by Lois Marie Harrod
People don’t eat meals anymore, I tell my friend Michelle. Of course, don’t call her Michelle. She’s Micaela now, what her grandmother Rosa wanted her called when she was born some 61 years ago and what she is now calling herself. Not legally. She is still Michelle Lawrence legally, but she’s Micaela Lauritano when she writes food poetry, and she does write food poetry. She’s been writing food poetry until I am choking on it.
The good thing about Michelle and her poetry is that she has stopped complaining about her weight. Instead of weight, she can complain about her mother’s cooking. According to Michelle, her mother was a nosey slut who always read Michelle’s diaries and made pointed references to them at family meals. Oh, Michelle, a little bird told me that you think that Jerome’s tongue is as sweet as toffee. That sort of reference. Michelle has just about exhausted her mother’s meals as material. Now she is writing about her Grandma Rosa.
Michelle decided she was a poet the day we both turned fifty, October 5, the day we went out to celebrate with a matinee movie and dinner. We were on the way to The Red Lobster after seeing Il Postino. “I think I will start writing poetry,” she said, not exactly out of the blue considering how poetic the movie was with that fat exiled poet and the bicycle mailman with the dirty fingernails. “I never realized fat could make you so poetic,” said Michelle and started writing poems.
Not great poems, not the Fat Poet of Chile kind of stuff. Neruda, that’s his name.
Not great poems, but good enough to get five or six published in magazines nobody but Michelle has ever heard of. Things like the Raritan River Poetry Review, and Skunk, the Magazine of Odor Poetry. There is such a magazine. Most poets don’t use smell images, says Michelle, but Skunk is devoted to smell poets.
“It gives a whole new meaning to scratch and sniff,” I tell Michelle. “Do they have scratch and sniff stickers in Eat Me?” I ask.
“No,” says Michelle, “no scratch and sniff. These little poetry magazines have small budgets. Eat Me has a spice of the month. I’m going to be published in the oregano issue. I had to change the basil to oregano in that poem about Grandma Rosa’s tomato sauce when I sent it in, but I wasn’t really wedded to the basil.”
Of course, since I am Michelle’s best friend, she’s given me a copy of everything that has been published, and here is her latest, three years and seven months after she wrote it, her poem “Grandma Rosa’s Polenta with Garlicky Greens” in Eat Me: the Journal of Culinary and Erotic Poems. It starts:
When Grandma Rosa picked her red-veined chard
for garlicky greens . . .
Not that Rosa ever cooked garlicky greens for a lover, Michelle said, but Michelle liked the alliteration. That’s Michelle’s latest technique to get poems started. Garlicky greens. Outrageous oregano. Succulent cinnamon. Tyrannical tarragon.
Michelle has been working up this chapbook on Grandma Rosa’s cooking because that’s how Michelle says you make it in the poetry world. First you get a few poems published in magazines, then you collect them in a chapbook and you are on your way. Readings at every little library from here to Papallacta, New Mexico. Every poem in the chapbook is going to be something that Grandma Rosa cooks for her imaginary lover. Lately Michelle’s been reading The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook: 350 Essential Recipes for Inspired Everyday Eating. In fact, the cookbook gave her the idea for the chapbook, and it’s all due to Amanda becoming a vegetarian.
Amanda is Michelle’s a.k.a. Micaela’s granddaughter who became a vegetarian for her eleventh birthday. A rite of passage now—you turn eleven and become a vegetarian.
Michelle’s poem is all about Grandma Rosa making this totally imaginary polenta with garlicky greens, how Rosa goes into her totally imaginary backyard garden and chooses the red-veined chard and the green spinach, how she cooks the cornmeal in eight cups of simmering water, how she adds 2 teaspoons of salt and a little more because her lover is such a salty fellow.
Then comes Michelle’s part in the poem. While the polenta is cooking, Grandma Rosa shows little Micaela how to remove and the discard the stems from the chard and spinach, how to tear off the green portions and discard the ribs, how to wash the leaves in successive bowls of cold water until grit no longer appears in the bottom of the bowl.
Well, I say, because Michelle always wants to know exactly what I think about her poems because I am her average reader, “It sounds a little like a recipe especially when you say set aside. I don’t see much about the lover.”
“Oh, don’t you see,” she says, “set aside is the symbolic part. Grandma Rosa is going to have to set aside something for her lover. But it’s more than that. This poem is such a break-through for me. The set aside is as much about the poem as it is about lovers and polenta.”
“Oh,” I say, “I see.” I don’t, but I say I do or Michelle will go on and on.
And she does anyway: “The washing the leaves in successive bowls of cold water until grit no longer appears. The set aside. That’s what poetry is all about. Getting rid of the scaffolding—the stems, the ribs. Getting rid of the grit. The setting it aside.” Now I remember, this is all the stuff Michelle told me after she came back from that writer’s workshop in Soup Deville, Louisiana, where she goes every winter. All this business about how you should write a poem and throw it away, and then write it again.
Michelle, that’s how you cook, I want to say, but I don’t. You make it, throw it away, and make it again. That’s the joke we tell at our Movie Club. We get together to watch our favorites. Watch and eat. Whatever Michelle serves us, when she serves us, she’s makes and throws away. Of course, generally there’s not enough time to make it again, so she goes to the bakery and finds something that is sure to be a little stale.
What I say is “Oh, like you set aside cookie dough so it firms up and you can handle it.”
“Oh, does that work?” she says.
“Yeh, it works,” I say, “—with cookies. But then I’m just your average reader. What does this polenta taste like?”
“Taste like?” says Michelle.
“It’s polenta—your basic cornmeal mush. What my old German mother served us when there wasn’t anything else to serve. My sisters and I loved it. Cornmeal mush with brown sugar and milk. I’d have been happy to eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but Mom always felt bad because she only served it when she didn’t have anything else. But cornmeal mush with a bunch of chard and spinach on top doesn’t sound appealing. What does it taste like?”
“Hell, if I know,” says Michelle. “You know me in the kitchen. I wouldn’t make the stuff, and it’s sure Granddaughter Amanda wouldn’t eat it. Not the spinach and chard.”
“How many vegetarians,” I asked, “actually eat vegetables? My daughter-in-law Kelly lives on lentils. Won’t touch fruit—doesn’t like fruit.”
In fact, Kelly never serves meals. If Potsy and Antsy get hungry, Kelly gives them a list of what she has in the house. You can have a cheesy tortilla or beany tortilla or just a plain tortilla. Or you can have lentil soup. Potsy usually chooses the bowl of cereal.
Of course, as mother-in-law, I can’t say why don’t you dish her up some polenta with garlicky greens. Or carrots or green beans or Brussels sprouts.
“The truth is,” I tell Michelle, “Potsy and Antsy eat practically anything when Kelly isn’t around—spaghetti, scallops, salmon cakes, watermelon, pears, kiwi fruit and even celery—if I put raisins and peanut butter on it. Ants on a log—that’s what it is called.
“And when Potsy and Antsy come for three days,” I continue between Michelle’s poems, “I don’t ask them every ten minutes if they are hungry. I just serve them meals, and that’s what they eat, three meals. What’s this business of nobody eating meals together any more?”
Michelle a.k.a. Micaela agrees. She cooks meals when her granddaughter Amanda comes—well, sort of. Michelle buys these awful things called Notdogs, hot dogs for vegetarians, and serves them with baked beans out of the can. Of course, for Amanda, they have to be vegetarian baked beans out of the can and brownies out of the package. But she does see that Amanda drinks orange juice and milk. Of course, it has to be organic orange juice and organic milk because her daughter Susie says she doesn’t want Amanda popping breasts.
So I tell Michelle about this African tribe I read about that tries to keep a girl from popping breasts before they should. What they do is bind the little girl’s chest really tight so the breasts can’t grow until they should. Right, says Micaela, she doesn’t believe me, but then she decides that maybe she could use it for a Rosa poem, how Grandma Rosa wanted to bind her breasts when they popped out when she was in fifth grade.
“Is this true?” I said.
Michelle just looks at me. “ Do I look like the kind of woman that would grow breasts at age 11?”
I tell her I can’t see how one could tell at 61.
“You remember me at 11,” says Michelle. “In fifth grade I weighed 62 pounds and was tall and skinny as a nail.”
“Isn’t that skinny as a rail?” I ask.
“That’s the cliché,” says Michelle in her Micaela mode. “Poets don’t use clichés. Not good ones.”
I don’t know if Michelle a.k.a. Micaela is a good poet anymore than I know if Kelly is a good mother. I do know that Michelle avoids rhyme like Kelly avoids making meals. Personally, I like rhyme. The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat, the owl took some honey and a little money wrapped up in a five-pound note. That doesn’t sound quite right, except for the five-pound note, but that’s why I like rhymes. They help me remember. Sort of. The same way Michelle cooks.
But Michelle says rhymes are out unless you hide them—like hiding squash in cheesy casserole. “How do you hide a rhyme?” I ask her.
“Oh,” says Michelle, “you don’t put it at the end of the line–or you can close-rhyme it?”
“Close rhyme,” I say.
“Yes,” says Michelle. “Like bacon and Satan.”
“Bacon and Satan don’t really rhyme,” I say.
“They almost rhyme,” says Michelle. “They have similar vowel sounds.”
“Well,” I say, “Kelly’s bringing the kids tonight. I think I’ll make some beans with garlicky greens for supper.”
“Let me know what they taste like,” says Michelle.
“I’ll bring some over if Antsy and Potsy don’t eat it all.”
|Lois Marie Harrod ’s Fragments from the Biography of Nemesis (Cherry Grove Press) and How Marlene Mae Longs for Truth (Dancing Girl Press) appeared in 2013. The Only Is won the 2012 Tennessee Chapbook Contest (Poems & Plays); Brief Term, poems about teaching, was published by Black Buzzard Press (2011). Previous publications include Cosmogony (2010), Furniture (2008), Firmament (2007); Put Your Sorry Side Out (2005); Spelling the World Backward (2000); This Is a Story You Already Know (l999); Part of the Deeper Sea (1997); Green Snake Riding (l994), Crazy Alice (l991), Every Twinge a Verdict (l987). She has received five fellowships from VCCA and three from New Jersey Council on the Arts. A Geraldine R. Dodge poet and former high school teacher, she teaches Creative Writing at TCNJ. Visit her work on www.loismarieharrod.org.|