Poetry Potluck #3: Lemon Bars for Langston Hughes


What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?

Teré Fowler-Chapman:

When I got the message to be a part of this blog, and during these times, the honor. I’m honored because these tough times (inside and out) have been just that, tough. I immediately thought of a recipe and poem from home but quickly realized the recipe that has given me life this summer isn’t mine.

I think a lot of what kitchens must have looked like during the Harlem Renaissance era. I think a lot about younger Langston, a mouthful of truth, laughter, and lemon zest. I think a lot about us. Us, tired and curled in Tianna Field’s kitchen, deep breathing, laughing, and crafting thought. I think about Langston sitting with us and asking Tianna what happens if this dream never comes to life? I think about Tianna. Her hands poured into the love she leaves in the crumble of this dish as the answer.

I think about the sugary bitter sweetness of tomorrows--but tomorrows, nonetheless.  I think about Tianna answering yes, with a soft dish that explodes on the tongue. I think about Tianna answering yes, with her pen curling out of her notebook. I think about Tianna answering, Langston then we explode. I think about Langston nodding chewing on her lemon bars, flavor bursting like firework.

Tianna Fields is not just a baker of medicine. In one poem, she makes my notebook blush. Her poems make my poems happy to be called poems. Her poems sit with their hands folded  high on the hip and tell my poems to make it home before the streetlights come on. Her poems tell them to look both ways before crossing the street. Her poems, much like her food, greases our scalps and calls our coil beautiful; it’s a simplicity of beauty like a symphony of black folx coming home alive on Saturday—all of us alive at once.

When I got the invite to do this blog, I felt just like a Harlem Renaissance kitchen. I felt like I was answering a phone somewhere between black, weary, giggle, and joy. I felt like over a symphony of black laughter, I whispered, hold on, let me get her. Then shouted something like, Nana! The world wants you.

Tianna’s lemon bars aren’t just a dessert to us. They are the glue to my friends and my blackness. They are where we go when the silence is heavy, when the dream’s deferred, when we burst into a thousand directions and when our dreams are exploded again by some bullet, by some whiteness, by something ugly.

They are where we go, mask and all, they are our dreams in this house. Us, dreams, cuddled in a kitchen sucking lemon off our fingertips and feeling the world up with our black matter—all at once.

Tianna Fields:

I can only picture Harlem in summertime. I can’t tell you why, really. Maybe it’s the “A Great Day in Harlem” photo, or a thousand others of Black people sitting on brownstone stoops, or kids playing in the street, all of them lightly glazed with sweat. I’m born and braised in the desert, so maybe I simply paint the city with the climate most familiar to me. Anyway, it’s easy enough to superimpose the sunshine on Langston Hughes’ ruminations on a dream deferred. The languid questioning with a rumble of unrest is summer for sure.

These lemon bars are an ode to summertime with my siblings. This recipe was tinkered to perfection with them one zealous summer, over several attempts where we discussed the texture of the crust and the tart of the lemon. I know you’ll taste the sunshine in em. I really enjoy the tactile experience of making them. Squishing the shortbread into the pan, the rush to finish preparing the filling while it bakes, the sizzle of the liquid onto the hot crust as a reward.

I also have taken to juicing the lemons by hand. I don’t have a citrus juicer for the same reason I don’t buy crushed tomatoes—for a quick Mammal Moment™️. Buy the canned tomatoes whole and crush them yourself! Bleed those lemons dry unaided! It’s definitely a bit silly and impractical, but there’s something about using your hands as tools and making a bit of a mess.

I wrote this poem about lemons because I think they get a bad literary wrap. The whole “if life gives you lemons...” trope. Lemons are no punishment! And whenever lemons aren’t obstacles to be bested or overcome, they’re trapped in the hellish binary of sweet or sour, as if they were rivals. Lemons are miraculous—they are palette extenders, allowing you to appreciate more sweetness and richness. Let them be and be great!

Practical Magic
By Tianna Fields

I pity the palette that can’t detect the warmth in a lemon
When the acid hits your tongue
Notice how your body responds
Feel the tide rise under your tongue
Let salivation be your salvation
The most practical of magic
It’s the wind whimsying through the mesquite
With the cicadas voicing the heat
It’s the scent of chlorine and sunscreen
Still lingering on your skin

A fruit as vivid yellow as the sun could never be sweet
Leave subtlety to the seeds.
Ask yourself if it’s natural to be polite—-
Then leave nature out of it.
Your propriety has no place here.
Demanding sweetness from a lemon is like cursing the sun for its heat.
You may wish to dilute or diffuse
But you’ll never mitigate The Muse.

Anything so brilliant must also be brazen
Ask the sunflowers.

Lemon Bars?

1/2 cup sugar
2 cups flour
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

4 eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup flour
Zest of a lemon or two
1 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup half and half, milk or cream
Powdered sugar (for the gram)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Combine ingredients for crust. Press into a 13”x 9” pan.
3. Bake for ~20 minutes or until golden brown.
4. While the crust is baking, combine the ingredients for the filling.
5. Pour filling over hot crust. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until set.
6. Let cool. Dust with powdered sugar and serve.

Tianna Fields is a black queer poet and musician from the lush occupied Tohono O’odham land of Tucson, Arizona. If you are reading this, then you’ve just read her first  published work! When she’s not writing or baking, she’s certainly drinking tea, watching TV with her sister, or listening to music. She aims to expand her art in all its iterations and refine her voice to move into activism. Above all she hopes to live justly, keep a holy foolishness, and a tender heart. Instagram: @boobootiii

Teré Fowler Chapman is a black trans activist, writer, educator in Tucson—by way of Sonoran desert | by way of boot’s bayou. He is a member of the Marsha P Johnson Institute’s 2020 Cohort. You can find Teré or their work forthcoming or published in many places, including Huffington Post, University of Arizona’s VOCA, TEDxTucson, Tucson Weekly, Arizona Public Media’s PBS & NPR & more. If he’s not writing he’s watching some reality show, talking to his plants, or loving on his cat and tortoise. He’s currently working on his first full collection of poetry.  Instagram: @maroonwork   Website: Maroonwork.com

Poetry Potluck is curated by Leela Denver and Wren Awry.