Melissa Broder, Last Sext (Tin House, 2016)

Melissa Broder has a thing for vomit, but then who doesn’t? There’s a lot of it in her latest book of poems, Last Sext, whose single subject is Melissa Broder. The pronoun I turns up, to a casual count, 369 times. She’s even into autosarcophagy. Prurient, hyperbolic, unburdened of punctuation, the poems – despite their provocative idiom and inner necessity to avow – are at times surprisingly soporific, like in “Cesarean”:

They dress me up in beautiful robes
And quiet me up with cocks
And teach me how to vomit
Until I go mistaking pleasure for joy
And forget the husk completely

Broder’s poems are repetitive. You should know this. One of the poet’s favorite rhetorical devices is polysyndeton (using conjunctions in rapid succession) and it’s smartly used (like her initial capitalization) to not only help a reader confront the loss of control that punctuation affords, but to convey the poet's tawdry solemnity:

And how I begged him enter there
My broken young man parts
And how I let the mystery collapse
With rugged young man puncture
And how I begged him turn me pegasus colors
And please to put a sunset there
And gone forever was my feeling snake

This is from the poem “Lunar Shatters” and it’s about a speaker that “came into the world a young man” but got dealt a “flattened lap." Like this poem, most of the work in Last Sext is formally monochromatic, relying heavily on parallelisms, a feature of Hebrew poetry that Broder's work is in woolly dialogue with. In regards to stanzas (that structure through which, say, a sentence can delightfully unfurl and contract) they're non-existent and her enjambments have the nimbleness of marble (although you’ll find a hidden jewel from time to time: “And the women have not stopped crying/Throughout history”) and while lines occasionally fall into a recognizable pattern of sound (“And how I begged him enter there” is perfect iambic tetrameter) and phrases repeat themselves with a certain alchemic élan (“Fine when I don’t want love/Fine when I don’t want love”), Broder's interests in the musical complexities of poetry are mostly confined to knots of individual words, like in “Soft Palate”:

Damning the ocean with bones
And glittery mirrors and minigods
She goes to the big ocean
God says don’t drown
She says float me

In Last Sext, Broder's antenna only picks up a few frequencies. She writes a lot about identity, the body, and death. Of identity, it’s fluid, of the body, it has holes, and of death, it’s everywhere. A mixed bag of Dionysian wine and biblical darkness is dumped into every poem whose slanted grotesqueries pile up like bodies in a makeshift morgue. Her universe is a haphazard one. Gods (and God) come and go, and as in "Dust Moan," love and violence are never far apart:

A love that should not exist on earth
I am in the wrong love or on the wrong planet
I am already heaven or maybe illusion
Can people tell how mirage I am?
How is love supposed to look and feel?
I half-ask god but am scared to hear
Hide the seams of prism children I am
So I do not have to kill them all

Broder's temperament is religious and nihilistic, an incongruity that is the book’s unsettling DNA. After eighty pages, it dawns on a reader how much she leaves out of her poems. Hers is a narrow and wounded poetry; all raw hallucinations delivered in half-gorked clauses ("Stop not blowing the conch/Be a chilhood ok?") and little else: cultural detritus, landscape (urban or otherwise), everyday strangeness – all missing in action. Social life has been essentially erased (although a group of farting homeless men make an appearance) and the inner life is excoriated. Instead of scenes of human community, we get references to faeries, centaurs, and glitter. If you’re a teenager who likes to draw dragons you’ll probably enjoy Last Sext. Broder is a chthonic mess through and through, especially in the poem “Liquid Arrows.” For those watching at home, think True Blood, season 2: 

I was nine, eleven, thirteen
My breasts came in and there were seven pubic hairs on
    my mound
Bacchus came and laced my cup with serum
A sleeping serum?
No a vomiting serum
In the field I felt that I would vomit
Bacchus sat me on his lap facing the sunset
My legs straddled his knee
The pressure of his knee and the pleasure of the coming
My seven pubic hairs
The hands of Bacchus clasped around my stomach
My stomach fat but Bacchus didn’t care
So my stomach thin
Bacchus put his fingers down my throat to help the vomit

You have to give Broder credit: by mythologizing puberty (have pubic hairs ever been quantified like this before?) and pairing it with divine purging, she pushes the lyric to new heights by dragging it to new lows. But that’s the whole point of course: to make the lewd transcendent. The body, the poet seems to have concluded, is one giant clickhole to celestial awakening. Her imagination is piquant and rare, but limited, and there’s nothing a reader can do about it. In a scene of pagan pedophilia that is both ridiculous and captivating, “Liquid Arrows” finally ends by equating barfing with ritual ecstasy:

Bacchus said he wanted to hear my stomach scream
I screamed and screamed until I had no more screams
Then I began singing
This was joy

Last Sext would fit nicely in the gift shop at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, next to the human head cutting boards and plush chlamydia toys. You’d like to say you never know what’s coming next in a Broder poem, but you kind of do, and you wonder if she’s capable of even surprising herself. Her speaker is a holy pyrographer that can't stop declaring things like “And I am coming for your spirit”, “I am a fuck demon in a fuck castle”, “I will make the rain stop”, “My pussy tastes like pussy”, “The worms will bone their ghostdicks in my scalp”. It’s one thing when a poet is louche, but reading a poetry both louche and predictable is like watching someone masturbate to a mirror. A relentless recycler of the same words (if I rest my eyes on want again I’ll carve help into my arm), her poetry has a way of exhausting the reader, not only with the redundancy of its nightmare, but that we wait so long in vain to profit from it.

And yet, Broder sounds like no one writing today, which isn't easy because she writes like a lot of poets: tell-don't-show, anti-sentence, keep things to one page. But her hardihood semantics and their taxing effect upon a reader can't be matched. While her vocabulary is simple - the most exotic word to appear in Last Sext is cotillion - she nails the celebrated triad of cursing in English: references to religion, effluvia, and sex are ubiquitous and often those references are pushed against more genteel word-choices. The results are disturbing and odd. In one poem ("Boring Angel") angel wings nearly touch bloodstained sheets. The asperities of Broder's poetry, rather than invite, agitate the reader because we involuntarily wince at her imprecations:

I look to the shitdoors for love
Because they glitter
O the glittery shit
So much more magnetic than what
I have inside me
Inside me is more shit
But not glittery
Though below the shit is maybe a fucking temple
And when one shitdoor closes
You must build another shitdoor
From the dregs of reality and shitmind
O bless those dregs

When you blow glitter across shit, fucking, and temple, a reader not only reacts to the meanings of those words, but to their connotations as well. Shit and fucking (never mind shitdoor which invokes anus) are not only taboo words to see and hear, they also point to zones upon the body where disease and the erotic intersect. As a result, they arouse in us, among other things, emotions associated with repulsion and pleasure. Combine those connotations with glitter (magic; innocence) and temple (divine; worship), and we're unpleasantly paralyzed as we're attracted to and repelled by the contradictory surface of the poem. In "Cadaver Lamb," the poem seems to test this point:

Humans speak god
I am one of those humans
Many ugly things
Blood head skull hole
Milk mouth teeth rot
Sun hair dick suck
Mother water egg eye
Ugly and real
Ugly and real
I don’t want to share
My life with anything real
God is real
I am trying to get better
What does that mean?

Although I doubt a reader will ever glimpse their own life in a Broder poem, they'll certainly sense what's beneath it and while she's not one of our most balletic poets writing today, she's one of our most forceful. In Yeat’s essay on William Blake, he writes, “The limitation of his [Blake’s] view was from the very intensity of his vision; he was a too literal realist of the imagination, as others are of nature; and because he believed that the figures seen by the mind’s eye, divine essences, he hated every grace of style that might obscure their lineaments.” Similar can be said of Broder whose visions are faithful to the turbulence of one spirit. Our prophets are always uncompromising and stubborn. It's what makes them miraculous and flawed.  


Brenda Shaughnessy, So Much Synth (Copper Canyon, 2016)