“‘Yes…’ that peculiar / affirmative. ‘Yes…’ / A sharp, indrawn breath, / half groan, half acceptance, / that means ‘Life’s like that.…’” So Elizabeth Bishop describes a habit of speech from Nova Scotia in her poem “The Moose,” and it’s true. This particular verbal gesture, this custom of saying “yes” as if swallowing it, or it’s consuming you, and not necessarily a response to any question, but simply a way to let the person you are speaking with know that you’re listening, that you’re with them, you’re there, this peculiar “yes” was one of the surprises for me when I visited the province. I was also surprised to see a moose, multiple moose, in fact, but unlike Bishop’s moose, the ones I saw were on Cape Breton. The biggest shock was not the discovery of a “sweet / sensation of joy” at the encounter with the “grand, otherworldly,” and curious creatures. No, it was the herd of not-so-brilliant humans getting out of their cars and playing paparazzi, and being just as reckless to everyone involved, beasts and bystanders included. We had come to Nova Scotia to visit Holly’s relatives, but with the additional intentions of seeing the place Bishop had mapped so descriptively in her many Nova Scotian poems and to learn to like eating fish. More precisely, cooked fish. To help with that, we booked a few days at the end of our trip in the south end of Nova Scotia at the Trout Point Lodge. This idyllic, luxury hotel specializes in local seafood, with preparations paying homage to the Acadian history of the province. It’s a beautiful retreat, perched along a river surrounded by woods, and the wonderful flowers and vegetables from the gardens will end up on your table.
“From narrow provinces / of fish and bread and tea, / home of the long tides” is how Bishop opens “The Moose,” with that generative, propagating, localizing preposition, “From,” and the poem begins its cinematic sweep. Like a tracking shot in a movie, a single sentence carries us across a landscape over six stanzas, telescoping down from a bird’s-eye view to join a journey in progress, where “a bus journeys west,” the main clause of the sentence that finally arrives after we’ve been held in suspension for twenty-five lines. It’s a breathtaking sentence, and though Bishop travels west, presumably from her childhood home of Great Village, following along an inlet of the Bay of Fundy and tributaries, “where if the river / enters or retreats / in a wall of brown foam / depends on if it meets / the bay coming in / the bay not at home,” before she turns north to New Brunswick and her moose, Holly and I travelled west, too, but then south, on the North Atlantic Ocean side. While the Trout Point Lodge fish-fest didn’t quite take, I did learn a little something about the Acadian style of cooking, particularly some techniques for incorporating the holy trinity of onion-celery-green pepper with your roux in making gumbo. Yet the biggest culinary surprise on that trip to the province “of fish and bread and tea” was the Cape Breton tea biscuit. Every home we stayed at had their own version of this tasty cross between a flaky, buttery biscuit and a scone. The relatives who graciously opened their doors and guest-rooms to us also generously made Cape Breton tea biscuits to have in the morning with jam and butter and coffee. I devoured them gratefully over our conversations around the table. Morning can have its own form of “dreamy divagation,” and the scene on Bishop’s bus is a social one not distant from the hearth or family table, hosting its talk of “names being mentioned, / things cleared up finally; / what he said, what she said, who got pensioned; // deaths, deaths and sicknesses; / the year he remarried; / the year (something) happened.” When I discovered the biscuits at the ubiquitous Tim Hortons as we drove across Nova Scotia, I couldn’t resist them.
The first thing we did once getting back on the main road to Halifax after our stay at the Trout Point Lodge was to stop at Tim Hortons where I purchased a few of their ham and cheese variety. When we returned home, I decided to test my ineptitude with baking by making these biscuits for myself. I was craving them. I was able to get some help from the family, fitting for the spirit of these biscuits. I’ve been making these biscuits ever since. Modified a little from the family secrets, here is the recipe.
Cape Breton Tea Biscuits:
2 cups flour
2 1/2 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1/2 cup cold, unsalted butter
1 cup buttermilk, or substituted with 1 cup skim and a tbsp. cider vinegar
Sift the dry ingredients together and place in food processor. Add chilled butter (I place mine in the freezer for about 30 minutes), and pulse 8-10 times to combine. Remove mixture to large bowl and add the milk. Combine, but don’t over-mix. Roll out on a floured surface, and cut out biscuits with a round cookie cutter. Bake on a lined, rimmed sheet at 425 °F for 10-12 minutes. Cool on rack. This makes about a dozen biscuits.
When I was over halfway through writing the poems for my first book, I had the opportunity to participate in a reading, and I chose a selection of what I considered at the time to be my best—or at least favorite—work. A mentor of mine was in the crowd, and afterwards when everyone was hanging out and complimenting the readers, as happens at those things, he had some nice words to say to me, and then mischievously added, “a very avian reading.” Um, so it turns out I wrote a lot about birds.
I’m sure on some level I was aware of it, but I wasn’t painfully aware of it until that moment. I didn’t—and don’t—regret the flocks, the bevies, the congresses and murders and murmurations of birds populating those poems. I needed them at the time. Which is another way of saying they were an obsession. They had become for me a way of talking about some of the themes of that book. Birds were a vocabulary I adopted (and, yes, perhaps a rather conventional or at least traditional one) to express the transactions between an interior life and the external world, for the challenge of trying to capture a present tense that is always winging into the next present moment, for the anxiety over this here mortal coil, and the nostalgia for something transcendent. And in my aesthetics at the time—a kind of meditative poem that makes excursions into a representational report of the world around its lyric speakers—those birds made perfect sense. Yet, once I was aware of that reliance, I had to make the decision to keep trying to perfect and rejuvenate that vocabulary or to move on if I felt it was merely habit at that point. I moved on.
To put things into perspective, here’s a little obsessive inventory. In The Currency, the word “bird” or bird-related terms, including species names and words like “feather” and “wing,” appear twenty-eight times. In my new manuscript, which is nearing its final stages before publication, such words only appear fifteen times, and eight of those occur in a single poem, the most recent one I’ve written for the book. The words “bird” and “birds” were used thirteen times in writing The Currency, but in the five years since I finished it, I’ve called on those words only four times for Pax Americana. Part of this shift was a conscious reaction against complacency, but it’s more complicated than that. With new obsessions, I needed to find new symbols in order to communicate.
Here’s some additional counting: in The Currency, there are eighteen references to visual art. In Pax Americana, there are four. The Currency alludes to three films (and I mean “films” with all its pretentious baggage). Pax Americana alludes to or directly names seven “movies,” seven television shows (with multiple nods to Joss Whedon, Alias, and HBO series), news casts, and a YouTube video. Writing (in the form of poems, letters, philosophical and biographical texts, etc.) comes up sixteen times in The Currency, but there are forty-four references in Pax Americana (including a Wikipedia entry). It appears that I’m still using poetry as an interpretive act, but I seem more interested in how we organize our lives into language than I am in finding those meanings in the tableaux of paintings. I also find I’m reaching towards a larger range of experience.
Obsessions are often the working out of an idea, and they last until the vitality of that search settles into habit. An obsession in a poem can also be the way a poem is made. Every poem is an expression of what a poem can be. Eventually, you might just be writing a poem because, well, that is how you know a poem is made. If you’re honest with yourself as a poet, you’ll ask why you’re making a poem the way you are. When you stop being able to answer that question compellingly, it is probably time to look elsewhere for a new set of images, symbols, and structures, so a new vocabulary.
I’ve been thinking about cooking lately in these same terms. It’s as if the dishes I’m cooking and the ingredients and methods I’m using are a vocabulary for me to express what a dish can and should be. The notion of “should be” is an ever-evolving one. What seems necessary today won’t necessarily be so tomorrow. Sometimes I land on a preparation or flavor that I enjoy so much or that has a potential that has eluded me, and so I obsessively use it. Experimenting. Tweaking. Until it becomes a routine. Just a tired iteration. There was a time when what signified a side dish was a pile of roasted carrots and parsnips. Then, there was the age of the Brussels sprouts. For a while, purées of English peas cropped up regularly. For the past three weeks, I can’t stop making ginger scallion noodles. Besides, it would be a shame to let these leftover ingredients in the fridge go to waste.
Obsessions in cooking, along with their leftovers, can attract new discoveries, like a planet accruing satellites. The vegetables remaining from Valentine’s dinner sent me off to Nippan Daido Japanese Market in west Houston. They also encouraged me to try my hand at making a dessert. Thanks to the Eggs on Sunday blog, that dessert attempt was a success, and I now have something in my repertoire to complete an entire meal, from first course to last.