Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I am the Walrus of Michigan

I hate to say this out loud, but I read a lot of poetry that makes me want to read less poetry. But when I find someone I really adore, I am loyal. Perhaps even stubbornly loyal. Yesterday on Poetry Daily, www.poems.com, Bob Hicok's poem, "Watchful" reminded me of why I am a loyal reader of poetry. It's like listening to music on a radio station you know might have some good songs, but for some reason hasn't been playing any of them. Sure, you could turn on your i-pod or put in a CD, but you don't. You just stay tuned and just about when you tell yourself you really are silly to still be listening to this station, something finally plays. And you want to stop the car, even if you are driving on the expressway. You want to savor the music and you want to savor the moment you are having savoring the music. Such is this poem or most poems by Bob Hicok. Please check it out. Check him out, he's from Michigan and didn't have a degree until after he had four books of poetry. He's both stunningly funny and stark in his insight. I'll say it again, I am a loyal fan.

With this said, I feel shy to post a recent poem I've been working on, yet perhaps under the tall balding shadow of Bob Hicok the Michigander, I too can try to be a poetic voice for Michigan. Maybe someday, Bob and I could bring back the ever popular campaign our home state had so aptly titled, "Say Yes, to Michigan!" Frankly, I am not sure what we were suppose to be saying yes to? Say yes to the Great Lakes, sure. Say yes to Vernors, double sure. Say yes to the U.P. yup. Say yes to unemployment and shadowed Detroit, not so sure.

You see, my feelings of poetry are very similar to how I feel about Michigan. I am loyal, stubbornly loyal to writing poetry and to the state where I was born, raised and educated in. Yet I find myself not fully able to "Say Yes, to Michigan" and well to say yes to poetry, all the time. For now, in Montana with a lot of flat grass and rock between me and Michigan, I long for lakes and the light of spring in thick birch-oak forests and the smell of wet earth unfolding. But sometimes you just have to write a lot of bad poems to work at one good line of poetry just like maybe you have to live a lot of places to work at your loyalty to where you were born. As I live far from Michigan and write poems about my home, I find myself finally being able to adore the state.

I've never been one for watching sports and I truly don't understand rooting for teams on television, but it is how I feel when I hear of any positive news about Michigan. As if I am cheering from the sidelines for this state that seems to be making headlines as Hicok has said as, "the poster child for our recession." And maybe it has been, with a 24% unemployment rate and a long list of disappointments in the auto industry, Michigan could be photographed on your milk carton. But in the Michigan of my mind, it is beautiful, broad in changing landscapes and there is always water, a "water winter wonderland" ( another more poetic campaign slogan).

And so, I give you this poem, Michigan. I am sure there will be plenty more, I hope. And maybe this is just a clumsy poem to hopefully get closer to writing a good one someday. But I give this to you as a token for all the time I spent staring at your water and dreaming of myself as coming from another state, somewhere not so in the middle. But I thank you, Michigan, for teaching me to accept what we are. We are middleWest. And even if we see ourselves as walruses, may we be beautiful in our seal suits.

(Please note: there aren't any walruses in the Great Lakes. Despite the questions I used to field from tourists who would ask, "Are these shrimp fresh from Lake Michigan?" Sorry, just lakes of fresh water.)

Enjoy the poem.

The Walrus in Us

Winter houses gulp people whole

like a broad mouthed whale, curtained teeth

and chimneyed tails, beached in drifts of snow

and stale forced air. Most days, not even mail

brings relief, just pages of catalog-fresh strangers

smiling barefoot on a distant shore. You forget

your feet on sand, now slippered fins you walk

as horse whale. Your body, walrused in months

of winter, sinks in the ocean of your youth.

So you build a raft from scraps of summer,

where you want to live as winged instead

of pinniped. No longer couched to routine, you float

and crest over waves of middle age, sprouting

grey hair, until you hear a choir barking

in tune and find yourself comfortable in a seal suit

looking zoo cute, even with long whiskers.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Som Tom For Spring

Last week, we had spring. It was a lovely day. I spent it with a shy crocus while I ate lunch outside jacketed out of the wind and under the budding sun. I think the crocus was smart not to bloom quite yet for winter returned and suddenly spring went white again. That nature, it sure is smart.

Unlike me, who quickly found my feet again and boxed up my boots and found my flip flops to click around the house. But that was that one day last week and now we are back to slippers and warm oats for breakfast and a drizzle of honey instead of the sun.

And so we March on in March where we have time changes and spring dated to arrive, but the flip flopping of winter to spring and back again continues. It's as if we are in seasonal limbo when we get these glimpses of green, a bold mud puddle pushing away ice and even the faint smell of earth under melting snow. And yet we must carry on, still layered. We tell ourselves we love oatmeal and woolen hats after all these months while catalogs start to arrive with tanned people all dressed in their catalog-fresh beachwear on "holiday." Maybe you even pass people at work who find it cute to say, "Aloha". No, not so cute.

So perhaps you are like me and you're not going on vacation to some palmed destination and cannot seem to muster a love for anything baked or roasted while you tell yourself you are not deep in cabin or suburbian fever. No, you are simply bored with even your favorite late winter recipes and cannot seem to muster a sense of cravings. You know you want something fresh, something with a pale shade of green. Something with the hint of coconut on your tongue. This Thai salad might not solve any seasonal limbo malaise, but it certainly helped me.

Last week, the day spring came, we also had Thai week at our cooking school and this salad developed from some ingredients we special ordered; however, I'd like to think you too could find some of these even if it isn't Thai week in your world. Perhaps you could invent some type of week for yourself and come up with something even more creative such as a week dedicated to the coconut. Or maybe "everything has gone galangal". Instead of the adage of when in Rome for a week of Italian food, why not make it "when in Cambodia?" Something off the mark, but close enough.

For example, I taught a group of Indian priests, who told me that they didn't have Valentine's day in India, but a day loosely translated as, "The Day I think of You as my Sister." Frankly, I don't think anything got lost in translation, rather a better idea developed. Such is true with this recipe. It calls for green papaya, but if you cannot find it you could use cucumber instead. The important part is to get the flavors of the tangy sweet well deserved vacation in your mouth from anything melted or mashed.

This simple dish called Som Tom in Thai is, according to one food blogger who traveled through Thailand, a favorite among Thai ladies. Maybe I should call it, "My Spring Salad I would serve to my Sister if she could come over for Lunch." Whatever you call it, I hope you make it. Enjoy.

Simple Som Tom

1 Thai chile (these are really hot, you could use a small red chile for color and they are a bit milder in heat than the green ones)
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup lime juice, freshly squeezed limes
2 tablespoons fish sauce
4 tablespoons palm sugar
(you could use brown sugar instead)
1 pound green papaya, julienne
1/4 cup bean sprouts
1/4 cup toasted coconut
1/2 cup toasted peanuts

1. In a small bowl, add the chile, garlic, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar and mix well until the sugar dissolves.
2. In a large bowl, add papaya, bean sprouts and coconut and mix well.
3. Add dressing to papaya mixture and blend to coat. Add peanuts last and mix well.

Enjoy your food vacation.