BY ERICA BERNHEIM
How serious notorious and public a form, to think you could find the solution to a problem or an ending to an observation in one brief moment—a fraction of an abreaction or the science of the pattern of crumbs appearing on the table from the eating of a loaf of bread.
— Bernadette Mayer, in the 25th anniversary edition of Sonnets
No bread crumbs appear on the cover of Samantha Zighelboim’s first poetry collection, The Fat Sonnets. Instead, three unnaturally greenish, glazed leaves float above an empty pink plate, (part of “Piehole,” a larger installation by Simone Kearney). The leaves are meaty and thick, congealed even, irregularly-shaped, marbled and menacing, reminiscent in their ominousness of the three seal men in Rita Dove’s “Adolescence II,” visiting that speaker in her bathroom, their “eyelashes like sharpened tines,” their eyes the shape of “dinner plates,” conflating food, femininity, and fear. Below the leaves in “Piehole” wait childishly large, pink-handled renditions of a fork and knife on either side of a dainty pink plate, the kind a child might use before transitioning into the world of the adults around her, one which is already familiar to her through exposure and observation. The concerns Zighelboim navigates in this collection are essential when we interrogate what it means to inhabit a body, to witness the body’s manifestations of turmoil, and to be helpless in the face of the body’s desires towards excess and self-destruction.
In the poem “Pie Hole,” Zighelboim’s speaker draws directly from that cover image, itself entitled “Place Setting,” placing it in the poem, reminding the reader how the “lettuces are toxic,” and the speaker’s ultimate wish is to “to end the lettuces into a fine and shining dust.” In this conversation, mastery over food—including the power to refuse it or to destroy it—symbolizes a larger sense of having agency in one’s own life and outward relationship to the gaze. The Fat Sonnets simultaneously controls and interrogates the body, emphasizing methods in which Zighelboim’s content seeks to pressurize its received form, resulting in the creation of multiple interpretations for the language itself.
In “Historiography,” for instance, Zighelboim employs various uses of “body,” the word made flesh, but also made into a catalyst that allows the reader the pleasure of peeling off other layers of meaning. The body began in an untroubled state, but “Then body fattened, deformed,” recalling Simone de Beauvoir’s own description (from The Second Sex) of how the evolution of a woman’s body can also be the catalyst for a desire to erase that body, to reduce it and its impact when gazed upon: “She would like to be invisible; it frightens her to become flesh and to show flesh.” As “Historiography” progresses, readers are introduced to the speaker’s body in its current position, as a patient in a doctor’s office, the speaker ‘disembodied’ from her own form. In this sonnet, however, the argument moves forward and makes the body into the body, the speaker’s own familial legacy included in the troubling description of how this particular body exists and the spaces in which it is and is not permitted to exist: “Definitely no space for body in the family / plot.” Not only is the speaker foreseeing herself (and possibly her own direct lineage) excluded in the future from her family’s burial site, but she is also not part of its history; she will not be contributing to a legacy, perhaps because there was “No space for body on the barstool. No space for body / in the plus-size store…No // space for body at the cool kids’ party.” The body is excluded, removed from the social-romantic landscape of possibility, and violently erased, both from the present and the future.
By the end of “Historiography,” the body has gained some measure of status, at least syntactically, appearing at the beginning of the lines with a capital letter, even if it is an illusion of control: “Body stops trying… // Body all those nights and all those pizzas. Body binges / and body purges.” For the reader and the speaker, the end of this poem is not a victory, but a surrender to disappointment, rather than to acceptance, a giving up, rather than giving in, but the honesty of it, the conventional late turn in the sonnet, allows this to happen. In The Second Sex, de Beavoir also acknowledges the honesty with which women can live in the later years of their lives once they are no longer subject to the pressure to perform femininity or to conform to its standards.
The value of form—why this dialogue between outsiders and the self matters so much—manifests in other poems, such as “A Sensible Lunch,” which, in part, responds to “concern trolling,” a form of rationalized cruelty. The first line, “I’m eating brown rice and a single turkey meatball,” is an austere response to a presumed question to which there can be no “correct” or satisfying answer, control masquerading as concern, invasiveness disguised as participation in a process of purification and diminishment: “Are you having a sensible lunch?” The space between the first line and the rest of the poem continues the motif of exclusion and erasure, even as the remaining thirteen lines are crammed with sensual descriptions of meals remembered as part of a “we,” as opposed to the “I” in the first line. The last line of “A Sensible Lunch” may also be a nod to the cover image, the lettuce leaves transformed through desire into “three tiny edible flowers.” Whatever Kearney’s leaves are, they are clearly neither square, nor meals, but they haunt both reader and speaker throughout the trajectory of this collection, weightless and terrifying in their presumed virtuousness.
Just as the discussion of a body’s form often evolves into a discussion of bodies at large, poems in form can comment on the usefulness of adhering to the conventions of form, the traditions of the sonnet itself in the case of The Fat Sonnets. The sonnet is immediately recognizable and easy to classify, as can be the body and its various types (plus-size, petite, pear-shaped, willowy, etc.), willingly or not. While not every poem in The Fat Sonnets fits the textbook definition of a Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet, each becomes a conversation with the form, and, as Richard Howard says, “Zighelboim gave to any and all of her poems the Sonnet’s intensity of Purpose.” Is it, as Bernadette Mayer asserted in the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of her own collection of sonnets, impossible to solve a problem in such a small space as provided by the sonnet? These are poems written for a world in which most of what we do is prepare ourselves to leave it behind: “I am an artifact / of myself. It’s time to move now. It’s time to starve.” There can be no ending to these observations, nor is there any one form that can contain the problems of any body—private or collective—made flesh.
As I write this, I’m also fostering five very young kittens for a local animal shelter. Two of them are smaller than their brothers, and I am continually monitoring the weights of all five, delighted to see their tiny potbellies grow, encouraging them to gorge themselves on the kibble I provide for their nourishment. It is a relationship based on the purity of desire: the kittens must eat and grow “fat” as a way of surviving and because they are growing and changing so quickly.
The bodies of the poems in The Fat Sonnets ultimately challenge and stretch the constrictions of their own forms and limitations, and—through their visibility on the page—contain the element of performance, inhabiting form as we inhabit our own human bodies, often imperfectly, but—at best—continuing to change and to take from each moment that which we need in order to thrive.
Erica Bernheim is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Mimic Sea, and of a
chapbook, Between the Room and the City. She is currently Associate Professor of English at
Florida Southern College, where she directs the creative writing program. Her writing has
recently appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, The Missouri Review,
Hobart, and Burnside Review.