The Nao­mi Letters

Rachel Men­nies

  • Review
By – September 27, 2021

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:



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.

Discussion Questions