I spent a lot of time thinking about why we chose Brandon Melendez’s “Alprazolam,” and I realized that explaining why I chose a poem is a lot harder than explaining why I didn’t choose a poem.
Why is that? Well, I blame poetry workshops. I’ve taken a few in my day. Poetry workshops teach students how to criticize work and provide suggestions for making the writing better. In those classes, I learned how to ask for a better line break, how to suggest more clarity. I’ve learned how to say: “This feels heavy-handed to me”, or “the rest of the poem doesn’t earn its final stanza.” And, after all of that, I’ve found myself more fluent in the Language of Criticism, less fluent in the Language of Appreciation.
And yet, I appreciate the poems we accept for Split Lip. I appreciate the crap out of them. When I love a poem, it’s as simple as that: I love it. It’s a bodily reaction. It feels good to read it. The poem sounds pretty. It looks nice on the page. It feels unusual, like a rare commodity, like moon crystals, like bacon-wrapped dates. I want to read it again and again.
I felt all these things when I first read Brandon Melendez’s poem “Alprazolam.” I knew I liked it without being able to fully explain why.
“Alprazolam” is a poem about medication. The title is the generic brand of the anti-anxiety pill Xanax. This poem could be an advertisement for this pill. It tells us that the treatment does, in fact, work. The bees in the poem function as a stand-in for anxiety. In the poem, the bees are inside of the speaker’s body, and the pill is the one thing that can get them out. Of course, this is a very basic reading of the poem—but there is more to “Alprazolam” than this simple one-to-one comparison.
As I read the poem again and again, I realized that “Alprazolam” is really a poem about loss. The bees—the anxiety—are the most vivid images in the poem. The bees are presented to us with care, almost tenderness. They are associated with honey—something sweet and good. They are portrayed as angry, though not menacing or dangerous. The speaker says: “Suture / my ears to stop / the angry hum / of wings inside me.” I imagine these light, nearly translucent bee wings flapping inside the speaker’s chest, and somehow the image feels more uplifting than I’d expect in a metaphor for anxiety.
I think the way the bees are presented in this poem complexifies how we understand the speaker’s relationship with his anxiety. He says: “I know sweet / is only sweet / if you sacrifice / your ugliest parts.” There is a sense in the poem that a transaction is required, that something needs to be taken away from the speaker in order for him to experience a sense of well-being. The speaker says: “I’d forfeit my name / for silence.” These lines suggest that—in curing his mental illness—something within the speaker’s identity would be lost. And then, the final lines show us that the body must be cut open, cut in half, for the bees to find an opening, an exit. This poem explores the strange, quiet violence that comes with treating mental illness, and Brandon does an amazing job of presenting this process through image.
In addition to the complex ideas and images of the poem, what struck us more immediately was the element of surprise in this poem. In the middle of the poem, he writes: “Did you know anyone / can be a graveyard / if you dig deep enough? / Did you know the edge / of every scalpel / there is a prayer?” These questions—with their unexpected line breaks, their intense images—were so satisfying. My answers to each of these questions are: “No, Brandon, I didn’t know that.” And each time I read this poem, I felt that way, that I’d been gifted with some new insight, new pleasure, that I had not yet discovered, that I was, at first, unable to put into words.