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!
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.
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.