Literature teachers are often want to say that anything can be made the subject of poetry. And this is the collection that proves that point. From diets to seafood to the treadmill, Nancy Pagh’s No Sweeter Fat makes the reader laugh, cry and reflect, often in the same poem.
Concerning style, Pagh often evokes Walt Whitman. Perhaps she most purposely resembles Whitman, and his spiritual heir Allen Ginsberg, in her poem “A Gold’s Gym In Bellingham, Washington”, a poem that explicitly harkens to “A California Supermarket” in Howl. As she works-out in her gym, she imagines Whitman “puzzling over the MP3 players”, while “Allen’s glasses didn’t hide his tears when he came out / from the men’s locker room alone.” But Pagh’s poetry is more than simply an homage to the roots of much contemporary American poetry. From her treadmill — “While I ambled along on my cyclical highway, / ambled along in my fat-lady sweatpants, / ambled along in my slow-rolling gait” — Pagh carves out her own America, one filled with “faded U. S. Navy tank tops”, “George Bush’s latest war on t. v.”, juice bars and suburbs.
These poems are womanly. In theme, these are poems of the earth, the sea, the body, poems grounded in food, in sexual longing, in keen observations of the way people sweat, eat, and bathe.
Like Whitman and Ginsberg, Nancy Pagh celebrates the body. Her celebrating is welcome in these times of gastric bypass surgery. Her poem “G.B.S.” is about her sister’s gastric bypass undergone to transform her from three-hundred-sixty pounds to a size six. The procedure puts the two of them on different paths. Pagh’s poetry shows us the complexity of her relationship with her fat female body, and so helps us with our own relationship with our bodies. She questions the ideal of beauty, the cost of which is often alienation from our bodies.
Pagh is not alienated from her body. She does not sugar-coat life in a fat body. Early in the book, her poem “Fat Lady’s Bath” is full of anger and self-hatred. “You will never see the fat lady in her bath, / never know your casual barb / of pig, cow, hippo whale/ struck hard and fast, transforming / her—even now, even years later / and all grown up, in her bath.” “Fat Girl Haiku” evokes the hurt of rejection and the humiliation of getting the hippo Valentine, and the way her family hides Pagh in the photographs so her size does not show.
But Pagh does not want pity. She wants understanding. What emerges from these poems is a candid woman spurned because of her size and longing for human connection. She expresses her humanity poignantly. Whitman said, “I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Nancy Pagh celebrates herself with all of the pain, regret and sorrow of years of taunts. Yet every atom of her belongs as good to us.
Pagh, Nancy. No Sweeter Fat. Autumn House Press, 2007.