- Fried Fish and Flour Biscuits
Collections of poems are like a box of chocolates.
[No, wait. That’s no good.]
Poetry collections are more like a box of Lucky Charms. There are some hard things, some sweet things, and, if you’re lucky, a special treat. [I think that’s even worse.]
Books of poems are like burritos—you never know what’s inside. [That’s astonishingly bad.]
Poetry collections (good ones) are like a can of salty mixed nuts: you just can’t stop consuming one after the other. [Must try again.]
Books of poems are most like a cookbook; they are filled with recipes for things you’ve devoured, hated, and longed to try.
Food similes are tough. There are so many ways they can go wrong (see above), so when you come across a book of poems that successfully utilizes that trope, it not only makes you feel hungry, it makes you feel grateful. That’s how I felt reading Molly McGlennen’s debut collection of poems, Fried Fish and Flour Biscuits. Hungry but grateful.
There is a lot of food in McGlennen’s collection: fried fish and flour biscuits, of course, but also wild rice, blueberry pie, Napa Valley [End Page 103] Merlot, oysters, sushi, chopped peppers and onions, potatoes, beans, walleye, peeled oranges, bacon, even something called “rock soup.” Food functions as connector in these poems, a poetic roux mixing and binding. In fact, the entire collection is itself an act of collection. McGlennen tells us in her preface that she, like other Native writers, sees poetry as “a form of community-building, a means to locate oneself in relationship to a network of people and places and memories” (1). This book gathers these poetic renderings of people, places, and memories in a way that both orders and celebrates relationships. “Our lives are made up of recipes,” McGlennen says. “Poetry is a way to preserve and translate those recipes. . . . Poetry is what nourishes us” (1).
Fried Fish and Flour Biscuits is not autobiography, and it’s not memoir, but it certainly is personal, and it’s worth addressing issues of voice and persona here. Every semester in every class, I caution my students against assuming the speaker of a contemporary American poem is the poet. I think there is even more of a temptation to conflate speaker and author among writers of color, a move I understand but am skeptical of. It is dangerous, for example, to assume an autobiographical reading of someone like fellow Ojibwe wrier Louise Erdrich, who loves the poetic persona. Is the speaker of “Dear John Wayne” Erdrich herself? We know it isn’t in first-person poems like “Windigo” or “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways,” but other intimate poems from Baptism of Desire are less clear.
My own reading of McGlennen’s poems suggests that quite often—maybe all the time—the speaker and the poet are pretty much one and the same. For readers who might be confused, the poet helps us out here. In her acknowledgments she mentions “Ellia,” and later in the book we come across three poems about the birth of Ellia. There is a poem about Louis Owens, poems about historical people and events, and poems about love and loss. Some, of course, are easier to “verify” than others, but all carry the weight of authority and authenticity. One reason is because the gap between McGlennen’s language and her content is small indeed. A poet like John Ashbery or Orlando White or Ai plays so much with artifice and language, it’s impossible for the poem to function as an accurate window into identity. [End Page 104]
Not the case with Fried Fish.
McGlennen’s poems seem uninterested in boundaries. They erect no fences, they don no masks. Consider “For Uncle,” a poem dedicated to Richard Joseph Roskop, who died in 1991 at the age of forty:
You don’t even look like the rest of the eight. Dark sand for skin, hair to mid-back. You let my brother and...