First, a confession: Elizabeth Cohen contacted me a few months ago and asked if I’d be interested in reviewing her new poetry collection. I really loved her short story collection, so of course I said yes. Unfortunately, I did not foresee losing Lexi at the beginning of June, or how much time I’d need to “recover”. As you can see from my publication history, I haven’t done much writing since then, even though I did read this poetry collection back in June. I finally feel like my creative batteries have recharged (though I still miss Lexi fiercely every day), so here is this very overdue review.
The Patron Saint of Cauliflower (Saint Julian Press, $17.50) is first and foremost a poetry collection about food, family, and the complex, multi-faceted connections between the two. The collection opens with “Goulash,” a poem about putting together a clear-out-the-fridge soup, and what’s more, a goulash that children will eat and enjoy. “I think of the insides of them, making sense of beets / and pasta, of chicken strands and slips of onion / the way each one of them will make sense someday / of snow-caked walkways, of books left out in the rain / and heartbreak, which is to say I like the way they chew,” the goulash cook muses.
It’s these moments throughout, the moments that link food (goulash) and the quotidian (slips of onion) to larger existential questions (heartbreak) that elevate the collection above and beyond simple but beautiful writing about food. Poems like “Salt” connect food and the earth with life in a visceral way. Cohen compares the taste of her child’s blood after an attempted suicide to the taste of “sour mash, of salt marsh / of all the mistakes you had ever made.” Salt can enhance flavor, and it is essential for life, but too much will turn food bitter and poison the body. So too with the every day tragedies and hardships we all face. The mother’s blame is felt in these lines as well. Whether or not it’s true, the mother feels that her mistakes have poisoned her child in some way–and no matter how good we are as parents, we always leave our children with something, some trauma.
The collection is not all doom and gloom though. Quite a few poems inject levity, such as “Pink Himalayan Salt,” in which the narrator imagines the salt’s journey from deep, dark mountain caves across the ocean on a plane, probably with a layover at JFK. Another poem acts as a sardonic ode to Cinnabons everywhere, and another personifies an artichoke, which laughs at the woman peeling it to get to the tender heart.
I’d be remiss not to mention the magical elements of The Patron Saint of Cauliflower. A series of poems about the patron saints of various foods (cauliflower, olive oil, pretzels) and spells for the right avocado and the best pesto capture the mystical aspects of shopping for food and cooking. The “Patron Saint of Cauliflower” is a princess and “the beauty queen / at the county fair.” She would make a good wedding bouquet, the narrator says. “You could cast a circle, place / her countenance in its center.” In “Spell for a Layer Cake,” the cookbook is “hallowed” and the cake “can be conjured from nothing.” The poem takes the reader through the motions of baking a cake, the flour, the eggs, the mixing, and then the “something else” of baking: the “incantation” the baker speaks over the cake like a prayer or a wish.
These poems breathe with care, with love, with life. It’s not that they elevate the realm of the domestic, it’s that they shine light on the magic already inherent in these everyday tasks.