On Thursday night, Timothy O’Keefe (author of The Goodbye Town, winner of the 2010 FIELD Poetry Prize) and his girlfriend, novelist Xhenet Aliu, got into town. They brought with them Luella, their part-border-collie-part-dobermann puppy, shiny as a shoe, who spent most of the weekend running in circles around our piglet-esque, pennycolored pitbull, Ezzie. Tim and I read together for Utah State University’s “Helicon West” reading series at the Citrus & Sage Café (a cute little house that serves the local artisan-roasted coffee along with very tasty sweet or savory crepes – the best of which is served with just honey-butter, according to essayist and USU professor Jennifer Sinor). Tim and I have been besties for, like, years, but we’d never actually read together before – and it was really fun. Tim’s poetry is unlike anybody’s – at once archly lyrical in its musicality and genuinely austere in its gaze, each brief, beautiful poem satisfies the reader or listener utterly while somehow simultaneously suggesting itself as merely the tip of an immense berg made of something much, much more human than the easy metaphor of ice. Each poem seems to reconcile various struggles within the poet – between form he knows he’s masterfully good at crafting and a powerful urge to do something far more unpredictable than that; between the powerful emotions occasioned by a person or a place or a relationship and the rigorous meditations upon those emotions that I think, for Tim, come right along with them. Simple lines like, “one way is still a way” or, in a newer poem, his girlfriend humming “a song whose words I’d only recently forgotten” sort of haunt my consciousness. It’s not just how he writes – it’s how he thinks, it’s what he notices, it’s maybe even what he elicits from others. On Friday, Tim came in from taking out the dog to report he’d had a brief exchange with our little neighbor girl. She revealed she had a blister on her foot. “Does it hurt?” Tim asked. She thought about it for a minute and said, finally, “If I cry it does.” Below is one of my favorite of Tim’s poems:
She suns on a hill,
all the field becoming
its color, horizon
what she cannot feel
but aligned, lighting
the North Pole northerly.
A green wind winds
shoal to shoal, fallow coast, and spring
piecemealing Spring, sewing leaves
on a white camisole.
She and he and the lake are
mostly water. Look—she won't
take his shrug as such-and-such
a sign—red pouring, pining for.
A canoe, skinny trees as far
as the eye projects
She and he and water are t
he color of whatever holds them.
The leaves are down, the leaves.
The forest blows a window, a waiting-to-be.
She thinks in red-green. He thinks brown, brown, brown.
One of the things I love about Tim - as a poet, as a person - is his relentless pursuit (however unlikely any of us could ever realize it) of perfection. This is very admirable in things like, say, "broken sonnets". (Why can't something be both broken and perfect, after all?) And very funny in things like, say, raquetball. Or tennis, which he and my Joseph played a few times, as evidenced by the fact that Joseph is somewhat uncharacteristically sore and tired today.
After the reading on Thursday, the four of us (Tim, Xhenet, Joseph, and myself) walked across the street to Le Nonne, a little Italian joint in an old arts-&-crafts-style bungalow, of which there are many in northern Utah. Speaking of perfect, most restaurants in the Jell-O Belt are far from it, and Le Nonne is no exception. The food is very inconsistent (and I think we almost all ordered the wrong thing) but it’s one of the few places to eat in this pokey little town that’s open for dinner and serves wine (or lets you bring a bottle) and isn’t a national franchise. The smoked salmon farfalle was not in a “light” cream sauce – it was practically sticky; the chicken-and-ricotta ravioli lacked salt or maybe just flavor; the clam linguini was supposed to be served in a kind of garlic and chili oil, but seemed mostly to be served with just raw diced tomatoes. And under the thick white sauce, you wouldn’t have known the crab ravioli had crab in it, if you hadn’t read the menu. I’ve had pretty good meals there – this was not one of them. But it was late, and we were the only people there, and we do like each other very, very much, so we more than managed to have a good time. However, here’s a small digression upon restaurants in the Jell-O Belt – not the fabulous ones I’ve already mentioned on this blog this week, though even those are rarely perfect. But here are my thoughts about virtually all of the other ones:
First of all, turn down the lights. For Pete’s sake, restaurants, it’s like eating a meal in a grocery store! No ambience, no mood, no romance. (We have heard of these things, surely.) Along the same lines, last time I checked, the LDS church does not forbid people to listen to music whilst eating. When in doubt, jazz – some nice Horace Silver, or Dave Brubeck, or some Buena Vista Social Club. Or just go get the Midnight in Paris soundtrack and put it on repeat. Nobody will be offended. And it’ll feel like there’s something fun going on. Don’t use Mozart or Bach, for heaven’s sake. It’s dinner, not a Requiem or a Mass, and even a nice dinner doesn’t have to be quite that ponderous or formal – we’re reaching over and forking mouthfuls of ravioli off each other’s plates, after all.
To you waiters, I know, having worked in the service industry in Utah, Mormons are (on the whole) very grim tippers. You’re lucky if you get twelve percent, and if you happen to work in one of those restaurants like the Market Street Grill where my little sister waited tables for awhile, that might well be twelve percent on two soup-and-salad combinations, though you also ran your ass off refilling sodas and bread baskets and slinging French fries and hamburgers for four “kids eat free”. So you served six demanding patrons, and for your efforts you got a buck-fifty on a nineteen dollar tab. None of this encourages servers to go the extra mile for their customers, to say nothing of the fact that it does nothing to provide them with the only income wait-staff take home after the taxes are paid on their less-than-minimum-wage salaries. (If you cannot afford to tip at least 20 percent, you cannot afford to eat at restaurants – I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is.) But given this culture of mutual disregard, waiters in much of Utah, and maybe especially in Logan, are abysmally, ridiculously inattentive. It’s also true that often – though not always – restaurants in Utah find they have to cater to the Jell-O Belt’s idiosyncratically prudish palate. (This might also be very much generational – the younger adults in our community do generally seem to appreciate a more diverse array of foods and ingredients.) But the boomers are still eating out, so unless you order the right thing, or specify that you actually do like your food very, very spicy, you will get the Utah version of, say, Pad Thai – real easy on the chilis and without even a dash of fish sauce, which tastes much too much like crotch for the white-bre(a)d masses. And while you might not think of Italian cuisine as belonging to that genre we so vulgarly group as “ethnic,” there are definitely Utahns for whom a very mild rigatoni alla amatriciana is just too “spicy”. As a result, to keep itself in business, places like Le Nonne might offer beef carpaccio and penne “puttenesca,” but do a roaring trade in thick cream and cheese dishes that sound fairly elegant, but in fact uncannily resemble fancified mac-n-cheese. I'm not saying I expect a rigorous pursuit of perfection from all of these places - but almost nothing is as depressing as people or institutions who are content to settle for mediocrity. Whatever you do - whether you drive a schoolbus, cook in a restaurant, compose operas, perform intricate veterinary surgery, and actually maybe especially if you drive a schoolbus - why not aspire to do it to the absolute highest standard? You probably won't succeed to reach whatever bar you set for yourself, but you might as well fall a little short of the moon as the roof. It was hubris, but during a very impassioned conversation I once told a very good friend of mine who was considering pursuing a Ph.D., "Why not? I mean, if you're going to dream a crazy dream you might as well dream the whole dream, not feel like you have to pinch yourself awake half-way through." And I really did mean it. Again, it's a little exaggerated, but sometimes I tell my students who ask me where they ought to send their work, "Don't worry about it. And don't write to get published - write to change something important." I think what I mean is just: Aspire. Aspire!
Having waded through the cream sludge on Thursday night, we decided on Friday night we’d fend for ourselves. Xhenet is one of the very finest cooks I know – and that’s saying something. (I lived with Craig Arnold, I'm friends with Jessica Piazza - I mean, really.) Leaving aside her inventive recipes and the spells she can cast from a Cook’s Illustrated cookbook, she makes her own pickles, cheese (from soft goat chevre to slightly more demanding mozzerella to brie), bread (she brought a loaf from home – it’s gone), and even sausage. I’m no Xhenet Aliu, but I can manage in a kitchen, too. We had a little pow-wow with the lads and decided we would go to the store, and then head up into the sublimely beautiful Logan Canyon and Cache National Forest for a short hike and then build a fire, and cook our dinner over it. The firepits at Chokecherry are only about a ten minute drive from our house, so we grabbed a few steaks, a couple of avocadoes, some salt and garlic pepper, a bag-o-salad, some wine, and a few other bits and bobs and piled into the Subaru with the pups.
I think everybody likes to cook outside – grilling is a popular activity around this time of year. The snow begins to run, the sun warms the closed eyes of leaf-buds, waking them open, and pale blossoms froth whitely on the branches. Grills everywhere are wheeled out of garages, sacks of new coals are stacked in front of grocery stores, and dusk is tinged with the smell of lighter fluid. But not everybody can do what we can do – we'll drive up into the mountains, Joseph (an accomplished outdoorsman who loves to play with hatchets and matches) can split a pile of nut-white logs and build a big cuss-off fire, and then we can sear a few thick, red steaks over an open flame. When people ask me, “Why do you stay in Utah?” I think of days like this.
poet Timothy O'Keefe with a skull of something - probably a deer
A stroll in Logan Canyon - Joseph Bradbury, Xhenet Aliu, and Tim O'Keefe
Joseph making our fire
pretty little avocadoes
perfectly seared steak; big, slutty California cabernet savignon
New York Strip Steaks
This is everything I like – these magnificent mountains, a river clear as a window running through them, cool air closing in around a hot fire, brilliant friends, and what we all agreed was the very best steak any of us had ever eaten – perfectly seasoned with just salt and garlic pepper, tender, seared in the hot flames of an open woodfire for just a minute on each side, long enough to caramelize a little crust on the edges and leave the center a barely-warm deep, deep pink. With wine so red it was almost black and luscious avocadoes, orange flames popping sparks into the darkening sky, it was just, well, perfect. It was. It was perfect.