As editor at NEXTV Entertainment's literary blog, I am the fortunate recipient of wonderful essays, interviews, and features from a broad spectrum of talented writers. This week is no exception considering author and poet Donna Hilbert's essay 'Making Poetry, Compost and Soup' landed in my inbox a few days ago. I thoroughly enjoyed this literary soup for the soul and am once again pleased and humbled by the variety and quality of the submissions coming into ALL 'LIT' UP. I look forward to exploring her work, but couldn't help but be struck by this poem right off the bat from her recent collection, The Green Season. Enjoy - J. Goertel
A portion of ashes we buried,
the portion remaining to be scattered
sits on a shelf
in my office, the container swathed
in a flannel bag, like the bag
protecting your tuxedo shoes.
How handsome you were in formal clothes!
Strangers often asked if you were someone.
Should they ask for your autograph?
The irreducible things that make up a person--
ashes, bits of tooth and bone--
transform from one noun
Before your death, Dearheart
I didn't know
that physics and grammar
are the same sad subject:
the transformation of matter,
transforming what matters.
THE GREEN SEASON by Donna Hilbert
AUTHOR ESSAY FEATURE:
MAKING POETRY, COMPOST AND SOUP
by Donna Hilbert
I once lived in a house with a big backyard. I planted a garden; I kept a compost pile. I spent hours every day, digging in the dirt with the same joy I felt as a child making mud pies. I took equal pleasure in planting seeds and in pulling up spent plants to make room for the next season’s growth. It seemed that the whole world of nourishment, death and regeneration lay before me. When not digging in my garden, I sat in my office, digging through my life.
I grew tomatoes, basil, peppers, eggplant, parsley, cilantro, rosemary, sage, and lavender. I sliced, sautéed and roasted and dried—transforming my harvest into pastas, curries and soups, then returning the scraps to the compost pile, which I turned and watered every day. Amazing creatures emerged from the pile—caterpillars fat with the promise of flight, Japanese Beetles as green as emerald, the Earth Child, or potato bug, which looked to me like an extra-terrestrial’s abandoned baby.
Now, I live at the beach and have no garden of my own, but I still feel connected to the days of turning the soil when I cook, particularly when I make soup. I make soup from what I have on hand—whatever is in the refrigerator by chance, and also from what’s there by design, bought at Farmer’s Market the Sunday before with an eye to the pot of soup come Tuesday—a head of cabbage, a turnip or two. Piquant vegetables make for a tasty broth. I add fresh herbs, a bunch of basil, perhaps cilantro or Italian parsley, the juice of one lemon.
I enjoy the peeling, chopping, squeezing, and slicing. I love the comfort and security afforded by a pot of soup simmering the afternoon away on the stove’s back burner. It’s like money in the bank, back in the era when money in the bank drew interest. After a few hours, I will add the rinds from a hunk of Parmesan cheese and a few pieces of stale sourdough bread to give the soup some heft and ballast. There is a smug pleasure in not being wasteful.
Perhaps it is no accident that I routinely make soup on Tuesdays, the day of the week my evening poetry workshop meets at my house. If I make soup, I will have a simple late supper waiting on the stove to share with my beloved after my students have left for home. The more I practice the life of poetry, the more convinced I am that writing poetry is like keeping a garden, with its composting, planting, harvesting—the seasons’ continual revision of life and death.
And in the same way that I enjoy peeling carrots, chunking potatoes, quartering tomatoes, I like the feel of the poem taking shape in my hand: the weight and balance of the pen, the whiteness of the paper, the arc the line of ink makes moving words across the page. Later, once I have two-fingered the poem into the computer, I like the neat rows of typeface appearing on the screen. I love making something appear from the void, the comfort of the work in progress, the infinite satisfaction of revision.
And, as in the making of compost, the making of soup, I make the poem from what I have on hand: leftovers from childhood—fears, loves, hates, tastes, smells, injustices and moments of rapture, things imperfectly understood, nightmares and lost ambitions. To this I add what has been picked up along the way—the road kill and sea glass of life—betrayals, disappointments, joy, death, images and incidents from travel, snatches of conversation, the way a certain bird takes flight. Observations written on matchbook covers and cocktail napkins that end up keeping company with the “purse candy” at the bottom of my bag—nuggets that I will be happy to find when I need a little something to suck on.
Practicing a life in poetry is like keeping a compost pile. All the shavings and leavings of life and art go into it—the dark bruised part of one poem, the sprouting eye from another, given time enough and attention, enough turning over and over, the decomposition will bring forth the new poem, the new soup, and the pleasure of making begins again.
Donna Hilbert writes and teaches private workshops from her home in Long Beach, California. Her latest book, The Green Season, World Parade Books, a collection of poems, stories and essays, is now available in an expanded second edition. Ms. Hilbert appears in and her poetry is the text of the documentary “Grief Becomes Me: A Love Story.” Poems in Italian can be found in Bloc notes 59 and in French in La page blanche, in both cases, translated by Mariacristina Natalia Bertoli. New work is in recent or forthcoming issues of 5AM, PEARL, and Poets & Artists. She is at work on a new poetry collection, The Congress of Luminous Bodies, from Aortic Books later this year. Learn more at www.donnahilbert.com