Knock by Melissa Atkinson Mercer. Half Mystic Press (2018, 70 pages). $15, paperback. $7, digital.
Half Mystic Press’s first book, written by Melissa Atkinson Mercer, is bewitching, full of pitch and portents. One stumbles in and is caught in its spell…or is it curse? Knock uses elements of both, gathering its earthy ingredients (“my tongue is turbulent with acanthus, with bloodroot, with a pig’s mudded hoof” in “she says: these are my lungs”) and mixing them with ritual and the conjured voices of dead poets.
On the table of contents, a formula is laid out: six steps to “cure” depression (the first of which is “they cut out your tongue”), split into three parts. Braided into these steps are three definitions for knock, all verbs, all with agency: “to produce a noise,” “to gain entry,” and “to collide.”
When the tongue is removed, one must find other means of communication, and a knock can be so many things: forceful, tentative, sinister, urgent, and deliciously eerie. What is it about noise divorced from body—unexplained bumps in an empty house, scratching at a windowpane on a dark night—that gives one such a chill? That shiver up the spine lies at the heart of this collection where, behind each poem, there is an incessant, unsettling tap, tap, tap.
In the title poem, the cursed speaker says, “If I could be loud enough, if incessant, the door might truly open.” But as each section unfolds, instead of the door opening, who is knocking seems to shift. The speaker seems to exist on both sides of the door, an uncomfortable impasse. To be cursed is to be trapped, after all. Frustrated movement ebbs and flows poem by poem until the landscape seems to vibrate, and the speaker’s occasional calmness in the face of it deepens the chill. The poem “love was the thing i wanted to say” begins with a house filling with water, the speaker inside. Time passes, and the speaker eventually becomes a fish, and “the walls turned black with eyes.” Yet instead of alarm, the speaker says, almost casually, “There was nothing so unpleasant…”.
The speaker exists in a dissociative state, sometimes more beast or object than human, other times divorced from her parts, from voice itself: “I found my tongue singing in a pail of waste” (“the first cure for depression…”). The cure for the speaker’s “sickness of the tongue” is biblical (Matthew 5:30, KJV: “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee”) and performed outside our frame of view by faceless beings. Mercer’s cutting and mixing in clips and lines from poets who committed suicide feels almost like a reclamation, cut-out tongues singing through this collection like the speaker’s own disembodied tongue, stubbornly hard to silence.
The loss of voice doesn’t stop the speaker’s yearning. She projects it (knock, knock) onto everything around her. The animals take up her thirst: “I taught them, the thirsty pigs, lifting their hooves to fence posts: one, two, three & again, darlings, again” in “knock.” And as others try to tame the speaker, their shaping a form of violence, so too do images, words, and objects contain a wisp of violence: “Storms grew on the black lake, cracking it like marble. We plucked out the cotton sky” (“mother, ice storm”).
As these lines show, Mercer skillfully juxtaposes images, building tension and deepening connections. In the first poem, which is also the first cure, the mountains made from the “tongues of women buried for the sin of lust” collide with the father who “cuts the tongues from goats before the feast.” Sitting as they do, the father figure and the women are connected, the father’s violence a shadow that looms and echoes forward. The women, tongueless, become goatlike.
Indeed, the women’s and speaker’s human form eludes them: they are birds, beasts, cyclops, trees, fish, elephants. This shapeshifting (mimicked by form as the poems flow into prose and back) sometimes seems like power, sometimes curse, sometimes both. In “xiv” of “to gain entry,” the speaker says, “my sea-born blood is a cathedral’s light / dreamlike ferocity a snake skin / shimmered beneath the wet leaves.” In “oh where to begin,” the speaker asks, “Lord, preserver of man & beast, who may I ask has been tasked with my unimaginable body…?”
The speaker is often acted upon, and even when she makes the move herself, her actions are almost always self-defeating…or self-mutilating. In “what do you remember of before,” the speaker says, “I’ll dig a grave & climb inside.” This self-immolation is echoed in the recurring womb, which is “Verboten,” whether by the speaker’s choice or another’s. Perhaps the womb is the key to breaking the inherited curse: “While my own mother lives, you could not speak at all. That was the curse we chose” (“too emphatic,”). In this way, the speaker is indeed “apocalypse.”
This multilayered collection weaves the reader in with every image, every shift, until the reader is left disoriented, existing on multiple levels, an ear there, a tongue here. The reader is both the one who hears the knock and the one knocking. Also the knock itself. Also the door. Also the one who opens it. Also the one who leaves. What pieces might be left behind?
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