Andrew C. Gottlieb reviews Receipt, poems by Karen Leona Anderson
Milkweed Editions | 2016 | ISBN: 978-1571314727 | 96 pages
In her second book of poems, Karen Leona Anderson takes the natural world (humans, nature, all of it) and profiles it for us, slicing vivid, tasty cross-sections, then plating them up with a service that’s linguistically artful, tonally wry, and economically aimed. Economics as in money and class, as opposed to concision: Receipt is a book that wraps so many ingredients in one pie that these poems will tastefully surprise you—bite by bite—with their scope over the course of one reading.
The universal is here, as in the beginning of the poem, “Madonna del Passero,” a poem that starts with the artist’s singular first-person:
I demonstrate the sparrow:
icon of us, mirrored, fallow,
a sea of dull brown and female…
a flowing opening that carries the reader across varied iambs and trochees, but Anderson leans on the sparrow metaphor, and the poem expands, challenging dependency, spreading its wings to the first-person plural, where the artist has relinquished her view to the sparrows’ voice:
Not just sing
in the broken chorus, but to
each other, chirrup, a necklace of ourselves,
everywhere, each strung, yes, but each body, skiff;
each wing, oar.
It’s not an ekphrastic poem, but in full becomes a complex comment on equality, dependency, revolution, union. These sparrows, if informed, working together, will burn down a city, perch together, escape resignation to the norm. Multiple readings reward.
And, beyond the universal, specificities abound and dominate, each poem deeply flavored with personality, leading us from the universal to the sitcom of daily life past and present, the irony of a resigned feminism, an angry humanism pushing against the constraints of a daily existence. The constraints here are relationships or lack thereof, money and our economically-defined limitations, and age and a wise hindsight that offers its regretful magic.
A clue to the book is the word re-, as prefix or unit, that leads Recipe and Receipt, the titles of the first sections, and is—alone—the title of the third section, simply called Re. For we are redoing, reflecting, and recreating across these poems. Resigned, recurring, remaking.
I am the ex-vacation house
trying to be healthy, to remember
what is real; make it up
to the kids who ninja and dog
themselves on Halloween…
This from “Beans and Squash,” a poem on the cusp of youth and age where the narrator reflects both forward and back, framed by a cookbook entry, here referencing famed Bay Area restaurant Chez Panisse. Each poem in the first section is sourced from a food or a cookbook (American Cookery, 1796; Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook, 1956) and we eat it up, dusty with flour, rich with the passions and pathways of the personalities we encounter. There’s sex and pain, innocence and age, elegance and trashy realities. Nouns are verbs, endings are fragments, language fills us with directive and regret.
These are landscapes of personality, persona poems like the Floridian ditty titled “Company,” (After The I Hate to Cook Book, 1960):
How scattered I am postspouse…
apocalyptic looking and no one to stall…
But I’m up and dressed, at least; I make
with this doctored lambskin a dish of myself:
big hair, lippy, lush, horny…
… I’m going to spread swampy,
an idea, mangrove of the air.
We’re never let off the hook. What Anderson does remarkably well is to stick with the complexities of real life in her writing. As we snap asparagus or slide the pie in the oven we are on the verge of tears, of anger, of a caught-by-surprise passion. When the pairing of opposites or contrasting emotions is done as well as it is here, inevitably the reader pauses at the end of the poem in a delicious moment of reflection while the complex flavors sink in, considering another bite, a re-taste. These are dishes that offer energy amid loss, or loss amid energy. These are epiphanies that aren’t resolutions. There’s no free lunch.
The titles of the second section hinge on cost, the economics of things, almost all paired with a price and a place: $49.99 Nordstrom; $14.99 CVS; $3678.53, Capital One. Here our landscape hinges on a geography of loan, loss, and limits, and things as unpoetic as currency become part of the map that guides us through a lyrical poem. The bitter bridesmaid, the mathematical mother-to-be:
… Hold my account and the check wings
through the mail to toll myself. Don’t tell my mother. How about:
instead, on my death, I bequeath you my capital, my plans,
my dachshund aspirations:
to fly as well as I wish.
This, from “Paid,” the poem connected to Capital One offering an inkling at what Anderson toils toward: a portrait of the human trying to be free, to escape what ties one down, what weight fetters a human even when surrounded by luxuries, by the prizes of a suburban life.
Anderson allows us the privilege of multiple eyes from youth to old age, and does so even more explicitly in the third section that alternates its vision from youth to old age, from “First House” to “Retirement Home.” These poems are odes to survival as much as they are odes to frustration. They are the universal trying on the specific in the changing room mirror, assessing the successes and disasters that we are as we determinedly fry eggs while putting on lipstick.
Anderson is a master chef. Her second book turns pop culture and modern living into art. Pick up a fork, or a checkbook. Whether you prefer her metaphorical strokes or her masterful fragmented endings, you’ll see yourself for certain. Take a bite. Chew slowly.
Header photo of cooking prep by poppicnic, courtesy Pixabay.