February 1, 2016

Contributor’s Marginalia: Kathy Fagan on “Flower” by Melissa Stein

What draws me to Melissa Stein’s poem, “Flower,” is the visceral magnitude of her first line, which to my ear echoes many of Dickinson’s opening lines: “The ruler left a welted stripe.” At first I read Stein’s “ruler” as monarch rather than measuring stick; the hymn meter so commanded my attention that I linked this poem’s “ruler” to Dickinson’s Master figure. I recovered quickly from the misperception, but I believe the loose connection increases the volatility quotient of the Stein poem in both allusive and real ways. And of course, just a glance at the poem on the page—the dashes, the irregular rhymes—reminds one of Dickinson in other ways.

My elderly father lives with me now. Because he is deaf and dementing, each morning I write in longhand for him a list of the day’s events, a ritual he has come to rely on. I head each page with the day’s date: Tuesday, January 19, 2016. Tomorrow, I will write Wednesday, January 20, 2016, in, around, and over the grooves my pen leaves in the notepad today, and so on and so forth. Stein’s “Flower” is also about impressions: the welted stripe, the raised letters, the stenciling, and egg coloring. Above all, our speaker is a creator—as is her brutal abuser, marking her as if she is a text to be read: “I could read,” (here is Bishop, too!) our speaker says. But what explanation can a child find for abuse?

The desk, symbol of childhood and learning, and its condition, Stein’s lines suggest, incite the punishment: “how ink would fill the ridge compressed// in wood—those cells—compressed/ for good—my own, what I was beaten for.” Both desk and speaker are described as objects of manufacture here, upon which further changes can and will be wrought. An Easter egg is likewise transformed, except where waxy crayon resists the dye: “It’s possible to envy wax.” Our speaker, however abused, maintains a degree of agency over her own body: “Sometimes I drew around the mark.” But, as with the desk, the egg, and the flower (a bruise, evidence of mortality), all violence is ultimately internalized; the chilling final sentence prefigures blackout: “Then everything went in.”

The greater complexity of “Flower” lives in its central couplet, two declarative sentences containing two direct statements: “I never learned to play the violin./ I never learned what I was beaten for.” In addition to the word “compressed” (close enough to my word, impressed), the phrases “I never learned” and “what I was beaten for” are repeated in this short poem. Other, more sonic repetitions happen throughout, but the repetition of words refers, I think, specifically to our speaker’s transgression: making the marks that deface her desk, which—in the mind of our youthful speaker—prompts the beatings.

Here also in poem’s center, which is the moment most clearly signaling the presence of the abuser and the memory of the beatings, the poem’s lines lengthen out of hymn meter into iambic pentameter—indicative perhaps of a quality of narrative memory. Elsewhere, however, there is in Stein’s lyric lines an elliptical tenderness—the impressionable egg-self—that cannot resist metamorphosis any more than it can resist its own powerful impulse to create. It has no interest in playing the violin (another’s music); instead it wishes to follow its own colorations, their penetration through surfaces, the impressions left in the depths, and the invisible effects therein.

There are more closeted poems about domestic violence—Larissa Szporluk’s early tour de force “Siege Piece” comes to mind—and those that deal with abuse more directly, but with “Flower,” Melissa Stein takes the top of my head off, to paraphrase Dickinson, and engages with a line of poets who were and are making art about domestic life and childhood that is as psychologically terrifying and emotionally astute as it is rigorous and poetically satisfying.

Kathy Fagan’s fifth collection of poems, Sycamore, will be published by Milkweed in early 2017. Fagan teaches at Ohio State and serves as Series Editor of the OSU Press/The Journal Wheeler Poetry Prize.

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