Sizzling Happy Family
The mother and father
who brought me into this life on the cusp of the Crab and the Lion
to eat. They line up their dozens of pills on the formica
counter and swallow them
with over-diluted orange juice concentrate. When we visit, I find nothing
for dinner but three frozen chicken
pot pies. I take my two children grocery-shopping and cook for all of us
my own bastard version of Sizzling
Happy Family, the ancient Chinese meal of pork, chicken, beef, and seafood
with vegetables. My wife and I eat no meat, so I sauté tiger shrimp and garlic,
summer squash, red peppers, asparagus, snow peas, and Maine
mussels with bunches
of cilantro and purple basil chopped. I season it with coarse sea salt
ground pepper, and serve it with a pyramid of corn on the cob picked
that day. My mother
and father stare at this steaming platter of smells and colors
harvested from the earth
and ocean, cooked for them in desperation and hunger
by one of their two
middle-aged sons. Slowly, tentatively, they help
to this strange food. My mother picks up a mussel in its shell
like an iris in late April to reveal its blue-and-white-enameled
She teases out the plump sexual meat and chews its tender
saltiness. My father
reaches for the corn, then spears asparagus and shrimp together
on the tines
of his trembling fork. “Remember,” he turns to my mother, “Napoli,
the little tratoria
where we ate linguini with artichoke hearts, and how we saw
octopi hung on clotheslines
with the day’s wash?” My mother holds up a sunburst of squid
like a wild wedding ring
and stuffs it whole into her mouth. “Yes,” she replies, “and the red table wine
cheap as water
and us on Pegasus, our Harley, cruising down the Costa Brava
after the war
past the entire Third Army on maneuvers, all those catcalls!” They laugh
together and have forgotten
us. Sixty years slip like an avalanche from their shoulders. It is
They live on kisses and calamari, tasting everything
the waiter puts
before them—seviche, its raw scallops, onions, and green peppers
over which my father squeezes
lime juice bright and astringent as sunlight, then fritto misto. Keep eating,
I want to tell them. Remember
how hungry you are for all of this. Belch. Throw down the napkins
stained with the prints
of your lips. Order coffee and the pears with rum. Have them flame it.
Don’t leave the table. Not yet.
-from My Father Says Grace
BIO: Donald Platt is the author of Dirt Angels (New Issues Press, 2009), My Father Says Grace (Arkansas University Press, 2007), Cloud Atlas (Purdue University Press, 2002), and Fresh Peaches, Fireworks, & Guns (Purdue University Press, 1994). His honors include the Discovery/The Nation Poetry Prize, the Paumanok Poetry Prize, two Verna Emery Poetry Prizes, and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at Purdue University and lives in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Say What? Poet Donald Platt Interviews Himself
He would like to note that the “self interview” is a fairly new form inaugurated, as nearly as he can ascertain, by James Dickey in his Self-Interviews published in 1970. However, poets have been reviewing their own books at least since Walt Whitman’s over-the-top comments on the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. His “self-celebration,” however, turned out to be more than justified. But here let the reader beware. Cave poetam!
Self: O.K., my first question for you about My Father Says Grace is “Say what?” Why did you choose that title?
Poet: Well, actually, my wife chose that title. The book officially has had six titles. They are, in chronological order of being considered, then discarded, Earthly Ideas, Ground Transport, After, Essential Tremors, Red Door, and One Word for Everything in the World. By the sixth go-round, I was getting desperate. Because I, like many poets, tend to be obsessive-compulsive, I spent days going through the manuscript line by line in a vain attempt to find a phrase that had the right resonance. This madness of method produced such “doozies” as The Daily Task God Gives to the Dead and All That Commotion. I knew it was time to seek professional help and turned to my wife, Dana Roeser, who also happens to be a poet. She looked at the table of contents for about five minutes, then said, “Why don’t you call it My Father Says Grace?”
Her suggestion stuck. Though that title is supremely ironic, given the narrative related in the title poem, the book does seem to be searching for grace as it looks point-blank at old age, suffering, death—the three horrific aspects that the young Buddha saw as characterizing our mutable world. My father is saying grace, though all that comes out of his mouth are a stroke victim’s aphasiac nonsense.
Self: Who or what is your muse?
Poet: Though this statement may sound weird, I’ve often thought of my younger brother, born with severe Down syndrome, as my muse. Growing up with a “retarded” brother in a family that never talked about his disability affected me profoundly. Sibling rivalry, guilt, grief, and pity got all mixed together. I felt I had to compensate for his inability to speak. You might look at the poem “Ash Wednesday” to get one version of this conflicted identification. Of course, when my father developed Alzheimer’s and had a debilitating stroke, he also became a mute muse as he approached my brother’s state of being “out of mind,” meaning of limited mental capacities but also forgotten by most of society. I suspect that my brother has become for me a “sign,” as the post-structuralist theorists like to say, of the brokenness of the world, but also of survival in it.
Self: What’s up with form in your poems? Almost all the poems use tercets that alternate long and short lines? Why? Is this formal “tic” also OCD?
Poet: Definitely OCD! I’ve been using this line almost exclusively for the past eighteen years. The long and short lines seem to enable both narrative expansion and lyric contraction within one stanza. Partly, I like the “look” of the stanza on the page, so there’s an aspect that appeals to a visual, even painterly, aesthetic. The stanza has a “shapeliness,” if you will. Even though it’s a free verse structure, I’m counting beats, six to eight stresses usually in the longer lines, one to three in the shorter lines. I should say that some readers find the line breaks completely arbitrary and “private.”
Self: How did you develop that form or “shape” for your poems?
Poet: The first poem that I wrote in that “shape” was called “Untitled.” It appears in my first book Fresh Peaches, Fireworks, & Guns and describes, among other things, the motion of surf against a shoreline. The ocean’s repetitive “in and out” rhythms seemed to suggest this form. However, more importantly, I was reading closely C.K. Williams’s poems in Tar and liked the way that his long lines had to be printed with short, indented run-overs because they wouldn’t fit the usual trim size of poetry books. Those short “lines,” which weren’t technically lines, had for me great energy juxtaposed with the longer lines. I thought I’d try writing lines with run-overs “on purpose.” I looked at the result, one large paragraph with zigzagging margins, liked it, but also found it too “heavy” and “blocky.” Then I thought I should try dividing the “block” into shorter stanzas, to “aerate” it. Couplets seemed dull. I still remember the thrill when I marked off tercets with a ruler and saw how that reversing form took over: long, short, long; then short, long, short. Each stanza was the inside-out version of the preceding one. In The Anxiety of Influence (a much maligned book at present, I think), Bloom speaks of “creative misprision,” a generative misreading of an older poet by a younger one. I hadn’t yet read Bloom, but it seems in retrospect that my form came directly out of such a “creative misprision.” I discovered later that Jimmy Schuyler uses the alternation of long and short lines within his forty-page, single-stanza poems, “The Morning of the Poem” and “A Few Days.” I was infatuated with him for many years, still am.
Self: What horror stories can you tell us about putting a book together?
Poet: Two spring immediately to mind, in addition to “title angst.” I’ve grown into the habit of not using poet friends as readers since it seems like an imposition to be always asking someone to critique another poem, let alone a whole book. Self-reliance is, I used to think along with Emerson, a good thing. But I rightly did not trust my judgment on ordering My Father Says Grace. So I showed it to both Dana and my old friend Bruce Beasley. Both were unsatisfied with the ending, a good poem about Janis Joplin, because it didn’t return to the images of family that open the book. Bruce suggested ending with “Ground Transport,” which had been in the final position in an earlier version. I knew he was right and switched the order around on the morning I sent the book to the publisher in its final form. Making such a large change at the last possible moment was nerve-wracking. But, actually, this isn’t a horror story at all! It simply underlines the obvious point that most writers need good readers who can critique their work.
Self: What’s the other horror story?
Poet: It has to do with cover art. For My Father Says Grace I had my heart set on The Spoonful of Milk, a gouache painted by Chagall in 1912. It shows an old Jewish man reading a holy book, probably the Old Testament, at a kitchen table and being fed a spoonful of milk by his wife. Art historians explain that if one is old and sick, it is permissible for a Jew to have a little milk on a day of fasting. The image seemed to resonate poignantly with my title and included the figures of a father and mother, both important subjects in my book. The colors, as with most of Chagall, vibrate off the canvas in shock waves. It is an extraordinary piece, even in a reproduction.
I found the image in a 1985 exhibition catalog that listed it as belonging to a “private collector.” When I contacted the museum, they kindly forwarded my letter to the collector, who wished to remain anonymous. A month later, I received a note from his landlady in Basel, Switzerland, saying that he had moved away fifteen years ago. However, she did give me his name. But the trail went cold. No one I contacted had heard of Paul Hangïi. And no one had a color transparency of the gouache, which we needed to produce the cover. So I had to find the owner and convince him to have a transparency made. Finally, Christie’s auction house told me to contact the Comité Marc Chagall in Paris.
The Comité is a group of Chagall experts who, while generally promoting his art, also help authenticate genuine Chagalls from the proliferating forgeries. Meret Meyer, the wonderful woman whom I contacted there, told me that Paul Hangïi was dead, but that she knew a gallery owner who knew one of his daughters. She contacted the gallery owner, who got in touch with the daughter. At last, we were getting somewhere. The daughter replied that another daughter actually owned the piece, but they were not on speaking terms. She volunteered, nevertheless, to contact her sibling. When she did, the other daughter told the first that she would sue her if she gave out any contact information. A beautiful image by Chagall has simply dropped out of circulation because of a family feud!
Luckily, I had a backup, Picasso’s The Blind Man’s Meal from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “Not a bad runner-up,” as Larry Malley, the director of the University of Arkansas Press, remarked. I guess the moral of the story is that, if possible, one should always have a title and several pieces of cover art lined up before production begins.
Self: One last question for my interview with you, dear poet! You’re obviously interested in writing political poems that address such subjects as racism, war, and sexuality. How can poetry approach such subjects without sounding polemical and didactic?
Poet: Now, self, I’m so glad you asked. For me, the thing that poetry must do absolutely is to find some fresh angle that no one has used before in working with such fraught material. A lyric poem is so small a vehicle with which to tackle so large a subject as history. But there’s great excitement in the enterprise. The lyric poem is generically designed to be a beautifully wrought object, and history is rarely beautiful. In addition, poetry’s love of metaphor can leach the horror out of history. These are the technical problems that “come with the territory.” So one must always be looking around one for a fresh approach to the political subject. In my poem “Amazing Grace Beauty Salon” the fact that the black and white races have different ways of cutting their differently textured hair is a concrete “angle” from which to address the vexed question of race in America. Near its end the poem says, “Hair grows. It must be cut.” In a poem or essay whose title I forget, Adrienne Rich says that a whole culture is made visible in how a girl braids her hair. She’s right, of course. Similarly, Ammons in his book-length poem Garbage finds a subject, a metaphor, to get at the underside, downside, or buried side of American consumer culture. Poets should be on the lookout for the concrete subject that will illuminate. Or rather, as I suspect the case really is, it’s the concrete subjects that are waiting patiently for their poets to find them.