Review by Jeannine Hall Gailey
THE ALCHEMIST’S KITCHEN
by Susan Rich
White Pine Press
P.O. Box 236
Buffalo, NY 14201
2010, 06 pp., $16.00
Susan Rich’s third book, The Alchemist’s Kitchen, contains, as you might expect given the title, some lovely sensual poems about the kitchen and food as metaphor; it also addresses art, aging, and the poet’s acute empathy for students, strangers, lovers, and the crowds that surround her. Her poems start with the home and range the reaches of the imagination; the three sections, “Incantation,” Transformation,” and “Song,” begin with prayer (“Different Places to Pray,”) travel through the life a female photographer from the past, and end in a poem of praise to small things (“Letter to the End of the Year”).
The beginning of the poem “Chanterelle” introduces the connections the author makes between the beauties of food and the beauties of language throughout the book:
Perhaps consider poetry
a gourmet grocery shop,
endless pyramids of
persimmon, star flower, pomegranate–
The first section follows the author’s own imagination, through scapes of both art and nature, ice cream, tulips, and conversations with Hayden and Lorca. The middle section, which follows themes of food and female choices at mid-life, Rich evokes the life of Myra Albert Wiggins. She was a photographer from the 1800’s, in a series of poems that remind us of the work, the rebellions involved in acts of creation by a female artist from a more difficult time, her small acts of defiance. Rich’s persona poem in the voice of Myra Wiggins’ husband, “My. Myra Albert Wiggins Recalls Their Arrangement,” is both humorous and endearing, one of the best in the section.
Everyone knew she was in love
with her own life: bareback rides, opera singing,
and the New York artiste nights. But I expected
to live a little, too.
The third section draws us back into the artist’s imagination. While her second book, Cures Include Travel, was concerned with place–Rich’s international travels, her work with the Peace Corps and with her students from lands as far flung as Somalia and Afghanistan– The Alchemist’s Kitchen stays closer to hearth and home. Rich’s current hometown, Seattle, shows up as a recurring character in the book, although the speakers are often lost in reverie of distant lands. In “The Idea of Ice Cream on Alki Beach” (a nod to Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West,”) the speaker muses that “A taste of dark chocolate or true pistachio/ suffice for travelers from Dubai or New England.”
Her poems also address the lost: lost men in “You Might Consider…” (“how my long life of losing men/could create a new international sport”), children that remain unborn in “The Never Born Comes of Age,” even lost customs, like the drawing back of the velvet curtain at movie theaters in “The Lost.”
The poems I liked the most in the book were the most intimate, like “At Middle Life: A Romance” and “Refrain of the Woman Who Has Lived Too Long Alone,” both of which address, in different ways, the trickiness of romantic expectations and longings of the heart. From “At Middle-Life: A Romance:”
Let love be imminent and let it be a train;
let it arrive at dawn, its whistle whiskering the air—
all brightness and verb…Let love be a breakfast
of crème cakes, pomegranate juice, a lively Spanish torte.
This is the kind of book you want to linger over and savor, as Rich’s poems bring the reader into a circle of awareness: to the flavors, the undercurrents of poignancy in the familiar and the exotic, in the world around them.
Jeannine Hall Gailey is the author of Becoming the Villainess (Steel Toe Books, 2006) and She Returns to the Floating World (Kitsune Books, 2011.) Her work has been featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Her poems have appeared in journals like The Iowa Review, The Seattle Review, and Rattle. She volunteers as an editorial consultant for Crab Creek Review and currently teaches at the MFA program at National University. Her web site is www.webbish6.com.