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Issue 19, April-June 2012
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Mad for Meat by Kevin Simmonds
County Clare, Ireland: Salmon Poetry, 2011
Reviewed by Zara Raab

These are the poems of a young, gay, black, Southern male from a religious family, coming of age in the closing decade of the 20th Century. Their themes are the sexual proclivities, courtship rituals, politics, family heritage, music, and yes, carnivorous habits of his generation and culture, both inherited and adopted. The book’s marvelous title gets glancing reference in at least three poems: In “Gift,” a man divines the future by reading cuts of meat rather than tea leaves; in “Inheritance,” the poet is left “toothless/mad/for meat” when his mother leaves what should have been his inheritance to a senile stepfather; in “Bad Catholics,” a mother serves meat to her numerous boys and men even during Lent, as a coping mechanism. 

Bad Catholics 

We kept the butcher’s block bloody
through Lent

Calm coming over us like gravy
at the sight of pot roast

A strew of slowed cognition
we were blunt in our surrender

Five boys & a husband
mom knew to do this decades ago
& kept an eye on the butcher
his tender wrists & special discounts

whenever dad made the trip alone
to bring home the lamb

swaddled in white paper
& marked 

Simmonds is often at his best doing what many American poets do so well, writing autobiography––skipping the ideal for the un-troped, un-rhetorical actual, to borrow from Dan Chiasson––autobiography in which the various strands of race and sexual identity entwine even in early childhood. Simmonds is adept, capturing the subtle nuances of different social realities inevitable to a black child growing up in New Orleans, and his grasp of what can be for some the emotional underpinnings of a homosexual identity is astute and moving. “Something Owed” in the poem of that title is both a mother’s debt to a man for his attentiveness to her young son, and, ironically the debt the man whom that boy became has to the man for his pedophiliac restraint, the way he “serenaded himself inside his herringbone trousers” without demanding much more than the boy’s presence. And in the poem “bouquet of scalpels,” the poet imagines castrating his father, and giving “the wound finally/a mouth/a smile on each wrist” 

i could castrate him
he who led me to doubt
black men could love

observe him without seed
his rightful & clean erection
observe as meat falls

there would be no lesson in that

i take cover
in another man’s body
as he takes cover
in mine 

I met Simmonds one summer a couple of years ago, when I rode with him up to Squaw Valley for the poets’ retreat there, and we’ve stayed in touch by email in an occasional, lazy sort of way. I know he’s a handsome young man, which is perhaps why his understanding of regret and shame in some poems took me by surprise, regret often being a taste in an older person’s mouth. But “Our mistakes [are] mouthwatering rich/ in regret/ daily allowances to break /down swallow keep /down,” the young Simmonds writes in “Cud.” The prose poem “Tornado” enacts a scene of incest in a fallout shelter during a tornado, when the poet’s brother molests him and “though I couldn’t see his face to know anything for sure, I bet his lazy eye would no longer be his greatest shame.” “July in St. Helena” further reveals Simmonds’s knack for chronicling the ways people affect each other:

what’s sweat without the breeze
my stepfather would say
in his wide brimmed hat staring
at how delicate I would always be
how scared he was of that 

Many of these poems are rife with sexual imagery, energy and evidences of promiscuity characteristic, perhaps, of young people displaced from their original environments, and free and able to travel the coasts and the world, as Simmonds has done. Simmonds does not flinch for the actual, often gritty, physical embodiments of experience. In “Tenor,” the fatherless boy becomes a faggot looking for his father in the urinals:

left to wonder
he images how
to build a father
a father needs to be seduced
at the urinals
sure you’ll swallow
after the fuck
even the shit on the tip

In “Little Dolly Parton,” the poet says, “I saw men I wanted to be//The goateed drama teacher/ in grade school//the Jeri curled choir director//the Jesuit priest at Corpus Christi.” Simmonds also writes about the gay scene in New York City and Harlem, in San Francisco, where he now lives, and in various Asian cities where he has traveled. In “Saigon,” the poet goes to a masseuse in that city and confesses, “I’ve come for the metaphor about the entrance/Golden Smile / And isn’t this why we fought in Vietnam // the commerce between us / baby oil unifying skins / the opal of us shimmering / before my shot of silver.”

Simmonds’s use of image and metaphor is striking and original, with only an occasional lapse or misstep. The grammar of the prose poem “Summer, 1982” leaves it unclear, and in the prose poem “Witnesses,” I wanted more from the poet. The latter poem describes the visits of Watchtower evangelicals to his childhood home in the French quarter of New Orleans. “Momma would shush me as we watched them. . . . Momma never said anything bad about them. She just taught me to wait out the truth” (italics mines). I have an idea of what’s meant here, but I would rather know, more precisely and directly.

It isn’t surprising that a handful of poems by Simmonds, who was raised in New Orleans, feature music, especially the great black vocalists and singers like Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and Leontyne Price, as well as the popular singer Eartha Kitt, as well as Dolly Parton. Simmonds’s religious upbringing provides another recurring theme and a backdrop to several poems. “Plots” warns against tracts, “plots too narrow/for living men” and urges the reader to “bolt from anyone/gripping one.” “Sermon” is another poem on this theme: “Our cellular bodies are prosthetic to spirit.”

Simmonds doesn’t neglect the politics and history of being black. A poem like “twang” vividly enacts racial fear and the threat lynching posed for blacks in the South. So deep-seated is the fear that when his mother hears “the tight strings of a banjo,” she immediately tenses. “Book Lover’s Minutes” describes the decision of black men to boycott the Charleston State Fair in 1946. There are also poems about Oscar Grant III and Emmett Till. The background of many of these poems is clear enough, but this volume would have been helped by end notes to clarify certain details for the reader. The poem about Denmark Vesey, the Charleston freed slave whose planned rebellion was thwarted by tattlers in 1822, is a case in point. The poem is called “Charleston Inferno,” and the name “Denmark” is mentioned in the poem, but I had to do a little research to learn the circumstances of this short, powerful poem. Denmark’s testament, Simmonds writes with a typical striking metaphor, was “the slipped halo round his throat.”

Order Mad for Meat from your favorite Indie Bookseller
Order Swimming the Eel  from your favorite Indie Bookseller 
Zara Raab lives in Berkeley, but she grew up on the North Coast, where her ancestors farmed, raised cattle and harvested tan oak. Her poems appear in River Styx, Crab Orchard Review, Evansville Review, and elsewhere. Her most recent book is Swimming the Eel (David Robert Books, 2011).