In I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, Melissa Studdard makes no distinction between the sacred and the profane. She hears grace in everything, serving up poems that allow us to experience it “in the coffeemaker’s drip, in the crying infant next door, / in the annoying whirr of the window unit blowing air.” But do not think that her poetry is steeped in sheer naturalism. Studdard believes that the world of dreams and visions and other dimensions is as real as “a bedroom / in which we are making love.” Her images shape-shift, and her poems drift easily between immanence and transcendence. “Don’t / try to understand,” she advises:
Just paint the air human,
take off your clothes,
hand back your coat of arms.
What you mistook for a person
is really a country
with a dark and sacred history
and no scholars to explain away the confusion.
Just burn the archives down.
Everything we have to know
we learned from a picture of dreaming.
Everything we need to remember
can fit on a scrap of paper
smaller than your hand.
Talking along in this not-quite-earthly, not-quite-heavenly way is what Studdard does best in this impressive first collection. Grounded in history (that of both objective events and subjective emotions), yet reaching for the ineffable, there is a half-hidden biography in these poems. Writing about Hildegard of Bingen in “Tithing,” Studdard proclaims “In…dreams I am your Jutta, your Volmar, // your confessor, your scribe… // you are the tithe to above from a bankrupt world.” In “Integrating the Shadow,” the poet states, “I was a bird in the hand of God. // I was two in the bush, // the yin to my own yang, yang to yin, / drinking gin on the porch at midnight, / or otherwise drinking tea—you see // how it is—Bach on Tuesdays—Thursdays / acid rock, tie-dyed t-shirts and jeans.” “Daughter (for Rosalind)” begins “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 / war.” The poem concludes with
I tell you, Athena sprung
from my own split
Head. Because emergence is a teaching.
Because your hands and feet
were softer than sand. Because before
there were canyons
or valleys or lakes or winds,
you curled your hand around my finger,
and, with your touch, delivered the all.
“Kiss the World with my Wounded Mouth” is emblematic of those few poems that may do too much work for some readers. Although she merely points toward love with “…that wild animal, / [her] own body, and take[s] up residence / inside the thatched hut / of [her] soul,” inviting us to “…Look / how [she] makes love to the reach of light / angling in from the east, to the sound of hooves / on hard ground, to the ground itself,” and she shows sensitivity and restraint with “how [she] embrace[s] / the jostle of water / sloshing against the side of a boat,” the poet cannot contain herself in these closing lines:
Nothing can stop me
from offering my own exploding
heart from my two hands. Nothing
can stop me
through the weedy and nettled
plots of love.
If this passage seems to border on sentimentality, take into account that the poet has earned the right to speak this way by spending far more time in the book speaking to our “atoms [that] have come to worship / and rejoice at the temple of the familiar”—those particularities she speaks of in “For Two Conversion Therapists Who Fell in Love and Became Gay Activists:”
Listen when God knocks on the door in the morning
and says, I brought you a paper, some orange juice,
and two Eden-colored plums. 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.
In this poem, as in most, Melissa Studdard’s language makes love to many of the familiar things in our lives, showing them to be luscious with her gorgeous diction. The sensualism that is always simmering just beneath her lines does occasionally boil over the lip of the poem. When this happens, she masterfully turns down the heat, stirs, and starts cooking her magic again.