“Somebody, know better:” Landscape with Sex and Violence, by Lynn Melnick

Landscape with Sex. and Violence, by Lynn Melnick. YesYes Books, 2017. 112 pages, poetry.

CW: sexual assault, sexual harrassment.

The word I keep thinking of while reading Lynn Melnick’s Landscape with Sex and Violence is “relentless.” If you are a woman or feminine-presenting, then you know the feeling. Just the other day, while interviewing a man for work, he showed me nude drawings of cartoonish women and asked for my phone number, the table scattered with hardened nipples. The next night, a strange man kept giving me two thumbs up and tried to grab my hand, asked why I had no love for him. There’s a certain way I can’t walk to work in the mornings, because the delivery men outside the Acme like to whistle. Once I tried to convince myself I was overreacting, and the man I decided not to avoid grabbed my breast and called me sugar, at 5:15 p.m. on a sunny sidewalk in the center of the city. So when I read a book where each poem calls me back into that emotional space, it is hard. “While anyone could witness rot writ all over my blighted arrangement, / no one stepped in.” I chose to review the work having been warned, and you may choose to read it having been warned. Perhaps it’s a testament to the emotional work of the poems that they so easily call me into this headspace — or perhaps it’s a testament to the endless landscape of sex and violence that is the world of rape culture — or perhaps it’s all of it. Melnick writes, “The man next to me puts his hand on my thigh. // He gets the kind of girl I am, / new leaves shiny with oil, flammable. // Come on. // Know better. Somebody, / know better” and I am right there wishing alongside her.

These poems speak to the frustration of being sexualized when you are, in fact, a sexual being. Of learning how to want when you’ve been blamed for wanting. In the poem “Historical Accuracy”:

I hire a skywriter to describe me:
voluptuous, terrified, bewitching, willing to wait
Somewhere in my schoolbooks it says to avoid
big crowds and flying objects
it says to check my work carefully
before the creep
with the grease-stained cuticles and menthol breath
does what he believes he was put in front of me to do
because
the skywriter got confused and wrote:
terrified, showstopping, mute, asking for it

In an attempt to claim authorship over the landscape both public and personal, the speaker’s self-description is twisted into victim-blaming. Much of the book calls back to the first opening epigraph in this way: “…there is no such thing as an innocent landscape.” This idea that no land, no body, is innocent is so often turned against those who are hurt: “Some folks like to use the word slut, even with children. / […] / I was smut. / The rest was burnished.” How do you claim ownership of your body without claiming the fault for what has been done to it? In the title poem, “I tried to detonate my body / differently than he did,” conflating sexual pleasure and sexual violence, demonstrating the ways in which we teach ourselves that they are always the same experience. This is a difficult thing to unlearn, and by the end of the book, the speaker is only just beginning to unlearn it: “you can watch me // save myself from harm with harm // so we celebrate / what is ruined but not dead and I’ve learned that // if there was an error in human judgment, I was the human.

This is a book where the formal constraints are subtle. The poems unfold in mostly two-line stanzas, mostly left-aligned, using form as more of an aesthetic choice than a metaphor, except there is no such thing as pure aesthetics. So the book unspools across dozens of poems, each stepping forward again and again into that same landscape, that same lineated structure. It’s maddening. It is the illusion of a single level of thought, the illusion that nothing has changed and no one has been affected. In this book, the speaker and her body undergo abuse, assault, abortion, and sex that skirts the edge of consensual. The lack of affect in the form is the way the speaker makes it through the overarching narrative. The final poem ends:

but this, all of this, the rape and the allegory
and the skinny palms sheltering no on:
this is the story of how I got to live
[…]
(I almost forgot to tell you)
I lived
in a desert
where palms are signposts of water, not the want of it.

The landscape has been a ruse, the plant life that seemed to signify a desert actually standing in as symbols of groundwater. “What you smell is pleasure, not the rot of the thing / amid the waste.” If the landscape is the body and the body is the landscape, Melnick is taking ownership over both.