Northwood by Maryse Meijer
Black Balloon, 2018; 128 pp
Reviewed by Guia Cortassa
Northwood’s pages are black, the words coming up in the interstice left by the absence of the dark ink, pale attempts to subtract some space to the blackness scattered around the obsidian sea, each letter a blink of light connecting one another, like a constellation of activated neurons and synapses, like some desperate car lights roaming the woods at night.
THE DANCE HALL
I knew no one. A bar at the edge of the wood and music I hadn’t heard music in a week or seen a human face and there was yours, a miracle, selling tickets at the door; you took my hand and stamped it black. Jade eyes into mine and silver hair, older than any man I’d ever thought was beautiful, your beauty the first thing that hurt and I moved into the room solid with plaid shirts and me in my black dress so this is the country. I drank a cup of punch and ate almonds from a plastic bowl and you came and dug your hand next to mine wiped your salty fingers on your hip and looked down at my shirt unironed and crooked teeth agleam in the yellow light. I didn’t spend a minute saying no. You led me through the music, under your arm, pressed against your side, sweat slicking us wherever we touched. I spun and you stopped me and said Where are you staying. I saw the ring on your finger. The bottom dropping out. We talked on the stage steps, half hidden by a ficus. A cup of punch on your knee, jeans so tight at the thigh I could see how big you were. I blushed, touched it anyway. Not a sound from you. Watching my face, little smile, devastation: the music grew. Where’s your wife, I said, and you laughed: we would never be in public together again. I think I’m drunk, I said, moving my hand away. There’s no booze in that punch, darling, you said, and got me another glass.
Recollecting memories is an exercise in curating; in selecting with great care what to keep floating in the surface of the mind, and what to let sink in its deep meanderings. But even when resting in the most inaccessible recesses, memories, like any other wreckage, can be pulled out again at any moment, and without any warning; some other times, instead, what we choose to keep as the most accessible, what we find ourselves always coming back to, are those memories of the darkest places of our existence. Trauma is a scab someone can easily find themselves addicted to pick, unable to let go, unwilling to lose the hurting, afraid that the physical pain might be the sole proof of still being alive; violence like the most addictive drug, your tantalizer the only available pusher.
Here’s my face, you say/ my breast/ the wet/ secret/ he never really left/ a mark./ That’s how good/ he was/ and you are proud/ of how you took it/ the star/ the tragic/ lead/ you are a giver./ Of head/ of silences./ It’s not really/ separable./ His pleasure/ eventually/ your pleasure/ the solar plexus/ punched windless/ sometimes he simply/ beat the crap out of you/ and it became/ sex?/ I’m asking you/ what you make of that/ kind of/ penetration/ how it makes/ all the other kinds/ less simple/ or was it ever/ simple/ even when you are alone/ in the dark/ and you come/ just thinking of your blood/ on his hand/
Remembering is a multifaceted, non-linear activity, even when it is on the page; hearts and thoughts impossible to reduce to a neat narrative like some made-up story. Sometimes anecdotes and events are so vivid in our memory that jotting them down is as easy as noting a to-do list; some others, instead, only live in our mind in flashes and bits, messy and disconnected, or cluttered and oppressive.
We started out as usual. Me on the edge of the bed after a bath, soaked towel and medusa hair. My husband unstrapping his watch. What’s wrong, he said. I didn’t answer. Honey put on your pajamas. I don’t want fucking pajamas! I yelled, flinching from his hand when he tried to steady me. Why do you keep doing that, he said. I put my face in my hands, a powerful gesture to a certain man, a man like my husband, who takes pity on things, whose pity leads him to love. Come on, you can tell me. So I told him Just this once. Please just the one time never again. I can’t, he said, and I stroked his thigh Yes you can, spreading my knees, and when he said No again I slapped him—do you know what it’s like, to see someone backed so thoroughly into a corner, wanting to come through for you, hating you?—and kept slapping until he put the pillow over my face, his fist through the feathers like he meant it, all wrong, and I reached for him, the both of us crying out, and that was when he wept, my beautiful husband, How could you make me? How could you? the pillow knocked away and him touching my face, touching it all over, shoulders shaking. I held him tight. How could you.
An artist tries to escape from her block leaving her place to the woods for a year. There, she meets an older, married man, and with him she finds the love she claims she has never felt before. But mistaking dependence for love is such an easy slip, that she immediately falls for it, for him, for his abusive and violent behavior, to the point that she can’t but still look for that pain even once back to her life, once married to a decent person, once back to her teaching job. The man from the woods is a presence that lingers and controls her existence, that keeps her constantly craving for a phone call, a letter, a sign.
Your hands on my throat,
the bruise lace
they left behind—
those crown jewels, that ghost
In Northwood Maryse Meijer crafted a perfect reenactment of the anguished inner reality of that artist, penning a complex and multifarious tale, obscure and charming, ungraspable yet so extremely human and real.