Feeling God’s Presence: A Review of Mary Melfi’s Welcome to Hard Times

Mary Melfi, photo by Julian Nemeth

Mary Melfi has written over a dozen books, including fiction, non-fiction, memoires and plays, and her books have been translated into French and Italian. Her writing has been called disturbing, fascinating, cynical, ironic, breathtaking, imaginative, surrealistic, dream-like, powerful, skillful, and Freudian. Her latest book, a collection of poetry, is titled Welcome to Hard Times (Ekstasis Editions, 2023, 153 pages). Melfi’s poetry often features an ironic and wry sense of humour. The collection is divided into reflections on theatre and cinema, with titles such as “Casting Call,” “Audition,” “Backstage,” “The Cast,” Weekly Rehearsals,” “Blackout,” “Opening Night,” and “Curtain Call.” The various poems in the collection borrow titles from cinema, drama, or songs, including unusual titles such as “Madonna of the Seven Moons.” Theatrics are revealed as ironically transparent. The various sections feature a progression of attitudes towards life, delving into bitterness and then moving to a resolution. Perhaps in anticipation of the direction taken in this collection, one poem in the “Audition” section, titled “A Chorus Line,” states, “I ask for the authority to call myself a star – /the star of my own life. The lead act.“ In the “Acknowledgements” Melfi thanks the theatrical arts and the film industry for providing inspirational stories about human experience. She also thanks Antonio D’Alfonso for helping her literary career.

In this collection, dreams escape through the pores of your skin and pursue you wielding axes, and souls are sold at bargain prices at local churches, while the dead sing pop-songs. However, one shouldn’t worry, because life’s meaning will be discovered at the moment of death, despite getting lost in “Yesterday,” where time skates across the room. Paradise might be close, but its location is a mystery. Force-fed hope causes indigestion, old age arrives as an imposing enemy, and gratitude heals less than a standing ovation.

The collection asks whether creation must be self-destructive. It questions the senselessness of war, and war between the sexes, and it challenges formal religion. Parallels are found between Superman and Jesus Christ, who ends up as the hero of this saga. We are told that love is a decayed tooth that must be removed, death eats supper at your table, closeness is frantic, men and women make a mess of things, and flowers are comedians.

God’s presence is felt throughout. The narrator realizes that the path to self-discovery is related to faith. However, it is challenging to bid farewell to one’s youth, especially if “These days I don’t know who I am.” Death must be faced with or without a God who is questioned, but offers few answers. The next-to-final section, titled “Opening Night,” offers multiple images of the narrator’s son. Immortality is embodied by one’s child, but like the narrator, that child also faces mortality. In the final section, titled “Curtain Call,” spring packs its suitcase. We are returned to winter and the master performer who must “star” in this poetic performance as “lead act”. But first, one must recognize that old age has arrived. Mortality is ever-present. It might be that with spring comes re-birth, but with winter, death arrives. The four seasons rotate with time. Age can be resented or resisted, but it’s relentless. Yesterday’s photographs depict beautiful lies, representing past youthfulness.

A departure in style happens in the final section, “Curtain Call.” While nearly all of the poems might be called “lyric,” the one titled “The Private Lives of Adam and Eve” is a prose-poem, a departure in style. This prose-poem bares the ugly truth about Adam and Eve and the “badass” snake that was placed in the garden. Immortality surrenders to old age. Towards the ending, the narrator selects items from their garden, while self-conscious of the fact that one never knows who might come to supper, including death itself. In “The Private Lives of Adam and Eve” we learn that every garden is a replica of Adam and Eve’s: “There is a God in it, and some snake dashing about.” An interesting reversal in logic emerges with regard to standard assumptions. For example, what if God gave the garden to the snake and “gave Adam and Eve to the Snake as playthings?” At the heart of this prose poem is an important question about organized religion, which asks about the relationship between God and the Devil. That relationship might be clarified by considering the Biblical “Book of Job” where God and the Devil collaborate, while making a wager, and Satan is permitted to “test” Job. Consequently, Job suffers great torment. Melfi’s collection considers the blurred definitions of God and the Devil. This prose poem returns to key themes in the collection by re-considering mortality and aging, as well as gardening, with reference to the Great Creator. The prose-poem is followed by “The Good Companions,” a poem which involves ghosts and concludes “the dead make for good companions.”

Finally, we learn that “Everything Is in the Garden,” and while dirt is unwelcome elsewhere, it’s acceptable in gardens, where one can weed out bad thoughts. In the final section of the collection optimism arises: “In the morning the sun visits the earth expecting/ flowering plants to wake up and nod in approval. (They do!).” Gardens are eroticised, and we learn that, “The night sky forces the internal garden of sexuality/ to take on a new shape.” One key element in this collection involves unconditional love and the right to eternal life, both of which arise from organised religion. Consequently, this collection raises a recurring question: how can one reconcile God’s love with active sexuality? If flowers are mortal and mute and can be loved unconditionally, then perhaps we should turn to our internal gardens.

Karl Jirgens, former English Department Head and Chair of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Windsor, is author of three books of fiction and two scholarly books (Coach House, Mercury, ECW and The Porcupine’s Quill Presses). His short-fiction collection, The Razor’s Edge is a finalist for the INDIE Forward Award and earned a Bronze ELIT award (for short fiction). Jirgens is an 8th Degree Black Belt (Grandmaster) of the Korean Martial Art of Tae Kwon Do.


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