose torn from the ground.” And we cannot help but imagine the chain whole, a sentimental gift, the roses blooming in all their natural beauty and promise.

Darling’s Scorched Altar: Selected Poems and Stories reveals a poet who has created forms and mastered them in her heart wrenching exploration of themes that haunt us all.