‘The Flavor of The Other’
Dos Madres Press
The poems in ‘The Flavor of The Other’ explore the sense of other: other home(s), other places, other identities, particularly with regard to migration, the other roles that children take on in gaining independence from the family unit, the negotiation that occurs when a girl becomes a woman and then a mother herself. The poems move from communist Romania to New York. As the title suggests, food is a recurring motif, in Portocale, set in Romania in 1985 and using the Romanian for orange as the title,
‘The smell tickles the roof of my mouth. Mother smiles and starts peeling. Her agile long fingers, soaked with juice, run across the white flesh of the fruit. The grainy rind coils on her lap like a baby snakeskin. Mamaia stares over her thick rims while her hands keep up the purring sound of knitting socks. The orange blooms into fleshy petals on the plate, and all three of us gaze at its layered pulp. Eyes half closed, we taste the twinned heart of the fruit’
The orange is a treasure. Although the comparison with ‘snakeskin’ is about texture, the metaphor ‘baby snakeskin’ reduces any sense of threat. It’s notable that grandmother is eyeing up the fruit but waiting for mother to finish peeling it. There’s enough for each to have their share, even though it’s a rare treat. ‘Skin is one way of knowing’ the fruit is a peach,
‘the ripeness of the peach
before sinking teeth into flesh,
the sidewalk melting
under the weight of the sun,
rain, before April becomes May,
kisses goodbye, kisses hello,
trees fumbling to pluck the sky,’
There’s a sense of exploration and reaching out to learn in testing the peach for ripeness, the heat of summer, April turning to May and trees growing leaves. The innocence of childhood is ripening into adulthood, shaped by experience and experiment, and those childhood experiences are carried into adulthood as May can’t happen until after April, trees can’t grow without sun and rain. Childhood lessons carried through life is looked at in, ‘Things My Mother Brought to Life’,
‘I slip the key string around my neck.
Mother crocheted it while waiting
in line for milk. Instead, four oranges.
‘Do we save them for Christmas?’
Mother’s back cracked like an old bed.
In the street, linden trees are in bloom.
We pick their flower and dry it on
the little balcony. For sore throat
and finding your way back.
Their pollen numbs all heartbeat.’
The substitution of oranges for milk is not unusual to draw comment but the child knows not to pounce on them while they’re still fresh but wait until mother has decided whether they should be eaten now or kept. Not only is the queue for basic foodstuffs lengthy, a long wait is common if mother is prepared enough to bring croquet. It also raises the question of what chores get left if a mother is spending that length of time queuing. Linden flowers are used in herbal trees to sooth sore throats and reduce fevers. Small doses can help with heart palpitations, although anyone with a heart condition is recommended to avoid using linden flowers because a standard dosage hasn’t been established. The last line, then, could be a warning or could be the lack of compassion in a societal structure that can’t provide a ready supply of basic foodstuffs.
The child in the earlier poems grows into an adult with children of her own. In ‘An Afterthought’, ‘I’ve raised a son in your absence,/ my roots have turned white/ and there is still a continent between us’, the continent could be literal (Europe/America) but also a reflection on the need for the child to separate from her mother to attain adulthood. Raising her son brings its own challenges, after reassuring a young child monsters don’t exist, in ‘Motherhood ‘
‘I want to shield. Gut wrenching.
Midmorning, I find him
crawled at my feet,
my own hands turned
into numb fists.
We had both succumbed
to all nightly creatures.
French toast for my brave boy?’
Although son’s and mother’s monsters are different, there’s a sense of trying to reassure a child and sooth anxieties while carrying the load of responsibility for another which brings anxieties too. ‘Migratory’ explores why migrants don’t go back,
‘Why should the exiled go back?
Even if there is a country, a heart,
a spring to find awaiting.
The mother tongue is tissue-borne,
a place of inwardness and smoldering fire.
Yet, the path back seems barely findable,
no crumbles, no flags, no undersongs.’
If a migrant goes back to their birth country, it’s unlikely to be the same country they left. The changes and lack of familiarity leave migrants feeling cast adrift, regardless of whether leaving improved their personal situation. Each of us carries a sense of needing to belong. A migrant is caught between wanting to belong in their new country and grief for their point of origin. That sense is further explored in ‘Displacement’,
‘My friend Juan tells me
my accent gets thicker
when my mind wanders off
and I speak of familiar food,
my people or music.
Romanian words are nostalgic and ripen.
My longing spirals down
this invisible burrow’
If the narrator’s accent gets thicker when she talks of Romanian things, that implies she’s changed or lightened her accent to settle into New York in an attempt to fit in. ‘Juan’ has Spanish origins suggests her friend is a descendant of immigrants and perhaps more understanding of her plight than others. The poem continues,
‘and I’ve learned to live in halves.
New York is a city of disappearance,
a honeycomb of human mirrors,
air filled with calls going unanswered,
traffic gods favoring honking metal
to warm-bloodied walking flames.
When I roam its streets, coiling and uncoiling,
I try to remember from the other life
and its flavor fuels my steps.’
‘Flavor’ here is ambiguous, it could be that the narrator is remembering why she left and needs to fit in here or could be that she’s using the eyes of an ‘other’ to observe and reflect on the oddities in everyday life that New Yorkers would find unremarkable.
‘The Flavor of the Other’ is a successful exploration of ‘othering’, through two worlds, New York and Romania, through childhood and adulthood experiences and through the separation of child and mother as child becomes adult and independent. The poems show restraint, allowing the reader to interpret and explore what’s unsaid or what’s meant. That demonstrates a quiet confident that the poet doesn’t feel the need to become didactic or push the reader to a specific conclusion. Flavor gives the collection both its theme and framework giving the poems a coherence.