Jackleg Press, 2022
132 pages, $16.74
Review by Alicia Elkort
If there were ever a poet who might inscribe the alphabet into the ether with her pen and each letter might become a symbol for the wholly, holy inherent gorgeousness of life, that poet might be named Melissa Studdard. Her newest collection, Dear Selection Committee from Jackleg Press, brings the sacred to the store so that everyone will have a chance at owning a piece of redemption.
The collection is framed as a job application. The speaker is asking to be chosen. But inherent in the answers is an even greater request, that the poet choose herself, forgive herself, and come to terms with the messiness of life. When who we are feels at odds with who either society thinks we should be or who we think we should be, as it does for many of us, finding our place means discovering the pace and peace of self-acceptance, a process of maturation. For Studdard, it’s also a process of recognizing the godhead that she is. As if the poems were saying, Oh I’m a mess of a human being, but wait I’m also a miracle that begets more miracles. The work of the poems in this collection is to stand proudly and say, and that’s okay, not only for me but for you, too. Studdard’s poems and the words and worlds she crafts create a conversation that makes it okay.
The intersection of the profane and the sacred is everywhere evident. The very first poem after which the collection is titled, “Dear Selection Committee,” exactly articulates this intersection.
…I would prefer
an office with a view overlooking the most intriguing
mysteries of the universe, but I will settle for a small
window into the mind of God, so long as I have
curtains to pull closed when it gets awkward.
And it does get awkward. There are “neurotic tendencies” and “awful claws.” There are “lost worlds” and an “exhausted, /grieving mother.” There are lines like “I’m embarrassing like that. A walking faux pas…” and “All the trench coats I own, I’ve embezzled from myself,” and “The truth is sometimes I get tired of being human.” But then there is also the stark realization that one’s greatest need after all the humiliations of living, after the way sorrow is heaped upon us, is to take responsibility. In the poem, “The Pain Is So Resplendent It Has Babies,” there is so much pain, a torture of pain, but the last line brings the focus where wisdom lives.
I realize it is me who has conceived, and
mothered, and nurtured, my pain all along.
I love the use of commas here to force a pause in order to emphasize that what was done was done, albeit unconsciously and perhaps naively, in the name of good. Conceived, comma. Mothered, comma. Nurtured, comma. My pain all along. Bam! Bam! Bam! In fact, Studdard’s use of lineation sometimes borders on the sublime. In the poem “Untitled,” she writes:
I was good, but I never was. I’m coming home
with a bleeding angel
between my teeth. Open the door to the heart’s door.
Imperfection is the only
muse. And I am her handmaiden. Please
Love me anyway.
When I craft line breaks in my own poems, I read each line by itself to see what other possible meanings I might elicit. In this passage, if we read the lines above as complete thoughts, meaning and intention come into focus:
I was good, but I never was. I’m coming home.
With a bleeding angel.
Between my teeth. Open the door to the heart’s door.
Imperfection is the only.
Muse. And I am her handmaiden. Please.
Love me anyway.
The line “I was good, but I never was. I’m coming home,” reads like a metaphysical treatise. First the negation, “I was good, but I never was.” Does Studdard mean she never was good or she never was? “…but I never was. I’m coming home.” Do the words mean the poet never existed? Or that the poet never existed as she imagined herself to exist? And the result of that is returning home. Home here as the heaven of life, or the truth or who we are.
“With a bleeding angel,” is striking in its irreverence. When we think of angels, we normally think of divinity. And it also seems to me that this is how Studdard views herself–all holiness yet still vulnerable to loss and the accompanying pain.
“Between my teeth. Open the door to the heart’s door,” reads as if the heart’s door is between the poet’s teeth, and what she consumes then, what leads to her belly, to her insides is where the heart is found, an embodiment of the divine.
“Imperfection is the only,” might be Studdard’s mantra. If not mantra than invocation. If not invocation, then truth. An imperfect sentence. An imperfect human, because what are we if not imperfect?
And the last line of this sampling does not end in a question. She’s not asking, she’s commanding “Love me anyway.” Speaking from a place of vulnerability, Studdard finds the courage to assert that she is worthy no matter whether she is good or not good. Yes yes, I say. Hooray for her, and for me. I find permission for my own self-acceptance in these poems. And the question, the “please” is reserved for the line that reads like a prayer. “Muse. And I am her handmaiden. Please.” Here Studdard is beseeching the muse to make her its handmaiden. And that’s what I see as the other work of the poems in this collection. Studdard delivers or channels or becomes the instrument of a god or goddess or a worldview that is so forgiving that we can all see ourselves in the light of non-judgement, the light of all that is right with the world. And nowhere does she write it so explicitly as in the poem, “When the Drunk Guy Sent an Injured Baby Goldfinch to the Wildlife Rehab by Uber.” After her kid DMs her that “This is something you would do,” the poet is so ecstatic that not only does she have a kid that DMs her, but also that her kid sees her as the kind of person who would, even while drunk, rescue a goldfinch by sending it to rehab in an Uber. And who does that? An unbelievably kind, compassionate, loving person who through the fog of alcohol still must do what is right. And what is a DM but a Direct Message. And what does she do with this information, this Direct Message? She shares more and more of the compassion and love:
and another bouquet of flowers blooms in my chest
and I pluck them and hand them to a homeless man
and they regrow
and I pluck them and hand them to a robin’s nest
and they flutter down into the air around me
and I am flutter among them
dancing on a picnic table in the park
and I send a video of it to everyone I know
and my kid is the first to respond
and I am a thousand barrels of wine
pouring myself into the world.
The poem is organized into a pattern of 1-2, 1-2, 1-2. A singlet, then a couplet. Repeated 8 times. This to me feels like a dance, perhaps a waltz with ¾ time, mm-Bap-Bap. Given how the poet is describing how she is filled with so much joy that she must share it, she is dancing the reader to ecstasy, mm-Bap-Bap, mm-Bap-Bap, mm-Bap-Bap, all the while pouring herself into the world. “Life’s never dull when your name’s/Melissa,” Studdard writes in the poem “My Boyfriend’s Body’s Covered in Newspaper.” Yes, the poems in this collection pour Melissa into the world, Melissa who is a penis shaped hurricane, a person full of flamboyance and grit, a sensualist who makes love seven times in four hours, the beseecher, the good and the not so good, the person who buries shame in the backyard and wants to love everyone, no one left out. Ultimately, Melissa is a poet of enough consequence that, as in the poem “Migration Patterns,” she carries the North Star across a border in the trunk of her car, saying “I’ve got enough light to do anything.”
I could write forever about the poems in this collection, and I’d love more than anything to read these poems out loud so that we might thrill together at the numerous instances of vulnerability and humor and permissions, at the way there is an inclusiveness under the umbrella of her poetic sensibility. Instead, I’ll end here and let the poet’s wisdom resound from her own words:
…So this is how
we arrive in this life: already letting go, mystical
as the ALEF-BEIT, independent of mothers, fathers
and bodies, casting our own incomprehensible,
immortal spells—flying back, already flying back,
into the feathery, hollow-boned throat of God.
Alicia Elkort’s first book of poetry, A Map of Every Undoing was published in 2022 by Stillhouse Press with George Mason University, after winning their book contest. Alicia’s poetry has been nominated several times for the Pushcart, Best of the Net, and the Orison Anthology, and her work appears in numerous journals and anthologies. She reads for Tinderbox Poetry Journal and works as a Life Coach. Alicia lives in Santa Fe, NM where praise and clouds are part of her everyday experience. For more info or to watch her two video poems, visit Alicia Elkort’s website.