Field Guide to Autobiography
by Melissa Eleftherion
The Operating System, 2018
Melissa Eleftherion has left a road map to the most minute parts of herself in Field Guide to Autobiography
(forthcoming, The Operating System, 2018). To write oneself often proves challenging, but Eleftherion's language is enchanting and endlessly surprising. She guides the reader through a microscopic world, weaving in and out of small green spaces and the inside of seashells. She gives vibrant life to the parts of the world we generally cannot see and, in the process, speaks deeply to human emotion and experience. Writing in a thematic style explored by poets like Robert Hass in Field Guide
and Lisa Olstein in Lost Alphabet
, Eleftherion brings a new voice to eco-poetry.
Eleftherion splits her book into three separate parts: auto/, /bio
, and field graph [no guide]
. In each section, she pulls from the various field guides mentioned in her source notes, including Frederick Pough's A Field Guide to Rocks and Minerals
and A Field Guide to Insects: America North of Mexico
. Many poems begin with lines from each field guide, and include scientific vocabulary used as metaphor. Each piece is deeply abstract, juxtaposing scientific language with cryptic lyricism. Shockingly beautiful lines — such as "The crystals were wet skeleton music" — leave small markers of simmering humanity. Within each piece, many left untitled, there is a key to understanding. Poems become increasingly heart-wrenching through the extensive and creative use of scientific terminology. In "the paper birch," she writes of peeling back the tree's skin, "crunching through/the soft memory of tomorrow," to find family etched upon its surface. Poems like "my aborted fetus visits Coney Island Circus Sideshow" and "that time a tree grew out of my mouth & I had armor"
tackle traumatic or impactful life events through small details about birds or microscopic plant parts. "that time" refers to the speaker's heart as "a phloem," a conductor of sugars in plant life. In context, the sentiment is beautiful: "The heart is a phloem/a muscle scar." Here, she paints the heart as a conductor, scarred from frequent use and abuse. In "my aborted fetus," a walking trip through galleries filled with egg yolks and wingless birds mentions a "shimmer of idea" and ends with "a high squealing wah wah wah
." These vague, yet pointed moments force the reader to lean into abstraction — to hear a baby's cry, to wonder at the hazy definition of life.
Though much of this book is esoteric, its true success lies in Eleftherion's attention to human complexity. The use of fauna and flora, in all its specificities, allows for the author's wildly imaginative writing to shine. In "erasiromotor," Eleftherion writes human existence into beauty: "To become solemnly visible, gratification of the body/A curving, a fabric, tidal device a study of/Subatomic music the absolute brightness." In "tellins," the opening poem to field graph
, she writes "when home disintegrates/we belong everywhere." The deeply human desire to belong is threaded throughout the collection, rearing its head in poems about mollusks or cormorants. She creates massive, microscopic worlds, and within each, there is life.
Visit Melissa Eleftherion's Website
The Operating System' Website