Saturday, November 26, 2016

Impressions from a Melissa Green reading

As the December 2016 release of Soundings, a collection of essays concerning the work of poet Melissa Green, approaches, a lot of us here in Boston, and ever further afield in the literary community, are thinking once again, appreciatively, of the work that Green has produced over the years.

Here below, I reproduce a blog essay published online back in 2012 and in the Autumn 2013 issue of The Charles River Journal. I offer it as another testament to the impression that Green and her work has left upon readers (or in this case, a reader -- me.) - ZB

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Fred Marchant, introducing Melissa Green as the first of two readers at a literary evening sponsored by the Suffolk University Poetry Center on February 2, 2012, said of her most recent book-length publication, Fifty-Two: "Such an amazing little book. I wish we could all pitch in five dollars each, right now, and republish it again." I happen to know these poems well, and couldn't agree more: how fine it would be if Arrowsmith Press would hear the demand and do another hundred or two hundred copies. I was in the audience at the reading in 2007 when a veritable pageant of renowned poets -- Derek Walcott, David Ferry, Lucie Brock-Broido, Frank Bidart, Rosanna Warren, fifteen writers in total -- turned out for "A Tribute to Melissa" to celebrate the publication of Fifty-Two. The readers were there to honor the beauty and brilliance of Melissa Green's work, and to celebrate the appearance of another collection after she'd been a long time silent on the page. We'd had to order our copies in advance, and I gave away one of the two copies I'd bought for myself to my friend Daniel Pritchard (now Evans Pritchard), who hadn't reserved one in time. Oh, I hope he appreciated that gift! For the book sold out that evening, and it now commands a commendable price in the catalogs of fine booksellers, if you can find it at all.

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"One of the country's best writers..." // "Melissa Green is a contemporary, world-class poet who writes timeless poetry." // "Melissa Green is one of the most original and gifted poets writing today." // "Melissa Green is simply a wonderful poet. Her language and her imagery are poignant and extremely original." -- testimonies from an online petition asking American publishers to reissue Melissa Green's previously printed books.

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Cover of Green's 2010
collection, Fifty-Two.
Click here to read a
sample poem, "Library".
How resplendent Melissa the poet looked that night when she finally walked to the lectern to read from her work, steadied by a cane, clothed in royal purple. What else do I remember about that night? How the evening's impresario, Meg Tyler, waited patiently for the crowd to calm itself so she could open the event with a few words of welcome and introduce the first speaker; how the auditorium hushed save for one voice near the front: Derek Walcott, turned in his seat, chatting hospitably, with those seated behind him in the second row. Finally he noticed Tyler's presence, perhaps cued by his seatmates who with bemused low hisses were trying to get his attention. And here's what he said as he cut his conversation short and turned right way round: "As the Shakespearean actor said: 'What is the play? Where is the stage?'"

Back to last week's reading at Suffolk. Fred Marchant described briefly the unique form of the poems in Fifty-Two: short lyrics, neat and even and well-made, as I think of them, as Shaker boxes, but each split into two halves by a break -- as crisp as a pencil snapping; as decisive as the sound that startles a body out of dreaming reverie. The first half of each poem portrays, as if the present, a moment in youth when one was looking ahead to a life full of promise, to a future full of love, companionship, comfort. The second half, in the true present, looks back upon the years that have passed to tally another way in which hope did not bear fruit. If there can be a beauty in sadness, Green's poems are beautifully sad.

Cover of the German
translation of Melissa Green's
memoir, Color is the Suffering
of Light
(1995, Norton).
She read two sets of poems. The first was a series of miscellaneous lyrics, in her characteristically rich language: "Phi" (published in the first issue of Little Star); "Chrismaria," taking its name from the kind of casket or jar that holds the sacramental chrism of the Catholic church; "Nearing Winter", in which featured the feather-topped marsh plants called phragmites; "Prophecy", a poem drawing on the seascape and seabirds of Winthrop, as well as Virginia Woolf's having feared for her sanity when once she heard the birds singing in ancient Greek; and, the third poem in this landscape triptych, "First Snow", in which the sky and salt-spray and sea are laid over one another with all the enthusiasm for layering of a Renaissance artist. The last piece in this first movement of her reading was a war poem titled "Casualty", dedicated to the poet and translator David Ferry.

For the second movement, Green read a clutch of poems from a sequence concerning the tragic circumstances of Mad Maud, a mythical street woman in long-ago England and her love, Poor Tom O' Bedlam. Tom, Green explained, the critic Harold Bloom thinks must have fallen out of Shakespeare's folio, a part-mad, part-gypsy, part-wise fool figure named after the London asylum, St. Mary of Bethlehem. There's a famous poem which tells the story of Poor Tom -- and of course, his name and fate are used in the ravings of Edgar out on the moor in "King Lear" -- but of his beloved Maud, less is written. In her Maud poems, then, Green is giving flesh and voice to a woman who has been for so long not much more than the shadow of a myth.

The Maud poems form a sequence; I won't name them all, but I will quote a few lines and mention a few images which stuck in my ear as Green told the story of Mad Maud at the river, Mad Maud and the swans, Mad Maud's four dreams, Mad Maud's song. They knit together in a fabric of tattered, desperate longing for refuge and love:
A horse-drawn sledge of brick in the mud, a child buried in the foundation of the pier, his "weep, weep, like a little wind"; "When he fled, my Tom, he trod upon the stars, and put the morning out"; the lovers clinging to each other at the water's edge, and a swan bearing down upon them, his breast furrowing the water like a prow, then rising into the air with his white wings spread wide, like an emblem of protection or sanctity; "soaring toward the day-moon from the radiant Thames"; "he sees not me, but I think a succubus!"; "there are lovers living yet that lie together"; Maud shivering with a nither in the night air, imagining the mawk's eating out her heart; "blood bracken takes the woods"; "when Tom is from me I cry"; Maud looking for her Tom, heart-sick, though he is once again in the asylum while she is on the streets; Maud speaking of he trees: "I heard their singing boughs"; beside the ivied trees, beneath the theater of the moon.

"Nither" (to shiver with cold) and "mawk" (maggot) are not words we use today; but are given renewed currency in Green's verse. These rescued terms are the latest in Green's ongoing replenishment of the word-hoard -- her as-yet unpublished book-length sequence Akeldama, based on the romance and tragic outcome of Heloïse and Abélard, returns many forgotten words to the language -- a glossary of some of these -- including dimmet, skyme, wistness, and other darlings -- appears in the September 2009 issue of The Charles River Journal, along with an author's note and selection of text from the book. [email the Press to request a PDF of those pages]

Let us hope that the Maud poems, as well as all those in Akeldama, make their way into print soon, and from there to bookshops, and from those shelves to readers' hands.

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Really, this post is only the impressions of part of a reading. I'm sorry I could not stay to hear the second poet of the evening, Tom Sleigh. I have long appreciated his writing in print, though I have not heard him read it in person. One of my favorite poems of his is "New York American Spell, 2001", in his collection Far Side of the Earth (2005, Houghton Mifflin). Look at how he ranges between modes in different sections of this long poem, from "Under my tongue is the mud of the Nile, / I wear the baboon hide of sacred Keph" to "A woman hugging another woman / Who was weeping blocked the sidewalk." Great.

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Melissa Green's first collection, The Squanicook Eclogues (1988, Norton), was brought back into print in 2010 by my Boston-based publisher, Pen & Anvil Press, and is available for purchase at the press website,, and Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Mass.

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NB, on the German translation of Green's memoir: How serendipitous that "Glas", glass, is also glas, "green" in Irish Gaelic. Both the fragile heart of glass, and the heart of Green.

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