July 9, 2021KR Reviews

Near But Not Touching: On The Naomi Letters by Rachel Mennies

Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2021. 112 pages. $17.00.

The Naomi Letters, Rachel Mennies’s second collection of poems, is made up of letters to Naomi, a figure who stands in for suppressed bisexual longing, a woman who never appears or returns. While the desire for Naomi that pulsates throughout the poems suggests lust and freedom, the lack of attaining her also imbues the collection with a strong sense of anxiety. The meticulous form of the book—from an abiding commitment to strophes, to the dates of the letters, to chronology—shows us a speaker immersed in acts of devotion both sacred and profane. Just as Mennies’s first book of poems, The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards takes on the predicaments Judaism imposes on a woman’s body, The Naomi Letters takes up the epistolary and the strophe as though they were prayer. Naomi’s name appears in this book as often as Adonai appears in a Siddur. And like Adonai, Naomi is revered in her lack.

Mennies opens the book with the line: “The love poets say suffering is relative, but would they pull a plane whole from the sky?” It is an airplane, of course. Yet, the largesse of this opening call tells us that it is also a plane for love. In this speaker’s world, such a plane exists apart from what we might know or learn from “the love poets.” The speaker answers her own question immediately: “I would pull a plane whole from the sky if you asked me to.” The speaker will be so bold only if the desire is mutual. It will take the speaker a year’s worth of letters to discover whether or not Naomi will know or learn to ask.

The chronology of letters records the changing conditions—of the seasons (which loosely follow the Jewish calendar) and of what is between the two women. The reader and the speaker herself come to recognize a change within the latter. On August 7, 2016, the speaker writes to Naomi:

One night, a man who slept beside me said if I put my ear on your jaw while you sleep, I can hear your teeth grinding.

He didn’t know I couldn’t sleep: that I felt him listen as my body chewed its day to dust.

As children, Naomi, my sister and I searched the Delaware beaches for conchs, native thousands of miles south.

We put the ersatz shells to our ears and hummed. None matched the ocean’s rolling right across the Cape.

I whittled my molars to knifepoints in the dark, listening for the waves.

As children, our arguments about what was sex always made their way back to the mouth.

How the mandible cups the throat’s soft pillow.

I couldn’t know, as a child, how close my desire lives to fear.

How I’d open my jaw to the man’s cock the next night, testing him.

Suppressed in the volcano of the past, the speaker’s desire and fear—of what she now knows in herself—are liable to burst. Yet, as the book goes on in letters, in strophes, and in the litanies they make season to season, the speaker stays in her own monotony. The monotony is the jaw grinding—the angst that manifests in pills, writing these letters, not sleeping, reading, and collecting lines from beloved books—but it is also the book’s predominant music.

The strophe is the unrelenting line unit for the whole of The Naomi Letters. The poems refuse enjambment; they seem to seek the symmetry of the past. The desire for formal control promises the speaker a means of casting lines out in all directions, on every plane: from her to God, to her Rabbi, to her doctors, to the writers she covets, to the reader, and so on. “[unsent draft]” deepens the meaning and use of the strophe as a poetic tool—one that is particularly queer in this book—by their arrangement. The strophes are in sets of two but with space between them. They are duets but loudly not couplets. Near but not touching. No syntactical spill from one strophe to the next. Each strophe must be treated as a lone linguistic object, even when they fly in perfect form. Here is “[unsent draft]” in its entirety:

If I could keep her company in the blue bed.

If I could join the assembled birds arrowed towards the greening park.

 

If I could desire a bowerbird instead of her, I could feel migration as instinct and follow it.

If I could desire a bowerbird instead of her, I could feel desire as instinct and follow it.

 

If I didn’t know her black brows move when she sleeps as if remembering and forgetting an idea.

If I didn’t know she sleeps unclothed, even in winter when the birds are gone.

 

If she said read to me, I would say how.

If she said please, I would say each female bowerbird mates only once.

The poem uses the anaphora “if” as a means of negation. If the speaker could keep Naomi company in the blue bed, then perhaps the rest of these intimate things could happen. But none of it feels possible. It’s hard to know which of the lovers would be hurt more by saying the last directive aloud. Would Naomi leave at the idea of monogamy? Or does monogamy stand to trap the speaker into a normativity that betrays some parts of her that are fluid or bisexual?

Strophe comes to us from the Greek, “turning” or strophein, “to turn.” While Naomi and the men turn away from the speaker in various encounters in the book, the speaker herself cannot stop turning, spiraling. As anxiety eats at her, the speaker’s desire to be turned by Naomi is undying. In Naomi’s absence, the speaker can only turn and return to herself.

Buried in the devotion to formal precision is the deep pain of being unseen and untouched by Naomi, the figure who is already gone. In The Naomi Letters, Mennies’s speaker writes lines that won’t ever be seen by the desired. The speaker is left with us, the readers—a notion that someone else might witness what has happened between these two, even if the bodies have no record of it. More painfully, some of us might even read the poems in the same fashion in which the speaker wrote them—as a kind of prayer: not one that ends in desire but in light.