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!
My body prefers a diet of peasant food. That is, my blood rejects meat I can’t tie to a death. I get squeamish over dishes handled by too many hands. I scour the Twin Cities in search of competently rolled lumpia or Chinese dumpling. In Texas and Mexico, I shun lard—the fireworks of anonymous swine too complex on my tongue. My woe, I figured, would be lifelong before poet Luisa Igloria set me straight. “Perhaps,” she suggested, “you have a duende.” In Tagalog, duende means dark spirit or power. It’s also a forest creature, a flesh-hungry spirit ready to tear apart a child, limb from limb.
When Purisima, my mother, eats—duende. Now a lifetime away from the provinces of the Philippines, she still sucks on the damp knuckles of every thighbone, on every plate. I learned to slurp mantle from heads. Eat with my hands. My Puerto Rico-born father taught me to disinter fish eyes and gnaw them to pebbles. The best way to honor duende, I’ve found, is to get meat to the fire as fast as you can and eschew refrigeration. A kill with a purpose. Only hot blood satisfies the duende: pork flush with iron; phosphorous blooming from fish; plantains blackened and deflating in a box. Over weeks, bacteria break down the banana’s woody cells and excrete the sour waste you crave.
Duende was a tool missionaries used to cower disinterested Tagalogs. We ate up duende and look what happened. We transmitted it back across the ocean—centuries before it crossed Lorca’s lips—on the very same routes pigs zigzagged from Asia, on the Spanish galleon ships. Duende is a cannibalism and a mirror. Nouns you can smell. Watch a family slaughter a pig in Pampanga, and the precision with which they assemble a pit in the suburbs of Virginia. Not an earlobe is missed. Roasted lechon our idiom. Now, new breeds of swine return to the Islands, from America. Hogs are raised in the luxury of traditional backyard pens, behind every kind of house, in the archipelago. Returning to roots, duende laughs.
Duende appears in divots; there was symmetry. Dark sounds fill the rhyme and refrain. “Ay!” Lorca writes:
The shout leaves a cypress shadow
on the wind.
(Leave me in this field
What dark do we see in the dark? What shadow in “the lightless horizon/ …bitten by bonfires.” Every morning, in open-air markets, in the Philippines, women sit along benches, stuffing intestine with fresh red pulp. Peppers and pineapple season the innards they tie off into sausage. Meat so sweet it glows in your mouth. In coastal towns, fathers and sons line up with heaping, skull-sized nets. Crustaceans pile up on battered, green Styrofoam. The catch is whatever father and son can manage to fish, on a tipsy boat, in the dark. Neruda captures lives like these—and these poems have duende. If you’re lucky, your hotel has plumbing and a live-in cook. She’s done this work since she was six: clean, wash, and prepare seafood the boarders carry from the dock. Biting into shrimp this quick from the sea, you awaken the lives inside them: the fish the shellfish eat moments before they’re plucked from the depths. A voluble, planktonic must swarms from the flesh.
The explorer Magellan came to the Philippines and was eaten. I found Lorca’s poems and ate them all. The sounds of tongue-clacking, wooden spoons, and heels jangle in me. The poet Rigoberto González sat beside me at a bar in New York City, and he clanked from the sound of lots of yummy poets inside his belly. “Horn,” his poem about two bulls on a truck bed, is the cud of the gypsy digesting the lyric: “eye reflecting throbbing eye/There is no seeking pity,/no screwing the horn back on.” Mitsuye Yamada’s “Evacuation,” written during internment, resembles glass in the throat of a Romani singer:
As we boarded the bus
the Seattle Times
So obediently I smiled
and the caption the next day
Note smiling faces
a lesson to Tokyo.
How the repetition of a single word releases duende. The eye stares, helpless, at a wounded eye. A smile travels back and forth from hell.
Duende haunts centuries of Andean song and now returns to Andalusia, Cádiz. Gabriela Mistral—“como el cántaro del peruano,” like the Peruvian singer, “como la quena de mil años,” like the thousand-year-old reed flute—ground her corpse into corpus. “El poro al poro, el gajo al gajo,” mortar to mortar, pestle to pestle, “y ponme entre ellos a vivir,” and put me between them so I may live, “pasmada dentro de tu pasmo,” ravished inside of your shock.