Friday, September 26, 2014

Poems about the five senses: Playlist for September 26, 2014







Seeing for a Moment

 

By  Denise Levertov  

 

 

I thought I was growing wings—

 

it was a cocoon.

 

 

I thought, now is the time to step  

 

into the fire—

 

it was deep water.

 

 

Eschatology is a word I learned

 

as a child: the study of Last Things;

 

 

facing my mirror—no longer young,

 

       the news—always of death,

 

       the dogs—rising from sleep and clamoring  

 

            and howling, howling,

 

 

nevertheless

 

I see for a moment  

 

that's not it: it is  

 

the First Things.

 

 

Word after word

 

floats through the glass.  

 

Towards me.

 

 

 

 

Lines

 

By  Ina Coolbrith  

 

 

On Hearing Kelley’s Music to ‘Macbeth’

 

O melody, what children strange are these

 

   From thy most vast, illimitable realm?

 

   These sounds that seize upon and overwhelm

 

   The soul with shuddering ecstasy! Lo! here

 

   The night is, and the deeds that make night fear;

 

Wild winds and waters, and the sough of trees

 

   Tossed in the tempest; wail of spirits banned,

 

   Wandering, unhoused of clay, in the dim land;

 

The incantation of the Sisters Three,

 

   Nameless of deed and name – the mystic chords

 

   Weird repetitions of the mystic words;

 

   The mad, remorseful terrors of the Thane,

 

   And bloody hands – which bloody must remain.

 

   Last, the wild march; the battle hand to hand

 

Of clashing arms, in awful harmony,

 

   Sublimely grand, and terrible as grand!

 

The clan-cries; the barbaric trumpetry;

 

   And the one fateful note, that, throughout all,

 

   Leads, follows, calls, compels, and holds in thrall.

 

 

 

 

 

Elegies, Book One, 5

 

 

By  Christopher Marlowe  

 

 

after Ovid

 

In summer’s heat and mid-time of the day

 

To rest my limbs upon a bed I lay,

 

One window shut, the other open stood,

 

Which gave such light as twinkles in a wood,

 

Like twilight glimpse at setting of the sun

 

Or night being past, and yet not day begun.

 

Such light to shamefaced maidens must be shown,

 

Where they may sport, and seem to be unknown.

 

Then came Corinna in a long loose gown,

 

Her white neck hid with tresses hanging down:

 

Resembling fair Semiramis going to bed

 

Or Laïs of a thousand wooers sped.

 

I snatched her gown, being thin, the harm was small,

 

Yet strived she to be covered therewithal.

 

And striving thus as one that would be cast,

 

Betrayed herself, and yielded at the last.

 

Stark naked as she stood before mine eye,

 

Not one wen in her body could I spy.

 

 

What arms and shoulders did I touch and see,

 

How apt her breasts were to be pressed by me?

 

How smooth a belly under her waist saw I?

 

How large a leg, and what a lusty thigh?

 

To leave the rest, all liked me passing well,

 

I clinged her naked body, down she fell,

 

Judge you the rest: being tired she bad me kiss,

 

Jove send me more such afternoons as this.

 

 

Smoke in Our Hair

By  Ofelia Zepeda  

 

 

The scent of burning wood holds

 

the strongest memory.

 

Mesquite, cedar, piñon, juniper,

 

all are distinct.

 

Mesquite is dry desert air and mild winter.

 

Cedar and piñon are colder places.

 

Winter air in our hair is pulled away,

 

and scent of smoke settles in its place.

 

We walk around the rest of the day

 

with the aroma resting on our shoulders.

 

The sweet smell holds the strongest memory.

 

We stand around the fire.

 

The sound of the crackle of wood and spark

 

is ephemeral.

 

Smoke, like memories, permeates our hair,

 

our clothing, our layers of skin.

 

The smoke travels deep

 

to the seat of memory.

 

We walk away from the fire;

 

no matter how far we walk,

 

we carry this scent with us.

 

New York City, France, Germany—

 

we catch the scent of burning wood;

 

we are brought home.

 

 

I Ask My Grandmother If We Can Make Lahmajoun

 

 

By  Gregory Djanikian  

 

 

Sure, she says, why not,  

 

we buy the ground lamb from the market  

 

we buy parsley, fresh tomatoes, garlic  

 

we cut, press, dice, mix  

 

 

make the yeasty dough  

 

the night before, kneading it  

 

until our knuckles feel the hardness  

 

of river beds or rocks in the desert  

 

 

we tell Tante Lola to come  

 

with her rolling pins we tell  

 

Zaven and Maroush, Hagop and Arpiné  

 

to bring their baking sheets  

 

 

we sprinkle the flour on the kitchen table  

 

and it is snowing on Ararat  

 

we sprinkle the flour and the memory  

 

of winter is in our eyes  

 

 

we roll the dough out  

 

into small circles  

 

pale moons over  

 

every empty village  

 

 

Kevork is standing on a chair  

 

and singing  

 

O my Armenian girl 

 

my spirit longs to be nearer 

 

 

Nevrig is warming the oven  

 

and a dry desert breeze  

 

is skimming over the rooftops  

 

toward the sea  

 

 

we are spreading the lahma

 

on the ajoun with our fingers  

 

whispering into it the histories  

 

of those who have none  

 

 

we are baking them  

 

under the heat of the sun  

 

the dough crispening  

 

so thin and delicate  

 

 

you would swear  

 

it is valuable parchment  

 

we are taking out  

 

and rolling up in our hands  

 

 

and eating and tasting again  

 

everything that has already  

 

been written  

 

into the body.

 

 

 

 

 


In the restaurant, the woman feeding had a similar rhythm: she reached chopsticks tentatively toward her and her man’s shared sashimi plate, then withdrew them, as if anticipating the perfect moment. After a few tentative gestures, she stabbed at the plate, clamped a slice of flesh, retrieved it to her lips, took a tiny bite, and chewed. I couldn’t hear their conversation, though I did hear from her a squeak that in another venue would have passed for orgasmic utterance. She beaked the remaining chunk of fish into her mouth, bit down on it, chewed once, twice, then did something I’ve never seen: as some animals feed their young with prey they’ve caught and chewed, tipping the macerated remains into the younger mouths or beaks, she turned and, covering mouth and chopstick tips with her hand, retrieved that last chewed morsel and placed it into her mate’s astonished, uncertain mouth, and they masticated together, nodding. The scene reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a friend who had just broken up with her fiancé. “I couldn’t stand it. The way he put his head down like a dog to a dish and snorted his food, it disgusted me. Feeding time in the lion house or pig pen. We’re all animals, sure, and he was an animal in bed, which was ok, but mouth-slurping pho like that? That was a deal-breaker.”

Physical taste, I think, like one’s sense of style, is fixed, foundational, irreducible. Science will someday map and analyze neural networks sufficiently to explain all this, but for now it remains a mystery to me. Taste is radical, it roots us in the world, to our sense of our presence in reality. It’s foundational but radiates something restless and migratory. It radiates imagination: once we’ve tasted something that strikes deeper than any other sensation into a darker, more obscure part of consciousness, we may spend the rest of our existence trying to replicate the experience, or hoping without hope that it will incidentally replicate itself.

I was eight or nine maybe when my grandmother first offered me a slice of fresh market fennel. The anise sweetness, its toothy cool striated texture, ripped it out of the crowded neighborhood of like flavors I already knew—licorice whips, anisette, Good & Plenty—and, liberating itself, liberated me, or my completeness of sensational pleasure, to seek it out again. And I have, and I like the taste still, but that first taste was like an Adamic act of naming a piece of reality. You only do it once. I’ve written poems that revisit the experience, but that’s all the poetry can do, revisit, not remake or even intensify it, because my primary experience was already the intensest rendezvous. One agony of the imagination is that it returns us again and again to the recognition that there is no earthly paradise, though we’re sickeningly equipped to imagine one. I’ve chased that primal savoriness ever since. Desire drives imagination but doesn’t empower it. Our nagging desire to experience a taste afresh reminds us that that acquisition was really a loss of innocence, and once lost, any recovery is an illusion or willed fabrication.

Innate distaste drives a contrary desire—to pursue and conquer a taste that resists us, to claim and colonize it, even though you disapprove of and find inferior the new colony’s native inhabitants and culture and forms of religious worship. My two food missions—marshmallows and orange things—are driven, in other words, by perverted desire. My success rate doesn’t rate. Marshmallow (Althea officinalis) is an herb usually found near wetlands whose leaves and roots have been used since ancient Egypt as a simple for ailments ranging from asthma to agita to cankers. But that’s not what comes in those respiratory plastic bags or in s’mores. For me, as a child, marshmallows were the anti-fennel, a sickening vaporous sweetness hugging stringy, foamed-over nothingness. Kissing cousin to cotton candy. (On the boardwalk, give me a hoagie or bag of warm peanuts, pass the cotton candy to the girlfriend.) The mini-marshmallows I confronted as an adult, in the Midwest, in Jell-O salad, were contaminants. Jell-O was a devious joker food, a shape-shifter, now a solid, now liquefied on the tongue, mostly something slitheringly in between, and it was colored Green Hornet emerald, Captain Marvel carmine, or Aquaman cyan. Who could ask for more? But those scrawny pasty cubes? I ate around them and left a gummy, mucilaginous refuse in the bowl. And yet I had a dream of deliverance: on tv, where perfect experience was had by perfect people I knew must exist in a faraway land, jolly clans toasted marshmallows over a fire. Campfire, fireplace, no matter. Fire’s fire. But since it never occurred to us to roast those foamy virgin organs over a stove-top flame, I waited many years before the opportunity offered itself. The charred caramelized sheath, the steamy inner goop—the mighty thing itself that would redeem me from my un-American aversion—only pitched my disgust beyond Ultima Thule. I resigned myself to everlasting exile.

And spare me two orange foods, yams and pumpkin pie. I’m not a hater of all-American ceremonial foods (in my culture, Thanksgiving turkey and its infinite fixings were preceded by industrial-strength raviolis tanked in estuarial red sauce) but gagging on my first mouthful of pumpkin pie at some childhood holiday dinner seemed to grievously violate a pact of conscience with our sea-to-shining-sea. That was predetermined, I should have known, by the bite of sweet potato I’d stupidly eaten—nobody warned me, but who would warn someone against the true test of non-partisan citizenship in the Republic?—and which I cleverly excused myself from table to cough back into the toilet, much as certain animals cough up food to nourish their young, yes? But unlike the fake leaf-and-root extract from marshy lands that had permanently become a species alien to my gut, from my aversion toward orange foods I was finally delivered (thanks to the culinary cunning of women who couldn’t have known they held my destiny and desire in their hands) by a critical additive to both yams and the odious Rupert Pupkin bupkis pup-poop pumpkin pie.

                              Cognac.
                                                       Cognac.

So I bless Bacchus, nemesis of bupkis, I bless the grape, O galvanic grape and all your ministrations, and your mutations, so let me also bless the grappa of the grape and Pavese’s poem, “Grappa in September,” for you have all made me the man I am today.

Originally Published: July 1, 2011


In the restaurant, the woman feeding had a similar rhythm: she reached chopsticks tentatively toward her and her man’s shared sashimi plate, then withdrew them, as if anticipating the perfect moment. After a few tentative gestures, she stabbed at the plate, clamped a slice of flesh, retrieved it to her lips, took a tiny bite, and chewed. I couldn’t hear their conversation, though I did hear from her a squeak that in another venue would have passed for orgasmic utterance. She beaked the remaining chunk of fish into her mouth, bit down on it, chewed once, twice, then did something I’ve never seen: as some animals feed their young with prey they’ve caught and chewed, tipping the macerated remains into the younger mouths or beaks, she turned and, covering mouth and chopstick tips with her hand, retrieved that last chewed morsel and placed it into her mate’s astonished, uncertain mouth, and they masticated together, nodding. The scene reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a friend who had just broken up with her fiancé. “I couldn’t stand it. The way he put his head down like a dog to a dish and snorted his food, it disgusted me. Feeding time in the lion house or pig pen. We’re all animals, sure, and he was an animal in bed, which was ok, but mouth-slurping pho like that? That was a deal-breaker.”

Physical taste, I think, like one’s sense of style, is fixed, foundational, irreducible. Science will someday map and analyze neural networks sufficiently to explain all this, but for now it remains a mystery to me. Taste is radical, it roots us in the world, to our sense of our presence in reality. It’s foundational but radiates something restless and migratory. It radiates imagination: once we’ve tasted something that strikes deeper than any other sensation into a darker, more obscure part of consciousness, we may spend the rest of our existence trying to replicate the experience, or hoping without hope that it will incidentally replicate itself.

I was eight or nine maybe when my grandmother first offered me a slice of fresh market fennel. The anise sweetness, its toothy cool striated texture, ripped it out of the crowded neighborhood of like flavors I already knew—licorice whips, anisette, Good & Plenty—and, liberating itself, liberated me, or my completeness of sensational pleasure, to seek it out again. And I have, and I like the taste still, but that first taste was like an Adamic act of naming a piece of reality. You only do it once. I’ve written poems that revisit the experience, but that’s all the poetry can do, revisit, not remake or even intensify it, because my primary experience was already the intensest rendezvous. One agony of the imagination is that it returns us again and again to the recognition that there is no earthly paradise, though we’re sickeningly equipped to imagine one. I’ve chased that primal savoriness ever since. Desire drives imagination but doesn’t empower it. Our nagging desire to experience a taste afresh reminds us that that acquisition was really a loss of innocence, and once lost, any recovery is an illusion or willed fabrication.

Innate distaste drives a contrary desire—to pursue and conquer a taste that resists us, to claim and colonize it, even though you disapprove of and find inferior the new colony’s native inhabitants and culture and forms of religious worship. My two food missions—marshmallows and orange things—are driven, in other words, by perverted desire. My success rate doesn’t rate. Marshmallow (Althea officinalis) is an herb usually found near wetlands whose leaves and roots have been used since ancient Egypt as a simple for ailments ranging from asthma to agita to cankers. But that’s not what comes in those respiratory plastic bags or in s’mores. For me, as a child, marshmallows were the anti-fennel, a sickening vaporous sweetness hugging stringy, foamed-over nothingness. Kissing cousin to cotton candy. (On the boardwalk, give me a hoagie or bag of warm peanuts, pass the cotton candy to the girlfriend.) The mini-marshmallows I confronted as an adult, in the Midwest, in Jell-O salad, were contaminants. Jell-O was a devious joker food, a shape-shifter, now a solid, now liquefied on the tongue, mostly something slitheringly in between, and it was colored Green Hornet emerald, Captain Marvel carmine, or Aquaman cyan. Who could ask for more? But those scrawny pasty cubes? I ate around them and left a gummy, mucilaginous refuse in the bowl. And yet I had a dream of deliverance: on tv, where perfect experience was had by perfect people I knew must exist in a faraway land, jolly clans toasted marshmallows over a fire. Campfire, fireplace, no matter. Fire’s fire. But since it never occurred to us to roast those foamy virgin organs over a stove-top flame, I waited many years before the opportunity offered itself. The charred caramelized sheath, the steamy inner goop—the mighty thing itself that would redeem me from my un-American aversion—only pitched my disgust beyond Ultima Thule. I resigned myself to everlasting exile.

And spare me two orange foods, yams and pumpkin pie. I’m not a hater of all-American ceremonial foods (in my culture, Thanksgiving turkey and its infinite fixings were preceded by industrial-strength raviolis tanked in estuarial red sauce) but gagging on my first mouthful of pumpkin pie at some childhood holiday dinner seemed to grievously violate a pact of conscience with our sea-to-shining-sea. That was predetermined, I should have known, by the bite of sweet potato I’d stupidly eaten—nobody warned me, but who would warn someone against the true test of non-partisan citizenship in the Republic?—and which I cleverly excused myself from table to cough back into the toilet, much as certain animals cough up food to nourish their young, yes? But unlike the fake leaf-and-root extract from marshy lands that had permanently become a species alien to my gut, from my aversion toward orange foods I was finally delivered (thanks to the culinary cunning of women who couldn’t have known they held my destiny and desire in their hands) by a critical additive to both yams and the odious Rupert Pupkin bupkis pup-poop pumpkin pie.

                              Cognac.
                                                       Cognac.

So I bless Bacchus, nemesis of bupkis, I bless the grape, O galvanic grape and all your ministrations, and your mutations, so let me also bless the grappa of the grape and Pavese’s poem, “Grappa in September,” for you have all made me the man I am today.

Originally Published: July 1, 2011

Two tables over, in a sushi joint, I see a young couple cozied next to each other and think of the great blue heron I’d watched in Tomales Bay. I didn’t see it at first because of its stillness, still in a way humans never seem still: its entire body was an instrument of seeing, its length an embodiment of casually dire attentiveness. The heron was hunting, of course, waiting for some bite-sized thing to forget it was there. It stretched and retracted its neck a couple of times in that elastic-cable way they have, went still again for a long time, ten minutes maybe—I know because silly, top-of-the-line mammal me tried to stay as still as the bird—then snapped its head into the rushes, and when it came back into sight, a furry thing wriggled in its beak, but only for a few mortal moments. 


In the restaurant, the woman feeding had a similar rhythm: she reached chopsticks tentatively toward her and her man’s shared sashimi plate, then withdrew them, as if anticipating the perfect moment. After a few tentative gestures, she stabbed at the plate, clamped a slice of flesh, retrieved it to her lips, took a tiny bite, and chewed. I couldn’t hear their conversation, though I did hear from her a squeak that in another venue would have passed for orgasmic utterance. She beaked the remaining chunk of fish into her mouth, bit down on it, chewed once, twice, then did something I’ve never seen: as some animals feed their young with prey they’ve caught and chewed, tipping the macerated remains into the younger mouths or beaks, she turned and, covering mouth and chopstick tips with her hand, retrieved that last chewed morsel and placed it into her mate’s astonished, uncertain mouth, and they masticated together, nodding. The scene reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a friend who had just broken up with her fiancé. “I couldn’t stand it. The way he put his head down like a dog to a dish and snorted his food, it disgusted me. Feeding time in the lion house or pig pen. We’re all animals, sure, and he was an animal in bed, which was ok, but mouth-slurping pho like that? That was a deal-breaker.”

Physical taste, I think, like one’s sense of style, is fixed, foundational, irreducible. Science will someday map and analyze neural networks sufficiently to explain all this, but for now it remains a mystery to me. Taste is radical, it roots us in the world, to our sense of our presence in reality. It’s foundational but radiates something restless and migratory. It radiates imagination: once we’ve tasted something that strikes deeper than any other sensation into a darker, more obscure part of consciousness, we may spend the rest of our existence trying to replicate the experience, or hoping without hope that it will incidentally replicate itself.

I was eight or nine maybe when my grandmother first offered me a slice of fresh market fennel. The anise sweetness, its toothy cool striated texture, ripped it out of the crowded neighborhood of like flavors I already knew—licorice whips, anisette, Good & Plenty—and, liberating itself, liberated me, or my completeness of sensational pleasure, to seek it out again. And I have, and I like the taste still, but that first taste was like an Adamic act of naming a piece of reality. You only do it once. I’ve written poems that revisit the experience, but that’s all the poetry can do, revisit, not remake or even intensify it, because my primary experience was already the intensest rendezvous. One agony of the imagination is that it returns us again and again to the recognition that there is no earthly paradise, though we’re sickeningly equipped to imagine one. I’ve chased that primal savoriness ever since. Desire drives imagination but doesn’t empower it. Our nagging desire to experience a taste afresh reminds us that that acquisition was really a loss of innocence, and once lost, any recovery is an illusion or willed fabrication.

Innate distaste drives a contrary desire—to pursue and conquer a taste that resists us, to claim and colonize it, even though you disapprove of and find inferior the new colony’s native inhabitants and culture and forms of religious worship. My two food missions—marshmallows and orange things—are driven, in other words, by perverted desire. My success rate doesn’t rate. Marshmallow (Althea officinalis) is an herb usually found near wetlands whose leaves and roots have been used since ancient Egypt as a simple for ailments ranging from asthma to agita to cankers. But that’s not what comes in those respiratory plastic bags or in s’mores. For me, as a child, marshmallows were the anti-fennel, a sickening vaporous sweetness hugging stringy, foamed-over nothingness. Kissing cousin to cotton candy. (On the boardwalk, give me a hoagie or bag of warm peanuts, pass the cotton candy to the girlfriend.) The mini-marshmallows I confronted as an adult, in the Midwest, in Jell-O salad, were contaminants. Jell-O was a devious joker food, a shape-shifter, now a solid, now liquefied on the tongue, mostly something slitheringly in between, and it was colored Green Hornet emerald, Captain Marvel carmine, or Aquaman cyan. Who could ask for more? But those scrawny pasty cubes? I ate around them and left a gummy, mucilaginous refuse in the bowl. And yet I had a dream of deliverance: on tv, where perfect experience was had by perfect people I knew must exist in a faraway land, jolly clans toasted marshmallows over a fire. Campfire, fireplace, no matter. Fire’s fire. But since it never occurred to us to roast those foamy virgin organs over a stove-top flame, I waited many years before the opportunity offered itself. The charred caramelized sheath, the steamy inner goop—the mighty thing itself that would redeem me from my un-American aversion—only pitched my disgust beyond Ultima Thule. I resigned myself to everlasting exile.

And spare me two orange foods, yams and pumpkin pie. I’m not a hater of all-American ceremonial foods (in my culture, Thanksgiving turkey and its infinite fixings were preceded by industrial-strength raviolis tanked in estuarial red sauce) but gagging on my first mouthful of pumpkin pie at some childhood holiday dinner seemed to grievously violate a pact of conscience with our sea-to-shining-sea. That was predetermined, I should have known, by the bite of sweet potato I’d stupidly eaten—nobody warned me, but who would warn someone against the true test of non-partisan citizenship in the Republic?—and which I cleverly excused myself from table to cough back into the toilet, much as certain animals cough up food to nourish their young, yes? But unlike the fake leaf-and-root extract from marshy lands that had permanently become a species alien to my gut, from my aversion toward orange foods I was finally delivered (thanks to the culinary cunning of women who couldn’t have known they held my destiny and desire in their hands) by a critical additive to both yams and the odious Rupert Pupkin bupkis pup-poop pumpkin pie.

                              Cognac.
                                                       Cognac.

So I bless Bacchus, nemesis of bupkis, I bless the grape, O galvanic grape and all your ministrations, and your mutations, so let me also bless the grappa of the grape and Pavese’s poem, “Grappa in September,” for you have all made me the man I am today.

Originally Published: July 1, 2011

Two tables over, in a sushi joint, I see a young couple cozied next to each other and think of the great blue heron I’d watched in Tomales Bay. I didn’t see it at first because of its stillness, still in a way humans never seem still: its entire body was an instrument of seeing, its length an embodiment of casually dire attentiveness. The heron was hunting, of course, waiting for some bite-sized thing to forget it was there. It stretched and retracted its neck a couple of times in that elastic-cable way they have, went still again for a long time, ten minutes maybe—I know because silly, top-of-the-line mammal me tried to stay as still as the bird—then snapped its head into the rushes, and when it came back into sight, a furry thing wriggled in its beak, but only for a few mortal moments. 


In the restaurant, the woman feeding had a similar rhythm: she reached chopsticks tentatively toward her and her man’s shared sashimi plate, then withdrew them, as if anticipating the perfect moment. After a few tentative gestures, she stabbed at the plate, clamped a slice of flesh, retrieved it to her lips, took a tiny bite, and chewed. I couldn’t hear their conversation, though I did hear from her a squeak that in another venue would have passed for orgasmic utterance. She beaked the remaining chunk of fish into her mouth, bit down on it, chewed once, twice, then did something I’ve never seen: as some animals feed their young with prey they’ve caught and chewed, tipping the macerated remains into the younger mouths or beaks, she turned and, covering mouth and chopstick tips with her hand, retrieved that last chewed morsel and placed it into her mate’s astonished, uncertain mouth, and they masticated together, nodding. The scene reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a friend who had just broken up with her fiancé. “I couldn’t stand it. The way he put his head down like a dog to a dish and snorted his food, it disgusted me. Feeding time in the lion house or pig pen. We’re all animals, sure, and he was an animal in bed, which was ok, but mouth-slurping pho like that? That was a deal-breaker.”

Physical taste, I think, like one’s sense of style, is fixed, foundational, irreducible. Science will someday map and analyze neural networks sufficiently to explain all this, but for now it remains a mystery to me. Taste is radical, it roots us in the world, to our sense of our presence in reality. It’s foundational but radiates something restless and migratory. It radiates imagination: once we’ve tasted something that strikes deeper than any other sensation into a darker, more obscure part of consciousness, we may spend the rest of our existence trying to replicate the experience, or hoping without hope that it will incidentally replicate itself.

I was eight or nine maybe when my grandmother first offered me a slice of fresh market fennel. The anise sweetness, its toothy cool striated texture, ripped it out of the crowded neighborhood of like flavors I already knew—licorice whips, anisette, Good & Plenty—and, liberating itself, liberated me, or my completeness of sensational pleasure, to seek it out again. And I have, and I like the taste still, but that first taste was like an Adamic act of naming a piece of reality. You only do it once. I’ve written poems that revisit the experience, but that’s all the poetry can do, revisit, not remake or even intensify it, because my primary experience was already the intensest rendezvous. One agony of the imagination is that it returns us again and again to the recognition that there is no earthly paradise, though we’re sickeningly equipped to imagine one. I’ve chased that primal savoriness ever since. Desire drives imagination but doesn’t empower it. Our nagging desire to experience a taste afresh reminds us that that acquisition was really a loss of innocence, and once lost, any recovery is an illusion or willed fabrication.

Innate distaste drives a contrary desire—to pursue and conquer a taste that resists us, to claim and colonize it, even though you disapprove of and find inferior the new colony’s native inhabitants and culture and forms of religious worship. My two food missions—marshmallows and orange things—are driven, in other words, by perverted desire. My success rate doesn’t rate. Marshmallow (Althea officinalis) is an herb usually found near wetlands whose leaves and roots have been used since ancient Egypt as a simple for ailments ranging from asthma to agita to cankers. But that’s not what comes in those respiratory plastic bags or in s’mores. For me, as a child, marshmallows were the anti-fennel, a sickening vaporous sweetness hugging stringy, foamed-over nothingness. Kissing cousin to cotton candy. (On the boardwalk, give me a hoagie or bag of warm peanuts, pass the cotton candy to the girlfriend.) The mini-marshmallows I confronted as an adult, in the Midwest, in Jell-O salad, were contaminants. Jell-O was a devious joker food, a shape-shifter, now a solid, now liquefied on the tongue, mostly something slitheringly in between, and it was colored Green Hornet emerald, Captain Marvel carmine, or Aquaman cyan. Who could ask for more? But those scrawny pasty cubes? I ate around them and left a gummy, mucilaginous refuse in the bowl. And yet I had a dream of deliverance: on tv, where perfect experience was had by perfect people I knew must exist in a faraway land, jolly clans toasted marshmallows over a fire. Campfire, fireplace, no matter. Fire’s fire. But since it never occurred to us to roast those foamy virgin organs over a stove-top flame, I waited many years before the opportunity offered itself. The charred caramelized sheath, the steamy inner goop—the mighty thing itself that would redeem me from my un-American aversion—only pitched my disgust beyond Ultima Thule. I resigned myself to everlasting exile.

And spare me two orange foods, yams and pumpkin pie. I’m not a hater of all-American ceremonial foods (in my culture, Thanksgiving turkey and its infinite fixings were preceded by industrial-strength raviolis tanked in estuarial red sauce) but gagging on my first mouthful of pumpkin pie at some childhood holiday dinner seemed to grievously violate a pact of conscience with our sea-to-shining-sea. That was predetermined, I should have known, by the bite of sweet potato I’d stupidly eaten—nobody warned me, but who would warn someone against the true test of non-partisan citizenship in the Republic?—and which I cleverly excused myself from table to cough back into the toilet, much as certain animals cough up food to nourish their young, yes? But unlike the fake leaf-and-root extract from marshy lands that had permanently become a species alien to my gut, from my aversion toward orange foods I was finally delivered (thanks to the culinary cunning of women who couldn’t have known they held my destiny and desire in their hands) by a critical additive to both yams and the odious Rupert Pupkin bupkis pup-poop pumpkin pie.

                              Cognac.
                                                       Cognac.

So I bless Bacchus, nemesis of bupkis, I bless the grape, O galvanic grape and all your ministrations, and your mutations, so let me also bless the grappa of the grape and Pavese’s poem, “Grappa in September,” for you have all made me the man I am today.

Originally Published: July 1, 2011

Two tables over, in a sushi joint, I see a young couple cozied next to each other and think of the great blue heron I’d watched in Tomales Bay. I didn’t see it at first because of its stillness, still in a way humans never seem still: its entire body was an instrument of seeing, its length an embodiment of casually dire attentiveness. The heron was hunting, of course, waiting for some bite-sized thing to forget it was there. It stretched and retracted its neck a couple of times in that elastic-cable way they have, went still again for a long time, ten minutes maybe—I know because silly, top-of-the-line mammal me tried to stay as still as the bird—then snapped its head into the rushes, and when it came back into sight, a furry thing wriggled in its beak, but only for a few mortal moments. 


In the restaurant, the woman feeding had a similar rhythm: she reached chopsticks tentatively toward her and her man’s shared sashimi plate, then withdrew them, as if anticipating the perfect moment. After a few tentative gestures, she stabbed at the plate, clamped a slice of flesh, retrieved it to her lips, took a tiny bite, and chewed. I couldn’t hear their conversation, though I did hear from her a squeak that in another venue would have passed for orgasmic utterance. She beaked the remaining chunk of fish into her mouth, bit down on it, chewed once, twice, then did something I’ve never seen: as some animals feed their young with prey they’ve caught and chewed, tipping the macerated remains into the younger mouths or beaks, she turned and, covering mouth and chopstick tips with her hand, retrieved that last chewed morsel and placed it into her mate’s astonished, uncertain mouth, and they masticated together, nodding. The scene reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a friend who had just broken up with her fiancé. “I couldn’t stand it. The way he put his head down like a dog to a dish and snorted his food, it disgusted me. Feeding time in the lion house or pig pen. We’re all animals, sure, and he was an animal in bed, which was ok, but mouth-slurping pho like that? That was a deal-breaker.”

Physical taste, I think, like one’s sense of style, is fixed, foundational, irreducible. Science will someday map and analyze neural networks sufficiently to explain all this, but for now it remains a mystery to me. Taste is radical, it roots us in the world, to our sense of our presence in reality. It’s foundational but radiates something restless and migratory. It radiates imagination: once we’ve tasted something that strikes deeper than any other sensation into a darker, more obscure part of consciousness, we may spend the rest of our existence trying to replicate the experience, or hoping without hope that it will incidentally replicate itself.

I was eight or nine maybe when my grandmother first offered me a slice of fresh market fennel. The anise sweetness, its toothy cool striated texture, ripped it out of the crowded neighborhood of like flavors I already knew—licorice whips, anisette, Good & Plenty—and, liberating itself, liberated me, or my completeness of sensational pleasure, to seek it out again. And I have, and I like the taste still, but that first taste was like an Adamic act of naming a piece of reality. You only do it once. I’ve written poems that revisit the experience, but that’s all the poetry can do, revisit, not remake or even intensify it, because my primary experience was already the intensest rendezvous. One agony of the imagination is that it returns us again and again to the recognition that there is no earthly paradise, though we’re sickeningly equipped to imagine one. I’ve chased that primal savoriness ever since. Desire drives imagination but doesn’t empower it. Our nagging desire to experience a taste afresh reminds us that that acquisition was really a loss of innocence, and once lost, any recovery is an illusion or willed fabrication.

Innate distaste drives a contrary desire—to pursue and conquer a taste that resists us, to claim and colonize it, even though you disapprove of and find inferior the new colony’s native inhabitants and culture and forms of religious worship. My two food missions—marshmallows and orange things—are driven, in other words, by perverted desire. My success rate doesn’t rate. Marshmallow (Althea officinalis) is an herb usually found near wetlands whose leaves and roots have been used since ancient Egypt as a simple for ailments ranging from asthma to agita to cankers. But that’s not what comes in those respiratory plastic bags or in s’mores. For me, as a child, marshmallows were the anti-fennel, a sickening vaporous sweetness hugging stringy, foamed-over nothingness. Kissing cousin to cotton candy. (On the boardwalk, give me a hoagie or bag of warm peanuts, pass the cotton candy to the girlfriend.) The mini-marshmallows I confronted as an adult, in the Midwest, in Jell-O salad, were contaminants. Jell-O was a devious joker food, a shape-shifter, now a solid, now liquefied on the tongue, mostly something slitheringly in between, and it was colored Green Hornet emerald, Captain Marvel carmine, or Aquaman cyan. Who could ask for more? But those scrawny pasty cubes? I ate around them and left a gummy, mucilaginous refuse in the bowl. And yet I had a dream of deliverance: on tv, where perfect experience was had by perfect people I knew must exist in a faraway land, jolly clans toasted marshmallows over a fire. Campfire, fireplace, no matter. Fire’s fire. But since it never occurred to us to roast those foamy virgin organs over a stove-top flame, I waited many years before the opportunity offered itself. The charred caramelized sheath, the steamy inner goop—the mighty thing itself that would redeem me from my un-American aversion—only pitched my disgust beyond Ultima Thule. I resigned myself to everlasting exile.

And spare me two orange foods, yams and pumpkin pie. I’m not a hater of all-American ceremonial foods (in my culture, Thanksgiving turkey and its infinite fixings were preceded by industrial-strength raviolis tanked in estuarial red sauce) but gagging on my first mouthful of pumpkin pie at some childhood holiday dinner seemed to grievously violate a pact of conscience with our sea-to-shining-sea. That was predetermined, I should have known, by the bite of sweet potato I’d stupidly eaten—nobody warned me, but who would warn someone against the true test of non-partisan citizenship in the Republic?—and which I cleverly excused myself from table to cough back into the toilet, much as certain animals cough up food to nourish their young, yes? But unlike the fake leaf-and-root extract from marshy lands that had permanently become a species alien to my gut, from my aversion toward orange foods I was finally delivered (thanks to the culinary cunning of women who couldn’t have known they held my destiny and desire in their hands) by a critical additive to both yams and the odious Rupert Pupkin bupkis pup-poop pumpkin pie.

                              Cognac.
                                                       Cognac.

So I bless Bacchus, nemesis of bupkis, I bless the grape, O galvanic grape and all your ministrations, and your mutations, so let me also bless the grappa of the grape and Pavese’s poem, “Grappa in September,” for you have all made me the man I am today.

Originally Published: July 1, 2011

 

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