Reviewer Mark Brazaitis is the author of The Other Language: Poems (2009), winner of the ABZ Poetry Prize. He is also the author of three books of fiction, The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award; Steal My Heart, a novel that won the Maria Thomas Fiction Award given by Peace Corps Writers; and An American Affair: Stories, winner of the 2004 George Garrett Fiction Prize. An audio version of one of his recent stories, “I Return,” is featured on the Cimarron Review’s Audio Library (http://cimarronreview.okstate.edu/169_sample3.html).
The Alchemist’s Kitchen
by Susan Rich (Niger 1984–86)
White Pine Press
May 1, 2010
Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93)
DON’T READ Susan Rich’s latest book on an empty stomach. Although The Alchemist’s Kitchen contains a wide, intelligent, and thought-provoking variety of poems, it does food better than most of the restaurants I’ve been in.
A sample from the Kitchen’s kitchen:
“. . . a spoon glistening with pomegranate seeds. . .”
“. . . we’ll sip cups of Arabic coffee, linger with lavender chocolate. . .”
“. . . Vietnamese coriander, Thai basil, Chinese leaves. . .”
“. . . taste cheeses lined up like small children: asiago, machango, a drunken goat spread from Spain. . .”
My favorite food poem in Rich’s collection is “Chanterelle,” which asks the reader to compare poetry to a “gourmet grocery shop.” Poets can experiment with forms whose traditions they may not know well, just as chefs can make use of herbs whose names they cannot pronounce. But a poem will never be something it’s not. The reader — “the check-out girl” in the poem’s extended metaphor — will see to this, ringing it up accurately. Nevertheless, it is the poet’s obligation — like the gourmet shop’s — to offer the unusual and the exquisite and to resist “the safe way” (which, if I’m reading Rich correctly, is a play on Safeway, where my mother used to shop in Washington, D.C., before Whole Foods came to town).
The last line of the poem — “Bring home a mango/muddle it with Kosher salt”-speaks eloquently to the intentions of the collection as a whole. This isn’t a book with a single focus, although if Rich wanted to write an entire collection about food — heck, about a salted mango alone — I’d read it. No, The Alchemist’s Kitchen is indeed a muddle — a fortunate muddle, a compelling muddle. In addition to poems about food, The Alchemist’s Kitchen contains poems about the wars in Bosnia and Somalia, about the photographer and painter Myra Albert Wiggins, and, perhaps most winningly, about love and growing old.
“An Army of Ellipses Traveling Over All She Does Not Say…” leaves readers to fill in most of the horrors of the war in Somalia, but includes this poignant, un-elided image of a woman sitting by the open window of a bus who:
lost her bracelets, and her wrist
to the handiwork of bandits.
“Not a Still Life” is a summing up, in loose sonnet form, of Myra Albert Wiggins’ rich life and art. But as successful as Wiggins’ career was, the poem tells us:
. . . what she wanted most has all but disappeared.
The museum walls, the fame — the name not written here.
When reading poems about visual artists’ work, one is often tempted to look up the original work, which of course I did. But truth be told, Rich’s descriptions of Wiggins’ photographs and paintings are vivid enough to make this exercise redundant.
In addition to her descriptive powers, Rich handles psychological portraits with aplomb. While she credits Carole Glauber’s The Witch of Kodakry: The Photography of Myra Albert Wiggins, 1869–1956 for informing and jumpstarting her Wiggins’ poems, it’s hard to imagine Glauber’s biography being both as succinct and insightful as, say, “Mr. Myra Albert Wiggins Recalls Their Arrangement”:
. . . And so if there were men
of Salem, Toppenish, Seattle, lovely and rich-
who snickered at our last-season suits
and sequined gowns, who hinted not infrequently —
that a husband should not be so happy
packing picture frames and mounting
photographs. Christ. They knew nothing.
My favorite of favorites? “At Middle-Life: A Romance,” whose energetic, imperative opening — “Let love be imminent and let it be a train” — sets the appealing, optimistic tone. Oh — and there’s a (scrumptious, of course) food reference (“Let love be a breakfast of crème cakes, pomegranate juice, a lively Spanish torte”).
Given the menu, who wouldn’t want to indulge?
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