Melissa Broder’s first book of poems, When You Say One Thing but Mean Your Mother, explores the power of human bonding and the desolation of its flip side, isolation. In the title poem, the narrator delves into her own psychological drama as a function of her narcissistic mother’s refusal to commit to natural childbirth and to breastfeeding. Similarly, in “Jewish Voodoo,” where a mother buys her daughter an “ovum mezuzah,” Broder reminds us that we come from the womb, but there’s no returning thereto. Yet, with a delightful balance between the dark and the heady, the poems provide a sense that revelry in moments of bleakness is always both possible and desirable.
Once we are born, a tortuous path of hope and disillusionment stretches before us —and who better to blame than Mother, who has refused to keep us inside her body where we were contained, safe, and warm? Then, as a further injury. Mother turns out to be flawed. Tellingly, in “Jewish Voodoo,” the ovum mezuzah is labeled, ”Extract embryos from the icebox.” This label is as much a description of the narrator’s recharacterization of her motlier’s womb as it is a directive from a grandchild-seeking mother to her daughter.
The poems, while poignant, are also funny. The narrator, meaning to ask her mother. “What were you like as a child?”, instead blurts out. “‘Were you always this neurotic?” Broder insists on laughter—so the narrator and her boyfriend in “Round the Bend” laugh at the insanity of favorably comparing their own craziness to that of the “truly” crazed:
It’s safe on this side to talk about crazy
like a war going on in some other country.
At home, each of us brushes against it.
Jon takes blue pills. I’ve got grey and pink.
The couplets in this poem emphasize the duality—or perhaps the duplicity—of the crazies critiquing the more-crazies.
Broder’s poems maintain a certain control over insanity through their orderly structure. They are, at once, narrative and lyrical. “Let’s say you’ve seen monks in red robes roaming / the city all week: at Morimoto….” Couplets, tercets, and quatrains with consistent line lengths are the norm. Line lengths range from five syllables to twelve. A relaxed, rather than dictatorial, approach to syllabification allows the poems to flow.
or must 1 have someone
else’s shit childhood
so I can get some
This shorter line at the end of “Dear Billy Collins” emphasizes the poet’s predicament of not-writing. Yet Broder teases the reader here because, even as she alleges that she cannot write, she is, in fact, writing—and writing eloquently.
A similar playfulness occurs in “Booking Your Resurrection.” If the cause of our insanity is the imperfection of our mother’s love, then the cure for it is the imperfect love we find later on. “Love alone, totally / sane, illumined you.” The line break between totally and sane reminds us that perfect sanity, like perfect love, is unattainable. The poems are generally written in unrhymed triplets or quatrains. Broder also uses nonce forms, such as her pattem of alternating two-line and three-line stanzas in “Why She Lets Him Go to Reno and Sleep with Whores.” where the first and last stanzas are monostiches.
The narrator is omnipresent. She spans space, encompassing aspects of America as diverse as a tent city and Amherst’s Winter Fest. She also spans time, often hearkening back to the Hippie era—”She rolled tight spliffs and knew Grace Slick.”
Her familiarity with both New York City and San Francisco adds to this sense that she is everywhere at once—frequenting debutante parties “in Greenwich, / Gladwyne and Chappaqua.” but also “riding shotgun at Big Sur.”
The open highway, another icon of American mythology, appears both as a lure and a disappointment (à la Kerouac) in “Double Dubuque.” written in Sapphics. It promises to lead to a place where the narrator’s problems will find resolution, but doesn’t.
Yet another road traveled by the Beats and subsequent restless generations, that of narcotics and psychedelic drugs, holds a fascination for Broder’s narrator. The involvement of the poems in hippie culture serves to blur the lines between generations, as in “Is It Organic?”—one of a number of poems where the title serves artfully as a first line. “She beams and bites a mung bean / In half. Well, she says, it’s like I we collect all this stuff….”
The young people in Broder’s poems demonstrate wisdom, while the aging hippies naively long to go back in time and recover some peak experience of youth.
Meanwhile, a decisive act catapults the young narrator into a sense of doom. In “It’s Just Registering,” a betrothed woman immediately foresees future misgivings.
My doubts will bubble up as we drink
from mismatched cups and eat ten-minute
forever. Even when the wedding brings
sets: butter dish, gravy boat, soup tureen,
champagne flutes, fusion juicing station,
barbecue, they will be the last of anything
Even more insidious in its prediction of future tragedy is the poem. “Tradition.” which opens with the ominous line, “When we get hitched there will be no cake feed.” From the future marriage, the poem quickly envisions the inevitability of failure and does so in disturbing detail.
Finally. Melissa Broder’s narrator remains a Jewish girl, who is ambivalent toward, and insecure in, the WASP culture in which she has grown up. She worries about gaining weight and about a genetic predisposition to “moles and hairs.” These insecurities are inherited. Does the narrator again implicate her mother here? “[R]emember the moles /and hairs came from them….”
Annoyed at the WASPS —”When the towheaded strangers attended / our Bat Mitzvahs in schleppy paisley sundresses”—she bristles equally at the expectations placed on her by the older generation:
…Abstain from honey-baked ham,
Nantucket, seersucker. Volkswagen.
Bloody Marys. Laura Ashley, turning
the other cheek and the non-Ivy League.
This paradox of immersion in WASP culture with the expectation not to participate fully may well be one more good reason to say one thing but mean your mother. Melissa Broder’s ability to do exactly this will keep the reader joyfully submerged in her poems.