Thursday, January 07, 2016

Magpiety: New and Selected Poems by Melissa Green

Poet Melissa Green

Magpiety: New and Selected Poems
by Melissa Green
Medford, MA: Arrowsmith, 2015
ISBN 9780692403853
136 p., $20

Reviewed by David P. Miller

Melissa Green’s third published collection is a stunning testimony to the need for sharply developed, luxuriant language, as a means of deeply engaging one’s own life and making that life an inevitability for readers. Ms. Green’s first collection, The Squanicook Eclogues (Norton), was published in 1987; her second, Fifty-Two (Arrowsmith), followed twenty years later. She has published two books of memoir: Color is the Suffering of Light (Norton, 1994) and The Linen Way (ebook, Rosa Mira Books, 2013). Magpiety excerpts not only her two published volumes of poetry, but three unpublished collections: Daphne in Mourning, The Heloise, and The Marsh Poems. The title set of poems is drawn from a sequence published in 2012.

Melissa Green’s work has been held in high regard by poets as varied as Derek Wolcott, Tracy K. Smith, Joseph Brodsky, Marie Howe, Robert Pinsky, and Lucie Brock-Broido, among many others. An hour-long tribute to her writing, given on the occasion of Fifty-Two’s publication, can be found at Ms. Green has struggled for decades with depression and mental illness, challenges which at points caused her to abandon writing for years at a time. Her poems do testify to these periods of duress and ongoing difficulty (and childhood suffering detailed more explicitly in her memoirs). However, they simultaneously transcend what for other writers could be serious limitations on subject matter and expression. Her poems are fully engaged with the richness of the world as it is, to a degree that can be breathtaking. This review can only touch on a few of the high points of this collection.

The title cycle from The Squanicook Eclogues consists of twenty poems in four sections, corresponding to April, August, October and January. A long elegy for her father, these are also pastoral poems, set in the region of the Squanicook River in northern Massachusetts, during the time of the poet’s childhood. Although the following description of the cycle’s structure is too schematic, it is intended to give some indication of the patterning involved. The first poem in each section is a landscape-scale observation subtitled “from the sketchbook”. The second recounts walks with her father, acts of close observation and the nature of naming. The third, “from the notebook,” focuses on close observations of plant life.  The fourth continues the second sections’ recounting, but from a more private perspective, rather than highlighting father-daughter interactions. The fifth follows a four-element sequence: water, fire, earth, and air. Here, the seasons manifest feminine personae – “the river’s daughter, dressed in driven skins” (p. 5) or “rising new / As summer’s mistress from a field of corn” (10) – who bring forward reflections from a level below direct observation:

She gathers cones for her own barrow, takes down leaves,
And like the marrow-colored moon in clouds will guard
The huddled valley’s harvest of beliefs. A gourd’s
Faint staving-off of evil is rattling for God.
    (October: Earth, 15)

The sights and sensations from these walks seemed to have impressed themselves into her remembrance more deeply than most of us can imagine. Her language is both sensually descriptive and metaphorically evocative at a sometimes unnerving level of detail. For example, against her father’s prescription, “Don’t ever make things up. Write only what you see. / Name the woods and you’ll have named the world,” she understood the challenge as

[… ] how to write birch when I saw the crumbling, pale tusk
Of a fallen mastodon bridging the path, or ash when the air
Was frenzied with the head of a neighbor’s rain-black mare.
Sycamore waved at me like drowned Ophelia’s hair. (12)

In Greek mythology, the nymph Daphne, pursued by Apollo, prays to Gaia for escape and is transformed into a tree. As such, she experiences safety and enclosure, but is also shut out from humanity, in a frozen condition. The elegiac poems of Daphne in Mourning were written during the 1990s, “many in response to the loss of [Green’s] friend and mentor, Joseph Brodsky” (ix). “A Sea Change,” the first poem in this set, demonstrates the vividness with which she articulates her personal difficulties, including the very processes of language breakdown and recovery:

My handwriting belongs to someone else.
Alzheimer-like, crab-wise, I take down this dictation.
A titian-haired cocker spaniel named Lizzie
Dazzles me, never leaving my side. Anxious. A rescue dog.
Dragged back, I don’t know where my home is either.
Mother, you won’t believe how dark the dark is.

“A January Poem,” inscribed with the date of Brodsky’s death at 55, is a meditation in five sections on the older poet’s relation to Ms. Green. First there is the shock of his loss: “Joseph, I pounded on the studded door of the sky / with my palms, not believing you’ve closed it / behind you forever, the midnight black mahogany / paneling of a private club where all the dead— / and only the dead—are welcome” (45). Quickly, this image of heaven as members-only club becomes a joyful scene of afterlife reunion including Auden, Mandelstam, and Akhmatova: the poet’s first moment of personal desolation is transcended. “A January Poem” ends with an extended metaphor describing the poet’s challenge in rendering Brodsky’s “Flight to Egypt”:

The caravansary arrives, a ten-line
Christmas poem, unburdening itself
under date palms in the desert, blown
sand peppering my eyes. Joseph, save

me as you used to! How am I to feed
there quarreling Russians, interlinears
dressed like émigrés, my alien drafts—
a feud of consonants and vowels!

“Reply to Styron’s Darkness Visible,” in ten sections, is a significant articulation of the descent into depression, the life within that state, and the (provisional) release from it. As is utterly characteristic of Melissa Green, she does not settle for generalized statements of affect, but develops images as idiosyncratic, even vital, as one expects from the writer of The Squanicook Eclogues:

Birds wing slowly past
the window panes,
taking music with them.
Like a pulled plug,
all sounds drain away.
The French clock ticks
and stops, its sweet chimes
covering their mouths. (57)

“I could not hold / life in my own arms,” she writes (56). But there is so much of life in this cycle, in the very language of description, even that of deathly experience: “Reluctant as Lazarus, and weak, I crawl / from the moldy cerements and scowl, / scratching my current-tonsured skull / in disbelief, faces and their daylight cruel” (60). The reader will notice here an instance of Ms. Green’s facility for subtle half-rhyme, evident throughout the collection, seen early in The Squanicook Eclogues with pairs such as trees/Truce, except/escaped, seemed/psalms, scythe/seethed. In the end, it is that “savior language called” (60) and she cannot ultimately refuse to reply.

The poems of Fifty-Two all follow the same idiosyncratic form. Each has five lines, the third line abruptly broken in half, making for six lines visually, with the fourth of those deeply indented. Melissa Green has described the origin of this form: after writing two and a half lines of a new poem, she heard the sound of a sharp crack, like a Ticonderoga pencil snapping in two. As a result, “I felt a kind of fracture in the language and knew I couldn’t continue to write the way I always had” (ix). The two parts of each poem are related by different strategies of dis/association. A couple of examples will have to do here. In “Routine,” the work of writing leaps from the poet’s grim effort to conquer an impossible landscape, to the sudden eruption of a kind of luxurious embodiment:

Tundra of the white paper. Steppes of emptiness and ice. Equipped
with crampons and picks, I notch out a poem on gneiss, frostbitten,
winded, afraid to die.
            Between the typescript’s writhes and raddles,
soft-nostrilled animals of meaning poke inquisitive noses through caesuras,
enjambments, metaphor, to me. I lift a serif, duck under and enter the world.

“In Florida” sets personal foreboding in a rich landscape which suddenly appears archetypal:

Did I tell you I sat out on my sister’s porch in a hammock swing, watching
the evening cardinals weave her cherry laurel into a net of ribboned carmine silk,
convinced I’d live my life alone?
                I saw Eros rise over the osiers, fletching an arrow
filched from Artemis’ quiver and half-lifted up, only to meet his barb
of laughter. I sit back. First dusk comes on, then darkness, then the underworld.

The selections from The Marsh Poems, a set completed in 2011, are composed of long-lined couplets. As with the single form explored in Fifty-Two, Ms. Green here continues to display variety, detail, and a strong power of sensory perception and expression. In “At the Marsh,” the poet’s self is intimately fused with that of a severe June day at the estuary:

Salt hay scorches my feet. Mist lies down under the sun

to be consumed. Phragmites ignite. The beach roses blaze.
I’m sick and can’t live long. I want to soak my marrow

in this cauldron, kindle each incandescent bone in earth’s
hellfire banked with coals, and in this day’s false cremation,

feel for an instant my final burning: the skin’s sizzle,
crackling fat, my hair—a saint’s burnished corona of flame.

The arrival of a summer storm on “The First of July” sets off an extended metaphor in which the poet herself, unexpectedly, becomes a record of music:

[…] When I hear bass notes of thunder

my legs curl under me. I become a treble clef drawn on
a white rock, transcribing the pitch of the sea as the line

of running swells west to east describes a musical stave.

I have tried throughout this review to indicate the multiple triumphs of Melissa Green’s poetry. She has not only compellingly recorded her personal challenges, but has gone far beyond. It is as if the very duress of her situation has enabled a depth and luxuriance of expression rarely found.  And despite long periods of silence, the words have repeatedly broken forth, wildly and irresistably. To conclude, here is “Gambit,” one of my favorites of the shorter poems in this collection.

I close my eyes and breathe. Words enter my body, gold chessmen
carved of flame that take their places on my black-and-white board.

I play against myself, but the contest declares itself older by far
than the Game of Kings. The pieces obey their own arcane rules:

shape-shifting bishops, rooks, knights promptly abandon the Court
for the wild—a burst of wings, fins, talons, tusks, eyeteeth, beaks.

It’s a struggle to tame them. I can’t out-think their tactics, tricks
or strategies. The game is over when pieces simply return to form:

figures of speech cover the page, lay claim to their spaces. When
no moves are left, I lay down my pen. That’s how the Queen wins.

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