cover image American Melancholy

American Melancholy

Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco, $26.99 (128p) ISBN 978-0-06-303526-3

In urgent and unsettling poems that question national mythology, Oates (Tenderness) brings her talent as a storyteller and powers of observation to bear on a variety of American characters and institutions. Oates’s subjects range from Marlon Brando, whom she describes as the pinnacle of the “male predator” who “had thrown away greatness,” to the very concept of American history itself, which Oates addresses as a battered and beaten wreck bereft of any supposed former glory: “Old America freckled with melanomas,/ straggly hair to his shoulders/ like the boy—General Custer, and/ fester-/ ing sores/ on his back, sides, and belly/ has come home to die/ where no one remembers him—.” Many of these poems explore a deep contradiction inherent in the American psyche, as in the poem “Apocalypso,” which uses enjambed lines to playfully capture a morbid fascination with the fragmentation of social order: “Something thrill-/ ing in cata-/ clysm &/ in the col/ lapse of Empires.” Oates’s America is physically and psychologically distressed, but it cannot find solace “seeking milk, love,/ where there’s none.” Written with mournful and harrowing clarity, this collection reveals an America grown accustomed to cruelty and forgetting. (Feb.)