Michael Mlekoday: The Dead Eat Everything, Including this Review

student_photo_153_1313092151First course: some “bathtub gin,” Baba’s dice left on the kitchen table, all the malt liquor poured out for loved ones.

Second course: the roughage of “every page of the bible” to cleanse the pallet.

The main course, the whole enchilada: “a city so ruined, it is perfect” with julienned pit bull—a mornay of “gunmetal and mulch” on the side.

And for dessert: something that melts in your mouth, “a four-fingered ring that says DOPE”.

By the end of the meal that Mlekoday serves you in his first collection, The Dead Eat Everything, winner of the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize, you won’t, “say: Your mama’s so fat. Instead:  // Your mama’s never made winter soup out of her dead husband…” A one-liner that rings like an ice-cold hip hop lyric, a genre that Mlekoday feels comfortable wandering in and out of.

The Dead Eat Everything, pulls in as much of “the block,” “the neighborhood” as it can to articulate the book’s main intention, to represent.

To poem-heads that word, “represent,” means something like the depicted world of the poems, in a more analytical sense, a rendition of truth, and more importantly, to Urbandictionary.com, “A phrase showing acknowledgement to one’s background, home, social group, or original place of residence.”

This definition is most applicable, but I have to include a few alternative meanings: “A word that has been so overused in rap songs, that it has lost all meaning,” and “To annoy others with your presence. An activity often carried out by ‘playaz’,” as in “Here we be, in Antarctica, representin’ to all the penguins.”

I cannot help but notice that The Dead Eat Everything is on the defensive. “Thaumaturgy” is not quite sure  if you are aware that it was not raised in the suburbs where “It’s all sunburns and shrubbery.” To be sure, this book has never, “climbed a tree / and thought, Wow.” “Self Portrait, July” wants to make this irreverence clear: “Fresh water is to salt water as / fuck that, I grew up in the inner city.” The book’s street cred lust isn’t lessened by its hesitance, as in, “Not to say I was hard, but”—but, but you are saying you’re hard, so…

Perhaps a collection of poetry isn’t the best place to establish street cred. All the pits and the 40s and the “gunshot vernacular” add up to a certain kind of glorification or fascination with poverty, the poor, the violence suggested there in.

To redeem itself, The Dead Eat Everything makes a few moves toward self-awareness. In “Maker” the poem reveals, “Fallacy is the mistake I / live by, the pathetic worship / of the porch”. The obsession is acknowledged. In “Genealogy” we get some poking fun at the self, “All of my girlfriends have tattoos / in languages they cannot speak.” In these small moments another, possibly more honest, narrative pokes through: a struggle with one’s idealizations.

In “Home Remedies” we get the Old World grandmother’s instructions on benedictions and maledictions:

I was always better with the curses.
The way they had to be dragged
from the body, the odor
of sea salt stuck in the breath,
how they kicked the heart
like the pop of a burnt out light bulb.

The family narrative of The Dead Eat Everything, of loss and estrangement, is what “kicked the heart” for me the most. I am, of course, also impressed with the force that Mlekoday takes to his language, how he pushes us through an image or a moment—how we start at a curse and arrive at the sound of light bulb going out, somehow ominous and warm.

This book is really about, I think, a loss of place. A place once defined so much by its subjects who are now, one way or another, gone. That “block,” that “neighborhood” from one’s childhood is changed. In a lot of cities, we see these places “developing,” “gentrifying,” or being abandoned. While I don’t think the book has to have an answer for this, I think it should consider a more complicated perspective, try to discover something in the flaws of its brass-knuckle-and-40 logic.

By Elizabeth Petersen