Sometimes I think of all the poems I have never read and will never read, all the poets—let’s narrow this down even to all the living poets—whose work I have never encountered and may never encounter in my lifetime. It’s a sad downward spiral, so I try not to dwell on these thoughts too long. Instead, I want to celebrate poems and poets who arrive in my life by one serendipitous twist or another, who widen and deepen again my sense of what a poem can do and why poetry is necessary in the world. Natalie Eilbert is one such poet.
My acquaintanceship with Eilbert’s work was made possible by the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day project. Here’s a brief and whole-hearted plug for this free, perennial gift: Every weekday morning around 6:34 AM EST, a never-before-published poem appears in my inbox. (On weekends, it’s a previously published poem, often by a canonical poet, and these are a treat, too.) It is the cyber equivalent of a message in a bottle.
If I’m already awake and at the computer, I keep clicking refresh, refresh, because this is one of the most refreshing rewards of my day—this first look at a poem, this shared experience with all the other people reading that poem just as it arrives or throughout the day, forwarding it to other people, posting it on Facebook. Then, I keep finding the poem again in the days and weeks that follow because someone else can’t keep the message to herself, and the bottle buoys its way serendipitously back to me.
On July 30, 2015, the poem-of-the-day was called “Let Everything Happen to You.” What a wondrous imperative! I read the poem, read it several times, and I jotted down these lines: “I want to write sentences for days.” Yes! “I want days to not/be a sentence.” Yes! And then I read the poet’s biographical note and learned that her debut collection, Swan Feast, was recently released from Coconut Books. You can guess what I did then: I bought the book, I read it—several times—and then I wrote this review.
Swan Feast is an appropriately enigmatic title for a book in which everything—rage, joy, grief, fear, pain, hope—will happen to you, and more than once, and in more than one way. This gamut of intense emotion is probed by the speaker in relation to two implicit, guiding questions: What is beauty (epitomized by a swan)? and What is hunger? (satisfied by a feast)? A third question seems to emerge in the act of writing, or the experience of reading, or both: What is the relationship between beauty and hunger? (Is beauty a form of hunger? Is hunger a form of beauty? And/or: Is hunger the means, beauty the end?)
The vehicle for Eilbert’s provocative and prosodic meditation is the Venus of Willendorf, a four-inch statuette of a large-breasted, round-bodied, female figure uncovered during an archeological dig near Willendorf, Austria, in 1908. This statuette and several others like it have been dated to 25,000 BCE, thus pre-dating the mythological figure of Venus by millennia. By her designation as “the Venus of Willendorf,” this statuette challenges prevailing Western images of the Roman goddess associated with love, sex, beauty, and desire, and by extension, the physical embodiment of beauty itself.
Our speaker in Swan Feast, who is sometimes identified/self-identifies as N, tussles with the autobiographical impulse throughout this collection. She tells us at the outset, as if it’s going to be easy: “I have my very own original story would you like to hear it” Yes! But it’s not only her story she wishes to tell. It’s her story in relation to another’s, the two yoked across the history of gender and desire: “My best friend was a fattie named the Venus of Willendorf.” Notice those two fricatives together: friend/fattie, the tension inherent in that harsh repetition of sound. We read on as N reveals: “I think of her creation as I sit in my office,” and then “the pain I presume her/ to possess in her fissures see since pain is a woman’s only natural/ possession.”
First, there is what she is doing, N., our speaker, our guide. Then, there is why she is doing it:
My heart was broken over a man, I should say I was what he spat out
when he was done chewing the trash of my body. My days were occupied
with nothing but writing Venus poems, a necessary way to escape
the politics of addressing the I.
At this moment, every reader who is also a writer must be pondering this poet’s preoccupation. Which figure—historical, mythological, both—enables our own “necessary way to escape/ the politics of addressing the I”?
N’s articulate, self-aware confession continues:
In love, my body diminishes beautifully. When my skin was a dead moth’s wing,
hair fell out in chunks. The I became a joke to write about steeped as I was in
declension. I was sorry to be in love with a man made of silt.
And later still, N murmurs:
see how I lack
a creation myth
It is a deft enjambment here, as we have watched her lack unfold—her lack as resistance to hunger, her lack as surrender to hunger, her lack as both/and:
No one said immortality would be easy.
I can train my hunger to do anything, and it listens.
There is nothing but air between my thighs.
But in the writing of this book, we see that Swan Feast becomes the very creation myth whose absence N laments here. We watch as our speaker, our guide, imbricates her own story, shingle by shingle, into the Venus myth, beginning with the section title “Venus of Anorexia.”
One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Supplication with the Venus Figurine.” Here, as the intimacy between speaker and subject grows, N addresses Venus by her nickname, V. Instead of a third-person account, the interweaving of their life-stories, the speaker now incorporates second person to address her friend directly:
In the long hours between
your creation and my writing this, I called you
inviolable, my bellicose buttercream, the language
teetering into appellation and epithet.
I drank all the myths down, tasted their sinus blood,
and V, you are better than these muscle tales—
The impulse is epistolary, and the effect is powerful. Who would you write to across time, place, and language? In other words, who is your mytho-historical pen pal?
Then, another turn, another ratcheting of lyric intensity, when N doesn’t speak about V or even to V but as V. These later poems become a kind of channeling, N the medium for another comprised and uncompromising voice.
I dare you to bury me back to dirt and spinsterhood. I dare you.
I have a scientist now, teams of them. They trace me back, or bless their hearts,
To be a man’s specimen, I thought exile was the point of pleasure.
Imagine now if your mytho-historical pen pal wrote back, across time, place, and language. Imagine if s/he engaged you in the very conversation you once initiated:
I feel stuffed to the brim with alibis and strappy dresses. The world doesn’t want me but the world has awful taste. You spoil me with your excellent taste, N. You protect me from the dirt that seems to claim me again
The lines here are unbroken, presented in prose the way a letter penned by hand extends to fill the full space between margins.
At this point, the swans begin to appear, emblem of what we have learned to call beautiful, what even our fabled “ugly duckling” will one day grow to become. But these swans are subversive. They are shown “hissing” and “frozen” and “tumored.” Other traditionally beautiful entities like dresses and angels are likewise stunningly remixed. Behold this masterful, haunting image:
Dresses all over a shore look like shot angels
If Beauty is dead—beauty in the form of pretty, in the form of dresses that remind us of girls with curls and angels with halos, who of course evoke goodness and sweetness and also a feminized kind of learned helplessness—what then will rise to succeed the angels, to replace the dresses?
I’ve dreamt up a new Aphrodite: she is in a sea
too shallow to reach any shore of earth—stranded
she fucks herself, learns every feasible version
of accident, again fucks herself until the waters warm to her body
and rise. That’s why I feel so at home here.
Aphrodite is another version of Venus, Venus by another name. N is another version of V, Venus by another name. We are no longer certain who is speaking here, who is dreaming. Or are N and V harmonizing together: two women, two bodies, one voice?
The word feminism appears only once in what I consider to be a deeply fraught and deeply feminist—the two inform each other here—volume. We’re past the easy idealism of learning to accept ourselves just as we are. This is a swan that doesn’t fly, and N. reminds us: “No one worries over the image of a beautiful swan.” We worry instead over “the yoga bodies and the yoga bodies and the yoga bodies.” We live in a world where everything happens to us, “every feasible version/ of accident,” and so we can’t pretend we’re at peace, free from contradictions, even when we feel “so at home.”
Perhaps this is why we’re beckoned—I think we are the Many, abbreviated simply as M—to the shore where dresses still look like shot angels. Even here, our speaker, our guide, is worried about her size, can’t shake the fear of being too large, exceeding the cultural capacity for beauty, for femininity—even in a dress that tells her by its spare, numerical mark she’s tiny:
Come now the ocean is filling with seagulls
and I must be allowed to speak of my feminism while also telling M how fat I’m getting in this size 2 dress.
She will eat her words, of course, many times. She will “fork [her] failures until tender.” That fricative again, harsh but necessary. She will become the swan meat that is “swallowed down with gold, gold soda.” She will “grow into a small thing,” the ultimate paradox. But she will know this is happening, and she will name it as it happens, and the Venus of Willendorf will write her a letter of fraught, feminist encouragement:
I don’t blame you, N. You write poems. You work in an office forty hours a week and come home nightly with a vague despair nestled against your spine when what you want to be is shattered and tearing the skin of your face until a new governance seals over your bones and someone publishes your book. I am so fond of you I would publish your dry skin cells, N.
Everything happens in this book. Let it happen to you.