Review of No Sweeter Fat



    by Nancy Pagh
    Autumn House (2007)
  • 90 pages
  • $14.95

Warning! Reading NO SWEETER FAT, Nancy Pagh’s first collection of poems, can produce an uneasy sense of voyeurism.  Not that it is explicit.  Though desire and sex are second only to obesity as the dominant subject matter, the rendering throughout is controlled and distanced.  Not until these lines from “Imaginary Home”:

  • It is perfectly clear how
  • we make our lives islands
  • carefully removing the dock for winter
  • or losing it anyway in a freak summer storm.

does the cause become clear.

Despite the fact that in the first twelve pages the word “fat” is used fifty-five times, usually in conjunction with the word “ladies,” this is not a collection that rallies,  “fat ladies unite!” Nor does it seek to raise the consciousness of the rest of the population. Not that there’s no notice of that larger culture -- from Oprah to Homer, Pagh signals the mainland -- rather there is little awareness of the reader, little address. 

Instead, in a choice that could not more clearly indicate the intent of this work, Pagh lifts her title from Whitman.  While there has perhaps never been a poetic project more inclusive that LEAVES OF GRASS, it is from the poem “Song of Myself” that the phrase comes.  Truly NO SWEETER FAT is just such a song.

What is best and worst about this collection can be seen in its opening lines.

  • I would like to write you a poem about fat ladies
  • but you prefer to read of blackberries.

Poems of relatively the same length are built up with simple declarative sentences.  There is no effort toward parsimony, no tension or surprise in enjambment, no rhyme or sound play (with the single exception of the beautiful poem called “Gray”). Why, even metaphor is used sparingly.  What remains are relationships laid bare for the reader’s examination, stark-truth telling and, when she is at her best, a roaming imagination.  These are poems that are, above all, accessible. Poems that say not only “I am here,” but “Do come in.”

However it is when Pagh moves beyond the borders of herself and the objects of her desire in the collection’s third hodge-podge of a section that her powers of description and deep humanity shine through. All the wonderful matter-of-fact fishy reality of the Pacific Northwest are painted in the subtle grays and blues of the book’s cover art. One is reminded of Mark Doty writing from the opposite coast in lines like this from “Bait”

  • Large ridged mussel shells gape,
  • their protruding orange bodies seem full
  • of anatomy.  They have beards,
  • tufts of brown there,
  • near that small purple heart
  • which is alarming, clitoral ,
  • half exposed between the mussel lips
  • opened with steam.


NO SWEETER FAT, ultimately, is a communication from an island, a sturdy voice shaping a song that strives tirelessly at bravery. A song that in lines like these from “Timothy Treadwell”:

  • I thought love was good
  • and maybe it is sometimes for two people, 
  • But the rain falls in straight lines.
  • People do not want me.
  • Winter is coming on, coming on
  • and alder all around

cannot help but reach us and resound.