Epicurean Ecstasy: More Poems About Food, Drink, Herbs & Spices
By Cynthia Gallaher
The Poetry Box, 2018
Review by Lennart Lundh
Cynthia Gallaher's newest collections of poems, Epicurean Ecstasy, is exactly what the subtitle promises: more verse about food, drink, herbs, and spices. The "more" references a previous chapbook, Omnivore Odes, while the promised topics are delivered in full across the sixty-four poems included. We begin the buffet with champagne and eggs, proceed through various offerings of fruits, vegetables, and spices, and spend the last third of our time at the table amongst the delightful and healing herbs. Along the way, our guide treats us to histories, geographies, and lists of uses. From "Egg World" (page 13):
taking the same time as an over-easy whirl,
adding orderly, odd moments to peck around
and get cozy on her nest,
the chicken lays her egg.
"Massachusetts Cranberries" (page 21) asks:
. . .are they gathered like scarlet colonies
of miniature planet mars vanquished to earth,
set loose from ancient-armored spaceship barrels[?]
while "Purple Coneflower Echinacea" (page 78) is credited with:
with abundant arsenals
of roots in our cellars
to help make the common cold
Overall, the poems are entertaining and enlightening. The choice of free verse for a collection which is light, but not frivolous, seems perfect. Forced rhyme on top of the easy-going tone might have lent a nursery rhyme feel, as it does momentarily when "The Irish Potato Famine" (page 54) unexpectedly dips briefly into and out of an abcb pattern.
The risks of rhyme having been wisely sidestepped, as a reader I found occasional difficulties with the flow of some of the poems. In addition to a general absence of leading capitalization, there is an inconsistency in the use of punctuation, leading to a mix of very fragmentary and very long strings of clauses running across multiple verses, as in "All-American Blueberries (page 19). This is, of course, a function of the poet's voice, and I know from experience that Gallaher reads her poems wonderfully to her audience. For the reader coming to these poems for the first time by way of the page, however, there are some slippery spots to navigate.
Absent in the tight focus on the specific subjects of Gallaher's collection, and I think intentionally, is much in the way of human association with food. The reader is gently lectured, but there are no universal conclusions drawn. The few exceptions, such as the close of "Humble Onion" (page 60) and the beautiful "Sage, Cedar and Sweetgrass: Sacred Healing Smoke" (page 70) are noteworthy. This is not a shortcoming, and indeed might be the only practical way to approach the poet's chosen task.
Epicurean Ecstasy is a project at which Gallaher fully succeeds. Any reader wanting what might be thought of as the backstory or personal life of food will be amply rewarded.
About the reviewer: Lennart Lundh is the author of sixteen books of poetry, two collections of short-fiction, and six works on military aviation history. His work has appeared internationally since 1965.
Poems by Caroline Johnson
(Holy Cow! Press, Duluth, 2018;
Review by Lennart Lundh
This review originally appeared simultaneously in Bosphorous
Review of Books and Unlikely
Stories Mark V early in November, 2018.
Caroline Johnson's The Caregiver takes the reader hand-in hand through the landscape of a loved one's terminal illness and death, not once, but twice, illuminating the overlapping journeys of her father and mother from her own positions as adult child, caregiver, and sister traveler. Following a brief foreword to provide helpful backstory and (auto)biography, the full weight of Johnson's words is borne by an introductory poem and three sections of varying length. Without exception, the poems gifted to the reader are conversational in nature, part of an important but never pedantic dialogue between all parties. There is no hiding behind vague symbols or secret handshakes, and Johnson proves her mastery of the wordsmith's task by always ensuring that this discussion is primary, form never overwhelming function.
As introduction, "Sunsets" outlines the tensions, minutiae, and love in the transitional ground between the plains of home and family and the treacherous grounds of lives ending. "He says he's looking for his glasses, another / thing for me 'to bitch about.'" "I cook them frozen pizza and clean / after them." Finally, it warns us of what's to come with the image of "the red flag / blowing . . . like a ghost." This, ultimately, is what the collection and the reality behind it are about in perfect summation.
The twenty poems in the first section focus on the poet and her father. True to her nature as caretaker-child, he is never far from her thoughts; even during a moment as mundane as seeing a turtle cross a bike trail, she writes in "Crossing" that, "I thought of you, dear father, / moving across unstable ground . . ." If there are losses for both to deal with -- surrendering car keys, moving from cane to walker, walker to wheel chair and hospital bed -- there are moments that stabilize the spinning world -- watching a Bond thriller together in "James", recalling family moments and stories from the poet's childhood in "Becoming Erudite":
You told me
to close my eyes, but I remember
peeking at a blinking Christmas light. Your voice was smooth, intoxicating
like the vodka tonic on the side table.
And, running through the lives of the parties to this trip across impossible mountains and seemingly unfordable rivers, lying beneath the hours of loving attention to another's pains and needs above one's own, there's an understanding of the inevitable, best declared in "Gliding," where Johnson muses, "Yet I know it's going to end. / You are going to die. I am going / to die."
In the second section, running parallel for a time to the father's battle with irreversible neurological disorders, we hear of the poet's caregiving for her mother, suffering from advancing (and ultimately fatal) dementia. The seventeen poems here reflect the same essential struggles and joys faced with her father's decline, as in "Shut-Ins", which closes with, "So I walk, my legs weak, // . . . into the dark night and towards Mrs. Smith, / my first lesson in kindness.", or "Alzheimer's Dream", which begins, "You're a stranger to me now, / though I've known you all my life." There is also, in these poems, a sense of deeper affection -- an emotion different from love or devotion -- between these two adult women than between adult daughter and father, an attitude which doesn't demean the latter, but seems simply normal and adds a less painful note to the reality of their situation. Again from "Alzheimer's Dream":
Let's try not to remember,
have a drink to forget
that we ever once met a lifetime ago
when I called you mother
and needed you so.
From its epigram, one might expect the final section to be given over to grief, and if it were rooted in the Five Stages such works would not be out of place. I suspect, however, that after twelve years as caregiver, Johnson's grief has largely been processed by the time her parents walk on. The closing thirteen poems are, instead, much more, and more fittingly, memento mori and gathered loose ends. The opening piece, "What Got Him Here," considers that question, while "Changing Lanes" reviews the mother's wake and fittingly says, "My mom's heart is not tiny." "Ode to My Father's Nursing Home" describes the patients as much as the place, returning to the earlier image of humans in their final years as turtles who "only want to escape their habitat, / tuck their limbs inside dark shells, and go home." And, finally, "Der Schrei -- for Mother and Father (after Allen Ginsburg)", with its howled scream and its lamentations of life's cruelties, takes a calming breath and recalls: "I'm with you in Plainfield, and I don't blame you for trying to escape. / . . . pick me up, and we take off into the starry night."
As poet and reader, I appreciate and applaud the well-executed craft of Caroline's unblinking recollections. As an old man, with both parents and in-laws in their Nineties and all of us inevitably declining at varying velocities, I find The Caregiver to be honest, both a painful and relieving read. Those who have walked these paths will find reason in the fifty-one poems here to both smile and cry, and I believe will find their time with another traveler amply rewarded. Those who have not yet set out will do well to remember Johnson's words when they need guidance one day.
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