Landscape with Sex and Violence
YesYes Books, $18 (paper)
The arresting title of Lynn Melnick’s Landscape with Sex and Violence binds a neutral formula to two words that often appear in conjunction: in newspaper headlines, in film ratings, in academic journals. Sex and violence are embodied—wryly, bleakly—on the book’s cover, which features a black-and-white photograph of an abandoned, half-demolished strip club. Its sign once advertised TOPLESS DANCERS. Violence, in the form of an excavator with open jaws, approaches from the left.
Such a terrain is worlds removed from the verdant and busy scenery of Pieter Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, but the flux of the opening poems calls that painting to mind. Melnick’s collection recalls W. H. Auden’s observation that Bruegel’s figures “tur[n] away / Quite leisurely from the disaster,” whether knowingly or innocently. Even the painting’s viewer turns away from Icarus; we want to look at the alluring flora of this region, not the tiny legs flailing in the water.
The spare, jagged poems circle around rape, abuse, sex work, and abortion.
The occupants of Melnick’s landscape are as collectively oblivious as Bruegel’s but systematically hostile. These thirty-four spare, jagged poems circle around rape, abuse, sex work, and abortion. Their speaker has been “crushed under sundry / wonders of our topography.” And although she sounds almost nonchalant in that phrase, it is an enraging world, one defined by men who “tell me to be honest about my role in the incident.”
In Landscape with Sex and Violence, Melnick writes in part to show rape culture as unambiguous, to reveal misogyny’s normalization as absurd, and to defy those who ask about a victim’s “role in the incident.” But she mines complexity by grounding these poems in the survivor’s mental strategies. The speaker of one poem, for example, imagines her own “stunt double”—someone stronger, more capable—because she herself “never really learned how to finish an interaction / without letting semen inside [her] somewhere.” (Look at where that sentence places responsibility, not on the agent but on the person whose body he aggresses.) There is also a faintly deadpan wit: after one event, possibly a suicide attempt, a speaker says only that “then // came the sirens and then came the paperwork.” And there is the ongoing question of how one might hold both one’s private disasters and those experienced by others or by society collectively—especially racism and environmental catastrophe—in one’s head at once.
Amidst the violence recounted in these poems, the voice on the page does not come across as vulnerable but as decidedly in control. While it sometimes approaches the vatic, it can also be aggressively casual, attached firmly to earth with the ordinary language of “I guess,” “the thing is,” “Okay, yes.” In either register, Melnick’s simple present-tense statements are authoritative even when they record helplessness, depression, or self-loathing; a matter-of-fact, canny, almost omniscient voice documents the speaker’s stolen agency.
These poems tend to maintain a nominally flat tone, pointedly neutral about the awful things that are happening or being relived:
All her clothes look beige even when they are the colors she thought
would change her life into a life like other people might have
when they don’t have blood dripping down their legs.
This sentence, which slips bodily damage into a dependent clause within a comparison contained in another clause, is characteristic of Melnick’s winding syntax, a syntax that constantly and precisely asserts a distinct perspective. The speaker does not think of people who have never had blood dripping down their legs, but rather of people who don’t at that moment (and might at another time). In the grammar of this experience, bleeding is normal; security and comfort tend to be subjunctive.
Again and again, sentences curve multiple times, doubling back on themselves. Words shift their meanings, too, as in the creepy motion of the following lines:
The men are busy.
I stand quiet until they are busy
Later, another speaker tells a lover, “you can’t leave,” or so it seems until one crosses the line break and corrects one’s reading to “you can’t leave / handprints on my throat.” What seems to be a plaintive but unremarkable cry of rejection turns into something far more threatening and equally helpless.
Melnick represents two related dimensions of rape culture: that it is a constant feature of the world in which one lives, and that it changes the way one sees that world.
The book’s disclosures are grounded in this profoundly unsettling mixture of authority and uncertainty. In the opening poem, Melnick’s speaker declares she will “confess this once,” and then “confess it again // in different ways.” While the poems share a milieu (Los Angeles, starting in the late 80s), I remain unsure whether the “different ways” of these poems represent many facets of one experience, violence refracted through the experiences of many women, or a literal sequence of horrifying events that occur over years. This uncertainty is itself central to how Landscape with Sex and Violence reports on the effects of trauma: if one lacks the clarity found in summing up what happened, one lacks a crucial point of stability, a potential kind of solace. Melnick heightens uncertainty through the book’s welter of tenses. The mixture of past and present removes any possibility of placing the poems’ events at a distance; they seem to continue happening now. In doing so, they enact the way that injury clings to the person who experienced it: this speaker can recall not only the site where she was first raped, but knows that the carpet’s “fibers are still / on my tongue.”
These kinds of linguistic and narrative tensions emerge from the dual focus of Landscape with Sex and Violence. Melnick represents two related dimensions of rape culture: that it is a constant feature of the world in which one lives, and that it changes the way one sees that world. Physical menace recurs in shocking and wearily familiar forms: one poem addresses the man who ties a woman to a deck—he has also, at some point in the past, lit her hair on fire—and another addresses an everyday street harasser. As the book records its barrage of objective events, its subjective processes shuttle between almost surrealistic close-ups and conspicuous elision. After an image of “polka dot panties” lined “with rest stop receipts,” the speaker turns abruptly away: “I think probably we’ll pause in Barstow to continue / these lyrics.”
Melnick contends with how ‘misery and sunlight’ can be experienced by a single body; she examines the strangeness of experiencing pleasure in the present even when remembering suffering in the past.
Occasionally the detached tone of Landscape with Sex and Violence becomes less manifestly impassive. Such moments occur not so much when the speaker mentions what people have done to her, but when she mentions how little she has been able to discover about the rest of the world, especially the natural world. “I am thirteen before I know that ants can nest / in a log,” she notes in one poem. In another, when a stranger begins to tell her about a weeping willow, “it’s the first time she’s learned the name of a tree.” Encountered within the larger sequence, these passing statements are resonant: trauma has put this speaker in a terribly defensive relation to her environment. As two sentences near the book’s opening reveal, “At night I hallucinate the grunting discord // which leapt from a human body as he destroyed mine. / That very month, I obliterated a beetle on a shiny walkway.”
The apathy of this landscape’s inhabitants is foregrounded at the collection’s outset: “while anyone could witness rot writ all over my blighted arrangement, // no one stepped in.” Witness and could are key terms: merely seeing—even if linguistically close to the act of bearing witness—does nothing, and it is not clear that anyone even bothered to see. A sense of isolation returns on page after page. Although that isolation is repeatedly punctured by other people’s attentions, such moments violate solitude rather than bridge it; the intrusions do not indicate actual concern:
I’m cared for.
The man next to me puts his hand on my thigh.
He gets the kind of girl I am. . . .
Know better. Somebody,
The plea for someone to “know better” is simultaneously an admission: the person the speaker calls on for help is likely “no better,” if not an active predator, then a passive and enabling spectator.
The “you” who watches these scenes unfold may be no better as well. Melnick sees sexual violence as both something people often avoid noticing and something people consume as spectacle—and she is aware that the reader may do the latter:
You maybe imagined her taller
when you picture her at night
when you imagine what holding her down was like
In moments of direct address like this one, which bring together the generic reader-you and the perpetrator-you, wariness permeates the book’s rhetorical strategies. This confrontational language returns the reader to questions of blame, skepticism, excuses; it probes the ways one’s own mental habits have been informed by—and may contribute to—this landscape. When readers find themselves wondering how some of the book’s unthinkable events could happen, they risk becoming like the men who tell the speaker to “be honest about [her] role in the incident.”
As the book draws to a close, its questions center increasingly on what is not deformed by this landscape’s conditions, and what experiences are not fundamentally reshaped by such ordeals. In Auden’s poem on the fall of Icarus, “the sun shone / as it had to” on everything in the scene, including the drowning boy. Melnick contends with how “misery and sunlight” can be experienced by a single body; she examines the strangeness of experiencing pleasure in the present even when remembering suffering in the past. Although Landscape with Sex and Violence dwells on abuse and sometimes seems unlikely to escape it, there is hope woven into its arc. The book moves from the “rot writ all over” the first poem, to a vehement attempt, in the final pages, to assure the speaker’s fifteen-year-old self that things will not always be so filled with despair: “what you smell is pleasure, / not the rot of the thing amid the waste.”