The Devastation
Melissa Buzzeo

ISBN 978-1937658250
Nightboat Books, 2015

Reviewed by Katie Ebbitt

“The disaster ruins everything while leaving everything intact,” writes Maurice Blanchot. Melissa Buzzeo’s fourth book, The Devastation, is an embodiment of this dialectic. Buzzeo writes disaster into being, building form and language from memory and absence—pulling concealed, dormant, and suppressed language from her own body, which she seeks to transfer into the body of her book. Language creates a recess of connotation where the true value of words are obscured and must go back to a physical form: body, a person, a place. In the physical absence of language, what remains is its meaning, and its reverberation. It’s no coincidence that Buzzeo frequently uses the ocean and vast watery spaces as metaphors: they reflect the immensity of her devastation, the size of her loss. What was once the sea is gone, and the landscape, the ecosystem of this environment, is now an immense basin. Its purpose (to be filled, to house water that acts as mooring) has vanished. And Buzzeo is emptying the basin, scrubbing it clean – doing and undoing what has undone her. Her writing details the silhouettes of subjects, of shapes composed of their surrounding affects, and only hints at physical presence. The eroticism of the text is written into the book itself: a collective reservoir of what is no longer embodied.
Within all of her work, Buzzeo is spiritual, linguistic, political, and poetical. She writes from a space of healing, with psychological resonance and a tender sensitivity towards trauma. She may be detailing memory, but she is also creating new space for a personal devastation that has ruined language and wrecked writing. As water passing over stones, said trauma has eroded body, memory, and mind, leaving behind objects laid smooth, but indelibly marked by contact.
The story of The Devastation is divided into four distinct parts – bookended by a preface and an epilogue (“I wish to close this which has held out too long,” Buzzeo writes). But what could be read as a linear narrative is actually a remembrance of a singular disastrous event, and Buzzeo is rebuilding history through decay and shadows and emptiness, writing a book about non-existence – a ghostly shape – and attempting to find form in memory as an apparition ( “How does one say of the Devastation/When it no longer is,” she writes in “The Floor”). This haunted quality drives the text, which, like waves, is rhythmic, overlapping.
In Part Two, what is left is silence. Language is all that remains to convey sentiment once the indomitable chain of events that determine devastation have begun. What is left to ground the experience of two people, when memory is so personal? In Part Three: The Sky, the water evaporates, “In the bucket of I/the absence of you/the curtailing of we.” Part Four: The Basin chronicles the recovery of becoming whole—as language constructs us and leaves us newly formed, but hollowed. Writing forms a memory, gives legitimacy to an ending, marks an ending possible—even when all that remains of the lover is a memory committed to language, to a book as relic (“I come to you without scales without language to the immeasurable part of you that I put beside water”).
Buzzeo confronts how we envision ourselves, and our relationships, once the form of those relationship has changed, dissipated, and decayed; “when nothing is left but the basin of retrieval – the properties of the body and the matter of memory addressed.” In essence, perhaps, Buzzeo is fundamentally a teacher—compassionate, aware, and deeply intelligent. Her writing is theoretical without being instructive, and her language builds a space to house and hold the reader. There is mysticism in Buzzeo – her text is like being touched by ambient light. She reflects on the universality of individualism, and makes experience communal. Incidents cannot be destroyed any more than they can be fully resurrected – there are only inaccuracies in a single telling. But Buzzeo shows us how memory, both watery and dry, can be housed and documented to fill new spaces, and new bodies, every time stories are retold. She is asking us to look at everything from multiple angles and dimensions, and challenge what we actually feel.

Katie Ebbitt is a poet and social worker living in New York City. Her first chapbook, Another Life, was published by Counterpath Press.