This collection is not kind or nice, but the brutality of his honesty, the blunt force of his handling of subject matter, and most importantly, his emotional transparency, make this strong collection incredibly effective and worth reading and rereading.
The epigraph to “Bad Catholics” in Kevin Simmonds’ Mad for Meat quotes The Montreal Gazette and tells us, “Results from a McGill University study, released yesterday, suggest that people—men, anyways—become less aggressive at the sight of meat.” This idea of meat runs throughout the book, an extended metaphor that keeps changing.
The book’s cover shows a crucified Christ, sections outlined like the famous picture from The Joy of Cooking that show where from the cow each piece of beef is found. Simmonds follows that, though never with direct ideas of cannibalism and Christianity, by continually exploring religious ideas. The best and most successful example is in “Bad Catholics.” He opens the poem, “We kept the butcher’s block bloody / through Lent” to place us squarely in the religious frame of mind. The poem then discusses his mother, who knows enough about men to watch the butcher, and the poem concludes with
whenever dad made the trip alone
to bring home the lamb
swaddled in white paper
The lamb always invites comparisons to Christ, and swaddled is a verb I have never heard unless also mentioning a manger. White and the idea of bringing home are heavy with resurrection, even without the context of Lent, though the mention of Lent makes the connection astoundingly clear. With the imagery and the epigraph, the body of Christ becomes the body of Christ, bloodying the butcher’s block. Is this the meat that the very sight should make men less aggressive?
Simmonds walks such a wonderful line between the religious and the physical, between reverence and renouncement, and as someone whose bio mentions assembling an anthology of poetry that marries spirituality and homosexuality, this makes absolute sense. At the end of “Sermon,” he writes, “The body doesn’t know religion but begins its every motion as a god.” This tension between body and not-body, typified usually by contrasting his absent father and his attentive mother, drive the more successful poems in the book. In “bouquet of scalpels,” he writes,
a father unforgivably christian
fine without my call
on father’s day
i could castrate him
he who led me to doubt
black men could love
The only word he capitalizes in the entire poem, not I or Christian or Father’s Day, is Jamaican. I am not sure of the significance, but I am intrigued nonetheless. This is just another example of a bold choice in a series of bold choices. He juxtaposes ideas and images just to see what will come of them.
One two facing pages, Simmonds pairs a poem called “Little Dolly Parton” with one titled “Tenor.” Bringing back the religious theme, he compares Dolly’s childhood vision of the town prostitute as her source of fashion inspiration to his own childhood heroes, a choir director and a Jesuit. The poem makes a powerful statement of a man whose sexuality did not conform to the judgments of religion. He writes “as I rang the bells in my white robe / altar boy full of shame.” He, like Dolly, concludes that it is love that makes us find our hallelujahs in ourselves. “Tenor,” however, paints a different picture, yet the picture is still a view of religion. If his father stands for Our Father, absent and unloving, then it seems clear what he is doing with the humiliation and sexuality. The poem is very sexually graphic, though the symbolism keeps the writing from being exploitative. “A father needs to be seduced / at the urinals / sure you’ll swallow / after the fuck / even the shit at the end.” The juxtaposition of the graphic imagery and with Dolly Parton, the woman whose music focuses on butterflies and clear blue mornings, adds layers of meaning, some potentially disturbing, to both poems.
Of the juxtapositions, Simmonds leans toward shock. Not all of these poems are for the faint of heart. He includes a poem called “Rosebud,” a term that I admit I had to look up and that has now forever ruined Citizen Kane for me. While I understand and appreciate what he is doing with these descriptions, the moments overpower and linger for me more than the other brilliant moments in the book. In “Tornado,” he writes of a sexual exchange with a brother in a moment of crisis. I believe these uncomfortable moments, the ones offering intimate moments of anonymous sex or the ones with titles like “An Old Man Carrying His Catheter Bag,” unite us all on a base level, reminding us yet again how we are all, underneath everything else, meat.
Simmonds knows when to shock and when to avoid sensationalism. In “Bayard Rustin,” a prose poem that is also one of the collection’s best poems, presents facts with gorgeous clarity. He writes of being imprisoned for “sexual perversion.” He identifies how the bias and struggles of African Americans for basic human rights are different from the bias and struggles for gay people. He writes, “The rights I don’t possess because I’m a Negro certainly come before those I yearn for as a homosexual. Homosexual. Such an antiseptic sound to it. Yet I rather that to other names, names I’m called between teeth.”
Though there are many effective poems in Mad for Meat, the strongest bring back the meat image directly. From “ bouquet of scalpels,” after the above lines that call for his father’s castration, he writes,
observe him without seed
his rightful & clean erection
observe as meat falls
there would be no lesson in that
i take cover
in another man’s body
as he takes cover
Elsewhere in the poem, in another allusion to the idea that we are all meat, he writes, “come rot with me,” my favorite line in the book. In “Inheritance,” he writes of his mother’s passing and his stepfather calling him a “faggot” and concludes with the lines, “leave me toothless / mad / for meat.” The poem is incredibly powerful, a true testament to Simmonds’ range and immense talent. Like many of his other poems, “Inheritance” demonstrates a poetic dexterity that leaves the reader deeply unsettled yet deeply moved.
This meat, this flesh. Simmonds uses this extended metaphor to unite all, reducing us to meat both physically and emotionally. This collection is not kind or nice, but the brutality of his honesty, the blunt force of his handling of subject matter, and most importantly, his emotional transparency, make this strong collection incredibly effective and worth reading and rereading.