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Scene4 Magazine: Life Among The Heffalumps with Kathi Wolfe

Wordhunger: No Food, No Thought

Scene4 Magazine-inSight

july 2007

Once, I had dinner at a Chinese restaurant with poet friends.  Our conversation (Po Biz gossip, vacation plans) stopped when Miles opened his fortune cookie.  The more you eat....the more you eat, his fortune said.  The logic was so inexorable, so zen-like, that we felt no need to speak.

But, we did feel the need to write.  What couldn't be expressed in table talk, we knew, could be captured in the language–the texture–of poetry.  Few things evoke the musicality–the sensuality of poetry, more than the sights, smells, colors, tastes and textures of food.  We whipped out our notebooks and wrote about everything from hot dogs to ice cream.  Being poets, we had a picnic to read our new poems and feast our muse.  Then, the notebooks came out again....

There are many fine schools of poetry (neoformalism, language poetry, Beat and Post-Beat, etc.).  But, all the poets I know (especially, myself) are of the more you eat, the more you eat variety.

"The whole world becomes sustenance, more or less edible," writes Anne Becker in her poem "How It Begins."

Becker, a friend, teaches a poetry workshop called Writing the Body. (I was a student in this class for a year.)  "I insist on finding delicacies for the participants," she says, "to make sure that everybody is really in their body while we're talking poetry–getting ideas."  Becker's not kidding.  There's no Diet Coke or cheese doodles in this class.  Sitting around her table, you'll drink Metabolic Frolic or The Iron Goddess of Mercy Tea.  (I no longer wonder why my dreams are strange.)  Becker, author of the forthcoming chapbook The Good Body (Finishing Line Press), loves earthy flavors (mushrooms, eggplant) and mascarpone cheese.  ("It tastes like a cloud," she says, "not a low-fat cloud–{but} with a high butter fat content–not one of the ones with water.") 

In addition to helping people to form a community, eating is a good opportunity {for poets} to closely observe the things of this world, Becker says. A primordial intersection of earthy flavors and devouring love permeates Becker's poem "Mother Earth":

    "Now comes the time when all good mothers
        eat their children–
    after this they'll only betray her--
    after all she fed them, fattened them–
    all that milk and honey, all those steamy
    cauldrons of glittering worms
        of spaghetti,
    now into the pot a low boil,
    into the sweltering lava, into the burping
    green mud
    into the glaucous
    chocolate, into the nuclear tub of
    love she'll throw them, then baste them."

To study evolution you have to study food, notes Becker, author of The Transmutation Notebooks: Poems in the Voices of Charles and Emma Darwin. "Food isn't only enjoyable," she says, "it's essential for survival."  In other words, pleasure is necessary–a survival mechanism, Becker says. (Take that, food police!)

Food connects us to love, pleasure, death–our search for the meaning of life.  As poets, we hope our muse will kick in, so we can write about this potpourri of searching, joy and desire.

Poet Mel Belin's muse kicks in—in his poem "Buon Appetito" from his book Flesh That Was Chrysalis.  Set in Tuscany, the poem evokes a "gelato moment":

    "and, of course, each
    afternoon brings its gelato
    moment, which is a state
    somewhere between pistachio
    and amaretto, inimitable,
    where spirit de-
    taches from body, ascends..."

Food has played an important role in the lives and work of poets, fiction writers and essayists in the United States from the days of the Puritans until the present day. American Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes edited by Molly O'Neill (The Library of America.  $40. 784 pages.), provides a comprehensive selection (you could say a golosh) of their work (essays, recipes, excerpts from novels and a few poems) Molly O'Neill was a New York Times food columnist for a decade and host of the PBS show Great Food. She is author of Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food and Baseball.

You'll find musings and descriptions of food here from a who's who in American letters (from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Ralph Ellison).

Hawthorne was happy that he and his wife Sophia could enjoy a meal that, he wrote, "comes directly and entirely from beneficent Nature, without the intervention of any third person between her and us."

The protagonist in Ellison's invisible Man, an African-American intellectual in Harlem overcomes his shame of his culture and confesses to his love of yams.  "To hell of being ashamed of what you liked," he says, buying and quickly eating a buttered yam from a street vendor.   "I yam what I am," he says, echoing (as O'Neill notes) Popeye.

American Food Writing will interest foodies (people who like reading about chefs, cooking, gastronomic establishment food fights).  Yet, the book will also delight and move lovers of poetry and writing (fiction and memoirs). 

There is the recipe for Emily Dickinson's black cake.  (This is not for the faint-of-heart.  Baking this confection takes 19 eggs.)  Her sister called it a "lawless cake."

Gary Snyder turns a recipe into a poem in "How To Make Stew in the Pinacate Desert: Recipe for Locke & Drum."

Ogden Nash offers the most amusing take on cooking in "The Strange Case of MR. Palliser's Palate."  (To enjoy this you have to like puns in French.)

The saddest piece in the collection is a letter that Walt Whitman wrote to his mother about feeding ice cream to wounded soldiers during the Civil War. "Many of the men had to be fed;" he wrote, "several of them I saw can not probably live; yet they quite enjoyed it."

American Food Writing will make you want to eat and visit your muse.

In the end, that's what the poet's life comes down to: words and food.

I teach poetry to blind teenagers in an after school dinner program. Some are from low-income families, where food is hard to come-by.  Eating together is one of the most enjoyable parts of the evening for them.  Yet, one night, a 14-year-old boy  wouldn't sit down to eat the Chines food with his friends. "I'm not eating," he said, "until I write a poem about the food."Now, that's a poet!

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©2007 Kathi Wolfe
©2007 Scene4 Magazine

Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet in Falls Church, VA.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


Scene4 Magazine-International Magazine of Arts and Media

july 2007

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