Still a Maker: A Profile of Melissa Green
Leslie McGrath | September 2016
The child who cupped her chin and dreamt is dust.
Tongues and tribes have multiplied and died.
Ten thousand revolutions, unredressed,
have turned the sun’s eye bloody, yet our dead
still write to us, and we are torn by what we read
Melissa Green, The Squanicook Eclogues
In 2013, Melissa Green, 1987 recipient of the Poetry Society of America’s prize for a first collection, experienced a depression that became so severe she entered McLean Hospital, a Boston area psychiatric facility. There she underwent a series of shock therapy treatments. However, this therapy’s ability to stabilize out-of-control despair or elation is accompanied by memory loss so severe that some who receive it have much of their memory erased with the treatment. And there is no guarantee which memories, if any, will return.
For the next five months, Green had no memory. She needed live-in assistance with simple daily tasks such as how to dress or make a cup of tea. “You know, you used to be a poet,” one good friend reminded her during this period. Green laughs and says, “I didn’t remember anything about my literary life, or language, which had been central to my sense of self on a cellular level—it had all been excised as completely as a tumor.”
Melissa Green is one of the most lauded poets you may never have heard of. For decades she has lived a very quiet life near Boston, writing poems as unmarked by contemporary poetic fashion as they are ravishing. Green’s readers and admirers can now hold in a single volume much of the poetry she has produced over the last thirty-five years. Her selected poems, Magpiety, was published in late 2015 by Arrowsmith Books.
Green’s first book, The Squanicook Eclogues (Norton, 1987) received awards the Academy of American Poets as well as the Poetry Society of America. Green’s great friend Joseph Brodsky said of The Squanicook Eclogues: “Here, by the grace and wisdom of the language in which ‘rhyme’ rhymes with ‘time’ comes the poet who commits everything she touches to your memory.”
Despite the acclaim for Green’s first book, it would be eight years before she published a second book, Color Is the Suffering of Light (Norton, 1995), a memoir whose gorgeous description of the natural beauty of New England was shaded by an upbringing that included immense physical and emotional cruelty. Her childhood at the family homestead in Townsend, Massachusetts, tethered fear to loneliness. Books became beloved companions, language the medium of her extraordinary imagination.
The irony is that Green’s work, so highly praised by Derek Walcott for its “reverential elations that uplift and soothe,” flowed from prolonged emotional distress. She has lived with a severe mood disorder that has led to a hermetic life. Her forays outside her apartment are rare, though the internet has broadened her reach into the world. Nevertheless, solitude is Melissa’s preferred state of being.
But Melissa Green has friends—people whose support helped her save her home when hospital bills overwhelmed her ability to pay. Rosanna Warren, who met Melissa at Boston University in 1982 when Green was enrolled in Derek Walcott’s graduate poetry seminar, has long been a dear friend. In 2006, Warren became concerned that Green’s health-related bills were so large that they would cause her to lose her home. Warren contacted Askold Melnyczuk, asking what might be done to help out. Melnyczuk’s small press, Arrowsmith, put together A Sheaf for Melissa, composed of signed letterpress broadsides of poems by twenty-six poets. The proceeds from sales of A Sheaf for Melissa went a long way toward keeping her safely housed and helped to continue her access to treatment.
Alongside the Sheaf, Arrowsmith published Fifty-Two, a new book of poems in an edition limited to 150 numbered copies. In the year prior, Green had come through a period of physical trials: an infection of her foot so severe that she spent months connected to an IV pole that delivered continuous antibiotics. Surgical attempts to repair the damaged foot led to months of recuperation. After nearly losing her foot, Green realized that her literary foot had also changed. One day, while writing in her flowing rococo style, she heard in the middle a line the distinctive snap of a pencil breaking. It struck her that she could no longer write in her usual style. She developed a short form marked by a broken line—a hard caesura—at its heart. At fifty-two, Melissa Green wrote some of her most direct, toughest poems. “That is, to my mind what distinguishes that collection: the writer’s level of self-awareness is extraordinary,” Askold Melnyczuk offered. “Her epigraphic power has never been more in evidence than in these tightly wrought gems—the celebrations of the natural world are more evident in both Squanicook and the Marsh poems. Here what’s so interesting and powerful is the writer’s brave, clear-eyed reflections on the ‘unlived life’—the life she wanted and dreamt of and the life she found. That’s what makes this, to me, one of the most powerful volumes of poetry by any writer of my generation.”
Tundra of the white paper. Steppes of emptiness and ice. Equipped
with crampons and picks, I notch out a poem on gneiss, frostbitten,
winded, afraid to die.
Between the typescripts’ withes and raddles,
soft-nostrilled animals of meaning poke inquisitive noses through caesuras,
enjambments, metaphor, to me. I lift a serif, duck under and enter the world.
(“Routine” from Fifty-Two)
Green’s intimate connection to language is not a Nabokovian synesthesia but rather the sense that words have a felth, a term for the way a tailor assesses a piece of fabric, determining how it might best be put to use. Felth describes the way she understood language: “It’s almost as if I can run my hand over the page and feel the shape and texture of the words,” says Green.
Slowly and surprisingly, her life has reset itself, though Green’s visceral relationship to language has not been restored. Books, well-loved companions in Green’s solitude, now have little meaning for her. She taught herself to read again, her finger following each line, speaking every word aloud. She is now, many months after treatment, only able to read simple fiction, books she remembered reading in her other life. Poetry remains as puzzling and unknowable as Swahili.
It’s the strangest feeling in the world, after a lifetime of being my most articulate with pen and paper, to find that writing presents a real sense of being handicapped, it’s almost as if I can feel the synapses in my brain creaking when I try to put words together in a cohesive way, in a concrete way—the image that comes to mind is from Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, when the rope-and-sapling bridge always threatened to give way into an unspeakable chasm, and one day it did.
During the months of recovery in 2013, Green described waking one morning feeling as if she were “possessed by Eros. My hands hurt. I had to make something.” She repurposed a piece of old clothing, cutting it with a pair of her grandmother’s ancient fabric shears and affixed it to a canvas, arranging it into folds and eddies. Once the shape and texture were right, she layered it with paint. The result was a three-dimensional polychrome collage, as riotous with texture and color as her poems were with images. Speaking about Green’s collage-making, Melnyczuk stated, “What’s so beautiful about it is the way it underscores the etymology of the word ‘poet’ which we all know means ‘maker’ in Greek. Melissa ‘Greek’ Green is the most natural poet I know—the impulse to make, to create, is so innate in her that nothing could stop her.”
The loss of her unusual affinity for language has led to the joy of another kind of art-making. Every morning now, as a line or an image appears to her, Melissa settles in to assemble a collage instead of writing poetry. “The sound of my grandmother’s shears cutting fabric. That’s what makes me happy.” She has made fifty collages so far. “They come the way poems used to come.” Once completed, each is packaged and sent by post to the person for whom it was made, be it her third niece, her dental hygienist, or a literary friend.
Green has written movingly of her great friendships with Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky in her second memoir, The Linen Way (Rosa Mira, 2013). Her connection to both these great poets was also a connection to all they had lived and written. She describes in this memoir a last evening with Brodsky before he died from heart disease at the age of fifty-five: “I used to think I could see his suffering like layers of film playing faintly over the screen of his forehead, over his large T-shirt and broad chest with its sick heart inside it. … Joseph’s hand enclosing mine carried all his griefs and tenderness, and I seemed to feel in it all of the pages of poetry he’d run his palms over.”
There remain unpublished volumes of work as well, including The Heloise, a four-hundred-page lyric novel interwoven with poetry for which Green created an entire medieval world and the language that reflected it better than contemporary American English. “It is one of the most fascinating linguistic experiments since Finnegan’s Wake,” Melnyczuk exclaimed. “Dazzling and mind-breaking—it reminds me of what Pound said to Joyce on reading passages from Finnegan’s Wake: ‘Nothing short of divine revelation or a sure cure for the clap is worth all this circumambient peripherisation.’ Except I’d add that in Heloise there is a touch of divine revelation.”
Here is one of the few short sections of The Heloise included in Magpiety. It will have to suffice for Melissa Green’s readers for now. At least, as Rosanna Warren puts it, “We have a chance to consider the larger shape of this beautiful and original oeuvre.”
My first and last companions, grief and rage,
defeated, dwindle down to candle ends
in hammered scones Faith, the kitchen drudge,
forgot to douse. They blink contentedly
beside the crawling tankard and the crumbs,
such little lamps to stay a constant law.
Too small to light the hardwood of my crimes.
(excerpt of “The Heloise” from Fifty-Two)
Leslie McGrath is the author of Opulent Hunger, Opulent Rage (2009), a poetry collection, and two chapbooks, Toward Anguish (2007) and By the Windpipe (2014). McGrath’s latest book is a satiric novella in verse, Out From the Pleiades (2014). Winner of the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry (2004), she has been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook and the Vermont Studio Center, as well as funding from the CT Commission on the Arts and the Beatrice Fox Auerbach Foundation. Her poems and interviews have been published or are forthcoming in AGNI, Poetry, The Academy of American Poets, and The Yale Review. McGrath teaches creative writing at Central CT State University and is series editor of The Tenth Gate, a poetry imprint of The Word Works Press