September 28, 2008

Review by Linda Benninghoff

LICKING THE SPOON
by Joanie DiMartino

Finishing Line Press
PO Box 1626
Georgetown, KY 40324
ISBN 978-1-59924-160-9
2007, 30 pp., $12.00
www.finishinglinepress.com

The poems in Licking the Spoon are about women—women having children, women involved with men, and women–in some cases, generations of women–cooking. The motif of cooking runs through most of the book and is introduced with the quote: “’Not yet Americanized. Still eating Italian food,”’ preparing the reader for the vivid descriptions of food, and in some cases ethnic food, that will follow.

In the opening poem, the poet prepares onion soup and cornbread in a 1778 hearth: “The heavy iron/ peel scrapes across the brick hearth/ to its own rhythm/ a beat laden with forgotten melodies of stern/ women’s voices, ill children, and dread/ of the coming winter.” The act of cooking ties the poet to past generations of women. Whenever possible, the poet uses metaphors of food to describe people and objects. Yet there is also a focus on relations between the sexes, as in “Domestic,” where the poet, after having been attacked by her husband, wonders about “Restraining order[s]. Court order[s]. Custody order[s.”

Toby stomps downstairs;
I see his dark curls enter the kitchen
like a male Medusa: his fists that will chisel
the perfect wife out of stone.

The image of the male Medusa is striking, as is the way the author applies a female myth to a male–just one instance of DiMartino’s gift for capturing people with unusual imagery. In this poem and others, the poet deviates from the theme of cooking but does not break her focus on the subject of female relationships. There is a poem about birth titled “Ultrasound,” followed by a poem about burying children, “Pompei Speaks,” written in 2004.

Centuries seem to lie
between each of the earth’s
massive tragedies,
a span of time so long
ocean waves will not remember

the many fishing villages
swept away
as ruins…

For when a child is dead,
it makes no difference whether his
mouth is full of sea
salt, or ash.

Although this poem is part of a section of historical poems, the focus on women remains. What can be more horrible for a woman than to have to bury her own child?

A sense of history or herstory pervades the collection as a whole, and there are poems about historical figures, among them Anna Magdelena Bach and Anne of Bohemia. In the poem “Nude Playing Baroque,” the poet explores the positive aspects of sexuality, thinking about Bach as the poet herself plays the piano in threadbare silk for her lover.

I know
there were blustery winter nights in Germany

when Anna saw her children asleep, stripped
her body of corsets and petticoats

by the fire: a coy swivel to her hips and flirtation
in her fingers as she approaches the keyboard,
begins to play naked for Johann.

While there are many poems about cooking, this is cooking in the larger sense. The reader develops the sense that in the simple act of cooking traditions are being kept alive and the sense of what it means to be a woman is being defined. This idea of being a woman is explored in minute ways, often through food–down to the poet being unable to eat a female crab.

She is dead
and spiced, prepared to give herself up, to nurture

to nourish another. Women’s bodies
are soft, our own smooth epidermis a comfort

to husbands, children, parents…

Women, like the crab, “nourish” and “nurture” others–but in the process can be devoured. The poet does not eat the crab but respects her feminine nature. The respect for the crab shown in this poem is a part of the deep understanding of women with which this book is informed.

The ideas behind this book–poetry about cooking where in some cases the recipe is laid out on the page-gives us the sense that something more than food is being explored. Women and their traditional roles, sometimes successful and sometimes not, are being written about, from marrying and bearing and bringing up children, cooking for sick children through the dreaded winter, to Pompei where children are buried. The imagery in this book is vivid and the language concise. It portrays women and their customary roles in fresh ways.

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Linda Benninghoff has a BA with honors from Johns Hopkins University in English and an MA in English with an emphasis on creative writing from SUNY at Stony Brook. She translated The Seafarer from Anglo-Saxon. She currently works as a free-lance writer, is assistant poetry editor at WomenWriters.net, and has published three chapbooks of poetry.