Northwood by Maryse Meijer (Catapult, 2018)
Reviewed by Michelle Mitchell-Foust
Where to begin? Some novels, upon first reading, begin a return.
The return I make when I read Maryse Mejia’s Northwood unravels as I keep reading. I am driven to return to a place and time, to a person, not merely to remember. And I am driven to “answer” the novel….
One “answer” to the novel Northwood is a return to a bundle of leaves, a bundle of love letters.
It might be one of the most famous bundles of letters in the world: Franz Kafka’s letters to Felice Bauer. He knew that each letter to her was his body traveling. Although the two were engaged, the urgency of Kafka’s prose let readers know that he was already trying to prepare himself for what can never be prepared for–the end of their time together.
“Even night is not night enough,” Kafka writes to his love, when he is desperate for silence, and when he is even more desperate for her to accompany him in this silence, he writes, “Farewell my dearest, and at the risk of waking you, at the risk of waking you, I kiss you.”
The quandary is this…how can someone be alone and accompanied? Impossible.
These letters come to mind because the woods of Northwood surround a precarious courtship, sequestered. And ultimately, an affair that is both possible and impossible.
The return begun by Northwood is also perilous. I return to a poem of my own. Indulgent, yes, but as I said, my reading of Northwood is a return.
On the surface, my “Fourth Dream of the Body” is about a fish, the Moses soul, whose milk is fatal to the sharks who try to eat them:
And he’s all about desire there, in the invisible
hug of water. He is poisonous
as a ghost
dragging an iron key across the floor….
The question is: what can save us from the perils of love such as we find in Northwood? Because, as I wrote:
love’s the placenta
of fear, and lover, no milk
on my skin can save me
from the dream of you.
I turned suddenly and saw
a woman reaching for her book, and the long scar
on her forearm.
Some things never stop
In a past love-life, I was not prepared even for the love’s arrival, as Northwood’s protagonist was not prepared. Mejia writes:
For a while in the wood I was drawing scissors. Before the
dance, before your hands. I didn’t even have a premonition
of you, no black mark against the moon, no bad dream
folded into the sheet, it was just me, and that old table, and
my model, lying in my lap….
…When I found a loose thread on
my shirt I didn’t think of the scissors, her legs spread on the
table beside the bed: I just put the hem to my lips and bit.
Northwood is the story of an impossibility that the narrator lives to see the other side of. The strength of the novel comes from familiar, perilous psychological and emotional territory. And the novel is written in poems, which, by their nature, purvey truth; even while these poems are not nonfiction, they read like memoir. They are often addressed to the Other, the protagonist’s lover, as her memory furs over:
Candles quivering against the glass, our shadows
hovering above our heads I will never forget
the spider’s egg opening in the corner, her babies
spilling across the wall as you dug your chin into my neck.
Walking through song after song.
The thing is, you were soft.
The white of a barely cooked egg, the glistening
edge of it, how it trembles on metal.
You kept falling in love.
found the cracks, made new nests. They ate
the ants. And the radio sat on the shelf
above the little blackened pan with its scrawny omelets
and said nothing.
Nothing about this novel’s story is harmless. Mejia calls on no fewer than six gods to aid her in this quest, this fairy tale, this tarot reading, this bible verse, this affair:
the flies are heavy this time of year she
combs them from her
bangs at night she’s thinking more and more
escape it should she escape
where’s your daddy I asked
isn’t he a god
Of course, there is no escape, only an ending that isn’t really an ending. Mejia writes:
It’s in the rotting. What woods do is die lightening fire
disaster. deep freeze. Departure. Then: the stirring
beneath the leaves. Life plucking the future from
its own sad gut.
every dusk a fresh feast. The swarm in the fallen trunk.
Tend not the wound
but the hunger: keep
eating. Tomorrow comes. And comes. (115)
A few days ago I was in a bookstore, and the owner asked what I was writing now, and I said I was writing this review, and I was having trouble, because to read Maryse Meijer’s Northwood is to return to…what did I say? Something about those ones we loved at our own risk. He knew immediately what I meant, and he told me a story of his having fallen in love with a French woman who was married to his best friend. He was smiling as he told me, and then he said that his friend ultimately said to him (and he opened out his arms and hands here) his friend said, “It’s alright.” I was surprised but unsure, and then he clarified. His friend was saying, “How could he help it?” We stood there silent for a moment, smiling, each of us thinking about our someones, out there.
All this to say, Maryse Meijer’s enchanted Northwood is best digested as memory. Its power comes from the elasticity of its genre, and from the simple fact of its peril: ablur with fact and fiction–the writer’s and the reader’s–ablur with life and dream.