I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast by Melissa Studdard
Saint Julian Press, 2014; 62 pp
Reviewed by Wesley Rothman
What you mistook for a person
is really a country
with a dark and sacred history
and no scholars to explain away the confusion.
Just burn the archives down.
“In Another Dimension, We Are Making Love”
Sentimentality threatens the freshness of a poem, and “freshness” sentimentalizes the ideal for contemporary poems, and contemporary poets seem to do all they can to purge their work of the sentimental; “sentimental” is perhaps the most scathing critique we sling. Melissa Studdard’s poems flip the conference tables of every MFA workshop flexing its menacing, “This is a little too sentimental.”
With utter candor, liberal usage of the word “love,” frequent lines dipping into sentiment and Lorca-like surrealism, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast repeatedly disproves the shortcomings of sentimentality, by employing it and turning it sideways—recognizable, honest emotion with a slight twist of the poetic. What may momentarily feel overly sentimental jettisons us toward a complication of the lovey metaphor or the confession of desire, toward the end of the poem and its experience as a whole, rather than single lines or stanzas that drive a poem’s success. In “Even the Linguist Goes Silent” we’re thrust from,
What you told me
is true: In passion, the linguist
swarm like gnats,
spin on the startled tongue.
From the sentimental aphorism we arrive to an unfamiliar, unsentimental rendering of silence: new galaxies swarming, spinning on the stunned tongue. Studdard crosses the line of sentimentality—the line we cross daily, in truth—but surpasses the narrowness or simplification of the sentimental (which we fear for a poem), delivering us to the end of each poem’s whole, a love-cosmos, a body-cosmos, a graspable yet galactic encounter with the beloved. It is a daring enterprise to take on the cosmos, its unwieldy unknown, to take on the body’s cosmos, the cosmos of desire and intimacy—it risks, constantly, sentimentality. It is sentimental yet refreshes the reader rather than smacking of sloppy, sopping cliché. How fearless to begin a poem, titled “Kiss the World with My Wounded Mouth,” with the line, “This heart I wear on my sleeve”! And how brilliant to twist this typically awful cliché with the next line and following,
is a dowry. I will marry
the scent of cherry blossoms drifting
down in a swirl[…] Nothing
can stop me
through the weedy and nettled
plots of love.
With a cosmic range of spirit and earth, Studdard’s poems blend the colloquial with the sacred, visual art and the art of the body, desire with elegy with sex with peace—these poems are their own cosmos, something to taste with the rest of your breakfast.