When a pair of doomed lovers wanders a garden, as they do in the very first prose poem of Kristina Marie Darling’s Requited, it’s hard not to cast them in the roles of Adam and Eve, the original doomed pair of the Christian tradition. “We walk to a rose garden in the dead of winter,” says our heroine, which suggests the garden may have already gone through its postlapsarian transformation, trapped as it is in “a season [that] never changes.” They stroll in a garden where the ivy is dead and the only cherubs about are made of ice-cracked stone. Right from the start, we sense the relationship, like the statues, is fracturing. “There are always so many things that can go wrong in a conversation,” says our speaker, which on the surface of things is a wonderfully simple way of describing how relationships often miss the mark, but it also has to be the most understated way of describing the ultimate failure of logos in the first paradise—a series of catastrophic conversations between YHWH, the couple, and the pesky serpent.
And like their Biblical counterparts, they too must eventually leave the garden: “The way out of the garden is simple. I let go of your hand and climb over a chain link fence.” The way out, of course, is always simple; it’s the way back in that is challenging like the walled garden of Milton’s paradise protected by warlike archangels with flaming swords. Milton’s couple walks hand-in-hand east of Eden, but for Darling’s couple to find their way out, they must simply break their grip and make the climb alone.
The main body of Requited consists of thirteen short, essay-like prose poems—each five lines long. One of the peculiar features of these poems is the series of unmarked questions present in all but the first and last poems. These questions tend to, in most cases, question the premises established in the first few lines of the prose paragraph but like rhetorical questions do not actually demand an answer. And, more to the point, they worry the central premise of the whole collection, which likely has to do with the double nature of the word “requited.” For example, our heroine wonders, “If I left for another unremarkable city, would the air between us begin to thaw,” and “Where would we go if you were willing to follow me,” and “When does a walking tour memorialize failure.” To requite means to pay back in kind, as in love, but it also means to retaliate, as in anger or revenge. And, of course, these things—in the context of complex, adult love—are not really opposites but a question of what it “mean[s] to cross a threshold.”
Like many of Darling’s books, Requited ends with an epilogue. In this case it consists of erasures and reconfigurations of the prose poems in “The Story” section. Unlike the main text, however, there are no questions and some important images disappear—the roses, for example. There are many flowers mentioned in the collection, it’s true, but the initial poem takes place in a rose garden. And although the rose plays no significant symbolic role in the Old and New Testaments, it does play a rather important one in the symbolism of the Marian tradition, going back at least as far as the Latin poet, Sedulius, but more likely making its way into Darling’s work via Dante or possibly Petrarch. Mary, of course, is the so-called “second virgin” and the rose is one of her symbols. After leaving the garden, the lovers come upon an injured deer—most likely another symbol of innocence—whose “dark brown eyes seem to wonder why we’ve left the roses behind.” Clearly, the lovers have left their roses behind—since it seems their love is failing—but it also may be an example of Darling doing a bit of meta-commentary. For instance, there are no clear distinctions between poems in the epilogue. It is meant, I think, to be read as a single poem. The epilogue runs without interruption to its conclusion and presents us with a streamlined version of the main narrative with only the white space to remind the reader that there was more to the story, as there always is. The questions have gone because either they are no longer answerable or, more likely, they have been answered through the auspices of time, as if the epilogue is the heavily redacted version we keep in our memories, filed away with all the rest of the failed relationships: “While I sleep, you’re documenting failure. An experience gives rise to ‘narrative.’ A heroine counting ‘unfaithful stars.’” And yet, unlike so many of the trapped and lonely heroines of Darling’s other books, the final image of this powerful and deceptively complex collection is of the pair together, hearing the word “‘transcendence’ echo through an open window . . . An almost imperceptible glow,” which draws me back once again to the final book of Paradise Lost:
Som natural tears they drop'd, but wip'd them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide.