The Alchemist’s Kitchen by Susan Rich. 105 pages. White Pint Press, 2010. $16.00.
With several degrees permeating between the various large, overarching categories of American poetry today, it is hard to commit to an adequate assessment of the quieter, gentler verse being spoken by so many crafters of verse. At times the poetry may be far too sentimental to approach without taking the risk of making very direct remarks on very specific experiences; on the other hand, the poetry may be designed as accessible as possible, and thus critiquing it may be a far larger critique on the general poetic experience cross-culturally. Perhaps this is why, unless the poet is big and famous and popular, the most pleasurable, fluffy poetic writers are ensconced away from the review columns in exchange for the more sobering, experimental writers.
Seattleite Susan Rich’s new book, the Alchemist’s Kitchen, is one of those lighter volumes of verse, easily digestible and easily attainable, that is sophisticated and learned enough to approach without being afraid of certain authorities. Weighing in at just over 100 pages, the book is filled with poems of all shapes and sizes, most of which follow a loose couplet form. The book is divided into three sections (“Incantation”, “Transformation”, and “Song”), and it’s easy to keep track of the used poetic forms and distinguishing styles by following said sections, though it’s not necessary to do so as most of the variations blur together regardless. If this is an intention, then it is a strong and convincing one, mimicking a dream world or opium den where sense, sensation, and sensationalism all resonate with human perception and feeling.
The book itself is probably one of the more luscious volumes of verse to come out in 2010 through its embodiment of the total, immersive, sensory experience. In “Food for Fallen Angels”, an early poem in the book, the reader is presented with a still life of images of eatables in an apparently unending fashion: “a plate of goji berries, pickled ginger, gorgonzola prawns/dressed on a bed of miniature thyme” . . . (16) and so on and so forth into gluttonous heaven. The poem does little more than to fill a belly with desirable consumption, but again, as art it certainly makes an impression of sight/taste imagery. “The Idea of Ice Cream at Alki Beach” is a poem in the middle of the book that harkens West Seattle’s famous summer escape, Alki, with similar nods to consumption: “it infuses rock salt quiet with dry heat;/the fragrance of Greek ice, whorled with fig tree honey” (41). The memories of surprisingly succulent and pristine foods is relayed in clear voice, a tongue whirling like a whip on the page. It is easy to maintain the aforementioned dreamlike state through such engorged food speak. A late poem, “At Middle-Life: A Romance”, which might hint at the core reason for such an appetite for edible content, is a poem occurring in the later of the book that rounds out the text as a whole with lines like “and dark-eyes strangers, contemplating their espresso—/ordering half the nerve. Let love be a breakfast/of crème cakes, pomegranate juice, a lively Spanish torte” (75). There are other food poems, middle-aged delights through and through, but none nearly as good as those referred.
If the book was completely filled to its brim with bubbly, etched food poems, they would probably fall flat after a handful, at the most. Fortunately Rich diversifies her poems to achieve a truly academic volume. It reads as though it was a child of poetry born straight out of a middle-ranged university. Some poems emulate old photographic masters, others focusing on recent, or pseudo-recent anyway, trends in abstraction, and at Rich’s best moments, a hybrid between the two. In “Go West, Young Woman”, Rich takes a slight step away from the completely personal of the bourgeoisie food spreads to hit a universal home: travel:
why wouldn’t she leave
pigeons, celibacy, the shallow focus
of cobblestone streets? (51)
Rich’s verse is clean to the point of purity, focused to the point of sterilization, and interesting enough in its mini and maxi lines to keep the rhythm rocking the reader back and forth, like being in two shoes padding across some vast terrain. Yes, we are transported to those great moments where the only available activity is thought and thought itself. Reading Rich’s work can often bring to mind the frozen hiccups of Creeley’s mid-life work, before time took its winding toll on his spontaneity. Until things got silent.
At other moments in Kitchen, there is a strong sense of the poem as dance, or song. Individual lines break free from form allowing for poems to reach success in their rising and falling action: “we imagine through—Dutch dresses//donned in woman-made sorrow//addictive as exile/from a water country” (from “Homesickness”, 55). Lines like these are like the instances humans remember from their hallucinatory incapacitations; they are those that snap you back into reality, often in the most dark and daggering mode possible. Another gem that accomplishes this incisiveness is “Late Romance”, which opens: “She cannot save herself/from the allure of the new//the frame of formation/finding her subject//the memory made flesh in the catch of an F-stop” (57). The poem is curious and pointed all at once. It is quiet and spaced, but focused enough to relinquish its bonds from the reader. There is a struggle to understand.
The struggle to know, and understand work becomes of utmost importance in the realm of poetry that Susan Rich is writing because the content is often blurred through its sensory excess akin to poets like Tony Hoagland and Billy Collins; the excess is often highly stimulating in a positive way to evoke authentic experiential arousal but to do so without consciousness, which may be why pleasant, lofty poetry is so difficult to negatively approach. Rich’s work is shows occasional mastery in the poems themselves, but many times the content of the poem loses its message through its personal spine: “There is so much that clings to us—/not just cat fur and grass//seed, but also chocolate//creams and the white beach/of childhood, an extended sash of blue” (26). The point of the poems tend to get to a point where the only investment is in letting the waves of bland, mushy history run into themselves. The effect is cool and casual and calm. There is no tension. And aside from those few marking lines that strike out to drag the reader up from the unconscious, all that is left is a phantasmagoria of vague swirls.
Ultimately Rich’s book is a single, blanket statement on the blind compassion and willingness of Americans and other individuals from “developed” places. It is a book about the submission of the self and it is a book about embodiment of things that humans love, and love to love. It follows in the spirit of the prophetic Huxley, who truly believed freedom, not control, would bring about the enslavement of groups of people: by understanding that feelings of pleasure could be obtained by having access to that pleasure, the pleasure becomes the only thing worth having, knowing, or caring about. Instead of critical inquiry and balanced socializing, human life becomes spirited by sweet obsession. And Susan Rich, time and again in her poems, gives us a clear picture of how easy it is. From the sights to the sounds to the tastes, the only major message in Kitchen is the objective ocean of pleasure and blank concourse. And yet, it is hard to be horrified by any of it, because the content is simply so good to read. There is no challenge, no hardened surfaces or backlit allies, no difficulties or insane or absurd mysteries. The knife is one sided, and it’s used to slice into the shiny slab of butter that will cover all the surfaces so that everything glistens.
(Susan Rich reads as part of Seattle Arts & Lectures with Brian Turner & Major Jackson, Apr. 14, 2011 7:30 PM. Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall.)