Eat your death-wich, dear: A review
By Sharma Shields
At a poetry reading at Auntie’s Book Store in Spokane, a man told poet Henrietta Goodman that he’d like her to read first, because, as he put it, “I like your dress.”
It was a pretty dress, black with red flowers and ribbons, pretty and whimsical, words that could easily describe Goodman herself. The reading she gave, alongside another brilliant poet, Ellen Welcker, was one of my favorite poetry readings of the year, not only because of the excellence of the poetry but also because of the delightful marriage between Goodman’s ebullient charisma and Welcker’s dry humor. Goodman’s poems share her prettiness and charisma, if none of the whimsy. Hungry Moon is a cold steel knife of a book. Its poems are bathed in hoarfrost, “hard freeze,” and glacial runoff. It’s an invitation to witness an intimacy that feels so doomed and private that at times I almost wanted to turn away. I say almost because there was no way I could avoid watching these tender, “spun sugar” lives grapple with their own fragility. The window to this intimate world is a gift, provided by Goodman with utmost artistry, the windowpanes polished to perfection, revealing a startling and glittering view.
At Hungry Moon’s heart, is, of course, hunger. Goodman tells us in the collection’s eponymous first poem that the book’s title was given to her by her two-year-old son, “because he is two / and wants dinner,” and so the hunger begins, so simply and harmlessly, with a child’s hunger, only to evolve into the lovelorn tale of grief that we read, ravished, at the book’s end: “Ask him a goddamn question now, / because three years from now when he puts a gun / in his mouth, what you don’t know will be your problem.” And so the hunger continues, unasked questions that plague the poetic speaker in the face of death’s permanence.
Part I introduces the sense of unease, despite the cheerful introduction of a son, and of a lover who enjoys billiards. The first poem states, “If the moon is greedy, then what it wants is to collapse / in on itself – to fly shrinking, shrieking out of orbit.” Greed is the death wish, Goodman says, greed signals self-destruction and finality. Hunger, on the other hand, is what keeps us alive. “But if it’s hungry, it can wait…Lab rats live longer if they never get enough.” Goodman also introduces perhaps my favorite pun of all time: the death-wich, a sandwich of greed “we eat until we’re gone.” The conclusion of the poem complexes matters, however, as all good poems should; the speaker sites her own anorexia, in which hunger becomes not a boon but a symptom of starvation, of imminent death. So which is it? Will it save us? Or is it the sign that shows us we are not to be saved? The first section moves us through recurring images of boyhood, of water, of a flow that keeps pushing us forward, of placenta “like a black brain—/an anti brain,” of a flood of words and word-misinterpretations (lyrics from Hollaback Girl are humorously misheard as “There ain’t no / Hall of Ector,” and then “There ain’t no Holy Vector.” Part Two allows the vision to rise, from streams and bridges to sky and airplanes and birds, wind and flight. Childhood rises to adulthood, too, and for all the airiness and fanciful flight there is an encroaching worry of free-fall. Goodman’s talent at describing the full, swooning beauty of the natural world breaks open here:
A flock of white birds turn all at once against gray sky, and their shadows turn on ice. The Idaho plain breaks into hills, then mountains pushed up from beneath, swollen to bursting – trees black against snow.
The colors of gray and white and black make me think of ash, and soon ash is mentioned, ringing again the death bell: “I know / a business that will turn the ashes of loved ones / into beautiful jewelry,” Goodman writes in the poem “Willful Blindness,” “That’s all I want now, / the only ring I want to put on.” The death-wich returns, nibbled at lightly by the speaker to remind us of its essential role in our desires. When Part II ends, we are left contemplating “nautical, astronomical twilight— / the stars above, the stars below / and us between.” Beautiful and stark, we are prepped for our arrival in Part III, when the waters and air of the previous sections thicken and shine with either ice or fire. Arguments and infidelities crop up, the mature hungers that leave us unhinged. A person wins a pool game through “slop, not plan,” and it’s revealed that this same person is sleeping with his or her opponent’s wife. The speaker reveals the excuses we offer up to ourselves to allow for our own greed, mixed though it may be with misgiving:
Outside, the November sky spits white buckshot in your face. It’s not too late to change your mind, but you’re the wedge that splits by depth, by force, and not by choice. You’d wait, except in this you’re just a tool, a thing. She takes off her dress, she takes off her ring.
It’s similarly sloppy logic, “but,” as the billiards player tells himself, “who can tell?” We let ourselves get away with our faults thanks to self-mythologizing. “He said what you did wasn’t done until you told it, when you went somewhere you weren’t there until you told it.” What “he” says, of course, is merely another form of hunger: he wants it to be so, and uses magical thinking to make it so.
I loved the ending of Part III, which foretold my experience reading the last section, when the intimacy of certain details became so alive that I felt keenly guilty of my own voyeurism. “A Dozen Roses” captures this so well, the speaker spotting “a man in a dirty T-shirt,” who crosses the street with “at least a dozen roses.”
It’s like passing a wreck, the way I want to avert my eyes and to follow him down the cracked sidewalk into whatever yard of stunted crabgrass, his shoulders hunched, expression unreadable under the brim of his cap, the roses wrapped in clear plastic—
I want so badly what he is walking toward to be something good.
I do, too, but we know better, as does the speaker, who uses this gorgeous segue to guide us into the terror of a more personal hunger: the hunger for afterlife, to communicate with the dead. Of all of the wanting, longing, aching in Hungry Moon, Part IV contains those most plaintive. The speaker is worrisomely hard on herself here (“weren’t you hungry, you stupid girl?” and “What you don’t know is your own fault”), cussing at herself to ask the right questions at the right time of a doomed companion whose impending suicide silences him permanently, rendering her questions irrelevant. There is a hunger for salvation in this section, for resolution. In the poem, “Not Falling, Not Fallen,” Goodman writes:
You used to tell him you’d made your own religion, stitched it like the girls who sat through lectures with knitting needles and balls of yarn. It was unfinished, imperfect – he didn’t have to believe in it, exactly –
but you wanted to give him that fabric not ever through losing threads of itself, not torn, not whole, not pure or not-pure, not falling, not fallen, not exactly.
The speaker’s intention to save another with her own version of heaven is sweetly naïve, but the true resolution comes from allowing herself to succumb to and then rise from grief:
When my friend said the aftermath of grief was solution, he meant science, not remedy: the way grief drags us down like a load of snow-covered logs, then begins to lift, the way my feet cloud the water.
And we’re further pacified by the speaker’s return to the natural world. “Snakes of smoke rise from the parched basket of Hell’s / Canyon, and the creek descends in a white rush that makes / its own wind, stalls in a dark pool where clots of algae / bloom, then pours through the dam in combed rows.” This writing is so lovely, both so precise and sweeping, like the environment itself.
Hungry Moon concludes with the speaker lifting up a rock, considering it, putting it back. We sense the rock’s permanence and insignificance here, its heaviness and lightness both, and there’s an image to be found there of the writer, herself, lifting up the lives in her book, turning them over, considering their own paradoxical permanence and insignificance, their own heaviness and lightness. Goodman penetrates her own talent here. The book is its own afterlife, its own answer to its hungers. In the poem I referenced earlier, “Elegy for the Last Time” – the poem that struck me as so poignant and private that I almost turned away while reading – a speaker gathers a character’s hair “in my fist for just a moment, let it go / embarrassed, when he turned – ” and reveals a breathtaking display of Goodman’s power to draw us in and open us to our own fragility. The poem continues,
veiled, now, at the moment of turning and something immeasurable, even then, in the unropelike length of his hair, not braided, not even stuck together by static, the end of each strand so far from where it started.
Hungry Moon, too, has strands that lengthen and evolve within the book’s excellent pacing. This is must-read from a Northwest poet who knows both our geographic landscape and the landscape of our hungers and our hearts.
Henrietta Goodman is the author of two books of poetry: Hungry Moon (Mountain West Poetry Series 2013), and Take What You Want (Beatrice Hawley Award, Alice James Books 2006). She has an MFA in poetry from the University of Montana and a PhD in English from Texas Tech University. Her poems have recently appeared in Massachusetts Review, New England Review, Field, and other journals, as well as in the anthologies Lit from Inside: 40 Years of Poetry from Alice James Books and A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry.
Sharma Shields is the author of Favorite Monster: Stories. Her debut novel, The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac, will be published by Henry Holt in 2015.