With his band, the Glory Fires, the Alabama native Lee Bains has long made music that sets out to catechize, celebrate, and complicate his Southern heritage—a project that extends to Bains’s freewheeling poetic sequence “Work Lunch,” which focusses not only on the food that sustains us but also on what, and who, makes such sustenance possible. This cycle of poems has the power of music, with an everyday elation that recalls the late Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Coney Island of the Mind.” This is fitting, given Bains’s consideration of the carnival of cuisine that is the American South and which, indeed, composes our national diet—one that can careen wildly between homemade wonders, meat-and-three restaurants, and the familiar comforts and horrors of a “national fast-food entity.” He finds a feast of contradiction, too, in “the farmers’ market, / the locally grown section, / the organic superstore, / all worse.” Bains praises the working man’s lunch while commenting on both work and manhood, slyly referring to other lunch poems that don’t acknowledge where our daily bread comes from.

As on his band’s 2014 album, “Dereconstructed,” Bains cuts a sweeping historical view with self-conscious reflection, taking pleasure in Southern traditions like barbecue and storytelling, and taking pains to describe being “stranded on the great shipwreck of Atlanta” while having “too much education / too little work / too much time / too little cash.” Though written before the COVID-19 pandemic, “Work Lunch” feels all the more crucial as farm, restaurant, grocery, delivery, and other food workers continue to toil amid threats to health, financial security, and wholeness. The labor that Bains foregrounds, although officially deemed “essential,” remains too often overlooked; his poetry is a way of giving thanks when thanks is the least we might offer.

Paired here with photographs by the Atlanta-based artist Nydia Blas, Bains’s verse cascades across the page, reminiscent of mid-twentieth-century poetry’s composition by field—a practice lately left fallow. What Bains seeks, even as he critiques gluttony and greed, hunger and hypocrisy, is plenty. In this ironic ballad of beauty, against a “faux-stone, faux-stucco” landscape of “screens and machines,” the question a friend poses is existential, urgent, and outright funny: “How is it . . . / That you always wind up paying less than me, / But getting way more food?”

—Kevin Young


Meat-and-Threes

Chitlins, my Grandmama said,
 was something that,
  even in the depths of the Depression,
   they wouldn’t eat.
 My Grandmama talked about living off of
  livers and gizzards and poke salad,
   sassafras tea and chicory root.
  About chewing every bite thirty times
   before you swallowed.
  About drinking a whole glass of water right before you ate
   and a whole glass right after.
  About the can of hardening fatback grease
   that would sit on the glassless windowsill
   and render unto them by rationed mounds
   the only trace of protein they often got.
  About how her daddy told her,
   you may be poor,
    but at least you ain’t Black.

The first time I ate chitlins
 was at the same place my brother first ate chitlins, back
 when he worked at the discount paint store, and the boss
 had railed him out for fucking up the paint, because you
 had to match a three-quarter can of old white
  with a quarter can of old yellow
   to make cream, and had
    to make sure the raggedy old
     can lid clamped down good
      or you’d throw paint everywhere
       when you mixed it,
 and his co-worker felt bad for him, so he took him to lunch.

At the Quick Split.
 And they both got chitlins.

 Otherwise, the food was like my Grandmama’s,
  the crunchy okra
  the porky tender greens
  the moist crusty cornbread
  the syrupy soft sweet potatoes
  the salty plump black-eyed peas.

The Quick Split closed one day without warning.
Its hand-painted sign had read “Chitterlings”
 and “Steamtable”
 and “Since 19-something.”
 I think I remember.
   I can’t find any pictures on the Internet.

My brother heard the landlord had jacked up the rent,
 as they had up and down the forlorn blocks.
 From the other side of the mountain,
  something called a restaurant group
  installed a franchise into the old space.
  It couldn’t have been scarcely cold yet.
  They called it “Soul Kitchen.”

 I’m told the soul is what is left when a body dies.

Up on the Northside,
 Niki’s has long towered over the other meat-and-threes,
  a Colossus of rambling dining rooms and spacious
   parking lots,
  its Odyssean steamtable long enough,
   it seems, that if you brought your eye to a level
   with the Greek catfish, you could observe the
   curvature of the earth somewhere around the
   congealed salad.
  There, between those anointed golden hours of eleven and two,
   you will spy clay-spackled work trucks
   and glimmering imported sedans,
   austere brutalist cop cruisers
   and candy-coated whimsical donks.
  As fine-tuned its assembly line of seasoned tablemen
   (“Hello, sir, what’ll you have?”),
   as open as its doors,
   as efficient as its headset-wearing hosts,
   the prices have crept up, and the work trucks get fewer.

In the fluorescent void of the grocery store,
 we examine the bunches of collards,
 the bags of okra.
  Grown in Honduras.
  Grown in California.
   Do they eat okra in Honduras?
   Do they eat collards in California?
    We double-check the price.
    They must have flown them over first class.
     The farmers’ market,
      the locally grown section,
       the organic superstore,
        all worse.

 In Birmingham, meat-and-threes are hard to avoid.
  In Atlanta, they are hard to find
   unless you count the couple of tourist traps,
    bedecked with soft-focus paintings of
     bloodless plantation homes,
    the metallic sheen on black-and-white
     photos of smiling politicians,
     their hands hidden, presumably
     into the pockets of the poor
     motherfuckers slinging soap
     and boiling oil in the back,
     or rushing out plates
     (what meat-and-three
     does table service?)
     for two dollars and thirteen cents
     an hour, which will get you
     a plate of liver and onions,
     so long as the year is 1928,
   or the glass-and-steel simulacra
    in the bottoms of skyscrapers
    that claim elevation
    but practice degradation,
    truffle oil in the peas,
    rice vinegar in the greens,
    some sort of compote on the goddamned cornbread,
    a corporate-account cafeteria
    in the guise of high culinary art.

 But there is Something Special.
  That is its name,
   Something Special.

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