The Dead Eat everything by Michael Mlekoday
Kent State University Press, 2014; 64 pp
Reviewed by Karissa Morton
The Dead Eat Everything is ultimately a book about loss—& how we navigate the liminalities that come along with it. There’s grief & sadness here, sure, but there’s also bitterness, there’s fury, there’s petulance.
Google would tell you that nostalgia is “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” Mlekoday’s poems are certainly steeped in nostalgia, but it’s a complicated kind. It’s for the sewers that “runneth over with malt liquor” & the normalcy of police search lights in apartment windows, for the dice & mixtapes & Sharpied notes on upturned cardboard boxes. It’s nostalgia for a place where “every death / could be anybody’s.” The kids have no choice but to grow up fast, each knowing “the weight of an urn / or a mother fainting / in the kitchen.” The place Mlekoday’s speaker simultaneously embraces & laments steals fathers from children, leaving them alone to dare one another to lick frozen guns & balance themselves atop moving cars.
But this is the society of this place—this “inner city,” this neighborhood of firecrackers & brass knuckles—& Mlekoday’s skill comes in bringing each house to life for the reader. Perhaps this is because, as he writes in “Self-Portrait, Downtown”:
we didn’t really leave, and broken
is just another way of saying we left shards
and splinters of ourselves everywhere,
like kids trying to leave a trail back home.
The people here desperately need one another. The siblings lie atop each other in the night, each trying to protect the other from any stray bullets. The boys learn from one another how to play basketball, & learn from that how to impress the girls. And then there are the bartenders—sometimes the only ones willing to talk about all of the dead dads & husbands & brothers. It’s this kind of devotion to one another, to “the neighborhood / [they] can never leave” that makes Mlekoday’s speaker’s nostalgia make all the sense in the world.
He is, however, forthcoming about the way in which “fallacy is the mistake I / live by, the pathetic worship / of the porch.” To any outsider, the worship of a place that’s caused so many so much pain might seem strange, but, as the speaker prays in the final poem of the collection, “Lord, this is the city of my birth.” This place, full of violence & trauma, is also full of a quiet kind of thoroughly lived beauty, & it raised him, made him what he is. Because of that, The Dead Eat Everything is equally a memorial & a celebration. Nothing that’s lost ever is, & everything to come owes a debt to that which is past. “Self-Portrait, After Drive-By” says it best—the joy & horror can’t exist without one another, & because of that, both are worthy of reverence:
Sometimes dancing comes
from the inside, wells up
sweet as seizure,
and sometimes dancing
happens to the body
when it is struck and struck
from the outside.