“To have a mouth full of seeds would be a wonderful thing, to be drowned, a throat filled with hard, shiny points like the mark left by the tip of a pencil, poised on a page.”
Lately, I’ve been seeking out new ways to look at the world. These days, it’s easy to get stuck in pettiness, especially if you spend more than five minutes on social media. It often seems like the same people are arguing about the same topics on the same platforms. There are ways to get out of a rut like this, one can obtain news information from a different source or try to cook a new kind of food or better yet, read a work of experimental literature. This is why I was pleased recently to read Marcela Sulak’s Mouth Full of Seeds, a hybrid work of poetry and essays.
The essays in the book are often brief paragraphs filled with fascinating factual tidbits or moving anecdotes. Some of the themes Sulak explores in these essays are her Jewish faith, tradition vs. individuality, the oppression of women’s bodies, the immigrant experience, and how folk tales continue to shape our culture. Sulak approaches each of these topics with a fresh perspective and little-known facts (at least to me) and thus we are able to tread new ground with her. Whether she is talking about the persecution of Jews by the Spanish Inquisition, the tales of the Brothers Grimm, or doing her laundry, these essays are engrossing.
The poems are mixed in with the essays throughout the book. This may sound like a distraction, but in fact Sulak uses the poems to expand upon the essays. Sometimes, the poems do this by adding another layer of consciousness. For instance, in her essay “Getting a Get” she discusses obtaining a divorce and describes the official document as “a fanciful bird-like design” while also weaving stories about birds throughout the essay. This is followed by a poem that ends with the lines, “I am only one word away, one word out of you, one bird or another bird.” At other times, Sulak expands the ideas in the essays by adding satire in the poems. This is brilliantly done in “Parable of the Island, the Sea and the Sandbar”, a humorous look at the process of translation.
Throughout much of the book, the poems and essays are separated, distinct thoughts on similar topics. Towards the end, the essays and poems converge. “Potatoes” showcases the poem as essay, concerned as it is with facts like “Catherine the Great also forbade/ the peasantry from growing potatoes” and “Antoine/ Parmentier, French army physicist,/ was fed only hog’s fodder in a Prussian/ prison” in a style reminiscent of Nicanor Parra’s anti-poems. Conversely, “The End of Venezuela” is a poetic travelogue filled with imagery like, “other women grew themselves into jaguars more readily than I.” In Mouth Full of Seeds, Sulak continuously challenges the traditional boundaries of genre and form with exciting results.
The book is comprised of seven sections and touches upon a number of themes, stories, and even styles. But throughout the book there is a sense of spiritual pilgrimage helping to connect all of the poems and essays. This spirituality is a unity of body and soul the narrator feels during meals with her daughter, through her struggles as an immigrant in Israel, through her work as a translator, while researching her family history, and on many other occasions as well. This is a spirituality as boundless as the poetic essays and factual poems in Mouth Full of Seeds. In this time when we are all bound by the walls of self-isolation, I was comforted when it reached me.
Benjamin Schmitt is the Best Book Award and Pushcart nominated author of three books, most recentlySoundtrack to a Fleeting Masculinity. His poems have appeared in the Antioch Review, Hobart, Worcester Review, Columbia Review, Roanoke Review, and elsewhere. A co-founder of Pacifica Writers’ Workshop, he has also written articles for The Seattle Times and At The Inkwell. He lives in Seattle with his wife and children.