Book Review: The Patron Saint of Cauliflower by Elizabeth Cohen

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.

cover of The Patron Saint of Cauliflower

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.

Pick up a copy of The Patron Saint of Cauliflower from Powell’s Books!

#WeekendReads: Night Beast by Ruth Joffre

The past two weeks have been a bit weird. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Lexi and out in my garden. My anxiety is high right now for a number of reasons, so I’ve also been making time to sit on my porch and read in the evenings. All of this helps, but it’s still a process. It will always be a process.

Thankfully, there are books. Reading centers me, grounds me, makes me feel connected to my innermost self (the self that I can only really express through writing fiction). Recently, I was lucky enough to receive a digital ARC (advanced reading copy) of Ruth Joffre’s debut short story collection, Night Beast and Other Stories.”

cover of Night Beast

I blew through this collection. I inhaled it as if it were air. It is so, so good. You can read my full review on the Ploughshares Blog, but here’s a snippet:

Reading this collection feels like looking at the world through water—the angles don’t quite match what you expect and the light is diffuse, except when a ripple catches it and momentarily robs you of vision. Joffre’s characters are wispy and insubstantial in the way ghosts of past selves feel when we look back through the haze of time. If you turn your head or look away, they will shift into something else, something new. Something dangerous.

Joffre is one of those writers who makes me go “I WANT TO WRITE LIKE THAT!!” I read this collection once for the journey it took me on, but I will definitely read it again for the craft lessons hiding in its pages (some of which I do address in my review).

If you like strange, queer, unnerving, mysterious fiction with a bite, you absolutely have to read Night Beast and Other Stories. That is a non-negotiable fact.

#FridayReads: Shirtless Bear-Fighter

I was over at a friend’s house to watch hockey, and on my way out after the game I saw a copy of a comic called Shirtless Bear-Fighter. The cover depicts a shirtless man in raggedy pants with exaggerated masculine features (seriously, his feet are huge). I paged through it and saw that this was, yes indeed, a comic about a man who fights bears while decidedly not wearing any clothes (his junk is pixelated so it remains PG-13, sort of). Curious reader that I am, I checked out Shirtless Bear-Fighter from the library via Hoopla and read it in under an hour.

Cover for the first issue of Shirtless Bear Fighter

I have several takeaways:

  3. “Bear” is not limited to the large omnivorous mammal
  4. There are a lot of toilet paper and poop jokes (WHICH ARE HILARIOUS)
  5. The whole thing can be read as a fable about environmentalism and toxic masculinity
  7. Magic bacon.

First, if you find crude humor beneath you, don’t bother with this book. Second, if you can’t tell the difference between straight tropes and the skewering of said tropes, also probably don’t bother with this book. Still with me? GREAT.

Shirtless Bear-Fighter tells the story of a man named Shirtless, who was raised by bears in a lush mountain forest. The bears betrayed him when they killed his lover, and after that he vowed to fight every bear. Now, enraged bears are attacking major cities across the US, and the FBI calls in Shirtless to handle the problem. In the process he discovers that past events weren’t what they seemed and uncovers a plot by a greedy toilet-paper-company logger to turn the whole forest into TP. On the way Shirtless has to deal with multiple betrayals, bears high on magic bacon, and the fact that he probably definitely has a thing for Silva, the female FBI agent.

The creative team (Jody Leheup, Sebastian GirnerNil Vendrell, and Mike Spicer) do not take anything seriously. Shirtless is a hyperbole of our culture’s idea of what men should be, and that’s exactly what gets him into trouble. The issue of Shirtless’s dead lover reveals the cavalier way men treat women and highlights exactly why that is terrible and we should maybe stop doing that right now. Silva is not hyper sexualized and proves herself to be smart and resourceful–without her, Shirtless would fail his mission to save the forest.

So, here’s a comic that takes the most exaggerated masculine tropes and handles them in a subtle, brilliant, hilarious way. I’m definitely on board for a second volume (though it seems the creators are working on other projects right now, but a girl can hope).