Poetry News

To Be Well Used: Melissa Green's Magpiety

By Harriet Staff


J. Mae Barizo reviews Melissa Green's Magpiety: New and Selected Poems, published by Arrowsmith Press this past fall. At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Barizo recalls Marie Howe’s blurb for Magpiety, in which she writes, “These are poems written by a survivor, a poet, a woman pulled back to life by 'savior language.'” How so:

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”)

Read it all at LARB.