SMALL GESTURES FROM BIG HANDS

Yeah, yeah I could’ve conjured a better title for a press release but April has been unusually cruel this year with the debacle that was PoetFest and the juggernaut of a struggle with a spreadsheet poetry manuscript…’nuff said.

Our third release for National Poetry Month which is not spread sheet poetry…

Cover by Amy Renee Armstrong

Now when one of my former professors got in contact with me regarding a poetry manuscript from what seemed like a favored former student…I cringed a bit but I accepted due to the fact that he demonstrated compassion toward me and definitely supported me in ways when I was down at a bleak time in my life.

However when I started reading the blurbs by David Cope and Jim Cohn…my stomach dropped…I thought this is a lot of propping up for someone…please, please don’t be another rich kid who gets strung out on drugs then their parents get them a disability check as they slum it chic poor rendering them a writer…

“Melissa Wray’s Small Gestures is a masterpiece of short free verse forms,  

beginning with gendered struggle involving  

sexual harassment, and involving an arc of  

struggles with the self and with others that  

at times ends in madness, the nature of the  

beast as it slouches toward its own humanity,  

particularly charting one woman’s efforts to chart her own course. Wray is a free-verse Sappho; her book was 16 years in the making, leading at last to a mature vision of these powerful themes. The work is fearless, illuminating even in darkness, a worthy addition to the traditions of using “no word that doesn’t contribute to the presentation” while addressing themes that matter in human experience. “

—David Cope 

“Melissa Wray’s Small Gestures frames a feminine worldview of constant sexual microaggressions, scarred and wounded bodies, relentless indignities, poverty and crushed dreams. Her poems present the wracked minutiae of raw observations moving through our streets and institutions. Wray’s ability to imprint and acknowledge the torment and pain of the inhuman human circus in which she herself descended is a blessed healing she delivers, not simply to herself, but to us all. Who among us has not watched over the perishing of loved ones, including parts of ourselves, to the grinding meat-wheel of lost hope and self-hatred that is the daily sustenance of addiction and the sound of dark subterranean rivers flooding these poems? And then, as if defying gravity and the laws of physics, in the broken mirror of Wray’s own post-beat sense of a Coltranesque love supreme, she cuts through her own despair as if ego was a mango pit left behind, and floods in a multigenerational illuminated space where no one need fear “losing you / to happiness.”

 —Jim Cohn

Luckily, I’m not an asshole all the time.

The book is sixteen years in the making. Tight, short pieces with varying magnitudes of impact dealing with a slew of issues such as addiction, mental health and the death of loved one along with discovering yourself through the wilderness of youth.

It is good?

In my humble opinion being new in the publishing and writing game…it’s good but not for the reasons you think…you can tell by the intro who influenced the author’s work and it definitely shows through the first set of poems “Small Gestures” but once you start breaking into the second set “New Pictures” and “Iris” then you observe the poet Melissa Wray finding her actual voice, ready to cast aside those influences.

The entire collection is conventionally good especially on a technical level but watching Wray evolve or rather begin evolving from outside the wing’s of her mentors is the truly dazzling part of the work.

As cute as it is to be influenced by Walt Whitman and the Beats along with those who revere them, it’s best not to be a copy of a copy of a copy and Wray shatters that by the end of SMALL GESTURES…

Pink spaghetti straps 

and blond hair 

skimming 

sharp shoulder blades 

frail arms 

and slim wrists 

resting small hands 

on narrow hips 

short dress 

barely covering 

tight 

slightly spread 

thighs. 

Standing  

in front 

of a gas station 

on the corner 

of Wealthy 

and Division— 

he  

was beautiful.  

Home 

I am walking home 

in the dark 

rounding a familiar corner. 

“Hey precious, 

thanks for the cigarette,” 

she says, and 

“you better walk faster 

in this neighborhood.” 

I saw her 

days before 

in a seedy market 

buying Faygo pop 

with the last dollar 

on her Bridge card. 

She left that night 

as I was lighting up 

in the parking lot. 

“Can I buy a cigarette from you? How much you want, 

a quarter?” 

I gave her one  

without the quarter. 

“Oh, thank you! 

I’ll go home and  

have my dinner 

and a smoke. 

Thank you!” 

She remembered me 

and thanked me again. 

I continue walking. 

A man in front of me 

on the sidewalk 

is pulling up 

scratching  

guttural sounds 

from deep in his gut 

in rhythm 

with his step, 

he turns slightly 

and eyes me, 

I try to pass him. 

He taps me on the shoulder. 

I continue walking. 

He taps me on the shoulder 

silently 

unfolds a piece of paper 

may I have $1.00 

for foods? 

I reach into my pocket 

and hand him one. 

He thanks me 

in sign language 

then pulls me in 

for a hug. 

He approached 

politely, 

“Excuse me, ma’am,” 

in a high 

raspy voice 

whistling 

through his few 

remaining 

yellowed teeth. 

“I’m trying 

to catch the bus. 

Just need 

sixty cents 

to catch the bus.” 

I retrieved my wallet. 

He opened thick 

short-fingered hands, 

fingernails long 

and painted black. 

I gave him seventy-five. 

“Just need 

to catch the bus.” 

Blocked 

With eyes 

looking past me 

he tells me 

to write every day 

about mundane things. 

smoke leaks 

from his tight lips 

as he pauses, 

looks down, 

grinds out his light 

and says 

he doesn’t write 

anymore.

The Fruit Is Already In Our Mouths 

 Reach into the crate, hesitant hand hovering for a moment over the mango’s human heart shapes, until you find the one that looks “just right,” curved with colors that contrast and blend simultaneously. Pick it up to test it. If it is like a woman’s breast, smooth, its weight misleading for its size, move to the next test. Close your eyes and bring the stem end up close enough to touch your nose. If the scent is sticky-sweet, and there is the tiniest bit of give from its skin to its meaty inside, take it home. 

There is an art to peeling a mango. There is slowness and exposure involved. Don’t disrespect it by merely cutting off the flesh in aggressive, uneven strips. Start small. Make one incision at the stem end, just deep enough to pierce through the skin. Drag it down and around the bottom of the fruit, then back up to meet itself. Start again at the stem, move over to the other, uncut, side and repeat. You will leave two lines circling through its thick skin, barely touching the meat. 

Choose a side. Use one hand to softly sink your fingernails into the place where the two cuts meet. Sink in a little deeper, and lift, loosening skin from meat. Firmly hold the tip between your fingers. Slowly pull down toward the stem. There will be a soft tearing feeling, a moist sound. If you are patient and deliberate, the diamond-shaped piece of skin will remain whole even once removed. The meat underneath will not have a perfect smoothness, as it would have had you cut the skin off haphazardly. It will look a little torn. It will feel wet and granular. The smell will be raw and incredible. Your hands will become wetter and wetter as you continue to peel away the skin from all corners. The mango may slip from your hands entirely, its juice dripping down to your wrists, permeating the cutting surface. 

Don’t wash the juice away so that you can manipulate the fruit more easily. Don’t be afraid to lick your fingers. Wipe your palms on your upper arms. Delve back in, more aware now that you have to respect its slippery qualities. Slide it whole, in and out of your hands, then cut the meat into smaller pieces, to taste again later.  

The mango’s hard pit will be left behind, encased in meat that couldn’t quite be cut away. You can experience it, too. Bring it to your mouth. Circle a corner with your lips, and suck. The flesh will be so compliant that it may melt off without any urging from your teeth.  

Those seem to be the sweetest parts.

Grand Rapids poet Melissa Wray was born in 1982. She is a graduate of Grand Rapids Community College and studied Health Psychology at Bastyr University in Seattle.  She is currently a candlemaker. Melissa read with Dave Cope, alternately reciting work by Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg at the Wealthy Theatre celebration of beat writing in 2008.  She received 2nd prize in the Dyer-Ives 50th anniversary poetry competition for her poem “Iris.”  She has been published in Big Scream, Big Hammer, Napalm Health Spa, Gutter Eloquence, Voices, and Display.  Small Gestures is her first book.

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