Book Review

Michael Mlekoday’s debut poetry collection, The Dead Eat Everything, is not some necrotic feeding frenzy as the title might imply. The dead are here—the specter of death, too—but you won’t find Mlekoday dwelling on death at the expense of everything else. There is loss, there is struggle in these poems, but there is also the capacity for great beauty and joy. Grief may feel all-consuming in its earliest stages, with past memories threatening to cast a certain pall over every experience, but the sensation passes. Exorcised, “the rainclouds…fat and fanged” spit out the pain. The clouds part, there’s a glint of hope to be found from the sun’s rays: “The river bends the light. / You need to learn how to see.” The work is pure; “my hands are good hands.” The stray bullets, the waves of blood in the streets, “shards / and splinters of ourselves everywhere”—this is the neighborhood Michael Mlekoday can never fully leave. “Lord, this is the city of my birth,” he decrees on “Self-Portrait, Kneeling.” The words continue to find their way onto the page, little signposts in the vast expanse of nothingness, reality hemmed in with no ocean in sight. His Minneapolis is Prince, frost, Baba, and a break-beat. The Mississippi River becomes an almost mystical force, fearsome in its power, tainted and filthy yet somehow pure. Reflections become visions, and the light is bestowed with transformative power.

Mlekoday’s world is “The spray paint / on dumpsters, the black marker / on empty newspaper boxes: handmade / alphabets of struggle.” These are not merely images of the so-called urban jungle, evocative as they may be; these are snap shots of what it is like to look through Mlekoday’s eyes at the city he grew up in, the city and its streets of which he traces every contour and line so affectionately, for even though there is pain and suffering there, it is home. In “To Vanish, Cover Your Eyes and Count,” his car is both literally and figuratively used as a vehicle of memory that delivers the poem’s memorable final lines: “The stretch / of the highway where, if you’re lucky / you can smell the mint growing in the ditch.” For Mlekoday, these details are vitally important. The details are often fleeting moments of happiness born from pain, the light you need to learn how to see. We are lucky to have such a guide. The Dead Eat Everything is an unflinching portrait of the realities of inner city existence: insular, possessing its own vernacular. Broken glass littered in the street is conflated with a river—the river—the life force of a city tucked away in America’s heartland; the violent and the beautiful are both embedded in the life of the community.

 Mlekoday’s imagery is made that much more potent by his tremendous gift for musicality. All the world’s a stage, and Mlekoday is a performer, a rubber-stamped champion in fact (the 2009 National Poetry Slam). One Pabst Blue Ribbon, one shattered bottle of O.E., the mighty Mississippi a tongue caressing the broadside of a city or a memory. Props, maybe, but the stage is set. The lines heave with rhythm; entire poems pulsate with the heartbeat of the city. You can certainly see how the years as a slam poet and rapper allowed Mlekoday to hone his craft and develop his voice. A number of slam poets have struggled to translate their art to the page, to maintain the vibrancy of live performance through the rigors of revision and meld it with the careful construction each written line demands. This is not to say that creating great slam poetry is in some way easier, however, producing poems for the page is a much lonelier endeavor. The poems in this format are meant to be received in a much different way. This makes Mlekoday’s ability to charge these poems with that excitement of live performance all the more remarkable. If for no other reason, this feat makes The Dead Eat Everything an achievement in its own right, and yet the life of these poems goes so much deeper than that. This is truth. This is real. This is us riding shotgun, a bag of greasy burgers on the seat, Slick Rick on the stereo, Mlekoday saying, “Let me show you around.”

About the Reviewer

Jake Oliver is a New England native, born in Vermont and growing up in Maine. He has a BA in English from Union College (NY) and holds an MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in poetry from San Diego State University. He is currently enrolled in the doctoral program for Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University in Wales. He has also been writing music reviews for since September 2009 and his literary work has appeared in several publications.