Two of the poems that were published in Elsewhere Lit, “Kitchen” and “Butter and Prayer,” are from my upcoming book, One Hundred Hungers (Tupelo Press, 2016). One Hundred Hungers is a work of imagination, research and myth about my father’s childhood in Baghdad and my interaction with the rituals, food and language of his Jewish-Arabic culture. I want to look at two aspects of these two poems: style and use of food.
I’ve written many poems with traditional lineation and stanza breaks in One Hundred Hungers, but these two poems employ more unusual formatting. “Butter and Prayer” is a prose poem. The words continue; the food keeps coming. There is no break. I use prose format a number of times in One Hundred Hungers to shift the rhythm of the book.
The line breaks in “Kitchen” follow the breath, or where I think the pauses should be. There is no regularity—for example, a first line that drops off with the word “But” and the subsequent, long pause that the break requires of the reader. The following stanza lets my grandmother have her extended period of action before the next stanza comes in with a sharp interruption, an italic, declarative request. The statements in the final stanza are sharp, immediate, short. All past tense.
I began these two poems to capture the relationships between family members. Food appears in these poems, as it does in many within the book, because food was central to every interpersonal interaction, religious event, or celebration.
My grandmother, who was in an arranged marriage at 14 to a much older cousin, and pregnant at 15, spent all of the years of my childhood preparing food for her extended family. We let her. I only remember one aunt helping in the kitchen. Others of us brought in dirty dishes to be cleaned or set the table. We didn’t do much.
At least one time (and this is strictly hearsay), my mother asked for the information to recreate a few dishes at our house an hour away. My mother was a decent cook, but not a creative one. She didn’t love food, or need food, the way my grandmother needed it. For my grandmother, food defined her place in the family structure. It was her identity— she was the one who cooked the magnificent Arabic dishes, the nourishing, extensive spread.
My mother did everything best when she knew precise details. She needed a road map, whether she was building a cross-stitch sampler or meatloaf. I don’t know if my grandmother created those recipes that my cousins and I came begging for. Or if they were handed down, and she followed them until they were in her. I don’t know if she ever changed them. (We wouldn’t have appreciated that.) My grandmother was not a fighter, not contrary in any way, but she wasn’t about to give up the one thing she had.
Perhaps—in fact, most likely— the only way to master that kind of beautiful meal was to cook large quantities again and again. Excelling at it meant dedicating attention to the preparation. Every Friday night, year after year.
“Butter and Prayer” is both ode to my father and a tribute to Arabic food. As I worked on One Hundred Hungers, I tried to include every crystalline memory of spices and hunger, all the foods I loved, and the feeling of deep satiation. All these foods that I miss in my adult life, foods I may never taste again.
That pomegranate, for example, stands in for every chance I had to share a connection with my father. Perhaps we broke open a pomegranate together a half dozen times. Maybe it was not even that much, but I was the only one in my immediate family who liked that fruit. It was enough for me to sit with my father and peel back the pith, and dig our teeth and faces into the seeds. That food holds love for me; it holds a special affection because it holds the emotional fragrance of father and daughter.
- Lauren Camp
Lauren Camp is the author of two books of poetry. Her third book, One Hundred Hungers, won the Dorset Prize (Tupelo Press, 2016). It details her father’s childhood in Baghdad and her interaction with the rituals and language of his culture. Lauren is a 2015-2018 Black Earth Institute Fellow and the producer/host of “Audio Saucepan” on Santa Fe Public Radio. More at www.laurencamp.com. Photo by Jim Gale.