Patrice Melnick’s memoir is a dance with language. Po-boy Contraband is a series of mini essays that outlines Melnick’s diagnosis with HIV and her journey to reclaim her life through music, writing, and relationships. The literary dance she creates is quick and jarring in the opening section “Finding Out,” sweeping us through the wilderness of Africa, where Melnick served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late ’80s and where she contracted the virus. Characters pop up and out of the essays like soap bubbles, never reoccurring in later scenes—a nod to the flimsiness of relationships but also, at times, unsatisfying to the reader. Her relationship to music has the strongest hold in this book, so I more easily remember the album she listens to in DC when she discovers she’s HIV-positive than the friends she has in Africa.
Melnick’s diagnosis of HIV was accidental; upon getting ill in the Central African Republic, she was swept away to a DC hospital to be treated for an ovarian cyst that was removed like a “wet piece of pink tissue paper.” What at first is a philosophical questioning of womanness and what it means to be female (does the ability to have children, to be called mother, equate with “woman,” Melnick asks, reminding herself that she had never really wanted children anyway) leads into a shocking diagnosis of HIV when one of her blood tests comes back positive. Melnick is suddenly faced not with the question of being able to give life, but the larger question of being able to live her own. The unfolding of these early events in her life is crafted in bursts and snippets of moments, written in short, staccato sentences drummed out on the page like a tap dance.
The anchor throughout Melnick’s story is her relationship to music, her love for rhythm and dance. She listens to the beats of Paul Simon on her Walkman as she contemplates her recent diagnosis in the streets of DC. She is inspired to move to New Orleans for its music, getting caught up in the blues and jazz and learning how to Zydeco dance. She writes about the comfort music provides as she rushes through a flurry of feeling: numbness over the initial news of her diagnosis, guilt over having unprotected sex, the fear of stigma that disables her from being forthright about her diagnosis with friends and family and dates. Music, though, she says, “insulated me, soaked me down like rain.”
In section two, “Health, Body and Mentality,” Melnick carries us through her day-to-day life as a creative writing teacher in New Orleans. One of the most poignant relationships exposed in this section is her tenuous and difficult work relationship with Oscar, a fellow English professor. His subtle racism and harsh attitude in departmental meetings make Melnick uncomfortable, and yet there is that delicate moment when she sees him in a café, having learned that he is also HIV-positive, and Melnick regrets not having earlier visited him in the hospital. One of the successes of the stories with Oscar is that Melnick takes her time with the action, takes her time delving into his character. Here we see the hint of a poet: “This was not a brave time for me. . . . I regretted not trying to befriend Oscar. It seemed as if blue poison rivers of anger ran throughout Oscar’s body until he tired. And then streams ran clear and calm as the anger dissipated and died.” But Melnick’s simple, lyrical language is often overshadowed by the sprint through actions, where she hurls words quickly, and then ducks out of scenes.
Her biting humor begins to emerge in “Health, Body and Mentality” with the inclusion of an HIV survey as one of her essays, poking fun at the various myths about contracting HIV. She uses a similar style in a later essay called “Dating Exam,” but I would have liked to see this humor earlier on in the collection. At this point in the collection, it feels forced, as though Melnick is trying to make herself laugh as much as the reader.
Melnick twirls and spins the reader through events that are in no chronological order, returning to moments and places, like Alaska and graduate school, or New Orleans and her teaching gig, introducing lovers and ditching them just as quickly. If one can let go of any order of time in these events and just let the events speak for themselves, then it is easier to get caught up in the momentum Melnick creates with her words and feelings. She is a writer full of feeling:
Instead of taking the bus home from the hospital, I walked 40 minutes home, inhaling crisp spring air, and my watery eyes were like kaleidoscopes that broke the brilliant sunlit snow into glittering prisms of blue sky and blurry clusters of suns.
Melnick’s tangled feelings are further explored in her graduate school relationship with a fellow student, Shawn. She exposes the honesty and hurt of her relationship with him, his racism, his unwillingness to sleep with her, to even touch her when she contracts shingles and sores appear on her face. The dance of her language slows during these moments with Shawn—a slow dance that would have been ideal in earlier parts of the book. In the end, Melnick focuses on finding touch and affection with men through her love of dancing and her discovery of Zydeco. Melnick’s passion for music, for movement, is only heightened with HIV. As she writes so profoundly: “It seems to me that HIV doesn’t change a person; it makes one a more intense version of [her]self.” This more intense version of the author is eventually able to find love and triumph in living longer than the doctors once expected. Melnick’s memoir is, simply put, a story of living.