In American Melancholy (Ecco, Feb.), Joyce Carol Oates draws on her storytelling gifts, and her personal grief, to paint an unsettling portrait of America today. “These poems explore a deep contradiction inherent in the American psyche,” PW’s starred review said. “Oates’s America is physically and psychologically distressed, but it cannot find solace ‘seeking milk, love,/ where there’s none.’ ” In an email exchange, the author discussed her first poetry collection in 25 years.
What prompted a new book of verse?
I have continued to write poems, for it’s in poetry that we feel most intensely and intimately. Poetry is a kind of music. There can be a haunting lyricism that speaks to us beneath the level of consciousness, but there can also be a poetry of droll, startling statements.
Can you talk a bit about the tone of this book, and its implicit and explicit preoccupations?
“Exsanguination” is a particularly sad poem, I think, expressing the stark bewilderment so many of us have felt over the past four years, that so much idealism has been plundered, and so cheaply, crassly—so, it is a political poem, but also an emotional poem, a parenthesis of a sort. Other poems—“Doctor Help Me,” “Hometown Waiting for You,” “American Sign Language”—suggest the voices of marginalized Americans.
How would you describe the book’s arc?
The most exciting challenge for the poet is arranging the material. The first poem is a lyric involving a husband, a hammock, a fleeting sense of mortality; the last two poems in the book are elegies for the husband, who has passed away. So, the overall arc of the book—charting “melancholy”—is suggested in these bracketing poems.
The sections are divided into like-minded poems, the first focusing upon several notorious instances of scientific misconduct and ending with two poems inspired by famous paintings; the second, short, lyric, personal poems, written during an intense period of grief; the third, more expansive poems ranging over a variety of subjects; the fourth, more philosophical, a poetry of statement—“Hatefuge”—and an homage to William Carlos Williams, ending with two elegiac poems set in Berkeley, California at the time when my husband Charlie Gross was hospitalized. Themes of loss, injustice, grief—indeed, a pervasive American melancholy—suffuse these.
What is it like launching American Melancholy at this moment?
Bringing together a book of poems at this point in my life has a valedictory air to it, I’m afraid. My late husband Charlie had urged me to collect the poems I’d written since knowing him—I told him that I had not quite a book yet, I needed to write more poems exploring certain themes—but finally, when I had enough poems to complete a book, it was two poems about him that concluded it.... Such an irony! I find those poems very hard to reread, but—there they are. I think that we discover that, when grief is translated into poetry, or the unspeakable into the speakable, it brings some consolation, for there is a universality in grief that makes us all kin.