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On December 5, 2007, Melissa Green stands on the stage at Boston University’s Jacob Sleeper Auditorium. It is her night: a tribute to the poet who has been absent from the Boston poetry scene for so many years. Her former teachers, colleagues, and friends are reading new poems in her honor: Derek Walcott, her great mentor from her student days at Boston University in the 1980s, hugs her off-stage. He has in the past praised the “responsibility and delight” in Green’s work and it is clear that these are qualities that still values. Watching from a few rows back, I am struck by how Green and the other great, laurelled poets beam at one another in appreciation, respect, and mutual recognition. How they smile, embrace, offer hands and honest words. All of them are incandescent, and Melissa Green most of all.
Melissa Green rarely gives readings. On the podium she is regal, draped in purple, in black velvet gloves. Her hair is immaculate and her eyes rimmed in kohl. She is courageous and ribald on stage, cracking jokes as she reads from her long-anticipated second collection of poetry, Fifty-Two.
Green’s first collection, The Squanicook Eclogues, was honored with prizes from the Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets. Published in 1987, The Squanicook Eclogues is a group of four long poems written as an elegy to her father in the language of the woods and rivers of a distinct and personal Massachusetts. In these poems she both memorializes people – her childhood self, her dead father – and the Squanicook River – a – personally significant, formative place of her childhood where she learned to study the trees, learned the terror and wonder of the forests and her own developing relationship with her father. She writes:
This was ours. New Hampshire sprawled to the north, broad
And foreign as another country, and with the vague disdain of six,
I knew our woods were better – even the burdock on my socks
Like Virgil in his Eclogues, Green re-imagines a mythicized landscape. From her father, who has learned the “iconography of trees,” Green’s young speaker learns how to catalogue the flora and fauna as meticulously as Virgil did – to make icons of them. The scrupulous eye of poet and of father and daughter are what make the work so memorable. For Green, the trees are not simply descriptive elements, but symbolize attention to detail and the values the father teachers the daughter. “Everything the woods could teach,” Green writes in a confidential aside, “my father taught: [d]elight, exactitude, a faith, his journeyman’s doubt.” Green does not merely record a walk in the woods, then, but an enduring and continuous process of attunement and learning.
These gifts, however, do not come easily. The young girl of the poems must overcome fear and the terror of the unknown and realizes that her father’s “carefully penciled facts” and “meticulous chart of change” can’t teach her “to name the woods’ mysterious heart.” It is with more than a child’s maturity that she speaks, “Father, I’m frightened. Why are things so beautiful and sad?” It is evident that the girl’s perception and attunement to natural phenomena are not insensitive to the beauty and sorrow she observes in human beings. The darkness of the woods, it seems, is linked to a subtle, persistent darkness in the father, who is solemn and detached, despite his kindness and his attentiveness. The love and fear Green’s speaker feels for her mythologized Squanicook is thus conflated with love and fear of her father – a figure, who we learn in Green’s memoir Color is the Suffering of Light – was an alcoholic, and a man not without flaws.
Both The Squanicook Eclogues and Color is the Suffering of Light focus intently on Green’s childhood relations with her family and the way “duty and devotion are the same when love and terror walk together.” In almost every line in The Squanicook Eclogues, beauty is a companion to turbulence and great sorrow. How else could love and terror walk together? Green, like Rainier Maria Rilke in his first Duino Elegy, reminds us that “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.” It is this quality, then – this terrible beauty – that makes Green’s work so exquisite and painful, both in The Squanicook Eclogues and in her new collection, Fifty-Two, published this year in a limited run by Arrowsmith press.
Stylistically, the newer work is a departure from The Squanicook Eclogues. While the earlier is rococo, embroidered and lyrically lush, Fifty-Two is starker, poised and devastating. The poet – no longer a bright, newly emerging writer in her 20s – has reached the age in which memory is, like much else, both beautiful and terrible.
Two segments of the collection are titled “Nostalgia” and glossed with the Greek: “νοstένw – go or come home, return – and αλψέw – suffer, feel bodily pain” and, indeed, the poems of the collection are full of a sense of homecoming accompanied by both physical and emotional pain. It is this ambivalent homecoming Green alludes to in the epitaph by Sappho prefacing the collection: “Oh Evening Star, that brings home all things which have been driven apart by light-scattering day [… ] you bring the child back to its mother.” In its harnessing of memory, Green’s collection, too, is a return to an original source: the physical and mental landscapes of her childhood and young adulthood. The pain and longing for a return to the Squanicook River – if only in memory and writing – is beautifully expressed in Green’s “Two River,” for instance:
I thought of Moses plucked form a wicker cradle, caught by the white reeds
of the Pharoah’s daughter’s fingers; then of the root-braided bank under pines
where we took Granny and Mama canoeing –
their pale hair in daytime over their life jackets
like candle flames over votive holders as the current turned and rode them away.
Give me back my brown-silk Squanicook, that afternoon, my mythic dead.
These “mythic dead” – Green’s parents and grandmother – appear to be recalled directly from Squanicook. They are made both more and less real in the memorializing, mythologizing act of poetic creation – the same memorializing Green does in The Squanicook Eclogues. This time, however, there is a stark sparseness, a clear-cut directness, that the earlier work does not share. Green looks back at the past with a clear eye, and although the dead are “mythic,” they are not romanticized. Neither does she romanticize her own past in the new collection. She sees a younger, unembellished version of herself, for instance, in “At the Steps of the Widener Library”: a girl walking across Harvard Yard in her one good dress, who works as a typist to afford a place in a halfway house. As if from another planet, a rich girl the speaker’s age stands nearby “fresh from skiing in Zermatt, casual in her beauty, orthodonture, years of good breeding.” In contrast to this moneyed, alien vision, the speaker is ragged, passionate, “lacerated with light.” As intelligent as she is, smarts – to paraphrase Green – don’t trump class.
The same painful recollection can be seen in “First Day of School,” in which Green returns, in memory, to the classroom of her childhood, a place of “chalk, dust, wax, disinfectant. Ochre light. Sputnik lunch boxes, fresh pinafores, thunder of young limbs.” Yet in the poem she returns fifty years later, out of place in the small classroom, painfully shy, her cane – a lasting reminder of a serious ankle injury – “clattering to the floor.”
In recollecting the pain of lost time (and lost memory), Green’s work is again reminiscent of Virgil’s Eclogues; Moeris, the poet-shepherd in the Ninth Eclogue (translated here by David Ferry) explains that
Time takes all we have away from us;
I remember when I was a boy I used to sing
Every long day of summer down to darkness,
And now I am forgetting all my songs.
Unlike Moeris, however, Melissa Green has not lost her songs. If anything, she sings more forcefully. Despite her ailments, she writes and reads with “a tense, attenuated beauty” (a line from her poem “Imitation”) and even a joy.
The sense of homecoming – of remembering and community – is made emphatic as Green addresses the audience at Boston University: “I feel like this is my family reunion, my graduation, all rolled into one. It is as if you in the audience are my family, distant aunts and uncles, cousins, children I still have to meet.” Although her voice trembles as she speaks, Green smiles. It is as if, having suffered the loss of her own family, she acknowledges another form of family: the community of students and readers and poets and friends in the audience. How this sudden familial joy contrasts with the devastating loss expressed in “Love in an Irish Family”:
Orphaned. Unmarried. Childless. No term for the worst of it – to be blackened by them,
losing so the young ones I cuddled and read to, the beaten flesh I kissed, blood’s deep
music. / I am unsistered now. Unbrothered.
I’ll live. (You’ve taken the East and West from me).
In the heartbeat between dawn and day. (The sun and moon you’ve also taken).
In the breath between dusk and dark. (You’ve taken God from me, if I’m not mistaken).
The loss of this poem is almost unbearable, the idea of being “unbrothered” and “unsistered” unsettling and alien. Yet despite losing family, and losing her sense of bearing in the world, the speaker claims, adamantly, that she will live.
What makes this collection of fifty-two new poems (an echo of the poet’s age, the weeks of the year) so devastating? It is not merely a subject matter, so concerned with loss, but the form itself. The poems in Fifty-Two are written in what Green calls a new form. Sitting down to write the first poem, intending to write long, lush lines like those in The Squanicook Eclogues, Green felt herself break off in mid-line after two solid lines of verse. At the Boston University reading, she compared this experience to hearing a pencil being snapped in two next to her ear. The result was a poem with two mirrored halves of two-and-a-half lines each, the form in which all the poems in Fifty-Two are written. In each poem, the second half mirrors the first, but is often bleaker; it is as if the first two and a half lines bear so much tension that they have to break, like a thundercloud releasing in a torrent.
Green’s colleague and friend, the poet George Kalogeris, uses the image of a glass brimming with water to describe successful poetry; you can see the almost unbearable tension in the fullness of the glass, yet it does not overflow. Green’s work has this quality. While she deliberately “breaks” the poems down the middle, she does it with such control that there is no chaotic overflow, but, instead, a stark and pointed mirroring. While expectations are raised, made buoyant, in the first half of the poem, they are unexpectedly, bluntly broken in the second. It is the pencil snapping next to the ear. Nowhere in the collection is this breaking of expectations more expertly done, or more devastating, than in “A Salt Box in Vermont”:
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 the rain’s quicksilver, I count on an abacus of crows.
The movement from the comforting New England home to the unsettling “abacus of crows” is sudden, unexpected – a pencil snap. It is experienced most violently in the direct blow of “it never happened” following “merriment” as the reader’s expectations of smug satisfaction and fulfillment are suddenly broken. Perhaps all great art – all responsible art – shares this pairing of delight and fragility. As in Rilke’s work, beauty is, for Green, the beginning terror.
Green, Melissa. Color is the Suffering of Light. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
———. Fifty-Two. Boston: Arrowsmith Press, 2007.
———. Squanicook Eclogues. New York: Norton, 1987.
Virgil. Eclogues. Trans. David Ferry. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.
Nora Delaney is a poet, editor, educator, and Dutch-English translator based in Boston, Massachusetts. Her work has been published in Fulcrum, Bellevue Literary Review, and Subtropics, amongst other publications. When she is not writing, translating, or editing her own literary journals, Ms. Delaney teaches writing at MIT.