MARCH 8, 2016
IN MELISSA GREEN’S early poems, there is always a river. Often it is the Squanicook, which runs through Northern Massachusetts and is part of the Merrimack River watershed flowing into the Atlantic. The river charts its path throughout her poems: “crimping silently;” “riven with ice;” changing “into an ancient self.” Green’s first book — The Squanicook Eclogues, was written as an extended elegy for her father; it was awarded prizes from the Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets. Published in 1987, it was praised by poets such as Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky. A decade later, Norton published a memoir of her mental illness, Color is the Suffering of Light, and then there were many years of silence. Though her name remains familiar among Cambridge poets, it seemed as if her later work would dwindle into obscurity. “Illness married me,” Green wrote. Soon after the publication of her first book she said, “my sense of self became frangible and I felt my mind and body crumble.” She spent nearly a year in the locked ward of a psychiatric hospital. Yet she never completely stopped writing. In 2015, Arrowsmith Press — run by AGNI founding editor Askold Melnyczuk — published Magpiety, a collection of new and selected poems by Green. In Marie Howe’s blurb for Magpiety, she writes, “These are poems written by a survivor, a poet, a woman pulled back to life by “savior language.”
After undergoing electroshock therapy for persistent depression, Green found that she had, in her words, “lost language.” There were perforations in her memories that left Green unable to write. In her LARB interview with Sumita Chakraborty, Green said, “But I realized I still have whatever it is inside a person that makes it absolutely necessary to create something, and makes it so compelling that you have to do it.” According to Green, each of her books came into being because “I loved something in the language I wanted to explore, as I was becoming my full self.” Often she was too ill to work regularly. However, the disparity of and disjunction between voices in Magpiety display not only an evolution of language but a complex and original model of selfhood. Language impels Green to render brokenness — whether it takes the form of illness or grief — into a poetry of emotional persistence. Green’s gift is in taking classical forms — eclogue, epic, and pastoral, to name a few — and reinventing them, employing their rhetoric and structure to shed light on the troubled mind. Under the guise of these older forms, her lyric poems are able to diverge from dominant introspection; she examines her own mental restraints from a distance, often utilizing characters such as Leda, Mad Maud, and Heloise and Abelard to convey her story.
“To survive, you must tell stories,” writes Umberto Eco. “I still have no way to survive but to keep writing one more line, one more line…” said Yukio Mishima. The will to write acts as a tool for survival, the savior language that Howe alluded to. In Green’s poetry, especially the early works, it is the natural world that tests her endurance. The river becomes metaphor for the poet’s internal turbulence, but also a respite from it. “The river dwellers claimed her,” Green writes. “Who is the river’s daughter,” she asks, “How simply she leans/ Into understanding, baptized by light.” In Green’s poetry, there is the sense that she is at the mercy of forces beyond control. The speaker in the poems observes and grieves, powerless to the losses that infuse the work, whether they be the deaths of loved ones (including Brodsky, Green’s mentor and friend) or the deterioration of a mind suffering from bipolar disorder. “I heard the apples softly letting go,” Green writes, “And when some worm deranged itself in me, I thought I couldn’t live to watch the light/inevitably yield.”
Green attains a sober focus toward her subject, whether it be nature, Greek myth, the trappings of her own body, or the tenuous mind. Many of her poems engage with the pastoral tradition, observing with an almost painful clarity the ravages of the seasons juxtaposed with a sometimes awful awareness of the body, alive in its despair and fragility:
To be well used. To endure.
To make or be made the beautiful.
Buffeted at the edge of the known world,
over a river riven with ice —
(from “A Sparrow Fostered Elsewhere”)
Any hints of sentimentality are buffeted throughout by a subtle obstinacy. Green’s endurance is like a fiber that pulls tight, dares to slacken, but does not break. In her blurring of the somatic and the pastoral, there is the sense that the poet, in her sick bed, lies in wait, trapped in an unnavigable density of memory and melancholia:
I could not hold
life in my own arms. The French clock’s sweet
chime at the quarter hour; a grain of beach sand
caught in my eye soon wept out into wheeling
(from “Reply to Styron’s Darkness Visible”)
Here fragility itself breaks into cosmic power. The poems in Daphne in Mourning — a volume comprised of various elegies, many in response to the loss of Joseph Brodsky — all attain a kind of fitful vulnerability that startles and thrills. Green has credited Brodsky, along with Derek Walcott, with instructing her in her poetic “life-craft”; rescuing her, with language, from seclusion and mental illness. The book, completed in 2000, was never published; it’s a marvel to read a work like “A January Poem” and know that after nearly two decades it is finally seeing the light of day. The poem is dedicated to Brodsky, who died in 1996, and the idiosyncrasies of his personality and his friendship with Green feel alarmingly revived on the page.
There is a narrative, somewhat epic, element to some of the poems in Daphne in Morning as they adopt a classical elegiac form. In “A January Poem,” Green departs dramatically from her earlier pastoral and mythical re-tellings. Starting with the line “Joseph, I pounded on the studded door of the sky” the poem veers off into an evocative visit into Brodsky’s “smoky, book-lined room,” where she sees him playing cards at a green baise table, “chortling into your cognac.” Through the poem’s five sections, Green transports the reader through a throttling East Coast blizzard and into Europe, charting Brodsky’s flight from east to west. Geography set aside, the poem alights in the speaker’s bedroom:
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.
We sat all afternoon together
like some twentieth-century piéta —
two refugees consoling one another,
you in exile from your country,
I apart from myself.
In her mourning of Brodsky, Green constructs a clearer lens through which to view her own illnesses. Given the metaphysical separation of Brodsky’s death, Green is able to find a parallel between the late poet’s political exile and her own internal alienation. Without relying on ornament or allegory, Green’s preoccupation with the natural world is displaced by particular details that bristle with intimacy: a candle that “whispers into its glass hands;” “rose ogival windows;” “ten blue plastic male urinals.” The inevitability of Green’s mortality is palpable in the poem. The speaker feels
… the arrow of your going. Ahead of me, always from the crest
of a far-off dune you beckon, leading me, heartsore, teary,
into the future. How could the horizon curve away
When Brodsky was asked which American poets he admired, he spoke of Green’s “tremendous intensity and tremendous intelligence,” adding that “Virgil would be proud.” Green’s preoccupation with the elegiac form — and this is especially true in the elegies written for Brodsky — allows her to plumb deeply the subject of mortality, imparting the poems with an aura of urgency, clawing at life even as she describes it dwindling.
In the poems written after 2007, which comprise the last three sections of Magpiety, Green swerves away from the prescribed forms of her poetic forbearers and explores what she describes in the author’s note at the beginning of Magpiety, “a kind of fracture in the language.” This is evident in Fifty-Two, which is comprised of curious six-line poems that feature a sharp break after two and a half lines. She constructs a mini-helix, which, according to Green replicated “the sound of the snap of a Ticonderoga pencil:” There is a fresh sassiness to Green’s tone in Fifty-Two; she uses phrases such as “fuck-me pumps” and “the beaten flesh I kissed, blood’s deep music.” The poems are imbued with what seems like a reinvigorated determination to persist. Green’s dance with language turns into dervish, the poems elegant yet wild:
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 withes 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 a 2015 interview, Green spoke of poetry as the thinking of the body. She credited W.B. Yeats — the lush physicality of his work — with that sentiment, but her own work is a startling manifestation of it. Language’s ability to be imperfect and broken reflects the contemplation of her own body, broken and imperfect. This bending of new forms, that wonderful “fracture” in Fifty-Two, evidences a welcome progression, a poet continually evolving. It is impressive, maybe comforting, that Green’s voice throughout the collection coheres in spite of its dramatic evolution across almost three decades. What links them is a fixation on the existential “without,” a poet writing from the sequestered spaces of her own psyche. The unique isolation at the source of her voice resembles the shuttered but explosive urgency of an Emily Dickinson poem. Green insists on her separateness, keeping the reader at an endearing yet intimate distance:
Nourish me, anguish.
Carry me, fury.
Ford the river
of my terror.
(from “Reply to Styron’s Darkness Visible”)
In The Marsh Poems, the concluding section of the collection and Green’s most recent work, the perpetual image of water so central and beloved to the disquieted heart of the young poet matures into a denser, more saturated lyric reflection:
Me, trying to decline language onto canvas blank as tidal flats,
to open the estuary and fill the marsh’s mouth with song.
These long-lined, compact couplets exhibit Green’s heightened control. The “Me, trying to decline language” speaks to a push-pull throughout Magpiety between the poet and the craft that she credits with imparting her the will to persevere. Wonders of compression and lyric gravity, The Marsh Poems reveal a full-on struggle to come to terms not just with language, but with nature as a surrogate for the self:
Blood and flesh fly, flecks of it striping my hair and book. I shriek,
leaping up to slap off the gore, appalled—shocked to discover nature
could break in upon my reverie on nature. Suddenly, the afternoon’s
turned dark, an auguring darkness I can’t quite grasp, the phragmites
nodding by the dock as if to say, What did you think? Sharp pellets
of snow pierce my bare skin, and all at once, the marsh is unendurable.
(from “The First of January”)
If in earlier poems she dramatized nature, giving it an anthropomorphic, almost mythic quality, in the later works Green returns to the breakable, tenuous nature of the self: “The beach roses blaze./I’m sick and can’t live long. I want to soak my marrow/in this cauldron.” River turns to marsh. She watches “tidal pools darken;” she squints “at the marsh’s farthest edge.” There is a jaundiced quality in the voice, a poet renegotiating terms of grief and survival: “What if the animal heart begs for one more minute/fights for one more glimpse of day.”
As ever, the river. In Green’s poetry the river is a marker of continuity. It fractures the landscape while persisting, unable to stop. Through the course of the selected, it becomes clear that Green’s greatest accomplishment — and her cohering subject — is endurance, an endurance that exceeds description of illness and mortality and transforms them into fathomable, shareable forms. The poems suffuse quotidian objects with sensation. The poet transforms a New England landscape into song. Green offers us, in her poems, what one cannot often offer oneself: formal control in the midst of uncontrollability, a classical image etched into a crumbling, modern world. Green’s endurance, her “life-craft,” proves that poetry has at least one thing in common with survival: the need to be fearlessly attentive to our surrounding world. The poet returns to language as the river returns to its source, “the river’s rising song/Reviving us with mercy, in the water’s tongue.”
J. Mae Barizo is the author of The Cumulus Effect. A prize-winning poet and critic, she is the recipient of awards from Poets House, Bennington College, and the Jerome Foundation. She lives in New York City.