Review | Taste of Cherry, by Kara Candito
University of Nebraska Press, 2009
Whoever said that a book should never be judged by its cover probably didn’t anticipate a design as primal and evocative as the one that graces Kara Candito’s debut volume, Taste of Cherry. One part allure, one part allusion, the iconic, ultra close-up photo of a luxuriously lashed and sapphire-shadowed eye, juxtaposed with some rather austere typeface in shades of white and red and gray, begs the reader/viewer to interpret, to parse, to make sense of the mysterious hieratic of intimacy and vulnerability, proximity and artifice that the words and image there convey.
Nearly a century ago, in his introduction to Hart Crane’s White Buildings, Allen Tate, discussing the processes whereby a writer discovers his or her true subject matter, observed, “The important contemporary poet has the rapidly diminishing privilege of reorganizing the subjects of the past. He must construct and assimilate his own.” If, as Tate later suggests, Crane’s work represents a selective concentration of Walt Whitman’s, the poetic “fragments” of a Whitmanian “myth,” it should come as no surprise that a distinctly postmodern figure like Candito, self-confessed heir to Crane’s particular brand of passionate delusion, might gather her own high-energy particles from any old pile of fissile material upon which she might happen to stumble.
Case in point: the 1997 film by Iranian auteur, Abbas Kiarostami, which inspired her volume’s title. Kiarostami’s minimalist film follows a man who drives through Tehran looking for someone who will assist with the disturbing task of burying him once he carries out his planned suicide. The protagonist, Mr. Badi (whose name, fortunately or unfortunately, rhymes with “body”), has already chosen a site and has dug his own grave. He simply needs someone to go there at a prearranged time, call out to him in order to confirm that his suicide attempt has been “successful,” and then do him the final courtesy of tossing twenty shovels of dirt over his remains.
As Badi picks up one passenger after another, relentlessly refusing to declare any specific reason for wanting to end his life but offering each, in their turn, a large sum of money, simply for helping him carry out his death wish, we witness a variety of human responses in the face of such inscrutable desire. A young Kurdish soldier and a solemn Afghani imam-in-training refuse the alarming request but, finally, a Turkish taxidermist, in need of cash to pay for the medical treatment of an ill grandchild, agrees to help. As they wend their way to the intended gravesite, the old Turk gently argues that life is precious and, in an effort to persuade our suicidal driver from a drastic course of action, the Turk confesses to Badi that he, too, once considered taking his own life.
He tells how, one night, years before, he took a length of rope and walked out into the middle of a mulberry orchard intending to hang himself. As he climbed into the branches to do the grim deed, he happened to crush a bunch of the ripe berries growing there. Startled at the sudden sticky moisture on his palm he drew his hand to his mouth and tasted the fruit. In that sweet sensation he found the resolve to keep on living. Later in the film, the old Turk uses the phrase “taste of cherry” as imagistic shorthand for the idea that life’s unexpected, sensuous pleasures actually have the power to save us, to help us realize that existence does make sense.
To make sense. . . Strange how, through the above synopsis, I’ve stumbled back to this idiom which has, built into it, the notion that reality, in order to be apprehended by human beings, must cross the boundary of our nervous systems somehow, get tangled up in our physiological responses, stimulate. This constant influx of energy is—naturally, empirically—modulated by the distance it has to travel to reach us. We see stars from light-years away. The rumble of thunder traces out its blue sphere of sound over miles. An arbor of roses in full blossom wafts perfume from a backyard three houses down the block. To taste even the ripest fruit, you must pluck it from its branch, break it open, savor it on the palate. Sometimes you have to climb the tree with the poet (or the filmmaker) to meet sensation halfway.
No matter which sensory pathway one privileges in navigating the darkly cosmopolitan spaces marked out by Candito’s poems, we enter her fraught lyrics, like we enter Kiarostami’s film, at a point well beyond the threshold ofin medias res. Her opening poem, “Self-Portrait with an Ice Pick,” only heightens this impression of psychic jolt as it situates the reader squarely in the realm of the ex post facto. A marriage has ended, or is certainly on the rocks (pun only slightly intended), judging by the “wedding band // left on the nightstand because betrayal was a tender / industry then; siempre its one urgent slogan.”
The slippage of denotation that the line break after “tender” makes possible, from the soft and delicate world of emotional characterizations into the realm of hard currency (however at odds these conceptual frames might seem), has been going on forever (or always as the Spanish more precisely intimates). The poem, existing at the crossroads of several of the world’s oldest professions, is a reminder. But just exactly when was the “then” so forcefully held in check here by the semicolon? Perhaps it is enough to realize that we are called upon to travel back in time with Candito’s narrator, at a moment’s notice, merely to observe a fleeting ripple on the surface of her present reflectivity, or that the poet is perfectly willing to rend the fabric of her own descriptions and dramatizations to give us a glimpse into the obsessively constellated musings which flesh out her speakers’ (un)consciousness.
In “The Soup and the Clouds,” a brief essay on the process of writing which she completed for the “Tracking the Muse” series in Blackbird, v8n1, Candito confesses: “I think my poetry works when it arrives somewhere beyond integrity, at the messy supper table of authentic experience.” But, even as Candito, the essayist and author of this sublime little manifesto on the poetics of cinéma vérité, nonchalantly tosses “integrity” out the window, Candito, the poet, is crafty enough to realize that any trade-offs made in the name of such authenticity are usually counterbalanced by the formal/musical discipline she employs to reel in her unruly subjects.
Composed in tercets woven together by threads of (mostly) internal assonance, Candito’s “Self-Portrait” exemplifies this effect. Scanning its initial stanzas for the poet’s high notes reveals the sturdy sonic backbone articulating this verse. The quickly shifting resonance of short and long vowels (“impact,” “taxi,” “happening”; “bile,” “blind,” “sign”; “shock,” “erotic,” “jostled”) draws us forward, past the discontinuities of the poet’s deliberately fractured narrative. When this music shifts tempo later, becoming a string of long A’s deployed across three of the poem’s final stanzas (“fate,” “truncated”; “phrase,” “breaking”; “pain,” “self-contained,” “daze”), it invites us to slow down, to test for lingering tackiness the fresh coat of red just painted all over this town through which the speaker drifts home, “past empty fruit crates and the . . . / frames of bikes still locked to street signs,” to arrive, with her, at the painfully lit threshold of another morning after.
A consummately urban poet, Candito prefers street scene to landscape. Still, the mash-up of travel writing and romantic lyric which preponderate in her opening section always manages to include some captivating observations of the human wildlife she has encountered. Thus, even as her “Notes for a Novice Flâneur” reveals her inner sybarite’s willingness to fall for the superficial grandeur of the window displays filled with Chanel scarves and dark chocolate sculptures of Christ, the animating spirit of her text aligns itself much more definitively with a figure from memory:
the runaway kid on the subway,
the one who grinned and told you that once, when he was
an altar boy in a southern town, he stole shopping bags
full of the Host and ran through the neighborhood tossing
wafers, scattering the sacrament on thresholds
and flagstones, over the windshields of parked cars and the tarps
covering propane grills—how he swears to this day
that all he wanted was to see the the whole street blessed.
And so the speaker (the poet?) winds up wonderfully abstracted and redeemed despite the lure of all that bling.
References to notes, postcards, and journal entries in the titles of these pieces allow them to don the rhetorical garb of the dashed-off to great tonal advantage, miming the flip charm of Frank O’Hara on his best lunch hours, even as they manage to brood a bit over a certain species of endangered love affair native to an amazing range of habitats from Sicily (“Surely, no one could fall out of love here,”) to Coconut Grove (“Call it caught on the wrong end / of long distance love. . .”), to Cairo (“Because I miss you, even as I try to efface you,. . .”).
This “love” which Candito’s throng of first- and second-person narrators contemplate is a signifier almost universally informed by (and often echoing provocatively through the same textual spaces with) the carnal acoustics of “fuck.” The vaguely disembodied sensibility thus sketched is, paradoxically, both clarified and distorted by the flash that accompanies the release of so much sexual energy. Thankfully, the poet issues helpful imperatives to encourage her reader’s best technique:
Try to think of all this as a seduction.
A tourist trap or attraction . . . the self’s stuttering
between the holy pornography of marketplace
and passing glance.
In her bravura, Candito jots a wrong number on the slip of paper which she tucks into the left hand of the angel at the bar; she orders another drink and ignores the insistent texting of the muse. She throws back the shot, neat, and embraces her duende. Like Hart Crane, Rimbaud, and Lorca before her, she senses how human blood burns “like a poultice of broken glass,” and rejects “all the sweet geometry” she ever learned. No cold, rational philosophy explains her.
The four poems which comprise the book’s second, bridging section, in their referential texture and their subtly didactic inflections, offer a distinct counterpoint to the more subjective musing of the volume’s opening and closing movements. In these pieces, which the section’s title designates “Portraits,” the author examines a number of conceptions and portrayals of femininity and (mostly) female sexuality through the variously regressive lenses of pop culture, literature, and myth. Torn between celebration and condemnation, the voices Candito invents or invokes here, and the messages they convey, harmonize powerfully with those emerging from the quasi-confessional lyrics that precede and follow them.
The fragmentary, disjunctive recollections of the burlesque dancer in “Carnivale, 1934,” aimed, evidently, at some down-on-her-luck doyenne with whom the speaker is traveling, amalgamate the swirling points of view of an HBO producer, a vaudeville bawd, and Scheherazade herself (as channeled by Richard Siken). But, even as the breathless anaphora of the narrator’s ramblings evinces a sort of endearing, desperate naiveté—
Look at the girl splayed out on the dusty stage.
Look at the stars, at Orion unbuckling
himself. That means we’re in Cheyenne,
that means we’ll never see the coast
—the reader is all but physically compelled to accept the role of helpless witness to the receding images of her not-so-innocent youth.
Drawing upon classical mythology to frame a tale of incestuous desire and adolescent violence, “Epic Poem Concerning the Poet’s Coming of Age as Attis” displays Candito’s appreciation of the formal and technical advantages and challenges inherent in using the longer, sectioned poem to contain and sustain complex narrative. A sampling of the subtitles which guide the reader through this poem’s depiction of a young man’s sexual awakening (and the stream of consciousness the poet has crafted for him) is instructive: “A Brief Introduction to the Cold, Hard Truth”;“Schemes of Domination”;“Family Romance that Ends with the Suspension of Habeas Corpus.”
Cast adrift amid the eroticized atmospherics of a culture more likely to recycle Lynyrd Skynyrd than Garcia Lorca, what this distracted youngster, sexually obsessed with his own sister, craves is some clear sense of direction. What he internalizes, from television and friends and the occasional self-mutilating relative, verges on a theater of the absurd:
My two cousins, convex, colorless in
the blank T.V. screen, squint at my back.
One carved his own initials into his arm
and has to wear long sleeves all summer.
You’re supposed to use a girl’s, his sister says,
scowling in pink makeup, thick like a second face.
One night, I throw eggs at her Trans Am
and blame the neighbors. One night, her
brother ties one end of a rope around
the stump of an elm. Ties the other around
his neck. Runs hard until it snaps.
I admire this. It moves like strong wind
into my secret life. It spins the weathervane
pitched in the flattened fortress of my brain.
The remaining “Portraits” rely heavily on persona derived from well-known literary characters which Candito uses to present her own notions about the predicament of contemporary women struggling to reconcile subjective experience with the idealized versions of womanhood staring back at them from the masterpieces.
The anonymous narrator of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, whom Candito mimics quite convincingly in “Gilead Red,” seems to be spiraling, out of control, around the gravitational center of her own appetites:
These things I’ve come to crave—
the flicker of magazine pages,
the way bare legs feel on hot vinyl;
cellulite cream, the smell of chlorine
on everything; and love,
like a swimming pool I could not
dive into. All the while, shiny
open-faced across my lap, the instruments
of my incarnation—Glamour, Shape,
Allure. The endless shades
of lipstick with names like
injuries—gash, asphyxia, big bang.
Faulkner’s notorious wild child, Caddy Compson, and her illegitimate daughter, Quentin, given voice in “Girl in the Grass,” rail against the mythically victimized presences (read “Leda” or “mother”) which bind them to an oppressive past even as they exult in the sometimes painful thrill of their own refusal to keep silent:
Here is the nectar, so sweet
it stings the tongue and the sound
of ticking, the long diminishing
parade of everything that was.
In her final section, Candito returns to the oscillating I/you narration of her more personally calibrated lyric mode. In these compositions the poet frenetically rummages through an assortment of artifacts from high and low culture (the paintings of Magritte; rock bands belting out power ballads on a VH1 countdown show) in search of new archetypes or, at the very least, some colorful bits of bric-a-brac from which to construct her own.
She begins this assemblage with the volume’s title poem. But, where the Kiarostami film enacts a cogent exploration of the psychic/spiritual implications of the possibility of suicide, Candito’s poetic homage investigates, just as insistently, the moral complexity of a murder. Through the poet’s deft bait and switch, the numbered headings of her text’s four sections become a peculiarly insightful shooting script for Kiarostami’s dark, existential comedy: “There is no way to tell this story,” “Maybe you should start with the boring part,” “Every story takes a wrong turn,” “It began like every sweet, false myth.” And so Candito teaches us what her prototypical criminal has intuited—that all the violent twists and turns to which human emotions and the poets’ lines are subject have been written somewhere already, in the dust, or on a heavenly screen, in stars:
You knew what would happen next. The snake
ready to strike, the bullet finding a body. Night.
The taste of cherry.
This is the astral plane,
this is the spirit world, she says and draws
a heart on the dirt floor with her finger.
Perhaps nowhere is Candito’s obsession with this game of cosmic fill-in-the-blanks more stunningly displayed than in her languorously lined, symphonic “Strange Zippers | A Poem in Which the Heroine __________.” Composed of snippets of Puccini’s Tosca pasted to a scaffolding of philosophical tenets derived from Freemasonry, this poem represents the volume’s thematic crescendo. Who cares if the ghostly apparitions of men and women swirling through the streets and subway stations of New York City, of which our prima donna so grandly sings, become mere fodder for our voyeuristic consumption? We’re all sophisticated citizens of this brave new century. We’ve all survived the tsunami of third-wave feminism. And, as our hip chanteuse points out:
There are still days when you can walk open-mouthed through
the city, studying the monochrome delis on Second Avenue—
o recondita armonia, afternoons when
the shards of conversations overheard
(I waited in line so long I forgot what I wanted; I was kicked out
of Barnes and Noble for moving the Bibles to the fiction section)
explain your life. Nights when the heels you never wear
for long are strewn across the right stranger’s floor.
At the party, blowing lines in
the bathroom with a girl from Malta,
you notice how delicate her shoulder blades are, like a heron’s
bones. Nodding off in the bathtub, someone’s
pantyhose slung over the towel rack—a run, a fleck of blood
at the toe, a warm sluice in your throat, while outside
the garbage men swing barrels
like buccaneers and dawn begins
a syndicated song that has nothing to do with you.
Ah, another glorious morning after! Recognize the place? Maybe this is what salvation tastes and feels and smells and sounds and looks like.