Poetry We Admire: Diners


One of the earliest tricks I learned was to add a little soy sauce into the salad dressing, mixing it in an old jam jar with a teaspoon whose luster had faded with age and in there also was english mustard, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, honey, and usually that would be enough to work a little magic into the night.

There were other tricks, of course. I’d get homesick and buy a loaf of sourdough to heat in the oven while I let the chicken stock and tomato sauce simmer on the stove, paring potatoes, carrots, and onions and tipping them into the stew with cubes of beef, songs of leonard cohen and me crooning all the while, the apartment grew warm.

I’ve been living with Eric for eight months now and he knows a trick, not unlike mine with the goulash and the dressing, where he can cook absolutely anything. 

It’s a good one, it’s only annoying sometimes, he makes his own hummus and oat milk and lately he’s been experimenting with pita bread. It’s all very daunting and inspirational, depending on the part of me that’s winning out.

And then felix, who came to visit and made cucumber sandwiches, austerity nostalgia, he said, and I thought about the line at the end of Joe’s book where he imagines his father, alive, reclining into arms that love him and eating a tomato and mayonnaise sandwich and i went out and bought the ingredients and i made one for myself.

Once, i remembered, on-the-vine juices on my chin, I walked in on my father making the quiche he’d cook for us every now and then and he was halfway through scooping his secret ingredient into the baking dish, the entirety of a Best Foods 12 oz. mayonnaise jar. Until that moment no one had caught him doing it before. The disturbance of this peek behind the curtain & into the richness of the quiche, I maintain to this day, was part of the molting of my innocence. The nights he made it thereafter were the beginnings of my courtship to my hunger.

Originally I was going to assemble five poems set in diners, those third spaces of meeting and leaving. I thought of Andrea eating four of the dozen cookies I made in a single sitting “mm. Cookie,” he mumbles, I thought of Juli’s apricot bars, the crumbled texture of their surface that in my mind at least resemble the walls of a valley gorge, thought of my father, the biggest health food nut I know, dumping mayonnaise by the quarter-pound into a baking dish because he wanted his family to love what he’d made them. 

And the diners who eat what I’ve made them, and the diner I am when the food is made for me, those are the diners I love most.

And I love these poems. 

we could share

a corndog in the April dusk

outside the sun

from "we could cook meatballs for dinner"

by Adrija Ghosh in Bath Magg

“We could cook / meatballs for dinner, we could leave / the Delhi metro / violet line behind – / we could do taxes on an excel sheet…” Ghosh, in this poem, is doing something really interesting I didn’t notice on my first or even second reading. The recurrence of coulds throughout the piece pave the way for an open air of possibility to exist throughout the piece, and yet the world of the poem feels cloistered, narrow in its permutations. This, I think, is the result of the late capitalist reality the language of the poem finds itself caught up within — “squabbling / haggling / butchering / budgeting / in retail aisles.” Through the very idea of could, an engine of imaginative possibility, Ghosh subverts language and structures of oppression by revealing just how far short of the capitalist dream capitalist reality (always) falls.

I cut slapdash squares, dipped them in oil,

prayed they would pillow up and crust.

from "Making French Pastries for Rural Floridians"

by Julia McDaniel in Beloit Poetry Journal

There’s something not just of the camaraderie that comes with the busy hours, short breaks, and stress of working in the services industry in this poem, but also how, so often, the kind of closeness that those packed hours fosters can feed us in ways different and entirely unexpected. The truth of this poem, for me, lies in how effectively it takes me back to my own time in the industry, a place warm with proximity and punctuated, also, by pains dull and acute. I don’t want to say too much more about this wonderful poem, for fear of spoiling the thread it weaves, just that I’m grateful to have found it.

We are sitting in a bagel place in

Charlottesville, VA, still early in our

tour of in-fighting and bullshit.

from "Still Hungry"

by Alexa Vallejo in Swamp Pink

I love how this poem carves its rhythm and time out of two distinct movements, one between spaces, and the other between meals, such that the constant changes of this poem become the consistent feature we as readers rely on to anchor us. And between these moving frames a voice emerges, as if a presence glimpsed behind passing train cars, the strength and sureness of which lingers in the mind well after the poem has ended. To extract just one gem, “Dysfunction reigns, even at our feasts.” What a piece.

Plump, gleaming–like the plucked eyes

of a black bear–so dark

they hoard the morning light.

from "My Mother is Patient with Plums"

by Josh Tvrdy in New England Review

Admittedly, earlier in my writing, I can’t help myself, I paraphrased the ninth line of this delightful poem, “a streak of juice escaping down her chin,” or, at least, it was on the mind when I wrote of eating on-the-vine tomatoes. I think there is something so brave about poems that linger for their entire duration upon a single action carried out by another, especially something that might, without concentration or awe or whatever combination of those makes love, otherwise go unnoticed. Of course, the poems have to be beautiful or they won’t succeed. I think of Natalie Diaz’s “I Watch Her Eat The Apple,” because it also is so focused, so beautiful. And I think, also, that what I like best about this poem is its understanding of itself: “love” isn’t written once, between the couplets there’s hardly a blink, it doesn’t need to be.

what violence

brought you there,

you and all

that food 

from everywhere

"Bad Bear"

by Matthew Zapruder in American Poetry Review

Invariably when the lines are short throughout like they are here my mind goes to James Schuyler, his poem, “The Bluet.” Zapruder here artfully leans into the imagery and symbolism of the natural world to criticize what increasingly as the years progress we seem to grow stranger from, that is, what’s wild and out of doors and allowed to continue to grow. Maybe, more considerately, “Bad Bear” reminds me, as who doesn’t forget, of the sweetness of the world, and of my luck to live in a time of so many wonderful poems.

Benjamin Bartu