915: Who Among You Knows the Essence of Garlic?

915: Who Among You Knows the Essence of Garlic?

915: Who Among You Knows the Essence of Garlic?


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

Some years ago, a visual artist friend asked me: who of my generation most quieted their own terrors through their poetry? Who best turned their suffering into art? She stated her belief that poets today are too professionalized, too tamed by their quest for acceptance; and that only tortured geniuses are worth paying attention to.

I disagreed. For too long, we’ve promulgated a notion that writers whose lives are unstable bring the fire. I do not believe in suffering as a prerequisite for great art.

So, I have this wacky idea: What if we de-centered the classroom and workshop? What if instead of two years in graduate MFA programs, we proffered two- or three-years’ worth of travel expeditions, cooking lessons, plein air painting, museum-going? I wish graduate creative writing programs reimagined themselves as an intense education of the senses, alongside a mastery of literary craft. I’m talking a series of full-on immersive experiences that encourage a radical attention to our inner lives and forgotten histories, to natural spaces and their inhabitants. Great writing emerges out of the writers’ intense experiential relationship to their world, as well as emotional and spiritual stability.

Today’s poem exemplifies the kind of deep historical and sensory awareness only possible when one has turned their senses into a laboratory of feeling and wonder. And yet, here's a confession. Today's poet taught me in a workshop.

Who Among You Knows the Essence of Garlic?
by Garrett Hongo

Can your foreigner’s nose smell mullets
roasting in a glaze of brown bean paste
and sprinkled with novas of sea salt?

Can you hear my grandmother
chant the mushroom’s sutra?

Can you hear papayas crying
as they bleed in porcelain plates?

I’m telling you that the bamboo
slips long pliant shoots 
of its myriad soft tongues
into your mouth that is full of oranges.

I’m saying that silver waterfalls
of bean threads will burst in hot oil
and stain your lips like zinc.

The marbled skin of the blue mackerel
works good for men. The purple oils
from its flesh perfume the tongues of women.

If you swallow them whole, rice cakes
soaking in a broth of coconut milk and brown sugar
will never leave the bottom of your stomach.

Flukes of giant black mushrooms 
leap from their murky tubs
and strangle the toes of young carrots.

Broiling chickens ooze grease,
yellow tears of fat collect
and spatter in the smoking pot.

Soft ripe pears, blushing
on the kitchen window sill,
kneel like plump women
taking a long, luxurious shampoo,
and invite you to bite their hips.

Why not grab basketfuls of steaming noodles,
lush and slick as the hair of a fine lady,
and squeeze?

The shrimps, big as Portuguese thumbs,
stew among cut guavas, red onions,

ginger root, and rosemary in lemon juice,
the palm oil bubbling to the top,
breaking through layers and layers
of shredded coconut and sliced cashews.

Who among you knows the essence
of garlic and black lotus root,
of red and green peppers sizzling
among squads of oysters in the skillet,
of crushed ginger, fresh green onions,
and pale-blue rice wine simmering 
in the stomach of a big red fish?

“Who Among You Knows the Essence of Garlic?” by Garrett Hongo from YELLOW LIGHT © 1982, Garrett Hongo. Used by permission of Wesleyan University Press.