Dispatches from the Memory Care Museum/ poetry by Mary K O’Melveny/ book review by Jan Zlotnik Schmidt

In Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel Prize Lecture, “The Tender Narrator,” she envisions the writer as “a tender narrator,” who is “constantly bringing things to life, giving an existence to all the tiny pieces of the world that are represented by human experiences, the situations people have endured and their memories.”   “Tenderness personalizes everything to which it relates, making it possible to give it a voice, to give it the space and the time to come into existence, and to be expressed.”   She reflects:  “Tenderness perceives the bonds that connect us, the similarities and sameness between us. It is a way of looking that shows the world as being alive, living, interconnected, cooperating with, and codependent on itself.” 

In Mary K O’Melveny’s new volume,  Dispatches from the Memory CarMuseum,   O’Melveny, a “tender narrator,” creates an expansive poetic universe.  Her intellectual curiosity leads her to create evocative, resonant and specific visions that yoke metaphoric conceits from art to science to her explorations of the process of memory and forgetting—both personal and cultural, mourning and grief, commemoration and witnessing,  She embraces such diverse subject matter  as her best friend’s dementia, her mother’s diminishing memory, her Irish heritage, sites of societal and global injustice and larger cosmic realities.  Her body of work suggests the ways in which the phenomena of our world are “interconnected” and “codependent.”

One thematic strand in the volume  is the exploration of memory.  How do we conjure moments from the past? What do we remember?  What are the costs of forgetting?  In “Dispatches from the Memory Care Museum,” she reflects:  “what did we know/and when did we know it?”   In “Thoughts on Memory’s Viscosity,” she connects the process of glass blowing with the way we create certain memories and nullify others:  “Our vessel translucent. / As [the glass] hardens, we remember what pleased us/  What took our breath away.” One aspect of the process of recollection is dealing with grief.  Her poems portray the ways in which mourning and loss shadow our days.    In “The Fifth Dimension,” she asks:  “How do we navigate shape shifting grief/ and still make coffee in the morning?”

Some of the most affecting works in this volume depict memories of childhood, scenes from her parents’ troubled marriage, moments of family life such as playing cards with her niece, and the celebration of love and marriage.  In “Dactylography,” for example, she expresses her deep bond with her spouse through the evidence of touch “one random touch/brushing against decline.”

Perhaps the most stirring works in the volume represent moments of witnessing.  Her poems explore, for example,  the mass shootings in Parkland,  Las Vegas, and the Pulse Night Club.  In “Imagining a Conversation About the Unfinished Business of Genocide” about the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda, she reflects “all it takes/ is a slight refraction of light/for blood and bones/to fill upon tidy yards.”  Reminding us of our need to “see,” to not forget such atrocities, she portrays the consequences of passivity and denial in the face of civil strife, global conflicts, sites of injustice, and climate change.  These poems’ power rests in their extended metaphoric conceits as in “Macular Degeneration” where the imagistic network, the invocation of macular degeneration, is compared with the process of not facing the global issues that plague us.

Finally, what is striking about the volume is the treatment of the interconnectedness of worlds:  the personal, natural, social, and cosmic; she meshes these divergent states through original metaphoric frameworks, for instance, the “black holes of memory” to symbolize species that disappear due to climate change.  She listens in “Requiem” for the buzz of bees “in hives emptied like echoes/and [begins a] a “chant for the repose of lost souls.” She depicts the impact of climate change, imagining in “The Fire This Time” “Saharan sands in Kansas”–a drought-ridden Midwest—”as before too long, we could become Mars.”

In her Nobel Prize speech, Tocarzuk reflects:  “ I dream . . . of a genre that is capacious and transgressive.”  Mary O’ Melveny’s new volume of poetry in many ways fulfills Tocarzuk’s dream.

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Mary K O’Melveny, a retired labor rights lawyer, lives with her wife in Woodstock, NY and Washington DC. Mary is the author of “A Woman of a Certain Age” and “MERGING STAR HYPOTHESIS” (Finishing Line Press 2018, 2020) and co-author of the Hudson Valley Women’s Writing Group anthology “An Apple In Her Hand.” A Pushcart Prize nominee, Mary has received award recognition for her poetry, including First Place in the 2017 Raynes Poetry Competition, the 2019 Slippery Elm Literary Journal Contest and the 2020 “Poems of Political Protest” Contest sponsored by City Limits Publishing.

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(reviewer) Jan Zlotnik Schmidt is a Hudson Valley writer and frequent Lightwood contributor. She has had two volumes of poetry published by the Edwin Mellen Press (We Speak in Tongues, 1991; She had this memory, 2000) and two collections of autobiographical essays, Women/Writing/Teaching (SUNY Press, 1998) and Wise Women:  Reflections of Teachers at Mid-Life, co-authored with Dr. Phyllis R. Freeman (Routledge, 2000). Her full length volume, Foraging for Light was published in September 2019 by Finishing Line Press.

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