Review: Mad for Meat reviewed by Zara Raab for Prime Number magazine (May 2012)
These are the poems of a young, gay, black, Southern male from a religious family, coming of age in the closing decade of the 20th Century. Their themes are the sexual proclivities, courtship rituals, politics, family heritage, music, and yes, carnivorous habits of his generation and culture, both inherited and adopted. The book’s marvelous title gets glancing reference in at least three poems: In “Gift,” a man divines the future by reading cuts of meat rather than tea leaves; in “Inheritance,” the poet is left “toothless/mad/for meat” when his mother leaves what should have been his inheritance to a senile stepfather; in “Bad Catholics,” a mother serves meat to her numerous boys and men even during Lent, as a coping mechanism.
We kept the butcher’s block bloody
Calm coming over us like gravy
at the sight of pot roast
A strew of slowed cognition
we were blunt in our surrender
mom knew to do this decades ago
& kept an eye on the butcher
his tender wrists & special discounts
whenever dad made the trip alone
Simmonds is often at his best doing what many American poets do so well, writing autobiography––skipping the ideal for the un-troped, un-rhetorical actual, to borrow from Dan Chiasson––autobiography in which the various strands of race and sexual identity entwine even in early childhood. Simmonds is adept, capturing the subtle nuances of different social realities inevitable to a black child growing up in New Orleans, and his grasp of what can be for some the emotional underpinnings of a homosexual identity is astute and moving. “Something Owed” in the poem of that title is both a mother’s debt to a man for his attentiveness to her young son, and, ironically the debt the man whom that boy became has to the man for his pedophiliac restraint, the way he “serenaded himself inside his herringbone trousers” without demanding much more than the boy’s presence. And in the poem “bouquet of scalpels,” the poet imagines castrating his father, and giving “the wound finally/a mouth/a smile on each wrist”
his rightful & clean erection
there would be no lesson in that
I met Simmonds one summer a couple of years ago, when I rode with him up to Squaw Valley for the poets’ retreat there, and we’ve stayed in touch by email in an occasional, lazy sort of way. I know he’s a handsome young man, which is perhaps why his understanding of regret and shame in some poems took me by surprise, regret often being a taste in an older person’s mouth. But “Our mistakes [are] mouthwatering rich/ in regret/ daily allowances to break /down swallow keep /down,” the young Simmonds writes in “Cud.” The prose poem “Tornado” enacts a scene of incest in a fallout shelter during a tornado, when the poet’s brother molests him and “though I couldn’t see his face to know anything for sure, I bet his lazy eye would no longer be his greatest shame.” “July in St. Helena” further reveals Simmonds’s knack for chronicling the ways people affect each other:
what’s sweat without the breeze
in his wide brimmed hat staring
at how delicate I would always be
how scared he was of that
Many of these poems are rife with sexual imagery, energy and evidences of promiscuity characteristic, perhaps, of young people displaced from their original environments, and free and able to travel the coasts and the world, as Simmonds has done. Simmonds does not flinch for the actual, often gritty, physical embodiments of experience. In “Tenor,” the fatherless boy becomes a faggot looking for his father in the urinals:
a father needs to be seduced
In “Little Dolly Parton,” the poet says, “I saw men I wanted to be//The goateed drama teacher/ in grade school//the Jeri curled choir director//the Jesuit priest at Corpus Christi.” Simmonds also writes about the gay scene in New York City and Harlem, in San Francisco, where he now lives, and in various Asian cities where he has traveled. In “Saigon,” the poet goes to a masseuse in that city and confesses, “I’ve come for the metaphor about the entrance/Golden Smile / And isn’t this why we fought in Vietnam // the commerce between us / baby oil unifying skins / the opal of us shimmering / before my shot of silver.”
Simmonds’s use of image and metaphor is striking and original, with only an occasional lapse or misstep. The grammar of the prose poem “Summer, 1982” leaves it unclear, and in the prose poem “Witnesses,” I wanted more from the poet. The latter poem describes the visits of Watchtower evangelicals to his childhood home in the French quarter of New Orleans. “Momma would shush me as we watched them. . . . Momma never said anything bad about them. She just taught me to wait out the truth” (italics mines). I have an idea of what’s meant here, but I would rather know, more precisely and directly.
It isn’t surprising that a handful of poems by Simmonds, who was raised in New Orleans, feature music, especially the great black vocalists and singers like Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and Leontyne Price, as well as the popular singer Eartha Kitt, as well as Dolly Parton. Simmonds’s religious upbringing provides another recurring theme and a backdrop to several poems. “Plots” warns against tracts, “plots too narrow/for living men” and urges the reader to “bolt from anyone/gripping one.” “Sermon” is another poem on this theme: “Our cellular bodies are prosthetic to spirit.”
Simmonds doesn’t neglect the politics and history of being black. A poem like “twang” vividly enacts racial fear and the threat lynching posed for blacks in the South. So deep-seated is the fear that when his mother hears “the tight strings of a banjo,” she immediately tenses. “Book Lover’s Minutes” describes the decision of black men to boycott the Charleston State Fair in 1946. There are also poems about Oscar Grant III and Emmett Till. The background of many of these poems is clear enough, but this volume would have been helped by end notes to clarify certain details for the reader. The poem about Denmark Vesey, the Charleston freed slave whose planned rebellion was thwarted by tattlers in 1822, is a case in point. The poem is called “Charleston Inferno,” and the name “Denmark” is mentioned in the poem, but I had to do a little research to learn the circumstances of this short, powerful poem. Denmark’s testament, Simmonds writes with a typical striking metaphor, was “the slipped halo round his throat.”
When I first sat down to write a review of Kevin Simmonds’ poetry collection ‘Mad For Meat’ I had the uneasy feeling that I would end up using sentences like “Simmonds serves up prime cuts of juicy sirloin” or, if I thought the poems were bad (which I don’t), to make some kind of unflattering comparison to stewing steak or beef gristle. Thank God I dodged those bullets.
Meat does play a significant role in this collection, however. As well as the sexual connotations – and there are many sex scenes – it ultimately serves as a reminder that, once our superficial differences are stripped away, we are all made of the same stuff.
Simmonds tackles racism in the US, past and present, with the help of case and character studies. There are poems devoted to the murdered African-American teen Emmett Till, civil activist Bayard Rustin and slave revolt leader Denmark Vesey. He thanks the stenographer whose racist comments caused Paul Robeson to quit the law firm in disgust and seek a new profession. There’s even a notable appearance from Aunt Jemima, the original ‘happy slave’ mascot of Quaker Oats breakfast foods who presented post-civil war America with a romanticised vision of plantation life (“Uncle Ben know what I’m talking ‘bout. We comfort”).
His righteous anger bubbles over in ‘a sentence’, which deals with Johannes Mehserle’s shooting of Oscar Grant III in the style of a grammar lesson. “subject: Johannes Mehserle / verb: shot / object: Oscar Grant III”, concluding with: “A white police officer shot a black man faced down on the ground and will spend less than two years in jail for his criminal conviction. / What is the object / of that sentence?”
Elsewhere Simmonds focuses on attitudes towards his sexuality. In the poem ‘Sermon’ he makes his feelings clear on religious intolerance:
“Before he had hair on his balls, he’d pled for deliverance. Some clapboard apostle shouted the demon names of what afflicts while that boy coughed into brown paper bags to expel his homosexuality. He retched until his stomach and sides ached.”
In ‘bouquet of scalpels’ he refers to his father as: “…unforgivably christian / & jamaican / fine without my call / on father’s day” and in ‘Inheritence’ he tells how his stepfather “…bit/ his tongue / before he called me / faggot”. Indeed the absence of a loving father figure is another recurring theme: from the baby-faced singer in ‘Tenor’ who tries to fill the psychological void with the men he seduces in public toilets, to the young Eartha Kitt, who was sent away from her South Carolina home after her foster mother’s new partner refused to accept her – in this case for not being black enough.
This confrontational style is extremely effective, but ‘Mad For Meat’ also shines in its quieter moments. In the heartbreaking ‘After Katrina’ he surveys the hurricane devastation in New Orleans from outside his aunt’s house as she “…wades through the wreckage failing / no matter how hard she tries / at letting go”. ‘salt (a suicide meditation)’ is both haunting and sad, and I love the nostalgic glow of ‘Summer, 1982’ in which Simmonds recalls evenings in New Orleans when he was young.
It says much for the craftsmanship of his poetry that he can bring his scenes so vividly to life with so few words, whether describing the heat and strangeness of the Japanese “bar slash novelty store slash coffee house” in ‘Geography’ or the tension in the air as the different cultures and subcultures jostle for space in ‘San Francisco (op.11)’.
Simmonds’ willingness to take his poetry to uncomfortable places may be too much for some readers, but though often graphic, it is never for empty shock value. He explores the various issues he raises with intelligence and wit, baring his soul in the process. At the risk of torturing the meat metaphor again, this collection is raw, often bloody, sometimes tender and with a warm vein of humour running through its centre. Highly recommended.
Review: Mad for Meat reviewed by Joey Connolly for The Rumpus.net, October 21st 2011
Observe as Meat Falls
This collection is not kind or nice, but the brutality of his honesty, the blunt force of his handling of subject matter, and most importantly, his emotional transparency, make this strong collection incredibly effective and worth reading and rereading.
The epigraph to “Bad Catholics” in Kevin Simmonds’ Mad for Meat quotes The Montreal Gazette and tells us, “Results from a McGill University study, released yesterday, suggest that people—men, anyways—become less aggressive at the sight of meat.” This idea of meat runs throughout the book, an extended metaphor that keeps changing.
The book’s cover shows a crucified Christ, sections outlined like the famous picture from The Joy of Cooking that show where from the cow each piece of beef is found. Simmonds follows that, though never with direct ideas of cannibalism and Christianity, by continually exploring religious ideas. The best and most successful example is in “Bad Catholics.” He opens the poem, “We kept the butcher’s block bloody / through Lent” to place us squarely in the religious frame of mind. The poem then discusses his mother, who knows enough about men to watch the butcher, and the poem concludes with
whenever dad made the trip alone
The lamb always invites comparisons to Christ, and swaddled is a verb I have never heard unless also mentioning a manger. White and the idea of bringing home are heavy with resurrection, even without the context of Lent, though the mention of Lent makes the connection astoundingly clear. With the imagery and the epigraph, the body of Christ becomes the body of Christ, bloodying the butcher’s block. Is this the meat that the very sight should make men less aggressive?
Simmonds walks such a wonderful line between the religious and the physical, between reverence and renouncement, and as someone whose bio mentions assembling an anthology of poetry that marries spirituality and homosexuality, this makes absolute sense. At the end of “Sermon,” he writes, “The body doesn’t know religion but begins its every motion as a god.” This tension between body and not-body, typified usually by contrasting his absent father and his attentive mother, drive the more successful poems in the book. In “bouquet of scalpels,” he writes,
a father unforgivably christian
The only word he capitalizes in the entire poem, not I or Christian or Father’s Day, is Jamaican. I am not sure of the significance, but I am intrigued nonetheless. This is just another example of a bold choice in a series of bold choices. He juxtaposes ideas and images just to see what will come of them.
One two facing pages, Simmonds pairs a poem called “Little Dolly Parton” with one titled “Tenor.” Bringing back the religious theme, he compares Dolly’s childhood vision of the town prostitute as her source of fashion inspiration to his own childhood heroes, a choir director and a Jesuit. The poem makes a powerful statement of a man whose sexuality did not conform to the judgments of religion. He writes “as I rang the bells in my white robe / altar boy full of shame.” He, like Dolly, concludes that it is love that makes us find our hallelujahs in ourselves. “Tenor,” however, paints a different picture, yet the picture is still a view of religion. If his father stands for Our Father, absent and unloving, then it seems clear what he is doing with the humiliation and sexuality. The poem is very sexually graphic, though the symbolism keeps the writing from being exploitative. “A father needs to be seduced / at the urinals / sure you’ll swallow / after the fuck / even the shit at the end.” The juxtaposition of the graphic imagery and with Dolly Parton, the woman whose music focuses on butterflies and clear blue mornings, adds layers of meaning, some potentially disturbing, to both poems.
Of the juxtapositions, Simmonds leans toward shock. Not all of these poems are for the faint of heart. He includes a poem called “Rosebud,” a term that I admit I had to look up and that has now forever ruined Citizen Kane for me. While I understand and appreciate what he is doing with these descriptions, the moments overpower and linger for me more than the other brilliant moments in the book. In “Tornado,” he writes of a sexual exchange with a brother in a moment of crisis. I believe these uncomfortable moments, the ones offering intimate moments of anonymous sex or the ones with titles like “An Old Man Carrying His Catheter Bag,” unite us all on a base level, reminding us yet again how we are all, underneath everything else, meat.
Simmonds knows when to shock and when to avoid sensationalism. In “Bayard Rustin,” a prose poem that is also one of the collection’s best poems, presents facts with gorgeous clarity. He writes of being imprisoned for “sexual perversion.” He identifies how the bias and struggles of African Americans for basic human rights are different from the bias and struggles for gay people. He writes, “The rights I don’t possess because I’m a Negro certainly come before those I yearn for as a homosexual. Homosexual. Such an antiseptic sound to it. Yet I rather that to other names, names I’m called between teeth.”
Though there are many effective poems in Mad for Meat, the strongest bring back the meat image directly. From “ bouquet of scalpels,” after the above lines that call for his father’s castration, he writes,
his rightful & clean erection
there would be no lesson in that
Elsewhere in the poem, in another allusion to the idea that we are all meat, he writes, “come rot with me,” my favorite line in the book. In “Inheritance,” he writes of his mother’s passing and his stepfather calling him a “faggot” and concludes with the lines, “leave me toothless / mad / for meat.” The poem is incredibly powerful, a true testament to Simmonds’ range and immense talent. Like many of his other poems, “Inheritance” demonstrates a poetic dexterity that leaves the reader deeply unsettled yet deeply moved.
This meat, this flesh. Simmonds uses this extended metaphor to unite all, reducing us to meat both physically and emotionally. This collection is not kind or nice, but the brutality of his honesty, the blunt force of his handling of subject matter, and most importantly, his emotional transparency, make this strong collection incredibly effective and worth reading and rereading.
Joey Connelly teaches English at Kentucky Wesleyan College. He earned his MFA from Ashland University in 2010, and he serves on the editorial board for Floorboard Review. His poetry has
appeared in Louisville Review, among other publications, and he has poems forthcoming in Medulla Review and Splinter Generation.
Copyright TheRumpus.net 2011
Review: Mad for Meat reviewed for LAMBDA (November 2011)
When I was a freshly out gay kid and still-closeted poet, I scoured the stacks of my hicktown library for whatever poems I could get my hands on. My favorites were Angels of the Lyre (Gay Sunshine Press, 1978) and The Black Poets (Bantam, 1985). I would hide in a private reading room away from the afternoon bullies and pore over work by Nikki Giovanni, Allen Ginsberg, Alice Walker, and scores of other poets whose work managed to be political without sacrificing, well, the poetry. Bless the deviant librarian who secreted these books in, and forgive the 16-year-old who pinched them.
Few young poets today write with the lacerating chutzpah of Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred,” Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Mother,” or Ginsberg’s “Please Master,” so imagine my delight when I picked up a copy of Kevin Simmonds’ first solo collection (he’s edited several anthologies, including Collective Brightness from Sibling Rivalry Press, 2011). Here is an artist and activist for our generation, weaned on the academia that today’s waning poetry audiences demand, but grounded in the Stonewall generation’s ethos of political and sexual liberation.
In this way, Simmonds is more like James Broughton, Essex Hemphill, and the lesser-known Richard Ronan than any poet who’s emerged in the last twenty years. But while Simmonds spends a fair share of Mad for Meat (Salmon Poetry) feeling his roots, he spends as much time tending the flowers they produce, gorgeous poems that are a hybrid of the old and new.
Simmonds, who grew up in New Orleans, spent part of his youth in Asia, and now lives in the Bay Area, covers extensive terrain in Mad for Meat, both geographically and culturally. New Orleans, Charleston, Japan, Saigon, San Francisco, Kuala Lumpur, and Napa Valley all make appearances here, as do Dolly Parton, Billie Holiday, Leontyne Price, Richard Wright, Katherine Dunham, and a dozen others. Religion also figures prominently, from Pentecostals and Catholic priests to Buddhists and Watchtower-waving Jehovah’s Witnesses.
There’s so much there, in fact, that it can be daunting at first. As Simmonds says in the poem “Rent” (yes, that Rent), “it’s hard to keep track at first…but the story [is] rightfully complicated.” Simmonds doesn’t hesitate in risking being complicated any more than he hesitates in slaying theatrical sacred-cows; and since he’s also an accomplished composer who wrote the music for the Emmy Award-winning documentary HOPE: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica, it’s a good bet that he knows whereof he speaks.
Musicality, in fact, is what holds Mad for Meat’s divergent themes together. “Witchcraft,” for instance, boils with incantatory lines:
Lips pink as an eardum […]
The prose poem “Sermon” rescues a tale of queer boyhood from the familiar pitfall of martyrdom: “Take the cliché of a child whose need for an absent father unearths an appetite for damage [….] Before he had hair on his balls, he’d pled for deliverance.” Tellingly, it’s music that leads the speaker to epiphany: “Not every two bodies will create children. It’s not that they are without string, key or hammer. Some are woodwinds, their music of erotic conclusions. Let the breath pass through them. You do not control the wind.”
As much as Simmonds avoids the cliché in his own work, he’s not afraid to confront stereotypes about African Americans head-on. Poems like “Basketball” (“I’ve played only once…”) and “Aunt Jemima” (“Tell me something sweet, something that’ll stick and undo the knots I’ve known”) use fresh imagery to repurpose the stalest of tropes.
In “Eartha Kitt,” one of several persona poems in the collection, the speaker purrs, “I’ll spare you the chronology but I know the distance between dirt and diamonds. Darling, I’ve traveled it.” You can’t walk away from Mad for Meat without feeling that Simmonds could have said almost the same thing about himself; luckily for us, though, he hasn’t left out any of the details—chronological or otherwise.