Review of D H Melhem's New Book

ART AND POLITICS, POLITICS AND ART. D.H. Melhem. Syracuse University Press.
High explosives warning: this slender new volume of poems is poetical and political dynamite. Manhattan poet Melhem thought she would set out with a very classical purpose, to present poems that were inspired by, or narrate the stories of, works of visual art — an urge that arose from her own childhood engagement with painting, drawing, and sculpture. But her own life as a child of Lebanese immigrants, and the war-torn half century we have passed through, dictated otherwise. Although many of the poems here center around works of art, Melhem's poems hone in on the life-and-death issues that confront us as citizens and as a nation. This is not so far from the classical model, it turns out, since the model of ekphrasis, in The Iliad, is a description of the shield of Achilles. The shadow of war hangs over art, visual or poetic.

Every Manhattanite acquires the survival skill of being a keen observer. In "Naked Woman Walks Down the Street," Melhem throws the spotlight on a naked madwoman, noticed and arrested within minutes, while the homeless — the army she leads in the poetic fantasy that ensues — remain invisible. Like Ovid, Melhem petrifies them, warns of "their malice, their might" if they are too long ignored.

At The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the poet contrasts three disparate exhibits of Coco Chanel, Dianne Arbus, and Duccio. Like most of us, she lingers over the latter artist's Madonna and child, searching for some secret message. Why, she seems to ask, is future violence prefigured in domestic bliss, "tiny Jesus about to grow/ into his inheritance, future already/ worn into his face,/ and his mother's."

"Lincoln's Summer Home" is a masterpiece. Risky as it is to write of Lincoln in the shadow of Vachel Lindsay, Melhem succeeds in terse lines to tell us how Lincoln did not, and could not, evade reminders of his war in progress. The President did not play golf in some gated compound: his house overlooked Rock Creek National Cemetery, and from his windows he saw the daily interment of dead soldiers. She ends her poem eye to eye with Lincoln's portrait, "the monumental grief carved into it." If only Congressmen and Senators were obliged to watch the coffins of the military dead pass through their chambers.

"Poem for Elizabeth Cady Stanton" celebrates a great American heroine of the struggle for women's rights, and was occasioned by the renaming of her own Upper West Side apartment building as "The Stanton" in 2007, a belated act of architectural tribute in an age when every other hydrant is named "Trump."

"Hannibal Crossing the Alps" has its political lessons on imperial follies, but it is also an effective ekphrasis of paintings by Turner and Poussin.

In other poems more overtly social and political, Melhem displays the keen eye for the hidden powerplays of urban life that characterized Notes on 94th Street (her first book which I had the honor of publishing many years ago). She imagines a city flooded by global warming in which "submerged real estate and soggy towers/ address of sharks and whales and bloated bears." She sees prostitutes at their stations as "stone-eyed/ caryatids of their littered turf," and she throws the hard light of judgment, almost Olympian, at their pimp: "entrepreneur, landlord without land/ sultan of slumbodies/ you parade their gargoyle emblem/ for a pair of new shoes/... boss, now/ selling your sister."

"April 2004" reminds us that moments of heart-stopping beauty — a sudden bloom of cheery trees — comes to us in war-time as well as in peace-time, but these blessings of nature are not the same during a time of hurled bombs and deadly drones.

In her post-9/11"New York Epic," Melhem is Whitmanesque, becoming the sidewalk, the street, the neighborhood itself. This is urban transcendentalism, bracing and brave, self-as-personification taken to its limit, leaping to:

Impulse of rain vaults across waters
pelts me with world-horror
triggers chaos around me
wild with Baghdad and Fallujah
the bomb craters of Kabul
my gutters weep khaki and body parts
wail with prayers from mosques and temples
market air perfumed with sweet breath of dying children
and sparked with random light of exploding eyeballs
drowning in oil ripped from the earth
set afire in the land an on waters
burning me burning this street
burning its heart out
until no one
comes home to me
whole

I am you — your lives run through me within me
I am you and whatever you are intending
stained by indelible ashes blown five miles uptown
in an inconsolable shroud of acrid taste
and trembling trembling trembling
with continuing off sense
of a distant folly



Ekphrasis takes an urgent tone elsewhere in the book, when the work being explicated is an atrocity photo, in "These Policemen Are Sleeping," an indictment of Israeli-Palestinian violence, a war so unrelenting that all-consuming that it "spares lives as lottery prizes." A string of powerful poems on the Gulf War and other wars ensues, each pointed and poignant. Melhem returns to the literary classics, in "Hecuba to Hector," accusing the men's business of war, as the soldier's mother protests:

"War is men's business,"
you say. What then is women's? To tend
the funeral pyres and whitened bones? To pluck
the lyres of lamentation? I should have
rent my breasts before they suckled you
or any of my sons. Do not, I pray,
go out to meet Achilles.


There are many more wonders passed over in this brief review: all 33 poems in this collection are worthy of this fine poet, working at the peak of her powers. Order the book from your local bookstore or from Amazon.com.

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