Book Review: Meat Heart by Melissa Broder

Melissa Broder
Meat Heart
Publishing Genius Press, 2012

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

There are only eighty-eight keys on a piano and the best of us only have three simple chords to our lives—work, love, and play—but music is not made of math. Neither is poetry. Still we take some risk in making art from our confessions. The narrative that comes from living in the world is too often one-dimensional, or else it’s too wink-wink, and that’s the peril. Melissa Broder’s second poetry volume Meat Heart shows us why that risk is so important. In these intensely personal poems her experience—her personal witness—is a stepping stone to revelation. Broder’s is the perfect bascule between apocalypse and rapture. She snuggles up to the edge, she rocks back, she rounds and folds inside the arc, she reaches and grabs the other side.

Broder plays a jive, a rag, a stride, a blues, a hymn. She finds her center by getting outside of her middle. Give her eight beats and she’ll discern the plaguing icons, love them, discard them. Prufrock wondered if he dared to eat a peach. Broder isn’t so polite: “Listen wormhead/ There is no celery emergency/ …/ No evil peach in your vein of air.” In her title poem the love, glow, and magic all of us are seeking are only Slim Jims, tacos, and all-night burgers. In another poem, “Lack,” Broder is ravenous for icons: “I found the Summer of Love in a trashcan at Hardees & I ate it.” We are gluttons for it because we’re never satisfied. In “The Mail,” Broder is “disgusted by the U.S. Mail/ its endless soul-crush pulp of catalogs/ utility bills, act now offers and sales/ stinking with aggravation.” Broder wants something different, free from obvious rituals that displace her soul’s true purpose. “The Mail” continues: “Just once I would like to reach in the slot/ and come upon a stony hollow/ or perhaps, a tiny garden…This will be the depth of my story,/ the stunning extent of my smile:/ a scattered few pinprick dung drops,/ some night weather, no envelopes.”

Most of us are what we eat. Broder is what she vomits. She’s a self-mutilating anorexic alcoholic: “There are scratch marks all over/ my life…Let’s/ write a sermon on control. Let’s/ write a love song for heavyweights.” Broder’s poem “Supper” puts all her key images—boys, food, smells, and church—into a rousing intimate couplet:”Boy comes to me at church potluck/ perfumed with frankincense and lasagna.” Their courtship begins with tater tot casserole, a gateway food that can only lead to angel cake and ice cream glossolalia as Broder becomes the “burping circus lady” who’s “busting from her garments.” Just at the brink of a Willy Wonka-styled destruction, Broder finds “There is room at the organ bench” and plays.

Hungry for seconds? “Binge Eating in 2067” which turns out not to be all that futuristic. Consider these lines: “I have a jaw that seeks chunks/ and he has the heart of a fat man,” and later, “When he cooks a real live cassoulet/ flesh and fat, no hoax/ I turn my face from the bowl/ and put my fingers in his mouth.”

It’s the moods of these poems—their great suffering arcs—rather than nifty openings and closings, that catch you and whip you forward into Broder’s doom. You’re relieved as each one ends, and immediately nostalgic for the inscrutable what-was-that? you felt as you strummed into its seductive opening. I know why I liked the poem “Waterfall,” but I don’t know why it made me cry so hard:

The most romantic thing a human being can say
to another human being is Let me help you vomit.
(…)
your vomiting; it is like a psalm to me
a place where wilderness might be new.
Other people’s dirt makes a lovely frock.
Grant I be forgiven in the gush.

Broder’s poems are works of art and works of life. She isn’t the first writer to believe one should live a poem before one writes it, but she’s one of the more effective partisans since she understands its limitations. She confesses just enough to make it clear she has a great grasp of her subject—herself— showing us how genuine is her poetry bone. This is something real to her—her poetry, her life—and it becomes real to us. By turns we learn how to make poetry of our own pathetic misfit lives.

But this is only one half of a breath-taking story. Most volumes of poetry are like little kissing matches. Our nerves are touched. We smile. We smirk. We nod. At times we get excited. Meat Heart is more of a boxing match. Broder confuses our reflexes, softening us with the believability of her otherworldly destruction—her personal apocalypse—and then knocks us down with her speculative poems dealing with the abstract. We trust her as readers to take us there because we’re already swept up in her upside-down life that oddly makes perfect sense. The narrative rings true enough that when her lyric and metaphoric threads take leaps we stick around. This is what makes “Ciao Manhattan” a different sort of poem:

All day long my skull
That horsey gulper

Goes braying after sherbets
Busts up ventricles

Trashes valves
But pauses somehow

Hinge open
The day falls off its reins

My brassiere goes unhooked
God walks in

And says I’m back baby
What now?

We smile at each other
Go horseless and headless

It is so God
When the voice is like wheat

Spooned wheat
In whole milk

Come closer it says
You cute little fucker

The French have one word, sacre, to mean both sacred and profane, depending on the stress, and there is something decidedly Last Year at Marienbad about Broder’s pulse. What Robbe-Grillet does with a circle, Broder conveys by harmony between the actual and the speculative. In “Gate 27” she demures “It’s very important to me/ that there be a sense of unity.” And in “Flurry,” “Something/ about the sum of us/ works best.” Sparks fly when the unity between destruction and glory happens; the feeling is electric. In “Mercy” it happens literally through the poem: “Yesterday the worship rattled like an engine/ I said Let this voltage last forever.” And it almost does, it wants to: “I want to buzz all night…Maybe your hum could just fall from my lips.”

In “Superdoom,” before the electric happens, there is panic, “200 flavors of panic,/ the worst is seeing with no eyes./ Cowboys call it riding your feelings.” Let go, Broder is telling us, ride into the violet. This is the whole world in her sad eyes. “Obituary” captures this theme much better than I could: “But if you put nothing to your eye/ Take the questions out of your mouth/ I’ll let you kiss me on the lips/ and suck my ancient oxygen.”

My favorite poem in this collection is “Bones,” which can be dissected vertically, or horizontally since the first and fourth the second and fifth, and third and sixth stanzas have seamless connections:

I held a nightlight
to my bones.

Run said the moon
or build yourself
a rowboat with a roof.

I am like a sailor
who is terrified of fish

if I see a skeleton
I might begin

to vomit up
the mystery
and then what?

I am nothing
like a sailor.

This is a poem about identity, mortality, and myth, conveyed about as simply and clearly as the big awful of life could be shown, and rendered with a sophisticated lyric parallelism that reveals a curious mind in spite of life’s battering wounds. All of Broder’s most intimate moments involve imperfections. Some of us tolerate flaws; others blink and try not to talk about them. Broder adores imperfections, physical and emotional, a life as crooked and sad as her teeth are straight and happy. As a bad man living a messy life I find these poems thrilling. The search for truth and beauty is also the search for imperfection, and not being so ashamed when we find it.
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