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?
A Portrait in Blues: An anthology of identity, gender & bodies
Selected and introduced by jayy dodd. Platypus Press (2017, 80 pages). $16, paperback.
Reading A Portrait in Blues is like falling into the hush of a winter night, the path back disappearing under snow as the landscape begins to transform. There’s a chill on the air and the threat of getting lost, but there is also Polaris, brighter against the deep blue.
This is not to suggest a constant. This anthology is about bodies—be they star, planet, land, water, animal, poem, or our own, ever-changing forms—and is the body ever constant? Even Polaris is getting smaller, its pulse rate decreasing. Stars, too, experience death. But can a body ever really be defined, either by where and when it begins or when it ends? At the same time, bound by so many forces, can it ever truly be free? These are questions the poems in this anthology ask in voices that are vulnerable and sharp and soaked in blue.
jayy dodd, who selected the poems, says in their introduction: “I’m curious to what we make of ourselves under limitations— it feels easier to transcend when you can point to the barriers of your departure.” These are bodies departing, transforming, yearning, grieving—bodies testing their limitations and relating to other bodies. In Logan February’s “Self-Portrait as Cotyledon,” “A tree falls in the forest & / I am the forest & nothing stops shaking.” jayy dodd speaks to this web of connection: “Our landscapes, bodily & otherwise, don’t exist in vacuums.” So many times in this anthology I drop off a line, and the earth shifts.
The moon, that body whose outfit of light allows it constant transformation, makes several appearances, and powerfully so in Koby Liliana Omansky’s “The Tenderness Intended This”: “Where was this moon when I searched for her? That same night? / Could this laughing, monstrous opulence, / larger than light, be the same tepid sphere I saw / shattered behind a tree, full with shame?” In “No Recital,” Peter LaBerge casts the heart in shadow with “I’m giving / Being the moon a try” and “Moon: please begin / Again.”
These are writers who seem ever conscious of the body, and to be ever conscious of the body, is to be conscious of it changing and dying every moment it’s living. Regret lives here, complicated with gratitude, as seen in Laura Villareal’s “Apology”: “Body, I want to bury you / in fresh, out-of-the-dryer blankets. / Let you bathe in green tea & sunflowers. / I haven’t been good to you.” And assertion complicated by doubt, as in John Stintzi’s “Split /”: “yes, I know as much as you do, / am certain only of uncertainty.” Strength, complicated by tenderness, as in Jonathan Bay’s “Beginning”: “Part of me is always / that beating heart / those weak lungs.”
These poems remind us “how complex we are” (Emmanuel Oppong-Yeboah, “the thing expressed”) at the same time jayy dodd reminds us how fragile: “The semi-permeances of the body, physically & beyond, makes all it experiences susceptible to bruising. Flesh blues when ruptured.” These poems, this anthology blues, bruises, and ruptures. It is a deep ache, the kind that reminds you just how alive—and briefly so—you are.
Alex Rieser on Blood Lyrics
Katie Ford. Graywolf Press (Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2014, 62 pages). $16, paperback.
Some books of poetry begin slowly in teaching you how they will operate, as if creating you as a reader. Often this is the case with project books, bound by their own generative constraints. Katie Ford’s Blood Lyrics is not one of these as the text opens into the sudden agony of its occasion. The world upends when even a healthy child is born; the utter familiarity of everything exists. For the narrator of Blood Lyrics, on the event of a preterm birth, it would seem that the world continues to spin until a complete 360 degree turn leaves it uninhabitable: “I nightmared/ far from her/ my body/ her empty tomb” (“Sleep and Her Ache,” 12).
There is no dancing around the subject here. Nobody is tugging at the reaper’s coat tails and running the other direction. These poems stand erect, eyes locked upon the brutality of this new world that seems as empty to its narrator as her prematurely vacated womb.
Ford captures the fog of unknowing. There’s a horribleness that won’t cease to permeate, as when a loved one has a terminal illness and the updates come of their condition: “Our sorrow had neither place nor carrier-away,/ and dared not hover over the child” (“Children’s Hospital,” 10). And our narrator is stuck there, hovering, floating, attempting to define what her child is and unable to lay a definition down, like a warm blanket, over her.
It’s difficult to read such direct work and resist using the word raw to describe it. Where Charles Olson sought proprioception these poems are as well wrought with the body. Where Garcia Lorca sought the duende, his demon of the earth, Ford’s Blood Lyrics is punctuated by bracketed songs that contain such substance: “[Oh where has our meadow gone?/ … I sing of hell/ and the brutal body.]” (“Children’s Hospital,” 11).
But it isn’t all reaction. As the struggle continues it seems to re-write this narrator whose voice remains uniform but whose personality becomes a palimpsest of philosophical and spiritual suffering. I love when a complicated sentence pulls itself off, and Ford’s prose poem “The Four Burns of the Soul” is an exciting example of this: “Whether to believe there is an unbearable distance or to imagine no distance, thereby feeling a proximity lifting oneself into that which is both imagined and is, or imagined and is not, or not imagined and is, or not imagined and is not” (56). One emerges from that sentence viscerally, almost dizzily.
This philosophy is part of the larger structure of the book that itself seems to go through a series of reserved regret, mourning a death that might not happen. It is through this lens of liminality that the book looks beyond the suffering of the self and to the pain of humanity at large, believing perhaps that there is no distance between her suffering and the broader body of it. Where the book’s first section “Bloodline” takes place in the children’s hospital and hovers there, the second section entitled “Our Long War” confronts what is or is not imagined of the cruelty that dying or not dying brings. In the book’s final section, containing only a single poem, Ford creates the link:
When I looked up from her hospital crib
to see the wider world, could I help it
if I saw a war?
Now I look out from the nursery window–
first a birch tree, then rowhomes, the city, the country, the world—
still the war widens… (“From the Nursery,” 61 & 62)
The experience of the near death of the child has rewritten the language that the narrator of these poems is able to use and the images that she is able to see. When one is forced to struggle for such a time that struggle occupies language and thinking. Until it inhabits the very blood from which lyrics flow. This is the modus of this excellent collection.
Alex Rieser is the author of the chapbook Emancipator (New Fraktur Press, 2011) and has internationally published poetry, fiction, interviews, and criticism. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Cossack Review, The Portland Review, Paris Magazine, The Prague Review, Five Quarterly, and many others. He holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco, where he served as Chief Art & Poetry editor for Switchback. He currently lives in San Diego, CA with his wife and son.