KR Reviews

“Savage Vista”: Subverting Genre in Lynn Melnick’s Landscape With Sex and Violence

Portland, OR: YesYes Books, 2017. 112 pages. $18.00.

As the Weinstein-era “revelations” of sexual assault and harassment unfolded in the media in 2017, and women became empowered to tell their own stories of abuse, Lynn Melnick’s Landscape With Sex and Violence spoke to its cultural moment. But Melnick’s dark, incisive second collection begins decades before the #MeToo movement. The book’s epigraph is a couplet by grunge rock band Hole, from the 1994 feminist anthem “Asking For It”: “Every time that I stare into the sun / Angel dust and my dress just comes undone.” By citing Courtney Love’s raw lyrics (which allude to the rocker’s own assault at a concert in Scotland), Melnick grounds her book in a dire experience of female sexual violation across time and geography. She also announces that, like a brazen guitarist in torn stockings, rocking a solo with her leg propped on the amp, these poems will not abide by literary niceties and will in fact transgress genre at every turn.

The opening poem reveals a California landscape in which violence saturates the very pavement: “This won’t be the first time I faint against a building / where the weeds escape the cracks / into some kind of suffocating, mangled abandon.” Melnick grew up in LA, but the SoCal she captures is not a bright dreamland of beaches and glamour. It’s the tragic inverse, a “savage vista” of stucco and sun-glare, and under that harsh light the speaker’s traumas are exposed. While the book’s landscapes and cityscapes vary, its violent acts remain constant. Men abuse the young speaker—physically, sexually, verbally—in a parking lot, on a bus, on a well-kempt lawn, in a “floozy motel,” in alleyways, bars, and orange groves, in smog and chaparral. Even the citrus crop becomes a form of degradation as Melnick invokes and dismantles the mythology of her home state:

I was born in what they call the heartland
but I’ve fretted the freehold length of California across centuries

enunciated through traffic groves
and whole orchards of dying fruit

By exposing the rot beneath the prettified surface, Melnick subverts the classical genre of landscape painting which informs her poems’ titles and their feminist vision. “Landscape With Smut and Pavement,” “Landscape With Blood and Boondocks,” and twenty other brutal “Landscape” pieces take an ironic twist on the tranquil, romanticized scenes portrayed in sixteenth-century European oil paintings. The painters of these classical oeuvres were mostly male. The vistas they depicted were naturalistic and expansive, often mountains or oceans seen from an elevated viewpoint. Instead, Melnick places her own body—bloody, violated, but still alive—into a series of hostile landscapes, a process of truth-telling that reclaims power and effectively confronts the male gaze. It is a courageous project akin to Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck”—delving deep into personal history to, as Rich writes, “see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail.”

Melnick uses the lyric “I” to get right up close to the damage. Her first-person speaker is aware of the constructed element of self-revelation and the repetitive nature of trauma, how it replays in the mind, lives in the body. In the first poem, she lays out her methods of disclosure: “I’m going to confess this once / and then I am going to confess it again . . . ” Later, when describing a gang rape, her diction becomes dangerously precise. Her line breaks slice like an X-Acto knife, enacting their own violence:

I rip my denim and bring enough musk to the car lot
to call it a cathouse.

The men are busy.
I stand quiet until they are busy

about me.

Melnick renders each scene in present-tense immediacy, a few graphic details capturing the vulnerability and shame of adolescent girlhood, as when the speaker, menstruating, gets molested on a Greyhound bus: “dark blood collects where I open / and I line my panties with rest stop receipts.” Although she is skilled at evocative imagery, Melnick foregoes metaphor when describing the actual traumas, using instead an urgent, literal language that inflicts its blunt force on the reader. Sometimes she speaks it with hard consonants and alliteration: “how quickly I could suck a cock / if cocaine wrapped up the transaction.” Other times she illustrates the spare, screenplay quality of the violence, appropriate to the SoCal milieu and Hollywood’s fascination with sex and brutality:

CUT TO: he shoves my face
into the flatbed and punts me

when he’s filled me.
Walk home and I do

At least one reviewer has dismissed Melnick’s book as “angry,” but in fact her poems are tonally varied, ranging from cool irony to the kind of punk-driven rage embodied by Courtney Love, who’s quoted again in “Landscape With Pinweed and Stunt Double.” Love aptly describes the dissociation that most trauma survivors experience, a kind of “split” self: “the worst thing of all / was pretending / it wasn’t happening or maybe in that moment I convinced myself / it was happening to someone else.” By taking control of the narrative, Melnick endeavors to repair this split, and she succeeds in the book’s final poems. Her skillful monostich “One Sentence About Los Angeles” reveals her as a master of her craft. In a fluid progression of couplets and single lines, the speaker keeps redefining her story, ultimately declaring herself a survivor: “I lived.

“Sexual assault, like torture, is an attack on a victim’s right to bodily integrity, to self-determination and -expression. It’s annihilatory, silencing,” writes Rebecca Solnit in her essay, “Cassandra Among the Creeps.”  When Melnick refuses to be annihilated, a life force bubbles up out of the wasteland of the California desert. Palm trees become “signposts of water,” offering sustenance to both speaker and reader. Although the act of reading Landscape With Sex and Violence can feel brutal, even unbearable at times, we find redemption alongside the trauma and grief. Using the second-person “you,” Melnick draws us intimately into the scene of “Landscape With Clinic and Oracle,” which occurs outside an abortion clinic but rejects the stigma of that locale. This poem prophesies a future where the speaker exists autonomous and whole, a mother and a poet:

    Lynn! they lied to you
don’t you know?
Your womb will be the first thing to heal.

What you smell is pleasure, not the rot of the thing
amid the waste.

You will have babies.
You will write poems about flowers that turn on in darkness.

This poem is both a triumph of the imagination and a compelling act of transgression. By invoking the “Oracle” of the title, Melnick alludes to the ancient Greek: the High Priestess of Apollo’s temple, a female voice of authority. But by juxtaposing classical antiquity with a seedy abortion clinic, Melnick once again subverts genre. She finds sacred in the profane and “pleasure” amid the “rot.” If a pregnant fifteen-year-old can rise from the ruins of her violation, then transformation is possible and Rich’s “treasure” can prevail. Fittingly, the word “oracle” derives from the Greek verb orare “to speak,” and the very act of utterance becomes an expression of female power, a necessary re-visioning of rape culture.

Diana Whitney
Diana Whitney is the poetry critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Her first book, Wanting It (Harbor Mountain Press, 2014) became an indie bestseller and won the Rubery Book Award in poetry. Her personal essays and poems have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Glamour, Green Mountains Review, and many more. She’s currently finishing a memoir about generational patterns of female silence.