EILEEN TABIOS Engages
I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast by Melissa Studdard
(Saint Julian Press, Houston, TX, 2014)
Since I knew Melissa Studdard’s I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast was a debut poetry collection, I was pleasantly surprised by its maturity and ambition. Indeed, what we have is an obvious Poet-As-God presentation which arrogance I admire because Studdard so pulls it off! She doesn’t just remake the world but she eats, chews and swallows the universe—then expels the experience out through poems that make the universe that much more radiant! To pull this off usually requires more chops than many poets possess, especially those just debuting their books.
But after finishing my read of the poems—and setting forth a symbolic Bow to Studdard for her achievement by bowing, fittingly, to no less than the sky—I read her bio and discovered she’d previously written a bestselling novel, written reviews, taught, among other things. I Ate the Cosmos… may be her first poetry book but she’d obviously trafficked in many many words such that her debut collection benefits from her literary experience (thus a stellar vocabulary). However, I don’t think these poems would have surfaced were it not also for an attentively-lived experience.
The thing with what I’ve called elsewhere “writing as the world” is that the writer can’t manage such well if she hadn’t first been in the world: paying attention, learning, considering, experiencing, and so on in a variety of ways. The universe contains much, of course, and it’s impossible to experience it all. But open-ended attention matters, it seems to me, to enervate the alchemy that occurs before (and/or as) the poet births her poems. As I may be failing—since how would I know, after all, as I am not Studdard—in describing what I sense to have been her process, let one of Studdard’s poems “describe” what I think she achieved in her poems:
STARRY NIGHT, WITH SOCKS
Neruda eats gates and barbed wire, absorbs the nails
and exhales a borderless world—language that
skips and spins across the ground of flight, syntax
that never learned what it can’t do, so does.
Van Gogh sees the aura of night. Saw the aura of chair.
Of desk. Pipe. Saw thick swirls of angst and relief in the sky,
everything pulsing and alive, vibrant with being: the skirt
swish of a spiral galaxy, the cypress fingers’ reach,
space-time splayed with light and steeple,
with neurons firing into the curve of line, a synaptic
dance between canvas and paint, landscape and ode.
From the poet’s mouth, by the painter’s hand:
Simple strokes lead to love.
And know now what Neruda saw: A sock can be
the microcosm of all things good, knitted by Mara Mori,
with glowing strands of twilight and thread,
holy as a sacred text
placed on that great altar, the foot.
Because things are not things alone. They are also
that which made them. A sock is a little, woolen god.
It is a woman stopping by with a gift. It is the warmth of two
hands rubbed together,
a fire cradling your heels and soles.
The above poem (with its hilarious title!) describes both an ars poetica—what I sense may be (part of) Studdard’s ars poetica—but also presents a resulting poem that is on, that is vibrantly alive whose resonance is pleasing to experience.
In many poems, the movements back and forth between the larger universe and the individual self proceed so seamlessly. So seamlessly that in one poem, I even unexpectedly discerned Joy—not just the joy of the pleasure it provides but the sense that the poem’s maker was in rapture as she made this poem:
In the woods you found a carcass with maggots in its chest,
with waterfalls in its eyes, with the buzz of life still
hovering around its skull, and in commemoration, you grabbed
your sweetheart’s hand, with your left, and on your right, you
snatched the clasped hand of the world and said: Look here, how
we build skyscrapers in the cavity of death’s groin, how we
paint lilacs on its ribs. We will drive motor cars over its
bones and laugh in the waning perfume of midnight, and, oh my love,
I will write you a poem, a tribute to your beautiful decay,
to your rotting thighs, to the death you will birth with sex
because, truly, this is beauty—this festering carcass in the woods,
this putrid nag, truth. And in it, you will live forever.
Her poetic chops are great—you don’t just read but see the fabulous and marvelous first stanza of “LOOKING AT A YOUNG WOMAN WITH A WATER JUG”:
Can you see the way Vermeer
around his thumb,
pulls it straight again
and lays it across a vase
And the title poem? Everything I said about Linda Hogan’s “TheWay In” I also could say about this poem—for Studdard’s version of eating the world, though, I do appreciate the deft insertion of the labor of the creators in addition to their creations. The wise nod to such labor shows the poet did her homework—she was in the world paying attention—prior to writing about it:
I ATE THE COSMOS FOR BREAKFAST
-after Thich Nhat Hanh
It looked like a pancake,
but it was creation flattened out—
the fist of God on al head of wheat,
milk, the unborn child of an unsuspecting
chicken—all beaten to batter
and drizzled into a pan.
I brewed some tea and closed my eyes
While I ate the sun, the air, the rain,
photosynthesis on a plate.
I ate the time it took that chicken
to bear and lay her egg
and the energy a cow takes
to lactate a cup of milk.
I thought of the farmers, the truck drivers,
the grocers, the people
who made the bag that stored the wheat,
and my labor over the stove seemed short,
and the pancake tasted good,
and I was thankful.
I could go on and on praising these poems, but let me just end with one more of Studdard’s that, I swear, returned me to no less than religion (Atenco refers to a 2006 violent civil unrest in Mexico):
FOR THE WOMEN OF ATENCO
Take it now, this metaphor, your bread.
You’ve seen God bleeding in the streets,
but the militia couldn’t help, sooty faced
themselves, disoriented by the shrapnel
lodged beneath their right to choose
a peaceful life. Take these words flowing
like wine. Let them salve where hands
gripped too tight, where teeth broke the skin,
where fists beat your notions of freedom
and equality flat as powdered dough, flat
as grapes crushed beneath the pointed
boots of war. Let these words recall
those things you meant to be before
rage came storming through your town.
Let them be your appetizers,
served to you with the humility and respect
you were denied four years ago.
Let these words be your dinners and desserts,
evidence you are being heard. Let them
sustain you, as others sip margaritas on the patio,
as others go on about their lives
oblivious to what you have endured. Your time
will come. So keep your aprons on, women
of Atenco; keep your eyes on the timer
and your hearts on the cause—because grapes
beneath the feet become wine, and
dough that is set aside will rise. Yes—
neglected, resilient dough will rise.
Bless you, Melissa Studdard, for writing these poems. Bless you, Ron Starbuck and Saint Julian for publishing these poems. You were both unknown to me before I read this book but I feel blessed to have made your acquaintance. Lastly, bless you, Reader, because if you pay attention to this review and follow up with reading the book, you will be blessed with the radiance of rupture and rapture.
Eileen Tabios reveals something about herself in ARDUITY'S interview about what's hard about her poetry. Her just-released poetry collection, SUN STIGMATA (Sculpture Poems), received a review by Amazon Hall of Famer reviewer Grady Harp. Due out in 2015 will be her second "Collected Poems" project; while her first THE THORN ROSARY was focused on the prose poem form, her forthcoming INVEN(S)TORY will focus on the list or catalog poem form. More information at http://eileenrtabios.com