Unapologetically Stepping In: Lynn Melnick’s Landscape with Sex and Violence

Rosebud Ben-Oni
October 9, 2017
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I didn’t emerge well-trained into this savage vista
because all the houseplants were succulent, and,

while anyone could witness rot writ all over my blighted arrangement,

no one stepped in.

—Lynn Melnick, “Landscape with Stucco and Dandelion”

 

How my reading of the ending of this poem, which opens Lynn Melnick‘s Landscape with Sex and Violence, has changed.

How, over the past week, I had to make a decision whether to keep writing the original essay I’d planned—to focus solely on Melnick’s landscapes within the book— or whether to address a strange and terrible erasure of her work that was passed off as a review.

If you are the one in power, I know you are tired of hearing this fact: how those outside the patriarchy and white supremacy can never just write, but must confront the discriminatory antics the patriarchy employs to distract from their work.

Antics that have done, continue to do, real damage, all the while telling us, it’s all about the work. It’s only about the work.

Case in point: Lynn Melnick takes on the patriarchy within her work, and we then witness how fragile the veneers of the patriarchy. Someone took her book very personally; someone didn’t like it.

Let me explain.

*

It happens every day. I see it on Twitter and Facebook: a certain kind of straight, white male intellectual expresses public outrage over the current administration, or white supremacy, or ICE raids. Perhaps this past week his target was Harvey Weinstein.

He takes it upon himself to admonish the general public— an indistinct, vague “you”— over such behavior. He tweets at Donald Trump, with his finger wagging. He tweets at celebrities and public figures to let them know he disapproves of behaviors he finds dangerous or appalling. Or sexist.

I see this, wondering how this certain kind of man can be so critical— or rather, self-congratulatory— when I’ve seen him also engage in similar behaviors, though his platform is smaller, though his ego not granted a larger, televised stage. (And before one says, not all men, we’ve already gone over that, many, many times, but if one still needs a man to explain it, read this.)

The goal of this essay is not to name names. And even if I wanted to, there’s no byline for the incredibly biased, sexist “review” of Lynn Melnick’s Landscape with Sex and Violence that appeared in a well-known periodical. I won’t link it here.

Because I don’t want to give the one who already has the privilege to be faceless and unaccountable any more power.

And surely, there’s no way to prove this was a man (or that particular kind of straight, white male intellectual) who wrote it. Again: no byline, no proof, no accountability.

While that may be, the incident brings to mind a much larger issue: those times the patriarchy has treated women and POC “kindly”— that is, as “muses” while stealing their ideas. Muse: such a soft, ethereal word, a fine gossamer placed over the eyes, obscuring how it defines the power structures of the creator who takes and the stimuli who give.

So what happens when a woman poet like Melnick refuses this agreement?

What happens when she speaks from such a landscape like rape culture, a landscape she did not create, a landscape to which she never agreed, but nevertheless one that she must confront?

What happens is this: the patriarchy does not listen to her, or seriously consider her point-of-view. The patriarchy figures out a way to make itself heard when she ignores the rules— which are always his rules.

That while he admonishes a vague “you” on Twitter, #NotAllMen will then shout at her in the same breath, stop being hysterical!, when she too uses a “you” in her work.

And say she’s crossing the street, any street, unaware of (this particular, individual) him—  although she has no idea (re: no byline) who he is. Under protective cover of anonymity, he shouts to make her, to make us, aware of him. His hysteria over the narratives she dares to share in her work, his tantrums which he passes off as framework, as discourse. Literature as unchanging and static model citizen monitoring our streets— and suddenly now, he has us listening to him again.

And he is insisting: It’s all about the work. It should be only about the work.

So it’s all about the work.

So tell me, then, what it means when a woman writes herself as landscapes attacked by the patriarchy, and these those very landscapes she’s written are (again) attacked by the patriarchy in the guise of critique.

Tell me what you do when you are reading her work taking on misogyny and then actually watch misogyny happen, watching it come to life. Yet again.

Let me repeat that: You are actually watching it happen.

“[A]nd, while anyone could witness rot writ all over my blighted arrangement,” Melnick writes, “no one stepped in.”

So I’m stepping in.

Because the “you” he tweets in its infinite vagueness is also the “you” that protects the patriarchy.

Because one truth, at least, remains: you should read Lynn Melnick’s new book, which does more than address landscapes of sex and violence.

You live them through her.

 

*

I’m tied to the redwood of the fencepost
but I’m done with begging

naked
because this is only a blip in a lifetime of skin.

 

—Lynn Melnick, “Landscape with Fog and Fencepost”

 

Towards the end of Part I in Landscape with Sex and Violence, there’s a turning point for the speaker in the poem called “Landscape with Fog and Fencepost.” She has reached her breaking point, both within the confines of abusive relationships/interpersonal dynamics and within the rape culture that feeds such aggression, allowing it to construct the ongoing narrative which only builds to destroy its subject.

Or, rather, let’s not be abstract about it.

This is not a violence, researched and depersonalized.

She addresses a “you” who has done very real and very concrete things to the speaker who, in her own words, recreates/responds to these renderings in which the “you” builds a “home.” He builds to entrap the speaker, making sure she bears the markings of his brutality so that she won’t leave him : “you can’t hammer a nail without drilling a hole through me first.// Left bare where you fastened me this morning/ to the deck, faded to gray.”

And in an earlier poem “Landscape with Written Statement,” the speaker attempts to testify the details of abuse, only to have the “you” demand that she be “honest about [her] role in the incident”:

What happened is

I once spent too much time in the desert

so pogonip seems glamorous hung stuck in the trees
like when blood dries on skin

and I want to wear it

out for an evening,
pat my hands over its kinky path down my face

because: fuck you,

you didn’t find me here.
I brought you here.

 

One of the most powerful things about Melnick’s work is that she is so unapologetic and candid about the landscapes that attempt to leave her rootless— “each square of land/ I will never call my own” she writes in “Landscape with Citrus and Centuries”— and I mean rootless in a particular sense: the more the speaker demands autonomy of her sexuality, her choices, and her image, body and person, the more she demands her own independent narrative from/of the spaces she inhabits, the more these landscapes seek to claim her. To tell her who she is. To speak her into existence in the language of what they do to her. What the you has done to her. And she not only rejects this sense of entitlement, but she comes for him: “fuck you,/ you didn’t find me here. I brought you here.”

*

In “Landscape with Citrus and Centuries,” we learn the speaker comes from what “they call the heartland”, that “[f]armland and farmland and splendor” in which she was “never the type to wonder/ what was sprouting from the fertile soil/ when the soil itself was mystery enough.” The speaker unflinchingly dismantles idyllic, cultivated landscapes in favor of revealing those where “crop hangs over gates into dumpsters” and she “used half a citrus to demonstrate/ what you could do to my cunt.”

Over and over, the speaker creates these sharp, distinct and unforgettable images, even when others attempt to render her powerless, or silence her, or leave her to the fog, another fine gossamer over her eyes, like “the chaparral” that “grow[s] much through trauma/except in order to withstand/ extinction/ though it appears/ under the smog/supernatural.” And it’s a like fog “muffling coastal California” that the speaker experiences a revelation in “Landscape with Fog and Fencepost:”

you lit my hair on fire
and I watched it in the periphery

alight to my scalp
before I realized

I knew a way to stop it.

In the ensuing poems of Part I, Melnick highlights how society at large tends to treat battered women (re: “rehabilitate”– as if it’s the women who are the ones who needs rehabilitating). One should ask is if these spaces of rehabilitation themselves are free of the very violences from which women are seeking refuge. In the long poem “She’s Going to Do Something Amazing,” we witness the beginning of a third-person speaker, perhaps because entering such spaces necessitates a new kind of distance. We learn quickly she can’t stop bleeding— and not just from those enduring renderings of domestic violence— as she “chok[es] on the inspirational music/from the nurse tech’s radio” in a place meant to care for her but where they also:

like to stand around
with their tongues down each other’s throats

about how hot they are at rescuing girls.
Meanwhile, the blood keeps dripping down her legs.

The speaker attempts what social norms consider therapeutic measures, which also serve to keep women busy and distracted. She learns to knit, but ends up pulling “the threads out one by one/until her fingers burned and bled/and then she’d rage at herself for the ruin.” In the laundromat “[a]ll her clothes look beige even when they are the colors she thought/would change her life into a life like other people might have/when they don’t have blood dripping down their legs.” She takes a job at a video store where the kind of men who “disappear into backrooms” in turn “look crushed/when she won’t touch their hands at the counter,” revealing that the priorities of the male gaze and desire are so ingrained in every day exchanges, what woman could possibly escape them?

Tell me again it’s the women in her landscapes who need to change and move on.

Tell me “when they need somebody with indefinable eyes/they call her up, they parade her around and inspect her,” that we should tell survivors this is appropriate therapy; this is the correct behavior.

Tell me again the problem can be solved by those who have a hand in creating it.

*

In the very last poem of Part I, “Landscape of Blood and Boondocks,” the speaker tells us that “[a]ll the cats compass out at night to verify/my homelessness though you can’t/expect me to claw for food while most everyone else is sleeping.” And that while earlier she didn’t find “salvation, just my own voice/coming to ” (“Landscape with Surf and Salvation”), the speaker is even more defiant: “I’ll just as soon not eat.// I don’t want anyone to keep me.” She is back to first person. She has reclaimed the “I.”

It’s in the last lines of the poem that the speaker reveals that hard truth of finding a future in a world so hostile to her, in a particular place that would soon see her break than let her go free: ” I can’t stay here. It’s over, it was always over,/ there was never going to be a miracle/that would keep me green.”

No, it was not some unexplained miracle that created these poems, created from what would readily challenge and destroy them.

It was a poet who decided not to hide, or give in, or make nice, or water down, or translate a narrative so that it’s more pleasing and palatable to those hands she would not touch at counters. To the fragile veneers of the patriarchy

And now we have come full-circle.

And we see what happens when a woman writes, responds to, and sings those off-key landscapes which pretend “The kempt lawn was always kempt” while she “was disparaged on that terrain.”

We see how the patriarchy, on its last, dying legs, responds.

And I say let the old ways fail with their false promises of fixing the atrocities they themselves carry out, silently sanction.

Let them fade away with their hollow miracles and salvations.

I’ll take that moment Lynn Melnick’s speaker heard her “own voice/coming through” any day as enduring truth, as painful step toward a future where more of us step in, unapologetically, and listen.

 

 

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

 

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