I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast:
A Book Review by Leila A. Fortier
“There are only two kinds of good poems: 1) Poems that make me want to go write. 2) Poems that make me want to quit writing forever.” —Timothy Green, Editor of Rattle
Green’s quote kept resonating through my mind as I read through Melissa Studdard’s newly released book of poems, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast. I felt so inspired to drop everything and submerge myself in my own writing … or put down my pen forever in tribute to the great work that sat before me. Let me digress:
Look through my collection of books at home and you will discover what some consider my nasty little habit of marking up literature. I speak of this habit often to make clear this point: Any book in my possession left unmarked by my hand is either a book I have yet to read, or a book I did not enjoy. My markings and notations are a physical testimony of my admiration; the ways in which literature speaks to me that I never want to forget. Marking my books enables my favorite lines to stand out for reference and inspiration as well as embedding them into memory. Some of my books are heavily marked, while other’s bear scant but distinct notations.
I was already familiar with Melissa Studdard’s work enough to know that I was pretty certain I would enjoy the collection. But would it equal or surpass the work I had come to know? I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast was Studdard’s first book to cross over into the genre of poetry. I had to wonder. Truly, I was not prepared for the breathless impact of her words, which would strike me with such awe and reverie that I do believe I was literally shaking my head in disbelief with the turn of every page.
unfolding town of dark leaves,
birth my tiny, cosmic tongue (I).
From that very first poem to the very last page—I was captivated and enraptured, which was then conflicted with a shameful human propensity toward seeking where the flaw would be. Where is the fault line? I confess to looking for a gap or lack. There’s got to be just one page, I kept insisting as I immersed myself deeper. There’s got to be at least one poem that falls short, I thought to myself. I am embarrassed to admit my quest to find a poem that was less than inspiring. By the last page, I might as well have been surrounded by a scattered sea of emptied highlighters and fountain pens. I kid you not: the entire book from front to back, was marked. I was in a state of elation to the point of feeling bewildered—caught between the two forces Timothy Green described: I either needed to drop everything to go write while I was still high from this inspiration. Or, perhaps I just needed to put down my pen … forever. The book was that good.
Whether to drop everything to write, or to put down my pen forever was further exasperated by the notion of writing this review. Where do I start? I kept thinking. Even some of my most treasured books have pages left untouched by my hand. My ability to write reviews draws heavily on my ritual of marking books. Marked passages tell me where to emphasize a book’s strengths so that I can articulate the impact of the work through my own subjective experience and interpretation. Even now as I write this, I find myself emotionally overwhelmed by my inability to single out the exact words, exact lines, or precise poems that say, Ahhh! Yes! You see? This is why… And so I keep flipping through the pages in search of the perfect example: the poem that declares the entire body of work.
My inability to discriminate between each poem should indicate to the reader just how perfectly honed and crafted is Studdard’s collection into absolute distilled potency. The poems may be given titles to separate, but they stand together on equal ground as a unified whole. Indeed, it is tempting not to write a book in response to the work that would exceed the length of her publication. But lest I seem just some rambling sentimental idiot, let me articulate those elements as a whole, which merit Studdard’s praise.
Most of us as readers and writers alike are aware and forewarned of falling into cliché’s. Perhaps this is one of the challenges in writing poetry today. After all, so much ground has been covered for centuries before us, yet the topics remain the same. How do poets convey the human condition and touch upon universal truths in such a way that it connects the reader directly through the heart line of shared experience in fresh and surprising ways? There is a whole lot of talk in our field about the big no-no of the cliché, yet so many of us are still prone to its vices. Here is what all writers should be asking: Has what I am writing been said before? If it has been said (which it probably has), am I saying it differently?
So there God lay, with her legs splayed,
birthing this screaming world
from her red velvet cleft, her thighs,
cut holy with love
for all things, both big and small
that crept from her womb like an army
of ants on a sugar-coated thoroughfare. (Creation Myth)
Universals are spun but clichés simply do not exist in this book. Moreover, where some poets might lean on beautiful words to create beautiful poems (myself guilty), Studdard has tapped into the song that exists within the ugly and the mundane. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said, “Nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see. On the contrary, everything is sacred.” Studdard knows how to see in just this way, which is why she can incorporate seemingly ugly words like skull and carcass, or mundane words like microwave. Everything in Studdard’s poetry becomes a “galactic vocabulary of kisses.”
Someday I’ll meet you again,
and we’ll sleep like the eyes of hurricanes,
lidless in our treck to taste each other’s tongues (A Prayer)
I Ate the Cosmos also ties together culture, history, and current events into its spirited fabric of contemplation. A rich collection of ekphrastic poems such as “Nirvana,” “Sudden Encounters,” and “Barefoot Rondelet,” inspired by Remedios Varo’s surrealist paintings; “Starry Night, with Socks” and “Killing the Moth” contemplate Pablo Neruda and Vincent van Gogh; and necessary pieces in subtle history such as “They Who See in the Dark,” written for Noor Basra and Noor Sheza, two girls murdered for dancing in the rain. In short, the volume is, in a word: important.
If God is a woman as Studdard posits in her poetry, there is no doubt in my mind that I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast is one of Her many great and ordained creations.
—Leila A. Fortier, Author of Numinous
Melissa Studdard is the author of the bestselling novel Six Weeks to Yehidah; its companion journal, My Yehidah (both on All Things That Matter Press); and The Tiferet Talk Interviews. Her awards include the Forward National Literature Award, the International Book Award, the Readers’ Favorite Award, and two Pinnacle Book Achievement Awards.
Melissa’s poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in dozens of journals and anthologies, including Boulevard, Connecticut Review, Pleiades, and Poets & Writers. In addition to writing, Melissa serves as editorial advisor for The Criterion and a host for Tiferet Talk radio. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence college and is a professor for the Lone Star College System and a teaching artist for The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative.
Leila A. Fortier is a poet, artist, and photographer currently residing in Okinawa, Japan. She is a member of the Alpha Sigma Lambda National Honor Society; pursuing her BFA in creative writing through Southern New Hampshire University. Her sculpted poetry is often accompanied by her own multi-medium forms of art, photography, and spoken performance. The symbolic representation of inner dialog and fluid continuum of her thought processes is demonstrated by her signature use of italics and the tilde. Selections of her work have been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, and German in a growing effort to foster cultural diversity and understanding through the voice of poetry. With over one hundred publishing credits, her work in all its mediums has been featured in a vast array of publications both in print and online. Her forthcoming second book of poetry, Numinous is scheduled to be published by Saint Julian Press in November of 2014. A complete listing of her published works can be found at: