Last Sext by Melissa Broder: an Immersive Reading Experience
by Paige Sullivan
I’m pretty sure the first thing I yelled when I fell off my bike in a dark underpass was “FUCK.” And I’m pretty sure that, amidst the cars rushing across the interstate above me and the street beside me, that wailed expletive reverberated off the walls of the underpass.
I have to mention the bike accident to talk about Melissa Broder’s Last Sext because so often the context of our own lives becomes a crucial lens through which we read a text. I had already been skimming Broder’s collection in the days leading up to the bike accident: a few poems on the train to work, a page or two by lamplight before falling asleep at night. I was both drawn to and wary of the heady, measured, caterwauling lines, the psychic pain and the existential dread I found in her poetry.
And then I fell off a bike and felt all of it.
I get, too, that falling off a bike doesn’t sound like a big deal. I wasn’t hit by a car, my head wasn’t injured; on the whole, it could have been much worse. But the fall happened right after I left physical therapy, where I’ve been making painstaking progress on improving a right leg injury that’s four years old, an injury that seemingly bloomed out of nowhere.
I have worn a brace, special tape, and other orthotics for years. Walking for too long is hard. Standing for too long is even harder. The dull pain radiates from my knee, down to my ankle and up to my hip, like a sickness. It’s always there. The knee injury has thus slowly morphed from a nagging little issue to a larger psychological itch of mine: an ever-present reminder of my body’s limitations.
Of course, when I fell off the bike, I broke my fall with my knee.
Split open wound and blood and gravel and seven stitches later, I sat on my couch with a pillow under my knee, glowering at my copy of Broder’s book.
Having given Last Sext two readings, I can attest that it’s a collection best experienced via full immersion—my reading experience was all the more rich when I finally surrendered and let myself sink into the waters of Broder’s dizzying, relentless declaratives and cosmic uncertainties.
I offer here a bit of my reading experience as a conversation in texts. Last Sext is on the left in green, and I’m on the right.
In a 2016 interview in The Creative Independent, Broder said: “With the poems, in the initial draft, there is nothing to prove, nowhere to get, no one to impress, just a channel inside that is hopefully clear language and subconscious knowing.”
This idea of “subconscious knowing” very much describes my reading experience: even if, as a narrative poet, I couldn’t put my finger on where we were in space and time, that didn’t matter—in fact, it was highly irrelevant—to the intense moments of subconscious knowing, subconscious recognition, at work in the collection.
The morning after I finished Last Sext, when my dread over my bloody and bandaged leg had calmed and I stopped crying erratically about the body’s ephemerality and the ultimate truth of human mortality, I flicked through my copy of Selected Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson and had another (fated?) moment of subconscious knowing when I read:
Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.
It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.
People often cite Broder’s pronouncement about Dickinson (via a Vanity Fair feature)—“Emily Dickinson would have been great at Twitter”—but I see a true kinship between Last Sext and this particular Dickinson poem that goes beyond poetry’s brevity. Rather, they’re both adept at distilling and heightening a great human truth: within the blank, timeless, borderless space of pain is where we must confront our own limited, time-bound selves.
Paige Sullivan completed her M.F.A. at Georgia State University, where she served as the poetry editor of New South. Recently, she participated in the 2017 Tin House Winter Workshop and the Poetry Foundation’s 2017 Poetry Incubator. In addition to essays and reviews, her poetry has appeared in Arts & Letters, Ninth Letter, American Literary Review, and other journals. She lives and works in Atlanta.
Line sources from Last Sext:
"I Am About To Be Happy”: “I said it was good for you to be art / Save me from death, let me rise from the dead”
“Lunar Shatters”: “The myth of how beauty should save them / The myth of me and who I must become / The myth of who I am not”
“My Own Nothing”: “There was so much silence / I was surprised to like it / I saw that all my wounds were only dust / And when I turned to dust they would be vanished”
"Cosmic Ditch": “Tell me how to feel and I will feel it / Make me into a socket / I want to bleed electricity on the shadow of the world / I want to be zero”
“In Want of Rescue from the Real”: “And a thousand past-life deaths / Tore the mask off my mind / And I am scared to death / And I am scared of life”
“Like a Real Flame”: “And O I want to be fixed / But I am already fixed / Why don’t I feel it”
“Sensation of Is”: “The trauma of living is that it is real…And I am told to stop thinking about dying / Ok fine then nothing”
“Cadaver Lamb”: “Ugly and real / Ugly and real / I don’t want to share / My life with anything real/ God is real / I am trying to get better / What does that mean?”
“Lunar Window”: “The dark of not getting what I want / The dark of getting it"