if there has ever been a place
in my heart for the eater
the heart is a brain
at the supermarket
in my brain I am the greeter
and you wear a nametag, a red vest,
and you are the boss.
Together, we watch
the cottony tentacles of the storm
reach down to scrape the parking lot.
Swallowed in a drab gray ocean.
Soaking in one unbroken
(this is simply the heart speaking, dressed as a brain)
eater of souls. of dice. of bones. we’re side by side
when the eater washes over, dissolving
trains, the fish market, you
who never believe anything I say.
Review by Michael Derrick Hudson
I am not entirely sure what is going on with Adam Phillips’ poem “the eater” but this is not a complaint. The presentation is, for all its apparent simplicity, meticulous and the poem has for me what John Berryman called “imperial sway.” And yet it is funny – the brain as a Big Box Store with a greeter in a red vest. This conceit is handled directly, but without overkill – such an admirable economy here.
And then there’s that wonderful, doomy ending. It is hard to pull off something like “eater of souls. of dice. of bones…” without sounding like what heavy metal rock LP covers used to look like. But it is pulled off here – “we’re side by side” has such a nice, matter-of-fact (and frightening) sound that it undercuts (but not completely) those souls and bones. The final “you // who never believe anything I say” also undercuts, but the rest of the poem is so creepy, so authoritative that this reader didn’t believe the unbeliever. I was still scared.
The line and stanza breaks deserve a mention as well. Many free verse poems have a tough time with the breaks – so many of them straggled on down the page randomly, causing what energy is generated by the words to dissipate. Especially in a poem such as this one, where the diction is so basic, the line and stanza breaks have to do a lot of the work. Phillips is obviously aware of this. Without the attention paid here, this poem could very well have turned into one of those little awful late-period somethings by W. S. Merwin that get published in The New Yorker on a regular basis.
My complaints are scant. I loved the “cottony tentacles” of the storm, but I’d rather they hadn’t “scraped” the parking lot, the “cottony” thereby being contradicted and diminished. Also, I was distracted by the random acts of capitalization. I would’ve preferred keeping the typography standard, not being a fan of all lower case typography — it seems to draw unnecessary attention to itself (and I’d include e. e. cummings here too). By mixing cap and no-cap here, I felt I was forced to notice something that I shouldn’t have had to notice. Fortunately the poem was too strong for this to be more than a minor distraction.
Review by Laurinda Lind
This heart/brain dichotomy (which is how I read this—maybe I’m wrong) is an interesting dialectic with a great ending about viability and credibility where “you” can mean the heart, the reader, or maybe even the poet himself.