Szymborska wrote in a poem that her soul was “as plain as the pit of a plum.” Such an apt self-description for a poet whose work, like stone fruit, is sweet flesh grown around a corrugated reality.
Food is everywhere in literature, and rightly so. Often this is explained as “all human beings eat.” But the universality of eating is only a small part of what makes food so damned compelling. Humans are eaters, but we’re also growers, harvesters, shoppers, preparers, sharers, and finally, eliminators, of food. The words for food, its preparation and consumption act like magnets. Mentioning a meal on social media is a guarantee of numerous positive replies. The words for food waste—from garbage to shit—are universal derogatories.
A fine poem takes full advantage of the spectrum of sentiment around food, using it as metaphor and gesture. Brittany Perham, whose first collection, The Curiosities was recently published by Parlor Press, uses the end of a meal as a conceit for her speaker’s address to her father in the poem, “Missive (1)”:
Father, take back your baskets of bread.
I have left your long-laid table.
Pour out the milk, father, clear the platters
of dusky fish, the potatoes
and husked corn, the halved
peaches in two-handed goblets.
Bury the chicken bones where the dogs don’t dig
and leave the gristle to the squirrels.
The speaker’s repudiation of the father’s act of provision is immediately clear to the reader. The father is a good provider. He’s put food on the table, lots of it. The feast includes dishes from every food group: grain, meat, milk, vegetables and fruit. The food is plentiful (the baskets of bread and two-handed goblet) and well-prepared (the peaches are halved, the corn husked.) Yet these lines are about disposal rather than consumption. Deny even the scraps to the dogs, those companions to humans. Only the rodents, the lowest of the low, should inherit this food.
Are there any metaphors for love more powerful and universal than food? Are there any images more angry (and potentially dangerous to the self) than the denial of the sustenance provided by a parent? We want to know what poisoned the tie between father so deeply that she doesn’t simply refuse him, but has very particular ideas about how the food, now very likely rotten, having been on that “long-laid table” should be disposed of.
Leslie McGrath's first poetry collection, Opulent Hunger, Opulent Rage,won the 2009 Main St Rag poetry prize. Her poetry is widely published and has been translated into Portuguese and Romanian. McGrath is also a literary interviewer whose interviews regularly appear in The Writer's Chronicle. If she could publicly admit to a love affair with a specific food without being shunned, that food would be Swiss chard.