Poem of the Week: an excerpt from Leontia Flynn’s “Letter to Friends”

My father’s wits have flown away like birds
out of that shell, though on the odd good day
watching him walk or do some task, when words
aren’t called for or my thoughts drift, well then, hey,
things are just fine. Who knows? The heart that breaks
daily at each new symptom of decline
isn’t my own (abstraction I can bear)
and then that bubble bursts: my shoulder aches
under its flu-jab, and it strikes again
how weird it is to miss him when he’s there.

Leontia Flynn is a poet and critic living in Belfast. She teaches at Queen’s University Belfast and “Letter to Friends” appears in 2011’s Profit and Loss. She has published the poetry collections These Days (2004) and Drives (2008), as well as Reading Medbh McGuckian (2014), a book of criticism.

She has written several poems on her father’s aging, but this excerpt has always stood out to me for its evocative description of her father’s facilities as active and independent of himself, something that has willfully left his body behind.

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Isabella Stewart Gardner

Today is the 25th anniversary of the notorious heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. On March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised at Boston police officers convinced a guard that they were responding to a call. He broke protocol by letting them in. The thieves tied up the two guards on duty and spent 81 minutes in the museum. They made off with two Rembrandt, a Vermeer, a Manet, a Degas, and several other objects. This is considered the largest theft in history and the FBI maintains an active investigation. Public speculation has considered everyone from Whitey Bulger to the security guard who opened the door for the supposed police officers.

But enough about that. Instead, let’s focus on Isabella Stewart Gardner, the woman. Mrs. Gardner, as she is known at the museum, suffered from depression after the death of her young son in 1865. Her doctor suggested travel as a cure, and over the next decades, Mrs. Gardner and her husband, Jack, traveled to England, France, Japan, Cambodia, India, Russia, and, her favorite, Venice, Italy.

Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice Zorn
Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice, 1894, Anders Zorn, Oil on canvas

Mrs. Gardner began collecting art during her travels and in 1903 she helped design what was known as Fenway Court, a building modeled after a Venetian palace. She installed her collections there and opened it to the public. Today it is still open as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

isabella stewart gardner john singer sargent
Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner. 1888:
John Singer Sargent

Mrs. Gardner knew what she wanted and wasn’t shy about asking for it, whether it was installing a palace in a then-desolate part of Boston (no Fenway Park or Museum of Fine Arts in that neighborhood when Mrs. Gardner chose it), wearing a Red Sox bandanna to a Boston Symphony Orchestra performance, or hosting artists and musicians who were not considered proper for Boston society. John Singer Sargent painted a portrait of her that was thought to be scandalous.  That plunging neckline! That small waist, encircled by pearls! And, is that a halo around her head? Mrs. Garnder’s husband reportedly asked her not to display it until after his death. She obliged, but today you can see it on the museum’s third floor.

In short, Mrs. Gardner was and remains bad ass, and I wish I could have been invited to the champagne and donut party that opened the museum on New Years’ Day in 1903.

All images via Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where you can learn more about Mrs. Gardner and the theft.

I Judged a Book by Its Cover

This week, I was in the Harvard Bookstore and I saw this beautiful book on a table with other beautiful books.

penelope fitzgerald offsshore

The cover illustration is by Julie Morstad. Something about how the ocean take up most of the cover, and how the blue feels warm instead of cool, made the book stand out from the rest on the table.

Penelope Fitzgerald is an award-winning British author who passed away in 2000. Fun facts, if Wikipedia can be believed: she was the editor at the journal which first published Salinger’s “For Esme, With Love and Squalor” and, as a teacher, her famous students included Anna Wintour and Helena Bonham Carter.

I snagged “Offshore” and look forward to reading it on this afternoon’s train ride. Learning about Fitzgerald also has me itching to read her biography, which came out last fall.

Smitten Kitchen Appreciation Day

Several years ago, a coworker of mine introduced me to Smitten Kitchen. She was obsessed. I thought the pictures were pretty, and some of the desserts made my mouth water, but I didn’t really get why she was so into it. At that point in my life, my cooking skills were limited to a veggie stir fry, spooned over pasta or rice, that I made several times a week. My boyfriend at the time and I didn’t cook much together, partly due to lack of interest and skill, and partly due to messy shared kitchens of early 20 somethings.

Now, I have come around to appreciate cooking as a hobby and a necessity. First, I moved in with a new roommate who was a great cook. I acquired a few more skills. I realized ordering takeout several nights a week was not healthy for my wallet or my waist. I have always loved hosting people, and I wanted to offer them more than chips and dip (though I make a really good dip). I started dating M, and realized that cooking together could be a really fun shared activity.

first root farm concord massachusetts peppers

Which is a long way of saying I now get the Smitten Kitchen love. I even bought the cookbook for my mom for Christmas. Now she is obsessed, to the point where she asked for a cast iron pan for her birthday because “Deb uses one a lot.” A recent post about a beautiful-but-intimidating cookbook really exemplifies why I think so many people are fans.

“And it’s not that I don’t share the book’s values, either. Like most people, I prefer local humanely raised pork to the feedlot variety. If you haven’t yet, I hope you get a chance to try freshly dug potatoes from a farmers market in a month or two, so you too can be amazed by the depth of flavor atypical of the grocery store variety. I recently bought Anson Mills polenta and grits for the first time, and I’m converted. They’re incredible. They’re fantastically expensive too, as carefully grown food, the best in its class, often is. My grandmother would roll over in her grave if she knew I had used two cups of them just to dredge buttermilk-soaked pork chops (you know, among other concerns there), as the cookbook suggests. I unquestionably believe the world would be a better place if we all had access and the budget for these kinds of ingredients, or if we could all eat Brock’s amazing cooking — James Beard award-winning food that is exclusively indigenous to the South, using heirloom produce and heritage animal breeds — every night. But when it crosses the threshold of my apartment, it’s hard not to be aggressively aware of its gap with the reality I live in, or, as Morrissey once sung to me from a poster on my high school bedroom wall, “it says nothing to me about my life.” My central question in my daily home cooking is: will this work for me? In my kitchen? With my budget? With the ingredients I have the patience to get on a 25-degree day on foot?”

I feel really lucky that I have the ability to purchase the food that I do. It certainly isn’t all fresh, local, organic, etc, but sometimes it is. It’s nice when it is. Other times I take the bus to Trader Joe’s and fill as many bags as I can carry with frozen lunches and stuff to make my never-fail, quick and cheap veggie stir fry. In the aspirational, filtered, posed, and prettified world of food blogs, it is nice that some one is acknowledging the reality of buying the beautiful ingredients that are not available to many people.

To learn more about improving access to fresh and healthy food in Massachusetts, check out Alternatives for Community and Environment and City Sprouts.

Photo of First Root Farm peppers via organicfarmfood.org

Maxine Hong Kingston

Kingston wrote The Woman Warrior: Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts in 1976 and I read it quickly, like I was gulping down water, in the Spring of 2011. I was lucky enough to hear her speak not long after. Her talent, activism, and energy inspired me (she was born in 1940 and shows no signs of slowing down!).

From The Poetry Foundation:

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, poet, memoirist, and fiction writer Maxine Hong Kingston was born in Stockton, California, and educated at the University of California–Berkeley.

maxine hong kingston poet warrior woman memioirKingston is the author of the book-length poem I Love a Broad Margin to My Life(2011). Walt Whitman influenced her, and the poetic lines in the book shift between real and imagined time, tracing the writer’s journey. Discussing her decision to compose I Love a Broad Margin to My Life as a book-length, free verse poem, Kingston spoke in an interview of the decade each of her previous two books had taken to write and her desire for a lighter, faster form. She noted, “there is not enough time to write everything that one is feeling and thinking—and I have thought that my whole writing life.”

If you are interested in some of the things Kingston mentions in the excerpt from “I love a broad margin”, here are some interesting links:

Poem of the Week: “I love a broad margin to my life” by Maxine Hong Kingston

8 days before my birthday, I went
to John Mulligan’s funeral. He was 10
years younger than me. He died without
finishing his book, MIAmerica.
(I have a superstition that as long as I,
any writer, have things to write, I keep living.)
I joined in singing again and again
a refrain, “Send thou his soul to God.” Earll,
though, did not sing, did not
say any of the Latin, any of the prayers.
He muttered that the Catholic Church divides you
against yourself, against your sexy body.
“The Church is a gyp.” John Mulligan should’ve
been given a pagan ceremony; Woman Warrior,
Robert Louis Stevenson, and Cuchulain
had come to him in Viet Nam. John
carried them, tied to him by silver cords,
to the U.S. The priest, who came from the Philippines,
kept reminding one and all that the benefits
he was offering were for “Christians” only. But
he did memorialize John being born and raised
in Scotland, and coming to America at 17.
Summarily drafted to Viet Nam. You
didn’t have to be a citizen to be drafted.

. . .

The war count, as of today:

Almost 2,000 killed in Iraq. G.I.s.
Not counting Afghanis,
Iraqis,
civilians,
mercenaries,
children, babies,
journalists.

7 days before my birthday, I had breakfast with
Mary Gordon, who’s always saying things
I never thought before: “It’s capitalistic
of us to expect any good from peace demonstrations,
as if ritual has to have use, gain, profit.”
I agreed, “Yes, it’s Buddhist to go parading
for the sake of parading.” “Can you think of a writer
(besides Chekhov) who is holy and an artist?”
“Grace Paley.” She smiled. “Well, yes.”
Obviously. “Thoreau.” “Oh, no. Thoreau’s
too Protestant, tidy, nonsexual. He goes
home to Mom for hot chocolate. No
sex, no tragedy, no humor.”
Come to think of it, Thoreau doesn’t make
me laugh. A line from Walden hangs over one
of my desks:

I love a broad margin to my life.

(this is an excerpt from the book-length poem of the same name)

Lassi and Chutney and Dal, Oh My!

Have you seen the Washington Post article “Scientists have figured out what makes Indian food so delicious“?  Not that it needs to be scientifically proven, but the scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology suggest that the reason you are probably craving Indian food right this very second is that Indian recipes pair ingredients that have dissimilar flavor compounds. In contrast, Western cuisine tends to pair ingredients with overlapping flavor compounds.

1000 Indian Recipes Neelam BatraScience aside, I want some naan, some samosas, and some curry for lunch. Sadly, that probably will not happen, but I will make it my mission to have some by the end of the week. Maybe I’ll use the recipe site that the scientists used, Tarla Dalal or the book that I snagged at Brookline Booksmith, 1,000 Indian Recipes by Neelam Batra.  As you can see, it was quite the deal.

If I’m feeling less adventurous, I’ll probably want an expert to prepare it for me. Favorite Indian restaurants include Punjab Palace in Allston, Passage to India in Cambridge, and Mela in the South End. I’ve been curious about Diva Indian Bistro in Somerville, so maybe it is time to check it out.

Any favorite Indian restaurants, recipes or markets?