Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We love the pairing of the sweet and the morbid in “Mellified Man,” which manages to be unsettling and fascinating at the same time. How did this curious pairing come to you?

Chase Dimock: I like to think “sweet and morbid” is a pretty good description of both my personality in general and the tone of a lot of my poems. In “Mellified Man,” the sweet and the morbid are connected by the idea of preservation. When I was young, I was told that the preservatives in all the junk food we eat get into our bodies and slow the rate of a corpse’s decomposition. So, I always thought there was an irony in how the addictive sweetness of a Chips Ahoy, which may hasten our deaths, might at least allow our bodies to remain intact longer after we have passed. It turns out this is more urban legend than scientific fact. 

This poem started as an attempt to write a “quod me nutrit me destruit” fable (that which nourishes me destroys me) about how you can develop an addiction to junk food as a child when you’re given Twinkies and Nutter Butters as comfort. Even the best parents can unintentionally create an association between the need for emotional comfort and junk food (especially in the ’90s heyday of low-fat “guilt-free” supposedly diet junk food), but that ends up creating an unhealthy emotional dependency. I imagine everyone has felt the short-term pacification of junk food, followed by intensified malaise once the sugar rush subsides and the pain resurfaces.

RR: We’re interested in your process—how did the definition of “mellified man” make it into the poem? Where did you come across it?

CD: That original intention for the poem fell by the wayside when I came across a small tidbit online about mellification. A lot of my poems start as an interesting fact I heard and unpacked in my mind throughout the day. It was fascinating to study how some past civilizations preserved bodies in honey and other sugars as a form of mummification. I did more research, including discovering the real Compendium of Materia Medica, and I read that there are records of elderly men volunteering to be mellified when they die, and they eat nothing but honey in their final days, knowing that their bodies, thoroughly sugared inside and out, will later be used as medicine. 

As is the case with any text from hundreds of years ago, the line between fact and fantasy is hard to determine. So, I decided to unite this with the urban legend about preservatives, creating a bridge from the ancients to the twenty-first century through the idea of creating an afterlife for ourselves with sweets. Searching for a form of immortality despite the inevitability of death is a universal human concern that connects us with the ancients, and one of the most common forms is to preserve yourself via oral tradition. In this poem, I envision the second speaker as an older man sharing his wisdom with the much younger first speaker, like the storytellers of the past who maintained cultural knowledge through reciting lore. He preserves himself through the modern mysteries of food additives and the passing down of his esoteric knowledge.

RR: For you, how does a poem begin?

CD: Most often, a poem begins with an infectious idea I picked up from somewhere else. Sometimes it’s a piece of trivia or a fact, and other times, it’s a perspective someone shared with me that I’d never considered. They pointed to a crack I’d never noticed, and inside was a whole universe. I’ll think, “that’s a poem!” I’m not sure what the poem is yet, but I know it will unfold as I explore what grabbed me about that fact or perspective. 

For example, a few years ago I learned that the Lockheed airplane plant in L.A. where my great-grandfather worked during WWII hired Hollywood set designers to camouflage it to look like a farm. The workers even had to pretend they were on a farm instead of a factory. That way, in case the Axis powers tried to bomb L.A., they wouldn’t be able to find where we built our own bombers. I thought the symbolism of this fact could tell the story of my family who moved to L.A. after the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma with a strange irony. Having to pretend to be the thing you actually are: that’s peak Los Angeles. The goal isn’t so much to explain the fact or the perspective, but to explore the newly unfolding understanding of myself and the world around me that came through engaging with it.

RR: Your poetry collection, Sentinel Species, was released last year, which you have called a “bestiary of poems.” Can you tell us about your experience working towards building a collection rather than writing individual poems?

CD: The collection of animal and environmental poems in Sentinel Species began naturally at first, without a specific intention. I love learning about animals, thus a lot of my “that’s a poem” moments from 2016-2020 started with an animal fact. During this time, I returned to writing poetry after a long break while I was working on my Ph.D. I’ve always admired the confessional poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, but I wasn’t quite ready to be so directly exposed in my work, as I was still trying to develop my own voice and craft. These animal poems served as my own literary emotional support animals. Starting with my dog, my borderline obsession with flamingos (they produce pink milk!), or my interest in historical animals (what was it like for the hippo who survived the bombing of the Berlin Zoo in WWII?) I found it easier to explore and express more personal ideas through my relationships with animals. 

Once I realized I had about half a book’s worth of animal poems, I decided to focus more closely on a theme that united animals and the natural world, that of the “sentinel species.” This term refers to species of animals whose behavior can alert us to dangers that humans cannot perceive on their own. The most famous example is the coal mine canary who alerts miners to the presence of carbon monoxide when they faint. The subsequent poems all centered around either a personal or cultural relationship with animals and the environment, and what the nature of this relationship reveals about myself or humanity as a whole. This bestiary includes radioactive cats, therapist spiders, historian parrots, imitation unicorns, rat kings, frozen iguanas, and many others!

RR: We were delighted (and disturbed) by the use of Oreos in your piece. What dessert would you say is “to die for?”

CD: For as much as I criticized Oreos and store-bought cookies earlier, I fully admit that I love them and I will try every gimmicky new flavor they invent. One of my favorite poems in my book, “My Dog Begs Me For Something That Will Kill Her,” was inspired when one night, while I was stuffing my face with brownies, my dog performed the most beautifully rehearsed routine of whining and begging. Chocolate brownies (especially with ice cream and hot fudge) are probably my favorite dessert, and I felt terrible in denying her this intense pleasure because chocolate is poisonous to dogs. With her big puppy eyes, she tried to tell me that my brownie was worth dying for. 

How much pure chocolate a brownie might contain, and if that is enough to make her sick, isn’t quite clear, but I had to protect her from the delicious poisons of the human world. But like a glass of bourbon, or a cigar, maybe sugar is a poison administered in just the right ratio between pleasure and death. Maybe my dog’s trying to warn me that chocolate is poisonous for every species if they eat enough of it.

Chase Dimock’s work in Issue 8.2: 

“Mellified Man”