Poetry Potluck #6: Culinary Couplets for Kevin Young


What delights me in the creative processes of both writing and cooking is the inherent necessity in both to honor connections. We don’t only find connections as we write or cook, we respect them. We aim to remember them; we write them down. When we love them, they become a precious internal record of things-that-go-together. (Mushrooms cooked with butter, a prose piece about a poem, a single pear halved and poached in last night’s red wine.) Metaphors and pairings, analogies and complementary parts. Lemon and rosemary, one person’s story to another’s. Relationships.

Relating well—in art, cooking, or love—is a dynamic, lively process. To work at staying open to, and aware through, this process is to live beyond division, polarization, isolation, and competition. The work (and play) of relating lies in how totally different parts can meet, and can become together something larger and more vibrant. To unite and be present with varying ingredients, to learn how unique individual parts can complement one another, are actions that can serve as balms on any world-wearied heart.

“With hands that cannot wait / but must . . .”

I patiently dice a sweet potato, each slice a gestural practice of witnessing and centering. Kevin Young’s poem “Ode to Gumbo” is echoing within me. I smell the open jar of dried tarragon. My dog, Gretchen, died three weeks ago. My heart is still breaking.

“A dying, yet / still standing tree.”

Loss, pain, and grief reverberate globally; I know I am just one very small part. Beyond—and tethered to—my own mourning is everyone else’s, and tethered to this collective grief and pain are normalized systems of oppression, violence, division, and harm. Some days it seems like everyone is arguing or "ending" their relationships with each other, while everyone else is getting sick, or injured, growing hopeless, or dying. I wonder how I can stop wasting my own time with unproductive arguments. How can I better help, and actually grow the loving connections we very much need?
    “For weeks I have waited / for a day without death / or doubt.”

When I prepare my potato, I am called into loving presence with my surroundings. The blank page to be written upon, the foods to be prepared and eaten . . .  they don’t take me, my processes or actions, personally. They allow me to be—and to create with them, and to make mistakes with them—while consistently offering up their nourishment and truths. I am curious about how people can learn to do this more for one another, being the very different ingredients we all are. What notes can be taken from the things we use as tools.

Being radically present with processes like writing, cooking, and relating can transform us. This is evident for me as I root myself in the new silence of my home, lacking the lumber of the large dog up and down the stairs. This becomes evident for me as I ground into the awkward pause in the hard conversation with a relative, reminding myself of my complementary commitments to both anti-oppression/harm-reduction work and to not further dividing my family. No running from inevitable and honest pain or challenge. No one disposable, no part of the process without value. Faith in the notion that there is always something worthwhile, available to be cooked up here.

    “So why not / make a soup / of what’s left?”

The conversation with a family member gains heat as it veers into topics of racial and queer justice. These are important conversations for me to engage in as a queer white person. I know my silence in arguments like this creates complicity with violence and harm I would rather stand against. I ask myself how to stand in right relationship both with oppressed peoples, and in love for my relative.

I witness my loved one get hot in anger, agitation, and defense. I remind myself I am not the flame burning them— that this conversation is rooted in fires that have long been harming all of us. I fight the urge to give up on the whole conversation for the sake of a superficial facade of peace. I fight the desire to run away from this person with whom I am arguing. I muster up whatever it takes to stay here, to advocate for love to grow more, and deeper, and further here: both between my relative and me, and significantly beyond us. I do not let myself give up or run away. I flip the potatoes. I call in the sometimes incomprehensible enigma of love, and I work at it, trusting in the possibility that everything can come together. One ingredient at a time.

I like slow cooking, soups that take all day. I begin with the olive oil in the skillet, and the heat, low. Next, I slice into the onion, then the root vegetable. I listen to the spice rack: who is asking to join, today? I am not a warrior in battle when I am cooking; I am an attentive observer, a facilitator of harmony. As a poet, I find the same to be true in my favorite experiences of writing. In these moments, I write freely, feeling as if—regardless of whatever other mountain of feelings—I am in love. I work at it, until everything comes together. One part at a time. No ingredient ignored.

    “Save all the songs.”

“Ode to Gumbo” emanates love, grief, and nourishment as the speaker prepares gumbo as taught to him by his mother, in the midst of grieving his father. It reads to me now like wise and sacred verse, guiding me through grief and sorrow, resonating in me as I move through my gardens, pantries, and greater world. “An entire / onion cut open / & wept over” suggests a respectful patience for honest tenderness and vulnerability, while the “cayenne… / burns the throat,” acknowledges the sharp inevitability of pain, in any heart that loves. The struggles of loss and grief exist very clearly—in this poem and everywhere else—because love has existed, too. Love and loss, suffering and joy: these very different ingredients pair with each other to powerfully flavor this remarkable experience of living.

    “everything / has an afterlife, given / enough time & the right / touch.”

Young’s poem reminds me of the value and continuity in all life. In a world as interconnected and systemically unjust as ours, avoidance is never a sustainable, longterm option for someone with privileges and power like my own. As someone, for example, who does not experience the stress and struggles of being a BIPOC, not only can I afford to take on more stressful arguments with family members about race, but ultimately, I am responsible for doing so. We can’t ever learn and grow together if we refuse to exist alongside or across from one another.

Gardening, cooking, and loving in times of complexity and inflammation teaches me that once something’s there (in the pot, soil, or our lives), we must learn to work with it. As Young says, “there’s no one / way to do it,” and, I’ve learned, every recipe, and every process, calls for completion. I am reminded by “Ode to Gumbo” — as I am reminded by the carefully tended details in the kitchens and gardens I share, and by the sun setting over Gretchen, buried in the hillside— that it is only in honoring all the interconnected parts, that completion becomes accessible, that we become free and present enough to “pretend / such fiery / mercy is all we know.”

In the spirit of honoring sometimes-surprising (and always-inspiring) harmonies, I offer you some complementing pairs—culinary couplets, if you will—which have delighted me and taught me some things about our ever-expanding world of possible connections: I invite you to share these, and to search for and share increasing numbers of your own.

Spinach cooked with nutmeg
Chard simmered in fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice
Sweet potato roasted with tarragon
Rose and cardamom
Fresh arugula with sautéed peaches
Lemon and blueberry
Mesquite and cacao

“Done right, it will feed / you & not let go.”


Roxy Runyan writes poems and other stuff. Gretchen the dog has been their greatest teacher. Inspirational credit to Kevin Young for “Ode to Gumbo,” to the poet Ashley Fine (for her essential poem “People of the Pinch” which has meant so much to me) and to other local gardeners, chefs, and artists - including Andrea Radoccia and Shell Closs - for teaching me so much about heart, food, life, and earth.

Poetry Potluck is curated by Leela Denver and Wren Awry.