There are abundant rewards in reaching beyond our comfort zone, our own experiences, and our own skin—both in our daily lives and in choosing which books to read. But there are always those books for which relating is the essence of engagement. So it was with a firm sense of relating to the subject matter of Lynn Melnick’s book, Landscape with Sex and Violence (YesYes Books, 2017), that I entered into and devoured it. Page by page, it reverses its two predicates, exposing much violence and no sex, if we wish to think of sex as a mutual act of lovemaking. But then, on a second read, I wasn’t as sure my connection was solid, so I went back to Melnick’s first book, If I Should Say I Have Hope (YesYes Books, 2012), for ballast. I’ll say more about that book in a minute. But clearly, I was more than intrigued; I wanted to know this woman, Lynn Melnick, whose deeply disturbing work stirred something surprisingly hopeful in me.
The unsettling wraparound cover was a sharp clue to the panorama I would tread in Landscape with Sex and Violence, with its photo of the word “CLOSED” spray-painted on a decimated building advertising “TOPLESS DANCERS.” In the various landscapes which both frame and intensify these poems, Melnick offers us a portrait in which each poem is wholly conscious of belonging to its landscape. Melnick’s speaker is aware of everything at once in her surroundings—she is hypervigilant—while at the same time forcing us to comprehend how easy it is to lose control of our choices while the world happens around us. These poems simultaneously offer an uncomfortably close view and a dizzyingly wide-angle view of desperate landscapes. Melnick aptly describes these landscapes in “Green and Golden” as “(tarmac, blacktop, lonesome).” This is the world not of the less powerful, but of the powerless.
The preface poem, “Landscape with Stucco and Dandelion,” lays out the territory we are entering and solemnly warns us that these poems are confessions. This is not to say I read them as factual; that is beyond what a reader can know. I did read them as emblematic. The honesty is palpable in the text—the mixture of vulnerability, truth, and incredulousness found in these bleak places is rendered nearly voiceless with the simple phrase “no one stepped in,” when the speaker says she “let the riffraff envenom my body.” And there is a point, after reading the first few poems, when Melnick’s speaker asks, even begs, the reader to reconsider whether we really want to visit this landscape with her. After all, she points out in “Landscape with Twelve Steps and Prop Flora,” “I didn’t emerge well-trained into this savage vista,” and so,
you don’t want to believe
what I’m about to tell you
Melnick is far from welcoming. Indeed, in “Landscape with Smut and Pavement” she pushes us to the position of outsider looking in, forcing us to consider the line of separation between the experiences recounted in the poem and “the kind of architecture / that bodies who have been treated gently like to enjoy.” But if you make it to page fourteen, to “Landscape with Greyhound and Greasewood”, she insists that you get it or get out:
Know better. Somebody
In “Obviously, Foul Play,” the story starts with “when I still had hope about myself,” but moves quickly to “I don’t so much give in as give up.” In “She’s Going to Do Something Amazing,” Melnick offers naïve clues to describe the slippery slope of how this could happen to any girl,
the kind of things girls did before they were forced to suck dick
in the back of somebody’s car.
Still, there is a subtle movement between the first and second parts of the collection, towards wholeness and recovery, although it’s movement with regression—the old ‘one step forward, two steps back.’ In her previous collection, If I Should Say I Have Hope, Melnick is less explicit with story than in Landscape with Sex and Violence, and to my mind, less hopeful. In this prequel, the work does not build narratively, but through awkward syntax and chilling imagery. It barely hints at what is to follow in her second book, but it does suggest a mood of feeling lucky to have survived the worst, which is the very essence of hope. Yet, Melnick’s is the most contradictory voice I think I’ve ever read, and then when the story itself is exhumed in the sequel, is there hope? She takes you around the block wondering in If I Should Say I Have Hope‘s “Lagoon,”
Yes I knew better then;
yes, I didn’t. Is this what you did? You did this.
Back to Landscape with Sex and Violence. Melnick is still questioning if we are with her at page seventy-three, in “Poem at the End of a News Cycle,” where she tells us in no uncertain terms that she won’t take any backtalk:
But 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.
But then there is both praise and hope in “Landscape with Thesaurus and Awe”:
You see, through the years when everyone is dying
I remain clean.
She is on a journey where hope may not have flowered quite yet, but might, if the rain comes:
one day I might have some land
beyond the ficus pot
That’s why I believe there could be a God.
Melnick’s craft is in the extreme language and unfamiliar syntax which blends a brew that, while bitter, is also intoxicating. The salient qualities of her writing are imagery and metaphor, sandwiched within slices of irony and self-deprecation. The imagery is wide-ranging, surprising, in-your-face, and remarkably visual. Line breaks are often unexpected and complex. Consider the skillful control in these lines from “Landscape with Greyhound and Greasewood”:
Mostly men keep singing
while dark blood collects where I open
and I line my polka dot panties with rest stop receipts.
I think probably we’ll pause in Barstow to continue
but I’m no standard:
I fold over to smell myself.
Route 66 to Las Vegas.
Perfect for a child and also America
loves the promise of a long haul.
I pull the tab from a small can of apple juice:
I’m cared for.
The man next to me puts his hand on my thigh.
He gets the kind of girl I am,
new leaves shiny with oil, flammable.
To be candid, and in solidarity, I do know this landscape. I’ve also danced, drugged, aborted, bled, and sold my body. Like Melnick’s speaker, I fought and climbed and pulled myself out of that futurama and went on with my life, but unlike Melnick’s speaker, I haven’t been able or willing to be so honest about it. The courage in Melnick’s writing is remarkable, and it is also, in a weird way, delicious. I only hope that people who have been lucky enough to have escaped (or to have escaped from) these sorts of experiences count themselves lucky and expend the necessary effort to find their way into relationship with this work, and by proxy, the underworld of sex and violence, which, you must admit, is the predominant landscape which none of us can really escape in 2019.