In the second poem of Callista Buchen’s new collection from Black Lawrence press, the phrase “clouds made of mouths” reminds me why I love poetry—why I can’t help but read it aloud, repeating moments like that over and over.
It first happened with the phrase “a caught moth” from Margaret Atwood’s “The Woman Who Could Not Live with Her Faulty Heart.” I’m a sucker for assonance, the soft echo of vowels that expand on the tongue, weighting the palate. A few pages later in Buchen’s book, I’m reminded why I love prose poetry. In the densely stacked paragraphs, images and lines swim up out of some ether for the reader to find. Without the neutral space of the page as guide, readers themselves are searchers, seekers. I find “this grounding in proximity”—in Part I of a book that traces a story of mothers: daughters-who-become-mothers, mothers-who-grieve, mothers-who-become-mothers-again-but-carry-their-grief-with-them-as-they-mother.
The structure and language of Buchen’s collection establishes both a chronology of a specific story and a tangling of this chronology. Recurring metaphors include liquid (water, milk), construction (road, cement), and various threats. The second poem in each section has the same title, “Flashes,” and its own particular form—discrete lines separated by plenty of white space. The first few iterations of this poem note dangers and potential safe spaces—like a description of a basement during a weather drill, or a mother’s worries and her constant vigil. Pronouns lace throughout the collection, an ever-present “you” that can mean any mother. Woman is italicized: Woman. Mother is too. There is an imperative voice addressing readers.
The poem “Storytelling” makes this conflation of mothers explicit through the children’s book Blueberries for Sal. Who else remembers this book? Is it just me?—I read it to the children I cared for year after year, can picture it now. “Always the same story, the single color illustrations, me reading, my mother reading, her mother reading. What it means to be innocent.” Innocence can mean so many things, but here, at this moment in the collection, the poem appears amid poems about the loss of a baby, a birth. In the poem “Loss,” one of the mothers (I think of all the speakers as mothers by now) says, “I am grief. I am double and half [ . . .] I can be a coffin.” Immediately following that poem is “Kinds of Trucks,” which trucks in construction metaphors (hard hats and steel-toed boots and cement—all about building and safety and protection), and the mother writes, “Somewhere, a woman plans an arboretum, thinks, this morning I am domestic, this afternoon I am wild.”
One of the central poems in Look Look Look is “Metaphysics”—a short poem that encapsulates much of the poems’ multilayered depictions of motherhood. Aside from the second poem of each section, it’s also one of the few lineated poems. Because it so deftly captures the conflict at the center of the collection, it’s worth quoting in full:
Our most ambitious work: mother as birthplace, where woman becomes location.
Someone singing: rejoice! A body in service, a graft here, a graft there.
Call and response: how she (nearly) disappears inside ritual and imprint.
Let’s situate: Where were you born?
In a (nearly) different life, the child stands between her parents: a record, a stain, a
photograph of the future.
Contextualize: There, says the child, pointing toward her mother, home.
Later, how (nearly) altered: child becomes mother, the X on a map.
Call and response: why didn’t you warn me?
A prayer: but who would believe it? says the mother, and turns on the music.
To cast out from this poem, mother(ing) as work/location/disappearance figures heavily. Mother as seen by child, as connected to child, as once-child. The call and response sings throughout Buchen’s poems: the daughter becomes a mother and has a daughter. How much should she tell and when? And would she have listened anyway?
Perhaps if you are a mother, you do not need to know the story, any exact parameters, to know what kind of grief Buchen delineates in certain of these poems. Perhaps the dedication “For caregivers and those who nurture them . . .” is enough. Perhaps by the first line in the first poem, “Here are the wings we imagine, women, printed in blood, muscle . . .” you are already halfway into some ur-story, or some memory-place. You understand the story begun from this early scene: when “women sit in a circle, nursing. They could be knitting, could be planning a war.” As a not-mother, though, there were many things here I did not know—and for me, poetry has always been one of the ways I come to know things: through its sounds, and uncommon language, and juxtaposition of raw and lush. In “Remnants,” the mother tells how when filling out forms “even at the optometrist’s,” the number of pregnancies and the number of live births don’t match. “The third child that is the second child, any day now. She smiles like people do when they say that.”
If the collection has a kind of dénouement, it is the mapping of the mother’s body after the birth of the third-child-who-is-the-second-child, the way the title poem, “Look Look Look,” invokes this body:
Later, I read that the cells of children move through the placenta, latch on to the mother’s
lungs, liver, brain, her skin. The daughter’s cells, the cells of the new baby, the cells
of the baby that was lost. All the people of this body. A fissure leads to fog.
In “Quick Change,” the mother writes about stored bodies she keeps around the house—in the coat closet, under the bed, in the garage. She calls them “the spares” and declares it “better this way.” In poems in the last section, the mother writes about the dark line down her belly, how it doesn’t fade, separated muscles, “the distance between wrecked and whole.” The poem goes meta, referencing itself, what will and won’t work as a metaphor. It ends with “The body as a poem, what won’t grow back.”
Callista Buchen is the author of Look Look Look (Black Lawrence Press, 2019) and the chapbooks Double-Mouthed (dancing girl press, 2016) and The Bloody Planet (Black Lawrence Press, 2015). Her work appears in Harpur Palate, Puerto del Sol, Fourteen Hills, and many other journals, and she is the winner of DIAGRAM’s essay contest. She teaches at Franklin College in Indiana, where she directs the visiting writers reading series and advises the student literary journal.
I’m thinking of a photograph of a cactus blooming in the desert.
That is always the way I will think of you and your work. It has nothing to do with any kind of cliché of prickliness, because I have never seen a sharp point to you. Maybe you have sharp points like most of us do, but that is certainly not a feature of your spirit or your work. The cactus is full of life. It is green, so green. It curves in a perfect vessel which soothes and delights the lost, the thirsty, the weary. Maybe this sounds over-the-top or sycophantic (God I hope not) but one thing I love about you and your work is that it doesn’t shy away from the joy of expressing joy and a kind of love that meets the stranger on the path with a big smile and open arms. Sometimes people doubt it when a person shows up that way—maybe people have been hurt and are suspicious and maybe cynical. But I mean it, I see you and your work this way—like a vessel full of life and light.
I am not being eloquent. I just had to spell-check the word eloquent. I grew up without books, in a home where books were viewed with suspicion, but even more than suspicion, total neglect. So were children. I was a child in a house with no books and adults who were hurting and angry and left plumes of violent hurt and anger all over the house, in the rooms, and who roped me in with it and wouldn’t let go.
I grew up scared and then angry and then full of a fight that was both a curse and a gift. I spent a long time trying to fix myself. This is a love letter to you, not me, though! Except—you’d want it to be to me, too. That’s what I got from you and your work.
I don’t even remember exactly when I found you or the first poem or how. I’m pretty sure it was when my son, Elliot came out as trans the second time. The first time he told me, I don’t remember it, but he says he was eight and I guess I didn’t hear him or understand. I wanted to be a good mother. I was so overjoyed with my children and I felt such deep love for them and I was happy to create a home for them that would be a safe place and a haven. I also knew I couldn’t be perfect, because that would put too much pressure on my kids and I’d fall right back into the narcissistic traps of it being all about me. Am I being narcissistic now? How’d I get from Elliot to MY children to ME? This is all to say that I think the self exists on a spectrum between toxic narcissism and healthy self-love and grace all in between and around like a desert. Not a wasteland. The desert is teeming with life and beauty. I feel this wondering about the self and its capacity for violence and harm in your work, too. But also that grace for others and the self.
So I missed something Elliot tried to tell me when he was eight. Then he told me again at fifteen and I was still a little wary. But he said LISTEN TO ME, MOM. and I did. I turned to face him and I listened and I said yes to everything in him. He was and is so beautiful. Now he is at the University of Iowa, and when I see him sometimes for lunch or when he texts me or calls, my heart jumps and I feel so happy. He is the most beautiful being.
One of the first books I got immediately after he spoke to me and I listened with an open heart was Troubling the Line. I wanted to be a good mom, so of course, I ordered a bazillion books on being trans the next day: nonfiction, self-help, clinical/academic, fiction, memoir, and poetry.
That’s where I found you. I’m certain of it now. I then signed us up for a poetry workshop at Naropa. I got Elliot in the LAST SPOT for Eileen Myles’ workshop. I took Thurston Moore’s workshop because he was my childhood idol and I wanted to confront him (with grace) for a certain patriarchy I grew up with in the punk scene and kind of felt annoyed at (“Kill Yr Idols”). (I ran away from home as a teenager and found a home in punk rock and poetry.) And I thought meeting you and talking to you outside of a class face to face would be a really meaningful way to connect with you. So Elliot and I met you at SNARFBURGER and I was both beaming at Elliot and doing the proud mother thing and also spilling my soul all over your space. I bought Gephyromania.
You exuded light, just like your poems did. You talked about grace and you spoke the language of my childhood religion in a way that liberated the language from its terror and transformed it into this authentic questioning—the kind of question mark that the wise sages say we should live in. You made space in your workshop (which Elliot and I got to sit in on one day) to dance in the question. Literally, dance, move, embody! I was so scared of my body. So scared of myself, still, after forty-something years, still a scared little girl who wanted to be a brave and loved little boy, and now I had a trans son and he was a blazing light and I was immersed in all this light and felt both overjoyed and fearful, too, in turns.
Look, I know this doesn’t sound academic and like the proper kind of intellectual level of critique and analysis—but I’ve never been able to pull that off. I once wrote a paper about post-structuralism that was just gibberish repeating “signifier and signified” over and over again in every other sentence. I got an A+ but what I really loved in that class was my professor, Lydia Gasman, who survived the Holocaust and would quote Kabbala before class. I loved her.
I love you. Not in a creepy, stalkerish way. The world is dangerous and you’ve got to have good boundaries and sometimes survivors of abuse have trouble with boundaries, which can be a curse but also a GIFT. Because sometimes you meet fellow survivors and they’ve been through so much bullshit they’re like, can we just be real with each other? Like, we’re all going to die, so can we just love each other and mostly extend grace, unless someone proves to be harmful—in which case you have a right to protect yourself. But I just felt like my soul recognized you, first in your poems and then in your self. So whether I ever see you again, face to face, I think of you as a friend in the space of the world. The big beautiful desert and you’re out there blooming.
I want to be real with everyone I encounter on this big blue planet with its vast deserts of air and light and rocks and blooms. I really do love you all the poets reading and want to meet you and be open to you. If I can break the fourth wall a second and speak directly to the audience reading this—TC is an EMT!!! TC literally meets people in their most broken, scared places and tends to them and always has, in workshops, on the page, in dance, in the wilderness with Outward Bound, with my son, with students, friends, and strangers. Let’s all do that, please, to the best of our ability with all our crankiness or fears or suspicion (born rightfully by our experiences). Let’s be brave and love each other and extend one another grace.
Here’s one of my favorite poems of TC:
What Space Faith Can OccupyBy TC Tolbert
I believe that witness is a magnitude of vulnerability.That when I say love what I mean is not a feelingnor promise of a feeling. I believe in attention.My love for you is a monolith of try.
The woman I love pays an inordinate amountof attention to large and small objects. She is notdescribed by anything. Because I could not mean anything else,she knows exactly what I mean.
Once upon a time a line saw itselfclear to its end. I have seen the shapeof happiness. (y=mx+b)I am holding it. It is your hand.
Heathen/Heather Derr-Smith is a punk rock Sufi genderqueer poet with four books of poetry. s(he) lives in Des Moines with (he)r family of beautiful human beings and dog and cat animal-people. Heather’s most recent book Thrust, won the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award and was published in 2017 at Persea Books. Derr-Smith is also the founder/director of the nonprofit Cuvaj se, supporting writers in conflict zones and post-conflict zones and communities affected by violence and trauma. So, you may find Heathen wandering around the United States, Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, or Kurdistan walking beside survivors and resisting authoritarian and fascist bullshit.
BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month
For this year’s National Poetry Month, Brain Mill Press & Voices want to add to your #TBR pile, sing siren songs of unsung heroes, and signal boost living poets we should be reading more. By the end of the month, we hope you will have acquired 30+ new books of poetry and that they continue to multiply in the darkness of your library. Explore new voices & new forms — re-read some old favorites — play if you liked this poet, you’ll like… the old-fashioned way, algorithm-free — just poetry lovers talking to poetry lovers, as the Universe intended. Happy #NaPoMo2019 from Brain Mill Press.
I understand and appreciate the amount of work and love and labor you have put into raising us.
You and dad came to this country as newlywed young professionals, and together you were always fighting as a team.
You were twenty-one and scared and fought your way through the racist, sexist, classist, homophobic spaces of the west coast, carving a nurturing space for yourself and our family.
You are the lioness, protecting her cubs from each element that is threatening.
You and dad are the first to take on the offender when something fucked up happens to one of us, and I love you for that.
Your words are like tiny swords, each one cutting slightly and swiftly, but deeply.
What I would like for you to understand, though, is how deeply you wound me.
Every time I come home, you comment on my body. I have struggled with my body image issues since I was ten years old.
It doesn’t help me that you were the charismatic 100-lb, 5’4” beloved beauty queen of your community.
Or that even now, after having three grown children, and two grandchildren, you don’t look a day over thirty, thanks to daily applications of Oil of Olay and vitamin E.
But my body? My body is a road map of stretch marks, and I shrink and grow depending on stress, work load, my thyroid acting up, the time of the year.
Every time I come home, I am subjected to your close readings of my body.
Oh, beta, you would be so beautiful if only your belly were flat.
Oh, beta, don’t wear short skirts around the house. Nice girls don’t show their legs to anyone but their husbands.
Oh, beta, why are you single? All of your cousins are married. Your younger brothers are engaged. If you lost thirty pounds, you would find a nice boy.
MOM! You have no idea what my life has been like. I have internalized your words to the point where I wake up thinking about my midsection.
Your voice haunts me. I go to bed wondering when the weight training will start affecting change properly.
The last time I was in fantastic shape, I killed myself every day. I swam and played tennis and danced and ran five miles a day. I broke my body over and over.
I fucked up my back during a period of weight training. My body hasn’t been the same since.
I don’t drink soda, I don’t eat desserts, I don’t eat red meat, I don’t eat white flour, I don’t eat or drink any dairy, I don’t eat fried foods. I cook for myself every day, and I am doing what I need to do in order to survive.
You want to know what my pain is like? This bodily transformation I have undertaken has resulted in a pinched nerve, and a bulging disc, and nearly constant sciatica with shooting spirals of pain running from my lower back down my leg and ankles.
I could barely sleep, much less walk. I have done everything that you and dad said. Education above everything, no? Two BAs, two MAs. I finished a PhD.
All of this financed by myself, through grants and fellowships, based on my merits. And I am not yet thirty.
Graduate school has broken me in so many ways, and constantly being around blonde-haired, blue-eyed, slender, pale, privileged, entitled pieces of flesh does not help my body issues. You try living in X for five years, one of the ghostliest cities on earth.
You try teaching undergraduate students from the wealthiest feeder schools in X, who have never been in the presence of a woman of color who holds power over them.
These students look like Barbie and Ken. I cannot compete with them. I won’t compete with them. The worst part about your words is that you say them with genuine love and concern. You don’t have a malicious bone in your body.
You will tell me these things while we are taking a walk or while you are putting coconut oil into my hair. We can talk about everything under the sun, but when I react to your words with anger and offense, you claim to not intend to hurt me. You say that as my mother, you have every right to say the things you do.
I disagree. I call these microaggressions. Your biggest concern is for my wellbeing, but you seem to believe that I am starved for companionship.
You are haunting me. Your words echo inside my mind, constantly.
I don’t know if it is because there are three weddings happening at the moment in our enormous, multigenerational desi family.
I don’t know if it because you yourself are haunted by your mother’s words.
I’ve seen what Nani says to you. I’ve seen the pain that etches itself on your features.
I’m the oldest grandchild and the only single one, and I am a disappointment in spite of my many achievements.
I wish you wouldn’t bring this stuff up anymore. I don’t quite know how to tell you all of this and have you actually hear me. Crying doesn’t help. Threats to you that I won’t come home to visit don’t help. I’m tired of taking it and it is affecting my wellbeing. I wish you could hear what I am saying. I wish you would stop. I love you more than anything on earth and I wish you could love me the way I do you.
You Have a Body features personal essays on the the ways we reconcile our physical forms with our identities. This series explores how our bodies sometimes disagree with us, how the world sometimes disagrees with our bodies, and how we attempt to accept that dissonance.
At first he told me he liked my dreadsAnd I hesitated to tell him they weren’t realThen he told me my body looked deliciousWhy did I hesitate to tell him that it wasn’t his meal?
I’m not supposed to let them touch meI’m not supposed to let them seeI don’t suppose it felt that goodI don’t suppose he liked my screamsI’m not supposed to invite them inI’m not supposed to offer a keyI don’t suppose he’s all that smartHe told me to shut up when I already couldn’t breathe
Why don’t black women EVER smileY’all are so much sexier with your lips spreading wideNot to tell or ask or sayBut, when it’s night. When it’s time to ease my day awayThat’s when those lips start to take me to heavenI try to stay coolI try to count each secondI try to stay calmI barely make it to seven…
I smileI doI smile at children and flowers and loversI smile at animals and skies and mothersI smile all the timeYou can trust that I doI just won’t ever smile at you.
Why do you call me babygirlWhen Truth told me that I’m A WomanWhy do you call me out my nameWhy do you think that i’ll believe that i’m nothing
Why do you make fun of my dreamsWhy make my future seem impossibleWhen an Angel already rose from the deadJust to tell me that I’m Phenomenal
Your words may scratch other womenBut they’ll never lay a hand on meBecause my ancestors’ loveGot to me firstIsn’t it obviousShit, I know you see.
Is it my scent that’s luring youDo you know about my secret tooIf so, then there’s nothing i can doI am only one, but my body is built for twoActually, my body is built for a fewBut today, none of those few are youNor is it my baby boy’s blueNor is it my baby girl’s cooNope, not this moon – nothing newNothing growing, nothing bubbling, nothing to stewParty of one, yes only one in my crewNo other color but red will doBut this, this, this you already knewThat’s why you approached me with a promise of trueBut a promise will turn sour and then to untruthI’ll grow into my mother waiting on youOoops, i said it – mother – those words twisted your smile askewMother me, mother my, M-O-T-H-E-R-F-U-That’s what they’ll shout until their lungs give throughWhich one will they come running toLove They Will Who?
The blue light from my computer screen illuminates my face as I scroll through my friends’ Facebook posts. This friend has just traveled to Hawaii with her husband. That friend has just hand-made clothes for her children. That friend has completed a Tough Mudder with his boyfriend. I click the thumbs-up icon, or I leave little encouraging comments. An hour passes. Two.
I joined Facebook late, considering that the company began in 2004. In 2007, the summer I decided to adopt my daughter Mitike, I created an account on the blue and white website people were talking about, and shared a photo of me, my mom, and my sister Katie tubing on the Upper Iowa River in Decorah. We are all grinning in the photo. Five people liked it, then ten. People with whom I had lost touch began to request me as their friends. At the time, I lived far away from all of them — all the way in Alaska — and my new cellphone (I was late to that trend, too) allowed me only a limited number of monthly minutes. Facebook was a free way to stay in touch.
A year later, when Mitike came home from Ethiopia, Facebook was a way I could stay sane, a way I could show everyone the sweet and astonishing little person I had promised to raise. I shared videos and photographs, and more people liked them, and more people requested friendships. I connected with adoptive parents’ groups and with Ethiopian culture groups. Every day at nap time, I checked my Facebook account — and I felt a little more connected in a life that, while beautiful, contained mostly cheese sticks and raisins and discussions about poop.
In 2011, when Ali died, Facebook became a place I haunted in my grief. I studied our old posted photographs for clues, and I left cryptic messages on a Facebook page that had outlived its face. The blue website no longer connected me, but encouraged my drifting, alone. For hours, I zoomed in on photographs to examine a smile, a look in the eyes, the clues I had missed. I ignored all my friends’ happy updates, and I dwelled in the darker places.
And then, still later, there were the years — the recent ones — when Facebook functioned as a joyful declaration: I survived! I have found love again! Hey, everyone, this is Meredith! We’re married! We’re happy! I posted photos and videos, links and updates. Mostly, I checked and checked Facebook. What had people said about my photo? Had people commented on my column? Had others liked my link? Facebook was part virtual scrapbook, part live feed into my life. I engaged with friends’ posts; I found and shared exciting events; I shared pictures of the dozen pink pussy hats I had crocheted; I vented my anger about the Trump administration. Morning after morning, I clicked on the little white “f” in the blue square on my phone, and it was like walking into a crowded room — look at this photo of my quinoa plants, have you seen what Trump’s done now?, can you believe how much my daughter’s grown?, there’s a rally downtown next Saturday and I plan to go.
This past June, when my family and I traveled west to stay in a rented cabin on the Oregon coast for a week, I decided, on a whim, to take a sabbatical from all technology. For seven days, I did not access the internet in any way; I used my phone only as a camera, on airplane mode. And…I began to take photographs so I could remember the moment, not so I could share it with five hundred strangers. At night, I reflected purely on the conversations I had had with Mitike and Meredith, not on the chatter of that crowded blue room. My mind was clearer, like a desk I had sorted.
For the few months after that, I returned to posting and checking and liking, but my brief sobriety had taught me something essential: I didn’t need Facebook. It distracted me from living my real life. Then the Cambridge Analytica scandal happened, and former Facebook creators and executives began to admit that the site is deliberately designed to addict us to more clicking and to direct certain companies’ ads at us, and, like Montag (Fahrenheit 451 is frighteningly apt here), I shouted, “No more!”
I deleted the app. It took seconds. I stopped logging on to Facebook every morning as I ate breakfast. I stopped visiting the page when I needed a break from my writing. I stopped scrolling through the 515 “friends”’ posts at stoplights on my way home in the afternoons. I just stopped, cold turkey.
And — I missed it not at all. For the months of September and October, as I moved through my life without Facebook, I did not once wonder what all the posters were posting, or what the likers were liking. When a November New York Review of Books article revealed some of the darker, far more serious reasons we should all free ourselves from social media like Facebook, I happily breathed my free air.
Then, in mid-November, I needed a few photos so I could craft our Christmas card. Like many people, I have not printed photos to store in shoe boxes or leather albums for years; instead, I have stored them on Facebook. Until I spend hours one day downloading all those photos (and Mitike’s baby and toddler videos) and burning the files to a CD, I cannot actually delete my Facebook account. That day, when I logged on to grab the photos I needed, the 6 messages, 68 new notifications, and 2 friend requests nearly seduced me to start scrolling.
But I held to my resolve. Facebook does not improve my life. It does not connect me more deeply to anyone. It does not inform me better than my daily reading of The Guardian and The New Yorker. It may announce events, but mostly, it pulls me away from real engagement in my community. Again, I say: no more.
I have been accused at several junctures of my life of Luddism, mostly because I resist texting everyone constantly, because I watch little TV, and because I have seriously restricted Mitike’s screen time (at age eleven, she still only gets three hours a week; we bought her a flip-phone for emergencies when she started middle school, but her iPhone is years away). Now I am deleting Facebook. However, like the original Luddites, I do not oppose the technology itself, but its threat to genuine human skill and human interaction. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter claim to better connect us, and yet the hallways of the high school where I teach are crowded not with boisterous teenagers but with solitary figures hunched over their iPhone screens, shuffling forward as they scroll through friends’ Snapchats. When I pass these zoned-out kids, I call out “Look up!” to startle them back into their real lives.
The original Luddite movement began in Nottingham, England, in 1811, when a group of angry factory workers smashed textile machinery in protest against low wages and too little work. In the months that followed, the British government deployed soldiers; the Luddites set fire to factories and broke more machinery; the soldiers fired into mobs; people died. Mostly, the Luddites feared, in the words of the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle in 1829, a world in which “Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.”
In 1996-97, I lived in the Luddites’ Nottingham, in a second-story flat with eleven other American college students. There I knew a far better balance between my humanity and technology. Our flat possessed a single Apple computer that was good only for slow word-processing, a single land-line telephone, and a single television set. Sometimes, I took the bus early to the university so I could send electronic mail to my mom with my new Yahoo account, but that was it. My flatmates and I spent most of our time hanging out, attending plays, frequenting pubs, venturing into the green countryside. I wrote more, sketched a little, took photographs of crumbling walls and pubs on a film camera. When we couldn’t think of an answer or a definition, we engaged in fierce debate, because Google was still an idea in a Stanford dorm room. Except for the parents we called periodically, no one received daily or hourly updates about the pints we drank or the castles we visited.
And yes, I am saying that Luddite life was a better, healthier existence than this one. This fall, when my Nottingham roommate, Sarah, and I decided to move our friendship back into handwritten letters, I was astonished. Sarah and I have remained close for the entire twenty years since Nottingham, but these letters! In our rushed handwriting — while her kids slept, while Mitike did her homework, with early-morning coffee — we dove more deeply into reflections about our lives than we have in years on email and on Facebook. Paper and pen, actual envelope, the imprint of one page’s writing on the next: I read and re-read her letters like I have never done with her digital communication. True, I caught myself wondering why she hadn’t responded yet just an hour after I tucked my letter to her into the mailbox, but these habits are difficult to smash immediately. True, I considered posting a photo of my steaming cup of coffee next to Sarah’s letter with a caption like “Old friends, and a return to real communication,” but I resisted.
Oh, Facebook. I will not grow mechanical in head and in heart. I will not “take things at second or third hand.” I will see this world with my own eyes, experience it as it is, read more actual books of paper, connect with real friends face-to-face. I will look up.
I am one of those people who finds comfort in reading about food. The first of these kinds of stories to appeal to me was Bread and Jam for Frances.
This picture book, by Russell Hoban with illustrations by Lillian Hoban, features an anthropomorphic badger named Frances. Russell Hoban wrote six Frances books between 1960 and 1970 that were based loosely on the antics of his four children and their friends. Bread and Jam was first published in 1964.
The story opens with the badger family sitting the breakfast table. Mother, father, and baby sister consume soft-boiled eggs, which they talk up in an effort to get the older daughter, Frances, to vary her diet.
Frances prefers her bread and jam, and she sings little songs about her favorite food rather than acknowledging her family. Later, she refuses the veal cutlets, string beans, and baked potatoes at dinner, and reveals that she traded her chicken salad at lunch for—well, you know.
The next day the entire family has poached eggs on toast—the entire family, except for Frances. Her mother serves Frances her preferred meal. At lunch, her friend Albert has a sandwich, a hard boiled eggs AND a cardboard salt shaker (handy!), fruit, and custard. Frances discovers that her mother has packed bread and jam again. She watches Albert eat. When she goes out to the playground, she sings and plays with little energy. After school, her mother serves her a snack of bread and jam.
It’s the spaghetti and meatballs, however, that really break our badger friend and make her decide to eat something other than bread and jam.
I find it funny that young me decided to settle into a seat at the library and read and reread Bread and Jam for Frances.
I did not like jam, or most sweet things, when I was a child. I didn’t enjoy soft-boiled eggs, grapes, or black olives—all foods that people (badgers) eat in this book. My mother mostly cooked variations of Chinese/Taiwanese dishes, so I didn’t know what a breaded veal cutlet was, nor had I tasted custard. Moreover, I was a picky eater who would gaze at a huge party table filled with fancy foods and then ask for a piece of toast.
But I did like to read about food. I went through the other Frances books, all of which contain bountiful feasts. I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy and still remember passages about popcorn, pound cake, and other delights.
Eventually, I got over my fussiness, tasted many of the things I’d previously only read about—and started to enjoy those that I’d hated as a kid. I still like to seek out books about food. In fact, recently, when the news got to be too much, I opened up the New York Public library website and searched under for fiction with the keyword “cake.” I needed something that would go down easy. I figured that a book that featured something beautiful and sweet would be just the thing.
But I wasn’t actually eating cake myself—I didn’t even particularly want any. I just wanted to read about other people making cake, or maybe eating it. And then, I began to wonder why.
Of course, Bread and Jam for Frances isn’t really about bread and jam.
We don’t even learn what flavor of jam Frances likes; Lillian Hoban’s illustrations depict a reddish-pinkish splotch in the middle of a slice of white. Maybe it’s raspberry, maybe it’s rhubarb, maybe it’s the blood of fairies. We just don’t know. What matters more is the fact that in eating it, Frances is flouting the rhythms of her family’s life by rejecting what is on offer at meal times.
By contrast, Frances’s post-bread and jam lunch is both rich and orderly:
“I have a thermos bottle with cream of tomato soup,” she said.And a lobster-salad sandwich on thin slices of white bread.I have celery, carrot sticks, and black olives,and a little cardboard shaker of salt for the celery.And two plums and a tiny basket of cherries.And vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinklesand a spoon to eat it with.”“That’s a good lunch,” said Albert.
This is a very sophisticated lunch, Albert! Frances goes from a white bread and sugary jam to black olives and lobster salad. She even sets out a doily and a small vase of violets.
What’s also interesting is that this is mostly a list; it tells us nothing about how the food tastes. We don’t learn that the lobster salad is tangy or crunchy, or that the cherries are ripe and juicy and their flavor dances on the tongue—because that is beside the point. The main description of eating is about how methodical Frances’s consumption of her food is; the last words of the book are “she made the lobster-salad sandwich, the celery, the carrot sticks, and the olives come out even.”
What matters is not the food itself, but the system. Frances takes one measured bite of everything, one after another. Her lunch—the flowers, the doily, the arrangement and recitation of items—is meticulous and perfect, and so is her method of eating it.
Frances eating her lunch isn’t about food—it’s about the restoration of order. Something as unruly as appetite—as hunger and desire—can be sated, arranged, brought to heel.
Or maybe it is about the food, too. While I was writing this, my daughter nabbed Bread and Jam for Frances. Then, she wanted a soft-boiled egg for lunch—two, actually. She also asked for one for breakfast the next morning. Each time, it was my pleasure to remember the book, to be able to provide this small bit of comfort and satisfaction to her life.