"words are the only things we put in our mouths that we can’t taste"

Table Manners by Catriona Wright - Review by Claire Caldwell

Véhicule Press, $17.95

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1.

Catriona Wright’s Table Manners starts as a gastronaut’s confessional, her speaker lamenting all the rare delicacies they have yet to taste. The gastronaut is never satisfied, “rancid with resentment” about the “sumptuous/ grubs those elitist toucans gorge themselves on in the Amazon,” their friends “slurping bird’s nest soup.”  Wright sets up an age-old alignment here between excess and degeneracy, the physical and spiritual rot that accompany rampant consumption. But there’s a sly undercurrent at play, too. I roll my eyes at the gastronaut. But now I also want to taste “Pine needle and antler velvet” and “slow-roasted unicorn haunch.” And I’m a vegetarian.

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2.

We come to food—to writing about food—fully-loaded with values, assumptions, anxieties, memories. Wright’s poems examine not just what we eat, but how we eat. “How to Throw a Dinner Party, or, A Guide to Avant-Garde Table Manners” would make Emily Post roll over in her grave. At this soiree, “Whoever requests a fork is deemed a pussy,” and “guest are cordially invited to sit at the dinner table/ and shit.”

This isn’t anarchy, though. The poem is still a guide, full of instructions (“1. No chowder-headed people”) and handy tips. Wright highlights the absurdity and arbitrariness of table manners, while also critiquing avant-garde aesthetics that often just reproduce the same old power structures they claim to dismantle. In this world, the servants “are still operating on the level of cutlery equals class. So passé!”

On a more basic level, though, I think this poem reveals something fundamental: when it comes to people and food, there are always rules.

3.

It’s not surprising that a book about food is also a book about sex. And sex comes with as many rules as eating, if not more. “Origin Story” describes “bodies crashing into each other” generation after generation, very few following that persistent, pernicious rule about sex: that its only purpose should be reproductive. These lovers are driven instead by “cute overbites” and “relentless, seasick nights.” And yet, reproduction happens. Babies are a kind of biological rule, when it comes to heterosexual sex.

We often lump sex and eating together as symbols of indulgence, the consummation of desire. What I love about “Origin Story” is how it projects desire into the future. Sex isn’t about consumption, but “creating and creating and creating and creating”.  It makes me more sympathetic to Wright’s gastronaut, who is perhaps not plagued by greed but by the limitless creativity of their palate.

4.

Imagination can eat a person alive. So we tame it with rules.

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5.

This is not to say that rules can’t be useful. We definitely shouldn’t eat raw chicken, and sometimes you do need someone to tell you how long to let the dough rise. What Wright asks, over and over, in this collection is: who are these rules useful for?

“How to Throw a Dinner Party…” shows how shifting etiquette norms can be used to maintain class structures. In “Instagram Feed” the speaker’s “belts acquire new holes” while she “acquire[s] new likes.” The speaker curates her own body with the same minimalist aesthetic as her social media posts, “all just garnishes/ and sauces and sparkling empty/ space”. In “Hitler’s Taste Testers,” based on a true story, “a forced sorority” of fifteen girls must eat food prepared for Hitler to ensure it’s not poisoned. The girls, kept as prisoners, are “his outsourced intestines.” This is an extreme example of a person in power using food as a means of control—both of his own fate and those of others. The end of the poem is a punch to the stomach:

It went on that way until one night when a soldier who was sweet
on me dragged me from bed and pushed me through an open mouth
in the fence. The Soviets got there soon after

and shot the other fourteen
while the newlyweds dined
on cyanide.

Not even Hitler’s food rules could prevent death. Yet the image of him swallowing poison suggests just how deep and dark this connection between food, power and control can go.

6.

So much of human food culture is about words. Recipes, labels, arguments at the dinner table, restaurant reviews. Yet words are the only things we put in our mouths that we can’t taste.

7.

Language is a sensual experience, though. Tone, diction, rhythm, sound, the texture of breath and tongue, palate and teeth. Or as Wright puts it, “[t]he words watercress and gooseberry, dark tickles on the tongue.” Table Manners is not just a book about food; Wright’s poems activate the senses. After describing the Greenlandic process of fermenting auk inside a seal carcass, Wright’s speaker notes, “The hearts are slippery and taste like licorice.” The assonance connecting slippery and licorice make this description seem like something to take for granted, like of course fermented auk heart tastes like this salty, bitter, earthy candy. You can almost feel one sliding down your throat.

8.

I keep coming back to the gastronaut’s contradictory rhetoric: “I would cut off my own thumb for the perfect thimbleful/ of wood-ear mushroom and bamboo shoot soup,” they claim, yet apparently they “just chose to care about this instead of something else.” It’s no spoiler that language can be used to manipulate, and Wright’s poems emphasize the interplay between language, power and the cultural roles of food.

On the one hand, it’s unsettling that a writer can make words leap out of a poem and land in your mouth as “pale green macarons that taste/ of clover.” But on the other, it’s pure magic. Wright keeps both those hands where the reader can see them, elbows planted firmly on the table. 

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