Saturday, April 28, 2012

More Songs About Buildings and Food

Yesterday I was thinking about the poem "Onions" by William Mathews. I first heard it on Garrison Keillor's daily 5-minute public radio program, The Writer's Almanac. He ends the spot every day with a poem or portion of a poem. One day about a year ago I heard him read the first verse of Onions, and I had to look it up as soon as I got to a computer.

That verse captivated me; I loved the imagery, the rhythm, and the way it conveyed the concept of onions being the base of a dish, and thus the beginning step in a pleasurable experience. The rest of the poem is just as rewarding. On the surface it's a poem about onions and cooking, but peel back that first layer (ha!) and it's a poem about finding contentment and even joy in everyday, mundane activities. It also shows how a single, basic building block can expand in a hundred ways; those onions can become any one of an unimaginable number of dishes. A single moment of pleasure can blossom and become so much more.
How easily happiness begins by
dicing onions. A lump of sweet butter
slithers and swirls across the floor
of the sauté pan, especially if its
errant path crosses a tiny slick
of olive oil. Then a tumble of onions.
Thinking about "Onions" lead me to remembering that humorist (and fellow Vanderbilt alumnus) Roy Blount, Jr. has an entire book of food verse called Soupsongs. He also takes on alliums in "A Song to Onions"; insightful in its own way, but more playful, with rhymes!
They improve everything, pork chops to soup,
And not only that but each onion's a group.

Peel back the skin, delve into tissue
And see how an onion has been blessed with issue.

Every layer produces an ovum:
You think you've got three then you find you've got fovum.
Of course there are tons of poems about food, and poems that mention food and drink. These poems often are about sensuality and love, as well. After all, what's more sensual and conducive to romance than a plump juicy berry, the fruity musk of wine, the rich saltiness of cheese, the crusty earthiness of a good loaf?

One of the most well-known lines of verse in this vein comes from one of the translations of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
Going back even further, "Song of Solomon" is full of food / love / wine imagery:
As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.
Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.
What started me on this trip through food verse -- and the interplay of food and sensuality and love -- was a poem that's new to me. I found it by following a link in a recent "Diner's Journal" post in the Dining & Wine section of the New York Times. The first half of "The Mysterious Human Heart" by Matthew Dickman shows us a wonderful abundance of produce, glorious in its variety. Despite these wonders, though, it's "just produce" because it can't compare to what we hold inside us.
The produce in New York is really just produce, oranges
and cabbage, celery and beets, pomegranates
with their hundred seeds, carrots and honey,
walnuts and thirteen varieties of apples.
On Monday morning I will walk down
to the market with my heart inside me, mysterious,
something I will never get to hold
in my hands, something I will never understand.
The rest of the poem shows that we are complicated beings, inhabiting a world where we have desires, and rights -- including love.

If you are interested in seeing my own feeble attempt at food poetry, see the post Seasonal Eating: A Poem.

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