reviewed by Nina Puro
Swan Feast is a map of a city in ruins, an excavation, a homage to the Venus of Willendorf, who serves as a counterpart and a cypher; a frenemy and a wife; an excavation of a buried feminine lineage and a refusal to be complicit in beauty standards that seek to diminish, to whittle; an exploration of the inevitability of complicity and a slow progress toward fully and fearlessly inhabiting a female body.
Reading Swan Feast in swathes is devastating. Eilbert’s poems, taken singly, have a relentless intensity, necessitating gasps to surface for air. The poems together accumulate a prodigious weight that threatens to crush. Hours on a hot roof in Brooklyn summer, day-drinking, sugar and metal in the mouth. Years under soil: the weight of dirt packed on dirt. Both of these experiences together.
The use of the word weight twice is not an accident.
I should note that I know Natalie personally, although we are not particularly close—I’ve never been to her apartment or seen her sob, but we’ve texted and I’m pretty sure I owe her a drink. I should note, too, that we share a deeply troubled history with food and our bodies, and that this history is “troubled” not in the “phase in junior high” way but the “life totally wrecked for years” way. My reading is, thus, colored by this.
What am I trying to say about history? About our histories?
I tried to map the book and kept going underground. Sometimes I was on a train going underground and sometimes it was just in my head. I wrote down: body (interior); excavation; body size; Venus; tomb; ruins; hunger; fire; men; emotions; Gnosticism; cruelty/ ruin in devotion; collapsed wreckage; excavation; burial; dead brother; ruin; mirrors; inner and outer landscapes; the failure of love; repeated command to look.
“I am a hunger / I have a hunger / Feed me full with salt” - Alexis Pope
The standard narrative of anorexia is of a slightly idiotic cheerleader so overenthusiastic about complying with beauty standards that she gets carried away, usually because she’s also afraid of growing up. For me, and, I suspect, for Natalie, it was an effort to subvert everything I was told: an attempt to twist the logic of relentless consumption so far it is turned on its head; a refusal to participate in imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy; a flying leap out of the nest.
“I refused ration.” (28)
Your towers are as dull a fiction as my headdress. How would anyone buy into that gesture. Fool’s city. Esurient shoppers. All the plates scrape clean, that hunger should disgust you more. I’m trapped in the gaze of an open mouth. My form is an open mouth, it is closing in time with the shockless guts which make massive your cities.
The standard narrative is sometimes that an eating disorder is a reaction to trauma. I’ll give them that one.
“A mattress blackened// where my girl-body once lay. […] If, years later, I took men through my bay window, / there was still a hill out back made of all of me smoked.”
Starvation as glut, a violent reaction to violence, a self-perpetuated psychic death.
“Shame may be fatal”- Bhanu Kapil
The standard narrative is of anorexia, then miraculous recovery after a quick hospitalization: not a decade of a half-life, not the warping and shifting of disorders—a slide into bulimia or alcoholism or some other brand of nuts—that everyone I can think of who has been sick for any length of time has experienced.
I’ll fling open these doors like tremendous wind to see my grayed sorceress, stoned and ambling to her straw bed, condensed milk cans strewn at her feet. We have names for such women: yesterday’s newspaper floating in a pool, a single missing fork, the Finnish word for green. I swear I’m the truest Anne of all.
“She could wake up. She could be the kind of girl who woke up.”(64)
It is worth noting that, while many female poets write about their relationships with their bodies, about what it is to have a body and navigate the world, Eilbert writes about the body’s interior more than any other contemporary poet I can think of. This is an internal excavation: not just writing against the male gaze or one’s own gaze in the mirror, but a troubled familiarity with being “a situation of meat” (Maggie Nelson).
“I am so happy for the second I// exist, when I hug this porcelain god for strength, when/ your roundness makes me slight and ordinary./ When my bones are chains of midnight,/ joints that snap and twine.” (36)
Much of this writing about the body is also about the body as a weapon, an uneasy exploration of the valences of using one’s body as a weapon to wield power over men. “My strength disturbs your hearts. It must / From now on / you are only to speak to me bourbon-lipped. I will award you / an amulet: My body on a silver string, against your chest/ heavy, unable to snap.” (40).
There is a cruelty that is particularly feminine, an interrogation of the power in violence. There is mythologizing in a way that is more Ursula than Tinkerbell, e.g. more sea witch than forest sylph. These myths are not cute. These myths eat men like air.
“Leave me my materials, my histrionics.” (47)
“Suffer the nice girl, snort her frankincense down // with our normal animal cruelties. Yesterday I played my navel / like a bent harp until the sky stood up” (48)
While the speaker is, of course, not the poet, and “V.,”the Venus character is not “N.,” the protagonist, she also is. Eilbert uses the “language of smug privilege” (90) to an extent I become slightly squeamish—I’m a bit annoyed by both this and her malice—yet I’m compelled to continue. (“this house is endless/ the guest list unbearable” ) “V.” and “N.” have an uneasy relationship, and their arguments remind me of the interior self-berating dialogue that fuels most women I know. (I throw up buttercream / in a nearby Dumpster I just can’t keep up with her appetite )
It’s how we get shit done.
Maggie Nelson writes, about depictions of cruelty in women, “Most obviously, there is self-vanquishing, sometimes to the point of mutilation…But girls can be very good at something else. They can be good at exposing the cruelties of others. And one disturbing subset of this talent involves the creation of scenarios that give others the option, or the opportunity, to behave cruelly.”
“Names are given to everything / that will ruin, even you one day. Let a man decree you venus and watch // what happens.” (37)
One of Eilbert’s favorite tap-dances is an extended torsion of logic—piling a cumulative sequence of clauses together in a way that can be difficult to follow but, once parsed, suddenly convince the reader of something they had forgotten they knew.
A song memorized in childhood, forgotten.
I am forever barefoot for the worms to wriggle my soft female skin. To be butter, to be the wolf in heat: now a cloud forms over the lake to welcome nothing, a family in blind procession. Means someone I love will die. Means I will walk from a distance toward a man with a shovel. Know that I have cracked the skin of love to discuss what patterns of body fit that liminal space where I fever. There is a certainty in the wings of a bat. In the house I can think of nothing but home’s symbol.
The Venus of Willendorf is, of course, a religious symbol beloved by Wiccans, Goth kids, and fans of Marion Zimmer Bradley. Eilbert’s text could be read as a religious palimpsest, a Gnostic gospel for the falling empire, a tract of a worship that is self-created, not indoctrinated or borne of obligation.
I start to imagine the Venus of Willendorf in terms of aesthetic scale: today a woman decorates her house and incorporates African masks to give the space a pan-cultural design and no one thinks to stop this. The Venus is about four inches in height, and I think a mistake in thinking of her now is the impulse to consider her beauty. We see a naked torso of a woman and think to worship it, but it isn’t worship what we’re doing we’re checking emails we’re responding we’re filing resignations into the dirt.
Anorexia, of course, is a private religion, a kind of secret magic whose rituals are self-imposed, whose prayers are repeated fervently and constantly revised.
“I can train my hunger to do anything, and it listens./ My hunger a fertility goddess rising/ under a calcium balm to son and son forever.// Trace my desires on a bonemap; I am yours./ There is nothing but air between my thighs.” (25)
It’s a system of worship that, like Judaism and Paganism, is passed on matrilineally, requires perpetual study, and carries an unremitting danger of persecution. *
“For days I repeated a proverb about poverty and thieves./ At night I would mouth the words for all the songs never// written in my most golden voice. I ate food from my palm/ gargoyle-crouched over a familiar ledge.” (29)
Two of the book’s three blurbs compare Eilbert to Plath, a comparison I find interesting because, as Maggie Nelson “lest we forget, to be called the Sylvia Plath of anything is a bad thing" (The Art of Cruelty)
When did Plath become a bad word?
Confessionalism gets a bad rap, in part because it is often a gender-based criticism--- it’s a vague, accusatory catch-all. Borderline personality disorder is to mental illness as confessionalism is to poetry.
I don’t feel confessionalism is inherently histrionic or lazy, but it does magnify and mythologize pain.
Which is to ask: does understanding and illustrating suffering transcend it? Is it useful? Does it heal?
Dorothea Lasky writes, in a course description for a class called “Beyond Confessionalism: A Poetics of the Everyday,” that she and her students will be “seeking to uncover how and why moving forward the term confessionalism does and does not apply to their poetry and how we might revise a consideration of their writing more as a kind of poetics of the everyday, which examines and exalts the beauty of experiential living and the workaday imagination as fodder for the poem” and that the goal is to “engage on a widening path of what their own work can do and to use the course as a way to revise their thinking and engagement with a burgeoning poetics that seeks not to just rehash on old memories on the page, but to use the space of the poem to make new ones.”
That one is “Rehash[ing] on old memories on the page” is, perhaps, the danger of confessionalism.
Plath’s Achilles heel may have been this, and that in doing this, she myopically held her pain and her memories as more important than others’ pain. Eilbert’s “persona” doesn’t make this move: she is fallible, and she digs her grossest worms out of her guts and holds them to the light. At certain points, I’m not sure I trust her or her “bored blood” or the figure she’s using as a cypher. She is not likeable—in fact, I find myself a little afraid of her. It is not just that Eilbert has created an unlikeable or untrustworthy character to serve as an punching-bag exemplar or coy craft trick. Rather, she has eviscerated her own narcissism, cruelty, and privilege as an embedded condition of being herself, that is, raised female in Long Island in late capitalism, a victim of trauma, white, Jewish, a writer, etc. This, in itself, is a radical act and speaks to her gifts.
The worry is always whether my indulgence like a regular subject-predicate is universal. The worry is whether the scope of my writing now rests too firmly on autobiography and the sexual violence of autobiography. Does the writing inure itself to the act, does it inflict too much falsity around the feelings, and what exactly even is a trigger. I will not indulge I will not indulge I will not indulge.[…] I’m not sure if this body is mine.
Throughout the text, the fear that one is not profound or special is implicit. There’s a willingness to self-examine this that is markedly absent in most of the books by young [straight cis white financially secure] poets I’ve read. “Look how the decades suture panic to every hissing swan./ There’s so much religion in the tall grass along the highway edge,// I’ll wear the skull of every smashed raccoon until I feel as immortal/ as I am. I am so immortal. In all these years I said nothing profound.” (50)
Maggie Nelson writes, about Plath, “One may love, respect, and admire the work, but one may not always feel like hanging out in its little room, or feeling the press of its walls. One may have to be, as they say, in the mood. In Plath’s case, I don’t see this airlessness as the mark of any reprehensible shortcoming (be it chemical, moral, or aesthetic), but more likely a result of the fact that she died too young to explore the voluptuousness or complexity of her cruelty, much less to ventilate it.”
I would say the same is true for Eilbert.
Thankfully, she’s alive.
The historical complexity of the Venus figurine is imbued with the tides of exploration and commerce: follow the sugar, follow the flesh. Eilbert’s living body navigating space is tied to shuttling it to a desk in a city and sitting at it for a certain number of hours in order to survive.
It’s not an accident that a workman found the Venus, or that an archeologist named Josef Szombathy is given the credit, or that it was carved of limestone not from the region, or that it passed through a countless number of hands before it became housed in a museum, lit by glass, or that it was found in a sedimentary deposit from a river, or that it was nicknamed “Vénus impudique" or “immodest Venus” “in a tone of mocking irony,” or that today, it is now called the Woman of Willendorf by archeologists.
“Logistics somehow knows that it is not true that we do not yet know what flesh can do. There is a social capacity to instantiate again and again the exhaustion of the standpoint as undercommon ground that logistics knows as unknowable, calculates as an absence that it cannot have but always longs for, that it cannot, but longs, to be or, at least, to be around, to surround. Logisitics senses this capacity as never before – this historical insurgent legacy, this historicity, this logisticality, of the shipped.” (Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study)
The G to the L train is hardly the Middle Passage, of course, but as Anne Boyer writes, “I have had all sorts of stupid bad luck lately but it is with this that I have composed from shreds of dire circumstances a ‘paycheck’ curating chimeras of mammals and entropy. A guy walks the streets he’s a flaneur. A woman walks the streets she’s a whore. PLEASE REPEAT. A guy walks the streets he’s a flaneur. A woman walks the streets she’s a whore.” (The 2000s)
I tried to map the book and kept going underground.
How do you map the aftermath of the blast? (There is no document/ of civilization that isn’t also its ruins. )
I live in Brooklyn, near a train line that is at that point elevated. I work in Brooklyn, near a train line that is at that point elevated. Much of my time spent underground is spent transferring in Manhattan from one train to another train. This is also, not coincidentally, much of my time spent in Manhattan.
In telling you this, I am trying to say something about my relationship with power: I like to slip under it. I don’t want to go up. I am inexorably aware of what’s up there.
*Caveat for idiots: eating disorders are not cool or spiritual, do not make one holy, and do not come from a sacred tradition, much less comprise a legitimate religion.