MELISSA ATKINSON MERCER the author of the full-length poetry collection Saint of the Partial Apology (Five Oaks Press, 2017) as well as five chapbooks. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Moon City Review, Zone 3, Blue Earth Review, and A Portrait in Blues: An Anthology of Identity, Gender and Bodies, among others. She has an MFA from West Virginia University, where she won the Russell MacDonald Creative Writing Award in Poetry. She currently works and teaches at Lees-McRae College.
Editor-In-Chief Kanika Lawton spoke with Melissa Atkinson Mercer recently about her newest poetry collection, Knock (Half Mystic Press, 2018), the use of visceral, disturbing imagery, tongues as agency and voice, and who is allowed such agency and autonomy.
Kanika also reviewed Knock, a breathless, uncomfortable, and important collection of poems on depression, womanhood, voices, and darkness, churning and pulsing with both pain and angry, unflinching hope.
(Read the review below, and the accompanying interview after it.)
It is difficult sitting down with Melissa Atkinson Mercer’s latest poetry collection, Knock (Half Mystic Press, 2018) and not feel the blood drain from beneath your skin. That is, without feeling the air leave your lungs with such great force you keel over. That is, without tingling hands and tongues too big for your mouth, unable to fully give voice to the sheer, indescribable impact of this shocking and beautifully-cultivated body of work.
In fact, tongues are a frequent motif throughout Knock, as both instrument of speech (and with that, freedom) and punishment for daring to open your mouth. “The tongue is the home of regret” Mercer notes in the opening poem “the first cure for depression is they cut out your tongue; the second is they try to give it back” (the collection is split into three parts, all of which are titled after supposed, contradictory antidotes for depression). In this passage, the speaker’s father removes the tongues of goats in preparation for a feast who, themselves, show up countless times in Knock, as symbol of evil, fear, difficult women, and their historical and continued oppression. Both literally and figuratively, women and goats are punished for their supposed ills, their sense of self stripped away by the removal of their voice; the tongue. Without it, they cannot speak, and with that, they cannot lay claim to their own autonomy.
This lack of agency over one’s body, mind, and personhood is explored through the use of visceral, disturbing imagery. The body is deconstructed in numerous ways, grotesque with grief and anger and the monstrosity of mental illness. The speaker is both detached and vividly clinging to the body; “All I have is what I stole” she says in “too swift,” referring to the way an unidentified “you” has “no claim to the womb, to the born body.” This inability to claim your own body, yet alone where you came from (what does it mean, as a woman, to have zero claims to the womb, whether to the one that birthed you, the one that you give birth from, or to the very nature of being born?) is interspersed with interpretations of the body as anything but. Bodies as trees, as fire, as animal and water and sky; bodies as removed from themselves, such as the mother with her lungs in her hands, the skull of a cyclopean grandmother that is merely that of an elephant, of baby bones breaking inside of their mothers. The body as transformation, the body as unstable testimony to pain; from illness, mistreatment, and punished womanhood.
What makes Knock so jarring, so incessantly uncomfortable yet vital is its lack of hesitation. Depression is not dressed up in socially-appropriate clothes, talked about in hushed tones behind double-locked doors. It is not tragically beautiful, a product of unfortunate circumstances and selfishness. It is monstrous, terror, a churning sea of bile and rotten blood. Death, gore, body horror, and natural disasters throw themselves at this collection with impunity. The voices of tongue-less women, of punished women, of witches and “fish-headed girls” and women writers who took their own lives (the last section of the collection, “the fifth cure for depression is they take the shine from the mouth of the world, put it in your mouth; the sixth cure is they paint your bones with song,” is composed of poems that consist of the titles of work by Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf, and other writers who committed suicide) are not only amplified, they are shouted from the mountains, from the seas, drowning those who dared try to silence them, turning the blade, reclaiming their songs.
How fitting, it is then, that the last poem, “where exactly are you from,” should end on such reclamation of both woman and goat, of their agency, their freedom, and removal from the narratives of those that wished them harm. The speaker sees “goats without heads” yet, also, “goats in the purple meadows,” free from their human-created and lambasted history. The speaker, too, speaks of a better future, even if it means “being overly dramatic.” She asserts that “inside the future is a river / inside the river is my tongue in the shape of a door” before later confirming that “darling, listen: the tongue is the shape of a door.”
What a journey we take, from voiceless to tongues heavy with so many stories. The tongue, when severed, may be “the home of regret,” but is also “the shape of a door,” the shape of passage, change, freedom—we just have to knock, and turn the handle.
Knock is available to pre-order through Half Mystic Press and may be purchased as a physical copy or e-book.
KANIKA LAWTON: Dear Melissa, thank you for taking the time to speak to us about Knock.
MELISSA ATKINSON MERCER: Thank you for having me!
Knock explores the complexity of mental illness through the use of disturbing and contrasting images. Severed tongues, creatures creeping out of darkened woods, and drowning, whether in water, blood, or the material, make their presence known throughout the book. Why employ such imagery, and what part did they play in your overall writing process?
I’m fascinated by tongues: they’re a part of the body that is also a part of the voice. They occupy this liminal space—this between-ness—that I find compelling. They manifest agency and language and selfhood.
So what happens when a tongue is severed, or taken? In many ways, this is one of the central questions of Knock, the question that I started with.
More generally, in regards to disturbing and contrasting images, I want the reader to be disturbed, to question that is real, what could be real, to pay attention to who (and what) shapes the stories and truths we hear. I want us to pay heed to the darker realities, the undercurrents, the unpleasant truths that have been hidden and silenced.
In your notes you mentioned that a few of your poems are composed of the titles of work by famous female authors who committed suicide, such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Both Plath and Sexton were instrumental in the rise of confessional poetry in America, yet mental illness followed them throughout their life, ultimately leading to their untimely deaths. Is there a specific reason why you choose to incorporate the work of female poets who died from suicide, as opposed to those who did not succumb to their illnesses? As well, how have these poets influenced how you approach Knock and its complicated subject matter?
I don’t like to think that if we die/succumb we fail and if we live we succeed. I think it’s so much more complex than that. I admire each of the authors I included for their fierceness and bravery, for what they gave back to the world, to other women. I grew up reading Plath and Sexton and the other women on the list. They taught me to test my limits, to be bold, to take up space in the world.
To me, their struggles—and ultimately, their untimely deaths—serve as a reminder that we can all do better, that we have a long way to go, that we have a responsibility to ourselves and to other women. None of us are alone in this struggle and there’s no shame if sometimes we can’t keep going forward on our own.
Building off of this, I found Knock to be very confessional, as both personal antidote and rallying cry for misheard and silenced women throughout history. How have these other women, the “dead dears,” influenced the writing of Knock?
I didn’t want to write Knock just for myself. It is intensely personal, but it also comes from years of deep listening. So many fierce, compassionate the women in my life have struggled with shame and depression; they’ve been discounted and silenced and not believed.
This book is as much about listening as it is about speaking—I hope it inspires readers to do more of both.
Animals caught in strange and unusual circumstances—pigs gasping for air, toads in windowless rooms, headless goats wandering purple fields—are a stark, viscerally disturbing feature of Knock. What do these creatures represent, in accordance to the overall theme of Knock?
In a lot of ways, it comes back to this Biblical duality of man and beast. Since we (women) are not “man,” are we “beast”?
This ties in to my general distaste for human exceptionalism, the idea that we are so much better/more worthy than any other living creature. I think, at least to some degree, the same pernicious ideology is at play both when men—and sometimes other women—devalue women and when humans devalue the other living creatures that live amongst us.
We have created a world where animal cruelty is an issue, but not really a big issue. But if we deny humanity to those we consider beneath us, how can we say we have any humanity at all? And how can we decide so easily that because something is not like us, it is not as good as us?
Likewise, I am fascinated by the repetitive images of goats. Goats have obvious Biblical and literary connections (as the Devil or representation of evil), but they lie alongside “fish-girls” and other dark-headed and difficult women who, throughout history, may have been accused of evil themselves. Why is the goat featured so often in Knock, and is it, truly, one of (many) visceral representations of women throughout the book?
Much like the stories (voices) of difficult women, we’ve co-opted goats for our own nefarious purposes. We’ve made them into a symbol of warning and evil just as we’ve made women into symbols. Women have been written as either saints (virginal and silent) or villains (deviant and loud).
I want to fight back against the ways we remove agency from someone—animal or human—when we steal their stories, when we use those stories to moralize, to maintain the status quo.
Why is it so important to knock?
Because the alternative is so much worse. The alternative is allowing things to carry on as they have been carrying on. The alternative is losing more brave, fierce women. The alternative is silence, isolation, remaining on the outside, never questioning ourselves or others.
Thank you for taking the time to sit down with us and discuss your harrowing and incredibly important book. We wish you all the best, and thank you for knocking, so we may answer. Have a lovely day.
Thank you for reading with generosity and care. This interview has been such a gift.