The Hungry Ear
Poems of Food & Drink
Kevin Young
The poems here include some of the best of our near-contemporaries: Sharon Olds, Billy Collins, Stephen Dobyns, Charles Simic, Robert Haas, and Matthew Dickman. Then there are old friends who we don't get to hang out with but often think we are when we're reading their poetry: Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, and Paul Muldoon.

Finally, there are the fuddy-duddies we still care for: Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, William Butler Yeats, Philip Larkin, and best of all --- she's so often forgotten --- Gertrude Stein. And it's all about two of our favorite activities: eating and drinking.

The longest poem here, "Hot" by Craig Arnold, runs six pages. It's rather entertaining, but rhyming couplets --- all sixty-three of them --- are hard to pull off unless you happen to be Alexander Pope. And the off-rhymes can be fingernails down the blackboard: "flesh/ash," "blood/understood," "meant/cleaned," and, no!

    face loosened a notch, eyes with a gloss
              of a fever left to run its course ...

With the poems here --- over a hundred --- Young has introduced us to some outstanding poets that have slipped under the radar over the years, including Patricia Smith ("When the Burning Begins"), Tony Hoagland ("Jet"), Win Matthews ("Another Beer"), and Jane Kenyon,

    Things would have been different
    if I hadn't let Bob climb on top of me
    for ninety seconds in 1979.
    It was raining lightly in the state park
    and so we were alone. The charcoal fire
    hissed as the first drops fell...

The twelve categories seem a bit strained at times, "First Harvest," "Soup Lines & Staples," "Offerings," "Down the Hatch," and "Giving Thanks." This last includes Elizabeth Bishop's intriguing "The Fish,"

    I caught a tremendous fish
    and held him beside the boat
    half out of the water, with my hook
    fast in a corner of his mouth ...
    I thought of the coarse white flesh
    packed in like feathers,
    the big bones and the little bones,
    the dramatic reds and blacks
    of his shiny entrails,
    and the pink swim-bladder
    like a big peony.

It's a show stopper, isn't it? To compare a "swim-bladder" to "a big peony." I'm not sure that any of the rest of us could pull it off. But "The Fish" may be an example of Young's net spread wide, perhaps too wide, for Bishop's trout is hardly something to bake with lemon and dill (yum!) and put steaming on the table since, at the very end of the poem, when everything in the boat turns rainbow, she "let the fish go."

Some of the foods here don't seem to build up much Gemütlich either in the writer or the reader. I found little filling in the potatoes offered up by Richard Wilbur, Linda Hogan and Rennie MacQuilkin, nor did I find much flavor --- nor tears --- in the onions from Adrienne Rich, William Matthews or Margaret Gibson (although Pablo Neruda's "onion / clear as a planet / and destined to shine, / constant constellation, / round rose of water, / upon / the table / of the poor..." did the trick).

The dinner comes more savory when Roy Blount hauls in the barbecue sauce,

    Brush it on chicken, slosh it on pork,
    Eat it with fingers, not with a fork.
    I could eat barbecued turtle or squash ---
    I could eat tar paper cooked and awash
    In barbecue sauce.

Catherine Bowman heats up some hot ribs sent cross-country by her brother (Federal Express!) "in a customized cardboard box, no bigger / that a baby coffin or a bulrush ark." And the meal takes off with William Matthews'

    Indeed the Buddha died
    from eating spoiled pork, vegetarians
    I know like to insist, raising the stakes
    from wrong to fatal, gleefully. Perhaps
    you've read the bumper sticker too:
    A Heart
    Attack is God's Revenge for Eating His
    Little Friends.

There's a blooper (Buddha died from pork disguised as a sweet dessert; he was poisoned by one of his enemies), but since the whole of "Sooey Generous" is so toothsome, we forgive.

Things get more interesting when we get into the beer and wine department, with Frank O'Hara's "Beer for Breakfast" and Win Cooper's "Fun" (some fun): "drinking beer at noon on Tuesday .../ I like a good beer buzz early in the day, / And Billy likes to peel the labels / From his bottles of Bud and shred them on the bar." It's all very rustic and low-class, boozing it up in front of the car wash,

    The good people of the world are washing their cars
    On their lunch hours, hosing and scrubbing
    As best they can in skirts and suits.

In all, The Hungry Ear --- a tribute, we would hope, to "the hungry i" --- is a worthy anthology. It's hearty, generous, high-spirited, and reminds us that so few truly good anthologies come our way. Last month, we let ourselves get in a snit with Paula Deitz' Poets Translate Poets because it was just so damn proper, so scholarly. We like our verse to ravish us, down-right and dirty; or at least to show us some some flesh and bones (and home-cooking).

The Hungry Ear reminds us of some other collections we've praised over the years, like Julia Kasdorf and Michael Tyrell's superb Broken Land or X. J. Kennedy's sweet collection In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus, or that rare anthology of juvenile poetry, When We Were Countries from Hanging Loose Press, a generous collection of undeniably powerful verse by the younger set.

§   §   §

Editor Young includes four of his own verses in this collection, which is only matched by the four from Jane Kenyon. It's one poem more than Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, and John O'Hara got. William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, and Sharon Olds have two each, and the editor found space solely for one each by Edna St. Vincent Benet, Alan Ginsberg, Amy Lowell and Philip Larkin. Maybe they didn't think (or write) much about food and drink, but, as we've pointed out, the categories here are quite loose. If Theodore Roethke can appear by having his father waltz him around the kitchen on his toes, then all other bets are off.

We are thinking that Young used an editorial droit du seigneur by finding so much space for his own works. It's nothing new, though. It's a hoary tradition --- the editor larding in a few of his own preenings --- brought to high (or low) art by the late anthologist Oscar Williams. We had to put up with his many "Golden Treasuries" while in college. which meant we not only got stuck with his favorite poets --- old-school, stick-in-the-mud, tendentious --- but, on top of that, huge dollops of his own verse as well.

He was generous in these collections, though. He also included a baker's dozen by a certain Gene Derwood, wife to Oscar Williams.

--- Pamela Wylie
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