What a week. Maxine Kumin, a great poet and powerful foremother, died at 88. Iranian poet and activist Hashem Shaabani was executed for his writings. Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman succumbed to his addiction with a lonely needle gesture. I attended a beautiful and moving reading by Louise Glück, who read new poems about the imagined end of a creative life; her reading left me bereft in a way I did not expect. Maybe it’s the rain, which we thirsty Californians revel in, but which greets me in the morning with a darker sky. In any case, I am writing sad stunted miserable poems this week, or, fighting the urge to.
Reading back through Kumin’s poetry, I found a lovely poem that I feel brave enough to offer as a prompt. “Appetite” is a short lyric, less technical than some of Kumin’s work, but still shaped with formal restraint. You can hear Garrison Keillor read it in this 2002 recording of his Writer’s Almanac. Even better, you can hear Kumin read it herself (as part of a delightful lecture/reading) in the (Emily) Dickinson Electronic Archives. She calls it “a little father poem.” Because it’s reproduced all over the internet, I’ll risk posting it here, without permission.
I eat these
wild red raspberries
still warm from the sun
and smelling faintly of jewelweed
in memory of my father
tucking the napkin
under his chin and bending
over an ironstone bowl
of the bright drupelets
awash in cream
with the sigh of a man
who has seen all and been redeemed
said time after time
as he lifted his spoon
men kill for this.
Isn’t it funny how eating reminds us of our family in such powerful ways? I remember my father sitting down at the dinner table every single night to whatever meal my mother put in front of him, lifting his fork and saying, without fail, “This is the best dinner I have ever had.” That generosity, that gratitude epitomized my father and defines him still for me, if now only in memory.
Your challenge today, your opportunity, is to write about eating with your father. And if that’s a relationship you don’t want to remember or imagine, then pick someone else you ate with regularly, someone whose habits at the dinner table, the picnic table, the lunch counter, the brunch buffet, the bar, are part of your permanent history.
If you can make a connection in your poem between eating and death, I’ll give you extra credit.
Enjoy Maxine Kumin’s poem and think about your delicious short life.