Summer seems like the perfect time to enjoy a collection of poetry that engages not just the senses, but the appetite as well. And, lucky for me, Kevin Young’s The Hungry Ear is just that balanced combination of mouthwatering, and thought-provoking verse that is as easy to dip into while sitting poolside as it is to peruse in the cool, comfortable shade of an air-conditioned home.
This is world literature at its best—a gathering of excellent poetic achievement addressing different aspects of the same universal experience: eating and drinking. The anthology itself gathers examples of food-themed poetry from around the world and through the ages, though its thematic organization makes it read more like a carefully crafted menu than a dense encyclopedia. Its emphasis on seasonality for each section (I. Harvest Moon, II. Wintering, III. Spring Rain, and IV. Sweet Summer) recalls Edna Lewis’ evocations of the cycles that mark agricultural temporality in her food memoir with recipes, The Taste of Country Cooking (1976). Thus, this text looks both inwardly and outwardly at once, emphasizing the communal aspects of preparing and consuming food and drink, while also reminding us that such acts can also become political challenges to protest unfair treatment and unjust segregation.
Mixing old and new offerings, alongside his own poems about food, Young offers up a delightful assemblage of evocative verse that piques our curiosity, evokes our own taste memories, comforts us in our sadness, and opens our minds (and stomachs) to unexpected delights.
I will pause to discuss Young’s own contributions to this volume because, taken together, the introduction and four poems constitute their own mini-volume within the larger anthology. Deeply personal and unsparing in its discussion of how food has been the instrument to both injure his family’s pride and engineer its redemption from shame and despair, these four texts stand apart from the isolated contributions of other poets and the myriad epitaphs which populate the volume. Taken together, “Ode to Chicken,” “The Preserving,” “Ode to Gumbo,” and “Ode to Pork” attest to Young’s love and appreciation of soul food. However, the individual poems stand on their own and express very different relationships between eater and foodstuff.
The first poem to appear in the collection, “Ode to Chicken,” celebrates the unapologetic nature of this fowl who stands unchanged through the many transformations of its cooking—unlike bread and beef which, the poet points out not only change their names once cooked, but also “was once just bull/before it got them degrees” (44). The speaker declares his love of chicken—“you are everything/to me” (44) and admits that this protein source has such transcendent power that everything else the speaker eats can only be described in terms of how much it resembles chicken. Despite this sense of wonder and servitude at the central role of chicken in his eating life, the poem ends with the animal brought down to the domestic sphere as a caretaker of the speaker, the entity that wakes him and graces both his breakfast and dinner table. Thus, he asks the bird leave to gratefully sing its praises in verse: therefore the bird “leave me/to fly for you” (45).
“The Preserving,” constitutes a change in tone. It is a work of memory, recalling the embodied labor of transforming the produce from the summer garden into the sustenance to carry a family through the fallow period of winter. The speaker is no longer an adult, but a child, performing the tasks assigned to him by his mother, as she tries to provide a small measure of comfort—wrapping his hair with string which, though tight, made it “far/ easier to take care of, lasted all/ summer like ashy knees” (67). Peaches, not chicken, are at the heart of this poem. And, their power transcends their mere ability to nourish eaters or sweeten the end of a meal. The suggestion of violence is introduced during a Thanksgiving meal, when a jar of preserved peaches blows up in the back porch: “One Thanksgiving, while saying grace / we heard what sounded like a gunshot” (67). Yet, indeed, it is a measure of human error, “someone didn’t give the jar enough / room to breathe” (67-68), which is to blame for the mishap and not malice. Inattention, thus, is the thing to fear during “the preserving.” The poem culminates in winter, where a communal ritual of tasting the neighbor’s peach brandy, serves to steady all against the cold not only of winter, but also presumably of the cold conditions “cold as war” (68) of living among people who are not part of the tight-knit community of fellow eaters/drinkers.
The next two poems return to the celebratory tone, though the first, “Ode to Gumbo,” is elegiac and melancholy, whereas the second, “Ode to Pork,” is suggestive and almost erotic. Despite the clear mournful tone of the speaker’s confession of pain at the loss of his father, “Ode to Gumbo” celebrates that soup’s healing power if not to break a broken heart, then to fully affirm one’s place within a living family history. Making gumbo connects him to both sides of his lineage: “It was / my father’s mother/ who taught mine how/ to stir its dark mirror” (128). Tasting other people’s gumbo, and their failure to achieve the perfection of his family’s recipes, reminds the speaker of where he belongs and with whom. Finally, unlike the other poems discussed here, this one has a recipe embedded within it: You need/ okra, sausage, bones/ of a bird, an entire / onion cut open” and “cayenne in till the end” (129) and yet, the magic is not in the ingredients themselves, but rather on the way they are put together, how their interaction is orchestrated by a knowledgeable hand. Eating the burning hot soup makes the speaker become re-incorporated, feel the physical pain in the throat that mirrors the emotional scarring that this primal loss has had on his soul.
“Ode to Pork,” then, introduces a different meditation upon mortality. It ends on the uplifting note of the writer owning his desire for that which he delights in even at the cost of his own health: “loving you/ may kill me—but still you/ rock me down slow/ as hammocks on the stove” (148). Even when eating pork causes the speaker some discomfort, he nonetheless proclaims his undying devotion to it, comparing his desire to that of the biblical Adam who, in this allusion, gave up his rib not for Eve but for pork. The poem indeed celebrates pork as a worthy object of desire, pledging that “Your heaven is the only one/ worth wanting” (149).
As I hope to have illustrated, this anthology serves up all manner of intimate, and unmediated, discussions of the appetites—of the body, of the mind, and of the soul—and suggests at ways in which we might begin to sate some of our hungers by remembering the pleasures of the table. This is truly a delicious work to read.
Young, Kevin, Ed. The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.