The Naomi Letters, by Rachel Mennies
BOA Editions LTD, 2021
112 pages, $17
Review by Jaclyn Youhana Garver
The Naomi Letters is, at its base, a mystery book. Readers enter the collection relatively certain that the eponymous Naomi is, clearly, the speaker’s ex-lover. And why should a reader ever doubt that certainty? The first line of the book’s proem neatly sets up what’s to come: “The love poets say suffering is relative, but would they pull a plane whole / from the sky? // I would pull a plane whole from the sky for you if you asked me to.”
But as poet Rachel Mennies takes readers through a calendar year of grief with her collection of epistles, questions periodically arise:
- Is Naomi an unrequited love?
- Or is she, in fact, an ex-lover? If so, why did she and the speaker break up?
- Is Naomi, perhaps, an extension of the speaker? Not a split personality so much as a softer, gentler side to the speaker? “Naomi” is a name that means, after all, “pleasantness.”
- Or is she a summation of all the speaker’s romantic and worldly hopes? Hopes which are pinned on Naomi, this imaginary, perfect woman?
- Or, perhaps, the answer is E, all of the above. Or F, some of the above.
Mennies breaks her letters into seasons, giving these poems a timeline that begins July 10, 2016. A quick Google search doesn’t bring up any earth-changing news from that day, though the poem begins “Yesterday, Naomi, a man jumped to his death from the bridge beside / my house,” so clearly, the date doesn’t need to be earth-changing for everyone to be earth-changing for someone. The poem concludes, “I have so much more to tell you about being alive.” This poem is not only the start of the book, but, it seems the start of the breakup, when the grieving party has just begun to miss her other; when the split is so new, one half still wants to tell the other about her day. Mennies astutely admits to Naomi, and the reader, that it’s the telling to another person—an audience—that makes those instances real. The speaker devotes a year of letters to her ex as a way to continue the tradition, a way to cement the story of her days in reality. In early September, the speaker writes, “My calendar counts time like this: days Naomi writes/days Naomi doesn’t write. // All my life, I have measured my days by the gestures of a beloved.”
This line also tells the reader that the break with Naomi was not a clean one; these letters are not a collection in a journal but messages the speaker may have sent to Naomi. Sometimes, she receives responses. This admittance makes the reader feel even more as a voyeur on the speaker’s grief journey, even though letter poems are meant to be overheard by another reader, an unknown third person.
Further leading the reader to view these letters as sent and not simply collected in a journal are the periodic poems titled “[unsent draft]” in Summer and Fall and, in Winter and Spring, “[unfinished draft].” The subtle change in these titles of the poems tells a story of the speaker’s healing. Letter writing is a common therapeutic tool, and as the calendar dates tick past in The Naomi Letters, readers can see the speaker’s healing. In this way, Mennies subtly leaves clues that share the speaker’s state of mind, even as her letters focus on events of the day and memories of their relationship.
Consider the poem directly before the first “[unfinished draft].” For the first and only time in the collection, the speaker blacks out a name with a censor bar, a friend who got an abortion. The speaker leaves the friend anonymous. Had this poem appeared earlier in the year, closer to the breakup, it’s easy to imagine that the speaker would have prioritized the burst of closeness she would feel sharing something salacious with Naomi over her friend’s privacy. Though this altered use of erasure, Mennies tells the reader that her speaker is beginning to heal.
The message of healing is further solidified in the following “[unfinished draft]”:
I have not heard from you lately
Who will I tell of my student—who yesterday requested a book of Sexton’s
poems to read—
is this how I learn to tell my story, she asked me—
once you are gone?
Immediately, the reader sees the speaker second guessing herself, choosing to cross out a line that, in any context, conveys neediness. Instead, the tone moves to one of blame and again addresses the idea of the simple and vital intimacy of telling another about her day. This draft is not only unsent, but it’s unfinished, providing readers another peek into the speaker’s psyche and healing process.
The Naomi Letters is written in a stark, simple free verse, relying on rich imagery to convey feeling, an explicit example of Jorge Luis Borges’ thoughts on free verse: “Beyond its rhythm, the typographical appearance of free verse informs the reader that what lies in store for him is not information or reasoning but emotion.” Mennies employs a variety of poetic techniques to surprise and humor her readers. Perhaps one of the most effective is her playful use of line breaks. Consider the following enjambed lines: “There is another version of the story in which we survive nothing / by accident.” “Those nights I would descend the stairs in a single leap and sit bare- / shouldered on my stoop in the biting wind.” “when reading, I frequently mistake poems about God for poems / about fucking”.
Mennies also relies on a beautiful use of metaphor to tell her story in verse, resulting in what poet Edward Hirsch calls “a transfer of energies … There is something dreamlike in (metaphor’s) associative thinking.” Consider Mennies’ use of metaphor in “October 30, 2016”:
A man I once loved said forgive me each time he committed even the
(…) I never understood whom he asked to forgive him—for I find myself
incapable of forgiveness.
To the man I always replied I love you, not I forgive you.
The night he said I don’t love you, an awful August storm soaked the
(Forgive me, I have forgotten to close the window.)
(…) Instead of forgive me, Naomi, I will try to ask you to listen.
(…) As in:
Forgive me Listen, I have hung the linens to dry in the bathtub but they keep
dripping, and dripping, and dripping—
In addition to the above metaphor—because what is a fury of grief if not a fury of an August storm?—the reader is also gifted both a clue to the mystery and a whole nother mystery. Q: Why did the relationship end? A: The speaker is incapable of forgiveness. Q: But what did Naomi do to require forgiveness?
By not answering that question for the reader, Mennies insists that it’s the grieving and longing that matters over the details of the breakup.
Jaclyn Youhana Garver is a freelance writer and editor in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her poetry has appeared in trampset, Prometheus Dreaming, the Superstition Review blog, and Poets Reading the News and is forthcoming in The Oakland Review. Her reviews have appeared in publications including The Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, Poetry International Online, and Entropy. She is working on her first poetry book and a novel.