Reviewed by Amanda Fuller
Chosen by Dorianne Laux for the 2012 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize, The Dead Eat Everything is Michael Mlekoday’s first book of poetry. The Dead Eat Everything has been received with excitement for its masterful and rhythmic interweave of narrative and lyric. In praise of the book, Laux describes the collection as having “one rhymed eye open and looking right at you.” Adrian Matejka hails the “wordplay that snaps like gunplay.” Ross Gay celebrates its “whiplash brilliance.” It is an astonishingly beautiful lament with music that is both street serenade and symphony.
The three-sectioned collection opens with “Self-Portrait with Gunshot Vernacular,” a poem that offers the reader a quick-sketch of the speaker’s world. The poem dares you to turn the page as it looks you up and down:
All summer was one wet weapon.
Rainfall kept the crack addicts
asleep in the church basement
amid remnants of the broken window.
Here the world is always saying
Ya mama, Ya mama,
and you write poems
like they brass knuckles
…and this neighborhood is bordered
by a jawbone made of light.
Rhyme or die. Shoot or die.
Smuggle yourself out
like a banned book or die.
During my first read of Michael’s collection, I could not get César Vallejo out of my mind, and I was grateful. Michael’s poems rekindled my love affair with another poet, which is, after all, one of the most savory experiences in poetic creation and conversation—voices that defy the natural laws of time and subvert the need for living, breathing body. César Vallejo was not a common man by any means, but he loved and breathed the common between all beings, the grit of life—and so too does Michael Mlekoday. Both poets have confessional moments, tell stories of their own lives and families and cities and worlds, but both poets move beyond these worlds, harnessing the personal, the ego, the real experience grounded in dirt and the body, in senses and words. Both poets illuminate and then transform worldly experience into a humanness that defies any benchmark of time period, even moving beyond the culture from which their words are born. Vallejo’s Peru or Paris might as well be Mlekoday’s Minneapolis or Kansas or Indiana.
It might seem unfair, even perhaps a bit overstated, to drop Michael into such big shoes, but you’d be missing the point. Both men document their earth, ecstatic in any experience, be it trauma or triumph, and every range of feeling in between. The shoes don’t matter—they are to be discarded, along with all other buffers, lifejackets and other constructs that limit. The preference for feeling the solid ground and the dirt between the toes, to do away with all obstacles that stand between a human being and their truth, is what matters.
In The Dead Eat Everything Michael refuses take no for an answer. He offers up his own multitudinous existence—a series of “Self-Portrait” poems that morph into portraits of the everyman, poems about mothers and fathers and babas, poems about homeland and places where “the difference / between stupid and ignorant / is the last two digits of a zip code / and I drink on both banks of the river” (from “Self-Portrait, July”)—all without apology.
How could I not recall Vallejo’s own sense of awareness dedicated to the world around him, his paying attention to and solidarity with humankind? In “Self-Portrait, Downtown,” Michael explores an oppressive environment, the reclamation of what it means to be broken:
We left because we were lost and broken.
The sun rode us like donkeys. Our hooves
turned colors in the dust. Shush, you said,
every time I dropped a mirror and it broke
And then later, in “The Novelty Doorbell Turns Prehistoric,” Mlekoday explores the intergenerational experience of migration, of death and change:
….I helped my father move
To a high-rise apartment. Whenever
We turned the radio on, the noise
Came hot and apocalyptic from the speaker
like a slapped cheek in public.
We managed to drive by the old house once.
Its new occupants were waltzing
In our living room. Picture frames
were falling to the floor.
In a different version of the world, in a different time, Vallejo too sought to explain the experience of living and dying in every experienced shard: “The windows shuddered, elaborating a metaphysic of the universe. / Glass fell” (from “The windows shuddered…”), or, “New houses are deader than old ones, for their walls are of stone or steel….a house lives only off men, like a tomb” (from “—No one lives in the house anymore…”). Vallejo turned to art, to writing, in a state of devastation, having looked upon his world and found a humankind suffering, cultures fragmented. He held his own suffering and the suffering of others; he found purpose. He writes, “If my name were not César Vallejo, I would still suffer this pain.”
Mlekoday embraces loss and suffering through hard-knocked kneeling in search for beauty and understanding in his own fragmented world. Closing The Dead Eat Everything with “Self-Portrait, Kneeling,” Mlekoday asks, “Lord, send me work. I have slept enough.” Mlekoday’s world is a steel-hearted city of mirrors where the “halo is more / hard hat than headrest” where we might all be
too human to fade
like static behind the tune of brushfires
and gunshots and trumpets of war,
too much body to stay clean, too much
prayer to leave this ache and exhaust behind.
Somewhere, there is a river sweeping
through a city so ruined, it is perfect