Book Review

Having thoroughly enjoyed Kristina Marie Darling’s The Sun & the Moon, I was eager to read Ghost / Landscape, a collaborative narrative book of prose poems Darling cowrote with John Gallaher. They did not disappoint. Ghost / Landscape follows in the footsteps of Darling’s previous books and her ongoing attempt to recapture and rebuild fractured lives. The collection revisits themes dear to Darling such as ghosts, locks and keys, ice and fire, dreams and memories, which she shares with John Gallaher. In an interview with Matthew Thorburn in Ploughshares, Gallaher says: “As In a Landscape was something of a reaction to writing the collaborative book, Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, with G.C. Waldrep, so this new book, called Ghost / Landscape, with Kristina Marie Darling, is a reaction to writing the very personal, conversational In a Landscape. Also, Ghost / Landscape is in prose, which is something I’ve also long wanted to do.” Darling and Gallaher are very well suited to each other, their voices perfectly synchronized, in unison, as if they shared one life and story: “It matters who your friends are. This is true for a wide variety of species, because we all think we’re having different lives, when really there’s only one life and we’re sharing it.” One blends into the other, becomes the other. “We knew the house was haunted, but at first, we were unsure which one of us was the ghost. Because you were always talking about role reversals . . . It’s like looking in a mirror.”

Ghost / Landscape reads like a puzzle or mystery to be solved, elucidated. The collection starts with “Chapter Two” and ends with “Chapter One,” and presents several versions of “Chapter Two,” or perhaps the same one examined through different lenses and angles.

The reader walks a labyrinth, searching for clues, each chapter relinquishing a few while simultaneously adding to the mystery. Miscommunication, false starts, and missed encounters abound, often with failed telephone calls and remembered conversations: “No matter what number I dial, you never seem to answer . . . I tried to phone you, but we’d reached the very edge of the meadow.”

Adding to the mystery are the recurring locks and keys. “And there’s a reason the rooms were locked . . . Still, the doors are locked and no one answers when we ring the little bell.” Margaret Atwood recently shared in an interview with Grant Munroe for Lit Hub: “It’s all about locks and keys, and it always has been about locks and keys.” Secrets are fascinating and beg to tell a story; they stimulate the imagination. The speaker is unable to escape. “Are you still in Omaha and is there any way you can come unlock the door?” The locks and keys by turns suppress information—little is ultimately revealed—and guard secrets, for good or evil. They fuel the curious kind of haunting that plagues and enlivens the book—nothing quite fits or opens in the way it should.

The cinematic quality of the writing is very striking. One is reminded of the film Last Night at Marienbad, with its endless corridors and voice over: “Back at the old house, the corridor still goes on and on . . . All the movies that year had what seemed like the same plot. The cavernous house, its endless corridors, & a perfectly manicured lawn. Always a low sky murmuring just above them, those little flashes in the distance. Soon we wonder why we’re both thinking about astronomy, & at exactly the same time.”

The prose poem titled “Shooting Day for Night” is in itself a film reference: “Two more things about lighting. Wilhelm Olbers wondered, in the 1820s, why the night sky was dark, if all the stars in the universe had been shining for millions of years. It became known as Olbers’ paradox . . . And no one ever made a film about telescopes, ghosts, or the stars, even though we both remembered it from the night before.”

“Bonjour tristesse” is a nod to the famous novel by Françoise Sagan, whose title is from the first lines of Paul Éluard’s poem “À peine défigurée”: “Adieu tristesse, / Bonjour tristesse (Goodbye sadness / Hello sadness). The movie adaptation, directed and produced by Otto Preminger, uses color to present flashbacks from a year ago, and the contrasting black-and-white to tell the present, the summer of tristesse on the French Riviera. The theme repeats throughout Ghost / Landscape: “Bonjour tristesse, I say to the meadow. But the landscape no longer remembers me . . . Don’t ask why there’s so much sorrow in the trees . . . Because everything is in reaction to something. You carry this sadness about something in your life, something isn’t working out the way you wanted it to or the way you thought you were promised . . . Soon the foliage around our house is made of mirrors. Perhaps that’s what invited sadness into the yard to begin with.”

It’s worth noting that nothing is named—neither the book nor the film, the flowers, and so on—which reinforces the reader’s sense of disorientation. “You noticed the flowers looking not quite ‘morning’ and not quite ‘yellow.’ Still I stutter and try to name them . . . Maybe that time in sixth grade and the dance was coming up? I should have asked someone. The name comes back to me sometimes when I’m trying to fall asleep, when I’m done with ideas . . . In the book, everything’s haunted, even the flowers. Especially the flowers. And the chapters aren’t numbered, so you forget exactly where you are, and where you place the key to the room that holds all your things from childhood.”

Dialogue is used as an interior monologue, an alter ego. This inability to communicate often translates into frozen bodies or landscapes: “I tried to call you, but my mouth was already half frozen.” Throughout the fragmented story a sense of displacement and nostalgia emerges: “We must have known there was no going back.” We enter a whitened landscape, wintry, which haunts the reader as each poem circles around the previous one: “I tried to phone you, but the snow went on for miles. That was the beginning of winter, a year of thin trees and that odd silence . . . Most nights we watch the constellations flicker across a porous screen. I want to tell you that a film is not a backlit doorway or a burst of light. It’s a kind of shared consciousness, traveling like the strands of a spider’s web. If one of us thinks of winter, it’s not long before the trees grow heavy with ice.”

Everything is dead, yet alive, caught between worlds, in a dance between past and present, in a constant shift of consciousness: “The field had long since stopped breathing.”

Loss of memory and identity lead to erasure: “When the taxi arrives, I can no longer remember my address . . . After an hour, I could hardly feel my fingertips, every part of me a ghost limb, my face a startling absence . . . The process reveals the happiness that exists despite, and alongside, the inevitability of loss . . . There were other things I didn’t remember.” But then the speaker goes on to list them: “For example the trees. How easily they startled, the foliage like a moth with wings that can’t stop beating. Or the night summer found its way into the yard, leaving only the statuary covered in ice.” For collecting fragments of memory is reconstructing time, piece by piece.

Disintegration, the presence of absence, silence, and place are leitmotifs: “You seemed relieved that there was only silence, and not a single dead tulip left in the yard . . . That was the beginning of winter, a year of thin trees and that odd silence . . . Silence, a long shot of the house. Somehow they have forgotten most of the rooms. I can no longer picture the foyer, smoke rising from beneath its locked door, or the enormous ghost that once had lived there . . . One by one the branches seal themselves off, disappearing into their darkened rooms.”

Shaking the dreamy state are references to violence, a reminder of the cost of fractured relationships: “At first I didn’t quite understand. How you could call that darkened room nostalgia, as though naming something isn’t a kind of violence. Can’t bear to name anything . . . You’re probably afraid to ask what survived, and even more importantly, what’s been destroyed. But isn’t decorum also a kind of violence?” We never know what is real and what is dreamed or imagined. We enter a haunted landscape: “Here the telephone wires, too, are haunted . . . The guest house, too, looks like it might be haunted . . . You’ll see me again at the conference, and think of how familiar I’ll look, as though you’d held me at gunpoint in a dream you kind of remember, but have already half forgotten.”

One poem takes place in Thermopolis, the largest town in Wyoming’s Hot Springs County. Though it means “hot city” in Greek, it’s only and always winter and cold in this poem. When summer is mentioned it’s almost nonsensical.

There are several references to killing and a mention of a murder. Killing someone in a dream refers to killing a part of oneself, giving rise to the birth of a new self, a new identity: “You’ll see me again at the conference, and think of how familiar I look, as though you’d held me at gunpoint in a dream you kind of remember, but have already half forgotten . . . We’ve each killed someone, but it’s been so long ago we no longer remember the details, like what it was over or what we did with the body . . . the mind cannot tell the difference between what we see and what we remember.”

I very much enjoyed the bits of wisdom en passant, such as, “You age more slowly as your speed increases,” or, “It’s how enlightenment, I’ve read, is an understanding of our cooperation with what happens,” and, “When looking for the true nature of things, you’ll always be looking.”

The repetition of phrases throughout the book keeps the poems alive in circular motion, where they echo and haunt one another, pulling the reader down the rabbit hole. Like a dream sequence, Darling and Gallaher’s peculiar reality, recreated in this fantastical world, casts its spell on us. “The entire time you had been expecting something familiar, perhaps a landscape painting, but here, even the flowers had been made strange.” They create an eerie yet familiar universe, where the unexpected rubs shoulders with ordinary life. “When you looked up from the book, even the walls of that little room were gone.” When the speaker states that “for a second, everything makes sense” with the same logic found in Alice in Wonderland, the reader is left in a state of wonderment.

About the Reviewer

Hélène Cardona is a poet, literary translator, and actor, whose most recent books include Life in Suspension and Dreaming My Animal Selves (both from Salmon Poetry), and the translations Beyond Elsewhere (Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac, White Pine Press), winner of a Hemingway Grant; Ce que nous portons (Dorianne Laux, Éditions du Cygne); and Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for the University of Iowa’s WhitmanWeb. She contributes essays to The London Magazine and coedits Plume and Fulcrum: An Anthology of Poetry and Aesthetics. She holds a master’s in American literature from the Sorbonne, worked as a translator/interpreter for the Canadian Embassy in Paris, and taught at Hamilton College and Loyola Marymount University.