On Melissa Atkinson Mercer’s ‘Knock’
Mercer’s poems remind the reader that youth is a relative term in moving, melancholy, honest, and genuine lines.
Melissa Atkinson Mercer
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Half Mystic Press
Press close, little criminal, & mark
this: you have no claim to the womb, to the born body.
All I have is what I stole.
(“too swift,” p. 9)
Words can be simultaneously soft and biting, as Mercer’s Knock, the debut publication from Half Mystic Press, demonstrates. Here, one will find poems that are constantly aware of their voice and reach, enticing the reader rather than requisitioning them. It is a collection that never demands anything, neither time nor attention, willing to keep giving constantly until it has laid its poetic heart bare for examination and critical scrutiny.
While the unnamed protagonist often invokes the trope of a young girl growing up and going through new experiences, Mercer’s poems remind the reader that youth is a relative term. One of the collection’s strengths is how seamlessly the poems move across time and work with the theme of age. Similarly, Mercer’s concerns and invocations are much larger than our limited, compartmentalized understanding of topics such as gender and love, surpassing these categories and speaking directly to the human soul, in lines like:
what happened to the boy you loved
he crawled inside my face & made it bleed; he cut out my
bones & sold them in his mother’s yard
(“why do you say you are alone,” p. 47).
While it may be tempting to read such passages through a specific literary and personal lens, there is no instinctive urge to. The very structure and flow of Knock influences the process of reading and literary reception. It no longer matters whether one can identify the speaker or the individuals involved, whether the cast of characters presented in a gradation of vagueness is formally introduced to the reader or not. Mercer’s response to questions is to ask more of them, the right kinds of questions, the kind one might still be afraid to ask.
It would be unjust to speak of the thematic and emotional powers of this collection without similarly addressing its linguistic charms. I use the term specifically, for while the language is alluring and easy to get swept away in, there are times when poking one’s head out of this literary stream results in an abrupt awakening. Knock will find its audience and will be appealing even to those for whom poetry lies within the immaterial rather than linguistic realm. However, it is a bit like a rich cake, where too much of its own goodness can be overwhelming if taken in immediately. A notable example is the following passage:
The river yard smelled small and black
where we hung out scarves over the stout dirt
and foxes carried the moon
in their fur.
(“standing at dawn with my mother,” p. 17).
The use of the senses in these lines is an example of one such moment of awakening, where it felt like the poem got too caught up in its own magic to ensure that it was woven as tightly as possible. However, such cases are so few they can be counted on one hand, and there were far more moments when the imagery and words made me pause and reflect, reconstructing them in my mind and savoring each line individually. A personal favorite was the following, from the titular poem “knock”:
I knocked on the
clawfoot tub, shimmered with lavender & salt, so that I
could even then be clean. In the night heat, I knocked on
cedars to summon owls. On the moon for rapture.
In the large scheme of things, the above criticism is more of a personal preference and comment rather than a judgment on Mercer’s work. If anything, it only emphasizes what I believe is the best way of reading and enjoying this collection: slowly, carefully, where each poem is unwrapped and examined through the act of reading and rereading it. Mercer is skilled in making simplicity work to her advantage, beginning with the brilliant structure of the collection and extending to the way repetition is turned into a strength and stylistic staple. Knock is moving, melancholy, honest, and above all: genuine.