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Four poems on food and solitude
Vittles x Modern Poetry in Translation
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 6: Food and the Arts. This is the last newsletter of Season 6. We will take a week’s break and be back with the pitching guide for Season 7 soon.
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Back before WhatsApp, you really had to work to convince someone to come to your house for dinner. No one worked harder than the Roman poet and proto-shitposter Catullus, who turned a dinner invitation into his celebrated poem that starts ‘Cenabis bene, mi Fabulle, apud me’ – You will dine well my dear Fabullus, at mine – before revealing that the precondition is that Fabullus has to not just bring a bottle of Falernian natural wine from the cornershop, but also a pretty girl, banter and the entire meal. Catullus – alas! – has no money and no Ottolenghi cookbook, but he will provide the company that only true friendship can bring.
Catullus’s mock invite, with its early twist, finds a companion across space and time in the work of the Arab poet Kushajim, whose poem ‘When Will You Come To Eat?’ also invites a friend to dinner but provides the entire meal in vivid Nigel Slater-esque couplets, towering dish on dish and building towards a final twist. Kushajim’s friend is lonely, you see, as solitary an eater as the narrators of the other three poems in today’s selection – Teemu Helle, Lee Jenny and Federico García Lorca – who all record a hunger for something more than food. I, myself, am often a solitary eater too, and I enjoy it – the personal ritual, the time taken to feed oneself. I have eaten Helle’s TV dinner, Lee’s corn soup, and watched boys eating brown bread like Lorca. I have rarely been Kushajim, though I am trying; he knows that all the details of a dinner you have invited someone to must be exactly right so that they forget them, like so many endless couplets, until all that is left is the fact of the invite itself, and of a solitude, momentarily, forgotten. JN
Thanks so much to Modern Poetry in Translation for initially publishing these poems. You can buy the latest issue on food here: https://modernpoetryintranslation.com/magazine/wrap-it-in-banana-leaves-the-food-focus/
When Will You Come to Eat?
Poem by Kushajim. Translated by Salma Harland from Classical Arabic
When will you come to eat?
The table has been set
And the chef has adorned it
How rain dresses gardens in marvels.
It is spread before us,
Heaped with delectable dishes:
A roasted kid
Garnished with minted legumes
A plump-breasted pullet
That we selectively bred;
Grouse and chicken
Braised in a tagine;
Overlapping with tardin;
Served with olives
Palm pollen like strings of pearls
Nestled in a jewellery box;
Brushed with an oily relish
That whet and tempt
Every indulgent appetite
With bites like pearl shavings
Kneaded with ambergris
A sharp cheese
For a filling spread
An ornate knife
For cutting and slicing;
Vinegar that flares up noses
Even before it is unsealed;
That will enchant you;
Asparagus unlike any other —
And I know you have relished many;
Doused with sugar;
Cooked wine that comes
In dastija jugs and bottles;
A dimple-chinned cupbearer
With voluptuous promise,
And honeyed words;
And a singer who coos like a turtle dove
sweet runes never heard before.
So why would a jilted lover
Far from his love’s abode
Rather drink himself out of his senses
Than come join us?
On Mornings I Drink Corn Soup
Poem by Lee Jenny. Translated by Archana Madhavan from Korean
On mornings I drink corn soup I
need a table
so it may as well be a round and warm table and I
need a chair
so it may as well be a round and warm chair and I
need a bowl
so it may as well be a round and warm bowl and I
need a person
so it may as well be a round and warm person and
the corn kernels are yellow
kernels kernels kernels bob-bob-bobbing in the soup and
with every kernel I think of faces dead disappeared erased and
now they’re gone the kernels I eat
round and warm kernels I eat
there’s soup too the soup’s good too
the corn kernels are yellow
kernels kernels kernels please don’t spill
kernels kernels kernels spill and I’ll be sad
like a kernel I care about what I say
even now in the morning I write in my notepad a list of all the kernels
I ought to care for
how can I already know these kernels I’ve never once seen?
kernels kernels you can see the kernels
because you believe you can see the kernels
kernels kernels kernels corn kernels are yellow
round and warm kernels kernels kernels
I want to believe maybe I’ll see them some time
I do miss them a bit the kernels kernels kernels
Poem by Teemu Helle. Translated by Niina Pollari from Finnish
I opened the door and let in the darkness.
It collapsed on the couch,
lifted its feet on the table and sighed:
‘Got anything to eat’.
I took a plastic tray down from the fridge’s top shelf
and brought it to the living room, where the darkness
watched, enchanted, a documentary about horses.
I lifted the dome: light in a dessert dish.
The stale earth stank. The darkness
consumed light like a fallen apple
and bemoaned not understanding
how a horse could transport
such a heavy load with its skinny legs.
Poem by Federico García Lorca. Translated by Yolanda Morató from Spanish
Peach and sugar
Against the sunset,
An afternoon with the sun inside
like the stone in any fruit.
The ear of corn keeps
its yellow, hard grin intact.
brown bread and rich moon.
Modern Poetry in Translation is literary magazine and publisher based in the United Kingdom that specialises in translated poetry. To buy their latest issue on food in poetry, please view their website here: https://modernpoetryintranslation.com/magazine/wrap-it-in-banana-leaves-the-food-focus/
Lee Jenny is an acclaimed South Korean poet. She made her literary debut in 2008 and has since published four poetry collections. Most recently, Lee was awarded the 2021 Hyundae Munhak Prize. She resides in Geoje Island.
Archana Madhavan is a literary translator from Korean into English. Her first book-length work is a co-translation of Glory Hole by Kim Hyun (Seagull Books, 2022). Her poetry and prose translations have appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, The Kenyon Review, Columbia Journal, and more. In 2022, Archana was selected as the Korean poetry mentee for the ALTA Emerging Translator Mentorship Program. Her work can be found online at archanawrites.com.
Teemu Helle (b. 1982) is a Finnish poet and the author of 7 collections of poetry.
Niina Pollari is a poet and Finnish translator. She is the author of the poetry collections Path of Totality and Dead Horse, and the translator of Tytti Heikkinen's The Warmth of the Taxidermied Animal.
Kushajim (c. 902-970) was a celebrated Arab Shiite poet, master chef, and polymath. His works vividly chronicled Abbasid court life at the heart of the Islamic Golden Age.
Salma Harland is a British-Egyptian literary translator who works between Arabic and English. Her translations have appeared in the National Centre for Writing's Emerging Literary Translators Anthology (2022), The Massachusetts Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, ArabLit Quarterly, and elsewhere. In 2022, she was one of the American Literary Translators Association's Virtual Travel Fellows. She is currently preparing to pursue a PhD in literary translation.
Federico García Lorca (Granada, 1898-1936) poet, playwright, and one of the most internationally celebrated Spanish authors, was murdered in the early days of the Spanish Civil War.
Yolanda Morató is Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Seville, Spain. She has an MA in Modern Literatures from Birkbeck College (U London) and an MA in Translation and Intercultural Studies (U Seville, Spain). She obtained her European PhD in Philology and was awarded a University Arts & Humanities distinction. With over twenty translated and edited works from French and English into Spanish, in 2007 she won the “Tormenta en un vaso” Translation Prize for her annotated edition and translation from French into Spanish of Je me souviens, by Georges Perec. In 2008, the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies (AEDEAN) distinguished her translation of Blasting and Bombardiering, by Wyndham Lewis, with their annual award. She is the author of Libres y libreras. Mujeres del libro en Londres (El Paseo, 2021), a non-fiction book on women booksellers in London.
Vittles is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Jonathan Nunn and Sharanya Deepak, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.