Melissa Crowe is a curator of hauntings, of what lodges itself dead center in the chest, be it something marvelous, “your days—dawn-dark, full of promise,” or something disconcerting, “towers collapsing/ and collapsing.” In her poems we encounter a world that cannot be easily comprehended or classified or sated, and come to better fathom how the scope and discontinuity of regularly encountering its inconsistencies unsettles us. Her poems are in love with the world and troubled by it, dredge the lake bottom of what isand come up with a world corruptible and blooming, of kerosene and lilac and fried dough, of bone and hatchlings. As the title of Crowe’s full-length collection—Dear Terror, Dear Splendor—suggests, here is a poet in intimate conversation with the incontrovertible, inseparable harshness and beauty of the world we live in, and what we have made of it and each other. Both terror and splendor get their fair share of airtime, reminding us of the oft unbearable-yet-bearable proximity of creation and destruction.
In many ways, Crowe’s poems chart the coming-of-age story of herself, her family, her daughter—remarkably spanning several decades—and thus are full not only of vivid depictions of the lived dissonance most of us feel as inhabitants of the modern world, but include a range of generational and three-dimensional points of view that make that friction even more layered and knotty. Though the task of recounting private and public histories of hardship is, of course, a kind of lamentation, Crowe never succumbs to unalloyed melancholy or pity in her portrayals. In the world of every love poem there is something serrated and in every elegy or grievance, something startling redolent. Given this, the poet’s name seems almost divination—Melissa: lemon balm, honey, bee; Crow[e]: a foraging black bird known for its intelligence, adaptability, and communication skills.
Crowe’s poems are demonstrably narrative and deeply lyric, and their impressive intensity comes from poignant verdant imagery, surprising wordplay, the alchemy of her juxtapositions, a slow fado-like music, and an unapologetic vulnerability and sincerity. I can’t remember the last time I read a book of poems that vividly and unequivocally depict rural working class life so well: “the uncles eat onions/ like apples, need hot dogs and pain meds, their pelvises/ in pieces from the car wreck, they ask you to barefoot/ their bare backs ... cook trout on a grill of concrete blocks/ lifted from construction sites, the scent of smoke/ and fat and joy—.” She is an omnivore of subject, summoning uncles, food, nurses, F words, cashiers, bats, breastfeeding, war, echolocation, oxycontin, andshe is equally drawn to and savvy with form, as evidenced by the gamut that show up in her book: Mourning Portrait, Prayer, Manifesto, Epithalamium, Love Song, Elegy, Waiting Song, Aubaude, Apologia, and Still Life. I admire that the speaker of these poems is not a conduit for overreaching epiphanies or revisionist learning arcs, but rather, she sees and sees and sees, offering us the lush uncategorical nature of experience and a script of the courage it takes to not delimit its variance, illegibility, and force. Hence, that her heart is “a foraged/ apple, still green ... does not forgo that it is also “salt broth/ and slivers of meat” and a “dishrag/ dipped in vinegar.”
As Crowe’s speaker conjures the consequences of circumstance on herself and those with whom she grew up, she is also cultivating a new family, and the ricochet between the two reminds us—despite the contrary rallying cry of entrepreneurial self-help gurus—that we do not transcend our experiences no matter how much our circumstances transform. We do not progressively improve or completely heal, but rather as Crowe shows us we learn to manage our losses and ghosts, like fireflies in a glass jar, fragile and lit. These poems show us how to respect and comfort the former selves still mastryoshka-ed in our bodies, and, if we are lucky, aid us to feel the cool sensual edges of those hard places, “our throats velvet” ... [able] to “carve/ each craving to its bone.”
Born in the Great North Woods of Presque Isle, Maine (as extraordinarily rendered in her poems), Melissa Crowe received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and her PhD from University of Georgia. She is the author of two chapbooks, Cirque du Crève-Coeur(dancing girl press 2008) and Girl, Giant(Finishing Line Press 2013), and a full-length collection, Dear Terror, Dear Splendor(University of Wisconsin Press 2019), and the recipient of a Barbara Deming/Money for Women Grant and the Betsy Sholl Award for Excellence in Poetry. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Atlanta Review, The Cortland Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Crab Orchard Review,andSeneca Review. She is currently co-editor of Beloit Poetry Journaland coordinator of the MFA program at University of North Carolina Wilmington.The speaker of Melissa Crowe’s poems is often anxious, worried, feels helpless, and yet, with every well-attended detail and insight, reveals herself to be extraordinarily powerful. So believe her when she says: “Fuck this painful, sweet, fleeting, beautiful shit” [...] “you’re a citizen of this/ future” and “[you’ll] have to lift off in ill-starred/ conditions every day.” Go with the faith that “bitterness is tempered/ by the blush of love.”