Monster. From the Latin root “monere,” meaning to warn. The word gained a kind of terror as it lumbered through Latin and into old French (where “monstre” also idiomatically describes a huge task, as in un travail monstre), and by the time it finally smashed its way into the English-speaking world, it was ripe with its bloody, modern meaning: a hideous being, often a freak of nature, coming right at you with either debased or dangerous intentions. The dark can be monstrous. So can the dead. So why is author M. Brent Gaffney devoting an entire chapbook to feeding such monsters?
The pages of “Feeding the Dead” are chock-full of them, and not the generic I-want-to-hurt-you kind. Her monsters are hungry. Vampires wanting blood, zombies wanting brains, and sweet hellhounds roaming dark neighborhoods in search of homes they haven’t known, food they haven’t killed. It is a remarkably consistent and approachable collection, the literary equivalent of Chiara Bautista’s art. Here, hunters pick out stars from the hides of wolves before they skin them, each día is of los muertos, and packs of adolescent hyena girls roam locker rooms in search of weaker peers to eat. From the title poem:
Her name is Maria, comida.
They eat her a little at a time.
She likes to be needed, to feel her blood
ebb and flow from their mouths,
tongues like whales lost at sea.
She travels with them, a shadow,
city to city, sneaking them pockets
of herself on the train, offering
her slender wrists
like holy bread in taxi cabs.
Gaffney’s monsters become metaphors for hunger, and that hunger becomes in turn a metaphor for any number of transformations: the make-believe made real, the meal made flesh, the child turned adolescent, the predator become prey. “This is where it happens. This is where faith goes to die, to emerge from the ashes something hungrier.” Here, the poems take place almost exclusively at night, or else in the half-lights of dawn and dusk (i.e. breakfast and dinner). This is a masterful choice. Monsters are always scarier when you can’t see them, and Gaffney’s literary transformations remain incomplete and ambiguous without daylight to complete the circle:
Meanwhile cars hum on the highway,
semis on routes they remember like a fawn’s
first earful of buckshot. Little white crosses
ghost the shoulder of the road like a fence
and the midnight trucker has learned their names
by now. Rosie. Nathaniel. Jerome. Jesus—
their memorial roses bloom in a flash of headlights.
But in the sun, the flowers are plastic,
wooden markers rotten from rain.
One of Gaffney’s greatest gifts as a writer lies in her ability to pen devastating closing lines; to reveal any of them out-of-sequence here would be a crime. It’s enough to say that her poems, so steeped in the subject of transfiguration to begin with, tend to turn a third corner with their final breath. And while it isn’t obvious at first just why Gaffney is feeding the dead, consider this: While the word monster might have stumbled out of Rome as a warning, its root, “monere,” can also mean to instruct — to teach, or give a sign. There are lessons in this chapbook. But only for those who brave each poem all the way to the end, who resist the enchantments of a gifted wordsmith, and who fail to heed the warning signs.
Editor, Rust + Moth
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More of M. Brett Gaffney’s work can be found online at: