Holiday Meat by Mark Baumer
(Quarterly West, 2016)
Sometimes we refer to things as “child-like” as a way to suggest their simplicity and often, although not always, this carries a sense of dismissiveness. When I say that I was at first struck by what I experienced as “child-like” in the voice, diction, and syntax of Mark Baumer’s Holiday Meat, it is not with dismissiveness, but rather, in recognition and in awe of a child’s ability to observe and describe events without pretense, without the burden of interpretation:
“A boy talked to something. They were in a house. They boy said, ‘This house is okay.’ Part of the house had collapsed. Paul touched something and thought ‘food baby.’ Something got scared. It ran into the woods and beeped.”
Baumer calls upon child logic to deftly render the absurd:
“Sometimes Paul opened his mouth and toads fell out because the human brain used to be the size of Oklahoma.”
It is the seeming guilelessness of these declarative statements that Baumer uses to set up moments of unsettling and often unexpected insight:
“A noise developed at the back of Paul’s teeth. He went to the doctor and asked what it was. The doctor looked in Paul’s mouth and said, ‘The provisional hum of loneliness.’”
Beyond my initial impressions of this seductive and disorienting book, I admire its interiority. The narrator of Holiday Meat, which won the 2015 Quarterly West Novella Contest, documents the experiences of his life – at his corporate job, in his failed marriage, in his family – with a detachment that conveys alienation and a deep discomfort with the pressures and expectations of contemporary living. We follow Paul’s workplace interactions and his observations of family life through a dream landscape that is often bizarre:
“Someone left a baby arm and some salsa in the break room. There was a note next to the salsa that said, ‘When the desert finishes sinking you will wonder why you did not sink. Everyone will mistake your reasons for faith.’”
The effect of the absurd is to destabilize the expectations and comforts of the recognizable and the known. As a reader, how do I navigate a narrative in which I cannot rely on the signs and symbols to which I am most accustomed? I am compelled then to trust the interior life of this narrator, and follow him where he leads.
In Holiday Meat, this reader’s trust was well-rewarded: At times, with humor:
“The next morning Paul found a lettuce head floating in the bathtub. It had a candle stuck in its forehead and on the wall it said, ‘This is what your head would look like if you were made of lettuce.’”
At times, with unassuming moments of insight that range from gestural:
“People looked at people, but no one really notices how often people chose ambivalence instead of taking advantage of the freedom to choose something more authentic”
“Everything in the world laughs silently except the human object.”
and with moments that even when rendered with the gloss of detachment, reveal their underlying emotional engagement:
“Someone called the night before the funeral to say ‘Sorry.’ Paul lied and said his grandfather had killed himself with a shower curtain because he didn’t know how to say the word ‘cancer.’”
Baumer writes poetry as well as prose and chronicles his life – creative, professional, personal – in great and pleasurable detail on his own website, which he maintains along with many other social media presences. He writes about his community activist work and his decision to adopt an entirely plant-based diet. Although Holiday Meat does not explicitly address this, the way its narrator delineates time through the “holiday meat” prepared and consumed suggests a detached and wary stance. Baumer does include in his Acknowledgements a statement about his decision to stop eating meat.
Why do I include these last comments in this discussion of this book? Because I think Mark Baumer is an artist for whom art and work and life are integrated and continuous. He is a compelling documentarian of the quotidian and as a reader, I take great pleasure in knowing the way the writer himself chooses to contextualize his own work. Baumer blurs the boundaries between life and art with an intentionality that is informed by his own ethical code. My admiration for him as an artist is related to my admiration for him as a citizen, community member, human. I think yours will be, too.
Mary-Kim Arnold is a poet and visual artist. Her work has been featured in a number of literary and art journals, including Tin House, The Rumpus, The Georgia Review, Day One, and Hyperallergic, among others. She was born in Seoul, Korea and was raised in NY. She lives in Rhode Island and on the internet here and here.