Tara Betts Reviews Camille Dungy’s What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison

Dungy's first poetry collection offers a number of ways to look at what is considered to be a part of nature, whether it is a part of the plants or the people that inhabit a place. Some of these poems undulate with sexuality, especially in lines like, "Desire is the flesh, the fruit you cry for every night" from "Sinner, Don't You Weep." One of the poems swelling with such bluesy desire is "Black Spoon":

won't give me more than the music of your fingers

strumming my slip's strap your chest sings

to my heart's ear while your wicked wisdom works

its secret privilege but you won't give me more

than your body tuned for walking out my door

hush now I'm the one done let you in (40).

Dungy does not remain content with exploring the nature of desire. Instead there is an exploration of cycles–pursuit, conception, birth, life, conflicts and death. Each poem tells an ongoing story of the Dungy family accompanied by poems on incidents of the time. "We Were Two Rooms of One Timber, But I Left That Place Alone" describes one such incident by speaking in the voice of a 31-year-old widow named Sara. She recalls how her husband Henry built their 2-room home filled with life, and how all that living changed:

There is a kind of hunger that feeds on life.

They carved into him with a banquet of knives,

made stew of his skin and stirred it

with his own bones. My Henry served: The meat

and the pot to cook it in. And there was no charge

against the men who made that meal. (48)

This tension of living close to passion and death simultaneously creates urgency in these quiet poems. They are not boisterous and full of outlandish syntax or a range of poetic forms, but the range of stories about gifted tailor grandfather and a worldly teacher named Thornton and other family members are unearthed by the granddaughter who discovers the history that is absent from textbooks. "Contraband," which is the last section, serves a reminder that black people in America were not allowed to have or do certain things. Contraband seems to resonate closely with this reminder in "Book Smart," the only poem in which Dungy mentions the term: "To worship with intellect, /where intellect was contraband, proved faith (70)."

Such figures might be considered modest by people who would expect poems about musicians and artists, such as John Coltrane, Bessie Smith, Muhammad Ali or Kevin Young's Jelly Roll on Jelly Roll Morton and To Repel Ghosts on Jean Michel Basquiat. Dungy even juxtaposes O.J. Simpson against Jack Johnson by comparing their urge to speed in two poems. In "How It Happened," Simpson seeks to run with "disappearing legs and arms more secure than God's." Jack Johnson pays a $50 ticket twice in "Here's $100, Cause I'll Be Coming Back the Other Way." He is speeding upon arrival to his destination so he pays another $50 in advance to speed back home. "There are men you can stop, some you can slow, but I'm neither (53)," Johnson insists. Instead of making well-known characters the focus of her book, there is an impression that these characters were brought up in the conversations of the family household, and like this family, O.J. Simpson and Jack Johnson attempt to circumvent the limitations imposed by race.

Most of this book consists of variations on sonnets by using 14-line poems in a varying stanza breaks and no traditional rhyme schemes. Some formalists might argue that there is not the sense of control to call these sonnets. Upon close reading, such a staunch critic would clearly see that there is a tightly woven basket that holds the burdens of racism that told successful black people to "stay in their place." Such a place was presumed to be pre-ordained for black people. When Dungy closes with the title poem, a crown of sonnets shows how all of these poems are vines of the same plant, rooted in varying soils of the American landscape.

In the final sonnet, the speaker states, "only now, in spring, can the place be named." Such a line eloquently points back to the title that poisonous, nutritious and restorative plants can be found in the same forest. In Dungy's What To Eat, What to Drink and What to Leave for Poison, spring returns to reclaim lessons that can be gleaned from history to find what is lovable, healthy and admirable about the past.

–Tara Betts, Pembroke Magazine

Support Red Hen