Review | On Dream Street, by Melanie Almeder

Melanie Almeder loves the sounds of words, and seemingly even the look, taste, and feel of them, the way they resonate moments after you’ve read them. Her first book of poetry, On Dream Street, intoxicates the reader with lines like, “rashes of phlox, purple thistle snowing a little,” and “the stinks of honeysuckle, the occasional // throaty purr of a humming bird.” Almeder cherishes the essence of nature—the twittering of songbirds, the music of the wind—putting into use all those uncommon yet charming names of flowers—bougainvillea, calendula, crepe myrtle—crowning the world of natural beauty, prying into its subtle depths. In her poem, “Desire,” she explains: “The words of each plant spill like pebbles from our mouths: / mallow, Cherokee bean, bamboo, hibiscus.”

A cavalcade of elegies, odes, prose poems, and pastorals, On Dream Street is separated into three distinct sections, each pulsing with a vivid individuality. Almeder takes on a complex range of ideas about life, hunger, death, and that indefinite sort of existential suffering—the ennui of dissolution, boredom, and distraction. On Dream Street—coming to the rescue with ironic optimism—presupposes that there is indeed a redemptive power available in the imagination.

In the poem, “Lonely,” the reader, along with the narrator, experiences the acute details noticed when adrift in contemplation: “A bag caught in a bare tree,” “wires,” “street turning onto empty street,” “a cough at the end of a hospital corridor.” And, when finally coming into contact with another human being, a lover—the one with whom, ostensibly, humans most easily communicate matters of the soul—the reader is informed that, in fact, everyone is truly alone: “A lover, woken, saying, ‘I am asleep.’” But not to be let down too much, we are reassured that, yes, through mutual experience and occasionally through physical contact, we are still connected to others. In “Adam and Eve Chased from Paradise,” present existence, the aftereffect of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, is but “the history of longing, and God, / whose mind must be the full moon // casting shadow.” Sometimes the pang of the ejection from Eden recurs in “the wide loss // some bodies find in other bodies.”           

Switching gears from the subterranean world of myth, the poet brings us back to the here and now. In “Elegy for Market Street,” we are throttled by the chaos of the city, “the patient animal, regret, // haunting the trees.” Among situations both exalted and banal, the narrator witnesses, along with a group of onlookers, the spectacle of suicide on a midday city street: “We saw the thin man topple himself / from a roof on Market Street; // we bowed our heads to it.” Along with the bystanders I bowed my head too, following the path of the body in free fall, till my chin touched my chest as the full impact of both poem and action was realized.

Almeder’s poetry takes me to places I want to go, not to places I’ve already been. As T.S. Eliot once said, “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience,” an admirable summation of Almeder’s work. The elegant compilation of On Dream Street juxtaposes commonly clashing elements,sometimes galactically opposed, translating them, like a dancer’s steps upon the stage, into magnetizing poetry. The reader is encouraged to view these seemingly coincidental happenings as but products of one source, of “God in thought on his golden road.” Here, God, a Whitman-like character, free and impulsive, comprises, in the sum of his thoughts, the endlessness of creation. Almeder even opens her book with a quote from Whitman: “I wander all night in my vision,” an apt epigraph for such a dark and frolicking book.

During her first poem, “Mock Orange,” Almeder reminds us that nature is not always symmetrical, perfect, or savory. The mock orange bush entices the reader (as did the Tree of Knowledge), nevertheless, to try its bitter, inedible fruit. The poem is a spunky concoction, derived from aural, visual, and palpable sensuality:

A screen door slammed lightly.
A woman hummed nonsense to herself.
The thousand burnt-orange camellias
bent in rot, long past wisteria,
long past bitter kumquat, past the sweet white ache

A jolt, just at the right time, can be pleasantly stimulating. Near the center of her book, “Four Cures,” four separate pieces of advice, jumps out of the previous melancholic, ruminative tone into a new direction of irony and wit. In Cure #1, “If You Live in Georgia and You Think God Spoke Directly to You,” Almeder advises:

With a stick, scratch the date God said, Be an artist.
Paint as many angels as time allows on all the junk

from all the junkyards in town. Bring home broken down lamps,
smashed-up cars. Stack them. Name your backyard ‘Eden.’

And then later in life:

       when your bones begin to ache, and when death
starts its slow saunter toward you,

hew your own white coffin. Tell your long-bewildered wife
the palette and brushes are hers, as are any remaining heavens.

The three remaining cures are: “If Your Love Has Left,” “If You Are Bored To Distraction,” and “If the Roof of Your Home by Sad Chance is Chosen by Buzzards As a Roost.” These titles delighted me. Humor, essential to the balance of the tragic perspective that underpins a great deal of art, remains valued in Almeder’s poetry.  Almeder demonstrates she is a poet not afraid to take risks, and one to watch out for.  

Melanie Almeder received her BA from the University of Virginia, her MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts, and her PhD in contemporary fiction from the University of Florida. She teaches creative writing and contemporary literature at Roanoke College in Virginia.