On Dream Street
by Melanie Almeder
Tupelo Press 2007
Reviewed by Mike McDonough
Sounds Like [?]
I grew up in one of those wealthy seaside towns that endure hoardes of Sunday watercolorists painting quaint things (or turning spare, Yankee light into an expensive tropical languor). These lines from Melanie Almeder’s “Elegy for Grief” sum up my feelings about the atmosphere evoked by Sunday painters:
our best theatrics, the gods, our losses,
refuse to punish us,
but loll among us, abstracted
into other mild states resembling the play of light.
Fear Sunday painters: Almeder is not one of them. She knows the price of beauty’s abstracted grief; her remembered beloved is:
no more than the window there
open to endless kudzu. You are no more
than the crumbling limb of a marble statue, than the pink light
against which swallows stitch untranslatable erratics.
On Dream Street, Almeder’s debut, is a book of transformative lyric poems: each reaches towards a visionary moment. Taking a cue from W. Eugene Smith’s evocative photograph “Dream Street,” the book unfolds a series of well-constructed visions in an often elegiac mood. The trouble with prominently featuring a photograph from a certain artist is that it promises special insight into that artist’s work. By itself, Almeder’s title poem doesn’t tell me anything that isn’t better found in the picture. I don’t get any sense of Smith’s wartime milieu or his troubled, intense life. Almeder’s poem mentions the old Ford in the picture, but I’m pretty sure that’s a 1950 Studebaker Champion Convertible. That fact could carry the emotional weight of the poem by itself, given the nostalgia of a certain generation for Raymond Loewy’s distinctive designs. Almeder’s poem subordinates those details for the sake of a more generalized lyric transformation. The book as a whole ends up doing better service to Smith’s photo than the title poem.
My personal pique aside, Almeder’s poems don’t really need much topicality. Parked off the road at a rakish angle, the car is gone to seed, and is in shadow just enough to leave doubt as the identity of that inimitable bullet nose. Almeder knows that grief ruthlessly strips the specificity of things, but leaves very strong impressions behind. Her poems are not as much an enactment of grief, but a dream of grief, which keeps the mood from being oppressive.
Almeder’s poems work best as a description of a generic landscape, and in cases where the speaker is addressing another person. Even when specific places are mentioned, such as Rangeley Lake, I don’t get much locational magic. There are exceptions to this. The poem about Key West is spot on in mentioning the railroad’s “long want,” which has more resonance the more you know about the quixotic feat of building a railroad across the Florida Keys. There is an insistent music that comes through, as in “Mock Orange,” describing camelia blooms:
it was not God,
but those lithe lord gods themselves,
mocking birds, intoning every other voiced thing
from dirt-slicked limbs of magnolias, until, distracted,
they tipped past the waxed leaves the sun makes silver of;
not God, lord gods; not love, insistence, disregard.
Even if you are deaf to floral content, this is strong music. It’s a neat trick when the rhythm of the line tends to make you pronounce “voiced” as two syllables sans accent mark, and without messing up the normal pronunciation of “waxed.” Some problems crop up, though. The looseness of Almeder’s line encourages the occasional weak repetition as well as stage props such as “truth be told,”“I tell you,” or “after all.” Like Frost supposedly limiting a poet to 10 lifetime uses of the word “beautiful,” I’d like to mandate a limit on the number of times a poet can use the ejaculatory “O.” (Wait. Let me rephrase that.) As an example of both the strength and weakness of her line, in “Ode to Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds,” when describing plovers, she writes:
They were not “plaintive,” I tell you,
they simply peeped like small trucks backing up
and off they went…
Though the mood is generally dreamlike, sharp reality checks often rise up, and her sense of rhythm generally carries us through.
I shouldn’t waste my time quarreling with blurbers, but I have to take issue with Gregory Orr’s absurdly qualified comparison: “Emily Dickinson’s intelligence stretched out over a longer sinuous line that wraps around itself” would not be Emily Dickinson’s intelligence but a parody of it. Whitman’s intelligence chiseled to a thin line might be A.R. Ammons, but the point is it would be a different animal. Almeder’s work develops a rhythm and intelligence all its own, though she does invokes Dickinson’s “thing with feathers” in different ways.
The poem “Women Made of Words” lives up to its Wallace Stevens epigraph, “What should we be without the sexual myth, the human revery or poem of death?” This is an achievement by itself. Here’s a sample:
No more, the torturers: without the sexual myth, they transmogrify
into window cleaners, buffing simulacra of cloud migration.
And then sex withers, drips off like Morning Glory blossoms.
Off drops Helen of Troy, Carthage.
Gone the begotten trench, the bloody stump, pulchritudes of land
bombed into a pocked birdlessness.
I’m not sure I should suggest that Stevens would be a better comparison for the tone and reach of the book, but I’ll try to describe the kinds of transformations that Almeder’s poems work towards. Her vocabulary is sometimes rather baroque. Her music aspires to a certain density. Her knowledge of the natural world, while pervasive, scores more philosophical points than ecological ones. God is constantly mentioned, but always keeps his distance. Her humor is best shown by her sense of grief. “Cure#4: If the Roof of Your Home by Sad Chance is Chosen by Buzzards As a Roost” starts with: “Cancel paper delivery immediately— / they will only beat you to it, eat the news,” and ends with:
They will preen
in the rooftop drains. Your ceiling will begin to leak.
Forget the buckets. Give it at most one week. Move.
Which doesn’t really sound like Stevens at all. Though it traverses some well-known poetic territory, Almeder’s visionary music manages to leave enough actual and rhetorical space for the reader to make their own comparisons.