Magpiety: New and Selected Poems, by Melissa Green. 136 pgs. Arrowsmith Press, 2015. $20.00.
Melissa Green’s collection of new and selected poems, Magpiety, drops into American poetry at a peculiar moment. A change in the period style, away from the “resistant,” postmodernist poetics that dominated between 1990 and 2005, has been underway for a while. That particular version of postmodernism had arrived initially through the diffused influence of the LANGUAGE poets and theorists, but really took off when it melded in the mainstream with an evolved New York School sensibility, its manners and formal patterns, now a legacy style, having been worked out in process by Ashbery, O’Hara, et al. some sixty years ago.
Period styles in poetry change, not merely because humans desire such shifts in fashion in order to renew their sense of life’s possibilities, but because history exerts pressure on the imagination. Perhaps the post-9/11, post-Great Recession, post-Ferguson, cyber-infused world simply required an aesthetics different from that of the 90s—with its emphases on disjunctive experiment, tonal flux, language-driven hijinks, and “close calls with nonsense,” perhaps it just seemed as if it wasn’t up to the job.
The job now seems to require tonal sobriety (even earnestness), a linear narrativity, realistic renderings, non-figurative transparency of the image, and syntactical regularity (to the point, often, of syntactical simplicity). The issues the new poetry treats seem to claim more weight (or at the very least seem to be transparently and morally pressing on the common good): the necessarily complex claims for racial and gender equality, the surge of questions revolving around identity and social justice more generally, the contradictions involved in living in an oligarchical democracy, the rise of mutually-dependent cultures of sectarian terror and state surveillance, the reifications of consciousness-as-brand in social media. It all seems to have provoked American poets (especially younger poets) to move towards a prose sensibility. Lyricality, wit, abstraction, play, and inwardness are diminished. Exposition, story, political utility, documentary detailing, and moral judgment have come to seem necessary, even virtuous.
In some ways, nothing much has changed for Melissa Green, who was and remains neither one of the experimentalists nor a practitioner of the meditative-narrative style. With Magpiety, published by Arrowsmith Press last fall, she still seems as much of an outlier as she did when her first book, The Squanicook Eclogues, first appeared in 1987. In that book, Green showed a master’s comfort with intricate metrical patterns and the deployment of a powerful syntactical drive train, not to mention an interest in ornate diction and dense figurative transformations, excluding her from both camps. While she wrote about her struggles with severe depression, she was hardly what one would call “confessional” in impulse. A devotee of Sharon Olds would have found little to linger over in Green’s first book—too much ex-urban landscape, too many orchards and spawning alewife, too much gnarled historical detail and indigenous hallucination, too much channeling of dead forbears.
Much has been made of the formal influence of Green’s mentors, Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott. Maybe too much. It’s not that it isn’t true—one feels their presence everywhere in her work, and that sense that she’s the heir to a specific Anglo-American lineage, one that includes Wordsworth, Keats, Emerson, Frost, Lowell, Bishop, Heaney, a tradition by its nature bound to be viewed as formally conservative, or at the very least “classical” (a pejorative, still, to most American ears). But—because it offers in one place a selection from all of her work, a good deal of which has remained unpublished or not readily available to readers—Magpiety makes clear that such a straightforward declaration of affinities can obscure as much as it reveals, especially if it’s accepted as gospel. The full complexity of Green’s development is now available.
One of the most interesting things about Magpiety is how it clarifies Green’s struggle with and adaptation of her original resources and talents. The book also makes obvious that no matter how much mental and physical suffering seems to have been both goad and impediment to this writer’s work, this suffering is not its true subject. A visionary inwardness is at the heart of Green’s work, and there is little in American poetry of the last thirty years that is as genuine or powerful in that. Vision requires submission, at the risk of helplessness—much of Green’s formal mastery has been exercised in a struggle with this risk. Thirty years after her debut, Green remains a poet of astonishing lyric action, on the level of both music and perception. For her, music is perception enacted, the evidence of possibility. Magpiety shows us a poet about as far from the current penchant for deploying a prose sensibility as an American can get.
Squanicook was dominated by a sequence of elegies for Green’s father, most of which centered on his relationship to the woods and fields of the Merrimack River watershed in northern Massachusetts, where Green grew up. Part of the power of that book was in watching Green’s language tug toward figurative gestures whose excitements seem somewhat at odds with the elegiac impulse:
The willow is a yellow prairie sundress, fat
With catkins, a woman in a rocker shelling beans.
The maple’s clustered fountain jets of blood have splayed
In short-lobbed leaves, the stenciled veins of stubby hands.
In alfalfa, spiders have labored to weave the peat-rich air
Into goldenrod, daisy, geranium, trillium, lily, phlox.
(“April/iii from the notebook”)
It’s as if the speaker wishes to find her father again in these metaphoric transformations, almost literally to raise him from the dead. The power of the wish, somewhat unconscious, is quietly shocking, even now. It makes of her love for him a sort of force that isn’t entirely under her control (or at least not entirely under the control of her conscious intelligence). “Everything,” she writes, “the woods could teach, my father taught: / Delight, exactitude, a faith, his journeyman’s doubt.”
As the eclogue usually does, Squanicook is sequenced into sections organized by the months of the year, those sections in turn composed of numbered sections, some of these given titles either formal or notational. Magpiety includes all of the April sequence. Green is a writer drawn throughout her work to development by series, to its implied sense of progression, to its ritualizations. Sequence is a way of engaging both seasonal and metaphorical transformations, without having to bring them to resolution exactly. Land and character are often interchangeable for Green, and the visions invited in Squanicook by this cross-wiring often move backward into a history that is part New England mythology, part allegory:
Father, I’m drowsy in April’s humming sun and think
A girl the color of autumn kneels at the Squanicook’s bank,
Who is the river’s daughter, dressed in driven skins,
Who knows a cedar wind at Nissequassick brings
The school of alewife, herring, yellow perch ashore.
There’s something of a neo-Transcendentalist impulse in this identification with the land, especially in the urge “to name the woods’ mysterious heart.” It’s a longing the daughter feels beyond her grief for her father; it’s something he couldn’t help her with, something “his meticulous chart of change didn’t teach” her.
There’s a profound loneliness in this recognition—it’s part of the sadness of coming into adult knowledge. But it’s amplified by the visionary intensity of Green’s musical and metaphorical powers—for all her immense control of craft, she’s driven by these impulses. At the heart of all this tension is a human being, given to us in speech, as much helpless as not: “Father, I’m frightened, why are things so beautiful and sad? / My voice had dusted moss, like snow, without a sound.”
Given her enormous amount of prosodic skill, Green might be mistaken by a casual reader for an extremely willful poet. On the level of iamb and conceit, she is. But there’s also a strangeness in her work that is as intense and realized as anything in Rimbaud, a hallucinatory action in her detailed perceptions. You aren’t hit over the head with it; it just sneaks up on a reader, embedded as it is in renderings that are as rock-ribbed as anything in the tradition of New England realism. Her work is closer in this to Melville and Dickinson than it is to Frost (though there is enough idiomatic flex in her iambic pulse to hear him as well).
It surprises me a little to hear myself think it, but Green reminds me of two other poets as well: Tomas Transtromer and Lorine Niedecker. A radical solitude is entangled in Green’s inwardness, a solitude that breeds loneliness, even while it holds out the possibility of transformation. It’s a trait she shares with Transtromer and Niedecker. In terms of prosody, the three couldn’t be more different. But, as with these two, her attraction to sequence is a way of extending the intensities of the lyric image into a form that can treat the personal in relation to history and nature—all three had to find ways to give the lyric impulse a meditative action. For all three, time is an arc in consciousness.
Magpiety includes poems from two unpublished books: Daphne in Mourning and The Heloise. Both were written over long periods of time. Daphne, which was composed during the 1990s, came in response to Green’s grief over Brodsky’s death in 1996. The Heloise seems to have been a more long-term project, dating back to the mid-80s but only finished in 2011. Both seem to me to be somewhat flawed efforts, but peculiarly important, even necessary, to Green’s subsequent development. And again, even in excerpt, both sections give off the implied air of arranged sequence. Both also make obvious—perhaps more than anything else in her poetry—Green’s deep-seated indebtedness to classical sources. Other than Tom Sleigh, she might be one of the few poets in her generation to put such sources to such continual and serious work.
It goes without saying that this allusiveness was influenced by both Walcott and Brodsky. Still, the poems in Daphne are interesting most for their narrative realism, and for their candor in general, a directness somewhat at odds with the allegory and historicized mythology circulating around it. The third section of “A January Poem” begins with a moving simplicity:
Once I was too sick to live
And you came to my bedside
With all late summer in your arms,
A vast bouquet of pinks, golds and greens,
A trace of earth and birdsong.
You wrapped me in a blanket
And held me like a child on your lap,
A ghost in my own life.
And then there’s this, from the fourth section, with its seemingly effortless figurative energy, and a fresh, quietly convincing sorrow:
As I write this, years have passed,
and it’s as though you’ve just left the room,
the white bullet casings of filters
broken off your deadly cigarettes
crowding an ashtray, Handel’s
Watermusik on the turntable,
the needle soundlessly raised
above the groove out of grief.
Passages like these can sometimes make the more ornate, self-consciously “literary” bits of language in Daphne feel stilted. But it’s a risk that Green was ready to take. And the effort at this more direct speech is important in what it leads to later in her poetry, especially in the collection called Fifty-Two.
What comes across in the Daphne poems is a longing like the speaker’s in Jarrell’s “A Woman at the Washington Zoo”: “You know what I was, / You see what I am: change me, change me!” That, and something else, an acceptance that is Green’s alone: “I write my name on a white page. / So this is who I am.” You’d have to be a stone not to hear the inflection of wonder in that last sentence.
The Heloise poems operate out of narrative conventions that are familiar throughout Green’s work, but they break into these conventions with language experiments that aren’t quite like anything else in Magpiety. Based on the letters of Heloise and Abelard, The Heloise was imagined as a “a lyric novel of poetry and prose,” Green writes in the foreword: “I nearly had to invent a language that would stand in for Heloise’s own vastly stacked treasure house, as she was fluent in French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and possibly Aramaic.” These are persona poems, but their odd diction gives them a deepened sense of the interior life of the character, for all their insistent accounting of chronological events.
On some perhaps unconscious and certainly very basic level, Green seems to be trying here to break the proprieties of control that dominated her early work. You can sometimes hear a strong resistance to narrative transparency in a single line, like this one from “Matins”: “They dolved my mother’s cophin when I was five.” There’s quite a bit of wit in this overall, but it’s a wit that causes the surface of the poem to abstract itself almost from the syntax of the sentence. It comes close at times to dissolving the momentums of story:
I trembled in Notre Dame’s cathedral close,
amiddleward a throng of outeners brabbling
in sheveled Latin, their student gowns outremer
all of us impatient for Master Peter to appear.
I’m not suggesting that Green suddenly metamorphosed into the second coming of Gertrude Stein in The Heloise; though the play of language there has a bravado and entertainment that I like to think Stein would have appreciated.
For me, the Heloise poems are interesting most as evidence of an attempt to break a received style. Their fluidity, and Green’s mastery, is being disrupted by an occasional if insistent turn toward something slightly cartoony—I mean “cartoony” in the way that Philip Guston used it in talking of how an image in a painting could be both familiar and unrecognizable. “I’m always excited,” Guston once said, “by the thin line which divides the image from the non-image. What’s exciting about an image is that at any given moment it would take so little to wipe it out completely, to have chaos, to have nothing there.” Something distantly similar is at work in The Heloise: a line is being drawn that vibrates between obsession and chaos, a longing for something that can either save the character or sweep her away.
This psychological dynamic—if that’s the right phrase for it—plays itself out throughout Green’s work; and it explains why she follows The Heloise selection here with a short group from a series composed much more recently, called Magpiety. These are based on that anonymous Renaissance song, “Tom O’Bedlam’s Song,” and its companion “Mad Maud’s Song.” Long lined, composed in couplets without much punctuation, and spaced to emphasize phrasal units, these too are persona poems, spoken by Maud “as she struggled with delusions, her dread of madness, of the loss of Tom, and of Bedlam” (Green, author’s note). Their syntax is more straightforward, simplified, than anything else in Green’s work. The storyline is compressed, episodic. Here’s all of “Maud as a Maid”:
I once ran with milk-white legs through brambled greenwood
dancing stone by stone across the ache of a summer stream
clouds lowering darkly overhead my body stitched together
with flying past hedges witchery and rain which crumpled my hair
I stopped with terror at the forest’s edge while the men took down
and dressed a doe immense wet eyes delving me the dark trees
leaned over their cutting and the blood darkened and I heard breathing
behind me under the oak a boar a wolf and I was caught between
blood and blood and Heaven pressed its deepest Hell on me
a great sinner for a girl and I fell out of the world without a sound
This has some of the atmosphere of the English and Scots ballads, their tonal moods and ellipses as much as their landscape or dramas. Again, the formal experiment is part of an on-going development of Green’s original talents and influences. The more self-consciously literary elements are being pared back and reified in ways that feel more particular to her character as a writer; the need to impress has by and large evaporated, and a directness of feeling and thought has come to the surface in its place.
All of this feels as if it were leading to Fifty-Two, which came out in 2007, her first full collection of poems to be published since The Squanicook Eclogues in 1987. I remember hearing Green read from Fifty-Two just after its publication—her poetry had essentially been unavailable in the intervening twenty years, and I was floored by the changes. The language had been stripped down, pruned to its essentials—not so much plain, but as basic and non-rhetorical as the book’s title might imply. The poems are long-lined, but short, all of them five lines broken into two stanzas, exactly in the middle. They say nothing more than what needs to be said, implying far more. They’re moving in their quiet candor, heartbreaking at times.
In the early 2000s, Green had suffered serious health issues, almost losing a foot to infection. The experience seems to have induced a stylistic crisis as well. She writes of a “fracture in the language,” and a sense that the dense lyric manner she’d initially become known for was now impossible: “my metrical foot had also been changed—the poems in Fifty-Two have a sharp break after two-and-a-half lines which replicated for me the sound of the snap of a Ticonderoga pencil.” It’s a witty way to put it, even if it makes about as odd a prosodic argument as Gary Snyder’s claim that the rhythms of his poems in Riprap were based on the speech of loggers, seamen, and other laborers at work.
Magpiety contains about half of the poems originally published in Fifty-Two. One of the things that all of the paring and pruning in Green’s work revealed was a natural associativeness that did not have to be embedded in figurative gestures—this associative sensitivity gives the poems a more casual, more intuitive and improvisational manner. Structurally, these poems remind me a bit of Niedecker’s way of assembling stanzas, a patterning that was influenced by the call and response form of Japanese tanka. However Green herself arrived at the structure, it depends upon resonance between detailed but sculpted images. The passing of time is one thing that comes across, with visions of a life that could have been but wasn’t:
Wood stove. Two desks kissing. Books. The latest in a series of sunset-colored dogs,
our tall sons, their stair-step children stamping off snow, the holiday table groaning
with our work: vegetables, poetry, merriment.
_ _It never happened, the house, the oeuvre,
the husband holding me, older. Illness married me, first and forever, put me to bed
like a bad child. Daily, through rain’s quicksilver, I count on an abacus of crows.
(“A Saltbox in Vermont”)
The responsiveness here isn’t just structural. The language moves toward scene and character, no longer interested in transforming the seen so much as letting it reveal itself. In “At the Steps of the Widener Library,” Green writes, “A girl my age laughs nearby, fresh from skiing in Zermatt, casual in her beauty, / orthodontia, years of good breeding.” The method is notational, and it proceeds by juxtaposition and contrast: “I type at Toyota of Boston to keep my bed in a halfway house for the mentally ill.” It’s doubtful that Green would have allowed herself to say it so plainly or directly twenty years earlier. The writing in Fifty-Two has the freshness of risk in it. Elision gives it an unwilled urgency, an urgency that is as believable as it is enviable. The poems are still filled with visions, but they feel more tethered to the world’s weather and events, even if at a distance.
With my pen point, I dig up the watermark, a white peony soft on my tongue.
In that sweet wafer I taste a cluster of birches, cherry, oak. I swallow acres
of forest, seed pods like limpets at my heart.
_ _The nib plunges into a black current.
Its unguent on my lips, I suck down the streets of Evangeline, the drowned parishes
of Katrina, these lines an alphabet drawn from a corpse’s single alchemized hair.
(“The Eater of Paper, the Drinker of Ink”)
The relaxed syntax of the poems in Fifty-Two carries over to the selection of work from The Marsh Poems, a book Green finished in 2011 but that went unpublished. There’s less compression and elision than in Fifty-Two, as Green turns again to the couplet as a form. The selection here begins with the masterful “Casualty,” an anti-war poem dedicated to David Ferry that swerves through a protracted survey of military carnage:
They carried him from the sea on his shield,
His greaves gushing what he thought were golden fish.
He did not know the ones who bore him
Nor which of Poseidon’s horses frothed at their bits.
Asclepius rolled back his white sleeves.
There was incarnadine clotting the water,
Gouts of blood on the sandals of the stretcher-bearers.
There was nothing to be done.
They carried him across the moors, the mossy stones
_ Actium, Ardennes, Bannockburn, Borodino_
Along the marshy bank, the footpath rising up
_ Bosworth Field, Bull Run, Crecy . . ._
The world seems somewhat more present in this and other pieces from The Marsh Poems, or present in a way that suggests the speaker is open to it on its own terms. The writing feels more relaxed, less tensile with anxiety or grief, without turning away from darkness either.
Still, it’s Green’s renderings of nature that are (and have always been) so compelling. That’s true even when the lyric intensity of nature can sometimes seem a rebuke to her darkened mind:
It’s raining on the marsh but not on me. A midsummer sunshower
pocks the far-off brine at low tide. Beads of water
are strung in the air on harp strings from the fens
up to a bright break in the clouds. The shoals are empty of birds.
It’s quiet, except for the crackling marram grass as the rain
turns windward, the mist blowing straight at me. The word
trespass comes to mind—why now? The phragmites can’t tell me,
nor the furrowed hummocks, exposed. You could drown here
if you walked out far enough. Nothing has turned out
as I thought it would. The harp has disappeared. A cowl of fog,
autumnal, covers my shoulders, blurs the marsh’s edge.
Poor Ireland’s dying, soon to be like Atlantis—a mythical place.
A bit bleak? Sure. But thrilling, too, in the way that it turns perception into music, and in the leap the poem makes toward the end, opening out through its associations. It feels capacious. The capaciousness balanced against despair.
Green ends Magpiety on a simple sentence: “I’ve been awhile away.” It’s a statement that implies an acceptance of both the suffering and the gifts given to her. It also feels like it’s something said for the sake of others, not just her own. For that, and for this masterful, often touching, hard-won poetry, we should be very grateful.
David Rivard is the author of Otherwise, Elsewhere (Graywolf Press, 2011); Sugartown (Graywolf, 2006); Bewitched Playground (Graywolf, 2000); Wise Poison (Graywolf, 1996), winner of the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award; and Torque (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988), winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. Graywolf released his new book, Standoff, in August 2016. His poems and essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, AGNI, TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, and other magazines. Among his awards are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Civitella Ranieri, the National Endowment for the Arts, the 2006 O. B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Massachusetts Arts Foundation, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, as well as two Pushcart Prizes. A former poetry editor at Harvard Review, he directs the University of New Hampshire MFA in Writing Program and lives in Cambridge. (updated 10/2016)
Rivard’s collection Wise Poisons was reviewed in AGNI 46 by George Weld.
Read “Finding Indirection: An Interview with David Rivard” by Jennifer S. Flescher in AGNI Online.
Rivard’s collection Bewitched Playground was reviewed in AGNI 52 by David Roderick.