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VOX POETICA: The poetry of losing weight

VOX POETICA • BY MERRILL LEFFLER

What does poetry have to do with losing weight? Stay with the paragraphs that follow and I’ll try to chart the path that led me there.

It began with my annual resolution to read Shakespeare’s Sonnets — 153 of them, with the delicious notes by Katherine Duncan-Jones, editor of The Arden Shakespeare. I expected it would take a couple of months if I was to read them attentively and if I was to memorize lines I wanted to have when I was most in need of them (but that’s another story). At the same time, I began another annual resolution — to shed 20 pounds of girth, knowing that would take a good deal more Will power (don’t pardon the pun).

And so I started in.

Sonnet I opens with a statement, the narrator’s premise, so to speak:

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die.

This is the beginning of Shakespeare’s, or his persona’s, seduction argument to a beautiful young woman. In line three, he says that as she ages and her beauty declines, the child or “heir” will bear the memory of how beautiful she once was:

But as the riper should by time decease
His tender heir might bear his memory.

From flower imagery in l. 2 — “beauty’s rose” — to fruit imagery in line 3 – “riper.” He pleads that in hoarding her beauty, she is starving herself and the world:

Thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies.

I’ve read this sonnet many times — had I not noticed before how central food imagery was?

Two weeks into reading the sonnets, while struggling to shed pounds, food was on my mind — at night especially when the pantry seemed to fling itself open on its own accord, daring me to resist. I came on Sonnet 75. The speaker is still pleading (he has stamina!)

Sometime all full with feasting on your sight,
And by and by clean starved for a look,
Possessing or pursuing no delight
Save what is had, or must from you be took.
Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day,
Or gluttoning on all, or all away.

Meanwhile, days before I happened to come across “Food,” a witty poem by John Updike:

It is always there,
Man’s real best friend.
It never bites back;
It is already dead.
It never tells us we are lousy lovers
or asks us for an interview.
It simply begs, Take me;
it cries out, I’m yours.

It may be a slight exaggeration when I say I had to force myself past sonnet 75 without focusing on my nighttime hungers for brie, which I had sworn off, for bacon, for cream cheese and bagels, shortbread, Almond Joy — they rose up before me, calling, calling….

I headed for Sonnet 76 but before getting there, I almost lost my self-control in going to a box of shortbread that I had stashed away for emergencies, far back in the closet, where my wife couldn’t see. And just then — it was a Eureka! moment — instead of ripping into the shortbread or chips that were also back there, I thought of Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry,” tucked somewhere in the closet of memory:

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

But ink didn’t sound appetizing. My monkeying mind then leaped to Linda Pastan’s Setting the Table, a chapbook of poems from Dryad Press that I had published many years ago, modest poems whose subjects included soup, barbecue, chocolate, popcorn, pears.

That’s it! I thought. Instead of late-night binges, when the hunger was on, I could eat poetry, the richest and the most fattening poems, and it wouldn’t matter. At this time, I had also been reading poems by poets who had asked to read in Takoma Park’s Third Thursday Poetry Series that Martin Fitzpatrick organizes and happened on “Hunger” by Washington poet Chloe Yelena Miller (chloeyelenamiller.blogspot.com):

I crave sugar cover beignets,
plump fried artichoke hearts,
paper thin pizza crust,
standing rib roast with tiny chef’s hats,
baked organic asparagus,
mille foglie cake,
limoncello,
and my grandmother’s ziti.

I started scouring my memory for poems on food and realized I knew numbers, among them, William Carlos Williams’ (1883-1963) much anthologized, “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

You can taste the plums in the sounds, in “delicious” and “cold,” or in Helen Chasin’s “The Word Plum”  which is, she writes,

pout and push, luxury of
self-love, and savoring murmur

The “s” sounds fill the mouth as do the “u” pronunciation in “push” and “luxury” and “murmur.”

Fruit, yes! It is sweet and nutritious! For instance, Charles Simic’s “Watermelons”:

Green Buddhas
On the fruit stand.
We eat the smile
And spit out the pits.

Or in this stanza from the sensuous  “Fruit” that will be in the forthcoming Mark the Music:

The morning sparkles like lemons
and I am carrying the
gifts of seed    apples    figs    pears
especially pears pregnant
seedy    full        that
the tongue licking the lip
of a jug of honey
rocks in delight with and
oranges and grapes purpling
lips and a man who
cares for the deep yellow       who
loves the feel
the firm and the round of a pear and eats

The lusciousness of fruits and foods of all kind have been so much a part of poetry going all the way back in time, in Homer’s Odyssey, for example, in Virgil’s Aeneid, in many Roman poets, e.g., Martial, Ovid, Catullus, in the biblical  Song Songs, where the lover speaks to his bride,”

I have gathered my myrrh and my spices,
I have eaten from the honeycomb,

I have drunk the milk and the wine.
Feast, friends, and drink
till you are drunk with love

And oh, may your breasts be like clusters
of grapes on a vine, the scent of your breath like apricots,
your mouth good wine.

(trans. Ariel and Chana Bloch).

For poets as diverse as Claude McKay (1890-1948), Jamaican-born American, and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973).

McKay, walking in New York, passes exotic fruits at a grocery:

Bananas ripe and green, and ginger-root,
Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,
And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,
Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs
.

Seeing them, “a wave of longing” sweeps through his body

And, hungry for the old familiar ways
I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.

(“Tropics in New York”)

Neruda serves up a feast  in his Odes Elementales — Odes to Common Things: oranges, apples, artichokes, tomatoes, even French fries!

What sizzles
in boiling
oil
is the world’s
pleasure:
French
fries
go
into the pan
like the morning swan’s
snowy
feathers
and emerge
half-golden from the olive’s
crackling amber.

I was ready to hunt down more non-caloric poems that would sustain me through the dark days of winter when the fridge and pantry were always beckoning. But I didn’t have to go far, nor will you. The indefatigable Grace Cavalieri — poet, playwright, publisher, editor, reviewer, and founding broadcaster 35 years ago of The Poet and the Poem, first on WPFW and now from the Library of Congress (gracecavalieri.com) – teamed up with premier translator Sabine Pascarelli in two terrific collections, both titled The Poet’s Cookbook.

One is Recipes from Tuscany and the second, Recipes from Germany (go to Politics & Prose Bookstore, or betterworldbooks.com). Here you’ll get both poems and recipes tested by Grace and Sabine — “all of them,” says Grace! The German poems and recipes are divided into appetizers, main courses, and desserts and breads; the Tuscan ones into a full seven-course meal: Antipasti, Minestre (soups), Primi Piatti, Secondi Piatti, Verdure, Insalate, and Dolci.

How do you lose weight on seven courses, on linguine or desserts of chocolate wine-cake or tiramisu?

Simple: only a cupful of the most caloried courses, risotto, for example, or lasagna or linguini — no more — supplemented by poems such as Michael Glaser’s “Risotto,”  Emily Ferrara’s “Making Lasagna,” or Diane Lockward’s “Linguine”:

It was always linguine between us.
linguini with white sauce, or
red sauce, sauce with basil snatched from
the garden, oregano rubbed between
our palms, a single bay leaf adrift amidst
plum tomatoes. Linguini with meatballs,
sausage, a side of brascioli.  Like lovers
trying positions, we enjoyed it every way
we could – artichokes, mushrooms, little
neck clams, mussels, and calamari – linguini
twining and braid us each to each.

Add some of Emily Dickinson mushrooms — no calories:

The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants —
At Evening, it is not —
At Morning, in a Truffled Hut
It stops upon a Spot.

If it’s German Sauerbraten you crave, try Karren Alenir’s poem of the same name, or Richard Harteis “Bachelor Meatloaf,” of Alan Britt’s “Pot Roast”:

Details to slow cook the roast,
including thermometer, drip rack, plus six hours
of slow cooking w/six golden Yukon potatoes /
present to arrive later with salad
punctuated by red leaf & licorice olives
sliced like used tires
buried beneath a nor-easter of green bib, feta,
& extra virgin olive oil.

When you’ve had your fill, you can end the day as I have repeatedly, with Barbara Goldberg’s “Gourmand’s Prayer”:

Yellowtail snapper with citrus beurre blanc, filet
mignon in demi-glace cabernet, roast duck garnished
with mint jellied peaches, angels on horseback – dates
stuffed with garlic cloves wrapped in bacon and served
in a hot honey-pepper sauce, bananas foster, key
lime pie, dense flourless chocolate cake drizzled
with a raspberry coulis, Lord, grant me the power
to well digest all that I have well eaten.

About the author: Merrill Leffler

Merrill Leffler is the Poet Laureate of Takoma Park, Maryland.

1 comment

  1. A poet after my own heart–and appetite. What a delicious read!
    Sharing some of my own food-inspired, reflections:
    http://freecatholic808.com/2010/12/31/leftovers-laughter-and-the-gift-of-transformation/
    http://freecatholic808.com/2011/12/29/from-yule-log-to-buche-de-noel/
    Warning: Won’t aid weight loss

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