Hover the Bones, By Melisa Malvin-Middleton
Review by Cody Deitz
Melisa Malvin-Middleton’s debut collection Hover the Bones, an installment in the Native Blossoms Chapbook Series, explores terrains of family and loss, where nothing is easy and nothing is taken for granted.
Through nineteen poems that run from the distinctly personal to the public, even broaching the political in places, Malvin-Middleton tries “to understand that which makes us human, / that which makes us scarred” (“Schism of My Maker”). It is this tension—between what makes us human and what makes us scarred—that charges these poems, and also what allows us to overcome the opacity that nostalgia, even beautifully-wrought nostalgia, can sometimes create.
Hover the Bones is a book first and foremost about family, and about what it means to be bound by blood. The opening poem, notably titled “Of Closure,” makes a ritual of burying an unborn child’s remains. The speaker here is concerned with what will suffice—what ritual she can enact to both mark this moment and move past it:
And it was good
enough to dig.
I test the soil
under metal’s scrape,
…One inch. Two.
must I go to release you?
This highly enjambed poem sets the tone in style and content for much of the collection, where so much is about letting go, negotiating the distance between self and family, between the present and the past. Malvin-Middleton’s speaker seems to struggle often with a palpable sense of responsibility—guilt, even—that effectively grounds many of these poems.
Part of this responsibility is of the natural order. “She Died Alone” sees the speaker’s mother “in the middle of the living / room swallowed by hospice bed,” and her father’s voice echoes thinly in a later poem as he says “The dialysis is making me sicker” to a daughter that can do little more than agree: “Yes, sometimes it does. // It keeps him alive” (“Dialysis”). These moments, I think, are where we see Malvin-Middleton at her best. Where she might easily employ her considerable lyrical power, she eases back, letting the images do their work. The final image of “Dialysis” is an excellent example of this. See how the language here is stripped down to the barest observation:
whittling away in a chair
surrounded by others
hooked up to an assembly line
with the drone of daytime reality
shows playing over their heads.
She achieves a powerful synergy between the matter-of-factness of the language and the expansion of that long sentence across six lines; we actually hear the drone of the TVs overhead. And there are so many points where this image could be watered down by interjection, but Malvin-Middleton resists. We are left with the powerful tension between the hum of “daytime reality / shows” and the deeper, more profound reality to which the speaker (and we) are attuned.
But this book is not dedicated entirely to these questions of family. We actually encounter a wide variety of images and textures—from internal, almost surreal treatments of anxiety in “Signal of the Sirens” to sketches of a roller-derby girl at last call where “one shot after another run / in her silken hose / under sheets” (“Last Call”).
Some readers might consider this to be one of the weaknesses of the collection—the looseness with which these themes are connected. Like the speaker in “Bougainvillea,” we might “lose track of form / in this origami jungle.” This is a fair criticism, I think, but one perhaps based on a cursory reading. If one steps back and considers the collection as a whole, a sustained undercurrent emerges: how can I be in the world? this speaker seems to ask, knowing what I know? Time and time again, Malvin-Middleton’s answer comes in the form of language—more language. The book’s epigraph from Audre Lorde rings true: “So it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive.” And I think these poems feel like Malvin-Middleton speaking, remembering, knowing that this may well be our best response to suffering and loss.
From the emotionally-charged, kaleidoscopic walk through a present charged by memory, we arrive finally at prayer. Through division inherent in “Schism of My Maker,” the speaker finds in her mother’s passion—for theatre, for art—herself. She asserts herself here more clearly than anywhere else in the book. She writes,
I am a master at unearthing our humanness, our faults
in raw honesty.
Trying to understand that which makes us human,
that which makes us scarred—
If you read, like I did when I first encountered these lines (and still do), “that which makes us human, / that which makes us sacred,” I think this book has done its work. And indeed, we end in invocation. In a book that strives to both heal from loss and not lose its power to color our lives in a meaningful way, the speaker finds the most appropriate ending in prayer. Words are, Malvin-Middleton believes, our greatest power of invocation, and I’m inclined to agree. Like a singing bowl, the speaker chants:
May I be well.
May I be happy.
May I be free from suffering.
May you be well.
May you be free.
May you be free from suffering.
May we be well.
May we be happy.
May we be free from suffering.
Honor the Bones is available now through Yak Press.
Cody Deitz is a California native but now resides in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where he is a PhD student in English at the University of North Dakota. He is a recent winner of the Academy of American Poets University Prize, and his poetry has been published or is forthcoming in various literary journals including NAILED, North Dakota Quarterly, The Fourth River, and others, and he recently released his first chapbook, Pressed Against All That Nothing, with Yak Press.