Prose from Poetry Magazine

Chasing Utopia

Beer, government secrets, and the first black woman in space.

by Nikki Giovanni
Chasing Utopia

Thanks to social networking, G.K. Chesterton’s remark that “poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese” has recently been given wide, if undeserved, circulation; anyone who consults the Poetry Foundation’s online poetry archive will find his claim not to be true. Hoping to disprove any larger point he may have been making, however, we asked several poets to mix memory and desire — for food — in the pieces that follow. Bon appetit!

 •

So here is the actual story. I was bored. Bored even though I had the privilege of interviewing Mae Jemison, the first Black woman in space, who said she pursued a degree in physics and also became a medical doctor to keep her mind occupied. Mae’s iq must be nine hundred and fifty-five or thereabouts. I asked: “How do you keep from being bored?” 


And she replied: “A friend of my father’s once told me ‘If you’re bored you’re not paying attention.’”

So I said: “Beer.”

We are foodies, my family and I. My grandmother was an extraordinary cook. Her miniature Parker House rolls have been known to float the roof off a flooded house in hurricane season. Grandpapa made pineapple ice cream so rich and creamy, with those surprising chunks that burst with citrusy flavor. My sister, Gary Ann, made spring rolls so perfectly the Chinese complained to the State Department, and my Aunt fries chicken just short of burning that has been known to make the Colonel denounce his own kfc. Mommy was the best bean cooker in this world—and still is, I’m sure, in the next. I do a pretty swell pot roast myself. We are, in other words, dangerous when it comes to food.

Mommy also liked pig feet. Boiled. Not pickled.

I was sad when Mommy died. Then six weeks later Gary Ann died. Then my Aunt Ann. I tried to find a way to bring them back.

Beer.

Mommy drank Miller Genuine Draft. Gary Ann drank Bud Light. Not me. What did I have in common with those guys on tv who were throwing a football around and looking just shy of fat? Nothing. They bored me. If it was going to be beer, I needed to learn something.

Going through books, I came across Utopia. Sam Adams. The number one beer in the world. Having always been a fan of start at the top, I called my local beer store. “I’d like to order a Utopia, please.” Thinking this would be easy.

“No Way,” Keith said. “We never get that!”
ok. I called Bounty Hunter. They have everything. That’s where I bought my Justice Series: Blind Justice, Frontier Justice, Poetic Justice. Great red wines.

“No, ma’am, we don’t sell beer.”

Utopia is only on a special allotment to Canada, where it is sold as a “Special Brew.” If I could just get to Canada, I could find my Utopia. But, dadgummit, the tsa would take it from me, claiming it was over three ounces. I’d be doggone if I would provide that group with Utopia. Never. Never. No Canada for me.

Samuel Adams’s Utopia is only brewed every other year. There will be a batch coming out this year, but it goes really quickly. There are folk who work at the Sam Adams Brewery just to be able to smell it, and I have heard, though I doubt that it’s true, that you are strip-searched when you leave work during Utopia season. Once, they say, someone belched and was immediately arrested.

Utopia is incredibly special, is the number one beer in the world because the aroma alone is worth the price. Can a beer be “chewy” while at the same time smooth as silk? Can a beer make you feel like a queen while bringing out your libido, making you want to howl? Indeed it can. Utopia makes you want a Swan for your Leda. A Lancelot for your Guinevere. A boiled pig foot for your low-down blues. Special? Are your first pair of stockings special? Is the first time your Mom let you wear lipstick special? Is your first kiss special? It’s Utopia.

But here is the happy part. I am a poet. I occasionally get invited to speak at Important Government Agencies. I was thrilled. Sure, someone will say: Why would you, a poet, a rebel, you who hate the tsa and think railroads should make a big comeback, you who think modern wars are stupid and unworthy—why would you speak for an Important Government Agency? Well, for one thing, I am an American. So government, whether I like it or not, R Me. For another thing, I know they have the world’s best computers. I was charming. I was funny. I was very nice and a good citizen. I wanted an illegal favor.

“Please, sir,” said I, “can you find Utopia?”

“Of course, little lady,” said the Director. “It’s in your heart and mind.” He smiled a lovely smile and patted me on my shoulder. Not wanting to appear to correct him, I smiled the smile of the defeated. And waited for him to leave. I asked his assistant.
“I think,” he pontificated, “it is in your soul. Search deep and you will find it.”

I knew I needed someone of color. Finally an older man, grey hair cut short, came by. “Please excuse me,” I said, “I’m trying to find Utopia. Can you help?”

“Why sure,” he said “as soon as I can find a safe computer.” We moved into another room and he made me stand way away from him so that I could not see the screen. He pulled up a website. “Here you go.” And he was right. “I can’t buy it as it’s against the rules, but get someone else to go to this site. I hear it’s a great beer. At $350 a pint, it ought to be.”

And now that I’ve found Utopia, I am at peace. I have Utopia, and if I were Egyptian I would be buried with it. I use it to start conversations and make friends. It is not for mortals. Or Americans. Utopia is for the gods.

Originally Published: July 1, 2011

COMMENTS (4)

On July 7, 2011 at 1:41pm Andrew Lossing wrote:
I enjoyed reading this - along with the other food-themed
essays - in the last issue. I've always thought poetry
needed more food... when I was younger, my friends and I
created an online persona by the handle "Shishka_Bob"
which we essentially used to post food-themed humor poems.
They were fun to write, and to read, and have remained
splendid inside jokes to this day.

On July 12, 2011 at 3:23pm Essence wrote:
I hate beer. Its taste never sat well with me. But, I love poetry. Thanks to
Nikki, I'm going to go look for some Utopia... and maybe I might try the
beer too.

On July 19, 2011 at 1:11pm BBB wrote:
Pure pleasure! Colette! Thanks!

On April 11, 2012 at 9:18am harold wrote:
i love this poem

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This prose originally appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

July/August 2011

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 Nikki  Giovanni

Biography

Nikki Giovanni is one of the best-known African-American poets who reached prominence during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her unique and insightful poetry testifies to her own evolving awareness and experiences: from child to young woman, from naive college freshman to seasoned civil rights activist, from daughter to mother. Frequently anthologized, Giovanni’s poetry expresses strong racial pride and respect for family. Her . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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