One of the first rooms at the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam houses a collection of his self-portraits and a timeline of his life. During van Gogh’s first two years in Paris, he painted 28 self-portraits. A wall text states that they “were not meant to show what he was like, but were exercises in colour, brush-work, and facial expression.”
A parallel distinction holds true for poetry — although even everyday language mistakes the author for the art, as in the question, “Have you read Lynn Melnick?” While no one would expect van Gogh’s eyebrows to be blue in reality, it’s easy to forget that the writer and the poem’s speaker are not the same. The speaker is a creation of language, what poet Mary Jo Bang has described as “a construct — sometimes a type, sometimes a ventriloquist’s doll dressed in clothes hand-sewn by the poet.”
The conflation of the poetic utterance and the author can be further complicated if the poet writes in the long shadow of confessionalism, a movement begun in the 1950s in which the boundary between private and public life was brought into question by poems that spoke explicitly about subjects such as relationships, mental health, and sex. Lynn Melnick’s poetry — particularly its themes of sexual abuse, rape culture, violence, sex work, and drug use — push the same boundary between public and private. Melnick has said, “I write about myself. And, yes, things were rough there for a while. But poetry is art, and I get to change details and employ metaphor and get kind of crazy with reality and thought.” So what’s wrong with thinking the real Lynn Melnick speaks in these poems? The problem with confusing poetry and biography is that, at best, the reader (or audience member at a reading) assumes intimate knowledge of the author that isn’t accurate; at worse, he or she assumes actual intimacy. Or the reader forgets the artistry entirely.
In Lynn Melnick’s Landscape with Sex and Violence, twenty-two of the poem titles follow the “Landscape with X and Y” formula — for example, “Landscape with Thesaurus and Awe”; “Landscape with Citrus and Centuries”; “Landscape with Fangs and Seaweed.” Another twelve poems are interspersed between the landscapes with titles like “One Sentence about Los Angeles,” “Historical Accuracy,” and “Some Ideas for Existing in Public.” By using painting as an organizing principle, the seemingly autobiographical details are likened to brushwork, helping the reader separate the work from the artist. The “I” in these poems is representational, yes, but we can see the poems for what they are: fragments of experience threaded through an artistic vision.
Melnick’s speakers, in this book and her debut collection, If I Should Say I Have Hope (YesYes Books, 2012), are conversational and intimate — though in her debut, the grammar and word choices occasionally spiral out, creating a centrifugal force. Take, for example, the poem “Amusing or Diverting, Not Such Fun,” which includes such lines as, “It is occasion why we’re here” and “Oh look little one you have grown to older.” In a poem that has “a twisted heat and moan / roting words crookedly to trance me,” language crumbles under the pressure of not wanting a body, “not with what’s inside.” In these instances, the poetic diction carries the emotional heft of the poems.
Landscape with Sex and Violence, on the other hand, maintains a conversational tone throughout. It weaves a complicated web of devastation, too, but the force of its feeling turns centripetal, with the titles pulling everything toward the central theme of landscapes. One of the book’s epigraphs comes from Jared Farmer
In “She’s Going to Do Something Amazing,” we catch bits of narrative — the “she” in the story is “running from something // so violent // that when it catches her she ends up here / standing up slowly, blood still trickling down into her sock.” Right after being discharged from the hospital,
She passes each of the neat houses with red shingles
near the hospital in the posh part of town
and as she moves further away
the shingles take on an ashen color
the color of steak when it first starts
to move beyond bloody
It’s the color of the newly dying, is what she’s trying to say.
It’s the color of the world with all the bodies dying.
The whole of the story is not clear, and doesn’t need to be. What’s important is the anguish writ all over the landscape. Throughout this book, landscapes and their inhabitants are fused; whatever the central character’s experience, it is reflected back by the surroundings.
In literary terms, projecting feeling onto inanimate objects is called pathetic fallacy. The use of this technique electrifies the background with feeling, but it also represents a kind of abandonment: if the female subject is ignored — “while anyone could witness rot writ all over my blighted arrangement, / no one stepped in” — then the speaker sinks into and becomes one with the scenery. In Landscape with Sex and Violence, as with van Gogh’s self-portraits, the whole canvas pulsates.