Laura Sims reviews
It is rare today to come across a book like Meinhard’s, one that successfully combines emotional honesty and flights of the imagination in spare, elegantly controlled lines. It is also rare to hear a voice as poignant and strikingly unified as this narrator’s, who observes with an otherworldly, often unsettling innocence, exploring territory left untouched or overwrought by others.
Oh, it’s a long day with shoes and chicken soup and running up the aisles of Food Fair looking for Mother in the twilight on Second Avenue for the first time.
Later in the poem, lines creep up to shadow the lighter imagery, such as ‘the child in the courtyard...with the red eyes and no face’ (5). Much later, instead of running gleefully through grocery store aisles, the child is ‘running down the alley at 4 AM over garbage cans...and climbing a fence to the other side...And a terrible smell — a terrible smell — early in the morning — that comes from the alley after Father leaves the room’ (6). The stench of his presumably abusive act fills our senses as well; yet it fails to entirely blot out the buoyant echoes of the child-voice searching ‘for chicken and oranges’ earlier that day. She remains with us, just as she remains inside the child tearing down the alley (in a dream or desperate escape fantasy), attempting to flee with her life and identity intact.
My hair had grown long. I tied it in a bow and wore it as a belt around my waist. A little balcony was created where birds perched and sang in the early morning. (10)
The magical setting, the balcony appearing from nowhere, the birds perched there singing to her with her long hair wrapped around her waist, crumbles when the narrator reveals her complicity in the lie: ‘I am sorry. I’m not telling the truth. Something is bothering me’ (10). Then she says, ‘Let me start again.’ At the end of the poem, the girl finds ‘a crack in the corner of the roof,’ and just after she runs her finger along it, ironically, the shield of dream language splits apart, allowing one moment of straightforward sexual violence to escape. She says:
My father laughed when he found me kneeling over it. He threw me down. The sky was white. He laughed. He shoved himself into me again and again. (10)
Even at this hellish crux, Meinhard’s language is perfectly controlled, pared down, and straightforward. Her sentences are simply constructed to convey the action and a brief glimpse of sky, all in unadorned language that cannot fail to move the reader without overtly manipulating his/ her feelings. The physical page also contributes to the overall effect; the sight of minimal text amid a sea of white (in most of the poems) parallels the speaker’s besieged voice and existence, and emphasizes the restraint with which she tells her tale.
My jaw creaks — wants to tell a story — I want
At first she sees a fish, maybe as a pendant on a necklace in her line of sight, but in the next moment she has become the fish. The fish, not the speaker, suffers, its ‘head, pushed / back against the pillow,’ and left with its ‘jaw stuck / open’ at the end of the poem (11). The image of the fish is particularly effective here; one can imagine it trapped on land, gasping for air, just as the child is left literally and metaphorically gasping. Fish, flies, and birds appear frequently in this volume; their power to escape by swimming or flying has an obvious appeal for this speaker. Conversely, their fragility when caught ‘out of water’ or ‘out of air’ emphasizes the child’s helplessness.
You were listening for the groaning
If we read this ‘you’ as the speaker addressing herself, we can see that she identifies with the mole caught in a predator’s mouth. Then she ‘[comes] back from it, thinking what it was / to have been (to be) / you’ (14). In this passage we may be witnessing her painful delivery back to the world after a serious wounding. Like a mole dumped (fortuitously?) from an owl’s mouth, the speaker struggles to crawl back into her own skin after enduring a life-altering experience. However, if we read the ambiguous ‘you’ as the father who has similarly donned a different ‘skin’ in order to abuse his child, we are witnessing his delivery back to ‘himself.’ Meinhard’s language allows for multiple readings, a multiplicity which intensifies the emotional impact and complexity of the poem.
and my heart was beating and
We sense, in the nervously circling language, her birdlike anticipation as she crosses whatever threshold this may be. In the next poem, ‘A Piece of Lightning,’ we see her clinging to this new something, possibly a family life, as if it could vanish at any moment. Again animals bear bad omens: ‘one night a fish flew in the window...[he] made promises. ‘A great wave will envelop you. You will fall into a deep hole’’ (47). But the narrator negates this threat with the help of language — her songs, these poems — and by the end she determines that even if her child has ‘the head of a fish,’ she will ‘lay it in its cradle and sing to it’ (47). She acknowledges here that words can perform magic acts, but more importantly, she harnesses this magic for her own use. She will sing a mother’s welcome to her monstrous child, regardless of what her husband, or others, may think. If we read the poem ‘Portrait of Myself’ as a work of ars poetica, it attests to the power of language even more directly:
The back of speech is the soft devoted speech
In the final stanza of the book’s last poem, ‘The Messengers,’ ‘all of the women in the building, the landlord’s wife, the cabaret singer, the others, went out, and Lobelio, the messenger, came in’ (63). After scores of bad omens, we feel certain that Lobelio bears good tidings, although his message remains unknown. In a series of poems made up of fragmented lines and fractured stories, Meinhard has managed to deliver a mysteriously redemptive ending that does exactly what it should: leave this beautifully spare, moving, and graceful book wide open.
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