My old friend Eric – ¡Hola, viejo! – reminds me that I ought to draw attention to the just-released 30th anniversary issue of Parnassus: Poetry in Review. Check out their website for a list of some of the goodies in this almost 700-page behemoth, including "Marrow-Bones and Turkish Delight," my own biggish career overview of Ronald Johnson's work – an essay I've been imagining my way thru for a decade or so now. Not that it turned out nearly as good as I'd like, but the beginning's pretty snappy:
While my own native greens-and-ham-hock southern cuisine is a hard sell to my friends with more sophisticated palates, my mother’s pecan pie recipe has always been well received. A simple concoction: in a single bottom piecrust (home-made or store-bought) you set out a layer of halved pecans, then pour over them an inch or so of beaten eggs and heavy corn syrup. In the oven, the pecans rise to the top to be crisped in the heat, while the syrup-egg mixture congeals into a hard gel. Crunchy pecans, flaky crust, and a center of unadulterated, primordial sugar: what’s not to love (if you aren’t a diabetic, that is)?I go on to talk about poetry, by the way, not just cooking.
The poet Ronald Johnson (1935-1998), who worked as a chef and caterer and who made most of what little money writing brought him from his excellent cookbooks, offers a variation of the traditional southern pecan pie in The American Table (1984). (My own copy has reached the stage of broken-spined, gravy-spattered dilapidation that marks a personal classic in the genre.) Instead of “the usual bottled dark ‘Karo,’” Johnson’s pie is based on a syrup made of sugar, orange juice, and the thinly sliced peels of two oranges. It’s still a pecan pie, the saccharine nemesis of dieters everywhere, but a pecan pie with a sophisticated twist, the orange peel adding a sour, slightly bitter zest like the tang of remorse.
The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, August Kleinzahler (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003)
This one won the 2004 Griffin Prize, the big Canadian jackpot. And good for August K., I say. I've been reading him – never religiously, always with pleasure – for over 20 years now, since Guy Davenport told me (on a blurb to Storm Over Hackensack) that his poems were "structures as cunningly built as kites and canoes." I suppose some of my friends would toss Kleinzahler into whatever oubliette of their imagination corresponds to Ron Silliman's "school of quietude" – & it's true that K's working in a sturdy, straightforward idiom that's essentially similar to what WC Williams forged 85 years ago. But his ear for music is so strong, his diction is so aggressively varied, & he never lingers too much on himself: the world outside – its sights, noises, smells, songs, minute particulars – is so interesting that the last thing Kleinzahler wants to do is lamnet his own fuckups or celebrate his own sensitivity. A lot of travel poems here, & some of them it's true come perilously close to the "I'm lonely on a reading tour" subgenre. But Kleinzahler's scorn for the prima donna aesthete stance is so acidly evident that even a poem about the yearly shutting-down of an artists' colony – "The Art Farm" – reads like a savage indictment, without a single explicit word. A nature poet, but his nature's urban.