Hefty Measures

About the Size of It by Tom Disch. Anvil, 160 pages, $16.95

As Reviewed By: Eric Ormsby

It takes a brave poet these days to praise the beauties of obesity. Our poets tend to celebrate emaciated muses, often in verses as spindly as their beloveds. It wasn’t always so. Arab poets, in the days before the coming of Islam, sang of fat sweethearts with loving gusto. A woman with fingers “as thick as sand grubs” prompted erotic fantasies; another whose belly folds spilled over her waistband drove her serenading suitors wild, especially when she proved too well-padded to budge from her couch. In a desert environment this made sense; to be fat there was to be rich. But in 21st century America the very notion of plump love seems vaguely monstrous.

[private]In “The Vindication of Obesity,” the brilliant and versatile poet Tom Disch skewers this misconception. Pointedly he asks,

Shall every bar

And bakery give way to studios

Of dance and martial arts? Shall I subsist

On Perrier and salad greens? No wine! no bread!

He praises the great fatties of intellectual history, not only Edward Gibbon and St. Thomas Aquinas but “even Lord Buddha” who “all were complacently obese.” He argues his case further in the gorged voices of Gargantua, Falstaff, and Trimalchio, that dedicated glutton of Petronius’s “Satyricon.” In his well-fed heaven, “eternally obese, our Saints appear / In Levis larger than the troposphere.” This defiantly unfashionable poem comes from Mr. Disch’s aptly entitled About the Size of It, his first collection in a decade.

Mr. Disch is an unusual poet. He is mischievous and elegant in equal measure. His poems can be hilarious yet aren’t really “light verse.” You have the feeling that the marvellous timing, the clever rhymes, the melodious stanzas, are not produced for mere effect but serve to channel a tremendous exuberance. Mr. Disch clearly has great fun writing poetry and his pleasure in it is contagious. He puts it this way in “The Size of the World”:

This is the realm poetry particularly

Inhabits, the teasing out of thought

Into pleasing shapes, coiffing the minds

Of a happy few to some provisory accommodation

To their ignorance-without euphoria,

Without unfounded hope, and yet enchanted.

These are poems much concerned with measurement; they calibrate the smallest and the biggest with equal curiosity. “They mean so much, these little things,” he says in a wonderful poem about the dot on the letter i. He salutes “the snug triangle” above the letter A but grapples too with “the size of the world” which “dwarfs all our opinions / And knowledge.” In forms as various as sonnets, haiku, blank verse, quatrains, and villanelles-he even finds a way to breathe fresh life into that stale nag, the sestina-Mr. Disch explores the tiniest mysteries and the most immense. Yet even these aren’t always what they seem.

For all their wit and considerable good humor, these are poems tinged with sadness. When Mr. Disch defends obesity, it’s not because he finds fat beautiful in itself. Rather he objects to the unspoken but prevalent view that no fat person can ever “share the normal human experience / Of paradise” and, more damagingly, that “our only hope then / Lies in diet and expiation.” We cherish an illusion of perfectibility as though physical perfection might save us from death. Obesity parades our imperfection; it reminds us of mortality. And yet, what would life in its fullness be without “the deliciousness of death?” The word-play, which makes death something tasty, is characteristic of this sliest of poets. In a colloquial sense the poems are “about the size of it,” about the way life is, but they’re also, on a deeper level, about “the sighs of it” too. For now, as we grow older,

We have become painfully aware of all the ways our flesh

Betrays us, and those who can afford the preposterous fees

Begin to visit exotic professionals-peridontists,

Plastic surgeons, barbers with a sideline in toupees.

Mr. Disch is a prolific essayist and reviewer as well as a poet (and under the name Thomas M. Disch, a fine science-fiction novelist). Luckily too, he’s a bit of a scamp with a strong predilection for the unsavoury; this tends to redeem his obvious critical intelligence. In “‘Ritin,’ a Manifesto,” he raises the robust ghost of Robert Service, of all people, to deadly double effect. The poem has a splendidly rude conclusion:

So that’s why I say of all writers there are,

The best of the lot was Bob Service by far,

And all of you eggheads up there on Parnassus,

Should do jest like he did and get up off yer asses.

It’s quite typical of Mr. Disch to mimic the bluff voice of some shaggy Yukon reprobate in order to take a jab at the lacklustre confections of other contemporary poets who “talk like the Nine O’Clock News.” But the poem satirizes the speaker too. Mr. Disch enjoys nothing more than complimentary follies, large and small. Thanks to such succulent mischief he succeeds in coiffing our minds.[/private]

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