January 2013

Rebecca Silber


The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink edited by Kevin Young

For most of us, likely for all of us, food goes beyond its essential act of sustenance. "Love, satisfaction, trouble, death, pleasure, work, sex, memory, celebration, hunger, desire, loss, laughter, even salvation: to all these things food can provide a prelude; or comfort after; and sometimes a handy substitute for." This writes editor Kevin Young, in the introduction to The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink. The poems in this anthology reflect all of these human experiences in relation, often as metaphor, to food. Young, who is a poet, professor and curator at Emory University, as well as a National Book Award finalist, also states in the introduction that he has put this anthology together "to honor food's unique yet multifaceted pleasures."

The Hungry Ear includes a buffet of poems organized in seasonally appropriate sections and wittily named subsections, with titles such as: Pig Out (pork poems), Down the Hatch (drinking poems), and Short Orders (fast food poems). This is a substantial book; there are more than one hundred fifty poems written by a variety of poets. Because of the way the poems are organized -- by food, rather than by poet -- the different voices and formats are scattered throughout the book, lending itself to a randomly good read. This is not Young's first anthology; perhaps that is why, in the introduction to this book, he does not write about how he selected the poems he chose for this collection, because he's done it before, and the process is nothing new to him. I am still curious as to how he chose and why he included the poems he did, surely having to exclude some poems in favor of others.

I was immediately impressed by the variety of poets and the assortment of poems included in The Hungry Ear. Previously not familiar with Young's poems, I appreciate the fact that he incorporated four of his own in this collection. He is the editor, and a celebrated poet, too, so, why not? I am fond of his poem "Ode to Chicken," which begins, "You are everything / to me. Frog legs, / rattlesnake, almost any / thing I put my mouth to / reminds me of you..." I appreciate the humor, and the way his words tumble together, sentences broken up into smaller bites. An ode, traditionally a more serious poem, makes several appearances in this culinary collection. There is "Ode to Pork" and "Ode to Gumbo," both also by Young. Pablo Neruda's "Ode to Salt" and "Ode to the Onion" are included, as well as Linton Hopkins's poem "Ode to Butter." Other poets in this collection include Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Li Po, Rita Dove, and Sylvia Plath. Young really has gathered together a diverse group.

I happened to savor The Hungry Ear over Thanksgiving weekend along with the traditional meal of turkey, potatoes, and pumpkin pie. Soon after our large group finished convening around the dining room table, bellies full, a few inquisitive family members asked me about the book I was reading. I seized the opportunity and read some of the poems out loud to them, something I wouldn't normally do. Actually, I don't think I have ever read poetry aloud. The experience of reading poems to them, coming together over poetry, was much like coming together over food, as we had just done. One of the poems I selected to read was William Carlos Williams's well-known poem, one I remember from high school, "This Is Just to Say": "I have eaten / the plums / that were in / the icebox / and which / you were probably / saving / for breakfast / Forgive me / they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold." After I finished reading the poem (which I admittedly selected partially for its brevity), my audience -- not regular, not ever, poetry readers -- were truly excited about the poem. Because food is a commonality, people who perhaps wouldn't ordinarily read or listen to poetry, can relate to poems on the subject matter, whatever their particular food traditions and cultures happen to be.

A poem in The Hungry Ear that I did not read aloud, but which I am partial to, is Patricia Smith's poem, "When the Burning Begins." It spans three pages and is dedicated to her father. It describes the process of making a particular cornbread recipe -- that once you can smell the burning, it is time to flip it. The narrator reminisces about making the recipe in the kitchen with her mother and her father, dancing in the kitchen with her father, conversing with him while waiting for the burning-smell-flip-over signal, in the days before tragedy struck their family, "and he is laughing and breathing and no bullet / in his head. So you let the water run into this mix / till it moves like mud moves at the bottom of a river, / which is another thing Daddy said, and even though / I'd never seen a river, / I knew exactly what he meant." The narrator's memories of the cornbread and her parents, her father in particular, are melded together, and retold wistfully in this poem.

In his introduction, Young explains that "food and poetry each insist that we put our own twists and ingredients in the mix: we make each dish, like a good poem, our own." This is how life works too, with people taking their own paths from where they began. If food can bring everyone back down that path to a certain time, a certain memory, then that is extremely powerful. Everybody has food associations tied to emotions and memories; this is why The Hungry Ear is such a universally appealing poetry collection.

The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink edited by Kevin Young
Bloomsbury USA
ISBN: 978-1608195510
336 pages