Book Review: What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison by Camille T. Dungy
“Lady, my one regret / is that we don’t have appetite enough / to make you break every damned plate inside this room.” As a person of color, I am undeniably drawn to works that discuss race in a way that does not skim over the harsh realities that we face every day. As someone who appreciates a little dark humor, I also appreciate a joke thrown in the face of a racist white person and I like imagining the sour looks on their faces. “The Preachers Eat Out” is the first poem I ever read by Camille Dungy, and it exemplifies what I like most about her style. Dungy manages to tie in racial themes, and tell stories not her own while still giving us true impressions of the people within the tales. Almost none of the people that she paints pictures of within her poems have names outside of the notes at the top of the poem, and she still gives us rich impressions of the characters within them.
We learn so much about the characters within “The Preachers Eat Out” just within the 14 lines. We know that the waitress who is serving them is not doing it because she isn’t racist – she is; she just wants the tips because she has children at home, presumably is a single mother, and needed tips in order to support them. She also breaks the plates, whether of her own volition or the restaurant’s, meaning that she works at a place that can afford to break plates and is therefore slightly upscale, meaning that the preachers have money enough to pay for a nice restaurant. She does the breaking behind the building however, meaning that she doesn’t want them to know she is breaking the plates, and is making an effort to be civil. The preacher also calls her ‘lady,’ which could be seen as either a measure of respect or disrespect, depending on tone, and makes it clear that he knows about her racist actions despite her trying to hide them
Dungy’s ability to call out racist actions in a subtle and artistic manner is a skill that I greatly admire. Someone who is not as familiar with the tensions that black folks face in the United States, or not as comfortable with seeking out material explicitly written about the struggles that we face, will find a book of poems such as Dungy’s much more approachable. Through Dungy’s poems, the statistics become not just statistics, but people. Though they are unnamed, the connections that Dungy sparks allow the reader to experience much more. One can read in a history book about the segregation of buses, but when reading Dungy’s “Greyhound to Baton Rouge” there is a much stronger feeling as the listener hears “Arm around his wife, the new father stood, / relieved to see his baby still sleeping. / Small piece.” Hearing the story of this small family, the tired mother, and the bus that was completely stopped because the driver refused to go on with a white woman holding a black child, brings things into focus for someone who might not have previously have understood how things were for the non-whites in America, and the racist attitudes that we face.
These two poems are some of the ones that stuck out to me the most of Dungy’s work, as they exemplify her talent for weaving a story into a lesson, and they are the ones that I enjoyed the most and feel I got the most out of. They taught me that it is possible to be both concise and yet rich in detail and that you can give everything and nothing away about the speakers and other participants in the action of the poem.
Another poem of Dungy’s that stuck out to me was “Requiem.” The idea of someone accepting their death, and being in love with their own crooked and broken bones; the horror of those surrounding them, witness to their untimely demise – it has a sort of macabre allure. I can identify with the speaker of the poem because even though I do not desire my own death, the idea of that moment – that teetering on the edge where one looks at everything around them in that final moment and finds it beautiful – is fascinating. I think that everyone is a little bit in love with death, and when Dungy’s line reads: “Will you believe me / when I tell you I had never been so in love / with anyone as I was, then, with everyone I saw?” I can’t help but think that, yes, I can believe that. As someone who has recently experienced the loss of someone who I know was suffering, I agree with the adage that death is much better for the one dying than for the ones left behind.
When the speaker in “Requiem” starts to talk about the woman who has witnessed her death, I can’t help but think about how well Dungy has captured this intrinsic human reaction. This other woman has no connection to the speaker, yet feels all of this grief, feels the pain that is what comes with the connection that humans have when life suddenly stops. Dungy shows us how as humans we react to death, how we see it, and how, while we cannot imagine life without it, we do not expect it. In the first stanza the speaker says: “I could have lived forever / under that sky.” And yet, when the speaker’s life does end, they accept that ending with love.
It is an admirable lesson that Dungy is giving us about how death is not something that one should fear, but something that happens when the time should come, and yet again we have her artistry shining through as she does it in such a subtle way, enchanting us with words.
I learned a lot about how to write from Dungy, as she writes many poems from a third person point of view and masterfully presents the characters that appear in those poems without going into arduous detail. It was not until I read several poems by Dungy written with such provoking figures that I even realized how many of my own poems were written in the first person. Overall, the lessons that Dungy teaches throughout the book are ones that I think anyone and everyone would benefit from, and I highly encourage people to read her works.
Book Reviews in Review Part II: Books that Center Blackness – Word-for-Sense and Other Stories
February 26, 2020 @ 08:00
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