Tuesday
Jun032014

rendezvous

By Todd Melicker


 

Rescue Press
November 2013
978-0988587328

Reviewed by Caroline Goodwin


 

Todd Melicker's rendezvous is a drop of water on clean glass. Within its dome, under the surface tension, the laws of the universe are in motion, the atom is splitting and binding, and the simultaneous processes of creation and destruction are illuminated by fragments of a delightful music.

First of all, it's a neat 5 x 7 inches in size, perfect for the backpack or even the pocket, so readers can carry it around with them everywhere if they'd like. That's what I do. The cover is made of that matte paper with a surface that feels like tanned rabbit hide, and the cover image of an enormous cloud (one of those clouds that looks like a city forming over the Great Plains) spills from the back around the spine and onto the front. It's a boiling cloud, lacy-edged and awe-inspiring. Blue and white, colors that recur throughout the poems, become black and white when you open the book to the inside cover, where the cloud and sky are mirrored. Here is the first rendezvous: the day sky and the night sky back-to-back.

The table of contents, clear and evocative, contains a refrain: the word 'nautilus.' The first, third, fifth, seventh, and ninth sections of the book all bear this title. I see the empty mollusk shell with its progressive, logarithmic spiral of chambers: pearly, iridescent, mathematical. I also see the living nautilus: a cephalopod that uses a mode of camouflage called "countershading"—when seen from above it blends in with the dark water below, and when seen from below it's nearly all white, to mimic the bright waters near the surface. All five poem sequences entitled 'nautilus' are prose poems of 5-6 lines, pushed to the bottom of the page, piled under the strata of white space. I think of Leslie A. Fiedler's 1951 introduction to Simone Weil's Waiting for God, where he asserts that part of Weil's thought includes the idea that "The vertical is forbidden to us because the world is the province of gravity and dead weight (pesanteur). The whole universe, as we know it through the senses and the imagination, has been turned over by God to the control of brute mechanism, to necessity and blind force, and that primary physical law by which all things eternally fall." I was reminded of this when I began rendezvous, which starts at the bottom of the page:

the slow descent, that is, there he is going out white. of course, there
is another street of colors that are lovers. between them, a series of
traffic signs and the compartment for sun stained maps. regarding
the making of air requires taking the shortest distance. an absence
of quantity defines the flight of the asterisk. there is a shed in the
backyard. a place for shovels.

Melicker is conspiratorial in tone, which makes me ready to roll (yes, I'm easy). I've shown up at the appointed time and I am willing to be taken down the stairs, past the traffic signs; I very much want to follow the old maps, the shortest distance between two points, straight to the shed out back. I am willing because I want to believe Melicker here, I want to believe that there is indeed another street of colors that are lovers. I hear an echo in the room, and I am ready to pick up a shovel and join the search.

Quickly, however, the animate and the inanimate become conflated and confused. Street lamps come "into their leaves" and are capable of drinking. "She" arrives in the third poem, but the clouds she loved "bluely move through her body." There is a timekeeper (the sea), and "he" (the descending figure of the first poem) is also at the party, leaning over in the shower while leaves clog up the drain. These are the leaves of light, the leaves of the storm, erosion, environmental disaster. Hang on to your shovels, Melicker seems to say. We've got a lot of work to do, and it's worth a try, although it just might be too late. One way to find out: let's dig! 

The next section, entitled "day collects," is composed of sixteen numbered lyric fragments. Reading this section, I am simultaneously delighted and disturbed. The sounds are lovely and strange to my ear, the cuts and leaps in sense are challenging to me, and the playful echo chambers provide movement and surprise. Melicker asks "what is a person, but?" and later transforms the word "soggy" into "sorry":

light to write the line as
thin, the poem collects itself soggy. what potential but
sorry. could the sun make up for? promise to be
better next time? regret: the
blue tree. the occurrence of lower case
letters. my name's always one letter from death, always

Here, I am asked to consider the possibility that even the sun possesses agency, right next to the blue tree. I am also asked to see the poem as the day, as the water drop, as the collection plate: images which comfort me. But how can all this be happening at once? In the world of this book, where everything is water, there exists the relentless push and pull, the extravagance of nature, so anything can happen at once, of course (of course!). This is the beauty and genius of Melicker's voice, and a central concept in rendezvous. Everything is always meeting and parting, and we are, all of us, at all times, "one letter from death." 

Next, another "nautilus" takes us underground, where "land sets loose from the dock" and "an earth peels from its shell to unfurl its tentacles." Islands, salt water, steeples, and spirals; the voice collects and evaporates. I think of Dylan Thomas and what the critic John Goodby calls the "process poetic" in his new book Under the Spelling Wall, asserting that Thomas:

was keenly aware of the inter-involvement of world and word. At its most vatic, this meant appropriating the majestic rhythms and tones of John 1:1, itself an echoing of Genesis. Having audaciously rewritten the creation myth in his own processual terms in the first four stanzas of "In the beginning," Thomas declared:

In the beginning was the word, the word
That from the solid bases of the light
Abstracted all the letters of the void;
And from the cloudy bases of the breath
The word flowed up, translating to the heart
First characters of birth and death.

In many ways, Melicker is making the same assertions: that we are re-born daily, that we move about from the cloudy bases of our breath, and that our words, like our bodies, necessarily flow up from the sea. Melicker moves into the section entitled rendezvous: one like this:

rendezvous: we put ourselves on in the morning
            that is, a shirt

this ark & ask
of you
                                                i have such fear of separating         
                                                into

the more sun
the same sun

This section contains nine different rendezvous scenarios, written fragments with a lot of white space in between bits of language, which contain such coined words as "the animals' / wornmark" and wordplay like "derived from the / given up / divine etcetera cover over / being / by division / & being given / your slung / song." This kind of wordplay and cellular mutation exists throughout the book, and gives the reader a sense of pleasure and lightness, which then inevitably loops back to the stark presence of death.

For example, Melicker (like Thomas) is concerned with earth and soil: "the soil coiled in a cup. a soil culled in a bowl." And seeds, pods, shells and arks, blood marks and the sun crawling through us, broken fish, human exhaustion. After rendezvous: one we are taken back underwater with the third nautilus section. Then we encounter the section, king and queen, with the most upright, human presence, in which every line of text is reflected with a different line printed with a slightly lighter ink and upside down, as if reflected upon itself but changed in the mirror. Here, again, I see a rendezvous, the water drop and its clean surface, the cloud edge meeting the expanse of sky, and the human meeting the nonhuman world. king and queen is based on a sculpture by Henry Moore, a sculpture that sits in a moorland landscape in Scotland. The figures are thin bronze humanoids side by side on a bench, looking out over a lake. Of his preliminary process, Moore writes: "Whilst manipulating a piece of this wax, it began to look like a horned, Pan-like, bearded head. Then it grew a crown and I recognised it immediately as the head of a king."

In this, the centerpiece of Melicker's book, the figures of King and Queen have a conversation in fourteen poems (or 28 poems, if you count each "side" of the text). They look at the birds and the clouds, take off their socks, move around in their loneliness, connect with one another, separate and connect again, awkwardly and with complete humanity. The sun moves over them. They are blue and engage in "the quizzical, a caught look / to reanimal without"—another word coinage (Thomas would be proud). As a reader I feel as though I am both a part of, and a witness to, the process of erosion and "patina, the reduction to water"—which is of course my own death and rebirth, my own clothing, and my own private attempts at intimacy. It is as if the foibles and misadventures of humanity are embodied in these voices of Melicker's "royalty." They are nearly speaking. Are they speaking? Or, are they simply being reanimaled and turned inside out? Or both at once?

Which leads me to the final two nautilus sections, divided by rendezvous: two. Here, again, the king and queen meet to "rest their arms on the table, palms up. in this way, they reveal the fossil in their forearms. the sea foams." And in rendevous: two the "word for soul is / neck." Melicker coins the words brainbone, bloodorgan, seedship, boathusk, bloodworks, spine-me, flesh-me, and arcflow. There are cuttings, surgeries, openings, sutures, prunings, ruptures, boats, and shovels. Too soon, the book ends on the porch, with the "he" and "she" having come through the poems changed but little. In the final nautilus, he has made his home in water (as we all must?) and she is "straight to the blue through a selection of recollected openings. endings. they try to close them by themselves. with. sure enough, the screen door slaps against the house. he settles the porch."

An unsettling music and final image, of course. We try to close the book (I try to close the book by myself, but I can't, it's not over. I must go back! Again!). Immersed in the terror and the reality of our current situation on the planet, with the ancestors above us and our children looking up to us from their play and all of our human names one letter from death, always, I will be on the lookout for the rendezvous. And in the hands of a poet as smart and fine as Todd Melicker, I know I will be filled with my own private process of both hope and despair.