Born to Be Wild: Melissa Broder’s Poetics of Ritual Illumination
by Melissa Broder
100 pp. / $12.95/sub>
Melissa Broder’s Scarecrone is a gestural book. Its poems reach out as they reach in, investigating their own wild and witchy language. Though Broder’s mental landscape is characterized with acts of transubstantiation, prayer, and ceremonial fire, the collection’s central ritual act is that of language itself. Scarecrone is saturated in spiritual inquiry, yet it is not a liturgical piece. Broder speaks with a kind of seized insistence that seems part prayer and part sermon, but details a profoundly human spiritual crisis.
Scarecrone voices a divided self. We reside in this world but also live in another: one we cannot see, but may glimpse or notice: fluctuant or ethereal. “I am in the hotel of bodies / temporarily,” Broder tells us in “Last Skin.” Throughout the collection, “nothingness” and “void” are invoked and subverted through dense, carefully constructed questions, images, details and vocal oscillations.
Scarecrone investigates numerous, contradictory polarities of sensation; it chronicles a mind and body moving from and between elevation and deflation. Not unlike the Romantics, the “self” Broder voices in her poetry is a source of meaning and disappointment. The body and its desires are magnified, frequently only to be found miserable, lonely, and even cursed.
Gaston Bachelard says a poem begins in awe and ends in organizing disappointment. Since thought is the source of our pain, it fails, repeatedly, to deliver us from it. Still, efforts: moments in which the self is caught fleeing itself, can be captured in language even though they will inevitably pass from experience. “This new opacity makes the misplaced years / my entire education seem an imp / a hollow tool,” Broder laments in “Proper Disposal of the Holy Water.” We are imperfect beings, our utterances mimetic failures, our attempts at precision always executed with a toolkit of funny, inexact terms.
Broder picks up the intonation and vocabulary of spiritual yearning; admitting to damnation through pleas for deliverance and ritualistic demonstrations of humility. She speaks of a spiritual confinement: that the body is itself a prison, and the pain with which we feel another mode of energy/being present and remain unable to reach it. Which, in turn, becomes a pain itself.
We are invited to share Melissa Broder’s fantasy of deliverance as well as the crises she casts as its source. “Invent a fantasy to save me and project it onto another body” Broder instructs her reader, in the first lines of “Exact Composition is a Secret.”
I don’t think I am worthy of rescue.
Humble me down so low
that this small bread
feels like an orgasm.
This is how we enjoy the world.
These transformations of scale suggest that in order to appreciate life, we must encounter it in a completely new way. Scarecrone is filled with perceptual ebbs, oscillating between moments of pure experience and the disappointment that follows them.
I see lovers
and they are not real.
I mean they are real
But my eyes are not.
This deflationary gesture parallels the poem’s conclusion: the instance when the speaker returns to the beach to meet the grim realities avoided in the water. Metaphorically, Broder links flood with pure, pre-linguistic experience, detailing the moments before and after it occurs. This suggests that the ‘pure’ sensation briefly achieved by the speaker transpires not only before the body can intervene, but also before language can grasp it fully.
The fantasy language offers is not unlike that sought in prayer: each transmits a wish to be transported that is also always accompanied by lament. By asking for transcendence, we must acknowledge its futility and anticipate the moments after we have returned to earth.
Saturated with hope, perhaps poetry is always attempting a spiritual maneuver: aspiring to transmit experience with greater realism than is possible in colloquial speech or thought.
Though Scarecrone approaches obscurity, it does not enforce it. By this I mean: there are many ways to appreciate Melissa Broder’s poetry. Her poems are filled with accessible human moments, sincerity, and vocal range. However, Scarecrone also contains many religious allusions and speaks through mythological vocabulary.
It is no accident that the word bewilderment sounds so close to wilderness, since the power of art always wildly robs us of our bearings and expectations. Nor is it coincidental that sublime nature is so often described as “a wild and desolate beauty.” “Mud Rush” sets itself in the wild of the natural world. This poem is the first appearance of the biblical figure Azazel, who is mentioned several times in Scarecrone: here, the speaker joins him in the wilderness. They embrace. Fire is created. Transformation is attempted but not fully requited/sustained:
I can make tattoos out of berry juice and sticks
I tattoo crosses on Azazel’s fingers
I make them so they look like anchors
Azazel sinks his anchor fingers in
I turn sapphire blue
His hands will not stay hooked
Even when Broder’s speaker completes the ritual of tattooing meticulously, the supernatural will not be “anchored” to her earthly body.
It is said that Azazel bequeaths sin to mankind by teaching human beings how to make weapons and cosmetics. Like its implements, tattooing can be either an act of beauty or violence, or is perhaps, necessarily, always both. Broder points to a spirituality at the heart of vanity that extends far beyond any single myth or poem. We mark flesh because we want to transcend it. Tattoos fade. Bodies decompose. Even the stories that outlive us will eventually erode away.
Melissa Broder wrote “stay dark, keep writing” on my copy of Scarecrone—which now seems sort of remarkable, only a page before the epigraph. It is a little poem, by Sappho, and depicts a speaker alone in the dark. The stars have dimmed. Even the moon’s bald, familiar glare has receded from view. Waning of light is a measure and echo of time. When we say light goes, what we want to say is everything goes. And here it is: light and darkness. Even when we decline to acknowledge it, we experience the world against the backdrop of void, of nothingness. Of death.
So the fire goes out. We must return to our bodies. Artifacts hope to preserve a wilderness eventually lost to us. Scarecrone is powerful book, but I do not think it only a despairing or “dark” one. It enacts a sort of exorcism, breathing life into an acknowledgement of death housed within all our bodies. Yet, Broder’s poetics do not enact gloom; rather, they do the opposite. Her words maneuver starkly; they shed light and detail, illuminating a darkness we usually only see as darkness.