Hallelujah for the Ghosties
Sundress Publications, 2014
Review by Barbara Duffey
THE “PERSONAL ABSTRACTIONS” OF MELANIE JORDAN’S HALLELUJAH FOR THE GHOSTIES
I should begin in an instance of full disclosure. Like most of us, I am skeptical when someone who is thanked in a book’s acknowledgements later writes a review of that book. But I was thanked in Melanie Jordan’s debut, Hallelujah for the Ghosties, and I’m about to review it. I became Melanie’s friend because I admired her work: the symbiosis started in the poetry and grew. Much of what a review does is describe how a book operates, separately or in conjunction with its quality, so perhaps I can give a context to what makes these poems tick.
Hallelujah for the Ghosties is a surrealist-inspired deployment of metaphor and prosody in an attempt to make a cosmology … if not an etiology … of loss, particularly romantic loss. I say “surrealist-inspired” because the vehicles of some of Jordan’s metaphors proceed by association. In Charlie Brown in the Dead of Night, the speaker says he’s “danced with girls before,” while “just on the edge of what it means / to fill [his] body, of being poured in like wet cement … “the worry fills my shoes, but it’s almost pretty.” The movement from cement to anxiety draws a secondary metaphor between Charlie Brown and his own brooding: he worries so much that he becomes his own distress.
Canonical Surrealist artwork figures as muse in this book. In the poem The Kiss of the Cage, the speaker walks “[o]nly a block or so to visit” Magritte’s sculpture The Healer, a caped birdcage with arms and cane atop trousered legs with “littletramp shoes.” As the speaker of Jordan’s poem begins to sketch the sculpture, she confesses, “This summer, / my father stood watch while I slept, to make sure / I was breathing, maybe.” The speaker confesses, “Whatever poison is urned / in me burns like a floe.” This poison seems to have something to do with the speaker’s connections to other people, or perhaps to a lover, as the ending ekphrastic image describes:
could be hobbled, the way it hovers there on the edge.
But it isn’t. She meets her double
there, and the kiss of the cage which is always open.
The form of the poem mimics the speaker’s awareness of and ambivalence about her own independence—she “meets her double,” and its cage, as she hovers on the edge. The last line is ambiguous, however: what exactly is “always open,” the cage or the kiss of the cage? The entrapment is seductive, but it will also never contain the bird; she will always be able to escape.
In Proxy, the Surrealists’ attention to groupings of disparate objects erupts in Jordan’s work in prosodic beauty. The speaker remembers “the rest of us” who, “ten years ago,” listened to “Emily” playing piano “before the building closed.” The poem then switches to elegy: “Since then, two of us have tried / to die.” The speaker’s response to the suicide attempts is to “try to learn / to be each instant,” an image that forms itself with particular attention to cuisine: “Rather, // as the peach flesh flakes from the black / skin of salmon,” she is “wholly aware // that [her] dinner is the only extant / entity.” The alliterated fl consonant blend of “flesh” and “flakes” turns into the bl of “black;” the l is picked up again in “salmon” (if elided when we read it aloud—it’s perhaps a visual consonance only), and the k sound continues from “flakes” to “black” to “skin.” The vowels run the gamut, from the long e diphthong in “peach” to the short e of “flesh”: the reader enjoys chewing on the texture of the language as much as on the dinner itself.
Later on, this precision of vowels appears as a figure in the poem. The speaker asks us to “read as though / each word is a newborn,” which will cause “history” to “fail // like a memory stuttering its vowels.” If we can’t read each word as if newly born, we may sympathize with the speaker when she “substitute[es] / happy hour for heartbeats,” and the flora and sugar maples of ten years ago for the “dulling fire” of alcohol.
This system of association and substitution, born from pain, makes a case for itself in the poem Meadowsweet. Addressed to a distant “you” who lives a telephone call and “seven million years” away, the poem tells of the death of “Ben,” a figure who taught the speaker to tell time, and who died when she was seven. The speaker experiences Ben’s smell and look as she tells time in his honor, observing that time, itself, “is a personal abstraction.” The poem then becomes a meditation on the nature of abstractions, and on how we, as humans, have progressed through their use. It’s an etiology, or perhaps an anthropology, of metaphor: metaphor as a gateway to abstraction, a way to discuss it in concrete specifics:
I declare there are no abstractions
so long as a heart attack is a table and heartbreak
is this study lamp burning into the morning.
So long as failure is a hiking boot with a hole.
Here, there are no abstractions, because the specificity of the speaker’s emotion constitutes the world around her, and what seems like abstraction is actually concrete surroundings. Then comes a line I take to be more metaphor than metonymy: failure as “a hiking boot with a hole,” a condition for moving forward hobbled by imperfection, the wear and tear of time. By the time the “you” is reached by phone, it is “seven million years ago, at least,” since “the first human woman stood upright.” We see “a scrap of bone” as “token,” and“meadowsweet [come] to name the dead.” These two lines are unified in their assonance, and in the conceit that they are our first abstractions and first metaphors. Someone wanted what wasn’t there, and so made that missing thing a concrete thing. But what really isn’t there are the dead, and those we love who aren’t here with us, even if alive: the desired.
The speaker imagines herself as a “daughter descendent” of this first metaphorizer, and, as such, wants to “letterbomb / that old false dichotomy: ah heart, oh head.” But before one letterbombs something, that thing must be concrete. In order to explode this dichotomy, the speaker must make “our need / a smoke ring broken on its own composure.” However, what really breaks said smoke ring is the fact that it’s a concrete entity that seems abstract, and ruins itself only by how abstract it isn’t.
We get away from abstractions through abstractions, and that’s the Surrealist impulse in Hallelujah for the Ghosties. My enjoyment of Jordan’s poetry exists in this space between my ability to make sense of what she’s saying and the assured deployment of her images. Through multiple readings, I come back to continued ambiguities that refuse to reconcile themselves, and that’s the paradox at the heart of Jordan’s poetic project: a system of “personal abstractions” that are emotionally poignant, intellectually complex, and physically and sonically beautiful.
Barbara Duffey is a 2015 NEA Literature Fellow in poetry and the author of the poetry collections Simple Machines (winner of the Washington Prize from the Word Works, forthcoming 2016) and I Might Be Mistaken (Word Poetry, 2015). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Best New Poets 2009, Blackbird, and Western Humanities Review. She is an assistant professor of English at Dakota Wesleyan University and lives in Mitchell, SD, with her husband and son. You can find her online at www.barbaraduffey.com and on Twitter @BarbaraNDuffey