I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast
by Melissa Studdard
41 Poems/ 62 Pages/ $18.00
Saint Julian Press
Reviewed by: Ed Bennett
The earliest poets were storytellers. They explained the moon, stars, nature in all its glory. Some of these poets, no doubt, became shamans, using the power of poetry to perform incantations and rites to please the gods. Others chose not to expound religious truths alone but celebrated the manifold beauties of nature and humanity in languages that were just developing. Homer spoke of the gods but his recitation of the great epics of his day enlivened the stories of men at their oars, rhythmically moving over the waves in search of glory, honor, some booty and some lust, to keep things interesting.
Melissa Studdard belongs to the latter type of poet. Her new book, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, celebrates all of creation rather than get into the minutiae of technical explanations. She uses humor as well as deep introspection to study her subject like a 17th Century naturalist looking through a microscope: she sees the many wonders in a drop of water and joyously proclaims what she sees rather than force a theory or explanation for this vision.
In her poem “Creation Story”, Ms. Studdard takes a very different view in the creation of the universe. God is a female deity
“…birthing this screaming world
from her red velvet cleft, her thighs
cut holy with love…”
So far, an almost religious tract explaining creation yet she deviates from this line of thought by becoming inclusive rather than exclusive in her myth.
“and she glowed – like a woman
in love with her own making, infatuated
with all corners of the blemished universe,
smitten with every imperfect thing:
splotchy, red-faced & wailing –
flawless in her omniscient eyes.”
There is no sin with this omniscient God, just an acceptance of imperfection and the granting of unconditional love. This is the first major poem in the book and sets the tenor for the rest of the poet’s environment.
In the ekphrastic poem “Looking at a Young Woman with a Water Jug”, she takes her robust vision and contemplates a Vermeer painting.
“Can you see the way Vermeer
around his thumb,
pulls it straight again and lays it across a vase
or table -…
as if friction
required only nearness.
as if a pale, blue drape
had kindness to give
to a brass wash basin.”
Where other poets restate the image in the picture or retell the tale in the painting, Ms. Studdard’s eye takes her beyond the canvass. She deals with the artist’s skill with light and shows how that talent gives an anthropomorphic sensibility to drapes and basin. Her skill with ekphrastic poetry is found again in “”You Were a Bird, You are the Sea”. The painting she uses as her subject is Brueghel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”. For most poets, this particular work is a minefield: WH Auden, William Carlos Williams and Ann Sexton have written poems about this canvas that have entered the American Poetic Canon. One could not write a poem about Brueghel’s work without being compared to these three greats. Fortunately, Ms. Studdard uses her keen vision to focus on Icarus, not the surrounding ship and plowman that seem to draw the interest of the other three poets. She chooses her own path by seeking the Icarus legend from another artist, John Sokol’s “Icarus Practicing. This painting shows Icarus alone and, evidently, falling. The choice was a good one for the poet since her only focus is on the ill-starred Icarus. She says:
“When I go,
let me go
like you, Icarus,
past my own
I fall. Let me
be a flesh-toned
streak in the sky,
a flash in the blue,
While other poems focus on the tragedy of Icarus’ fall, Ms. Studdard rejoices in the attempt to break the bonds holding us to the earth. She does not see Icarus as an unfortunate character failing because of his hubris – she sees him triumphant, a “sunburst of wonder” that she too wishes to emulate.
Melissa Studdard’s cosmos is a welcoming place. People can strive, fail and still have the dignity innate to all of us. She has a sharp wit and the ability to use image and metaphor to transform our vision of what is around us into a joyous kaleidoscopic sight where objects are somewhat skewed and that is just fine. Her poetry runs the gamut from mythology to ekphrastics and onward to social justice. To call this collection a tour de force would not do it justice because Ms. Studdard’s world is a unique creation rather than a series of similar verse. I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast is the result of a unique poetic vision wedded to a mastery of the poet’s art. A reader would certainly agree with the closing line in her poem “Everything is Delicious”:
I’ve claimed my banquet
from the ether
and I’m never letting go.”