Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Take It, Eat

Take It, Eat

Kwame Dawes

I have a standard answer for the very often asked question, “When did you start writing poems?” The answer, as it happens, involves food.

At age twelve, I tell people, my English teacher, Dennis Scott, who was a well-known Jamaican director, poet, dancer, and playwright, gave us an assignment in class. He asked us to write a poem. I wrote a poem. It was about the pleasures of eating a mango. I remember some details of the poem: the sweetness of the fruit and the act of licking the juices running down my arm. My teacher, I say, thought it was a lovely poem and at a PTO meeting he told this to my parents. My father, a well-regarded writer and all-around arts man in Jamaica, was pleased. As a result, I chuckle, I lost interest in writing poems. It was not until four years later that I attempted another poem.

It is what I like to call my anti-precocious literary child story. I am sure it is largely true but I have no way of verifying all the details. I am sure Mr. Scott taught me but I am not certain when. But it is convenient that it was his assignment. It helps to have been inspired by a great writer. Scott would later have a recurring role in The Cosby Show, so there is a useful populist reference built into the story. I don't know if we had parent-teacher meetings and whether my parents ever attended these things, but the twist of the struggle against a father's shadow is handy. But the mango, now that is something I know to be true. The mango as poetic subject has stayed with me in ways I find hard to explain. It remains one of those poems I have written again and again. I am still trying to write that poem of visceral, sensual pleasure.

I was recently browsing through some of my poetry and I was struck by two recurring images—one more imbedded and private than the other. The more hidden image relates to ideas of sight and sightlessness. Given my history with eyesight and the history of my family with eyesight, this makes sense. More obvious is the recurrence of images surrounding food. For my part I find that there are certain phenomena that present challenges to poets. They also present us with the realization that much of language, especially when employed in the business of description, is fundamentally metaphorical. Taste is one such phenomenon. How does one attempt to describe a taste except through the use of metaphor and its close relatives, simile and allusion? What does it taste like? It always has to taste like something. Ask someone to describe what something tastes like and you are hard-pressed not to see the shape of a poem closeby.

While visiting my friend Sudeep Sen, the poet and co-curator if this edition of FUSION, in New Delhi a few years ago I was fed well. Ironically, the dish that has stuck with me as my overwhelming favorite was one that Sudeep found absurdly inadequate for the title “best meal I had in India.” As I said, he fed me well. But I still remain fixated on this dish. It was a fully vegetarian dish, and when I confessed my adoration at the table filled with sumptuous dishes, he snorted, “You have had the best Bengali food, all these wonderful meat dishes, and you pick this ordinary dish? Shame.” But the hint of sweetness of the aubergines in a lovely curry stew still hums in my mouth.

It has now been elevated to the best meal I have had since the amazing whole sea bass steamed on a bed of spinach in a soy-based sauce in a Chinese deli called Kam Cheuh in New York in 2003, which I enjoyed with my friend, the novelist Colin Channer, at 1:30 in the morning. It is hard to forget the brilliant ritual of deboning that Oliver, the Vietnam vet chef, performed for us when the massive fish was brought with great ceremony to our table. We feasted on snow-white flesh, spinach, and mounds of white rice, then stepped out into the Bowery and walked across the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn raving about the meal. The deli is no longer there, I am told. Just as well. A fantasy is often shattered by reality.

This aubergine dish is probably why when we arrived at a theme for the next FUSION and settled on feasts, my first instinct was to think of India and to wonder if Sudeep would be willing to co-curate this issue with me. This is how food works. It evokes visceral memories that can be as satisfying as the aubergines, and as harrowing as the gagging sensation I feel whenever I attempt to eat a bowl of oatmeal porridge. Both have their emotional logic in some memory, and what is most fascinating for me is the way in which these memories lend themselves to poetic expression.

We are not all the same, so frankly I don't know if this is true for others as it is for me: I believe that the food I loved as a child, the defining food fed to me by my mother from her bowl with her fingers, has become my fantasy food, my deep hunger. And so if I’m asked, “Given the choice of a meal you could have, no audience, no fear of fat or death, no anxiety, just the meal placed before you to eat now, what would it be?” my answer would be easy. And telling. Banku and okra soup. The off-white, slightly fermented steamed corn dough called banku sits royally in a bowl of slimy okra, the pink okra seeds and strips of okra skin floating on the surface with spinach and slivers of whitefish. I find it fascinating that I return to my childhood, to my first food, despite the fact that I have enjoyed so many great meals in my life and that it has been years since I have eaten banku and okra. What is that about? It is about the connection between food and memory, food and experience.

It would seem, then, that a FUSION on feasts would in some way be a celebration of good food. No. It is, though, a celebration of the place of food as metaphor, symbol, source of image, and the evocation of the complex human psyche in poetry. Indeed, the essential place of food in the shaping of our cultures, our politics, and our memories is most beautifully demonstrated in this issue of FUSION.

No doubt Faridon Zoda’s images, so vivid in color and forceful in the sharp articulation of detail, suggest at the same time something persisting and haunting as even the best dreams are. I am moved by his homage to his mother, the baker of bread. My grandmother in Cape Coast, Ghana was, herself, a baker. She baked with a traditional clay-mound oven that sat in her courtyard. Zoda’s wit dances all over these paintings in ways that connect beauty with the complex range of emotions we find in these poems about feasting, food, and celebration.

Our Prairie Schooner poetry selections are especially fascinating for how far they take us into the archives. The earliest is a lovely little poem by Janet Piper, “The Bitter Root,” published in the Winter 1932 issue of the journal. I regard its elemental quality to beautifully encapsulate what I hope will happen to readers of this issue:

Do you hunger?
Take it, eat;
To the hungry,
Bitter is sweet.

BackNext

Kwame Dawes' sixteenth collection of verse, Wheels, appeared in 2011. His awards include the Hollis Summers Prize, the Forward Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner and Chancellor’s Professor at the University of Nebraska. He also teaches in the Pacific MFA Program.

Kwame Dawes

Rachel Eliza Griffiths