Rachel Mennies embraces the public/private duality of writing letters in her latest collection of poems. Told through a time-honored epistolary narrative, The Naomi Letters chronicles the relationship between a woman speaker and Naomi, the woman she loves.
Set mostly over the span of a single year encompassing the 2016 Presidential Election and its aftermath, their love story unfolds via correspondence, capturing the letters the speaker sends to Naomi—and occasionally Naomi’s responses, as filtered through the speaker’s retelling. These letter-poems form a braid, first from the use of found texts, next from the speaker’s personal observations about her bisexuality, Judaism, and mental illness, and lastly from her testimonies of past experiences.
As the speaker discovers she has fallen in love with Naomi, her letters reveal the struggles, joys, and erasures she endures as she becomes reacquainted with her own body following a long period of anxiety and suicidal ideation, working to recover both physically and emotionally as she grows to understand this long-distance love and its stakes—a love held by a woman for a woman, forever at a short, but precarious distance.
I want to read you a poem—pink sky in the morning, it opens.
A girl’s sky.
When you look at me, do you see a woman who only knows how to love a man?
These were the only stories read to me.
This fault, too, is mine alone.
Slowly the trees become visible, Olds writes, and the spaces between them.
(This line makes me think of you—the white space in your letters.)
All my life, I have looked out at the world and never seen between.
I clung to each tree I could touch without moving.
But here you are, Naomi, and I write to you at dawn.
(Imagine being able to walk, into the woods, without fear.)
The black sky holds all colors close. Anything could happen.
I will wait here, reading, for the sun to rise, to show you what it decides.
“In this book-length, epistolary sequence, Rachel Mennies addresses Naomi—beloved, elusive, erotic muse, anchoring the narrator’s wide-ranging meditations on the female body. Released by the intimacy of the letter form, Mennies interrogates desire and the longing to ‘unbrick’ the houses that contain, medicalize, or thwart the complexity of women’s expression. Lines from many cherished poets—including Amichai and Rich—create a dense conversation across geographies and identities. Jewish cultural practices and the fierce love between the Biblical Naomi and Ruth echo here. Dated like diary entries over the course of a year, these ‘portals to the made world’ attest to the ‘small electrocutions’ and ‘impossible peace’ of daily experience. Original, piercing, The Naomi Letters makes a startling, unforgettable contribution to contemporary American poetry.”
—Robin Becker, author of The Black Bear Inside Me
“Rachel Mennies’ second book is a triumph. The Naomi Letters chronicles a year in epistles that invites the reader into the intimacy of a private exchange where we, over and over again, bear witness to the poet's expansive vision. At once grief-limned, sharp, and funny, this book explores the desires, obsessions, and limitations of the writing body negotiating history on this particular planet sprinting toward the unknown. This is a book to read, and then read again, and then again.”
—sam sax, author of bury it