- On the Menu
Saint Julian Press
90 Pages; Print, $18.00
Taking issue with Shelley’s often-quoted declaration, J.V. Cunningham noted that not only are poets not the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but that this is also a good thing. It is unclear whether Cunningham was expressing reservations about the character of Shelley and other poets and/or about the best use of what we have come to call their “skill set.” We can provide our own explanations, though. If poetry makes nothing happen, as Auden claimed, that nothing might prove far preferable to the catastrophic somethings brought about by legislators and others in power. Alternatively, poets as unacknowledged legislators of the world’s normative outlines, if not the minutiae of budgets and penal codes, might make an even bigger hash of things than those who officially run the show. Virtually no contemporary Western woman or person of common birth would want to live in a world of Homeric sensibilities, and relatively few would slouch back to the casual racism of Wallace Stevens’s most unfortunate moments in verse and speech.
There exists at least one other distinct possibility. Assuming legislators and other men in power (and they are mostly men) spend their time less in articulating common visions than advancing one or another flavor of instrumental rationality in terms such as “growing the economy”—an assumption this one-time legislative intern gladly makes—poets have a wide field of operation. And an important one. “Without vision the people perish” is not just a particularly lofty and quotable line of Scripture. John Stuart Mill in part recovered from an early-life breakdown resulting from his father’s imposition of rigorous studies and emphasis on utilitarian ethics by immersing himself in poetry. He particularly credited Wordsworth, whose Romantic panentheism helped to suture the wounds of excessive analysis.
This lesson has not spread fast enough to keep up with culture and technology. In a time of Internet attention spans, when values that do not fit on a spreadsheet can be discounted altogether, many of us are John Stuart Mill. Alienated by instrumental rationality from the natural and social worlds, not to mention much of our own psyches, we stand in need of an integration of experience that has been called holistic or spiritual. It is no accident that, in recent years, Rumi has been America’s best-selling non-Jewel poet.
This lengthy preamble, and its aggravated assaults on a couple of straw men, is an attempt to explain the necessity of the work undertaken in Melissa Studdard’s first collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast. As the title suggests, her spiritual effort involves immanence rather than transcendence, as when Saint Teresa of Avila wrote, “God is also present in the cooking pots.” The collection’s title poem correspondingly finds an underlying unity of reality and the presence of multiple dimensions in a seemingly ordinary breakfast:
It looked like a pancake,but it was creation flattened out—the fist of God on a head of wheat,
I ate the time it took that chickento bear and lay her eggand the energy a cow takesto lactate a cup of milk.
While the poem’s epigraph cites Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Studdard implicitly takes a side in the choice set forth by Einstein, to live as if nothing is a miracle, or everything is.
Her emphasis on the miraculous immanent is made explicit in the collection’s cleverly placed first poem, “Creation Myth,” which portrays the origin of things as the original virgin birth:
So there God lay, with her legs splayed,birthing this screaming world
From her red velvet cleft, her thighsCut holy with love.
Those things include “pebbles and boulders, / and patches of sky,” as well as “stars that glistened like puppies, / purring galaxies.” Unlike the lists undertaken by many poets, Studdard’s enumeration varies its items in both syntax and length of description so that the effect is one of surprise rather than monotony.
Studdard’s skill and her emphasis...