To the Bone by Sebastian Agudelo
(Saturnalia Books, Philadelphia, 2009)
Teacher and word gourmet, Sebastian Agudelo, has a lot to instruct and tempt us with in his poetry collection, To the Bone. He offers us poems that tease the palate, taunt the taste buds, and yet make our own wants and hungers disgusting to us at the same time. This book of poems is broken into three sections in which food is love and hate, war and peace, and breathtaking and horrific at the same time. In section one, the reader is thrown into the back kitchens and alleys of swanky restaurants that serve “adobo-crusted tuna” or “lamb in grape leaves” from the palms of a demanding “Chef” and “barbarian” dishwasher. At one turn we see solemnity and prayer before the meal, and at another bend we are faced with “the chemical stench of fires.” A shorter section two gets nearer to the bottom of the bowl. Here we don’t forget food, but now we are also faced with aging, sadness in daily work, and a poignant humor that the author seems to find in life. Finally, in section three, Wallace Stevens and Vallejo among others appear, along with perhaps the most interesting poem, “Sustenance,” in which the speaker’s wife attends a Lamaze class where the women wonder about, of all things, what should happen to their afterbirths. Agudelo leaves a reader feeling wonder, lust, disgust, and even shame.
In the end, there are some images that I wish I hadn’t read in To the Bone. The dying pigeon in the back alley dumpster that found its way into discarded kitchen oil will probably haunt me for quite a while. But there are also long well-crafted sentences that make a writer marvel in the sheer luxuriance of it all. In “The Smell of Cooking,” Agudelo writes:
Then like some riddle moving through clues,
the cooks worked down to fowl, goose,
duck, squab, all plucked and de-boned
and seasoned also, all waiting for
the smaller animal inside, till all there was
was tern or sparrow, something small enough
to cradle a white truffle and the cooks
proceeded to truss each cavity and roast
the whole concoction days on end.
And there are beautiful (yet sinister) character sketches of men like the dishwasher who becomes an ancient Roman or Greek barbarian in one poem. For that matter, to appreciate food, perhaps one must be global and historically minded in his or her experience as Agudelo’s poems certainly are. There is the gross appetite of America bumping up against “the temple kingdoms of medieval India” and “tandooris down on Chestnut.” Even where there is no luxury in the travel, the language still remains lush. When looking at 17th century art, Agudelo sees,
no scarlet drapes to backdrop leisure,
no maps to hem the territory which
parceled and torn bought the cloth
for the drapes, gold for the filigree
and time to flirt and serenade.
The same meticulous craftsmanship found here is shown in the many lists that make up the book’s poems. In “Surveillance,” you can’t stop reading down the page when you find couplets like,
It can’t be that bad, to Amaru and Henry
his underlings, he’s left the counters, sideboards,
the casework in the cigar bar. No pulidora
for that, just rag and chemicals, just fingering
each fluted keystone, each domed shell,
brassoing the pulls, the hinges, the latch,
polishing the marble tops, till morning
when the place will gleam enough,
Martha will joy stick her cameras trying
to angle out the reflections that saunter
like inverted wet ghosts on her screens.
And on the subject of form, this book serves up quite the banquet. Rarely do we find two poems that look similar. On one page there are these jagged couplets and on another very clean quatrains. In a way, it’s like reading a poetry primer. Each page offers us a new lesson in line breaks, alliteration, stanzas, or similes and metaphors. A reader has no choice but to slow down and savor lines like:
Theoretical and practical, he’d call the furrow
and plant the beaten peasants there to turn over
stony substratum for surface clod, add morning
fog rising and tugging them through the acreage
a whole valley, till dusk, when the sacerdotal order
of the bottle doffed its investitures and let the secret
scripture of the waning moon, the public river
roll of their tongue.
Then, just when you think you get a break from the hard work of untangling a verse, Agudelo hits you with an Italian sonnet variation as in “Expulsion.”
If the punishment was to make ends meet
then they have the whole classified page,
can circle management, service, the stage,
and suck the free-market of its sweets.
If sweating’s what it was really about,
the range spewing hundred eighty thousand
BTU’s combined should be plenty to amend
and still the cook shows up, clocks in and out.
If when the fruit gave in, knowledge leached
like gossip from overripe neighbors on stoops,
why didn’t the dark or dirty secrets teach
a master plan, the news of how to reach
success, identify the breaks and loop-
holes, tell why the wayward don’t get rich?
Here is a restaurant you must return to. It’s so good that you don’t care if the cook is spitting in your soup or thousands of dollars of caviar is rotting in the fridge. These are poems that are just dark and twisty enough to make us hold on tight. We lurk alongside a brilliant narrator who watches from the wings. A narrator who waits and scrutinizes the world and the characters in it and who is not afraid to judge.
One idea I did expect to see return was a statement found in the very first poem. Agudelo writes about the state of poetry,
Poets of the 1890’s got high on opium
drunk on absinthe, just to read the shimmer
spume, and fluorescence of a worn-out world.
Poets now will diet on bizarre produce.
Is this a lament? Or is it an acceptance of fact? Which type of poet does Agudelo want to be? I’m left wondering if this book is an attempt to bring back the beauty or wallow in the den. In any case, To the Bone is worth reading if for nothing more than the bizarre question found in the poem “Sustenance”: “what happens to all that?”
Amanda Reynolds received an MFA in poetry from the University of Florida and a PhD in poetry from Florida State University. She currently lives in and writes poetry about Pittsburgh, PA and teaches at Slippery Rock University. She has recently published work in journals such as Gargoyle, Mississippi Crow, and Gander Mountain Review.