Friday, September 2, 2016

“THE LOSS OF THE JOY OF COOKING”

The above is the title of a wonderful poem in the latest book of poetry, A Late Spring and After by Robert Shaw, published by Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado. As I’ve lived in Cajun Louisiana for fifty years, I’m naturally drawn to recipes, stories, articles, and, yes, poems about cooking and food. Mention a pot of gumbo, a slice of pecan pie, or a bowl of bread pudding, and I’m not only sure of my sense of place, I search for an open kitchen and know that good food therein is going to make me happier and more at peace with the human condition. So, a poignant poem about Shaw losing one of America’s finest cookbooks following the death of his wife, with whom he had happily worked in the kitchen, incited my interest.

In every line of this sensual poem about food, we encounter the poet’s longing for his deceased beloved: “We used to work/together at it, each on a different side;/the stirring, measuring, tasting, I/chopping, dicing, mincing as required. /Rocking the blade the way she showed me to, /I freed from each raw thing a smell we liked:/ the garlic’s earthy reek, the ginger’s sting, /the anise, wisping up from celery leaves…” and his ultimate loss of appetite: “the book is missing. Even if it’s found/ and followed to the letter, there will still/be loss, the unlisted ingredient, /throwing the best efforts out of balance. /It bakes itself into what’s left of life. /The cold plate waits. Nothing now tastes the same.” This is a fiercely-controlled poem, and it balances the poet’s pain with sensual detail in a memory that reflects the best of a couple’s life together.

As far as my reading goes, “The Loss of the Joy of Cooking” is by far the most moving poem in the book, but in “Craquelure,” Shaw relates an impression of century-and-a-half portraits of ancestors wearing their Sunday best that also resonated with me. I once published a poem about my great-grandfather’s portrait that hangs in my living room in Louisiana, a similarly “cracked” picture that is aptly described in Shaw’s poem as “radiating fissures forming nets/of lines as delicate as hairs that once/ were snugged together on the artist’s brush-tip…an aging in the surface of the paint/or in the once-protective coat of varnish/belies their images’ arrested aging…” Lines like these evoke ideas that perhaps ancestral voices in a portrait can speak through portraiture, or call forth ekphrastic poetry… another time in history awakening in “filaments as fine as those,/spreading a weft, on each a weightless veil…in either likeness anchored to its canvas.”

An interesting addition to A Late Spring and After is a series of three riddles as translated from The Exeter Book, a collection of Old English Literature and the poet’s suggested answers, which he regards as “renderings influenced by the original verse forms, but allow themselves numerous liberties.” The most decipherable one is entitled “Riddle 70, lines 5-6”: “High on this headland day and night I stand/and show a blushing cheek, but feel no shame. /Men out cruising ogle me, weigh my worth. /Hear my solicitation: what’s my name?” The answer: a lighthouse.

Loss and grief form the central theme of A Late Spring, and Shaw transmits his deepest feelings in a brief, fervent elegy entitled “A Late Spring”: “Those few flowers on her tray, /buds lagging on each tree. /What more is there to say/now when the warming clay/seems pleased to let life be?/She died on Mother’s Day./What more is there to say?” An empty bed beside the poet, cold cereal for breakfast – the emblems of grief face Shaw at every turn, but he transcends his perturbation and ameliorates his pain with remembered happier hours of “unfenced green fields to wander through…”

This is a book of wide-ranging poetry moving between past and present, life and death, to arrive at four cogent lines from “Winter Sunset”: “I’d say this landscape frames/hints of how best to go. /Others may crash in flames. /My goal is afterglow.” With unwavering honesty and passion, Shaw deals with his losses, accomplishing a sometimes sardonic tone, but always revealing his appreciation for “time’s best gifts and heedless of any moment beyond the one we were in.”

Another distinctive volume from Gary Entsminger’s small press, Pinyon Publishing.

Robert Shaw has received the Robert Fitzgerald Award and is a co-winner of The Poet’s Prize. He recently retired from Mount Holyoke College where he was the Emily Dickinson Professor of English. Copies of A Late Spring, and After can be ordered from Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403. 


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