A Reflection on Poetry and Writing About Food: Mark Doty and “Souls on Ice”

As I cooked a Diamond Jim-sized American breakfast this Super-Bowl-Sunday morning – pancakes with real maple syrup, thick-sliced bacon from Edwards’ Surry smokehouse, scrambled eggs, and orange juice – I considered taking a picture of my cholesterol-laden plate for “Gherkins & Tomatoes.” But hunger beat me to it. In the end, the only picture I could possibly have taken would be of my chewing mouth.

But something more emerged from the meal, something else, not just the food (and the cholesterol), because, like cooking, eating sometimes leads to a quasi meditative state. New ways of seeing, if you know what I mean.

And this perfect day I’m living now, filled with the winter sun radiating bright, almost white, light; the temperature hovering at 58 F; tiny patches of snow snuggling like baby rabbits among the dried brown leaves piled under the bare oaks; the mountains gleaming a dark sea blue on the horizon, suspended — it almost seemed — from the cloudless heavens – this Super Bowl Sunday demanded something deeper, yes, something else.

poem-crazyWriting about food and cooking and history really takes on tinges of poetry at times. I know that, I just never say it out loud. Many’s the day I grab my grubby paperback copy of Poem Crazy: Freeing Your Life with Words, by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge, hoping for a laser-like jolt to set my keyboard singing, so to speak.

What’s inside Goldsmith’s book reads, well, like poetry: she IS a poet, after all. “The great thing about words is that they’re free; you can borrow them, trade them in or toss them out. … Words are lightweight, unbreakable, portable, and they’re everywhere. You can even make them up.” Regard the cover photo, of the Emily Dickinson-like girl, dressed in black,  a soft hat resting on (possibly) red hair,  white skin maybe miraculously untouched by freckles, leaping, airborne as if the photographer demanded she execute a ballet-like saut or jump.

That jump represents, I think, what anyone yearning for any sort of self expression must do.

From rooted in earth to flying about in an inner space without boundaries. Leap, yes, leap!

Either that or the soft underbelly position will have to do …

Mackerel on ice (Used by permission of Jeremy Keith.)
Mackerel on ice (Used by permission of Jeremy Keith.)

So, today of all days, imagine my delight to find poet Mark Doty’s reflective essay, a nod to the title of Eldridge Cleaver’s autobiography Soul on Ice,  “Souls on Ice,” on how he as poet went from seeing “the elegance of the mackerel in the fresh-fish display” in his local grocery store to his poem, “A Display of Mackerel.” Having a soft spot for mackerel myself, I immediately started reading.

The process of the poet, laid bare. For all to see.

I invite you to look, too.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen