the only flesh to feed you, by Brendan Walsh

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(Yellowjacket Press, 2018)

Brendan Walsh’s latest chapbook, the only flesh to feed you, runner up in YellowJacket Press’ Florida chapbook competition, is a lyrical exploration of how science can inform poetry to better help us understand the complexities of human nature. Like in his previous collection, Buddha vs. Bonobo, Walsh uses the animal kingdom as a foil to explore the wants and desires that drive all living beings, including humans.

The study of science often seeks to reveal the secrets of nature to humankind. In the only flesh to feed you, we watch as the speaker—through the voices of various animal species—discovers his own secret nature and explores his own desires and contradictions. Walsh’s poetic project does enormous work to undo toxic masculinity and heteronormativity. In these pages, we see a partnership that continues the dream of a matriarchal society, like the one Walsh explores in Buddha vs. Bonobo. Oftentimes, the female partner is given the upper hand, and Walsh even draws our attention to homosexual behaviors among certain species, as well as orgies. A couple of the poems include typical narratives about males who mate and leave, but more frequent are tales that tell a different side of this story: for instance, of the male octopus who is aware of the likelihood that his mate will kill and eat him and who chooses to pursue her anyway. The call to flesh, Walsh seems to argue, is larger than any fear of death, is born of it.

The origin of each poem in this collection is the act of love. Often, we glimpse the moment right before the love making, the chase, the violence of it, the blood matted fur of closeness and of winning a mate by distinguishing ourselves with feathers or fending off other potentials. Sometimes Walsh spins his dervish language wildly, and we are caught up in the frenzy of the act itself—“rising with me buoyed by me / each finding me”—his rhymes becoming feral and trancelike. Sometimes we are caught in memory’s melancholy in the remembrance of a lover past. Given all the emotional registers, this chapbook reads like a sexy, poetic bestiary.

Every poem in the collection is about how bodies connect in the world and need each other, feed on each other, with the desperation of evolution and at the core levels of our DNA. Walsh’s message is that wanting another is elemental, and that desire is primordial to our experience of the world. It’s how our species has survived. Mating, eating, the cycle of nature and life—yes, it’s brutal, but in Walsh’s lyrical vision, it is also comforting. In “stray cat overcome by estrus,” he writes,

the looping-twirling softness
of the sewer grate! the dusky

mask of under-car shade!
oh & the asphalt how it has

inherited rain’s coolness—
where are all the bodies?

how might I have them
sliding through me, burrowing

barbs growing within me?
there’s no love but the love

of touch, no law by night’s
pulse contouring the alley,

the pulse of lover-herds
finding my sweet-stink

above miles of street-rot:
oh this grotesque power

to want and be wanted
& after to be left alone

Even in the soul emptiness that animals must know for the body of a lover absent from their bed, Walsh explores the tension between our desire to merge with another and to be a distinct and whole person. In “polar bear considers his loneliness,” he writes, “I am enough then I smell her see her//& all the snow can’t fill me. . .”

The pacing and arc of the short collection is masterful as Walsh explores how what we think we know about ourselves can change over the course of a season with a mate—a human speaker concludes the collection with an admission that he has moved away from wanting free love toward wanting only one. This is how wild abandonment gives way, with age, to the comfort of a single partner.

Underneath it all is the stench of death, which fuels our desire. We have limited time in these bodies. So “let’s get busy,” Walsh might say. And nothing beats hearing him read these poems in-person, so go seek him out at a live event. Tell him I sent you and that you want to hear him do the Bonobo.

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