Book Review by Paul David Adkins
The Feeder by Jennifer Jackson Berry
Reviewed by Paul David Adkins
Jennifer Jackson Berry
Autopsy of Post-Traumatic Guilt: Loss and Non-Redemption in Jennifer Jackson Berry’s The Feeder
“I lost our baby.” Jennifer Jackson Berry’s speaker opens her debut, full-length poetry collection The Feeder with a matter-of fact confession, terse yet deceptively complex. Conversely beautiful and shattering, this simple sentence answers three simultaneous questions: “Who lost the baby? I did;” “Who did it belong to? Both of us;” and, “Whose fault is it? Mine.” Because, in The Feeder, it is always the woman’s fault: the miscarriage, the weight gain, the relationship problems. And it is upon this brilliant opening sentence that Berry builds her book.
The cover of The Feeder, entitled Didymus, by Brenda Stumpf, perfectly exemplifies the conflicts which Berry’s speaker faces. From a distance, one can see two empty dresses facing opposite directions. Or is it one dress halved, containing a Matroyshka-like rose at its center? Perhaps, though, as seen from above, a woman looks down at her thick legs. However a viewer interprets the cover, the topics of body image and emptiness fill the collection.
At an autopsy, the coroner must ascertain the cause of death through complete examination of the body. In The Feeder, the speaker escorts the reader through the collection wound by wound. Miscarriages (14 are cataloged in “I Lost Our Baby”) punctuate the volume like buckshot holes. In “I Did Things for the Stories,” the speaker confesses, “We eat what’s gone / bad together, / / the dead, the dying, / the never-born.” She observes in “Lost & Found Love Poem with Oranges and Trash,” during a moment of wracking post-traumatic stress, “. . . when I get home / the sweet fruit are buried in the trash.” The miscarriages and losses are synonymous with weight gain and eating disorders. So joined are the notions, the speaker reveals that women become the meals themselves, in “Writing the Fat Girl,” “My Offal Honeymoon,” and “Fat Girl Has Regular Sex.”
In Jessie Carty’s 2011 collection Fat Girl, the speaker explores the idea of weight gain and potential promiscuity. She writes in “Fat Girl in the OB / GYN,” “Mom told the doctor I needed the pill. / She was sure my love / / of Twinkies would translate / to my fat thighs opening for any touch.” Both Carty’s and Berry’s speakers view the body through a cold, analytical lens. The Feeder observes, in “Another Poem About Infertility,” “The body creates new, / until it doesn’t.” Meanwhile, in Fat Girl poem “Fat Girl on Grooming,” Carty’s speaker observes during toenail clipping, “. . . She / can even reach the right foot as long as she leaves / her right breast dangling between her legs.” The body is, to both poets, an item of utility.
As The Feeder advances, the speaker explores the unfair responsibilities laid upon a woman regarding the success of a relationship. She must maintain appearances (“The Trouble of Curls”), provide sexual gratification (“x = feathers, y = boards”), attempt to solve the couple’s fertility issues (“The Infertile Couple”), and feel guilt for all failings, both in intimacy and pregnancy (“Contemplating a Gift for a Pregnancy Announcement”). These unrealistic expectations foster an atmosphere of perpetual insecurities regarding pregnancy, sexuality, and marriage. “Post-Miscarriage: Day 186” provides an extraordinarily poignant example of how a woman forges a monument to personal grief and loss through forgetting to cancel certain pregnancy-related notifications and subscriptions after her miscarriage.
Berry’s collection hinges on the unsettling surprises of what constitutes loss and grief within the basis of a modern marriage. As with the coroner examining every physical aspect of a corpse, Berry’s speaker navigates the very lifeblood of what makes a relationship so difficult when framed by disappointment, guilt, and uncertainty. And, as the author closes the volume, the speaker again experiences expectancy of a child, ending with a stunning end to the narrative arc the poet has so carefully crafted through the book. And it is with this close that Jennifer Jackson Berry so carefully cradles the dead and living side-by-side in her gentle arms.
Berry, Jennifer Jackson. The Feeder. Portland, OR: YesYes Books. 2016.
Carty, Jessie. Fat Girl. Alexander, AR: Sibling Rivalry Press. 2011.
Paul David Adkins lives in Northern NY. He served in the US Army from 1991-2013. Recently, he earned a MA in Writing and The Oral Tradition from The Graduate Institute, Bethany, CT. He spends his days either counseling soldiers or teaching college students in a NY state correctional facility.
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