The only way to start a review for Kristi Carter's Cosmovore is to quote directly from the poet's page. In “The Maturity of Offal as Mapped by Cosmovore,” Carter declares what I think to be a suitable thesis for this entire collection:
My only preference:
taint and age aside,
there must be blood.
And there will be blood. And eggs. And a lot of other bodily remains, making her work speak directly to Julia Kristeva's concept of the abject. In Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, she describes the abject as a substance which “draws me toward the place where meaning collapses” (p. 2); the abject is usually physical, bodily, something which stands between object and subject. The corpse is the easy example, since it once used to be a human with subjectivity but now is decaying matter. Blood, shit, sewage, and open wounds are all other examples of the abject.
In Carter's case, by stating there will be blood, and elevating that blood and other bodily viscera that is so distinctly feminine to the level of mythology, she works on redeeming it. She makes it beautiful, and she makes it eternal, while also something we can experience on the quotidian level. While I applaud this goal on the surface, I fear that the collection can only exist on that surface level, that once I probe too deeply into this blood, I find I don't quite like the ideology I find there. Make no mistake: this is a great work of poetry, but I worry about what it communicates in terms of who is allowed to be abject, and then who is subsequently permitted to be redeemed and made beautiful once again.
Cosmovore tells the story of the titular female goddess, or at least ethereal creature, as she navigates through her world. The book is split into five sections—titled Luna, Mars, Mercury, Pluto, and, finally, Void, all of which mark a specific trial she must endure. There are references back to Cosmovore in the titles of many of these poems, along with characters who repeat and evolve from poem to poem, but Cosmovore as a collection is not a singular narrative in the least. It is one that spans decades, time and space, and mythology itself. The book’s blurb declares that Cosmovore is about “womanhood, motherhood, society, and a goat”—and it surely delivers. This is a book fundamentally about women, but when I got to the end, I still wasn’t sure if trans women were included. I reread and tried to find them in the narrative, but I was left with their looming absence.
The image of the egg is a constant refrain throughout the book—whether as an actual embryo, used as a metaphor, a food item like the Balut, the all-encompassing image of Cosmovore, or the universe itself. Carter is intelligent and attentive to detail here, drawing on a long, extensive lexicon of images that designate femaleness and especially motherhood, and she weaves these together quite stunningly. Before I read the work, I tried to see if Carter’s collection was a rewriting of a particular deity. I came up empty. And that's the point, I realized. Cosmovore is an empty vessel; she is all mythology; she is all women; and because of this, it seems as if she will swallow you whole, and the universe itself will explode.
I'm all for that. Kristi Carter’s scholarly work is on the subversions of motherhood (and daughterhood), and mother-daughter dynamics, and I can see that in each word she crafts, especially as we reach the ending sections of the collection. The final part, The Void, is probably my favourite, because of the utterly beautiful images she crafts precisely about motherhood—or the failure of the quest for it. This approach is there in the poem “Cosmovore Goes to the Doctor,” in which we get the best image in the collection—that of a womb as “jewel-encrusted” and “costume jewellery” after the protagonist is told that she cannot have kids. From here, Cosmovore watches as her partner has a child. In “Cosmovore Gains Vantage Point from Fourth Dimension,” Carter writes,
So, expectedly, your baby is born
with red hair, under the void
of Sagittarius. I’ve swallowed
the celestial body that polishes
free-thinking and nerve diseases
the oyster ears, the prerequisite paunch
made you bathe him in coos
when he was still placenta-choked,
horrified in the cold, white room of life.
I love this poem because it takes the abject of the placenta, but also elevates it to the celestial—just as, when Cosmovore finds out she cannot have children, her uterus becomes something shiny and ethereal. I love the doctor poem so much, though it brings bad news, because I've had a myriad misdiagnoses and bad diagnoses and sad diagnoses, so I like the idea of turning that bad news into something gold. It's the alchemy of the body; it's the alchemy of imagination and resistance. As the image of the jewel-encrusted womb repeats and continues, it starts to feel like the myth of the woman as empty vessel unless she has children is redone and resisted with utter precision and utter compassion.
The collection is part of Aqueduct's Conversation Pieces series, which has an overall goal to “document and facilitate” a “grand conversation” in feminist SF that “reaches as far back as Mary Shelley and extends, in our speculations and visions, into the continually-created future.” Aqueduct has done excellent work in instigating these, and Cosmovore, too, won me over by its close. I worry, though, that the collection has relied too much on shock images, or at least bodily viscera, to provoke this kind of conversation about cosmic femininity. I must caution against its universal idea of womanhood, because—even with its final stunning image of that womb—the collection links the idea of woman to biology. It only leaves room for cisgender bodies to be swept up in this poetry, only for they to be included in this realm of mothers and daughters, and the cosmic universe. There is no room for trans women anywhere.
Carter does not necessarily have to write an entire collection from the perspective of a trans woman, obviously. Not everyone should write those experiences, especially when we need to leave room for #ownvoices. But I'm concerned that, in order to start a conversation about women in mythology, we’ve had to directly link their cosmic presence to biology, and that in so doing we’ve reduced their capacities once again. At times, Cosmovore’s repeated focus on the abject reminded me of a tampon commercial that made the rounds a couple years ago for its treatment of trans women. In the commercial, we see two women in a bathroom, one cis and one trans, effecting comparing acts of womanhood. When the cis woman pulls out a tampon, the trans woman walks away, shunned for her inability to have a period and bleed.
It’s an exceptionally reductive commercial—but it feels like in the age of divisive debates about who is allowed where, there's an implicit assumption that even if we do allow trans women (or trans people) into a sacred area—be it a bathroom or feminist science fiction—then cis women will still need to find a way to be fundamentally different from them. And I worry that is what Carter has done here—or that is what Aqueduct Press has done here, by including her collection in a Conversation series. Whether this has been done implicitly or accidentally or anything else is beside the point; the fact that I have to ask the question, or wonder, is the issue.
I like Carter’s work. I loved the way the entire collection ended and there were some beautiful images here. “Cosmovore Renovates the Kitchen” is another one of my favourites because it clashes images of the mythic alongside images of the quotidian; it puts the banal with the beautiful. I want to think the quotidian is mythic, because it makes me feel included in this universe; I want to believe that looking at granite countertops in Home Depot isn't conformist, hegemonic, or heteronormative because, depending on how I use them, I can be part of a brand new cosmology. I love that feeling, and it's something that Carter does exceptionally well. Her skill as a poet also comes out when she speaks of animals. A dog follows Cosmovore throughout most of this work, which is adorable, but I also love the way in which she described puffer fish with a “ghost-thin skull / sinking.” Then this entire passage about bees makes me swoon:
Each thorax vibrates
against my vellus hairs.
My heartbeat begins to mimic
their polyphonic hum.
I open my mouth
and they follow the sound.
The bees tessellate,
eager to polish legs against my teeth and gums
still plump, rife with slivers of glass and polyurethane.
Carter’s specificity is her strength in this passage, as is her sonic presence on the page. Her ability to craft a stunning image, is why I like this book. I could really envision what she was talking about and it felt like I was there. But at other times, I felt distinctly shut out of Carter’s world, because I began to wonder if our ideas of womanhood were the same, and if the trans women I consider just as mythic as Carter’s cis ones would be included in it. And I worry that part of that may have been the point—in order to start “a conversation.”
Maybe excluding trans women from this collection was deliberate, in order to start this conversation about this exact precarious history. Or maybe I'm still feeling the shadow of The Transsexual Empire (1979) or forced feminization surgeries in the 1970s pulp novels and I'm reading too much into all this. Who knows? Feminist science fiction has had a difficult time negotiating transgender women in its circles as either authors or as characters. And while I'm all for talking about this history, it saddens me that in order to get this conversation going, we have had to rely on exclusion yet again; we've had to use trans people as examples, rather than real people and a real community who are still struggling, especially in the US.
One of the main ironies—or at least, inaccuracies—in that tampon commercial is that some transgender women do use menstrual products, just not for the same reasons as cis women. Moreover, some trans men still do have periods and may require tampons, and the same goes for nonbinary people. Transgender people aren’t excluded from the use of the abject in their poetry; indeed, I've seen a dozen poems crafted about surgery scars and bandage draining, sitz baths and bruises that won’t heal after surgery. The eating of the Balut, or the ortolan, that Carter writes about could have been used to symbolize the devouring of a past identity; a discarded organ no longer wanted. These metaphors and tools can be used to unite, but they were not in this piece. Of course, I can read “Cosmovore Goes to the Doctor” as yet another iteration of the disappointing interaction trans people often have with their own care practitioners, but it is not necessarily there in the text. It gets tiring to search in the blank spaces for the meaning I want, especially when, like Cosmovore, it feels as if I'm searching an entire universe and am still so exhausted. Kristi Carter is a fantastic poet and this is a good collection which I'd recommend to people … just not to as many as I would have hoped.