Magpiety [n. Affected Piety; Garrulity: most especially of the moral or religious persuasion.]
It was only June when I read “January,” one of the poems in the first section of Magpiety, but Melissa Green’s world is a consuming one. “In drifts, the muffled trees like soldiers shake their coats” the poem whispers, “A stand of minutemen, bareheaded, stamping for dawn.” By the time I read this last line, I was thoroughly chilled.
And so is the power and pull of all of Magpiety: from expertly rendered eclogues and long poems, epic-like in their presence, to the more scurried “new form” as Green dubbed it upon the publishing of Fifty-Two (fifty-two poems with two mirrored halves of two-and-a-half lines each with the first half containing the fancy and the second half containing the despair). Magpiety is a collection which, upon first blush, may appear varied in the extreme. Presented as it is, in sections charting the poet’s publishing life, a body of work spanning over twenty years, Magpiety has the right to be disjointed, though it never is. It’s clear that the collected poems have the same parent, but it’s also clear that some were born years apart. The themes evolve appropriately within: family-of-origin concerns and issues of emerging adulthood inherent in the work of a young poet are present early on and evolve to the lamentations of a middle-aged poet facing the probability that the opportunity for a traditional, idealized relationship and for children of her own, has passed. However, central to any one of the poems contained in the collection is the speaker’s sense of isolation. Clearly the speaker remains apart and behind a pane of ever-present glass as the world of her poems is richly admired, but beyond reach. That the poems are engrossing is a testament to Green’s knack for sumptuous details.
Some poets are gifted with a facility for language, or with unusual control, or with the unique camber of their lens; Green has all of these attributes. “I heard the apples softly letting go,” is the unusual beginning of “The Housewright’s Mercy,” its title a little archaic and sharp in its folkloric tone, bending the way we might otherwise respond should the poem be named “The Construction Crew’s Mercy.” The timber is ushered forward by her continuance of this tone, “ . . . a dream/ of cider filled the Nonesuch cheeks with rust./ They tumbled from her apron, fully grown.” Here, Green’s controlled crafting and use of assonance lends soft suggestion to the fable-like impression she’s cultivating. And the narrative strands hang like those apples lazily dropping the next and the next moment, propelling the poem.
She has also mastered the ability to create an engrossing, densely populated world. This particular poem is about a time when illness reduced the poet to a shuttered existence within the periphery of her brother’s home and is entwined with the sad and winsome history of a long-lived house which is in the midst of some extensive remodeling. The poet’s identity and function evolve throughout as a ghost or other fixture in the house, existing by haunting the lives of her family and the workers, “I sat alone, an anvil’s shadow, as/ five workmen pounded on my brother’s house.”
Melissa Green’s outsider identification is painfully authentic. She was diagnosed with a mental illness early on and spent periods of time in a psychiatric ward. Manic depression, Green’s diagnosis, doesn’t allow its victims to carry on with life, suffering it quietly. Instead, it forces its way into even the unforeseeable crevices of life until it consumes all. If writing is a solitary endeavor, being a writer with manic depression begets a ghostlike existence. Speaking of this difficult reality in a 2007 interview published in BU Today Green said, “I wrote a book, did some readings, and then retreated from the world, I stayed in the house for 20 years. I didn’t see people, didn’t know I had friends. I wasn’t able to make a living. I couldn’t take care of my house.”
Green’s battle with illness is evident in Magpiety from the beginning. The section titled “From The Squanicook Eclogues” features several moments of division in which the speaker finds herself parted from the assignation of normalcy or from the ideal, embodied here by her father. In “January” she writes, “My father solemnly believed a God could live . . . That daily-witnessed death could be outrun/ If once observed and written down.” And later in the same,
Beyond these mere symptomatic threads in the content, Green is completely in control technically within these eclogues; her imagery is tight-fisted even as the language is expansive: “Her ripening breast/ Is a thicket, bright with blood-berries, her body dressed/ In flame” she writes in “Fire.” Green chooses to focus the reader on the body evolving and blooming; and yet it’s contained in the tangle of “a thicket” and the saturated, roaring, red intensity implied by “blood-berries” and “In flame.” Each eclogue emerges deeply emotional but distilled and precise. In keeping with the conversive nature of the eclogue form, Green’s eclogues are addressed to her father, or more accurately, her understanding and perception of his actions and beliefs, “My father chose the iconography of trees/ Instead of church, and those Sundays served the Truce/of God.” The poems are suitably pastoral in the sense that they assume the posture of imparting a deeper, older more instinctual wisdom:
They highlight the push and pull between good and evil, represented here most often by nature which is both virtuous and ruthless. In these rich poems, Green rips back the curtain on both at once revealing this duality of nature just as it truly is and must be: “the shadblow’s white five-petaled stars have dropped in snow./ Elliptical burst of bright green chevrons fan the air.” Beyond this distant observational quality is a distinct overlay of a saddened helplessness.
The speaker is also complicit in her pain, though reluctantly so,“she knows she has chosen to burn/ at noon, as nature intends.” This is the dichotomy of a speaker whose illness creates compulsions and even a certain sense of reasoning that isn’t easily discarded, but the absurdity of which is also not lost on her. When the speaker in “October” recalls that her father told her “Don’t ever make things up. Write only what you see” we understand the greater significance of her response that “ . . . The task/ was how to write birch when I saw the crumbling, pale tusk/ Of a fallen mastodon bridging the path.”
In a poem that appears later in the collection she says, “Illness married me, first and forever.” Green accurately, though unusually, skews the relationship between sufferer and disorder. It’s a palpable hit and as with any point of injury, I felt compelled to return, to pick at those particular words over and over again. Moments like this pepper the collection but none so much as the section titled “from Daphne in Mourning.” “What a genius I have for confusion.” she writes in the leading poem, “A Sea Change.”
It is also in this section that Green’s great kinship with Nobel Laureate, Joseph Brodsky (Green was one of several translators of his Nativity Poems) is featured with many of the poems related to remembrances of their friendship and the death of the poet: “Joseph, I pounded on the studded door of the sky/with my palms, not believing you’ve closed it/ behind you forever . . .” It’s a formidable grief and great in its tribute to so great a poet who was, evidently, an important companion through the harshest losses.
My own writing, research, and personal history have cultivated an interest in poets afflicted with mood disorders. Indeed, much of Magpiety is relevant to my interests; besides Green’s diagnosis of manic depression and her long absences punctuated by the small volume of poetry here, the memoir there, her writing life became further complicated when treatment for her disease resulted in the loss of her memories of writing poetry, leaving her unable to write.
The poems included from Fifty-Two as well as some of those labeled “From the Marsh Poems” consist of those short, but lyrical, prose poems (called the “New Form” by Green) that further explore what it means to be an outsider. The identification of an outsider, a damaged or otherwise tainted woman with Mary Magdalen isn’t unique, but Green’s treatment of it is:
Her Magdalen is not repentant nor is she exactly brazen despite being described as ravaged, long fingered, and ragged. She is indignant, as befits a woman much maligned and seldom afforded anything approaching respect. The poems within these two sections feel a little like the predecessor of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets: just as acerbic but perhaps a shade darker and embracing the more bitter notes. In the same way that Bluets vaguely resembles an epistolary novel, the poems from Fifty-Two inhabit a space between personal correspondence and an enumeration of sins and misfortunes; exactly what one would expect from a person battling chronic illness and therefore prone to frequent the various stages of grief.
And then there is the quirky/curious cheek of the “Mad Maud” poems. “I once ran with milk-white legs,” Green writes in “Maud As Maid.” At this, the mid-point of Magpiety (though I believe these are the most recent poems chronologically) she is acknowledging from whence she’s come and what it took to get there, “through brambled greenwood/dancing stone by stone” she continues, “ . . . and the blood darkened and I heard breathing/ behind me under the oak a boar a wolf and I was caught between/ blood and blood.” This is the insistent pull of her work, something that could easily become maudlin assumes the grace of a Greek myth without pretension, because this speaker has earned it. We believe in her authenticity.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have moments of dry humor. In “A Museum Piece” she muses “I want flamenco/ two beaded McEwan’s Ales, a friendly fuck,/ not this painted canvas I’ve tried too hard to inhabit.” It’s an unyielding departure from Eclogues. Posits William Logan in Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue, “the Eclogues have become Elegies.” Further, he teasingly accuses Fifty-Two of being “a difficult book, often unappealing, at times overwritten.” Is it? What no one can dispute is that Green’s work and Magpiety in particular, is honest and fair. Within the bipolar spectrum everything from deep depression and crippling apathy may plague the sufferer. Logan unconsciously references the inevitable effects of such suffering, “These rueful, damaged poems present the uncomfortable portrait of a woman who has been to the edge.” Aren’t we okay with uncomfortable poems by now? I believe we are grateful, even rallied by them.