An anthology of poetry by a bouquet of authors
is something akin to a pot-luck dinner party:
you never know what the next arriving dish will be. When being served by several uncoordinated artistic psyches (be they culinary or literary), to expect a balanced menu is to ask the impossible. But depending on the quality of the artistry, you are guaranteed to be surprised-astounded-by the variety as well as the invention of at least some of the parts.
The pot-luck dinner aspect of anthologies is particularly evident in this fresh-in-from-California tome of writing entirely devoted to or inspired by food. And like some dishes at such meals, some of these offerings have a very tenuous relationship to food: they are rather about the human condition, as all worthwhile poems should be.
Our specific interest in this American-published book is that of the eighty-two authors present, fifteen of them are recognizably Canadian, which gives us more than eighteen percent of the content, a figure well above the ten percent population ratio. (Does that mean that Canadians are eight per cent more food-poetic than Americans?) Included in the Canadian ranks are Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, and the late great bp Nichol.
The one dedicated poet of those three, Nichol is contrapuntally represented by no poems at all. The editors have opted instead for two prose pieces, and the book's only drawing (a jagged line with a dot, entitled "Fish/Wave", of which I know not what to make). In prose we are given "The Mouth" and "The Tonsils", utterly unpoetic, somewhat amusing musings about food's principal point of entry, and those pesky glands at its depths. These are curious choices.
Lorna Crozier clocks in with five poems (more than anyone else, Canadian or American), and they are all decidedly about food. "Learning to Read" recreates a mother in terms of food smells, notably that of cinnamon, which is invoked three separate times, and in italics. "Domestic Scene", a simple poem, does exactly what its title suggests, painting an ordinary tableau of indoor bliss, with a stuffed salmon for two, and a contented cat.
Crozier segues with "Childhood", another simple statement, a longing for a lost child (and a childhood out of reach), as fed by milk and bread. With "Carrots", she turns her attention to the sexual in food, imagining those healthful roots endlessly and unsatisfyingly entering the earth, a cruel metaphor, perhaps, for an inadequate lover who tried "so hard to please" during a long, hot summer.
Her strongest poem is "Eggs", a gory account of the innards of a chicken, with its "rosary of eggs", the yolks "spotted with blood", its cavities and its warmths (this is a freshly killed farm chicken, not the supermarket variety). She skillfully manipulates the reader to her own blood, and "the space I knew inside me", the words echoing images of her own body. There is a companion piece to "Eggs", on the immediately following page. It is the Californian Maureen Eppstein's "Squid", which once again mythicizes an orificial foodstuff (this time the juicy cephalopod), delves inside it, and personalizes it, until it has become first a vagina, and then, when completely, "flopped in a dish," a discarded condom. (Or, should we read, "a deflated phallus"?)
Food as seduction (as in "The way to a lover's heart is through the stomach") is the theme that drives Christina Erwin's prose piece "Diamond Cloves", a deliberate (almost calculated) attempt to entrap a lover with delicious cooking. The reverse (food as unrequited love) occurs in Sheri Radford's "Outline", a dismal Valentine's dinner gone sour, with only dried pasta to clean off plates, and nary a left-over chocolate to sweeten the pain from presents that never arrived. Susan Musgrave raises the ante of food/love in "Love Wasn't Always", with an unsavoury image of underdone, greasy pork to signify a love that has turned ugly.
Where there's food, there'll be talk of dieting (or worse). We get a glimpse of the worst in Heather Spears's "Bulimia Poem", one of the least worthy entries in the collection. She takes forever to reach the point, trudging through various poetic devices and imagery to get there, and, when she does, delivering a lame "women in bulimia heaven" fantasy. There is in fact nothing lame or subtle about this dire sickness, which deserves the treatment given it a few pages later on by the controversial American Elise M. McClellan in "Lamia Bulimia". Here's sheer, raw power, and a thrust so vivid that the reader can smell and taste the bulimic vomit. Unlike Spears's, McClellan's poem is impossible to ignore or forget.
Atwood appears twice. First with a musical, languid ode to "Late August" and its ripe pleasures. It is neither memorable nor serious, but quite pleasurable to read, especially aloud. Her more important piece, and the closing item of the book, is the longish prose poem "Bread", about hunger and inhumanity as metaphored by the staff of life. She leads us through three painfully vivid stories, cautionary tales of savage hunger and unconscionable suffering, only to reach a self-indulgent ending, where she assumes she has done her job ("a hallucination I've somehow duped you into seeing"), and has touched us enough to reject this bread, which she has "conjured" for us.
Luckily, there is an astonishing poem on the same theme in this volume. It is opal palmer adisa's "Dinner Time", an epic that rolls off the tongue, inexorable and terrifying, just as much for its depiction of Third World hunger, as for its satiric punches at American apathy and over-indulgence, ending with "everyday/ like clock work/ americans consume themselves/ numb."
Ondaatje's "The Cinnamon Peeler" opens the book. Lyrical, sensual verse; breathless; a whispering voice that thunders with the throbs of its suppressed desires. The cadences actually smell of cinnamon, that evidently most poetic of sweet spices; and the imagery opens up faraway worlds, hidden lusts in exotic marketplaces. Ondaatje has written the most beautiful line of the book ("as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar").
But the best poem in the book is the lengthily named "And He Wept Aloud, So That the Egyptians heard It", by the late Alden Nowlan, which manages in its scant thirty-eight lines to give us a story of action and rhythm, with meanings both allegorical and actual. In this energetic recounting of youthful intolerance and violence against some bothersome flies, Nowlan paints for us a collage of generational rift, from modern angst for an evil society, to atavistic forbearance for conditions beyond one's control; and does it all in the context of a simple meal of rainbow trout, potatoes, and bread.
It is a stunning poem, in a fairly successful collection, but were we seeking the most succulent food writing of the ages, we wouldn't have to look further than the early nineteenth century, in Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste. Here is a random sample, as translated by M.F.K. Fisher:
"They smiled with pleasure when they saw the table ready, spread with white linen, three places laid, and at each of them two dozen oysters and a gleaming golden lemon.
"At both ends of the table rose up bottles of Sauterne, carefully wiped clean except for the corks, which indicated in no uncertain way that it was a long time that the wine had rested there..
"After the oysters, which were found to be deliciously fresh, grilled skewered kidneys were served, a deep pastry shell of truffled foie gras, and finally the fondue."
Byron Ayanoglu is a Toronto writer and synchronized swimmer. His latest work, The Young Thailand Cookbook (Random House), is currently in the stores.