Kristina Marie Darling and Carol Guess, X Marks the Dress: A Registry

Publisher: Gold Wake Press

2013, 102 pages, paperback, $16

In the first of X Marks the Dress: A Registry, Kristina Marie Darling and  Carol Guess introduce us to the first of many voices that haunt the collection. The book opens with a sequence of prose poems chronicling the relationship of a couple through their wedding and their subsequent tumultuous marriage.

What begins lightly enough with poem titles such as “Champagne Flutes” and “Crocheted Tissue Box Holder” turns dark as the couple’s marriage falters. This opening sequence is followed by thirteen pages of text-less footnotes and appendices that develop, circumvent, and depart from the preceding narrative. Through a combination of endnotes, appendices, definitions, and lyrical prose poems, Darling and Guess have woven a collection of voices and narratives that step forward and backward, in and out of time, a fragmented patchwork of tragedies.

As the authors weave their characters throughout the poems, the tragedies of each image or story all seem to hinge on one significant day: the wedding day. While some of the poems are written in first person with strongly developed character voices, many are narrated by the voice of what seems to be a museum curator leading the reader through a display of artifacts. Though the curator’s voice is clinical and distant, the images described are haunting: “figure 3. A lost photograph, which captured the groom as he boarded a luxury ocean liner. The artist would later lament the loss of this unnamed man at sea.” It soon becomes clear that the poems themselves are on display; the first-person voices that drive many of the poems are mere fragments in a museum, ghosts of the brides and grooms they once were.

X Marks the Dress calls our attention to the inauthenticity of ceremony and tradition. While the titles of the poems in the opening sequence mimic a wedding registry, listing decorations and gifts, the following poems undeceive us with a dose of cold reality. In the poem titled “{Silver Platter},” a much less friendly metal is described: “But she’s left you cold as sheet metal, a loaded gun in someone else’s fireproof box. This morning she dropped you on the front lawn, all concrete and steel, but the combination you gave me stopped working.” In poems such as these, Darling and Guess suggest that the pomp and ceremony surrounding marriage is a farce: an empty promise of happiness, a fake smile and flowers, a cardboard cake.

The poetry seems to call into question not just the wedding ceremony but also marriage and relationships themselves. In “Pizza,” Darling and Guess describe a lesbian couple looking through their wedding photo album one night after putting their children to bed:

As we flipped through the album, I noticed a
handsome stranger standing half in, half out of   
several photos. He seemed to belong at another
wedding, as if he’d wandered into the wrong hotel.

How odd, I said, that a stranger ended up in so
many of our photos. He’s even in photos we took
at home. Look, I said, he’s petting our dog.
[. . .]
You twisted your ring. He’s not a stranger.
[. . .]
Darling, you know how my mother and father
rejected me? How they said they couldn’t support
our relationship, that our wedding was an insult to
God? Well, I told my parents I was marrying a
man. I hired an actor to play my husband. It was
just so they’d come to our wedding. We put the
cake in the other room.

The whole book turns itself inside out, formally, narratively, and philosophically. What most stands out to me are the haunting images of wedding invitations, orchids, and votive candles juxtaposed with “[t]he darkest flowers” and “[t]he unworn garter [. . .] billowing across [. . .] scorched grass.” The collection undoes the lovely images and ideals of picture perfect corsages by juxtaposing them with the hard realities of our ghosts and our chaotic lives. In X Marks the Dress, Darling and Guess have woven together a beautiful, haunting collection of poems that ask us to consider the authenticity of our relationships as well as the wedding pomp and circumstance with which we celebrate ourselves. 

—Laura Drell