From the first poem in Magpiety to the last, it’s obvious that language is a matter of life or death for Melissa Green. Every detail is perceived not just with clarity but in motion, whether it’s the birds foraging a resurrected field in “April” that strike “like fired shafts from a branch’s shuddering bow,” or the “woolly shoulders” of clouds “colliding in confusion” in “Sojourn’s End.” Throughout her collected poems, Green brings immense pressure to bear on every line—what she calls in her introduction “torque,” and which describes the movement of a spirit that responds to the world with painful frankness and breathtaking lyricism.
Magpiety is composed of selections from Green’s published and unpublished work. The Squanicook Eclogues, issued by Norton in 1987, won the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America and a Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets. What followed, after a year of hospitalization and, in 1994, Green’s memoir, were decades of unpublished poems, represented here by sections from Daphne in Mourning, The Heloise, and Magpiety. In 2008, Arrowsmith Books brought out a limited edition of Fifty–Two (try to find a copy if you can; it sold out before its publication party). Selections from The Marsh Poems, Green’s most recent work, round out the volume.
“The Squanicook Eclogues” introduces Green’s formally inventive six-beat line and deeply sensual imagination. In the title sequence, Green eulogizes her father by animating the natural world he loved; she manages this as sure-handedly as one of the gods of classical myth she often alludes to. A willow becomes “a yellow prairie sundress, fat/with catkins, a woman in a rocker shelling beans.” Foxglove “in her petticoat” is “an indolent cotillion girl who tosses gold/From her shoulders….” A river’s thaw becomes “a fierce quicksilvering of winter’s crusted dyke;” Green’s art is just as fierce and full of drive, a force of nature itself.
Somber subjects emerge from driven language. Elegy is a frequent mode in Magpiety. “A January Poem” mourns Joseph Brodsky and includes the most touching and tender details I’ve read about the exiled poet, who visits her sickbed “with all late summer in [his] arms,/a vast bouquet…” then sits quietly with her for hours. Equally moving are elegies for lives thwarted or unhinged, the living death of “Daphne is Mourning” “Leda, Later,” and Abelard’s Heloise. But the greatest thief of life is Green’s ongoing depression. “Reply to Styron’s Darkness Visible” is Green’s “Having It Out With Melancholy;” after electroshock therapy, Green returns to her coffee shop, muffin, and Boston Globe as Kenyon does to her pink-fringed hollyhocks, desk, and chair.
But Green’s experiences as a working-class writer differ from those of Kenyon (or of Robert Lowell, who also wrote about manic-depression). Green, in “At the Steps of the Widener Library,” stands “unenrolled, smarts not trumping class./ I type at Toyota…to keep my bed in a halfway house…” This and the other six-line poems that comprise Fifty-Two mark a change in form and tone, with the sharp caesura between third and fourth line—what Green calls, in her introduction, “a fracture of the language”—meant to sound like “the snap of a Ticonderoga pencil.” Each poem reveals a small, packed drama with a bitter resolution. The happy family in “A Saltbox in Vermont,” holiday table “groaning/with our work: vegetables, poetry merriment.//…never happened.” The books in “Library,” “each a clearing, a glade, a birch grove/where goddesses, governesses, girls like me frolic forever,” turn on her, becoming, after the caesura, “…only panes of glass on loved worlds/denied me.” The lush bounty of “Farmer’s Market,” exquisitely full of “rainy gold splashes on pomegranates and pears,/ pregnant women whose arms are abundant with bundles and babies”—the joy of saying those words aloud!—shrinks to a “bag of bitter oranges.” Fifty-Two is a merciless book, with barely a pane of glass between the writer’s suffering and the reader’s apprehension. We’re with the poet in the maw of despair; we watch her spin, from the straw of experience, a gold standard of language that heightens every sense.
Magpiety concludes with selections from The Marsh Poems. Her broken line is mended; poems composed of four to sixteen couplets may end with rhyme, or not. The language feels more relaxed, though the torsion of struggle remains. In “Gambits,” words that enter Green’s body as “gold chessman/carved of flame” shape-shift into an uncontrollable “burst of wings, fins, talons, eyeteeth, beaks;” in “Foundering,” she’s trying “to decline language onto canvas blank as tidal flats.” There are signs of spiritual battle here as well. In “At the Marsh,” heat after rain touches Green as “a radiant benediction.” In “Christmarium,” the prayer “Mea culpa” immediately follows, “I’ve forgotten all the prayers I ever knew.” The face of the Virgin on “Madonna Hill” seems scarred with grief and “deeply suffused with love,” but Green questions whether “her gaze ever find those shredded curtains like ghostly sails/Luffing in the… crumbling Seaman’s Mission?” Doubt may suffuse the writer’s will to believe, but there’s no doubt that Melissa Green is back after having been “awhile away.”
I’m guessing the book’s title alludes to Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, with its definition of “a magpie heart…a flight/ that always renews just when coming down.” Such definition also applies to small presses and journals that keep poetry buoyant—Agni, posting a section of “The Squanicook Eclogues” on its website in 2008; Pen and Anvil Press, which reprinted all of Squanicook and published a chapbook of poems from Daphne In Mourning; and of course Arrowsmith Books for Fifty-Two and now Magpiety. Blessed be.