In Melissa Broder’s second collection, Meat Heart, there is a burgeoning tension between the spiritual life of the imagination and its blood and guts container—the forehead, the hips, the heart—that is both dire and light. At the core of these poems is hunger, the drive to consume or destroy, an instinctual void as visceral as it is absurd, and yet, paradoxically, there is resistance to this desire or as Broder said in an recent interview, “a fear of insatiability.” There is dissonance here between expectation and want, a dichotomy as digestible as life and death, or heaven and earth. Broder is aware, in a tragi-comical sense, of the limitations the meat-and-bone body presents, but she isn’t above regret for loss of, or lack of, wholeness.
Featured among these poems are reoccurring symbols, stereotypes maybe, of femininity whether in totem or in character. As implied by the title alone, the poem, “Portrait of My Mother as a Gold Dust Woman” opens with the fetishizing of the speaker’s mother’s dead body: “She was worshipped for her togs, all owls,/black kimono, glass swans, angel belt.” Or in the poem, “Mamala,” we are given are a “retired jezebel” who appears as the patron saint of objectified women everywhere, who will “sing every harlot aria for you/in the key of you.” If the stereotypes of women are relegated to tangible symbols, the body as a piece of meat, or even relational roles—wife, mother, sister, sex object—it is because of their sharp relief to male characters. “In husbandland I am made,” the speaker says, “of hamburger, eggs and potatoes.” In the context of marriage then, the woman comes to resemble a greasy spoon menu.
While this is a stretch, there are plenty of examples that show the relationship is reciprocal. It is an ouroboros of hunger. Whatever one partner consumes of the other is in return equally consumed. “Binge Eating 2067” speaks about a hyper-realized culture of consumption, a foodie Mad Max future where woman and man force each other to regurgitate. But the aggression they show each other seems to be a necessity function. “I have a jaw that seeks chunks,” Broder writes, “and he has the heart of a fat man.” It is not so much an affirmation of life than of existence, a brutal act of survival.
Though she never explicitly points a finger in blame, the speaker talks forlornly of growing to inhabit these functions and her inability to escape. In “Lonesome Cowgirl,” she says,
Pretend to live on the surface a while
and you become a surface dweller.
Once I was a nightrider with a wild rag.
Now I haven’t seen a horse in three years.
Even more, the body as surface dweller becomes something to be eaten, left to spoil, or fossilize, and this process of “meatification” parallels a sort of maturation. The poem, “Supper” shows a sexual awakening at a church potluck and the speaker’s transformation is seen in terms of rich and fatty foods. Near the end of the poem the “supper” turns into a religious perversion, the speaker herself a physical parody, “the burping circus lady.” She says, “We vibrate at the frequency of angel cake.//Our throats fill with ice cream glossolalia.” Here the literal means of communication, of placing of oneself in relation to others and in the world, acting as the mouthpiece of god even, is a decadent treat, sweet, yes, but also indulgent and grotesque. The sensuality of the act, of eating, is transient, a means to an end, and incidentally a proclamation of mortality.
It’s no coincidence then that the state the speaker finds herself in is inextricably linked to spirituality and god, who makes appearances throughout the collection, at times flitting in an out of the poems like a clever bird and at others dropping by like a lecherous, on/off again boyfriend. God is kept like a trinket, a saltshaker or a pet in the cupboard. He is running around with Edie Sedgwick “underneath her leopard skin coat.” Though god is not above being something consumable, his voice like “spooned wheat/in whole milk,” the sustenance he provides is elusive for the speaker. In “Mercy,” Broder writes,
Yesterday the worship rattled like an engine
I said Let this voltage last forever
But today is full of soup odor
The pillow drone is loud today
With the absence of spirituality, there is only the suggestion of nourishment, unpleasant and monotonous perhaps, but certainly a vacuous “nothing nothing”. There is no question about where god fits into the world of Meat Heart opens with an eponymous poem that, taken as is, offers some insight as to what to expect from this life. “There is only Slim Jim love/and taco glow,” Broder writes, “and all-night burger magic.” No vegetables, no growth, nothing healthy, just a line to the slaughterhouse, a veritable gauntlet of processed meats.
Read “Bones,” from the book Meat Heart, as illustrated by Paul Tunis.