Dream Kitchen (Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry)
“As literary genres go, poetry is among the most democratic and fluid, with sub-genres to accommodate the intentional breaking of rules, the joyous flouting of form, and the expression of all the varied degrees of skill and human emotion, or lack thereof.”
So there is a poem for every reader and as many different reasons for reading poetry as there are poets. For example, some read poetry to be spoken to by something magical, moved by creations of the mind set to the music of the heart. To discover the extraordinary in the ordinary, the wondrous in the forgotten, to be surprised by the beauty of beastly things, to be taught by contradiction, to be angered, amazed, and ultimately reconnected with their own humanity.
If you’re that kind of reader, Owen McLeod’s Dream Kitchen may not be the book for you. The poems here are neat and carefully crafted. They describe ordinary life that somehow manages to remain ordinary. That is not to say they are not good poems. They are. Many were published earlier in some of the best literary journals in the United States.
Together, they form the book, and won 2018’s Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry. There is certainly skill here and the goal of making the small beautiful and noticed is present consistently throughout the book, as in the first stanza of “Portrait of Leucippus.”
“He senses somewhere the gathering
of crows, the failing of candles, the fresh
black tracks of a grim, mythic wolf.
Beneath his feet floors rot, the door
hangs unhinged. The pump is rusted stuck.”
And yet, for the better part of Dream Kitchen, evenness is preserved at the expense of emotion. Not much surprises or jars enough. Few revolutionary truths lurk behind the myriad small gestures, captured. These are contained, restrained images, questions and scenes, each with its bit of whimsical imagery for good measure. (Because why not go crazy on this one line where it won’t disrupt anything?) The recipe is followed perfectly, with expertise, with talent. Nothing out of place. To McLeod, “Everything means something. Maybe some things mean everything.” We just never get enough of a lyrical leap to see (let alone feel) the everything that is (maybe?) being offered us.
And that’s okay. There is certainly a reader for poems that observe, calm and reassure, sheltering us within the safety of perfect meter. Not everyone is Emily Dickinson, hoping to be rocked by rhyme: “If I read a book (and) it makes my whole body so cold, no fire could ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
Sure there is, and for readers who prefer their poetry subtle, here is #9 of “Twelve Psalms to our Lord Bubba”:
“He wakes to find two Cheetos in his beard.
Weird. He don’t remember eating those.
Resolves to shave the hairs he’s grown
(but rarely groomed) for close to twenty years.
The rub: no razor blades he got nor cream.
He saddles up and rides to CVS on foot,
rustles up the gear he needs plus a case of beer
to celebrate. Dude is all set, but his hands
do quiver. He quaffs a can & more to steady hisself.
In the glass, he stares doleful at this cowpoke
& the skunk around his neck, which he prepares
to cut. Forgive him, Bubba. He drunk.”
This is a perfectly perfect poem. It will be loved by many a learned reader. The form is mathematical in its rhythm, stellar even, especially if we maintain what we began with: that, as literary genres go, poetry is among the most democratic and fluid, accommodating the expression of all the varied degrees of skills and human emotion, or lack thereof. And yet. One might be forgiven for hoping a poet with the considerable skill of McLeod would take a risk and dare to befuddle. Unfortunately, where Dream Kitchen is concerned, dream is all we can do.