Winter 2005-6

REVIEW - by Mankh (Walter E. Harris III)

UNFOLDING THE MAP: New York Poems by D. H. Melhem, Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2005. 183 pages. ISBN: 0-8156-0813-6

D.H. Melhem's latest book is a combination of two previous titles (with several poems revised,) plus a few more recent selections. Notes on 94th Street was originally published in 1972, and Children of the House Afire / More Notes on 94th Street in 1976; a brief closing section on 9/11 plus one other poem round out the work now titled New York Poems and dedicated "To the City of New York - embattled, gallant, enduring".

Melhem is an award-winning writer of poetry and prose, and serves as vice-president of the International Women's Writing Guild.

The opening poem "Broadway Music" gives a good sense of the tone, vision and compassion expressed thoughout the book. Describing a bunch of street musicians Melhem writes:

...she laughs through the spaces between her teeth
her mouth looks purple and half-vacant
when she opens it
she shows the old men her distended belly
as if it were fruitful or cherished
she lifts her paper bag to her mouth
like a trumpet - and drinks.
And near the poem's end: if it could be molded again, and the players /
were gods empoweirng a new music.

The scenarios and city portraits in New York Poems have spaces between their teeth but Melhem sounds a trumpet of humanity and compassion the sounds of which also lend us a bit of poetic street-smarts: "...this street my muse / raising rag banners / to the general will // fierce land of / desperate saints."

Amid the cockroaches, mice, pigeons, noises, noisy neighbors, crimes and building construction that often aims to drive out the poor, Melhem finds a way to haiku-like appreciation of a growing tree:

Coming up from the street to me: ginkgo!
Five years - you're at my window now and upward
How I love your wild arms - every way flapping - beckoning!

In the poem "for kay leslie" she applies much the same sentiment to a specific person as she does toward the city:

...tears of others touch
your brown eyes
having lost much
yet you fill
thin frames of spirits
like sparrows
around whom you rise
a fountain

I found the book to read like a stream of consciousness or a day (and years) in the life of the poet. In other words, although the poems do not follow a rigid sequence, there is an organized flow that gives the reader the sense of what it's like to live in a particular neighborhood and meander through a day, stopping at the grocery store, dry cleaners, deli, pizza parlor, taking a subway ride, gazing at the river, talking with friends, lovers, relatives and so forth. Her poems often feature wonderfully bittersweet snapshots such as "smiley's deli" where "...smiley takes / a dollar from / the beggar lifting his eyepatch / to examine / corned beef with cole slaw on rye".

One would be hard-pressed to find this type of poetic imagery and language of the city in The New York Times or People magazine, and so Melhem reminds us of the importance of the poet's perspective, especially in a city where few have time to stop and smell the roses or the dog poop, as the case may be. But Melhem does just that when she looks out the apartment window, walks the streets, worries about the plight of her neighbors, probes into the less than glamorous side of Manhattan... all the while adopting a Sybil of personas and voices in order to convey the city's pulse. Bits of humor are occasionally added, my favorite being the one about the baby carriage with a dog in it, aptly titled "Dogbaby". The phrase "takes all kinds" is a requirement for getting by in the city!

Readers familiar with the specific neighborhood depicted may not recognize it after all these years, but most New Yorkers reading the poems would easily recognize the variety of characters and struggles portrayed in a city of such size and economic disparity.

Reading New York Poems will give you a new appreciation for the variety of street people one might encounter and help you to understand a little better the human grace tucked inside the layers of someone wearing winter clothing on a summer day.

I hope that this collection of poems serves as a kind of blueprint for other poets and writers wishing to put their little piece of the big city, their unique perspective onto the literary map.

In the section "Love Notes" Melhem transcends neighborhood and perhaps captures the desire of millions of city dwellers on a day of inclement weather:

outside: rain -
awakening with you:
good weather!

In another section, "Rose Poems", she features poignant poems about close relatives. Overall there is such a variety of topics that the book does seem like a map that one can unfold so as to visit the outer and inner workings of a city and its people. The poem "on 137th street" opens with: "to make this street bloom geraniums / clay pots parallel trash cans downhill..."

Although mentioned briefly, I do wish that the perspective of children (as depicted in the lovely cover photo "Follow the Leader" by Bror Karlsson from the Museum of the City of New York) would have been accentuated to a greater extent. However, toward the end of the book, Melhem does gives enough of a post-9/11 call for "Unity" so as to leave the reader able to walk the streets, head held high though humbled within.

...I see a Country
sitting alone among nations, its eyes
made quiet, not by Harmony
but by a sense of power, itself a Nature
rampant, unconfined, the guide of its own
moral being, self-righteous, self-defined.

Yet there's another presence, interfused
With earth and ocean and the living air.
Call it a Unity of Being - a bond
the poet and the mystic apprehend.
Our dust, our ashes, day and night, the stars,
joy, horror, every foreign tongue -
all grope toward roots that mingle in the dark
while reaching for the light of common life.





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