|The Hungry Ear, Edited by Kevin Young|
(Bloomsbury USA, 2012)
Edited by Kevin Young
Bloomsbury USA, October 2012
Hardcover: 336 pages; $25.00
When someone says you’ll “eat your words,” I don’t think they had poetry in mind. Yet in the new anthology The Hungry Ear, compiled and edited by Kevin Young, we are invited to gnaw on more than 100 morsels in poetic form.
When it comes down to it, there is perhaps no better metaphor for poetry’s place in our lives than food—it is soul food, comfort food, the thing that reminds of us home and memory and love and longing. It is at once delicate and messy, an idea manifested in the mess of a meal on the anthology’s cover and perpetuated in the book’s 158 poems. Before inviting readers to dive into the collection, Young tempts us with a quote from Pablo Neruda that reminds us that poetry “is like bread; it should be shared by all, by scholars and by peasants, by all our vast, incredible, extraordinary family of humanity.” In his introduction, Young extends the metaphor, offering that “the best poems, like the best meals, are made from scratch.” Indeed, the poems of this collection blend together like a warm homemade jumbo: the ingredients, on their own, might not seem to work together, but together they manage to form something scrumptious.
Young is no newcomer to the succulence of poetry. The editor of The Best American Poetry 2011 and author of seven poetry collections, Young frequently uses poetry to engage the things that unite us as human beings: music, art, history, film, and more. His poetry often features a chorus of voices, representing his own palette of flavorful personas and images. His most recent poetry collection, Ardency: A Chronicle off the Amistad Rebels, was named as one of the Boston Globe’s “Best Poetry Books of 2011,” and was a winner of a 2012 American Book Award. Young, in other words, is no stranger to the poetic kitchen.
The difference here is that he has invited us to join him at the banquet hall table and, to paraphrase his grandmother’s words that close his introduction, help ourselves.
The Hungry Ear is sectioned with the same careful attention as a cookbook. Instead of meals of breakfast and supper, Young provides the reader with seasonal sections, drawing the bonds between the passing of time—the celebrations and seasons that define our days—the allure of a good meal, and the satisfaction of a good poem a little tighter. There is an abundance of blackberries, apples, and greens, a gift of first fruits that serves both to initiate the anthology’s “harvest” and provide readers with a sampler of what’s to come.
Admittedly, some poems linger longer than others. Neruda’s “Ode to Salt”—with its memories of salt singing “with a mouth choking / on dirt” so haunting it makes me ponder the benefits of a low sodium diet—packs a far greater punch than Roy Blount, Jr.’s “Song to Bacon.” Poems like Honorée Jeffers’ “The Gospel of Barbecue,” meanwhile, feel something akin to that greedy growl in the stomach when you’re at once somewhat satisfied and left longing for more.
In Jeffers’ poem we are returned to that sense of haunting, and so many themes within the text come together, with lingering lines linking past and present over dinner plates:
Great Grandma Mandy
used to say food
you was whipped
for tasted the best.
It’s a strangely haunting metaphor, really, that propels the reader through this text. The seasonings enriching these poems are as varied as the poets themselves (only in a collection like this could the voices of poets like Galway Kinnell and Yusef Komunyakaa flow so effortlessly together), and the variety can at times become almost overwhelming. It’s hard to know, in some moments through the anthology, if it’s the satisfying stuffed-ness following a smorgasbord or the whirlwind of realizing you’ve been left with the dishes.
As with any meal, there are imperfections. Yet, as a whole, Young delivers a multi-coursed treat that shouldn’t be missed by any poetry lover … or culinary enthusiast, for that matter. It is a collection meant to be as treasured as grandmom’s recipe book, as warm and fabulous and flawed as any family gathered at the dinner table.
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