Peas, Green Onions, Parsley,
Potatoes & Kale
I once was a child / shelling / summer / into / an empty bowl. / Those pods were like tongues or like sickles / as / with a swoop / I / slipped their shiny / glittering hard green fruit / from / the beautiful / protective suits. / Memory and desire. / Two small sleeves of green / in the palm of my hand / at the center of the garden of the heart— / my mother’s kitchen.
Cento sources: Victoria Chang, Deborah Trustman, Robin Coste Lewis, John Allman, Jack Vian, Emily Wilson, Paul Muldoon, Uche Nduka, Cherryl Floyd-Miller, Elise Paschen, Richard Murphy, Fatimah Asghar, Kirill Medvedev, Matthew Zapruder, T. C. Wilson, Nancy Miller Gomez, Ntozake Shange, Sylvia Legris, Hope Anita Smith
I will sing / of leaves— / tubes / hollow / in their thin flesh / of blended colors— / green / that pales / and / curves / until it rests finally on the white bulb / that / soft / warm / bite / of innocence / still bright on the tongue.
Cento sources: Ronald Johnson, Linda Pastan, Rae Armantrout, Eric Ashford, Alfred Kreymborg, Darah Wolf, D. H. Lawrence, Ed Roberson, Melvin Tolson, Ronaldo V. Wilson, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Leslie Harrison, Kay Ryan, Robert Grenier, Nathaniel Mackey, William Justema, January Gill O’Neil
Green / little things / in aromatic leaf / you / were created / to mix with our food / to decorate / the plate. / Face airy as lace / few can match / the flavor and spirit / of / your life / the taste of which / is all / bright / fresh air— / the silent hint of all that moves unseen.
Cento Sources: D. H. Lawrence, Roque Dalton, Janet Loxley Lewis, Hayan Charara, Kirill Medvedev, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Diane Wakoski, Anthony Hecht, Frank Bidart, Greg Delanty, Ghirmai Yohannes, Paul Muldoon, William E. Stafford, Justin Phillip Reed, Liz Waldner, Primus St. John, Kenneth Koch, Stephen C. Behrendt
I see blank staring faces / amid the stubble and the stones— / little brown jobs / wrinkling up from duff. / But now / we are baking them. / The miraculous / transformed creatures / tuned inside out / delight / with drizzled warm butter, intensely rendered. / That occluded flesh of interiors— / we store it inside our bodies / for the coming season of privation.
Cento sources: Philip Whalen, Stanley Kunitz, Diana Garcia, Amy Fleury, Frank Bidart, Gregory Djanikian, Jennifer Atkinson, Liu Xia, Linda Hogan, Lawrence Kearney, Dick Allen, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Lisel Mueller, Tony Hoagland
Teeth-Duller, / remember / when you were here / as / only this / ornamental / edge / decorating the / company cafeteria? / Today / I don’t know why / we eat out together. / However carved up / ripped, shredded— / that / hide / of / yours / is mostly texture / of skin for leather clothes or whatever / cleans leaf by leaf / our innards. / Gnawing, chewing, eroding— / how can I eat this / vegetable with high fibre / roughness / and taste the earth / laughing?
Cento sources: Sandra Beasley, H Stuart, Jane Feldmann, Paul Muldoon, Agnes Lee, Alice Fulton, Victorio Reyes Asili, Lucille Clifton, Robley Wilson Jr., Ellen Glines, W. D. Snodgrass, Bernadette Mayer, Kay Ryan, Dale Going, Leslie Harrison, Robin Robertson, Jana Prikryl, Daniel Hoffman, Justin Phillip Reed, S. J. Fowler, Christian Wiman, Caroline Knox, C. A. McAllister, Primus St. John, David Rivard, Fatima Alzahraa Hussein, Zbigniew Herbert, Lenelle Moise
After completing three books with intense themes (mental illness, grieving, and the pandemic), I wanted a lighter subject. A friend suggested I write about food, since I’m an ardent cook and baker. She had planted the seed.
Having tried many different poetic forms, I became enamored with the cento, a collaged poem of single individual lines by other poets. Surprisingly, it was often the random lines themselves that led me to the subjects hidden from my conscious mind. Writing centos had become almost mystical to me, like putting my fingers on the little plank of an Ouija board. One day on a line-harvesting mission, I chanced upon an intriguing line by D. H. Lawrence, “Every fruit has its secret.” The seed began to sprout.
I learned cooking as a child as a way of helping my mother. Over the years, I had capped thousands of strawberries, snapped thousands of green beans, and cored countless apples. Yet I had never considered their secret lives. I began to assemble lines that would lead me deep within their world. My intention with my first plant-focused book, Honey from the Sun, was not merely to describe fruit but to speak of it in human or sometimes spiritual terms. I found the sense of discovery in these poems immensely gratifying.
Now I am on to vegetables. The manuscript for Earth Cafeteria has been a joy to write because I am so familiar with the texture, smell, and taste of everything from parsley to parsnips. I know the slime of okra and the snap of jicama. It is all a sensuous banquet. Recently, when my large family gathered for vacation, I had them listen at each meal to one cento about the fruit or vegetable we were about to eat. How doubly satisfying!
Patrice Boyer Claeys is the author of Lovely Daughter of the Shattering, The Machinery of Grace and Honey from the Sun (with Gail Goepfert). This Hard Business of Living (also with Goepfert) is due from Seven Kitchens Press in 2021. Work is forthcoming in Night Heron Barks, Adirondack Review and Lily Poetry Review. Patrice has been nominated for both Pushcart and Best of the Net prizes. Find her at patriceboyerclaeys.com