Mad Honey

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Mad Honey Symposium

-Book Reviewed by Kendra Bartell-

Mad Honey Symposium is a wonder of a book, a collection of poems dense with sonic pleasures as well as lyric puzzles. “Your mouth pins every sticky/body, swallowing iridescence, digesting/light” Mao calls in her first poem, Valentine for a Flytrap. This love sonnet pays reverence to that most carnivorous of plants. The verses hint at the emblems, both beautiful and dangerous, that are to come in the book: mad honey, bees, honey badgers, dire wolves… Mao creates a world lush with fervor, madness and poison, replete with dazzling imagery.

The collection dwells on the concepts of being drunk with love, poisoned by beauty, and savoring delicious flavors. Many of the poems center around “mad honey,” an alluring concoction which a pair of lovers imbibes in order to revive their sexual lust for one another. Later, we hear the voice of Pompey as he considers the suffering of his soldiers who retch violently after eating Mad Honey. The language of these “Mad Honey Soliloquies” reflects the allure of the honey: “It was swarm season. In the sweltering evening, blood/was scented, pure delphinium. Honey and carnage — // Delphi once prophesied” we hear from Pompey. The lilting language and the pure imagery draws readers into an intoxicating melody where vibrant characters dance.

Durian, Monstera Deliciosa, Azalea, and the Trinidad Scorpion pepper also make appearances in the second section of the book. They are either eaten or tempt consumption. In Hurling a Durian, it is “the fantasy fruit: it can awaken/desires lodged deep inside a person…so I am addicted, of course. Not to eating/but to sniffing it like glue.” The speaker desires to experience death, the act of killing, all spurred by the fruit’s corpse-like scent. The fruit holds a promise of death, just as the Monstera Deliciosa, if “unripe, it will steal your voice. Your gums/will blister little stars. You’ll vomit, swell, tremble.” Mao turns the traditional trope of eating in poetry on its head by focusing on food that can kill. This toeing the edge of what is delicious and what is dangerous creates a thrilling tension within Mao’s poems.

The book is rich with sonic musicality, creating a flow that draws readers and doesn’t let up. There is a physicality to Mao’s language, one that illustrates both the content (that is, her focus on the act of eating) and her technical word choices. The power of her language demands reading out loud. Otherwise, readers will miss the slipperiness, alliterative echoes, and split rhymes. “Mad Honey Song,” a poem towards the end of the book, reads like a lyric braid: “Dung describes my lips/on your lips. Dung describes the disgust, the gust, the August mud…When you’re done, I am paper and I am guts, I glut/and seethe.” Mao’s language is dazzling and intelligent, and her formal decisions strengthen the sonic presentation of each poem. “Mad Honey Song” is a poem of strophes or stand-alone lines. Each one announces its presence, creating a weight for each line that allows the music to hit you (and often, knock you out with its intensity).

Mao also focuses on femininity within the collection, specifically; she questions and challenges traditional notions of what it means to be a woman and to come into womanhood. An early poem in the collection, “XX,” begins “The night my sex returned, I shut the door,/barricaded it with a rattan chair.” This poem is a vivid, internal, savage look at entering into a sexual world when others are “half-asleep” or “locked inside [a] purity panoply.” The speaker calls: “despised softness, how a bite can sluice/flesh.” She rejects the stereotypical feminine roles of “softness” and “purity” head on. Later in the collection, we hear echoes of this speaker return: “If I could do girlhood again, I’d ask/to be scarier. Less whimpering—more pyromaniac/urges, more flirting with kerosene” (from Drop-kick Aria).

Mao draws parallels between this speaker, whose voice shows up in more than one poem, and the honey badger, nature’s most fearless predator. The badger is often referred to as a “she,” conflating her fierceness with that which the speakers of these poems crave: “When the snake whispers venom into her throat,/she does not whimper./A broken badger is not a sad thing.” The honey badger enters into the world with ferocity and refuses to back down. This behavior, Mao suggests, is an idyll of femininity with which we can relate.

Watch this author. Mad Honey Symposium is captivating, and Mao’s work will inspire as well as challenge readers to spit fire with a vivid tongue. Her imagery draws readers in with a clear voice that leaves all the marks of passion; lyrical memories that won’t fade fast.


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