Since Samuel Richardson’s eighteenth century novels Clarissa and Pamela, the epistolary form has played a crucial role in English-language fiction, exploring desire, love, betrayal, abandonment, and (sometimes) marriage. Its role in poetry has been equally important, weaving itself through Alexander Pope’s philosophical “Epistles to Several Persons,” and finding root in the contemporary language poetry of Bernadette Mayer’s remarkable The Desire of Mothers to Please Others in Letters.
Rachel Mennies’ collection, The Naomi Letters, joins this dynamic tradition with a series of evocative prose poems that move through four seasons, beginning with spring 2016.
Something serious is going on; the introductory poem shows us that the poet would “pull a plane whole from the sky” for a beloved person. Naomi is referred to in a poem later, in a list of events that the poet recounts anxiously, as though speaking on the phone to an absent lover. Absence is indeed a preoccupation; the poet informs Naomi that she has sorted all the mail on the latter’s desk while she was sleeping. Naomi is close by, but not present, and the poet seems to be already intuiting a departure, a loss. In these opening pages, the poet reveals that this is her first romantic relationship with a woman. She writes of former lovers, of books she needs to read, and the fact that Naomi is a writer herself.
Mysteries proliferate in subsequent sections, as do anxieties: worry about the relationship, one’s body, and the Shoah. Where are the poet and the beloved, geographically? The East Coast? Maybe. What is their physical distance from each other? We don’t know. Poetic voices abound too: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Yehuda Amichai.
Eventually the poet names herself, and breathtakingly quotes Naomi, so that the love object speaks for the first time to us directly:
LEAVE THE SUN IN THE SKY RACHEL—
I NEED THE LIGHT TO READ YOUR LETTERS BY
But having gestured towards disclosure of the exchange, the collection, tantalizingly, withholds it. Jewish observances intervene: Yom Kippur, Chanukah, Passover. So do many references to medications; the poet struggles with depression and anxiety, not completely contained by her efforts at self-care. She tells Naomi not to worry. But the reader cannot help but worry.
In spring Naomi speaks to us directly again — using a simple imperative:
But the relationship has already come undone.
What happened? The poem of March 1st, 2017, hints that the poet fears abandonment and loss to such an extent that she may be the one who is abandoner:
I dreamed you died last night, Naomi.
At your funeral the mourners ate peeled oranges out of plastic bags and stood over your grave, and I wept, my mouth full of pith.
Without you, I began to learn to live the life I must live in your absence.
What makes love happen in the first place and why does it disappear? There are no answers to these questions. Yet, the collection provides an oddly fulfilling emotional journey. We may not understand ourselves, or the people we love, but Mennies reminds us that poetry accompanies us in our fraught attempts to navigate the complexities of the human heart.
Stephanie Barbé Hammer is a poet, magical realist novelist and professor emerita in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Riverside. Read more about her at stephaniehammer.net.