I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast by Melissa Studdard

cosmos-book-coverNarnia author C.S. Lewis said “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” Great writers are capable of creating that world. That Studdard was able to merge myth and ecstatic language with contemporary poetics in her first full poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, is evidence of her ability to birth universes at will. Studdard’s opening poem, “Creation Myth,” places us directly between Creation’s legs.

          So there God lay, with her legs splayed,
          birthing this screaming world

          from her red velvet cleft, her thighs cut holy with love
          for all things, both big and small,

          that crept from her womb like an army
          of ants on a sugar-coated thoroughfare.

These first lines embody not only a truth of our visceral beginnings; they break tradition with male-dominated monotheistic dogma. Greek myth offers a direct connection to the female concept of creationism. Eurynome was the Goddess of All Things, and desired to make order out of Chaos. By making love to the North Wind, she birthed Eros, god of Love, also known as Protagonus, the “firstborn.” In “Vagabond,” Studdard’s narrative speaks to a primal coupling amidst the chaos:

         Again at the precipice
         we stood, a torrent of wind,
         a rainstorm of love, a dark
         & brooding lick of thunder.

Cosmos presents the yin and yang of theories in not only its individual poems but the playful juxtapositions. One of my favorites is “Nirvana,” which immediately follows “Creation Myth,” moving us from a bloody world birth to the cyclical nature of death and rebirth. Nirvana as well as a handful of other arresting poems in the collection are ekphrastic, and in this Studdard also shows her mettle, divining meaning through the work of painter Remedios Varo’s “To Be Reborn.”

         something like that, one
         of nature’s great mysteries
         thrusting into the narrow rooms
         of humanity, rattling
         between the walls
         of this synthetic
         life, time after time, birth
         after birth,

Like a hamster caught in samsara’s wheel we keep returning, but who is the you? Is it the poet or reader or both? Not only are the poems universes within, with language that is itself a kind of intercourse, unafraid of itself or the consequences of its answers, but they are often metaphysical journeys which never manage to feel didactic – only questioning, seducing us in their wake. God is not the author of the world’s first book but a force which works conception into our most sensual natures.

         The truth is
         God is sprawled naked across the sky. The truth is
         God runs the bordello inside your heart. It’s full
         of all life’s misfits you tried to hide: the mullet
         and skinny legs, the letters you wrote to the man
         next door but never sent, your secret affinity
         for reality TV. Make love to every luscious thing
         you find there. Your atoms have come to worship
         and rejoice at the temple of the familiar.

She is a force which encourages our need to burn, to know in all its senses as in “Even the Linguist Goes Silent” where knowledge becomes a kind of gnostic touch. Probing, tasting, undressing.

         The language of your thighs—
         decapitated matches
         still burning, decapitated verbs
         spun loose, your body a woodshed
         filled with nouns

In “Naming Sky,” one is further convinced of just what a sensualist the creator is. Isn’t it what we all want? To feel alive with awareness and being?

         My thoughts are birch leaves, carried on a waft,
         holy with the work of light through a dapple
         of aphid bites. Would it be okay if I called this God?
         If I pointed out how clouds have begun to undress
         the mountain?

Here the questioning is never inchoate, only ecstatic. This is an artist who has been on “the path” a long time, yet there is no hint of cynicism in her work, only the urge to experience life’s awe. Within Cosmos her influences are wide. One can divine several mentors as in the nod to Neruda in “Starry Night With Socks,” yet her turns are hers alone, “tongues alive/with the ministry of light.” Disappear in that line and feel the depth of a single moment, which breaks beyond the physical world to reveal the mystical union between lovers. Here the good poet leaves “ministry” to our vivid imagination. This is no small feat as the language within the collection allows us deeper resonance over multiple reads.

In “For Two Conversion Therapists Who Fell in Love and Became Gay Activists,” God is in the stone and the sheets. God is there to bring the paper and plums. In this sense, while the poet plays with humor, she also demonstrates her Rilkean ability to infuse life into “Things” (Dinge), “a way more characteristic of the child than of the adult,” as Rilke says. God is ubiquitous and tangential. God is wherever the poet puts her attention. I think of David Whyte’s aphorism, “attention is a form of transformation.” As readers we are part of both the poet’s attention and the transformational process. This sense moves throughout the body of the book as in “No Philosopher Has Yet Solved the Problem of Evil.”

         I guess the sunset forgot to tell them about its beauty.
         Ditto the stars.
         Because the evening smells
         like gun smoke. And someone’s down,
          or passed out.

There’s an “amen” dying to get out. That’s the ebullient nature of good poetry – it speaks sooth and you say yes and yes because you want to believe that all the violent acts in the world could be prevented, even reversed by our acknowledgment of just how stunning this world is and how its perception is of our own making. Studdard wants you to see it, to believe it and we do. This is a necessary book, and I’ll take the liberty of saying it is also a necessary book for Studdard, who while continuing to push the aesthetic envelope in her latest writing, always manages to keep the spirit close at hand.

The poem “Daughter” goes into my personal pantheon of favorite works written on the familial. Far from acrid confessional poems as in Franz Wright’s shattering “Flight,” or Plath’s vitriolic “Daddy,” there is only a sense of astonishment. Not the cliché of miracle but the revelation of the arrival of a fully-formed being and the mother who “sat beneath/the Bodhi tree/and begot the sacred fig.”

          Because I was a cave,
          and you were the bird that flew through
          my hollows, when they bathed the pain away,
          the light on your face looked like
          peace after a long and onerous

Who is this collection for? It’s for the accomplished poet and aspiring writer, the musician and the nature lover, for persons of any and all beliefs. It is an offering for all artists. For here the self is on fire as language is a lumen which finds its light in the casting of images and the breath which ignites between them.

         Artist, have you learned the moth?
         You are more alike than you can see.
         Not in the way a night can swarm to flame,
         but like a gust of stars
         breathless with foretelling—
Lois P. Jones has work published or forthcoming in Poemeleon, as well as several anthologies including The Poet’s Quest for God (Eyewear Publishing), Wide Awake: Poetry of Los Angeles and Beyond (The Pacific Coast Poetry Series), 30 Days (Tupelo Press) and Good-Bye Mexico (Texas Review Press). Some publications include Narrative, American Poetry Journal, Tupelo Quarterly, The Warwick Review, Cider Press Review, Askew and others. She is the winner of the 2012 Tiferet Poetry Prize and the 2012 Liakoura Prize. Lois is Poetry Editor of Kyoto Journal and host of Pacifica Radio’s Poets Café.