The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink
Edited by Kevin Young
Review by Melissa Queen
Pleasure can come too easily paired with poetry or fine dining. It’s like looking at the tag below the bottle of wine on the shelf in the grocery store that tells you what the wine goes best with, so you walk back through the aisles to match the ingredients to what the grocery store tag suggests. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing too incredibly surprising or adventurous about it, either. The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink, an anthology of poems edited by Kevin Young, however, is surprising and adventurous, with poems from the likes of Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Frank O'Hara, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Adrienne Rich, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, and Mark Strand.
Creatively arranged according to culinary seasons, Young’s anthology pairs its selected poems so that the subtleties of the presence of food or drink in the poems stand out. Young’s selection, ordering, and pairing of poems proves the importance of undertones and subtle notes in poetry. Take, for instance, the inclusion of the poem “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” by Richard Hugo that begins, “You might come here Sunday on a whim. / Say your life broke down. The last good kiss / you had was years ago.”
I carried Young’s anthology with me as I traveled to the Delta region of Mississippi where I was teaching grade school in an intensive summer program in the rural town of Itta Bena, Mississippi. Like Hugo’s poem, no part of this trip began with the expectation of fine dining or grand culinary experiences. I imagined Philipsburg similar to how I found Itta Bena: with every storefront empty save for a liquor store and a Walmart twenty miles up the county road.
I’ve heard it told on several occasions that soul food developed from the fine art of making do with what you had, such as the tops of turnips and the cuts of meat discarded by the butcher.
Surviving the elementary school cafeteria in an impoverished area in the Mississippi Delta, where anyone under the age of eighteen can come to be served a free meal regardless of school enrollment status, my third grade students put into practice the fine art of crafting creative ways to make the food they’re given more appealing: the slices of half-thawed frozen pizza, the soggy hamburger meat, or stale peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. In their backpacks they bring snacks of koolaid pickles: dill pickles strained and then soaked overnight in koolaid—a snack so popular in the Delta you can find them ready-made at gas station quick stops. Through buck teeth and a mouth full of food, one little boy, Altorean, tells me, “You know, if you take a bite of fish stick and then take a sip of blue koolaid, then the fish stick will taste like blue koolaid and that’ll make it taste better.”
Down here in the Delta, I’m a long way from my routine of Saturday’s post-yoga brunches with my old college roommates drinking mimosas, but I’m finding ways to make do. I’ve traded wearing perfume for subtlety-scented mosquito repellant. Just this afternoon I sucked my very first crawfish head while a small terrier by the name of Rex waited patiently under the table to catch and eat the discarded tails. And I’m growing far too accustomed (for the good of my waistline) to my colleague Mrs. Purnell, teacher and permanent resident of Itta Bena, bringing large spreads of homemade fried chicken (the best I’ve ever had) and broccoli salad (the best I’ve ever had) to feed the entire staff.
Riding past the dilapidated and ghostly downtown area of the town of Itta Bena, where every shop front is closed and boarded up, I see what an outsider sees, what Richard Hugo saw as an outsider in the town of Philipsburg:
The principal supporting business now is rage. Hatred of the various grays the mountain sends, hatred of the mill, The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls who leave each year for Butte.
But, as Hugo puts it, “Isn’t this your life?” I’m taking advantage of my short six-week stay in the Delta to eat crawfish, collard greens, and fried chicken. To drink forties in a juke joint that, while popular to both locals and tourists passing through the Delta along the famous Blues Highway, is still little more than an old sharecropper’s shack in which the owner sleeps every night after the guests have all been run out. Despite the mosquitos and high humidity, I drink my morning coffee while watching the crop dusters take flight at sunrise and repeat Hugo’s line, “Isn’t this your life?” with every sip. With every bite.
For readers who might come to Young’s anthology in search of a refined palette one would look to for guidance in, say, a New York Times restaurant review, they will be challenged to articulate what it is, exactly, they are in search of. And that’s a good thing. By including poems such as Cornelius Eady’s “Sherbet,” Young ensures readers do not sit easy and swallow down quickly what comes across our tongues:
The problem here is that This isn’t pretty, the Sort of thing that Can easily be dealt with With words.
Telling the story of an interracial couple trying to dine together and being ignored by their server, Eady’s poem, among others included in this anthology, serves as a strong reminder that when and where and with whom we sit down to eat, as well as with what we eat—it all matters. When our ear is so tuned and our palette so refined, we can’t help but taste. This is how Young best pairs the poems in The Hungry Ear, using the presence of food and drink to draw out subtly soulful flavors that might otherwise go unnoticed.