by Donna Vorreyer
In her latest collection of hybrid fiction/poetry/essays, Women and Ghosts, Kristina Maria Darling braids stories of Shakespeare’s women with that of a female speaker who also feels “disappeared” by an unnamed man. Using greyscale, strike-through and bold text to create these “ghost” stories serves to underscore the silenced voices of these women, the extent to which they are defined only by the men around them. In this way, the title is not about women and ghosts as two separate entities, but about those two entities being one and the same.
In erasures of the female lines of Shakespearean women (numbered “Essays on Failures”), Darling is quick to hone in on the subservience of the language, choosing to highlight/use the phrase “my lord” in almost every erasure, thirteen times alone in the piece created from the lines of Ophelia. And it is Ophelia who, time and time again, in different parts of the text, reminds us that she has been “led and misled” by her love, a refrain that the narrator sings as well. In the opening section, “Daylight Has Already Come,” after speaking of Ophelia, the narrator asks, “But what does it mean to give one’s consent? We are led and misled by those we love, an expectant white backdrop shuddering in the distance.” In “Essays on Production,” a series of grayscale, strike-through prose sections, the narrator, working as playwright, reimagines each of Shakespeare’s women, Ophelia’s new soliloquy telling the audience that “to mislead is an act of violence, a theft, an assault on reason and the mind.”
When the narrator speaks in footnotes in the section “Women and Ghosts,” the language emphasizes the presumed authority of the male voice and a lack of female power. Phrases such as he says/he tells me/ he talks/he tries to convince/he calls/he writes dominate these small sections, starting with “He tells me that my mind is broken. Maybe I was born that way. When I was born, he says, the gunshots misfired.” Later the narrator wonders, “When did language grow hostile towards me. When did memory become that empty room, that dark cabinet.” The last section, an exploration of the meaning of the word landscape, both in the narrator’s relationship and in Shakespeare’s time, points out the time-honored tradition of using landscape as metaphor for women’s bodies, but also for a character’s internal mental state, violence, and free will – all four are issues threaded throughout the book, and they come together at the end in an almost detached and scholarly way, a striking effect.
The use of greyscale text throughout the book emphasizes the ghost-like qualities of Shakespeare’s female characters. Not only do they end up dead (and therefore literally ghostly), but they were also always ghosts, invisible as anything other than property or objects of desire. The use of strike-through and greyscale on the essays which chronicle the narrator’s life outside of her relationship (“Essays on Production” and “Essays on Props”) makes for uneasy reading, both physically and emotionally. The reader’s struggle to decipher the text adds to the feeling of distance and disappearance that the essays convey. Here is a narrator who is erasing her own voice as it is put on paper, and the results are unforgettable.
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