“THIS IS THE STORY OF HOW I GOT TO LIVE”: On Lynn Melnick & Surviving the Landscape

Rosebud Ben-Oni
October 16, 2017
Comments 1



I don’t even know you. Sure, I do
the most uncareful things

when I’m miles from here. It’s all that
freedom I don’t recognize.

—Lynn Melnick,
“Landscape with Twelve Steps and Prop Flora”

I couldn’t write about the second half of Lynn Melnick’s book Landscape with Sex and Violence without thinking about Harvey Weinstein this week. The news itself came as no revelation, the kind that leaves you gasping, overthrowing a reality you once thought safe and certain (that is, until Woody Allen chimes in). No, I was thinking of other incidents adjacent, like this response from Mayim Bialik who erroneously advised:

I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.

—and I was so furious with her for this unforgivable statement because it encouraged explicit censorship of a woman’s sexual expression. Because she stars in a misogynistic tv show and yet would have a problem with my own skirts and love of red lipstick, or perhaps that I often smile (flirtatiously?) when I find joy in others— which surely could be “read wrong”— or with my open personality largely cultivated by being able to write so candidly about those “private situations,” say, on a platform like this, shared by talented women like Jaquira Díaz,  Laura Maylene Walter, Caroline Hagood, Dora Malech, Kirsten Ogden and others.

Surely such openness is not contrary to sisterhood, to uplifting other women, to acknowledging that women writers and artists have many dimensions already subject to scrutiny and censure by the patriarchy.

Surely, too, Bialik didn’t realize that she was victim-shaming, or knew that the restrictions she was placing on other women would steal their joy and self-expression. Or the perhaps she needs to read Melnick’s poem “Some Ideas for Existing in Public,” which sardonically suggests that “you should track me down/ the block and clarify how you’d like to split my slit open// until I pass out.” Surely what we call “street harassment” is a more orderly, simplified way of explaining the unending awareness a woman has of her body in public spaces, the amplification of her very presence, how it doesn’t matter if she responds or walks away, a woman often cannot just walk down the street without comment or criticism—

I think you should whistle so loud at my fat ass
that I jump like a stray rodent and you couldn’t be more correct

it is a shame my fat ass is walking away

from you because why is it walking away from you?

Surely, now, Bialik realizes that there are many women who reject the idea of being “reserved” as being a “serious player” professionally and/or artistically, and that we as women should not ask other women to diminish themselves further into landscapes so outwardly hostile to our need for self-assertions. Surely, I can admit that while the world has always been too much, I still cried while writing this essay. That I was not for a moment— or many—”reserved” when I read in Melnick’s long poem, “Poem at the End of a News Cycle,” when the speaker realized

how America was founded on a certain measure of blood

which isn’t a metaphor nor was it
anywhere in California

in the back of a car when a man asked

’bout I ram this barrel up your pussy and pull the trigger?

Because I’m so, so tired of the judgements that an educated, privileged woman like Mayim Bialik with influence and means passes on other women who have had other experiences; especially since they are the same judgements this very world has passed on Bialik as well. Because though she might think otherwise, Bialik too has not escaped them. Perhaps she should read more poetry from women and POC, especially this poem in particular in which Melnick’s speaker later tries to explain that for her, sex work is not like “waitressing,” that

if there hasn’t been a moment at your job
where for an extra $10 you let a man spit on your face

and cum in your eye

then I don’t want to hear about all the empowerment

I failed to find.

No, I could not read Melnick’s poems this week without hearing that Lindsay Lohan defended Weinstein, and Rose McGowen going to bat for her by tweeting publically: “Please go easy on Lindsay Lohan. Being a child actor turned sex symbol twists the brain in ways you can’t comprehend.” Lohan too was never exempt from the behavior she sought to defend, behavior that would, in the end, seek to destroy her—and has tried, many times.

I couldn’t write one more word without acknowledging how it felt to hear how women of color refused to be silent and silenced on Twitter, and instead amplified their voices. How I thought of my Mexican cousins, the women of color in my own family, who don’t have such national platforms, who don’t live in Hollywood, who don’t have such means when sexual assault and domestic abuse strike, who’ve tried to hide such things from family knowledge and beyond.

How I too have tried to hide such things.

How many times I very narrowly escaped what such women “deserve” because I, according to various world views of women, did not “dress modestly,” or play by the rules. That time I went for a late night walk, ill-advised and uninvited on the open, public streets of Jerusalem, or the time I went to study at a male classmate’s apartment, thinking that since I had a girlfriend, my open sexual preference would keep me safe from men, at least those I knew and shared a love of literature with. Or the time another “friend” invited me to check out the views from the rooftop of a church in the Old City of Jerusalem, and tried to pin me down. And then tried to knock me unconscious. And how I screamed rape in more than one language. And I think of the unrelenting, compound shame that I attempt to make small and squashed—and my half being there in the happening of it all.

And more than anything else, I think about how I’d go to bat for the speaker in Melnick’s poems “where the famous fuck-ups emerge/ from the basement into a mob of cigarettes/clouding up an already murky sky,” as she writes in “Landscape with Twelve Steps and Prop Flora.”

Don’t tell me not to make this essay personal.

Don’t tell me to sanitize, to refrain, to take a step back and analyze, with cold hand and distorted looking glass called “objectivity.”

Don’t dare tell me the speaker’s “I” is unworthy, or that why, in order to tell her story, a woman has to reach redemption, some form of redemption, preconceived and pre-approved by the patriarchal, white-washed canon. “[T]his is not a story about cages,” Melnick writes in the book’s final poem “One Sentence About Los Angeles,”

and it sure isn’t a story about wings

and, while you are probably waiting for confession
because you think that’s what I’ve been doing here all along

this is not a story of how my body was first held down
before I’d even hit double digits

So, don’t wait around for Melnick’s confession, but embrace that she made something of her own, a world she created from surviving the world that would break and silence her: “this is the story of how I got to live.”

She, who grew “up with all that poetry and carpet” in her mouth,

but remember

(I almost forgot to tell you)

I lived

in a desert
where palms are signposts of water, not the want of it.

No, don’t tell me that although I was miles away, that I too was not there in each and every Melnick’s landscapes.

Don’t tell me how a single book can get you through a hellish week and an even more frightening trip down memory lane.

Don’t tell me this book is anything but a triumph.


This is the second of a two-part series on Lynn Melnick’s Landscape with Sex and Violence. Read Part I here.

One thought on ““THIS IS THE STORY OF HOW I GOT TO LIVE”: On Lynn Melnick & Surviving the Landscape

  1. This is a brave and beautiful piece! Writing like this is more important than ever. And thank you so much for the generous mention:)

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