My first NaPoWriMo goal–to read a poem every day–was an easy pleasure. Whether I picked a poem at random to read aloud at the end of the day or read several poems in quiet quick succession on the subway, I looked forward to the daily routine.
My second NaNoWriMo goal–to write one poem every week–is proving more difficult. I have a lot of words and ideas echoing in my head from the poems I read during the week, but felt too busy and stimulated to listen to them or to try shaping them into something new. This weekend was beautiful and warm; friends got married, had birthdays, wanted to get coffee and walk around in the sun. I am not one to put off transient pleasures, but I’ve promised myself to catch up later. Knowing me, I’ll probably let all four poems for the month percolate until the last week, and write them all at once.
Considering my failure to set aside time for solitude and writing, it’s slightly ironic that many of the poems I read this week focused on quiet, meditative moments for one or two people at home–namely, in the kitchen. In my recently relocated and not yet unpacked book collection, the most locatable volume of poetry was The Hungry Ear, an anthology of food related poems I wrote about on my food blog. Hence, most (but not all!) of these poems have to do with cooking.
Time only for one poem. I opened the book at random to “Poem With a Cucumber In It” by Robert Hass. As the title hints, the poem is a just little irreverent and whimsical–the second-to-last stanza teases the reader for assuming the poem would include a sexual joke–but most of its lines trace quiet, calming, lovely spaces. The cucumber-green light on a hill, the “opal flesh” of cucumbers, the peaceful ritual of slicing cucumbers and the kiss-like experience of eating them. The final stanza imagines the heat and tumult of the earth’s creation culminating the cooling dream of cucumbers.
What I like about this poem is its gentleness. In addition to its pale green and tranquil imagery, it’s easy and comfortable to say aloud with an almost conversational tone.
Flipping idly though The Hungry Ear, I came across “Squid” by Michael C. Blumenthal. “So this is love:” he begins, and then describes the slippery, surprising scene of preparing squid to cook with his beloved. There are eyes and entrails and ink sacs to remove. It is not pretty.
But the poet makes it pretty, noticing that the squid turns “soft and transparent, lovely” in the pan while the beloved cooks it, comparing the peeled back membranes to “a man peeling his body / from a woman after love” (that visual really moves me), and ultimately converting this ugly process to a hunger for what is “naked and approachable,/ tangible and delicious.”
I. LOVE. this poem. I can’t even explain it, although I’ll probably attempt to do so on my food blog later in the week. It’s an easy, conversational read but the tension between disgusting and inviting is delicately balanced and lyrical. It’s probably the most convincing poem about lovers cooking that I have yet read.
I liked “Squid” so much that I read it aloud at dinner with friends. Then I skimmed the anthology for a Wednesday poem until I saw Lucille Clifton’s name. I have a lifelong love for Lucille Clifton; I saw her speak when I was a teenager, bought all her books and carried The Book of Light from college to New Orleans to Philadelphia.
The narrator in “cutting greens,” unlike the solitary cucumber peeler or the messy squid cookers, does not specific whether she is alone or with family. I am inclined to think she may be cutting greens for family, since who besides me cuts greens by and for herself?–and she does note that kinship is far from her mind. To hell with other people, though. Cutting greens is a confident, sensual, and enjoyable process for her. Unlike the previous two poems’ key ingredients, both compared to precious metals or gems and reflective light, the beauty of the greens is black and livid. The collards and kale embrace, kiss, strain, roll, and twist in her hands and under her knife like living things. “i taste in my natural appetite/ the bond of live things everywhere,” the poem concludes, and I can practically taste her satisfaction, and love it.
The Hairpin’s poetry pick this week was “Save the Candor” by Amit Majmudar, a poem that is not about food but about birds (with a punny play on candor/condor). At first my eyes skimmed over the narrow pole of verse, on to the next post, but then I saw that the lines were so thinly sliced to carefully frame internal and suggested rhymes with a lot of alliterative play. I decided to read it again, thinking that I might be able to steal the strategy. More than a single standout line, I like the overall effect of the breaks and rhythm which cause me to murmur the lines when reading aloud (which is echoed in the murmurs and flusters of the tenth stanza).
I idly read through dozens of poems in The Hungry Ear on my Friday commute. Of them, the one I liked best–or perhaps the one I was most in the mood for–was “Stepping Westward” by Denise Levertov. Like “Save the Condor,” it’s a narrow poem, so each word falls a little more heavily. “If woman is inconstant, good” she says; she ebbs and flows. If woman is meant to be true, that’s good as well, as she holds steady. If she bears burdens, she remembers them as a basket of goods, heavy but bountiful. It “hurts/ my shoulders but closes me/ in fragrance. I can/ eat as I go.”
What better way to end a week of food-ish poems and private moments than with Gertrude Stein‘s Tender Buttons? This collection of odd nonsensical poems takes numerous household objects as its supposed subject, but many of those objects are food stuffs.
Asparagus in a lean in a lean to hot. This makes it art and it is wet wet weather wet weather wet.
Nonsense poem strategies will need their own post another time, but when you encounter these strange little cameos of prose-poems, it’s important to read them aloud. On the page they look like nonsense; aloud you can hear the way certain sounds repeat or transform, like declining Latin verbs; you can hear internal rhymes and intended rhymes, or notice when and what sorts of phrases repeat.
Besides, “wet wet weather wet weather wet” is simply fun to say.
Custard is this. It has aches, aches when. Not to be. Not to be narrowly. This makes a whole little hill.
It is better than a little thing that has mellow real mellow. It is better than lakes whole lakes, it is better than seeding.
In some ways, these poems seem to refuse a human presence: the starting point is an object, the grammar mocks sense-making syntax, the sentences and fragments are bloated with the more meaningless noises of the English language. (Which is why Gertrude Stein doesn’t do so hot on The Writer’s Diet.) All the same, I can’t help imagining the poems as private messages between two people, maybe a lover’s secret language. The objects can’t break totally free of anthropomorphic verbs and the suggestion of movement. Some of the short poems seem like inside jokes, something absurd put together purely to make an intimate partner laugh.
It is a winning cake.
On Sunday, I rested. In fact Sunday is the day I meant to write my weekly poem, but instead I helped to prepare a bountiful birthday brunch and later drank wine with ladyfriends until drowsy. In all likelihood, my eventual Week One poem will honor one of those shared communions.