Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Melissa Stein: Rough Honey

Melissa Stein's debut collection offers a catalogue of voices and experiences, a chorus of lovers. "The lanes are littered with the bodies of bees" begins Rough Honey, a book where "each body is a lover" ("Olives, Bread, Honey, and Salt"). This opening poem sets a precedent for the rest of the book, in which nostalgia and danger, maybe even nostalgia for danger, is paramount. In "Song of the butcher's daughter," the speaker reflects back: "Once I hit 13, in the raw blood / each month I felt like meat. / They looked at me like meat, leering over the glass / while I sawed through bone. I kept the knives sharp." The best poems in Rough Honey maintain this level of tension and fierceness.

As the title suggests, there's a pairing of sweetness and peril. Bees buzz throughout, but also moths and wasps, variations of the same creature or different versions of the self, where the former represents desire and the latter danger: "The wasp there again when I resurfaced: / those dangling legs, the budlike head, // lethal black thorax drilling / inches from my lake-clogged ear" ("Anaphlaxis").

Stein is at her best with her sonnets (or near sonnet-sized poems). The amount of conflict and beauty she delivers in such a small space, the braiding of the atmospheric lyric and the tell-it-to-you-straight statements creates an exciting balance and energizes the collection. Take for instance "Apologia," a poem listing natural events that create havoc, both great and small, without permission: "Locusts don't dream of ruin as they descend / upon lush fields, no more than brushfire's spark / would contemplate the terrified stampede / of smoke-choked bodies, green cells charred to black." The poem layers rich and textured lines of lyricism, but it's a moment of rhetorical clarity at the end, breaking the building lyric like rain breaks a heatwave, that grants both surprise and relief:

The pack will leave behind a wolf so ill
he'd hinder on the hunt; a ribbonsnake
devours her own young should it stay near
instead of striking out. Sometimes a bee,
in self-defense—I wish I'd been kinder
to you—will die of its own baffled sting.

Lists, as in "Apologia," are scattered throughout Rough Honey. In "Allergy," Stein catalogues the many common names for plants that agitate allergens; "Wind Sonnet" presents various names for the word "wind" in different languages. These, along with a handful of one-sentence, high-energy beauties (such as "Whitewater" and "Dead heat") offer syntactic variety to Rough Honey and make Stein a poet whose style is difficult to pigeonhole.

Although there's a wide scope and variety in voice and poetic modes, Rough Honey—at nearly a hundred pages and with a handful of poems that fall short—feels too long. However, Stein's energy and intensity keep Rough Honey far from tedious. "Don't tell me how / to pray: I'm stripped like wallpaper, weak / gum and sweet glue. I've seen whole / houses arranged by the colors of their roofs" ("The Night Orchard"). Rough Honey is filled with a near-distant danger, and while that danger governs and shapes much of the book, it's not the intensity of events that draws me to Stein's work so much as her level of craft, her attention to preciseness and language, which vitalizes these scenarios. In "Aquarium," Stein writes, "I want something so beautiful I forget my life," which is precisely what this book offers.

Melissa Stein
Rough Honey
American Poetry Review, 2010