Melanie Henderson’s new book, Elegies for New York Avenue turns remembering into a fine art. Winner of the 2011 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, the poems in this book are moving, generous tributes to the human skill of remembering. New York Avenue, like many places in Washington, D.C. is at once changing, and at the same time rooted in the past. Melanie Henderson’s poems capture all of that– the sadness and hope that come with change, as well as the mixed goodness of the past.
Melanie Henderson’s poems are multi-layered and beautiful. They are accessible but not simple. In the best tradition of American poetry, she writes in a language that is fresh and surprising, but that does not feel distant. In the book’s opening poem, “Born Home,” she writes of the ways we “know” a place and the ways we do not “know” a place. She explores what it means for a person– to be “from.”
We know the rows of dependent houses
liberated by separating hues of a president
my alarm clock’s muteness, temporary
it’s arteries, a blazing hue; it’s 7:59
& we are not from this place
She closes that first poem with the sounds and textures of a neighborhood’s living residents:
We know the vacant eyes of our streets,
pots in the pavement sing
from this place we are from–
The book’s second poem is the title poem, “Elegies for New York Avenue.” This poem is brilliant. It draws on Robert Hayden’s “Elegies for Paradise Valley.” She has written a worthy daughter to Hayden’s poem. In this poem, she captures the windows, the puddles, the preachers, the foods, the names, the lost, and the dead from her neighborhood. This poem and all its detail, seeps feeling and sadness. It connects to the book’s cover art by Felix Chinedu Osuchukwu, a chaotic symphony of blacks, reds, whites, and browns, within which one can find the U. S. Capitol and various human shapes.
From there, the poems take many interesting and surprising turns but they all emerge from memory. “Henrietta” remembers Henrietta Lacks, the woman from whom cells were taken during a surgery, without her knowledge, and became known all over the world as HeLa cells. One poem that takes a light turn is “When Good Women Must Murder.” In this poem, with an epigraph “after Lucille Clifton,” the speaker muses about a confrontation with a roach which ends unhappily– for the roach.
The book closes with several family poems, personal poems. “Boys of Co. 37” recalls a photograph of her grandfather during his Navy days. The author never knew this grandfather and so the photograph has become the final image of him, for her. She writes:
My grandfather’s evident Navy blues in a black
& white photo is the only way I have known him,
known him as a leak, or something forbidden,
restrained, gathering behind eyelids,
deep brims, the subtle youth of a patriarch
whose eyes betray the cool tilt of stiff caps.
As with all elegies, this book is more about life than death. While elegies remember, it’s that very human skill of remembering, which enables us to live in new and more authentic ways, more connected to our families, blood and otherwise. I found the poems in this book pushing me to think more about my own relatives, blood and otherwise. I found myself remembering stories I had forgotten about uncles and aunts and neighbors on the street where I grew up and the streets where I played as a boy.
This book takes us to Washington, D.C. ‘s New York Avenue, but more importantly, it takes us to our own remembering.