by Michael Schmeltzer
Two Sylvias Press, 2016
Allison Joseph has a poem in the collection My Father's Kites
(Steel Toe Books, 2010) titled "On Not Wanting to Write A Memoir" that starts with the lines, "What's there to write? I had the kind of youth/I'll need the rest of life to figure out." Maybe that sentiment gives truth to what Rick Barot calls the "radical nostalgia" present in Michael Schmeltzer's
full-length debut Blood Song
. A year after he won the 2015 Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award for Elegy/Elk River (Floating Bridge Press, 2015)
Schmeltzer has provided readers with a strong, enduring debut collection with a determined voice providing insight into the anxiety of familial relations. Additionally, Schmeltzer uses sophisticated language and timely wordplay that leaves open the possibility for varied interpretations.
One of the first poems of the collection, "Insect, Inflict," taps into Schmeltzer's oeuvre: it explores a lasting memory of childhood. The speaker asks:
What do we call that
form of innocence,
cruelties we inflict?
By way of a hyphen, Schmeltzer's nuanced use of punctuation allows for multiple readings. Consistently present in literature, there's the correlation of childhood and innocence, yet Schmeltzer also reminds readers that "childhood-specific cruelties" not only exist, they can thrive in particular circumstances. Continuing the insect metaphor, the speaker of the poem recalls his father — a recurring figure who haunts the pages like a spectre, but in this case, he is present as a bar fight victim, as evidenced by "… a slash across his gut/like an open cocoon." The last two stanzas distance themselves from the speaker's father but leave the readers with an image of a snipped dragonfly. The poem embodies the haunting nature that Schmeltzer is able to convey, indicative of early Louise Glück
, particularly Descending Figure (Ecco Press, 1980)
. Taking Schmeltzer's fascination with familial relationships further, the poems in Blood Song
bind the collection — like ribbons for a gift — each one unraveled provides a little bit more understanding of Schmeltzer's vision.
In the second section of the book, the poem "Blessing of Scabs" channels childhood memory into poetry; the poem's characters are the speaker, an old woman, and a friend. The central image of the poem is leaves but the central theme is coming into oneself. Schmeltzer writes:
… I was
too embarrassed to say
how pretty they were,
symmetrical and red
Schmeltzer's speaker narrates the inherent uncomfortableness in children who think differently than their friends. He writes "My buddy/crushed them in his palms …" creating the alluded-to title "blessing of scabs." There's a sense of uncomfortableness that is only magnified by the woman who "treated each leaf//as a precious thing/and our parents told us she wasn't/right in the head." Like most of the poems in this collection, Schmeltzer's speaker is working against himself, his family, and his setting and this task proves challenging.
Schmeltzer's speaker compares his actions in "Blessing of Scabs" to telling his dad that he loves him (the father) because he (the speaker) punches him — the awkwardness pervades the poem, reminding us of the complicatedness that drives his relationship with his father. The awkwardness is not the only thing that clouds the poem; alcohol serves as agent to confusion and unsteadiness. The speaker sees double and near the poem's end, the leaves return as Schmeltzer writes:
And like those leaves both beautiful
and worthless, like blood thickened
to scab, the world appeared
balanced by its doppelgänger.
The word "scab" particularly draws me in, especially when considering the poem (and poet) are trying to piece together memory in order to piece together healing.
Vulnerability in Schmeltzer's writing is one of his poetic strengths because it dares to connect and intertwine his stories with the reader's own personal histories. This is particularly effective in the last poem, "Lighthouse," in which Schmeltzer writes "Let me guide you home/with a lit cigarette as our lighthouse." The "you" refers to the speaker"s father again — but it also may be intended for the readers. Continuing in the poem however, it becomes clearer who the intended you is, as Schmeltzer longingly asks (and responds), "Do you realize nothing we offer/anchors those we love/to us? The night you left//proves this." Again, Schmeltzer exhibits effective use of punctuation and space, by separating stanzas to embody his father's absence. Calculated technique like this has staying power, and the fact that this appears in a debut collection only reaffirms Schmeltzer's poetic power and potential. The poem's close returns to the central image, the lighthouse, and states:
it barely recalls separating
light from dark, sea from harbor,
the ones who left from those on land
who wait anxiously through the star-soaked night
into the somber shipwreck of a dawn.
The anxiety of the poem succeeds in the distances between — between light and dark, sea and land, night and dawn, father and son. Schmeltzer's willingness to be vulnerable guides readers to connect (and empathize) with him.
Michael Schmeltzer's Blood Song
is reminiscent of Theodore Roethke's
statement that "Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries." Michael Schmeltzer certainly moves among mysteries. His poems explore inward and yet he produces such memorable outward expressions that are not only admirable, they are also pretty wonderful.
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