Saturday, March 22, 2014

John Barton

The Book of Marmalade
Its Antecedents, Its History
and Its Role in the World Today

A social good, our mothers would buy
Oranges to scrub and quarter, sly

Winter light slicing through steamed-up windows
While in copper saucepans on gas stoves

The wedges boil for five fierce minutes
In still-pure tap water to permit

In each house a release of sourness—
Life’s aftertaste meant to cool for hours

Till the peel is spooned out, cut in chunks
Each rank imploded fruit having drunk

Itself to a slick spongy softness
All adept cooks revere, slipperiness

A domestic duty shared, measured
Syrups reheated with beet sugar

Stirred in and held in tender balance
Cup for cup, nothing left to mischance

About how to decant clear viscid
Residues in sterile jars, liquid

Wonder gelling in back-porch larders
Year in, year out, the gem-bright languor

Of candied family sins spread on toast
Across the suburbs from coast to coast

Our fathers thumbing through classifieds
Pencils sharpened, want ads underlined

While, eyes averted, we’d sit alarmed
As open-mouthed they chewed, sticky crumbs

Jammed in front teeth and whiskers rinsed off
Before they’d race time to the office

Clock hands spinning faster, our own kids
Looking up, then away, as we slide

Slathered bites of croissant to our lips
A store-bought sweetness smearing pink slips

We fear await us, fiscal meltdown
Looming large as we commute to town

Skyscraper hopes in dwindling supply
On big-box shelves, though we may rely 

On little changing, on aspartame
The truths we’re cooking up not to blame.



 The cookbook you gave me I’ve thrown away
—Its rhetoric of grains and pulses cut
Too leanly: strict, its measurements outweighed—
Or aimed to—the body’s craving to stray
And voice unasked-for grumbles, each bouquet
Of digested inner darkness released
In scorned enmity—me no masterpiece

In politesse, you’d agree, though item
After item your recipes required
Could humble me, whims not said verbatim
I’d brown in olive oil, nuance unmired
By onion’s sweetness, the fresh garlic’s lyre
Not plucked with zest, each plate a tuneless mess
Of noisome glop, not piquant bouillabaisse

Yet you’d dig in with relish, doctrinaire
On how sharp tastes butcher us, sacrifice
Whipping blind faith into cream for éclairs
Such brightness beat gaseous, if not light
With vacuum-forced air, an olfactory spice
You’d keep coughing up as buoyant virtue
To cutthroat rancour, hunger’s déjà-vu

Language’s game an endangered species
Its gristliness herded inside reserves
For meat surrounding cities, obsequies
You’d found in rules you felt at last conserved
Long-compromised menus banning hors d’oeuvres
Those tangy canapés apt to assault
Our taste buds, impel tongues to ache with salt

Foie gras, and eggs, urge them to lick pathways through
To this paradise of auditory
Fullness where all meanings each sound accrues
Are hunted down or sown and picked, set free
Or tamed, filleted or thrown back unclean.
Each appetite denied an extinction
An open field shot of all distinctions 

 Your fruitless book not writ to roast me whole
Or stuff me up with herbs, its fading words
Worthy, just, of nature verses by souls
Mouthing vain soliloquies undeterred
By death, their awkward lack of scope absurd
So, however pellucid each rhyme might be
I’m deaf, my game-keeping ear out of range.

These two poems are part of a series of nine poems that were inspired by The Diagram Prize. Founded in 1978 at the Frankfort Book Fair and awarded each year by the British book-trade magazine, The Book Seller, the prize recognizes the oddest book title of the year. Until 2000, the winners were selected by a panel of judges; in the years since, the public made the final decision
When I first learned of the Diagram Prize, I was amused, of course, but I immediately saw in the winning titles a poetic potential. The challenge became to find a compelling subject that also matched each of the winners I chose to write about. I found that while the titles themselves were unabashedly, if unintentionally humorous, the poems that resulted were not. I hope the contrast between their serious content and the frivolous nature of the titles will appeal to readers and even comment on the social concerns that emerged from the series while I worked on it.
The titles of “The Book of Marmalade,” previously published in Crave It: Writers and Artists Do Food (Toronto: Red Claw, 2011), and “Oral Sadism,”  previously published in the Literary Review of Canadaare respectively the Diagram Prize winners for 1984 and 1986. Like all the poems in the series, both were written using a set form. The former is in knittelvers, the German equivalent of heroic couplets; the latter is the rime royal, an old British form, perhaps drawn from the French.  I cribbed the rules for both from Robin Skelton’s The Shapes of Our Singing: A Comprehensive Guide to Verse Forms and Metrics from Around the World (Eastern Washington, 2002).

John Barton’s ten books of poetry include Hymn (Brick, 2009) and For the Boy with the Eyes of the Virgin: Selected Poems (Nightwood, 2012). His sixth chapbook, Balletomane: The Program Notes of Lincoln Kirstein, appeared with JackPine in 2012. His eleventh book, Polari, is forthcoming in April 2014 from Goose Lane. He lives in Victoria, where he edits The Malahat Review.

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