Melanie Jordan, Hallelujah for the Ghosties, Sundress Publications, 2014
Reviewed by Andie Francis
I like to read first books the way an aye-aye locates its meal in the rainforest, tapping at the bark's surface with its elongated digits before chiseling a hole with its incisors & extracting from the tree's darkest cavities.
Melanie Jordan's Hallelujah for the Ghosties is no exception to my percussive foraging ritual. I liken "ghosties"to exceptional grub & forage on. Tapping the spine leads me to the exact, innermost poem, "Cakegirl,"where my index finger is met with the first line, Looking in, you would have seen
& when I look in, cover-to-cover rule aside, & when this innermost poem fuzzes into focus, I am almost certain I can extract what's subsurface: a baroque sensibility. The reader becomes immediately part of the "seeing"& not, because what we would have seen
had we been in the rented room, would have been the speaker (cakegirl), who is not physically in the room either (as though / I were there). Rather than present a predictable relationship between reader & speaker, speaker & space, Jordan leads us, along with her speaker, through a complex labyrinth like a penny dropped down / a grate.
In "Cakegirl,"like many of Jordan's poems, we are situated in a dystopia, a snapjaw world unsettlingly different than what meets the eye (or digit). Her images, like cymbals, strike against one another, as in cinderblock underbelly / of some church or plastic sacks heavy with corsages.Her speaker resounds who she is not (I am no bride-sister, no maid).
To project who one is not is to mutate space. Who or what maybe meets whom or what where? This might account for Jordan's connection to 17th century baroque painter, Caravaggio. He is sighted/cited four times in Hallelujah, once, maybe, in the 1597 court / of Del Monte with Galileo, who went to jail for his belief / in a central sun.
For the reader who doesn't wish to begin in a collapsible universe, Jordan's first poem, "Simple Machine,"serves as a foundation, albeit sculpted, cozy as the snapping / together of Dad's briefcase. The peach tree & hardware store appear as if frozen, suited, in time. The speaker articulates: I am an obvious gesture / I am simple machinery / tiny, I can be easily fixed. So begins the first of a three-part collection.
The speaker further volleys with what is easily fixed throughout the beginning, middle & end of the book. For me, as grub-digger, it's hard not to confront Jordan's more complex machinery. I ask the speaker, "What is preservable?" & she responds (1) a balanced pencil on my nose (2) my oily forehead against / the window (3) my dumb baby photo
Or "Transformable?" & she (1) a paddle / without the rubber ball attached (2) I can't transform February / from my third-story office (3) x-ing out your nipples like dead cartoon eyes
Or "Fleeting?" & she (1) spitting into a trail of ants (2) leafless banana trees (3) gloved fingers in front of your face
Or "What exists apart & together?" & she (1) your ghost does not walk my full moon (2) sheep are clouds with legs (3) your cat's ribcage in the chicken coop
I tell her I want to be all of these things at once. I want to inhabit the poems more than look in. I want to metabolize language. The aye-aye in me forages on.
I choose to dwell inside Hallelujah’s lyricism over its meditations. The most packed hollow of the collection is in the face-to-face "Metabolic"& "Double."In "Metabolic,"I extract the consonants "l,""b,"& "s"—handful, nails, ladder, light, letters, oldest, until, all, light, will, like, letting, fall, because, bare back,
breaking, bends, before, body, burns, breathing, case, comes, streaming, against, streetlamp, shines, this, this, slough, staple, oldest, somewhere, somewhere, seeps, skyline, saved, sieve, this, reserves. The language here is as immediate as an imperiled body, as a razor opening on its owner.
In "Double,"the jarring "f"sounds discontinue my "l"- "b"- "s"rummage—fingertips, frog's feet, flex, face, fingertips flat, fortresses, fire, face. The reader, maybe, with the help of "f,"becomes the poem. A reality of holding a book in one's hands turns into an alternate reality when, in the first line, we are asked to meet fingertips
with the speaker on the mirror. Jordan uses comparisons to further obfuscate &/or fix the boundaries between two worlds—how I flex like a copperhead on my side of the glass. By the end of my staring contest with the poem, in the reliquary where the book's holy grub is kept, I am left with ten stuttering dots, / their pidgined Morse Code, / dot and dash, dit and dah.
I stutter these remaining dots to invoke Caravaggio, head "ghostie"in Hallelujah. I want to ask, "Where is my place in this baroque book?" & when I find him in "False Attribution,"I find possible answers, too: Caravaggio's hand never / touched this relined canvas, never added a fly's shadow / to the white tablecloth.
(1) Am I a fly's shadow on the white tablecloth? (2) Am I the fly itself? (3) Or, maybe, still just an aye-aye, eating fly larvae from the hollow.