Saint Julian Press, 2014
Perfect bound, 62 pp., $12
Review by Andrew Carroll and Nicole Reese
Woman comes through, not the door, but the wall, vaginal; eyeing the crescent moon’s reflection in a chalice, smiling with a self-awareness of her criminal intrusion. Yet, the content of the chalice is not the substance but its reflection, meaning the wall she has broken does not grant access to the coveted moon. Instead, the moon has, all this time, existed outside the very walls built to ostensibly contain it.
The above scene is portrayed in Remedios Varo’s painting, “To Be Reborn,” which Melissa Studdard twice references as inspiration in her inaugural poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast. Where Varo satirizes reincarnation’s cyclical chase, depicting woman as earnest and unknowing, stuck once more grasping at reflection, Studdard marches our attention straight to the substance by canalizing its many expressions.
To Studdard, God is everywhere if we can open our eyes to her, “Because things are not things alone. They are also / that which made them” (“Starry Night, with Socks”)—and the author states we were made by God, by woman:
So there God lay, with her legs splayed,
birthing this screaming world
that crept from her womb like an army
The original birth is a trespassing, a breaking, a flood-gate rupture. It foreshadows the power of the birthed to awaken to new perceptions by destroying the walls, the useful delusions of life: that the self is separate from the whole and unaffected by it; that the whole is unaffected by the self. To break the birth-cycle is to realize the boundaries, erected, are unreal; it is to turn toward the unseen connections and causalities. To embrace the responsibility of this God-like perspective is “to be reborn / wild-eyed, seared by life, and graying / already with wisdom” (“Barefoot Rondelet”). Even the seemingly mundane is thus holy.
The book’s most blatant uniting of the holy and the mundane—in both the persistent metaphors of God’s ubiquity, and the relative impact of Studdard’s lines from one to the next—comes in the humorously titled, “For Two Conversion Therapists Who Fell in Love and Became Gay Activists” We are greeted halfway with four exquisite lines that serve as north star for the entire collection; a guide for the book’s moral compass, its brightest example:
You’ve heard it said God sleeps in the stone,
dances in the kindling’s split stick. But who
knew she also rustled among cheap white sheets?
Don’t put a black light on those things.
The author might very well have ended this piece here to her, and the reader’s, satisfaction. The effect, however, is lessened by the volume of images tagging along after the point has been so strongly made. God arrives to us “in the coffemaker’s drip, in the crying infant… / in the annoying whir of the window unit blowing air,” and later in:
and skinny legs, the letters you wrote to the man
next door but never sent, your secret affinity
for reality TV.
This aggregate of lines strives to communicate in as many ways as God herself. But it is interesting that while the instances of God are innumerable, as the author reifies in too many examples, these are expressed predominantly in two poetic forms: single-stanza free verse, and unrhymed, open couplets. Though the lack of diversity in forms contradicts the divine limitlessness of God, both forms are by themselves still effective surrogates of the overall theme.
The free verse is conducive to awe’s verbosity: Studdard undams the river as she everywhere and always breaks the barriers that separate us from life’s invisible possibilities, allowing us to perceive the moon and not pursue its reflection. She inundates the reader with God’s myriad personalities and expressions. The entire collection is a celebration of the flood—of what is both necessary for life and yet imposes upon life, just as the mother is “hosting the body that steals residence” in “If Only for the Sake of Blooming.” Elsewhere, in “Kiss the World with My Wounded Mouth,” the flood imposes:
can stop me
through the weedy and nettled
plots of love.
There is no doubt the “me” here is God; but it is still appropriate, and even more playful, to think of the “me” as the author. That God is an encompassing female entity with an omniscient fondness for her litter is elucidated throughout the text. The author grants this same motherly affection to her poems. “Plots of love” need water to flourish, just as each metaphor needs its image. Thus, the flood—the image, the author, God—is both welcome and unwelcome. This is the same dialectic humanity faces in creation: yes, we are what made us, but Studdard also frees us to become an image antithetical to our creator when she states, “What came before doesn’t matter.” Creation is welcomed, but it need not encumber: “If I could do it all over again, / I wouldn’t write a single word” (“The Soul is Swaddled in Body”).
Studdard’s unrhymed, open couplets—her second poetic form—offer a teased partition. But this is a sleight. Instead, they reify the limitless instances of God by refusing to pair themselves off from what comes before or after: not a single couplet in the collection has both its lines end in full stops, and most refuse punctuation altogether, transitioning instead—seamless, ceaseless—backward, forward.
Take each line break separating one couplet from the next as merely another unreal wall that Studdard sets up only to knock down. The standard riposte to any straw man fallacy here imposes a very real analysis of the useful delusions we surround ourselves with: they are, in fact, made of straw; the stuff puffed down by any smiling “trickster soul.” (“Om”).
The primary voice of the book is one such soul, suffering fervor in a universe that asks to be understood on a grand and miniature scale. She aims to be a priestess of the isomorphic world, where all form transposes itself, where the author speaks in “fleur-de-lis” and a “yellow hum”—a language comprehensible, and painted clearly, yet unseen. “Shepherd of Happenstance” shows that God in the natural world sprawls open as the “wisp of steam on a lake that no one saw.”
Reliant on impression, this divine, soundless persona soaks through the collection so that even in the ecstatic marriage of sound and life in “Om,” visual starkness presides. The spiritual tone of Studdard’s cosmos—the musing tone of a modern druid—illuminates the images of materiality. A pervasive motif of light fosters an epileptic wonder at this concrete world. Her poetry invites us through alchemy to transmute our stigmatic perceptions until:
are shadows hidden in dark
but something felt
in sanguine or cobalt
Light, like the flood, pervades, seeps, bathes even its contradiction. Both invade the senses, only to provide an alternate perspective of our “borderless world” (“Starry Night, with Socks”). Humanity’s unification occurs in realizing each object as an interpretation of one light source, one flood, one God. Breakfast in the eponymous “I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast” becomes “photosynthesis on a plate.” Studdard can eat “the time it took that chicken / to bear and lay her egg,” and drink “the energy a cow takes / to lactate a cup of milk.” Her morning meal is “the farmers, the truck drivers, / the grocers, the people.” She has disposed of the walls.