Poetry

“Death by Chocolate,” by Sandra Beasley

 

Death by Chocolate

A man wants my take on his novel
where a wife dies with a peanut in her mouth
after we’ve met her husband, in the act with his secretary
in the passenger seat of a late-life convertible.
A man wants my take on his novel
where the husband’s marital issues are solved
by her anaphylactic collapse after he serves her takeout
spiked with a cashew, and for another 300 pages
he wonders, Was it an accident? Or did I
know? Somewhere out there a man
is writing a novel about a chef with a taste
for adding shrimp paste to curry and his unsuspecting
shellfish-allergic wife, and I will be asked
for my take on it. I have been offered dozens of takes
on my own death. Suggestions abound.
Death by ice cream. Death by cake. Death by cucumber,
though that would take a while;
perhaps gazpacho as a shortcut. Death by mango.
Death by Spanish omelette. Death by dairy,
an abstraction sexy to someone who has never side-eyed
cream brought out slopping toward the coffee;
who has never felt histamine’s palm at her throat,
who says Cheese makes life worth living.
These wives! I get you, women who
did not grow up aspiring to be a plot device.
We almost die a lot. Or: we die a lot,
almost. We’re over it. Our mouths have more to say.

 

The first publication of this poem appeared in “We Will Not Be Exorcised,” edited by Jillian Weise and Khadijah Queen, in The New York Times on June 15, 2019, and is reprinted here with the permission of the poet.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of four poetry collections—Made to Explode, Count the Waves, I Was the Jukebox, which won the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Theories of Falling—as well as Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, a disability memoir and cultural history of food allergies. She served as the editor for Vinegar and Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance. Honors for her work include the 2019 Munster Literature Centre’s John Montague International Poetry Fellowship, a 2015 NEA fellowship, and five DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities fellowships. She lives in Washington, D. C. Author photo credit: Andrew Lightman. Beasley’s most recent book, Made to Explode: Poems (W. W. Norton, February 2021), is available for order at Bookshop.org, and you can read about it here.

 

 

Poet’s Note

Although it has been more than a decade since I first began writing about my life-threatening food allergies, only in recent years have I engaged fully with what it means to be a disabled writer—and the psychological toll of ableist attitudes. This poem draws attention to two convenient plot points as they are used in books, movies, and television. One is glibly introducing the death of a woman as a narrative catalyst; the other is the crisis of an anaphylactic reaction, invoked without any regard for the lived experience.

 

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I enjoyed this poem for its subtlety, humor, and many layers of meaning. I also appreciate its literary underpinnings—the way it starts with a situation in a novel a friend is consulting the speaker about and then uses that as a springboard for a larger meditation on other subjects: relationships, feminism, and living with the physical challenge of severe food allergies. Finally, I take note of its artful uses of repetition, maybe my favorite poetic device. The sentence “a man wants my take on his novel” is repeated verbatim in lines 1 and 5, and the word “take” figures five times: three times in the sense of perspective (“my take” on things), once as a verb form (“takeout” food), and once in the sense of alternative medical explanations or prognoses (“takes on my own death”). The word “death” is repeated seven times and then twice more in the variant form “die” in lines 2 and 26—a lot of death in a 27-line poem especially, as here, when the repetitions all happen within four lines (15-19).

As the poem opens, we learn that the speaker has been asked by someone (significantly, “a man”) for her “take” on a novel he is writing that, as a plot device, relies on a wife with a fatal food allergy who dies after ingesting a “peanut.” So, we know the speaker has some kind of expertise the novelist wants to tap, but we are not sure in what field. Novel writing? Murder mystery construction? Whether the marital infidelity (“husband, in the act with his secretary”) has been rendered with verisimilitude? At this point, we don’t know, but when we read about the next time the speaker is asked for her take, it begins to fall into place. What the first two examples have in common is a wife who dies from an allergen in food—in the second case, clearly served to her by her husband.

Husbands are not looking good in these draft novels, readers, and as a woman editor, I can imagine not being thrilled about having to read this plot device over and over again. That the speaker expects to continue to be asked for her “take” is clear from the third example: “Somewhere out there a man / is writing a novel about a chef.” In these lines that practically roll their eyes, the voice is delightfully weary and resigned. The thought leads the speaker back to a series of “takes” that she—shoe on other foothas been offered when seeking advice from an expert. In this case, it is medical experts—doctors—who have told the speaker that her potentially fatal food allergy means she must avoid certain foods. The poem has already mentioned three such allergens (peanuts, cashews, and shellfish), and the speaker is additionally told to avoid ice cream, cake, cucumbers, mangoes, Spanish omelets, and dairy. That’s a wide range of foods to have to avoid, right? Although the speaker is being arch about it, we understand that she, has in fact, had to live with a compromising and dangerous condition. Along the way occur funny asides about, for example, the difficulty of dying “by cucumber,” and humor is the crucial additive that prevents these lines from sounding like a complaint.

The prohibition on dairy spins out a few more humorous lines that contrast blissfully ignorant and insensitive un-allergic people (Cheese makes life worth living) with allergic people who tend to worry about overfilled creamer containers anywhere in proximity to their coffee mugs. However, the humor stops like the breath in the throat of this image when we get to line 21’s “has never felt histamine’s palm at her throat.” That’s a great move, where sense, syntax, tone, and image all work together to suggest an abrupt stoppage so that readers get a visceral taste of what a true allergic reaction must feel like.

The poem’s last four lines return to the fictional murdered wives in the opening lines, “women who / did not grow up aspiring to be a plot device.” First of all, how brilliant to use that word “aspiring” there, right after the poem gave us that little anaphylactic shock moment. Next, I like the return because it makes for ring construction in the poem as a whole, a device that always satisfies me and often, I think, makes for a more effective ending. The last two lines are crucial as they are what make the poem in my mind a feminist and even activist poem. “We almost die a lot. Or: we die a lot, / almost. We’re over it. Our mouths have more to say.” People with food allergies face a significant physical challenge, one that this poem acknowledges and takes on with confidence

We almost die a lot seems a simple sentence, but this poem has taught us to read it in a much more complex way. First, who is the “we”? Grammar and syntax tell us that “we” refers back to the preceding plural noun, in this case, “women,” or more specifically, those “who / did not grow up aspiring to be a plot device.” It’s arguable that “we” refers here to all women because presumably, no woman grows up with that aspiration. Or, it could refer more narrowly just to women who end up having serious food allergies. But, it can also be read much more broadly to refer to all of humanity. That is, each human being “almost die[s] a lot” in the sense that living is a series of avoidances of perils—some we are aware of, some hidden.

Just looking at the word “we” has already spun out three meanings of the phrase We almost die a lot, and once we look at it in its entirety, a multiplicity of meanings hums like bees. The phrase can mean that people, in general, get into life-threatening situations “a lot,” sometimes without even being aware of it, and also that people with allergies literally encounter death often in the form of allergens in food. The phrase could also be read ironically, as in, we often think we’re going to die and then don’t. Anyway, it arrests and interests us because of its apparent paradox: How can death, which happens once and is final (at least for an individual), happen “a lot?”

The restatement of the phrase in the next sentence adds yet more layers. The difference between “we almost die a lot” and “we die a lot, almost” is subtle, but there is one. In the first case, what is being described is near-dying, a perilous situation that resolves. In the second case, the “almost” can be read to modify “a lot” rather than “die”; in other words, we actually do die (metaphorically) a number of times, which nearly ends up being a lot of times. A final gloss on all of this is the recognition that “to die” is also a way of expressing orgasm, as in the French phrase le petit mort. Is the poem’s almost-death related to the little death? I am not sure, but thinking about it adds yet another layer of meaning to this wonderful, already multifaceted poem.

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