Landscape with Sex and Violence
(YesYes Books, 2017)
Landscape with Sex and Violence is Lynn Melnick’s second book of poems. It arrives when the testimony of sexual assault is encoded into social media and a 24-hour news cycle. Readers who are victims themselves encounter a poetic voice in Melnick, one that is “envenomed” with the need to tell her story her way. Melnick name-checks Hole in one of the book’s epigraphs before introducing her persona, also named “Lynn.” Aggressive but never alienating, she delights with a tone that channels Whitman by way of Courtney Love. In “Landscape with Stucco and Dandelion,” the book’s proem, she declaims:
I am going to confess this once
and then I am going to confess it again
in different ways I won’t admit to but never mind.
The reader is addressed in close-up, against a pocked suburban backdrop. What follows is a sequence of flashbacks that forms a startling poetic memoir. Critics have compared Melnick to Sexton and Plath, but when it comes to narrative strut, she wears the stilettos of Eve Babitz. She shares her fellow Southern Californian’s wit and sense of place. Eve’s Hollywood is clearly an influence, as well as Didion at her more deadpan.
Landscape with Sex and Violence reframes the coming-of-age tale as two-part struggle against trauma. In the first part, the initial trauma is repeated in pickup trucks, in parking lots, in backstage bathrooms. The speaker sharpens memories into shards, removing everything except the experience of trauma reaffirming itself on skin. Fictional Lynn rages throughout with the bravado of a victim who would give you a fat lip for ever calling her one. As she writes in “Landscape with Written Statement,” to anyone who would wonder:
because: fuck you,
you didn’t find me here.
I bought you here.
In “Landscape with Sex and Violence”—the title poem, the punctum of her photos isn’t jabbed at the reader. Melnick’s speaker turns it on herself. “There is little I am good at,” she says, washing blood from her hair. “There is little I am good for,” she adds, at the end, at the rim of the landscape she had been avoiding. The gut-punch of these statements reminds the reader of Natalie Eilbert’s Indictus (Noemi Press, 2018) and Claudia Cortese’s Wasp Queen (Black Lawrence Press, 2016), two contemporary works whose confessional immediacy seems tagged to the landscape of social media.
Fictional Melnick turns the repetition of trauma into ritual in the latter half of the book. Making herself a co-conspirator in “You Think It’s Tragic But No Maybe Not” she admits:
A man in the clinic suggested I stop
keeping secrets. So I’ll share
with you my most recent fat lip, how
the new one I bought covers it
The speaker’s body has become the landscape. What began as the search for fixed boundary has hardened into the Maginot Line recognized by creatures of excess. Transgression of the kind explored by Babitz and countless chroniclers of rock culture is presented as the quest for liminal space—that oasis between breaths often mistaken for oblivion. “Distress Call from the City of My Youth” embodies the pursuit:
Punks tell me they have feelings
while marching their crude revolution
toward my corner of Sunset, but I am worn
out of feelings so I try again
to escape this lawless hunt
Landscape with Sex and Violence sends help. But not in a way that the reader would expect. After requesting to be scattered into the wind like a dried leaf (“Poem to Remind My Heart to Beat”), the character emerges with a deeper understanding of topography. Here, there is no separation between Self and Other, intention and mise-en-scène. In the closing lines of “One Sentence about Los Angeles,” the collection’s final poem, the roots offer a single, continuous system.
in a desert
where palms are signposts of water, not the want of it.
Melnick combines the readability of fiction with the compression of poetry. Having both qualities in a single collection is a rare achievement. It would be too easy, however, to say that Melnick has given us poetic reportage. Her work is rich in references that go as deep as her emotions. For instance, the doll imagery in the concluding cycle of poems brings together both Hans Bellmer and Courtney Love’s most famous turn as Surrealist poupee. Such texture leads from the immediate. It grants access to a place that feels earned, far beyond the toxic soil beneath us.