The Embodiment of Language in Carolina Hotchandani’s The Book Eaters

Reviewed by Jessica Poli 

The Book Eaters
by Carolina Hotchandani
Perugia Press
Sept 2023, 97 pages, Paperback, ISBN-13: 978-0997807677

Winner of the Perugia Press First and Second Book Prize, Carolina Hotchandani’s The Book Eaters is a startling debut, revealing a poet with a strong sense of vision and lyricism. Written, in part, about her late father and his experience with aphasia, these poems highlight the embodied experience of memory loss as well as the deep connection between language and the physical body. Through poems driven by powerful metaphors, Hotchandani shows us the ways in which language is sustenance and nourishment.

Throughout the collection, language is made tangible through metaphors which imagine memory loss as a physical experience. In “Portrait of Aphasia on a Plum Tree,” the poet compares the experience of her father forgetting a word to reaching for a ball he’d “kicked high / into the plum tree’s grasp.” Later, this physicalizing via metaphor becomes focused on language as nourishment, appearing first in the form of food. In “Language, a Meal I Thought We Shared,” she writes, “I reach for the word you / can’t grasp and pass it to you / like a bowl filled with rice.” Hotchandani also explores the physical effects of memory loss on the brain, comparing the smoothed ridges of a brain scan to the flat topography of the Great Plains, where she now lives.

Out of these offerings of metaphors, one emerges as a central image. In “I Keep Searching for the Perfect Metaphor,” memory loss is considered through the metaphor of “insects that ravage books,” which “consume entire archives of human knowledge, […] some boring straight through / like they want to shovel out the heart of a living thing.” This is the first in a series of poems which are found scattered throughout the collection, describing the consumption of books by beetles, moths, and silverfish. The comparison at the heart of these poems takes on a sharp significance; these losses are not merely abstract but rather have a tangible impact on the body and its experiences. 

When the poems turn directly to the father’s aphasia, the effects on the body become even more defined as the poet continues reaching for metaphors to make sense of what’s happening. In “Portrait of Aphasia as a Row of Shells,” Hotchandani describes her father’s speech growing silent, with the loss of it creating a sense of distance between them. She writes, “I could not join you in the pool / of language where we’d immersed ourselves before.” Later, she metaphorizes her father’s forgotten memories as intact shells found along the beach at low tide, which “contained whole lives they did not remember.” The poem ends by expressing a desire to hold onto these empty shells of forgotten memory:

I needed to keep them, hear them clicking in my pockets.
I needed to line them up on the shore of a poem:
here and here and here and here—

This metaphor also makes way for an exploration of identity which is closely bound to memory, knowledge, and family lineage. Just as her father grapples with the loss of language, the author’s children are in the process of acquiring it. Both experiences raise complex questions about the self: its definition, its boundaries, and how it is shaped by the words we inherit or create. In the collection’s title poem, “The Book Eaters,” Hotchandani writes:

Blank margins metamorphosed into a soil
ever-fecund, ever-teeming with crops
as larval bodies translated
pages into food and themselves
into the winged stage.
As the baby drinks my milk,
I read. I wait to harvest
from ideas my sustenance.
I wait for my new selves to come.

As the poet’s children enter the poems, the mother-child connection becomes especially profound, exploring the ways language both defines and blurs the lines of individual identity. Here, language is once again compared to sustenance, described in parallel with the mother’s milk which nourishes the child. 

Within these poems, language sustains the body, and it also is the body—as is the case in the poem “In the Beginning,” which describes a nurse making an imprint of the author’s newborn baby’s foot: “as if my baby were, at once, / the pen and the word.” The Book Eaters is stunning in its insistence on the physicality of language, as well as its careful exploration of the ways identity is defined and translated throughout a lifetime.

About the reviewer: Jessica Poli is a writer, editor, and educator living in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her debut poetry collection, Red Ocher (University of Arkansas Press), was selected by Patricia Smith as a finalist for the 2023 Miller Williams Poetry Prize.