Reviewed by Elvis Alves
by Jen Karetnick
White Violet Press
Paperback: 98 pages, September 10, 2014, ISBN-13: 978-0692277768
Jen Karetnick’s Brie Season reminds us that food is life and life is food. The pages of this collection is littered with odes to the art of cooking and eating. The poems remind us of the joy that is food. Karetnick reinforces this understanding by aligning food with mundane items. In this way, we become aware of the specialness inherent in what we eat.
Grapes become basketball nets, “The grapes hung like the long-gone net, a single bunch the ball would sometimes graze but not dislodge” (Hang Time, 16), and the menu is a language unto itself, “regardless of country or sense, and because I can find them all in one book. With such worldly fluency I speak menu! With what delicious conceit!” (European Menu Reader, 35).
The stronger poems, the ones that I gravitate to the most, equate food with familial heritage and place of importance.
…Lower East Side Jews who traded one ghetto for another.
They sold garlic pickles to each other, baked bialys in borrowed ovens,
street food my Hebrew School class munched on during the annual
Ellis Island field trip… (At the Holocaust Memorial, 26).
The above was conjured by a visit to a museum. It says that food ties us to culture, gives identity, and ensures survival. These themes are further explored in other poems like Tomatoes (86) and Farm Share (92). In these two poems (and others in the collection), Karetnick talks about her New Jersey roots and its role in her love of food (even though she is now located in Miami).
For myself, it was corn, silky strands from white Jersey ears falling
like the collie’s hair on the driveway, husks (and later, cobs) leftover
for the raccoons and skunks to discover (Farm Share, 92).
The poem ends with a mother and daughter shelling peas, “the keepers of curiosity at our fingertips, the casing of tradition at our feet” (92). The shelling, whose broader reach is that of cooking, is something that the two participate in with the hope that future generations would do the same.
Drinks, too, show up in the poems. They are colorful and their flavors are described in ways that make you want to imbibe them, should the opportunity present itself. From a piece titled Citrus Amnesty Bin, Miami International Airport, 2008, “Give me your pummelo, your ortanique, blood orange from Seville, their rind silent…” (19) and “Save the Sazerac, bring back the absinthe frappe, say that’s Amaro, amore—the future is bitters. Discuss their length” (Tales of the Cocktails, 32).
Karetnick repeats phrases in some of the poems. This is done in a playful yet serious way. This is seen in Advice for a Lady With a Market Basket, where, among other things, we are told that “Brilliant skins are indications of ripeness” (13). In A Paradelle for Pappardelle Bolognese, the first two lines are “To eat requires a receptive mouth, enough teeth” (74). Karetnick seems to say in these tautological pieces that advice for cooking and eating are worth repeating in order to be sufficiently instilled in one’s memory. After all, cooking is a repetitive art that one becomes better at doing the more one does it. It is also the case that the child sent to the store by his mother is told repeatedly, even with note in hand, about the items to get as if much depends on him getting this correct. This is how we are introduced to the importance of food from a young age. For an artful reminder, pick up and savor Karetnick’s work.
About the reviewer: Elvis Alves is the author of the poetry collection Bitter Melon (Mahaicony Books, 2013). Find out more at www.poemsbyelvis.blogspot.com