Form as Container: Samantha Zighelboim’s The Fat Sonnets

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If you were very angry and if you were in love with language—close as a familiar, deft as Serena placing a tennis ball—and you were an American woman, you might write poems like the poems in Samantha Zighelboim’s debut collection, The Fat Sonnets. In full disclosure, I weigh more than Arnold Schwarzenegger and am eating breakfast as I read them for the first time.

What does it feel like to eat and not think
about eating?

How to tell you about the book without going off on the relevant tangents of the fat-shaming culture we live in, how much money is made by the weight-loss industry (not to mention the beauty industry, both being focused on what is wrong with women’s bodies), and the medical myths surrounding so-called obesity? Because whatever the subject might be, this is a book of poetry, and the poems are the gift. They don’t exist without content, of course—a crust without blackberries is no pie—but to analyze cultural issues surrounding fatness just because Zighelboim addresses them so directly would miss the point.

Pale fiction in a half-hidden full-length mirror,
dim lights.

The poems in The Fat Sonnets are by turns straightforward and oblique, funny and scathing, terribly sad and joyful, traditional and twisting, turning, somersaulted take-offs on sonnets. While they engage consistently with the sonnet form, they also come at us from many angles: erasure poems of nineteenth century medical texts and a list of late-night binge delivery orders. The lineup of daily weight-tracking that every dieter’s written a thousand times, a litany of diet’s names, a roll-call of euphemisms, descriptions of food and meals that will make you salivate, descriptions of self-loathing that will make you groan in recognition—if you’ve ever been fat, if you’ve ever been human—and want to weep. I loved the range of Zighelboim’s expression: from very formal to culturally cool (one poem based on a lyric from a Rihanna song, one on a painting by Lucian Freud), and intimate, bald-faced, familiar.

If I were you
I would be afraid
of ending up
like me,

Reading this book conveys the vertiginous sense of yo-yo dieting, as views of fatness and living with fat ricochet and bounce through its pages. At the same time, The Fat Sonnets is a smooth read. The author is not thrashing around; she is careful, and her words and subject stay contained in their sonnet-like structures—along with traditional sonnets there are fourteen-line poems, fourteen-stanza poems, fourteen-word poems, seven-word poems—giving the reader some sense of order to hold on to, safe from the chaos that fat instills in so many minds. Richard Howard says it well on the book’s back cover: Even the one-line poems all contain “the Sonnet’s intensity of Purpose.”

But I think Zighelboim is wrestling with this idea of form-as-container. Just as thinness is the form of our culture, out of which Zighelboim has broken by being fat (and, horrors!, talking about it), so sonnets are the form of the Western poetic tradition, and therefore not really equipped to contain, in their tidy Petrarchan and Shakespearean ways, this subject matter. Zighelboim almost has to break the form into pieces in order to speak; a fourteen-word poem is really only the echo of a sonnet.

We see this most clearly in the four “Fat Dream” poems that Zighelboim includes in the book, which look, on the page, like a thin person standing next to a stout one. One of the “Fat Dream” poems is fourteen lines long, and one is two stanzas of fourteen lines each, but another is nineteen lines, and the fourth is twenty. The twenty-line poem has the number fourteen in the title, but I think you can feel the joining of “fat” and “sonnet” coming apart: the center cannot hold. Here is “Fat Dream #14”:

The poems in The Fat Sonnets are not comforting, unless you take comfort in honesty. Zighelboim isn’t the first person to write about what it feels like to be fat (see Roxane Gay, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Aaron Apps), but just as fatness is one of the last permissible things to revile openly in our unequal world, including it in serious work is fairly new, another crossroads where writing about the body (see Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton), meets the long continuum of writing about what it feels like to be marginalized (see anyone/everyone outside the canon).

________Body the disorder. Body the monster. Body the rot.
Body such wasting. Body the things that could have been

________helped. Let’s really tell this story now. Body hoped
to be beautiful but never even came close.

It isn’t fair to ask a book to be what it’s not, or for a writer to consider angles a reader she’s never met cares about. I appreciated the rage in these poems and the devastating specificity. I was glad to hear one of the last taboo subjects explode on the page, buoyed by Zighelboim’s humor and considerable craft. The book has a palpable integrity and is a fabulous debut. But I also felt a bit beaten up—I’m not sure if despite, or because of, my long familiarity with her subject matter (and I’m aware of the irony here, since readers said this about my first book, which was about incest). The relentlessness of these poems, taken together, is important: to make a reader feel the way many fat people experience their fatness above all else, and to acknowledge the fat terror expressed so constantly by the culture at large. What I missed, though, was a deeper exploration of loss, and more about the strength that can arise from otherness. Maybe these explorations are there but I was too bowled over to notice. Maybe they will develop over time, and will show up in Zighelboim’s next collection, to which I look forward.

As I finished The Fat Sonnets, what stayed in my memory were the beautiful parts: the sensuous description of a Korean meal in “A Sensible Lunch,” the oceanic metaphors of weightlessness and grace in “Fat Dream with Blue Whale.” I’m glad that we’re given deep water as a place where writer and reader together might find relief and maybe even solace:

_______________________________…Seamlessly we break the surface
of the water with- ____out much splash, the parallel slivers of moon, ascending…


Photo credit: Alexis Baldwin

Molly Fisk is Poet Laureate of Nevada County, CA and recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Her poetry collections include The More Difficult Beauty; her essay collections include Houston, We Have a Possum. Fisk is a life coach and writing teacher by profession and lives in the Sierra foothills. More from this author →