With its cosmic imagery and frank emotionalism, Melissa Studdard’s poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast (Saint Julian Press, 2013), seems to me to exemplify an American strand of neo-Romanticism which is lacking in much contemporary English poetry.
This kind of neo-Romanticism is not naive, idealistic or simplistic: it self-consciously mixes the sublime and cosmic with the mundane. Studdard in particular is alive to the sublimity of the everyday, such that ‘washing clothes ... is an act of prayer’ and a ‘starry night’ is seen wearing ‘socks.’ This isn’t just self-conscious bathos: rather, it represents an awareness of the poetic overlap between sublime and apparently banal; there is a Romanticism, the poems seem to say, in laundry: ‘Your atoms have come to worship / and rejoice at the temple of the familiar,’ Studdard writes. As Alan Bennett – ironically that most seemingly ‘English’ of writers – puts it in Writing Home, ‘Ordinary middle-aged men in raincoats can be instruments of the sublime.’ The sublime, that is, can be found in ‘reality TV’ and ‘the coffeemaker’s drip.’
Studdard’s poetry is also alive to the political, more radical tradition of Romanticism: after all, Romantic poets of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-centuries such as Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley did not just write about nature, the cosmos, beauty – rather, they did so to express politically radical notions; and Studdard continues this tradition. God is ‘she’ throughout the collection, and these are feminist poems, which also engage convincingly with gay politics (for example, in ‘For two conversion therapists who fell in love and became gay activists’). The poems often trace lost matrilinear narratives, within paintings, across history, in religion; in a wonderful poem called ‘Tithing,’ for example, Studdard traces spiritual connections from her own dreams and poetry back to the twelfth-century poet, composer and mystic Hildegard of Bingen:
In my dreams I speak the language of your visions
lingua ignota of the milky sky ....
you are the tithe to above from a bankrupt world;
you are the ten per cent that earns our human keep.
Here is a matrilinear tradition of Romanticism, of the visionary artist – a counter-tradition which pre-dates the Romantic poetry of Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley by centuries.
About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, lecturer, editor and critic. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.