As a poet, and a self-identified fat woman, reading Samantha Zighelboim’s debut collection The Fat Sonnets (Argos Book 2018), felt like a strange kind of recognition––I felt seen. Often, when I finish a book of poems my first instinct is to recommend it far and wide to everyone I know. When I finished this book, though, I felt vulnerable and exposed, as if placing these poems into another’s hands was akin to confession, or letting a stranger open my cupboard and root around in my snacks and groceries. But that is exactly what The Fat Sonnets want. They are inviting us in, offering us a plate, letting us chew and swallow and digest their images and fantasies. Zighelboim trusts us to know it’s not just about the food. In writing this, I am trying to trust you, too.
Throughout the collection, the fat female body is displayed and scrutinized. The poems are both tender and grotesque as they move in and out of the corporeal world––shifting from take-out menu orders, to dreamscapes with whales, to fantasy lunches, to photographs. The balance of these apparently disparate images works because each is shared with a terrible and matter-of-fact intimacy. Reading them is akin to re-reading your old diary––nothing is held back and yet it still stings with surprise.
In one of her untitled poems that are dispersed throughout the book she writes, “We come from a place where there are secret freezers filled with elegant cakes,//and the cookie jars are refilled with good intentions every night, then strictly monitored” (22-23). We see in these sparse words––placed in the center of two separate pages, swallowed up by white space––some of the tension that the collection as a whole is exploring. The tantalizing and the untouchable. Desire and discipline. This poem is also an invitation to anyone who isn’t part of that “we.” If you don’t understand fat, the poem seems to say, here is where we live. Here is our home.
Another one of these small revelatory untitled poems reads (in its entirety):
My entire life
a fat woman
trying to be
a skinny woman.
What is striking about this micro-poem is not so much the emotion being communicated––the alienation from one’s own body––but rather the lack of a value judgement given to this feeling. The brevity gives us permission to accept it without parsing whether this is good or bad. In other words, Zighelboim divorces the notion of should from the speaker in this poem, instead offering us only what is.
This is not to say, however, that the speaker(s) in these poems do not engage in self-interrogation. In her poem “SLEEPING BY THE LION CARPET,” which is one part ekphrastic and one part critique of Lucian Freud’s paintings of and commentary on Sue Tilly (commonly known as “Big Sue”) Zighelboim writes about the fat woman lounging naked on a sofa, “…she looks something other than human, some deformed vessel of flesh. How curious” (50). But then, only a few lines later, reflects:
Why do I not see her. Is it because no one thinks of a fat woman first, and I am just as guilty? Or maybe because I look at her
and I see my own untamed body, can even feel my wide rippled thighs sticking to the leather as I sweat and fidget, and I just can’t bear to look––in the way that I often avoid mirrors or reflections.
Even as the speaker tells us she “often avoids mirrors” she draws herself for us, implicates herself and us in the guilt of looking at, but not thinking of, fat women. But again, the speaker (and the poet) do not offer us a should, rather, she shows us behind the curtain, into the pantry. Do you see? Do you understand now? If you are what you eat, and if I have digested this book properly, I know that I am at least a little bit braver now. Maybe even a little more honest.
Roseanna Alice Boswell is a queer poet from Upstate New York. Her work has appeared in: RHINO Poetry, The Boiler, and elsewhere. Roseanna holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University, and is currently a Ph.D. student at Oklahoma State University. Find her on Twitter @swellbunny posting about feminism and her love of exclamation marks.