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Commit to Looking: A Review of Caits Meissner’s Let It Die Hungry

By M.K. Rainey.

 

Let It Die Hungry, Caits Meissner,

The Operating System, 2016.

 

Caits Meissner’s Let It Die Hungry is a kind of interactive playbook that uses one’s own inner landscape as clues for a way out of the cyclical maze of the human condition. The voice framing this work is that of a deeply thinking human in constant evolution, 137 pages of “searching for compassion in the form in which I arrived”. Meissner takes her own personhood and offers it up to the reader, shifting everything we believe in order to make us active participants, asking us to question this offering at every turn. The book rolls over itself, again and again, producing small, constant revolutions of the soul along the way, showing us ways in which we can do the same.

The framework for the book operates on life’s progressions, exploring all the minutiae that make us up, and takes a hard look at shame, humiliation, sexual experience and thought growth. However, the narrator does not simply guide us through while she relates to all the ghosts of her past selves, she demands that we do the same. She builds a platform on the uncertainty of our fragile human lives and asks the reader to continue where she left off.

The questions and exploration are not gradual. Right away, Meissner spirits us into the meat of the book in her poem, “learning to orgasm (when the world is dying)”. She writes, “consumed by sunset/my tiny halo expanding,” and one is inclined to take the lines at their most obvious, holding halo as a stand in for vagina, which is true that it can be, but ride the poem to its completion and we are confronted with something the book will do well over and over again: “Can one be reborn in darkness?/or must something be cut away.” Halo becomes bigger than any body part, perhaps a word for the soul, constantly expanding and pushing against itself in order to be better, to find a wholeness through its misunderstandings.

And then, once the author has presented her own body as offering, she gives a means for which you can do the same through a writing prompt titled “good vs. evil”. She tells you to gather ingredients by asking you about the tropes of good and evil, “what are some ‘evils’ in history that are no longer seen as evil, or have changed?”, “Is it possible to enact an “evil” for ultimate good?”, etc. She poses these questions as a means for you to enter the text and prepare to confront what she calls “the shadow self”, a side of our personhood that is largely negative and we tend to reject or remain willfully ignorant of, perhaps because of the pain involved in confronting it. Yet, the author does not shy away from asking you to do exactly that.

Of course, Meissner is acutely aware of the unease and difficulty she presents. She does not offer any one thing as a solution, but acknowledges the constant push and pull inherent in living. There is a sense of coming into one’s own by both running from the self and returning to it. She writes, “that terrible word forever, cousin to freedom, its body/always shapeshifting, squatting on haunches in the bathtub,” and later still, “A landscape/I’ve been trying/to find the exit from for years,” both again hammering this active growing and reflecting and searching for a way forward by looking backward. It is that painful inevitability of what it means to not only be a human, but a human who wishes to serve others.

 

            I conspire, too, to join the books in pursuit of a bigger

            adventure to make it all worth life’s heavy weight

            and though I’m not sure how the thing looks, I know

 

            what the books don’t: that the world out there is a cuss

            word heating itself in the mouth of a giant and I don’t want

            to be an accomplice hiding out in the shell of my skin,

 

            but I don’t want to raise the flag that angers the bull,

            red-tailed, don’t want to be caught when the guns

            go off, a dancing jester in the line of fire.

 

-from “the room of my life”

 

We have this book as a shell the soul turns over in, flipping through all the iterations it has been. Meissner offers, in the final prompt, questions that lead to the reuniting of these selves: “Write about the part of yourself that needs to be ‘destroyed’ for something more beautiful to emerge. Start there.” Then, in her final piece “praise poem”, she writes, “The circle’s purpose is to see each other/our unspoken rule: commit to looking”, showing us that although this might have been the answer we’ve been looking for, we only had to turn inward to see it.

It is like meta-poetry, which seems a redundant definition as poetry should always wrap its finger around the reader and curl them into its language, but Meissner rears her head above her words’ waters – again and again – to see the reader and call them out of hiding so that they “forget how to define their own shape for just a moment”. Her poems are like a trick of the light, they allow you to wander and dream, but demand full participation and ask impossible, simultaneous tasks. The book is almost like – without the negative connotations attached to it – the self-help of poetry books, an antidote for complacency and misunderstanding, an exploratory endeavor for not only poems to be experienced, but acted upon.

Meissner has a knack for spotting the smallest barriers within us, walls most of us cannot recognize at a first glance, and she provides the tools with which we can break them down. In this work, we see the constant questioning of a self-proclaimed hopeful cynic and it works so well because it is not only the work challenging the reader, but the opposite as well – an interchangeable ballet of challenger vs. challenged.

The beautiful thing about it all is not in the striking language or how smart the book really is, but how vulnerable – dare I say sentimental at times – the author allows herself and the work to be in the process. Meissner is a true literary citizen committed to expanding the boundaries of what literature and humans can be, and what she knows and acts on so well is the fact that it is no longer relevant (has it ever been?) for the poet to be passive, for the reader to be a bystander. Here it may sound like I’ve given the book nothing but praise – and I do feel it is much deserved – but I’ll offer this one critique: the book is not easily digestible. It is not something to be picked up, glanced at, and walked away from mid-sentence. Once you’ve committed to the work, the work commits to you and the book can only do its magic if you agree to participate.

In this world where so many things are uncertain, shaky, volatile, Let It Die Hungry does not offer easy solutions, but builds upon the idea that to affect change, one must look inward and learn from the infinities of the self before pointing our human tentacles outward. It is an inspiration for what a book can do and I argue there needs to be more literature like this, now more than ever. Literature that calls the world out, holds it in the light, and demands the reader do the work too.

Oh, and did I mention the artwork? It’s pretty dope too.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

M.K. Rainey received her MFA in fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She currently teaches writing to the youth of America through Community-Word Project, Wingspan Arts and The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cider Press Review, Litro Online, Equinox, Teachers & Writers Magazine, The Grief Diaries and more. She co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series and lives in Harlem with her dog. Sometimes she writes things the dog likes.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 27th, 2016.