In the briny snow you could see the car tracks
along the shore where in summer sand
we’d sprawl and soak up sun
in defiance of skin carcinomas-to-come. And you could see
how deftly he’d turned the wheel onto ice
at just the right place.
And on the ice you could see
how he’d made the tires spin and grab
and Jean-Marie clutching his hand Oh oh oh!
The sinking would be silent, and slow.
An excerpt from “Too Young to Marry But Not Too Young to Die,” from American Melancholy by Joyce Carol Oates; copyright © 2021 by Ontario Review, Inc.; reprinted courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
Joyce Carol Oates’ first book of poetry in 25 years, American Melancholy, is a wide-ranging reverie on our country and our place in the world. Filled with nostalgia, condemnation, and uncanny celebration, the collection urges readers to wrestle with the fractured American psyche.
The poem “Too Young to Marry But Not Too Young to Die” rings with echoes of country ballads and old-time song lyrics. It’s the story of a small-town teenage couple who dared to drive onto the ice of Lake Chippewa. When the story of their drowning — encapsulated, frozen, resting against each other in a 1963 Chevy — breaks in the local paper, it instantly becomes legend. Like many of Oates’ poems, the narrative provides an opportunity to step back and reflect on innocence stolen, our universal and slightly perverse fascination with loss, and the nostalgia with which we easily gloss our history. Against the backbeat of American rhythms, we sensationalize and mythologize, even while we grieve.
American Melancholy chronicles atrocities perpetrated in the name of progress, such as in “Little Albert,” a chilling poem about so-called scientific research in the 1920s. Other poems address a woman’s plea for abortion, and the poet’s fury with the power of dictators.
But Oates has a gift for balance. The collection includes her signature wry humor and playfulness, and she offers tenderness alongside horror. She seems to suggest that somehow, despite unforgivable wrongheaded deeds, we come back to our hometowns, to our small mortal lives, to what sustains us. We long to recognize and memorialize our truest selves — that is, to embrace melancholy that we cannot smile away. ◀
Joyce Carol Oates has written more than 70 books, including novels, short story collections, young adult fiction, plays, poetry, and essays. Her debut novel, With Shuddering Fall, was published in 1964. Oates taught at Princeton University from 1978 to 2014, and has taught short fiction at the University of California, Berkeley. She has received numerous awards and honors, including the 2012 Norman Mailer Prize for Lifetime Achievement.
Barbara Rockman is author of Sting and Nest (2011) and To Cleave (2019). She teaches writing at Santa Fe Community College and Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families.