Melanie Jordan
Hallelujah for the Ghosties
Sundress Publications

Reviewer: Cindy Hochman

In fact, abstractions flock to my mental bulletin board.

—Melanie Jordan, “Meadowsweet”

          To the extent that poetry asks us to characterize, label, and even pigeonhole what we are reading into straitjacketed categories and boxes, Melanie Jordan’s bold and fascinating collection Hallelujah for the Ghosties had me scurrying to do some research on the often hotly debated school of poetry known as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. I speak directly to Ms. Jordan when I apologize for possibly going out on a misdirected limb in connecting her to this movement if this was not her intent, but a good number of elements contained in her work pose a plausible and cogent angle when seen through this lens. This is not to say that Jordan’s poems are devoid of, or abnegate, narrative voice, but hers is the kind of lively, startling, out-of-the-blue narrative that Lyn Hejinian and Rae Armantrout (notable adherents of the Language theory of poetics) employed in their work, in which the “I” provides a starting point but neatly steps out of the way while the reader, using language solely as language, constructs a new, observation-and-experience-based narrative. Like the Language poets, Jordan sustains a palpable tension throughout the poems by the deft use of rapid-fire statements, questions, and musings. Keeping in mind that one of the main principles of Language poetry is active participation by the reader, Jordan urges us to “read as though each word is a newborn” (“Proxy”), which implies not only a blank-slate quality to the symbols of language but the freedom to ascribe our own meaning and significance to the poems as a whole. This fosters an interesting interplay in which a dialogue exists between the poet, the reader, and the text that somehow manages to maintain both distance and deep engagement. So, too, Jordan balances the axis between personal detail and abstract vision, leaving room for the reader to grasp on to concrete thought and yet interpret according to taste. Then she throws some decidedly surrealistic embers onto this barbecue and the result is a wildfire of unique poems that ask, ponder, and, ultimately, satisfy.

Simple Machine

In the hardware store last Thursday, I had trouble
when I went looping my signature onto the counter.
It didn’t look right, so I kept trying. A lady
asked if I needed any help. I said no,
I just went in for bobby pins. I know my hair
was different last time you saw me, longer
or something, but everyone here says
this suits me. Really suits me.

          Now let’s talk about form. A poem often finds its own form based on the content, sometimes without the conscious assistance of the poet, but here again I will surmise that Jordan used precise and specific care in the spacing of these poems so that, not coincidentally, the form does follow the function. One of the first things you may notice when you open this book (and it’s the same visual experience I had many years ago when I first stumbled upon the poetry of William Carlos Williams) is that the lines have airy space between them; sometimes they are double spaced and sometimes triple spaced, as if the poet is purposely coaching and coaxing her readers to pause, digest, and formulate their own connotations, or, put another way, affording them the opportunity to read between the lines. So when Jordan declares that “in fact, abstractions flock to my mental bulletin board,” she is assuming that you too have a mental bulletin board to which these images will flock, and indeed, we all do. In this way, Jordan gives us carte blanche to translate and construe as we see fit, and she supplies plenty of linguistic ammunition to work with.

Tiny Lung

Cufflinks useless as broken teeth.
Stationery unnecessary in light
of our chats: carps and snips
of movies, recycled songs. Silly,
almost, a watch—to mark a minute as an empty
playground, with a carousel still spinning.
A thousand cookies, sugar, corded
in their tin, will not stack up
against the thought of you at dark.
I believe there are crickets near your home,
loud ones, probably fat. I’d send a colony
of hungry bats, but your neighbors would complain.

Ron Silliman, another forerunner of the Language movement, wrote an essay called “Disappearance of the Author, Appearance of the World.” Here lies the paradox in Jordan’s work: although the poet avoids making herself the introspective central focus of even the most narrative of her narrative poems, her poetic tendrils extend outward to let in “the appearance of the world.” And while the poet herself certainly resides in this often colorful world, the “me” and “I” she speaks of could just as easily be “you” and “us.” But Silliman’s “disappearance of the author” implies an intentional lack of voice (the main thrust of Language poetry), and Melanie Jordan’s voice is, consistently throughout the poems, a strong and present one, even when she’s standing across the street observing.

Charlie Brown in the Dead of Night

This howling makes me shiver, but it ought to be beautiful.
I wish he would stop. And you’re out there, too,
little girl, smiling over sticker albums and apple slices.
Who takes care of us? Who mends trees
when their limbs crack, who thinks of a question like that?
I know worry is a way of filing, but the folders are too long
or too narrow and none of my frets ever fit.

          Finally, schools of poetry aside, let’s talk about language (small “l”) itself. Melanie Jordan opines that “poems are made from what you have on hand, as tight a meal as you can make…the sparest litany of variable ingredients,” and in this potent book, she has followed that recipe to the letter. Her “variable ingredients” include views from the inside and outside, language that surprises and shocks, and disparate lines that come together in a sizzle—in a style that suits her.

          Really suits her.

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