Poet Of The Week

Melanie Lee

     February 7–13, 2022

Melanie Lee is a native of Pennsylvania who grew up in Gravesend, Brooklyn, although she didn’t know it was called Gravesend until a few years ago. Traveling across the Brooklyn Bridge and seeing the central Pennsylvania stone in its arches always makes her feel like she is encountering a message. Both of her parents had art in them, her mother as an actor and her father as a painter. Her stepmother, a fabulous painter, enamelist and gardener, helped her to find a turning point toward centering art in her life. Lee’s poems and pieces of memoir have appeared in Poydras Review. She has lived in Fort Greene for the past twenty-five years. Last summer, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Simone Kearney’s Correspon-Dance workshop on epistolary poetry.

It Was Time

 

so the doctor took us to the nurse

The nurse took us to the room

Were these only moments

Who had closed your eyes You were breathing swish

in, swish

Sallow shiny sweat

The palliative care nurse brought me

her look “Your mother has about two hours”

What should I do for this for you

We decided we could sing Broadway tunes

Hello Dolly Golly gee fellas

Find her an empty knee fellas

Dolly’s never goin’ away

Dolly’s never goin’ away again

Do you remember the day

the wave knocked me down

I thought I was probably drowning

I’d forgotten to say my prayers last night

Grandma could squint real mean

so I closed my eyes nowilaymedowntosleep

ipraythelordmysoultokeep

But I was still in the blue water

Maybe a whale would be

my friend and God

How was I face down on sand my back

felt the moving waves

maybe death Some things

on my legs

pulling me backwards

I was face up I saw two blurry heads


through the wave sky blue and then

the ocean rushed back past my ears

the heads cleared One was yours

The man, the other, said a harsh

thing, turned away

You stood me free of the water and I was facing

you. You toweled me

Laughed

“Why are you

laughing?”

“Oh because the waves are lots of fun”

My mouth opened

Your open laughing mouth

your big teeth around

your black mouth

big teeth like a horse’s

a horse tied to a fence

I stopped looking

We walked back

to Daddy His

snarl mouth was real loud

we packed up the cooler blankets umbrella

sandals No one said

a thing about me and the water

No one talked the whole ride back

But now I know that was

the beginning of this poem

because when I finally promised the

Somebody I would write the dreams

of too big ocean stopped Surprise

The nurse came back “It’s time”

She wore a bright white lab coat

I think on purpose

and worked fast The spin of

the machines clicked

off a few more minutes

and you stopped.

I can’t bear to break the above line.

I wish I could sob for you.

You never took in the missing parts.

 



Brooklyn Poets · Melanie Lee, "It Was Time"

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote this for Jay Deshpande’s The Elegiac Tradition class. I’d never written elegies before, and, as the title for this poem says, it was time. I wrote this for the second assignment. It was more fraught than the first, more entwined with my everyday life. Faced with the blank page, my mother and death, I remembered that Marie Howe said the couplet is aggressive, and not knowing what else to do, I leaned on Marie Howe. I’m glad I addressed my mother; it feels like movement, finally. I like that each line within a couplet is a step that can’t disappear, and that the couplet itself cannot disappear or play extra hide-and-seek on the page. It claims a lot of space and air. And we’re moving forward even if the movement is toward an end which maybe only words might be able to bridge. That day at the beach was the last family outing that I remember before my parents’ divorce. I’m glad I realized the link between that day at the beach and my poetry. It was a discovery.

What are you working on right now?

I’m resting, reading, listening and finding out what poets do. I came late to poetry so I want to catch up on many things. The Brooklyn Poets classes I’ve taken—Blank Verse (Jason Koo), The Elegiac Tradition (Jay Deshpande), A Day in the Life (Jessica Greenbaum), Correspon-Dance (Simone Kearney) and the Yawp and Craft Labs—along with a class I took at Poets House with Ron Villaneuva have given me so much. I need to settle, discover and play with all of this. Though, if a class on forms came along, I’d be tempted to take it. I’ve discovered recording into my phone, so I always feel like I’m in the middle of language. Also, I’m writing with my left hand, which I was not permitted to do as a child. The rhythm and shaping of the letters and words are a different experience now. I want to excavate some family history, starting now and going back in time.

What’s a good day for you?

It’s always got these elements in it: my window, the sky and trees / plants (including indoor plants), our dog, words (writing and reading), yoga workout at home (extra good), hot chocolate, some other favorite food like Rao’s marinara sauce, and connecting with friends and family, usually online or by phone.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I’ve lived in Fort Greene, across from the park, for the past twenty-five years. Being right across the street from the park lets me dawdle among plants as I did outside my building in Gravesend. I’m a true New Yorker and I’d die if I didn’t have the expanse and tension of people and greenery nearby. I miss Manhattan. This part of Brooklyn is scaled for walking, thank goodness.

When I first got to Fort Greene I thought I might as well be buried in the sidewalk. But then Greenlight Bookstore came, and the rest came out okay. The area has got a bit more of an urban feel than it used to, but you have to go over to Myrtle Ave, where there is both more density and more space, to enjoy a walk of the Manhattan kind. It’s not getting any cheaper here. And, maybe it’s just me, but I see more nervousness and less smugness than there was ten years ago, due no doubt to George Floyd’s murder and the pandemic.

Things I love about Brooklyn: I love Fort Greene Park and that a man in this neighborhood grows oats in his front yard. I love Myrtle Ave, Fifth Ave and parts of Williamsburg. So much of Brooklyn feels isolated and suburban. We have a car, but I don’t drive. I wish mass transit were bigger here so that it could be as easy to get anywhere in Brooklyn as it is to get to Manhattan. That would do a lot to help me claim the borough as a mixed-use place I can roam.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

Sunrise will always be full of Brooklyn; I remember it here first.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

In my poetry community, Brooklyn Poets, I can just show up and be me. It is simply a stage for poets. I have an online poetry community where that is also true.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

I’m currently doing a deep-dive into all of Jessica Greenbaum’s poems. Her exquisite, precise language; her marveling and intimacy and scope; her ability to compress time into something I can hold—all of this gives me the shivers. And the poems give me access to what I got from my family culture (and what I didn’t). I also plan to do a deeper dive into Aracelis Girmay’s work. “Consider the Hands that Write this Letter” (from Teeth) is one of the most beautiful poems I’ve ever read. I finished The Black Maria a couple of months ago. I also want to explore D. Nurkse’s poems. They surprise me. I love that.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” was the first poem that knocked the top of my head off. I read it in my junior year of high school. I have been in awed speechlessness on some level ever since. That was the first time I was seen in a poem, that I felt worthy of a poem. And although I am not a Christian, I loved the immensity and detail of “God’s Grandeur” and “Pied Beauty.” Lots of years later, Merwin showed me I could grab hold of my names for nature and relationships, and expand with depth. Then, the Polish poets, especially Szymborska. I love the way she looks around and comments.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

Well, Jess Greenbaum. The most recent poem I read was “The First Time” in Spilled and Gone. It’s a thirty-one-line history of a relationship’s blossoming, from the beginning to the day of writing: I love the compressing capture of time and experience, all the way from her youthful smarts to her current, wizened smarts. I love its boldness. I could go on and on. That whole book knocks the top of my head off.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

The complete Canterbury Tales. The Duino Elegies. Kevin Young’s Ardency.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

If it’s prose, I try to stick with it cover to cover. If it’s poetry, I have to take frequent breaks, but I still try to do cover-to-cover before I read something else, though because of my nature that is not always practical. I make decisions about what to read next all the time, and change my mind all the time. But I do have a plan; I have too much catching up to do for randomness. I let the market, the Amanda Gormans of this world, bring me my random. I used to underline in books of all types, but now I really like to leave the text to be discovered brand new every time I open to the page. If I want to take notes, I write them down in my journal, narrate them, take a picture, or copy and paste. I love physical books most of the time, but I love digital for when I travel, especially if they’re not nice, slim volumes of poetry.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I’d like to try all the traditional forms, like in the Boland / Strand book.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I can write anywhere enclosed. Or an outdoor café. When I’m in nature, it’s harder. I love the feel of the breezes on my arms and the waves all in front and don’t want to be distracted from them. I have to get away if I want to concentrate on something else.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Brooklyn Bridge Park—it’s so close to the water, the harbor, has interesting landscaping, boats, docks, people. The new wall of wild plants at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, next to the concessions—I don’t know what it’s called. It really feels wild. It is too steep to climb. There’s a copse of trees in Fort Greene Park that feels like fairies dance there. Actually, the fairies have the whole park.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the wandering moods for celebrations;

And what frothy waves I wade in you shall fold into your ground,

For every stream of me as good as settles through you.

Why Brooklyn?

All the poets and other writers. How we make place.