Twelve by Lynn Melnick focuses on the role of a parent, Melnick providing a better life for her daughter than she received. It balances between the present and the past, Melnick comparing her life with her child’s. When she was the same age, she would go to ‘banquets’ and ‘barroom’. At these places, men ‘pinched my ass’, something she wants to prevent happening to her daughter. Melnick wants to protect her daughter at all costs.
Summary of Twelve
The poem has many delicate moments, Melnick displaying touching instances of parental love. Twelve starts by focusing on what the poet was doing when she ‘was your age’. This then moves down to a comparison with the peaceful slumber of her daughter, protected from the world. Melnick moves through more examples, including being letting ‘boys’ ‘claw her carcass’ for a ‘quarter’. The poet vows to give her daughter a better life, not wanting her to ‘know what I know’.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Twelve
Lynn Melnick splits Twelve into 14 stanzas of two lines each. These couplet stanzas create a sense of cohesion in the poem. This two-line structure could represent the poet and her daughter, together against the world. This structure could also be emblematic of the past and present in the poem, both simultaneously being explored.
There is no rhyme scheme in the poem. Instead, Melnick uses instances of enjambment and alliteration to allow the poem to flow. The lack of rhyme on the couplet lines could represent the difference in childhood that Melnick had and her daughter will have. Although part of the same cohesive whole, the stanza, their experiences will differ greatly, hence the lack of rhyme.
Themes in Twelve
The central theme that Melnick explores in Twelve is family and motherhood. Melnick writes from the perspective of a mother looking to give her daughter a better life. That parental love is integral to the poem, often surfacing in the verse. Melnick doesn’t want her daughter to go through the same experiences that she had, ensuring that she is protected from the world.
Another theme that is mentioned in the poem is the female body and male abuse. When discussing everything that happened to herself when she was younger, Melnick focuses on examples of male violation. It is a ‘man in a band shirt’ which ‘pinched my ass’, similarly, it is ‘boys’ that ‘traded quarters for a claw at my carcass’. In both of these examples, Melnick points to male abuse, male character violating the female body.
One literary device that Melnick uses in the construction of Twelve is repetition. The poem being with an anaphoric ‘When I was your age’, instantly suggesting a comparison between Melnick and her daughter. This occurs in many places throughout the poem, this line focusing the dialogue of the poem. In doing this, Melnick always draws the reader back into the past, signaling her own experiences as different from that of her daughter’s.
Another device that Melnick uses in Twelve is caesura. In moments of tension, Melnick uses caesura to add a slight metrical pause to the line. This creates hesitation, expressing uncertainty. Caesura is also used to place emphasis on certain ideas. For example, caesura is used after describing how much she loves her child, ‘infinite.’, further stressing the boundless nature of her love.
When I was your age I went to a banquet.(…)I thought this love could be pure. It’s enough
Twelve begins by creating a discussion between mother and daughter. The poet offers an anecdote of ‘When I was your age’, talking directly to her child. Although she is not speaking to her child, this is directed at her. The double repetition of ‘I’ displays a move towards the personal, with Melnick relating her own experiences. The consonance across ‘banquet’ and ‘barroom’ creates a sense of unification. Both of Melnick’s experiences have been equally as impactful.
This consonance extends into the second stanza, the ‘b’ of ‘brought’ including a more specific detail in the story. Melnick creates an initial contrast between the experiences of the mother and daughter. In her own memory, Melnick was lifting money from the ‘laundry money’ to buy cigarettes. Yet, now she has ‘did all your laundry’, helping the child. Instead of having to go to the laundromat, they can now do their washing at home. This is one of the first signals the reader encounters that suggests the poet is trying to make a better life for her daughter. The use of ‘all’ implies that Melnick takes express care with the laundry, doing it all for her daughter.
that it’s infinite. I kiss your cheek when you sleep(…)keep your body yours. It’s mine.
Melnick focuses on the love she holds for her daughter. She describes this love as ‘infinite’, relaying the intense and boundless emotion. The use of a caesura following this description places metrical emphasis on ‘infinite’. In doing this, Melnick further emphasizes the love she has for her daughter.
This is then followed with a physical ‘kiss’ on the ‘cheek’, Melnick showing her affection for her child. The child’s state of ‘sleep[ing]’ displays peacefulness, Melnick cultivating an atmosphere in which her child can relax. There is a delicate care in this description, Melnick furthering the heartwarming portrayal of motherly love. This love has always been a part of the child’s love, ‘from the beginning’.
When I was your age I went to a banquet(…)and drink wine from my grandmother’s glass.
In these stanzas of Twelve, Melnick explores how she was violated by men when she was growing up. This is something she wants to stop her daughter from having to go through. In the aforementioned ‘banquet’, Melnick states that a man ‘pinched my cheeks’. In the ‘barroom’, ‘a man…pinched my ass’, the poet displaying two examples of men touching her body. When mentioned at the start of the poem, these two locations had no sense of the events that happened there. Melnick attempts to separate the past that she lived from what she tells her daughter, not wanting to expose the horrors of the world.
The fact that she is drinking from ‘grandmother’s glass’ creates a sense of familial connection. Moreover, by saying ‘grandmother’, Melnick is writing from the perspective of her child, she has changed her linguistic association of her own mother in order to make things easier to follow for her daughter. Although she is drinking from her mother’s glass, she says ‘grandmother’ as this would be how her daughter knows her. This change of perspective, even when only subtle, displays the love and affection Melnick holds for her daughter.
When I was your age boys traded quarters(…)You don’t have to know what I know.
Melnick had to give up parts of her childhood, getting money from allowing boys ‘a claw at my carcass’. The use of ‘claw’ displays animalistic tendencies, the poet suggesting an aspect of villainy on the part of the boys. The description of her own body as a ‘carcass’ suggests a lack of self-valuation. Due to the degrading violation of the boys, her own view of herself has begun to fall. This is an unsettling moment in the poem, the poet missing out on her childhood of wanting to ‘record’ music on her ‘backseat boombox’ in order to be with the boys.
The final stanza reaffirms the message of the poem. Melnick wants to protect her daughter from the horrors of the world. Indeed, she doesn’t want her daughter ‘to know what I know’, to go through what she has experienced. Melnick aims to protect her daughter, focusing on loving her instead of showing her the horrors of the world.
A similar exploration of motherhood and parental love occurs in Carol Ann Duffy’s The Light Gatherer. This poem details how much Duffy loves her daughter, being the light of her life. Both Twelve and The Light Gatherer express a deep connection between mother and daughter. Parental love is at the center of both these poems.
Another poem that explores motherhood is Mother To Son by Langston Hughes. Hughes uses the metaphor of a staircase to climb as an expression of how difficult life can be. This teaching, directed from a mother to a son, is incredibly similar in sentiment to Melnick’s depiction of life. A key difference in these poems is that Melnick focuses on protecting her daughter, while Hughes focusing on the reality that they will be exposed to this cruel world.