Around here, we used to do a fairly regular feature called Food Poetry Wednesday. It isn’t the catchiest name ever, but it was straightforward. Since taking my new job, I’ve had shamefully little time to concentrate on anything else but keeping my head above water. Today, however, found me laid up in the house most of the day with a terrible allergy attack. After a morning of watching World’s Most Shocking Police Videos (or some other such crap) in a histamine-induced daze, I turned off the TV and went back to bed with some books.
One of them was Billy Collins’ Sailing Alone Around the Room, a gift from an old friend upon landing my first job out of college. Billy Collins was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, but before that he was writing the kind of poetry that has always touched me: poems that elevate the ordinary to something sacred, special or simply humorous. He takes the most routine situations — or even thoughts — and puts them into verses that either make you take everything a little less seriously or make you appreciate the small things just that much more, depending upon the mood in which you’ve found yourself.
So in honor of a not-so-special Sunday evening in which I’ve found myself in a fairly rotten mood, here’s a food poem by Billy Collins that gave me comfort in spite of myself. Hope it does the same for you, too.
I love the sound of the bone against the plate
and the fortress-like look of it
lying before me in a moat of risotto,
the meat soft as the leg of an angel
who has lived a purely airborne existence.
And best of all, the secret marrow,
the invaded privacy of the animal
prized out with a knife and swallowed done
with cold, exhilarating wine.
I am swaying now in the hour after dinner,
a citizen tilted back on his chair,
a creature with a full stomach —
something you don’t hear much about in poetry,
that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation.
You know: the driving rain, the boots by the door,
small birds searching for berries in winter.
But tonight, the lion of contentment
has placed a warm, heavy paw on my chest,
and I can only close my eyes and listen
to the drums of woe throbbing in the distance
and the sound of my wife’s laughter
on the telephone in the next room,
the woman who cooked the savory osso bucco,
who pointed to show the butcher the ones she wanted.
She who talks to her faraway friend
while I linger here at the table
with a hot, companionable cup of tea,
feeling like one of the friendly natives,
a reliable guide, maybe even the chief’s favorite son.
Somewhere, a man is crawling up a rock hillside
on bleeding knees and palms, an Irish penitent
carrying the stone of the world in his stomach;
and elsewhere people of all nations stare
at one another across a long, empty table.
But here, the candles give off their warm glow,
the same light that Shakespeare and Izaak Walton wrote by,
the light that lit and shadowed the faces of history.
Only now it plays on the blue plates,
the crumpled napkins, the crossed knife and fork.
In a while, one of us will go up to bed
and the other one will follow.
Then we will slip below the surface of the night
into miles of water, drifting down and down
to the dark, soundless bottom
until the weight of dreams pulls us lower still,
below the shale and layered rock,
beneath the strata of hunger and pleasure,
into the broken bones of the earth itself,
into the marrow of the only place we know.