Poetry Poetry Bookshelf

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

In Jewish tradition, after someone dies, it is customary to bring food to those left behind and to sit with them in a practice known as shiva. It shouldn’t be that surprising to find food associated with grief. Food is in its way a form of showing love and support that it may bring succor to the sorrowful. Named after a poetry quote of Derek Walcott’s, (“And I thought, O Beauty, you are the light of the world!”), the memoir Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander reads like a mixed media form of artwork. Interspersed within its pages, prose poetry sidles up against essay, reporting, and finally, recipes. In this chronicle of the life of Alexander’s husband, the chef and artist, Ficre Ghebreysus, his untimely death comes across as punctuation out of place.

A few years ago, I attended a lecture Alexander gave on Lucille Clifton’s poetry just after Kevin Young’s tome of Clifton poetry had been published. While Alexander describes writing World bit by bit and then threading it together as one story, I am struck by the poetic influences that she turned to during its writing, namely Clifton and Rilke. But also, the acknowledgements section names her editor’s initial suggestion to write this story.

When I first heard about the release of World, I knew I wanted to snatch it up immediately, both interested in how a poet would approach memoir and wanting to see how food wove into a memoir about loss. This book is an anthem of her husband’s vivacity to live. It also is a chronicle of what it looks like to come out of the fog of grief in hard won healing. Alexander comments that she didn’t want to give into nostalgia. She says of writing World,

“I believe that poets write ‘as poets,’ with utmost attention to each word, the rhythms of the writing, and its musicality.”

Her sections written in parts of one poem feature prose poetry so evanescent that it took a deep amount of restraint not to highlight the entire passage. Every word is essential.

Poetry Poetry Bookshelf

Love Found Poetry Book Review

Dip into this Love Found poetry book review for a brief dip into what makes this book a keeper.

Love Found isn’t your typical tome of love poetry. And for that, we can sigh a breath of relief. So many collections just include eros, but neglect the other forms that love takes on. Also, let it be known, there is only one Neruda poem in here—while I prefer his poems about food, he seems to have a mystique in the cultural accounting for his love poems. Around Valentine’s Day, all eyes turn toward hearts but what does the act of loving look like the rest of the year? This compact book edited by Jessica Strand and Leslie Jonath wrangles 50 poems from a range of domestic and international voices. Full disclosure, Leslie and I know each other from the food book world, but we really connected over a conversation about poetry. When I heard she’d finished an anthology of poems, I knew I needed the collection and reached out to her.

This book is broken into three sections. You start where you’d expect: Desire and Longing. I resonated with the question like the one posed in “Openness” by Wislawa Szymborska (p. 13) of a moth reflecting on the two lovers, musing, “Maybe it sees where our eyes fail.” When reading “Love Song for Lucinda” by Langston Hughes (p. 21), love is defined as “a ripe plum…a bright star… a high mountain” reminding the reader that love is more than blissful emotions but it can burn and is a destination that requires work to get there.

Desire & Longing takes you next to Heartbreak & Loss. And this is where the book is most refreshing. Yeats bumps shoulders with Akhmatova. We see the idea of love become timeless in the act of losing. Its scope broadens to include more than mortal love in an exquisite poem by Shams al-Din Hafiz Shirazi that leads in so well to “The Lesson of the Falling Leaves” by one of my favorite poets, Lucille Clifton. In “Love After Love (p.51)” Derek Walcott reminds us that “You will love again the stranger who was your self,” that space between a word that should be whole playing a necessary function of brokenness that can be repaired. Loss of love can be more than breaking up, and I resonated with Conrad Potter Aiken’s keen insight in “Bread and Music” (p. 55) to write about the love-loss that follows a death: “These things do not remember you, beloved: / And yet your touch upon them will not pass.”

Then, we enter Passion & Partnership with “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!” by Emily Dickinson tucked in like a white hot poker. I read the delightful four line, “A Word to Husbands” by Ogden Nash to my husband and we both laughed (perhaps it might even be hand-transcribed for placement on the refrigerator?) In his poem, “For Love” (p. 86-87), Robert Creeley asks “Must / I think of everything / as earned.” The punctuation underlining it as answered, evolved into a statement.

Of the entire collection, of all the curating and placing and reading aloud and reading on the page—of the questioning and exclamation point yes decisions of which poems make the 50 poem cut, only one poet is featured twice. And, to that end, the second of their poems serves as the coda to the book.

And, for me, now we get to the heart of the book.

I kept coming back to the book title, Love Found, at first seeing it as a two word way to distill the ethos of the collection. At times, I might read a poem and forget myself, the title playing the role of compass and guide back to the all-encompassing theme. But, there is a part of me that wonders in the creation of the book, if that title, was an anchor pitched out into rocky waters—an idea that even in the bleakest circumstances if you look hard enough there can be love found. Because at the end of things, can love ever really be lost? Shakespeare reminds us in one of my favorite sonnets of his (p. 74) that love “is an ever-fixed mark / That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;” It is what is cultivated in private more so than what’s on display in public as we listen in like voyeurs while Mark Strand surmises, “In that low voice, our late night disclosures… why live / For anything else? Our masterpiece is the private life.” (p. 90)

Cookery Bookshelf Poetry Poetry Bookshelf

Cooking with the Muse Book Review

Cooking with the Muse Book review

It’s not often you meet people equally passionate about food and poetry in conversation. At the Association of Writers and Publishers conference a few years back and MFA friend of mine had suggested I meet poet Stephen Massimilla. She said that he also wrote poetry about food. What I did not know until we met is that he had penned a food poetry cookbook called Cooking with the Muse with cookbook veteran, Myra Kornfeld! I beelined over to the Tupelo Press booth and promptly bought a copy. It is a feast of poetry and food that will delight fellow foodies who indulge in poetry (and a great holiday gift!). I dove into Cooking with the Muse more deeply over on Poetry International. At the last AWP, we caught each other at the bookfair and our conversation bubbled with enthusiasm. Recently, I had a chance to chat with Massimilla and Kornfeld on the nitty gritty of how Cooking with the Muse came to life.

cooking with the muse book review

THE FOOD POET (TFP): How did the grain of the idea for this book come about? What is it from a poem Stephen read, dish Myra cooked or a comment made in conversation?
MYRA KORNFELD/STEPHEN MASSIMILLA: So you’re asking about the Muse for Cooking with the Muse? Well, Myra was always a culinary magician conjuring up new dishes and writing and revising new recipes and articles about food, while Stephen was always the literary wizard conjuring up new poems and writing essays and reviews about poetry and literature. We realized we had perfectly complementary skill sets and that we just had to team up. As the great Roger Vergé put it, the chef works “creatively, marrying ingredients the way a poet marries words”—so cooking is like writing poetry, and it takes a poet to cook up colorful and exciting ways to write about food. We also realized that recipes were a lot like poems. We got to thinking that we could write a truly collaborative book together, one all about the marriage of recipes and poetry, of cooking and writing, and the synergy between the two.

TFP: I’d love to know how you two came together to work on this book.
MK/SM: One day, while we were sitting at Alice’s Teacup sipping mugs of chai, we came up with the idea of writing a recipe and a poem that would go together perfectly. And we remembered having shared a great cup of dirty chai after having hiked together through Ebenezer Bryce Canyon in Utah. Later, Myra’s Dirty Chai recipe and Stephen’s poem by the title “My Dirty Chai” ended up in the “Chocolate and Coffee” section at the end of the Winter chapter.

Things proceeded from there. For instance, the idea for one of the early literary essays in the book—on Galway Kinnell’s sonnet “Blackberry Eating”—came up during another teatime discussion at the start of autumn, when the blackberry muse is at the height of her powers. We made a connection between the Kinnell piece and Mary Oliver’s poem about blackberry picking entitled “August,” which ends with the line “this happy tongue.” We were interested in the polyvalence of the word “tongue”—a term both for language and for the site of gustatory delectation. Kinnell speaks of how words, like blackberries at the peak of their ripeness, “fall almost unbidden to my tongue.” The word “almost” suggests that obtaining the ripest berries does call for some anticipation, but the work of the season can’t be forced. What a great way to think about inspiration! The blackberry recipes at the opening of the book were the upshot. 

TFP: Stephen, You’ve got so many interesting linguistic facts and poems placed throughout the book. What did the research look like for this book?
MK/SM: As a poet and scholar of comparative literature interested in celebrating the cross-fertilization of cultures, Stephen already knew a huge number of culinary poems, but we were startled at just how many we kept encountering. The book includes not only a large number of Stephen’s own poems, but also an unusually wide-ranging anthology of classic and contemporary pieces, including interesting food lore. We collected these materials in folders, which we went through periodically to cull our favorites. We met regularly to pick out the poems that either inspired the recipes or complemented them. We agreed that we both had to be excited about every poem, even Stephen’s original poems. That said, a lot of other research was involved in the writing of the comprehensive introduction to the book, the essays about culinary poems and traditions, and all the historical notes that contextualize both the poetry and the dishes. The bibliography alone was a formidable project.

TFP: How did you two collaborate on the recipes and poems? Did you typically start with a poem that inspired the recipe?
MK/SM: We were continually writing and collecting poems and recipes and looking at them to see how they could fit together. Sometimes poems inspired recipes; sometimes recipes inspired poems; and oftentimes the juxtaposition of poems and recipes inspired other musings. A lot of the work involved adapting recipes Myra was working on to dovetail with poems that Stephen was writing, or that we knew we wanted to use. As we worked on the outlines for the book over the years, we also realized that certain pieces fit together in sequences that brought out new relationships between the recipes, the poems, the essays, and the photos. All the pieces interlocked like multicolored jigsaw puzzle pieces to make a whole that’s even greater than the sum of the parts.

TFP: Myra, this isn’t your first rodeo, but the depth and quantity of recipes in Muse is staggering. What did your recipe development process look like and how long did it take to complete the manuscript from a recipe perspective only?
MK/SM: Myra was and is always developing new recipes. She cooks seasonally, inspired by the Greenmarket Muse, and her flavor combinations are often inspired by traveling. The recipes in the Turkish, Irish, American Southwestern, and Moroccan sections of the book, for instance, were to a degree inspired by travels, and Stephen took a number of the food pictures in the book on these trips.

Given Myra’s background in nutrition and Real Foods traditions, these dishes highlight fresh, local ingredients and encourage the use of seasonal produce, wild seafood, traditional fats, and meat from pasture-raised animals.

Like revising and re-editing poems, recipe writing is an exacting process full of trial and error, but it was great to have had so many scrumptious meals during the planning, writing, photographing, and overall construction of this book. The recipes were also tested on SO many people through our cooking events and classes. We wanted to make absolutely sure that these recipes would be clear and easy to follow for cooks of any and all levels.

TFP: Stephen, there are quite a few original pieces of food poetry in Muse. Where did you find your inspiration to write them on deadline?
MK/SM: While we were working on Cooking with the Muse, Stephen sometimes composed a poem by the stove while Myra was developing a dish. That happened, to give a couple of examples, with “Seared Tuna with Purple Potatoes and Cherry Tomato Sauce” and with the Salad of a Thousand Leaves recipe; in these instances, the recipe changed to match the poem that was based on it. In this sense, writing poems involved riffing on and helping to reinvent recipes. Though it began with a lot of intuitive hunting and gathering and freewheeling improvisation, the book also contains a great many prose introductions, recipe preambles, essays, and carefully researched historical and literary notes, all of which had to be planned, composed and revised in a more systematic way. We were both so inspired because cooking and poetry have so much in common. They are both creative and celebratory arts. They’re both about traditions of nourishment in the very deepest sense. They both reflect our values and feelings. And they’re both inseparable from human relationships, as well as our relationship to the earth, the seasons, and the spirit within us.

TFP: What does your poetry writing process look like?
MK/SM: Stephen always carries a little black notebook full of notes and sketches (he’s also a drawer and painter) about what the Muse happens to be saying—which could take any number of forms. His favorite pieces often reflect more than one source of inspiration, including the time of year; an intriguing word or phrase; a memorable dream; or even another work of art—a painting, a film, a novel, or, as he’s mentioned, a dish. He  composes most of his poems themselves at night, when the house is quiet and the world is calm, when the air freshens and flows around the writer without interruption. 

And speaking of the atmosphere, the greenmarket (a living celebration of the seasons and the lush creations born of human collaborations with nature) was a major source of inspiration for Cooking with the Muse. Not only most of the poems and recipes, but also the poetic-prose essays introducing each chapter could be said to be odes to the farmers’ market.

TFP: Is there one recipe that stands out among the rest that, if you dog-eared pages of the book, would be the one to which you continue to return?
MK/SM: There are many, actually. In the book itself, we mention which ones we consider staples to be making all the time. These include the Foundation Recipes (the stocks and bone broths fit this category), as well as the Oatmeal Deluxe Breakfast Bars and the Coconut Muffins. (Also, at the end of the Pumpkin Pie Bread recipe, we strongly recommend the Pumpkin Pie Bread muffins. They’re a must.) Many of the Turkish and Moroccan choices are regular go-to recipes for us. And there are others that we return to seasonally and on holidays, such as the Turkey with Cranberry Glaze on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The Portobello Muschrooms Stuffed with Chestnuts, Apples, and Wild Rice is also really fun around Christmas time. And the Miniature Lacy Potato Latkes are a Chanukah standby. We love the Mediterranean Caulifower Kale Roast with Feta throughout the winter. The Fudgy Nibby Brownies from the Winter chapter are also a perennial favorite. There is a picture in the book of a Fudgy Nibby Brownie tower that we made for a wedding in lieu of a cake, but they’re great for any party or just to have on hand as snacks, provided you don’t eat the whole tray at once.

As we mentioned, we experienced a big thrill when we saw how the literature and recipes were coming together, starting with a first autumn recipe that pairs Galway Kinnell’s scrumptious “Blackberry Eating” and a poem by Mary Oliver with a luscious “Blackberry Parfait.” This dish is both sophisticated and perfectly appropriate for a beginner cook. The close reading that goes with it also good for a first-time reader of poetry since the essays are designed to make the poetry more accessible. In a more sophisticated vein, we’re really excited about the Middle Eastern Feast in this book, which is spiced with the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz.

TFP: Did you listen to any particular music or albums to get you into the right head space to write the poems / craft the recipes?
MK/SM: For inspiration, we rely more on comedy than music. During a radio show, an interviewer once asked us what piece of music would make the proper accompaniment for our book. We didn’t know what to make of that question, but we referred her to page 266, where we discuss a cantata to coffee by Johann Sebastian Bach, along with a dithythramb to chocolate. We can’t quite say that pieces like these inspired the recipes or the writing. But when we thought the whole project was finally finished, we sang our take on the Jeff Buckley version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for days.

TFP: What did you not expect from Muse that surprised you?
MK/SM: Well, our respect for each other’s skill sets went up. You learn knew things about each other when you’re in the trenches together. We had a really good working relationship, in short, and we ended up with new respect for each other’s complementary abilities, work ethic, and grace under fire. We simply could not have written this book without each other.

TFP: Who are some of the food poets that inspire your writing?
MK/SM: This large-format 500-page book begins by presenting an historical perspective on the link between literature—especially poetry—and food. The book draws on material from many traditions and eras: from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the Bible, from the medieval Sufis to the Japanese, from the great Romantics and Transcendentalists to a dazzling pageant of modern poets. Authors represented include Homer, Lu Tong, Rumi, Chaucer, Basho, Milton, Keats, Dickinson, Hopkins, Lawrence, McKay, Neruda, Machado, Stevens, Hurston, Plath, Tom Robbins, Derek Walcott, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Lucille Clifton, Michael Ondaatje, Billy Collins, Linda Hogan, Elizabeth Alexander, Jorie Graham, Li-Young Lee, Jane Hirshfield, and a great many others.

TFP: Do you anticipate another collaborative project in your future?
MK/SM: Sure. But give us some time to recover on the island of Maui first. We have to find the right inspirational trigger. And the Hawaiian state triggerfish—called humuhumunukunukuapua’a, or humuhumu for short—is something we’d like to see!

Blackberry Parfaits

Food Poetry Poetry Bookshelf

Ewa Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoe

Contraband of Hoopoe Book Review - anneliesz

It’s not a difficult thing to think that at a poetry festival, you might hear a poem that piques your interest. It’s an entirely different thing to hear something– a way of offering words to a subject of already well-tilled ground in a fresh voice that makes you beeline to the bookfair area and snatch up the sole remaining copy of that poet’s book. And so it was that I met Ewa Chrusciel, first through her reading from A Contraband of Hoopoepublished by Omnidawn and then later through sitting with her words and letting them journey inside me. I’ve read this collection several times and each reading offers new nuggets of insight. At the heart of Hoopoe is a collection exploring the immigrant experience. This focus on immigrants coming to the U.S., feels particularly pressing and timely right now,  one to be kept on the front burner.

Food factors into her poems in surprising ways. Take a cue from the title–contraband courses through the pages of poetry too. “Gummy bears, the patron saints of contraband.” (p. 43). Smuggling is a present theme in the poems and an ode to sausage paints a humorous picture of what sometimes gets taken away and becomes lost. Because make no mistake, a deep loss reverberates as a steady thrum even though joy resides in them too. “Smuggling will not seal the broken vases. It will make your grief one hundredfold, and carry it into other griefs.” (p. 53)

She asks important questions of the immigrant: What do they carry with them? What do they leave behind?  Her series on Ellis Island sometimes is arresting and in one instant, “Ellis X” is simply a single line–a question not easily answered. One poem is simply a list of the names of “the Righteous among the Smugglers,” naming the Cracovians who hid Jews in their homes– inspired from visiting an exhibit in the Museum Factory of Oskar Schindler.  Immigration might seem like a contentious issue currently, but Chrusciel reminds us in “Ellis XI” that “Both Ellis and Alcatraz at first served as miliary fortresses.” (p.70)

Fear of the immigrant comes from fear of the other. And this is where, a re-reading of the Sausage poem illuminates conflict of two ways to define the terms.  When you survey the poems, prayers pop up throughout them whether in title, “Split-Second Prayer through Customs” or in intimate lines where the reader almost feels like a voyeur, “Convert me back to wonder. Cure my heart of such morbid desires to come home.” (p. 13).

Full disclosure, I have a horse in this race. My parents both immigrated from other countries and reading Hoopoe, I circled back to those underlying questions: What did they carry with them? What did they leave behind? What did they smuggle? Good poetry makes the universal, personal. And, Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoes is a crucial body of work for us to not forget the past, lest we be doomed to repeat it. It’s an offering of understanding and hope. Its mascot, the hoopoe, “brings silence to the world of noises.” (p. 20)

Food Poetry Poetry Poetry Bookshelf

Food Poetry: Cream of Tartar by Julia Wendell

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships between mothers and daughters. They can be so fraught of misunderstanding. My mother used to denounce my teenage years as the years I didn’t talk to her. How could I explain the gulf of emotion and crisis upon which I was cresting outside of writing and reading my way through those four profoundly influential years?

Julia Wendell shares a story about cooking with her mother in the kitchen, how together they shared a secret that one of them knew and the other had yet to learn. Her mother’s arthritic hands made certain small acts in the kitchen difficult for her but provided opportunities for her daughter to participate in the process. At the time, Julia questioned the validity of her contributions until she too developed arthritis in her hands year later, and with it, understanding of how important her help had been to her mom. Mothers and daughters can do a kind of circle eight dance, can’t they? So many years later, my mother and I are the closest we have ever been but it has come at the cost of all of the lessons life has taught us through one another along the way.

Julia Wendell’s new book, Take This Spoon explores this tenuous balance between mothers and daughters, grounding it in the food they make together. I caught a glimpse of her food poetry and knew that I wanted to share it with you. Be sure to read beyond her poem, “Cream of Tartar” for Julia’s Cheese Souffle recipe that includes the secret ingredient alluded to in the poem above it.

Take This Spoon by Julia Wendell


Cream of Tartar

by Julia Wendell from her new book, Take This Spoon


Pot-holdering a cloud

of toasted soufflé,

its voluptuous body

billowing over the dish,

we kept its infallible, flawless secret,


referencing the butter-

stained recipe card

by memory only.

Teamwork, we’d wink to each other—

and lots of stirring—never revealing


what separated mother and daughter

from our guests’ amazement

at this seeming perfection—

fleeting, and only as good

as our shortcut:


a bitter white powder lodged

in a glass spice jar

that doubles in volume without fail

what it starts with, transforming

impossible into easy.



Julia Wendell’s Cheese Soufflé

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

1 ½ cups shredded cheddar cheese

About 1 ½ cups milk

5 eggs, separated

½ teaspoon cream of tartar

In a double boiler, melt the butter. Then add the flour and stir until well blended. Add the milk, a little at a time, and stir until the sauce begins to thicken. Add the cheese, stir, and remove from the heat. Beat the egg yolks until light and sunny. Add to cheese sauce which has been allowed to cool slightly. Beat whites until stiff but not dry. Fold in cream of tartar and then blend cheese mixture into it. Pour mixture into a greased ceramic deep dish and place that dish into an oven-proof pie pan that has about ½ inch of boiling water added to it. Place dish and pie pan in middle rack of oven. Cook at 350 degrees for about 1 hour or until soufflé has risen and crust has browned and a knife inserted in center comes out clean. DO NOT open the oven door while cooking. Only check for doneness at the end of the hour. If the pie pan runs out of water within the cycle of cooking, open the oven door ONCE to add a little more boiling water.

Around my house, we always served the soufflé with baked potatoes, peas, and a “Seizure Salad”—but that’s your call.


food poetry Julia Wendell
Julia Wendell grew up in the Allegheny Forest of northwest Pennsylvania. Educated at Cornell University, Boston University, and the University of Iowa, Writer’s Workshop, she left her mid-careers as teacher and editor for the world of horses and three-day eventing. Her children John Logan (a classical sitarist) and Caitlin Saylor (an actor/playwright), grew up with their mother and her husband, poet and critic, Barrett Warner, on their horse farm in northern Baltimore County, where Julia and Barrett still live and work. Julia is enamored of jumping horses over immovable obstacles while galloping cross country. Discover more of her work at JuliaWendell including her new book of poetry about food and the complexities of a mother-and-daughter relationship, Take This Spoon.

Poetry Poetry Bookshelf

A Commonplace Book of Pie

Food Poetry Jane Kenyon Pie Quote

If some people hanker for tearing into turkey on Thanksgiving, others contemplate the cacophony of porcelain stacked in a full sink and the empty table ready to receive a procession of desserts. The homely pumpkin pie doesn’t easily outshine pecan pie all gussied up in its garb of karo laced pecans. One thing is certain, for some reason, the cake and the cookie find no invitation to the table on this day each year. This is one holiday cornered by the commonplace pie.

Lucky for us, this year, we have a guide to deconstruct pie, one personality trait at a time. In Kate Lebo’s book, “A Commonplace Book of Pie,” she alerts the reader to the subtle implications of liking certain pies through prose poetry with pointers on pie-making and a few recipes tacked onto the end of the book. I’m inclined to agree with Jane Kenyon that pie-making truly holds off “autumnal entropy,” something with which we could all use help.

But I would entreaty that this book arrives just in time for other reasons: we all need a diversion to pull into the cheerful family gatherings that like spools of string can unravel so quickly into disarray. Lebo’s poetry is subtle enough that your family members who claim they don’t like poetry or have never read it will be entranced by her clever work.

In “A Commonplace Book of Pie,” which started out as a zine by this Seattle based poet and pie-baker, Lebo paints vignettes of pie enthusiasts that make you want to flip the page and keep reading. We learn that though the woman who serves Rhubarb Custard Pie “has been known to fake orgasms, she would never serve Splenda to guests.” (p. 39) She asks of Cherry Pie, “Which is more American? Processed fruit in explosive syrup, or sweating in the sun while balancing on a slender ladder?” (p. 23). I surmise that you could make a go of reading through the book as you rest between dinner and dessert, making a guessing game of guests as pie eating participant characters in the book. If you try this approach, just wait until you get to Peanut Butter Pie… I sank down into the description for Cranberry Pie deeply enough that I believed I might be back-floating through a cranberry bog and on the other side would be a sumptuous slice of pie waiting for me, the jeweled red sparkling in the sun.

Even her recipe to make pie crust reads more like a poem as she charges that “we are not accountants; math will tell us how many servings, not how to make or serve them. We are pianists. Cut your nails, and if you paint them, make sure the varnish doesn’t flake off and disappear into your dough.” (p 69)

What’s marvelous about Lebo’s book is that she shows how food and poetry can marry together in the printed world, although I would still consider this a poetry book over a cookbook (only six recipes grace its pages) but that’s kind of the point. She endeavors to play the part of tour guide in Pieland, pointing out some of the sights to see and providing tips for us to continue our voyage long after she is gone so that you and I as readers can make up our own figments of pie-induced enthusiasm. The book reads like a piece of local lore you might find in an attic in the deep South. It makes me want to flour down my countertop and cut out the edges for handheld pies. It makes me believe poetry can be for the people- especially the ones who come by it unwittingly at a family table decked out in festivity.

A Commonplace Book of Pie by Kate Lebo
To learn what pie has taught Kate Lebo about writing and other tidbits, visit Jama’s Alphabet Soup.


Poetry Poetry Bookshelf

The Hungry Ear by Kevin Young


Food and poetry go together. Where one is a feast for the mouth, the other is a feast for the tongue. Where one picks up on the crunch of celery, another hears the words in a poetry reading. I heard about The Hungry Ear by Kevin Young and knew that I needed to read it. Having already sunk into his anthology on grief, “The Art of Losing,” I knew he would outfit an anthology on food and poetry with the same thoughtful regard of incorporating fresh voices along with seasoned ones.

So much of what he said in his six page introduction found me nodding my head in assent, whether he considered that “Thanksgiving remains the only homemade meal many Americans still have” or how “[f]ood like poetry, after all, is a necessity.” And perhaps the two share more in common than most people think. I would not hesitate to say most Americans don’t see the necessity of poetry and the particular way it nourishes the spirit as food nourishes the body.

Each chapter opens with a quote, often from beloved voices from the food writing community. A pithy saying about diet food from Julia Child precedes a section dedicated to Meat and Potatoes. Wendell Berry’s quote that “eating is an agricultural act” opens the First Harvest section and I recently discovered, is also painted above the door of Eataly, an upscale slow food grocery store in Manhattan. Yes, poetry and food are certainly in conversation more than we think.

Like many cookbooks, “The Hungry Ear” is laid out by season- where the book opens with poems about blackberries by poets Yusef Komunyakaa, Galway Kinnell and Seamus Heaney, it circles back at the end of the book to a “blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea / Somewhere at the end of it, heaving” by Sylvia Plath. This ordering of large chunks of the book gives a nod to seasonal eating. Within the seasons, natural associations play out into small sectional chunks.  In the larger Wintering portion, these smaller sections include Soup Lines & Staples laden with poems that address hunger before turning a corner to tackle Meat and Potatoes and then a selection of Offerings.

It seems fitting with a book release date of October to start in First Harvest before making its way into Giving Thanks with its anticipated Thanksgiving poems like Sharon Olds’ “First Thanksgiving” that denotes the anticipation of a daughter at college returning home for Thanksgiving or a number of fish poems including a personal favorite, “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop. Adrienne Su’s “Four Sonnets About Food” stands out as a poem in this section that both speaks of the interconnectedness of people and what it means to nourish another.

For food preservers, there is an entire portion devoted to “Churning and Preserving” with a poem by Young that captures the spirit of “The Preserving” so well. The poem starts, “Summer meant peeling: peaches, / pears, July, all carved up.” This line pulls in someone who practices canning so easily, letting them slip into a season by the act of peeling and carving known only too well. It scents the kitchen once again with the heady smell of peaches. Of course, there are poems to butter and a poem called “O Cheese” by Donald Hall to bring a smile in all of its descriptive aromatic glory.

Food teaches lessons on living and what it means to be human, bringing that nagging sense of shared necessity Young mentions in the introduction to assert itself again. This is evident in “Hot” by Craig Arnold, a narrative poem that starts with two friends, a game of “chicken” involving chiles and a looming sense to outdo one another until the narrator finds, in the end, the cost is far too high.  Then an everyday cup of  “Coffee” takes on new meanings in the hands of Matthew Dickman: “Once, I had a brother / who used to sit and drink his coffee black, smoke / his cigarettes and be quiet for a moment / before his brain turned its Armadas against him, wanting to burn / down / his cities and villages.” William Carlos Williams’ notes a lesson learned through observation in “To a Poor Old Woman,” where a woman eats plums from a paper bag. He muses, “They taste good to her / They taste good / to her. They taste / good to her” – through the use of four words ordered and then re-ordered, the reader sees scarcity of choice and an unexpected appreciation.

Where food nourishes the body, poetry nourishes the soul. In the food community, the tide of popular thought continues to turn in the direction of slow food, the revival of real foods and nourishing traditions. People want to know where their food comes from and are demanding more transparency from the purveyors and manufacturers. In some cities and neighborhoods, this quest for information is just blooming; in other places, these questions are commonplace. To this, Young postulates, “and if there’s hope for what we insist we and our children eat, this may mean a world where poetry too can return to the table, where not just conversation, but culture, is made.”

In “The Hungry Ear,” the appetite is whet and sometimes left unsatisfied. Poems do not always bring answers but perhaps instigate more questions. Poems rejoice in the details that make life more meaningful. Just as the ingredients and method in a recipe provide direction, the poems in this collection point the way to a type of living that probes deeper than what the hurried American livelihood typically resembles. And that necessity to slow down and chew well truly is a gift of poetry.

The poems ask the reader to chew slowly and consider the cost of culture clash and globalization, as in “Coca-Cola and Coco FrÍo” by MartÍn Espada. They ask to question the currency of the current pace of life as in “The Orange” by Campbell McGrath. And sometimes they just ask you to sit and smile like the watermelon slices in Terrance Hayes’ “Sonnet.” If you heed the directive you might find yourself transformed as in “Potatoes” by Linda Hogan where “[w]e taste starch / turn into sugar in our mouths.” Indulge your hungry ear, and you might find you’ve been famished, hungering for poetry.

Poetry Poetry Bookshelf

Honeycomb by Carol Frost

BOOK REVIEW- Honeycomb by Carol Frost

This time it started with bees.

We were hunkered down in the Great Hall listening to poet and faculty member, Carol Frost, share a few poems from her newly released book “The Queen’s Desertion.” As she began to read the apiary poems, I found myself transfixed and caught like a fly in the spider’s carefully crafted web of a really good metaphor. With head cocked, as I find myself when deeply engrossed in a writer’s words, I visualized the bees lost and wandering and could see a shadow of the mother in the emotional crevasse of the daughter’s language. I bought the book and pored over its contents finding myself coming back to the bee poems and thinking about what it means to lose one’s way.

At the time and far away, I watched a different scenario playing out in a different state but with many similarities to note: the quizzical expressions, the mindless repetitions of subject matter, the growing confusion with the world around. As this played out the times I happened to be inTexas, I found the transformation beguiling in the worst possible way. It reminded me of a room in which a person is locked without a key. It reminded me of bees far from home, disoriented and unable to find their way back.

I never had a chance to study directly under Carol Frost, but her work continues to teach me about the lyrical beauty of language as well as the opportunities available through syntax. The bee poems first recorded in “The Queen’s Desertion” became fully realized in “Honeycomb,” her most recent collection with its raw emotional under-girding of loss upon loss. At points, you get sick of the bees but even their repetition reflects back on the nagging reality of alzheimer’s and is an effective device. Frost asks “Is it so terrible to outlive the mind?” in her poem “Abandoned bee boxes piled on each other at meadow end…” As a reader you sense the frustration of being unable to change the situation unfolding.

And that is the universal appeal of a collection of poems centered on alzheimer’s. She questions what is valuable in “She wears geegaws from relatives” wondering if “Old, did Helen wear diadems? / Did she know glass from diamonds?” Here, she juxtaposes the classical figure of Helen from the Iliad with her mother, wondering if she too had difficulty ascribing value from jewels to the commonplace. Frost queries the life being lived now and what it means to make the most of it. “We feed her chocolate because / she likes chocolate and she / forgets” – the small moments of sweetness contrast strongly against the pervasive bitterness of a situation that knows one end.

Reckoning with alzheimer’s resembles the grieving process and includes denial, loss, anger, and depression. To come to grips with what is impossibly difficult in the beginning to accept, for all involved in “Pearly, flying hair” she states “She is dancing. We won’t say / she’s dying.” Occasionally, Frost speaks of couching the situation as a “little problem with time and space.” This denial, this staving off of the final prognosis is wrenching. As a reader, you feel the frustration of loss which she depicts well in describing what it is to lose one word only to be followed by another – “[h]oneycomb, goddess, death, fate and the human heart, / they lived in her until too many words / flew like birds”. You feel the despair and deepening rift for both daughter and mother throughout the collection. In “I remember the psychiatrist’s exam-” the reader is brought into the room as the psychiatrist asks the mother to draw a clock. Through a simple task, the extent of forgetfulness is uncovered leaving her mother exposed to the glare of what no longer exists. Frost describes it as a “dark, cruel / moment when she found out- / mind a papery hive sliced / open, herself furious.” This suggestion of the asp comes up again later in the collection and serves as a good point of reference for anger.

The asp plays an interesting sub-character to the bees. Nearing the end of the collection, this image crops up in the poem “She saw that the tortured dream wrestled to the floor”. In it, the poet reckons with her mother experiencing “punishment / for hallucination” and tries to reconcile with where the fantasies came from. Against the current of queries from her brother, the poet, in her “quiet, reprimanding” pits a “yellow asp stinging the black heart.” This uses the same colors of the bees but the asp has a different connotation. Set up against trying to understand hallucination, she knows the truth and it stings.

Signature Frost style for me includes deeply lyrical poetry, references to classical literature or art, experimentation with syntax and using the title as the first line in the poem. These are evident in “Honeycomb” but the taut narrative keeps the pages turning. Her use of ellipsis hints at the dragging on of time and days in the nursing home in “(For the ones” where “clocks are wound…. / The last hour is a song or wound….” Several times, she employs double colons to confer a sexuality and frustration. In “If her falling to quiet” reads “of flowers:: to rain” Again, the reader finds in the afterword, “sea and grasses mingled:: / there was no hell after all / but a lull before it began over:: flesh lying alone:” When encountering death, it is not so strange to question life- both what it means and what it now must look like. The afterword is particularly powerful in accomplishing that sense of loss. Where there once were two colons, there is now only one and Frost continues breaching the line “flesh lying alone:” with single colons, showing life does go on and fits into the world in “the grace of waves, of stars, and remotest isles.”

“Honeycomb” features Frost at her finest with writing that is strong and evocative. The reader feels a certain sense of voyeurism in tender moments of her mother’s degeneration, coming to grips with what is: a daughter encapsulating what sets the days apart, a mother declining into Lethe orStyx, comforted in the poem “What makes her quiet”, a doll.

So “Now, now, / let her rock her doll.”

Poetry Poetry Bookshelf

Astoria by Malena Mörling

BOOK REVIEW- Astoria by Malena Morling

When I conceived of the idea behind the name of this blog, it felt a bit cheeky- an inside joke with myself of a life lived en route. At the time, I found myself a tea-wallah, jettisoning from one end of the country to the other all in the name of flavonoids and theanine.

During the pinnacle of those traveling years, I found myself in New York often, getting to experience the city as an adult not as a pre-teen on a family trip. The city pulsated with energy from the street providing its own soundtrack to the veritable throng of people packed onto sidewalks moving forward. In New York, something ignited inside of me- you can’t help but be thrust into the fire. Its energy feeds your own. Anything can happen there and that sense of possibility can catapult you into the unexpected if you let it.

Once, after wrapping up a gift trade show and packing away our exhibit and teas, I hustled over to a reading across town celebrating Galway Kinnell’s birthday, hosted by other famed poets like Gerald Stern. I squeezed my way into the back of the lecture hall and waited in line four people behind actress Michelle Williams as she gushed her appreciation for his work before it was my turn to wish him a happy birthday and get my book signed.

Another time, after attending a Q&A chat between Eater founder Ben Leventhal and Frank Bruni, I learned Anthony Bourdain was signing books. Without thinking about it too much, I wormed my way into that line, getting a book signed for Olga, a big Bourdain fan.

The city lives in transit and somehow in my mind’s eye when I think of it now as I’m back in the city by the Bay, New York City waits awake and diligent in the night for the coming morning and the people that will polka dot its streets and subway channels.

The energy that made my pulse quicken while in New York City ripples through Malena Mörling’s collection “Astoria“. She references cars, trains, bicycles and walking. She is writing as if in transit and as you read her poems, you find yourself in transit too. But it doesn’t stop there. Her language is spare and evocative. It is full of questions that linger in the air. The destination is often unknown. The journey is heightened by the incidentals. It is in transit. In “If there is another world,” she posits “If there is another world, / I think you take a cab there- / or ride your old bicycle / down Junction Blvd.”

After selecting a graduate studies program for poetry, I found myself surrounded by poets I admired and whose work I respected including Malena Mörling. While we never had a chance to work together beyond a workshop or two, her easy and observant manner made her someone whose company I  enjoyed as we both shared  a love of travel, art and international poetry.

Many of her poems in “Astoria” are set in an urban landscape and where some might write an easy gritty backdrop, instead she finds beauty in unexpected places. From “131st Street”:

“Or it is possible you’ll glimpse in passing / a warm and loving exchange / between two strangers / reflected / for a single moment / in an ornate bureau mirror / traveling on a flatbed truck / stopped at a red light here on 131st Street-”

Underneath the everyday rubric are the metaphysical insights like this one from “Wallpaper” where she connects world to self: “On one hand, / the wallpaper / of the world / and the wallpaper / of the mind / are separate / layers of / what is seen / and unseen.

One of the reasons I suggest reading “Astoria” as part of my curated reading list during National Poetry Month is her ability to transform the mundane into the magical by entertaining wonder and curiosity. And aren’t we all in need of a bit of wonder and curiosity? I think it’s not something that is actively encouraged or cultivated enough as adults.

“It’s amazing / we’re not / more amazed. / The world / is here / but then it’s gone / like a wave / traveling toward / other waves.”