From Cindy Crawford’s infomercials to the female menstrual cycle, from skinny Jews in Holocaust films to sitting Shiva, the pleasures and complications of what sustains us are woven throughout Matthew Lippman’s third collection, American Chew, which won the Burnside Review Press Book Award for poetry (25, 64, 37, 66). In poems conversational and associative, democratic and utterly human, American Chew examines what we eat, why we eat what we eat, how we project our obsessions and insecurities onto the image of food, and our at times unhealthy rejection of it. An anorexic teen in “The Broccoli Shop” believes “broccoli was a god / and bowed down to it even when it was coming up” as the speaker and the girl’s father can do absolutely nothing but witness the human predilection for self-destruction. The shameful indulgence of a secret McDonald’s run in “Big Mac Bun” becomes a Buddhist lesson in “the now of the nowness of now.” And despite the sterility inherent in the health food phenomenon spearheaded by the slick food packaging and politically correct multi-ethnic staffing of Whole Foods in the book’s title poem, the speaker nonetheless reclaims whatever culinary indulgence masculinity apparently has the right to enjoy.
Food in American Chew comes in many forms. Lippman explores the figurative implications of sustenance. Al Green’s music transcends not only racial division in the 70’s in “Nina Simone,” but economic impoverishment of “dirty sheets and filthy incinerator rooms” of the Upper West Side. The speaker finds meaningful beauty in the poem with the same title about the beauty product with the same name sold by Cindy Crawford on a late-night infomercial: “Come over to our house Cindy, jump out of your television face / and let your wrinkles dance, let your brown spots gyrate, / let your body go go go.”
Characteristic of Lippman’s inclusiveness, no one can catch a break from his scrutiny. He antagonizes Steven Spielberg for putting skinny Jews in Holocaust films in “Voyeurism,” suggesting a remedy for the stereotype would be “to give the Jews all the Nazi parts / and all the Germans, Jew parts—,” as equally as he faults childhood for being, ironically what defines it—irresponsible, when the speaker’s own kids “toss their dolls out the window/ then jump after them in stupid splendor and pink, / laughing like the whole world is never going to sleep.”
Not even the speaker himself is spared from judgment. A self-proclaimed buffoon, noodnick, doofus, nincompoop, and fraud, he is as culpable and flawed as the next guy. He was and will never be as cool or relevant as The Beastie Boys. He is a flawed parent who yells at his own kids to “Get the fuck out of the bathroom, kid” And consistent with the book’s thematic thread, he is, in “Baby Fat,” fat:
When high school is over most people get fat. I got fat in high school. The math teacher told me there was nothing I could do, algebraically, about my girth. My social studies teacher wished me luck on the battlefields and governing rooms of the rest of my life, suspenders to hold up my pants, handkerchiefs to wipe the brow.
Good thing all that irony and self-deprecation is tempered by glimpses of gravitas—just enough sincerity and sentiment to show Lippman has a heart, and it is big. “The night owes me nothing / although I am a fraud in darkness” he says in “The Camps of Ft. Lauderdale,” a poem part eulogy part nostalgia for the long-gone Jewish culture of a retiree vacationland. In “The insanity Problem,” the speaker lobs golf balls off his roof in the midst of an existential crisis: “I went up the roof and hit little pebbles / into the graveyard that abuts the soccer field— / one for each dead thing/ inside me/ that I needed to bury beyond the headstones.” In “She Pork Pie Hat,” a poem that investigates how our identity is influenced by our ethnic and cultural origins, Lippman reveals:
We were all children...