When one picks up Matthew Lippman’s new collection, American Chew, the inevitable question surfaces: what is ‘American’ about American Chew? Divided into two parts, this collection takes on, without hesitation, issues of race, gender, sexuality and politics; issues that are woven adeptly through poems about manhood and America. And somehow, in the midst of discussing “Cindy Crawford / on the television” (“Meaningful Beauty”), this collection manages to grow into a meditation on desire as it applies not only to the speaker of American Chew but also to us, whoever we are: the imagined reader of American poetry.
That Lippman is writing in the long line tradition of Walt Whitman seems no coincidence. The poems in American Chew are, at least visually, reminiscent of Leaves of Grass. The lines go on almost the width of the page. There is little white space. Lippman is verbose in his characterization of man:
You can know a man by what he does with his garbage,
the way he recycles his pizza boxes, ties up his Glad Bags.
My neighbor does not break down his cartons from Crate &
He’s a man with his head inside the grass stains of his children’s
And in another, earlier poem:
The Whole Foods destroys my manhood or any desire I might
have ever had
to be that kind of butcher, that baker, that sweet dick willy
It is a manhood that is constantly in need of qualification, of reassessment. A manhood that shifts, whose definition no longer holds. Obsessively, the speaker in American Chew declares “that’s the kind of man I want to be” (“Karl’s Trash”): a man who works in a slaughterhouse, a man who stands in “the driveway, barefoot and fat” (“Karl’s Trash), “a man who pushed the steer in as a steer / then hauled it out” (“American Chew”). But also, paradoxically, the speaker wants “to be a girl who releases an egg / then goes on a hunt for the Ghirardelli, / face painted like a Samoan goddess warrior” (“You Don’t Know What It’s Like When a Girl Releases an Egg”). A manhood in transformation: “It’s the becoming that I want” (“You Don’t Know What It’s Like When a Girl Releases an Egg”).
Interestingly, so much of this searching for the (wo)man the speaker wants to be is centered around the body, the desire to be fat or thin, to eat, and eat, and eat. “The birds want to make me skinny,” the speaker declares in the opening of the poem “Skinny Birds,” so “I go outside and shoot them. / Then I eat them.” Eating appears to be a way in which the speaker can begin to understand himself, or what it means to be a man at all:
So, I make my lion breaths deep and low,
smile at the bloody cut
then chew my American chew, quick, fast,
full of buffoonery,
sloppy with the happy fat.
At other moments, it isn’t the speaker’s body, fat, (“My garbage makes me fat. / I eat everything”), but the bodies of others, “the anorexic newscasters” (“Newscasted”) who are described “like sacred steer in the streets of Delhi / or little skinny boys / who can slide through the three inch gap / in the backyard fence” (“Newscasted”). The objectification can become a bit heavy-handed in moments like this, as the speaker distances himself from these women who are–ostensibly–nothing like him. And yet. The kind of man he wants to be keeps delving further and further into paradox:
That’s the kind of man I want to be,
one who bathes in buckets of waste, gets up,
walks into the world and makes a forest
where there was once
The poems, much like the glorified (wo)man at the center of the speaker’s ambition, bleed one into the next. Where one begins and another ends feels both seamless and inevitable, as though we are listening to a story. In the search for a (better) understanding of manhood, the speaker simultaneously undertakes a search for a (better) understanding of America: “It felt like hamburgers on the grill. / It felt satin” (“Sometimes We Stand at Roof’s Edge and Look for Our Universe”). As with manhood, the words that define America are always transforming, eluding the speaker. But how true it feels on some level that America does feel like hamburgers on the grill, or satin. And how American that one might say, for example:
You want a burger?
I want a burger
Let’s get a burger
(“Big Mac Bun”)
or, “Hell yea, I’m gonna watch YouTube videos all day” (“YouTubing It”). There’s joy in reading these lines, in their particular cadence. Lippman feels on the verge of pinpointing this thing for us, this country in which we live. “It occurs to me that my whole country / has been killed by my Whole Foods” (“American Chew”).
Beyond the jokes about being fat, American Chew holds a deep well of truth that catches one by surprise. Moving through the pages, Lippman so often astonishes with his insight on being a man, a woman, an American. If there were a thesis to the collection it might be about understanding desire, that complicated need that is forever changing. Maybe what it means to be American in this collection is to accept that desire, even to relish it. To enjoy all of it.