"Refusenik" by Lynn Melnick
Reviewed by Hannah Bonner
I don’t remember the first touch or the first comment when I was a girl that conjured me as a woman. I don’t remember all the ways in which I’ve made allowances for the things I never wanted. I don’t remember the first flush of shame: its specific breach, its sting. However, in Lynn Melnick’s third collection of poetry Refusenik (2022), Melnick reminds me that the accrual of assaultive experiences doesn’t need a number to be believable, doesn’t need a number to warrant trauma’s recurring reverberations. Throughout these poems, she explores the generational violence of patriarchy and Anti-Semitism in direct, unflinching prose.
Like her second collection of poetry, Landscape with Sex and Violence (2017), Melnick often depicts scenes that foreground the body in Refusenik. Sometimes the body participates in sex work for survival, other times it revels in its sexual appetites and agency for pleasure. Always man’s capacity for violence looms large on both an individual and gargantuan scale. Men position you as they want you with their hand on your neck in “Satan in Goray” or build a pogrom escape room in “The Patron Saint of Lost Things.” Melnick ends “Goray” by confessing, “I / summon all the men, summon all the history, admit I will never be unworried, will always wake fighting for my life.” The struggle for survival is historical and visceral as a Jewish woman in the 21st century. The poem “When You Lie Down and When You Rise Up” concludes with a scene of a man in a strip club who admits “his fetish for Jewish women and for years now / I have wished I had asked him, under the angry // and merciless lights, the minacious pitch / of inexorable night, / if the turn on / is more in the persecution, or in the resilience.”
Resilience, conceptually, can have sticky connotations. There is the risk of obfuscating the still omnipresent pains, struggles, or traumas that trouble everyday existence. Yet, the poems in Refusenik enact, as the definition of “refusenik” promises, a protest, a refusal of patriarchal, Anti-Semitic norms and laws. Melnick’s words speak to past experiences with candor. If there was shame once, these poems do not embody that particular pulse, nor its heat. Rather, the poems evoke a woman who frankly, and sometimes ardently, highlights orgasms, motherhood, aging, Twitter, and rape. And throughout every piece, even in these landscapes of sex and violence, Melnick underscores her love for the girl she once was as well as the woman she is now.
It is from this place of love that Melnick lands on in the final poem “Listen,” when she writes, “Listen, when I write poems again, I want them to be about joy.” It is here Melnick extends to me both pain and possibility in the same palm. In listening to her I am lucky, for in the experience of reading Refusenik, I am also heard.
LYNN MELNICK is the author of the poetry collections Refusenik (2022), Landscape with Sex and Violence (2017), and If I Should Say I Have Hope (2012), all with YesYes Books, and the coeditor of Please Excuse This Poem: 100 Poets for the Next Generation (Viking, 2015). I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton is forthcoming from University of Texas Press in 2022.
Published 02/22/2022 || Purchase a copy