Review: Soundings: On the Poetry of Melissa Green
Soundings: On the Poetry of Melissa Green
"I’m hilarious! Yet people tiptoe around me so gingerly,” says poet Melissa Green in an interview for Soundings, published in 2016 by Arrowsmith Press. The collection does tiptoe—not so much in fear as in reverence. As editor Sumita Chakraborty stipulates, the book is meant to honor the poet and bring her work the attention that it has thus far been deprived. To some extent, the contributors’ solemnity precludes a full discussion of her humor. Instead, they focus on Green’s technical acuity and her ability to traverse the psychic landscape, while linking it to the New England scenery that her poetry often relates. The reverence is warranted.
But Melissa Green is actually funny. In fact, her poems are the best kind of funny, the kind where you have to laugh because otherwise you will cry. Consider: “trying to explain the pun in the line/‘Paradise—it’s nicer than Nice’” in Green’s elegy to her friend and mentor Joseph Brodsky, which ends with “I thought even language itself might be weeping.” As many of the essays explain in varying detail, Green's life has been choked with tragedies, not in the least how mental and physical illness, plus poverty, have relentlessly intercepted her writing. Much of her work talks about grief and death, but somehow the reasons why these are Green’s chosen subjects tend to overshadow the techniques she uses to deftly handle her material. It is Plathetic, really: Green’s work is of such high caliber, but her sanity is often commenters’ focus. I am doing it right now, for goodness sake.
Soundings presents several different types of responses to Green’s poetry. Karl Kirchwey has written a sonnet after Green’s “Enchantments,” while Annie Schulett Haber provides some flash fiction. But for the most part, the contributions are critical essays. The most enlightening pieces are those examining Green’s poetics. As many of the contributors point out, Green’s poetry has an extravagant and original musicality. David Rivard makes a good case for Green as an outlier from two recent major stylistic movements, LANGUAGE poetry, which he characterizes as experimentalism, and documentary poetics, indicated by meditative narratives. Green avoids these camps though her “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” (75). Carol Moldaw points out how Green creates a “perfectly balanced lyric poem” (37) out of opposing ideas: entrapment and escape, the prosaic and mythological subject, and even the richness of her writing style undercut by sudden sparsity.
Companion literature to Green’s poetry is a boon, not only because it helps us savor Green’s swift movements from one extreme to another, but because Green is extraordinarily well-versed in topics such as mythology and New England flora and fauna. Having someone else’s research on Green’s allusions on hand certainly makes it easier to more fully appreciate the poems. One example is Green’s unpublished collection The Heloise, based on the letters between Heloise and Abélard. The four of these poems printed in Magpiety: New and Selected Poems are riddled with inventful language Green adapted from archaic sources to mimic Heloise’s extraordinarily learned voice. Sven Birkerts gives a rigorous exegesis of the four published Heloise poems, explaining Heloise’s biography alongside the techniques Green uses to animate it. Besides Birkerts’ essay, much of Soundings leaves something to be desired, in terms of research. In the discussions of Green’s book Fifty-Two, there were no less than six repetitions of the same explanation that her inspiration for the book’s distinctive caesuras was “the sound of the snap of a Ticonderoga pencil.” It is an illustrative image, yes, but Green’s backstory (or maybe sidestory) is evidently so compelling that a discussion of some other anecdote about the poetics in Fifty-Two would not go astray.
The interview with Green herself rounds out the commentaries, giving us Green's perspective on her process, as well as a lengthy explanation of her love for Pinterest and Netflix. Most interestingly, the interview offers an opportunity for Green to talk about the influence of her illness on her writing and the reception of her work. Green shows some doubt about the benefits of her willingness to speak about her mental illness, considering how the conversation on Sylvia Plath has gone. Because it is such a frank discussion, the interview is one of the meatier engagements with Green’s poetry. The conversation about Green’s love of different art forms, which she fervently catalogs on Pinterest, also illuminates her poetry, though a more explicit connection between these topics would be helpful.
One of the clearest examples of Green's health and her writing colliding is when she says she "lost language" after undergoing electroshock therapy for her severe depression. Unfortunately, Soundings puts little pressure on what Green might mean by "lost language". Though several contributors bring up this event, readers are on their own to decide exactly which part of language (speech? vocabulary? musicality?) it was that Green lost then thankfully regained. Such an experience must have been horrifying, especially for a poet; this is the one case where it could be really worthwhile to get into the painful details of Green’s mental health in order to better understand her poetry and process. Unfortunately, this topic does not get its due.
The hesitancy to tease out Green's lost language might be what she identifies as the ginger tiptoe around her Well, perhaps not simply around her. Soundings is an attempt rectify the fact that literary limelight has sidestepped Green for too long. As an introduction to Melissa Green, Soundings is excellent. All the contributors write so highly of Green’s abilities that we must be interested in reading her work for ourselves. (At the very least, Soundings can count among its successes that I would not have read Magpiety without its recommendation.) More dedicated Green fans, who want to read more than someone agreeing with them, might have to look elsewhere. But the contributors to Soundings are definitely right to claim we all ought to seek out more Melissa Green.
Mary Germaine lives in Newfoundland, Canada.