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Book Review: The Cookbook by Natalie Easton

January 21, 2012

The title doesn’t lie; these poems will tell you about some edible ingredients and what to do with them. But images of food are almost always tied up with images of the body, and ultimately this is a book about bodies and the spaces between them. Twice we see the open mouth, but it remains undecided whether the opening is to let things in or let them out, whether to create or to consume. From Silent Acts:

“Left aching with this
mouth open, always in sleep now,
like I want to say something
or taste chocolate.”

The same poem might be resolving the issue when a window is opened “to regulate the heat.” For either to thrive, a balance is needed between interiority and exteriority.

Many of these pieces feel like they must have started as big lumbs of imagination out of which structured poetry was carved. The unintended consequence is the occasional image that doesn’t seem to quite fit. But I much prefer having too much to think about than too little.

By images that don’t fit, I’m not talking about mixed metaphors. Easton pulls those off quite elegantly. From “How to heat soup:”

“You brought me out
from the well of a reaching petal bright as a bursting sun.”

And we’re back to the problem of self and other, most explicitly setup with the poem “Root Cellar,” which begins with the crucial ambiguity “I do not know how to end, I think.” I read this both as “I do not know how to accept this as the end (of poetry, perhaps), so I continue to create” and as “I think that I do not know how to die,” calling to mind Dickinson’s “because I could not stop for death.” But both ambiguity and allusion only last for the time it takes to move from the first to the second line. So read slowly:

“I do not know how to end, I think,
with a noxious brood.”

Painfully, however, the poem does end with such a brood:

“This happiness for others destroys
some sense of myself and

red radish, spider stairwell, ranunculus veil.”

This is the old Nietzschean complaint against the self being lost to the They. The fresh wound is seeing plainly its relationship to modernism. The last line seems to say “in a desperate attempt to recover myself, I’ll string together some random images.” Fortunately, the end of this poem is not the end of the book. The author equivicates a good deal, but seems to imply that love may be a solution. (Do you scoff at the concept? Good luck surviving as a poet without it.)

“Slight Change of Plan” feels like the conceptual center of the world Easton is here constructing:

“Our respective bodies,
yours, somehow different from mine.

I pluck the words
from your memory
like small tumors –
no bigger than apple seeds –
here I germinate.
There you recede.”

Understand this poem, and you’ll understand the volume as a whole.

With Easton, the question of love brings us to: The ocean. Real oceans are great, with the sand and the salt and the breeze. But I love it when poets and philosophers confront them precisely because so many of them do, and every time brings to mind a cascade of other textual experiences. One also invariably learns something of the poet’s place in the tradition in which they write. For Wordsworth, one returns to the shore to feel one’s beginning. The basic relationship is between the self of today and the self of yesterday. For Shopenhauer and Kant, one is on a boat in stormy weather. The basic relationship is between the self and the outside world. For Easton:

“I am coral
and a dive-bombing shell with a voice of ocean root;
you are the shore lapped like a dry tongue never drowned
mumuring in the language of stones.”

Read those lines again, intently. There is much to appreciate. The basic relationship is between body and body. If there is no distinction, no space between them, there is no self to be lost. Now they see each other. If they hesitate, they will be overcome with anxiety, closed off to exteriority, and wither. But in their movement towards one another, self and self will flourish in a mutual in-flowing of freedom.

I could talk a good deal longer about these pieces, but I recommend you read them for youself and develop your own interpretation: The Cookbook can be purchased over at lulu.com It’s good to support a fellow artist, but don’t buy this book for that reason. Be selfish and buy this book to support your own imagination, your own need for inspiration. And don’t settle for the eBook. You’ll want to turn the pages of these poems.

Much of Easton’s poetry can also be found on deviantArt under the handle apple-dark.

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