The Banquet of Donny & Ari: Scenes from the Opera
by Naomi Guttman
Brick Books , 2015
Review by Becca J.R. Lachman
My mother told me never to marry a fellow musician; this is one of her mantras I’m very glad I disobeyed. I know now why she gave me this warning—at least one person in a couple having a steady job is never a bad thing. And two performers’ egos under one roof? Sometimes tricky indeed. But when I look back on the courtship with my now life partner, I can almost feel again that rediscovery of an intoxicating passion for making music—mostly through watching him play piano and percussion for a modern dance class, in the mixed CDs we meticulously created for each other, or in the mini concerts we performed for an audience of one in practice rooms at the college where we worked.
In Naomi Guttman’s newest book of poems, a contemporary version of a mythological Greek love match is colorfully brought to life through Donny (Dionysus), a Canadian opera director, amateur chef, and musician and Ari (Ariadne), a fabrics and printmaking artist consumed by her growing concern for humanity’s role in climate change. They are two artists bound by their drive to create, but also by the daily expectations and to-do lists of marriage—and by the sons they have made together. In The Banquet of Donny & Ari: Scenes from the Opera, we get a taste of the couple’s early and dizzying love, but we are mostly witness to a seasoned marriage making more dissonance than harmony, a marriage in quiet crisis.
In the book’s prologue, we are introduced to the role food will play in the couple’s evolving relationship. Donny creates tempting, elaborate dishes with the gusto of an opera itself; this is how he first wins over his wife, and this is how he attempts to bring her fully back to him throughout the collection. In “Early Music,” Donny offers such an invitation-feast:
In tall frosted glasses he served cantaloupe
crushed with ice and lime, red beans and quinoa
on earthen plates. Dampness entered, settled
like the children they didn’t yet know.
On the swept wood floor she lay her braid undone—
Bach’s inventions catching in her hair.
Just as Guttman reinvents the story of Dionysus and Ariadne, she also reinvents the way their story’s told through poetic form and music. The novella-in-verse is divided into acts, mostly named for the seasons but interrupted by a section titled “Interludes.” She gives us lyric and prose poems in the form and spirit of artist statements, fugues, sonatas, and succulent, secular lovefeasts.
In my own love story, what secured my heart was homemade twice-baked mashed potato and bacon pizza. When my husband wants to calm me down or make a romantic gesture, he still makes me comfort food. While the book’s masterful language about food as a metaphor for love and identity are also enough of a reason to keep reading, so too is the invitation (and in my case, the need) to revisit the original Greek storylines to fully appreciate Guttman’s adaptations.
I also don’t know that I’ve ever finished a poetry collection and wished it would become an HBO television series—that is, before reading this one. These characters are vivid and unpredictable, achingly human yet trying their best to lift themselves out of the muck of mortality. In Guttman’s poems, even the gods have ailing parents, estranged siblings, and rebellious pre-teens who won’t practice for music lessons (“...Orpheus didn’t have Xbox, / rollerblades, a soccer ball...” Ari says in “Theories of Play”). And in a world of temptation, loss, and destruction, even the gods have to find a way back to each other.