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D.H. MELHEM (1926-2013)

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D.H. Melhem's Art and Politics, Politics and Art. 2010. Syracuse University Press. 78 pp.

Melhem coverHigh explosives warning: this slender new volume of poems is poetical and political dynamite. Manhattan poet Melhem thought she would set out with a very classical purpose, to present poems that were inspired by, or narrate the stories of, works of visual art — an urge that arose from her own childhood engagement with painting, drawing, and sculpture. But her own life as a child of Lebanese immigrants, and the war-torn half century we have passed through, dictated otherwise. Although many of the poems here center around works of art, Melhem's poems hone in on the life-and-death issues that confront us as citizens and as a nation. This is not so far from the classical model, it turns out, since the model of ekphrasis, in The Iliad, is a description of the shield of Achilles. The shadow of war hangs over art, visual or poetic.

Every Manhattanite acquires the survival skill of being a keen observer. In "Naked Woman Walks Down the Street," Melhem throws the spotlight on a naked madwoman, noticed and arrested within minutes, while the homeless — the army she leads in the poetic fantasy that ensues — remain invisible. Like Ovid, Melhem petrifies them, warns of "their malice, their might" if they are too long ignored.

At The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the poet contrasts three disparate exhibits of Coco Chanel, Dianne Arbus, and Duccio. Like most of us, she lingers over the lattermost artist's Madonna and child, searching for some secret message. Why, she seems to ask, is future violence prefigured in domestic bliss, "tiny Jesus about to grow/ into his inheritance, future already/ worn into his face,/ and his mother's."

"Lincoln's Summer Home" is a masterpiece. Risky as it is to write of Lincoln in the shadow of Vachel Lindsay, Melhem succeeds in terse lines to tell us how Lincoln did not, and could not, evade reminders of his war in progress. The President did not play golf in some gated compound: his house overlooked Rock Creek National Cemetery, and from his windows he saw the daily interment of dead soldiers. She ends her poem eye to eye with Lincoln's portrait, "the monumental grief carved into it." If only Congressmen and Senators were obliged to watch the coffins of the military dead pass through their chambers.

"Poem for Elizabeth Cady Stanton" celebrates a great American heroine of the struggle for women's rights, and was occasioned by the renaming of her own Upper West Side apartment building as "The Stanton" in 2007, a belated act of architectural tribute in an age when every other hydrant is named "Trump."

"Hannibal Crossing the Alps" has its political lessons on imperial follies, but it is also an effective ekphrasis of paintings by Turner and Poussin.

In other poems more overtly social and political, Melhem displays the keen eye for the hidden powerplays of urban life that characterized Notes on 94th Street. She imagines a city flooded by global warming in which "submerged real estate and soggy towers/ address of sharks and whales and bloated bears." She sees prostitutes at their stations as "stone-eyed/ caryatids of their littered turf," and she throws the hard light of judgment, almost Olympian, at their pimp: "entrepreneur, landlord without land/ sultan of slumbodies/ you parade their gargoyle emblem/ for a pair of new shoes/... boss, now/ selling your sister."

"April 2004" reminds us that moments of heart-stopping beauty — a sudden bloom of cheery trees — comes to us in war-time as well as in peace-time, but these blessings of nature are not the same during a time of hurled bombs and deadly drones.

In her post-9/11"New York Epic," Melhem is Whitmanesque, becoming the sidewalk, the street, the neighborhood itself. This is urban transcendentalism, bracing and brave, self-as-personification taken to its limit, leaping to:

Impulse of rain vaults across waters
pelts me with world-horror
triggers chaos around me
wild with Baghdad and Fallujah
the bomb craters of Kabul
my gutters weep khaki and body parts
wail with prayers from mosques and temples
market air perfumed with sweet breath of dying children
and sparked with random light of exploding eyeballs
drowning in oil ripped from the earth
set afire in the land an on waters
burning me burning this street
burning its heart out
until no one
comes home to me

I am you — your lives run through me within me
I am you and whatever you are intending
stained by indelible ashes blown five miles uptown
in an inconsolable shroud of acrid taste
and trembling trembling trembling
with continuing off sense
of a distant folly

Ekphrasis takes an urgent tone elsewhere in the book, when the work being explicated is an atrocity photo, in "These Policemen Are Sleeping," an indictment of Israeli-Palestinian violence, a war so unrelenting that all-consuming that it "spares lives as lottery prizes." A string of powerful poems on the Gulf War and other wars ensues, each pointed and poignant. Melhem returns to the literary classics, in "Hecuba to Hector," accusing the men's business of war, as the soldier's mother protests:

"War is men's business,"
you say. What then is women's? To tend
the funeral pyres and whitened bones? To pluck
the lyres of lamentation? I should have
rent my breasts before they suckled you
or any of my sons. Do not, I pray,
go out to meet Achilles.

There are many more wonders passed over in this brief review: all 33 poems in this collection are worthy of this fine poet, working at the peak of her powers. To order this remarkable book from Amazon, CLICK HERE. — Reviewed by Brett Rutherford

D H Melhem portrait

D. H. Melhem is one of our brilliant contemporary talents ....a nimble vigor, a roomy intellect, a sanity-searcher. She uses language with a canny shrewdness: she does not allow language to delay her messages. She possesses one of the most remarkable minds of our time.


That these are angry poems is not surprising. There is a great deal in D. H. Melhem’s world — our world — to be angry at. What is remarkable is the sense of human dignity that emerges from the anger, dignity that is totally believable precisely because it is not created by the avoidance of ugliness, pain, humiliation. This is closely related to the formal control evident throughout the book, containing the intensity of the poet's emotions without restricting it. The ability to structure chaos without denying it is probably at the heart of all good poetry; it certainly goes a long way toward explaining why D. H. Melhem’s poetry is so successful.


author of Theodore Roethke:
Escape from the Self


By D.H. Melhem

First published by The Poet’s Press in 1972,
reprinted in 1979 by Dovetail Press.
To order the new Syracuse University Press edition, expanded to 140 pages, titled New York Poems, go to our CATALOG


The musicians at the newsstand
are singing
they sing and play instruments
the saxophone and cracked guitar
bawl and whine over exhaust fumes and garbage dust
they play and play       the dirty black cap open between them
on the ground —
two old men for pennies.

And a big, drunken woman laughs
laughs over her balloon stomach
she pulls up her sweater to show it
the string holding up her skirt
hanging from the big white belly
she laughs through the spaces between her teeth
her mouth looks purple and half-vacant
       when she opens it
she shows the old men her distended belly
as if it were fruitful or cherished
she lifts her paper bag to her mouth
like a trumpet — and drinks.

She is singing now, softly, then begins
a hard hoarse cry of a note
and holds it. She is singing —
a little wine left in the bottle
the flavor that was in it
a harsh joy in the emptying

And the old men sing with her
they dream through the curving wood and metal
and the forms of the sounds that go out
as if the dirty newspapers and today's news
the people running up subway strairs
the dogs the pimps the hustlers the
gleaning-eyed girls, the howling police cars
their bullhorn commands, the litter
and dust-filtered daylight
as if these held the moment of art
as if it could be made
from the unlovely flesh, half-clay, half-dust
as if it could all be molded again, and the players
were gods empowering a new music

the big-bellied woman
and the musicians
at the newsstand

Copyright (c) 1972, 1979, 2005 by D. H. Melhem
All Rights Reserved


Tough Babe doesn’t beg
she says, gimme.
Gimme a quarter, gimme a dime,
gimme.      Demands her due,
her worth to the street.

No please. It isn't a favor.
You’re not absolved by giving.
Something in your pocket
belongs to her,
she believes.

Copyright (c) 1972, 1979, 2005 by D. H. Melhem
All Rights Reserved


This tourist, resident
cruises Broadway's exotic islands,
toilet paper in the trees
bench to bench
communities oppose
their rows of misery
cross street.

Old men together
face the sun
arthritic argument against the past.
Sleeping it off
drunks and junkies sprawl
cynicism, defeat
in beer cans,
suck dreams from paper bags.

Copyright (c) 1972, 1979, 2005 by D. H. Melhem
All Rights Reserved


in dirty pockets
dollars brokenfaced
with change
collect for passage
glassine bags
packed for trips that round
will end at the corner
emptying on faces having taken
no joy from joy
but the pursuit
catches them like cops
little crowd
flings outward
shooting burntout stars

Copyright (c) 1972, 1979, 2005 by D. H. Melhem
All Rights Reserved


on 94th street
rain upon snow the long summer long
where footsteps tire and tireless the track
of wheels and window-washing
over cracks that rattle carts
and carriages of babies flying down
a hill of stillness shouted into dark
to everyone who hurrying along will
shuffle back no ending starts and
stirs again alarming moans and
calling out of tune will ruin
silences the sweep of sun one touch
is touching one is touching it
a friend of evening
with you

Copyright (c) 1972, 1979, 2005 by D. H. Melhem
All Rights Reserved


Lady buying carrots and two pears:
that is a dogbaby in your carriage.

It's warm.
You’ve tucked the blanket anyway
around his collar (hers).
of identity. I mean
precisely who or what
or where one takes the proper space
among his peers.

Is it a dog?
A baby?

Or having done with categories
are dogs and babies
all the same to you?


Lady, that is a dogbaby in your carriage
Lady, that is a dogbaby in your carriage
Lady, that is a dogbaby in your carriage
it’s warm
you’ve tucked the blanket anyway
buying your carrots

Copyright (c) 1972, 1979, 2005 by D. H. Melhem
All Rights Reserved


they’re picketing jimmy's
the fruit and vegetable store
california grapemounds
picked by scabs

jimmy fights back
his radio
flings news and music
pellets of static

marty and Irwin cry
don’t buy
don’t break the strike
chavez    grapepickers    four years
bunching grief
into union

jimmy says
I am a working man
and make an honest living
on his radio
a group sings love
the news is all disaster
jimmy lifts a bunch of grapes
messages from california
he won’t receive

Copyright (c) 1972, 1979, 2005by D. H. Melhem
All Rights Reserved


mister manager, last week
this little can of peas was twenty cents
today it's two for forty-five
think I think that's cheaper?

boy opens carton stamps cantops
new price you call smiling to distract me
over cartful of
chickenbacks soupbones and canned beans
things I can afford
not what I like

mister manager, this marketing
grows bitter
meatless dinners now
and fishless
we'll be eating grits and gruel
before you're through
shall I blame the system only
are you wicked, too?

Copyright (c) 1972, 1979, 2005 by D. H. Melhem
All Rights Reserved


You grow old,
order boy,
will not be
or own much.
You grow sideburns
marking a style,
eyes recede
fearing traffic,
the truth of revolving
in place.

I see your years
that yearn to
get off your bicycle
burdens carefully boxed
as you pedal to apartments
and return,
same pace.

Copyright (c) 1972, 1979 by D. H. Melhem
All Rights Reserved


That's right: adjust your hat.
The main thing is
your hat on straight.

You make
a statement.
I recognize
as I see
your head
over your cane
and crouching thighs
that spit
in the street,
nearly home.

*Title courtesy of Paul Blackburn

Copyright (c) 1972, 1979, 2005 by D. H. Melhem
All Rights Reserved


we’re here, after the movie
for a ritual slice
with sodawine, stand
in a light without grace
at the formica counter

toss high in silence the pizzadoughball
that falls flat on your fist
whirling it wider
how lean the thinning disc can leap and spin
don't break it
on the clench that curves your arm to wait
and spring
and wait

have mercy on
the form rejected flung and wound
too many times
before it yields in one irreversible winding
an incorrigible

Copyright (c) 1972, 1979, 2005 by D. H. Melhem
All Rights Reserved


pale face congealing over
thin cut making
a mouth
pair of hands
the round steel blade
slicing up roast beef
becomes a scale precise to
fractions of fractions
of a pound
slivered pastrami
never handcut
the old way

smiley's assistant
hates him
puts extra meat
in sandwiches
another piece of pickle
when he’s not looking

come in
gaze at price lists
and pay

truckman has
beer and bologna on roll
sits at the table for one
end of the counter

two schoolboys want franks
complain about
meager sauerkraut
smiley takes
a dollar from
the beggar lifting
to examine
corned beef with cole slaw on rye
his eyepatch

watching the counter window
where pickles go
and macaroni salad
and orange lox
sliced fine as crepe de chine
we eat

Copyright (c) 1972, 1979, 2005 by D. H. Melhem
All Rights Reserved


the hours
into tickets
that season
your children
at school
pack sheets
and shirts
like bundles
of books
to be

Copyright (c) 1972, 1979, 2005 by D. H. Melhem
All Rights Reserved


Poodles are pretty,
Mine’s friendly.
We walk
where riverside trees
cherry blossom,
boats meet briefly,
dogs encounter,
nice people sun themselves
dressed up.

This neighborhood
was tiptop:
streets were clean.
doors doublelocked,

the poor

Copyright (c) 1972, 1979, 2005 by D. H. Melhem
All Rights Reserved


he and he and
she and she walk
hand in hand

we rebuke them
(me and me)

Copyright (c) 1972, 1979, 2005 by D. H. Melhem
All Rights Reserved


crossing the street, he glanced left
saw death his mother sitting in a truck
bore down on him
smashed face that flew forth
twenty feet to rest red in the eyes
light streaming from his brain
C A L L   T H E    P O L I C E
police are questioning their questions
lying around the man

a lady gives a handkerchief

long after bearer and the stretcherborne
facts like ghosts
harrow their ground
translate a man
to measurement
from bumper to blood puddle
equate the rate with
mass and distance of him

truth cools to mathematics
intern of the ambulance
the patient waited thirty minutes
bled to death

Copyright (c) 1972, 1979, 2005 by D. H. Melhem
All Rights Reserved


wears a hat with three roses
hands hang empty the length of her coat

over timid shuffling
her body dips and droops
                                         Nobody laughs
who passes
                    her crooked hat
her eyes that glitter tears
upon the dark
     as she
cries up 94th Street
every night

Copyright (c) 1972, 1979, 2005 by D. H. Melhem
All Rights Reserved


I see the gray gull
above him an eagle I cannot see
limns brilliant passage
gull hovers hopes fish but
I am watching the sky behind him
wing distances dust me with light
the wind lives

Copyright (c) 1972, 1979, 2005 by D. H. Melhem
All Rights Reserved

Last updated September 2017



D.H. Melhem died on June 15, 2013. A memorial tribute program for D.H. was held at Poets House in New York City on July 14, 2014. A video of this program can be seen at http://www.dhmelhem.com

D H. Melhem was the author of eight books of poetry, two novels, three nonfiction books, a musical, and numerous articles, essays and reviews. Born in Brooklyn, NY, to Lebanese immigrants (with paternal Greek ancestry), she was a lifelong resident of New York City, where her two children were born and raised. Of her scholarly works, Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice University Press of Kentucky was the first comprehensive study of that poet. A later book, Heroism in the New Black Poetry: Introductions and Interviews won an American Book Award. D.H.'s stirring portrait of her mother, Rest in Love, is one of her most popular works and had gone through several editions.

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