The Linen Way by Melissa Green

Reviewed: The Linen Way by Melissa Green. Publisher: Rosa Mira Books, 7/2013. Kindle $9.99, 90pp.

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Home // August.17.2016 // Sean Campbell

Botanical Prose

There is a memorable scene described in The Linen Way, where the author, Melissa Green, is attending a class at Boston University taught by Derek Walcott, one for which she memorized Milton's "Lycidas." She recites:

Weep no more, woful Shepherds, weep no more,
For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the watry floar,
So sinks the day-star in the Ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new spangled Ore,
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky.

Green responds: "I cried for Lycidas, not knowing that the pain I felt was from having run headlong into one of our great pastoral lamentations." Notice that "headlong" becomes less a stock phrase, when followed so soon after Milton's visceral image, "forehead of the morning sky." Elsewhere in the poem, in Milton's elegy for the drowning death of his young friend Edward King, the poet infuses a physical transformation into nature: "under the opening eyelids of the morn," giving rise to the apotheosis of the Shepherd: "Henceforth thou art the genius of the shore . . . and shalt be good/to all that wander in that perilous flood." Absorbing such anthropomorphic diction into her own poetry, Green composed her monumental, elegaic debut collection: The Squanicook Eclogues. Written after the death of her father, it describes "the walks my father and I had taken through the acres our family owned, the little river that crisscrossed our small town, the Squanicook." She imagines the river would have "a genius loci," and describes a girl to represent the river and the seasons:

Her thin, diminished breath collects until the day
When star-lichen studs the bark, a junco and chickadee
Will bear her back awake, willing herself young
Again, unpinning her hair, the river's rising song
Reviving us with mercy, in the water's tongue.

The off-rhyme Green adores in Wilfred Owen is strong here in the triple off-rhyme of young, song, tongue. It is the culmination of Walcott's mentorship. In her memoir, she recounts the all-night writing session that produced this language: she sat alone in her Winthrop kitchen, writing from six o'clock in the evening to six the next morning, while a bumblebee bounced against the window. (This is one of the best scenes in the book.) The path to that night was not easy. Earlier, Walcott had her read in class from Lorca's long poem, "Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias." This came soon after her father had died, of cirrhosis of the liver. She wept out the lines in class, and Walcott told her: "When you read your poems, you have to let the language carry the grief. You have to keep your voice as level as the horizon." Green read and reread the stanza to the class...

... until I could read through all six stanzas without a quaver or a hesitation, as if my father had not died and my devastation wasn't held in every line and metaphor and repetition. When I finished, I was exhausted, but I understood.

Green's memoir is not only the story behind her first book under the mentorship of Walcott, but the years that followed its publication. She would write more elegies, publish a memoir of her childhood—Color Is the Suffering of Light, the title taken from a quote by Goethe—and develop a deep, though infrequent, friendship with Joseph Brodsky (who was introduced to Green through Walcott). It is a transformation, in which the language carries the grief, her voice as level as the horizon.

The Linen Way is built on a foundation of botanical prose. Walcott at one point commands her to stop writing poems momentarily, and instead write prose: "I want you to write strict—exacting—botanical prose." These lessons pay off in the rich rhythm and specific details of Green's memoir. Details are the basis of her prose, her poetry, and her transformation. The first chapter is a primer for all the themes and events to come. It is a loving exegesis on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, which she encountered in Ovid's Metamorphoses (her lifelong bible, she calls it). She speaks of Orpheus' songs that were so beautiful, that trees stopped moving to listen (she fills the sentence with the names of trees, to fill the woods with vivacity: they "stopped their whispering to listen, and almost seemed to breathe"). She ends the paragraph with, "rivers stilled their currents and cataracts to hear, and the rocks themselves seemed enchanted by his singing." Like her poetry, there is an engrossing meter to these lines. Green examines how Ovid didn't just write "by some miracle, Daphne was turned into a bay tree . . . [Ovid] wrote that her hair became leaves in her hands, her arms grew into branches and her skin into bark." Her love for details came from Ovid, and gave her hope: "Ovid's tales of changes gave me the courage to believe that I would someday become a person I could not yet imagine . . . to undergo a tremendous and profound sea change and leave my broken self behind."

There is a terrible encounter related, after one of Green's poetry readings at Harvard, wherein a man approached her at the podium. "I smiled, and after staring at me for a moment, he snapped, 'I could have written The Squanicook Eclogues, too, if I didn't have to work for a living,' and walked away." The scene comes over half-way through the book. It feels unbelievably thoughtless and selfish. Green did not respond to this audience member, but considered: "How could he know that I would have given the world to be able to work for a living instead of working with all my strength just to stay alive." Up to this moment in the memoir, Green has already recounted her lifelong struggle with grief, loss, and mental illness. She does this in honest, headlong prose. It wouldn't do her writing justice to paraphrase her struggles here. It would be like describing Ovid without the details.

It is these details that carry her transformation. In describing Ovid's tales earlier, she uses the phrase "sea change." This echoes Ariel's lamentation—indeed, an elegy— for Ferdinand's drowned father in The Tempest. It is an allusion that will foreshadow this memoir's subjects: for her father's death that will turn into The Squanicook Ecologues; and for her great mentor and friend, Joseph Brodsky, in "The Consolation of Boethius," written for Brodsky during a bout of precarious health (having to do with his bad heart), when she wrote these tremendous lines:

His shadow seemed a white-haired Senator
Who calmly bends above the bath he's drawn.

She will write eventually write a lamentation for Brodsky's death, "A January Poem," itself an 'homage' (Green explains) to Marina Tsvetaeva's 'Novogodnee' written upon the death of Rilke. Here is the portion of Green's poem reproduced in the text:

At St. John the Divine, two thousand tapers are lit,
one from the other, a slow migration of Cyrillic
and sibilants, moving east to west as you did,
and one by one your living friends, drawn
and trembling in the bands of your death,
mount the podium to read a favorite of your poems,
each intoning like a priest a well-loved passage
from the Book of Common Prayer—your poems
the congregation knows and can recite by heart.
A susurrus of sighs quivers by the tongues of flame.

I too was supposed to climb those high steps
like a pilgrim to read 'I was in Rome.
I was flooded by light,' my hand trembling
over the place on the page where Dante's P's
were once engraved, and the fan from an angel's wing
had cleansed them, leaving only a luminous scar,
Joseph's words on paper, his radiant forehead at rest,
but I was not able to travel from my own internal
prison—I was snowed on my pallet, stunned for all
who would never be soothed. For the poems
death had taken from us. For the man she'd taken.
At the end of the first chapter, Green also includes her translation of Rilke's "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes". The images from this poem echo throughout the pages of this memoir: "like silent veins of silver ore," "arteries of porphyry in the dark," "there emerged the only pathway/ like length on length of linen laid out to bleach," "she was deep inside herself, like a woman/ heavy with child." Such brilliant lines, beginning a rich vein of poetry extending through Rilke, Tsvetaeva, and back to Brodsky (who himself offered his reading of "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes" in his essay "Ninety Years Later").

The Linen Way contains many joyous moments not only of writing poetry, but of a friendship with Brodsky built around poetry, grief, exile, and a love for language. She recounts evenings on the streets of Boston, of late night calls from Brodsky filled with boyish joy over discovering English rhymes, ("He never tired of the joke 'the corpse in the corpus'"), and a glorious passage covering his connection with a century of Russian poetry: "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; how he'd held Anna Akhmatova's hand, both as a brash young poet who put flowers into her grasp at their first meeting, and when he kissed her soft old fingers goodbye." The passage continues through Akhmatova, through Nadezhda and Osip Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva and Pasternak, before ending on Tsvetaeva and Rilke. When Brodsky and Green parted that particular night, her fingers "burned as though they had touched those generations of letters."

After reading the botanical prose and Ovidian poetry of this latest volume of memoir, Melissa Green's readers will surely feel that they too are touching upon generations, of poetry and poets.


Banner graphic source: A painting (cropped) by the Shaker artist Hannah Cohoon, called “The Tree of Light” or “Blazing Tree”, 1845; an example of the visionary “gift drawings” created during the Era of Manifestations. Ink, pencil and gouache on paper. In the collection of the American Folk Art Museum; image via Wikimedia Commons. In the public domain.

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