I’ve noticed how often poets I know will post something about food on their social media sites — delicious food, often with pictures. In the summer, there are usually tomatoes and other fruits of the garden; in the winter, it’s often stews and soups.
On a cold day in Chapel Hill — and colder up north where many of my friends are — I thought I’d share two poems (from my 2015 collection, The Scheme of Things) where soup is the subject, or an important part of the subject, as it has been an important part of my life, with meaning and sustenance far beyond the calories. Both poems are, of course, also about family.
“Finom” – That’s what you say in Hungary
about delicious soup. In my bowl,
the soup gleams Hapsburg yellow
flecked with rusty paprikash,
buttery with chicken and spaetzle.
I look up from my bowl and say it –
“fee-nome” – and Agnes the cook beams,
and my stepmother Ilona beams,
as if I had done something wonderful also.
The small apartment is all aroma now,
happy for us to breathe it. Am I drunk?
On the walls Ilona’s pictures float:
a great stag slain beneath a steed from whom
the steely count faces us, swathed in bear and stoat—
Ilona’s father no more dead than mine who stands
in mid-century American shirtsleeves next to a red Mustang
and faithful boxer Flick at a roadside stop
in the hills above Beirut, the city
where he and Ilona met; or than I, raising a glass
on the square in St-Jean-de-Luz, the sheen
on the warm Bordeaux catching like a camera obscura
my husband and the sea beyond in crystal miniature.
Now, this January day in Budapest, I fill myself
with what will warm me in my own allotted winters—
these fathers, sisters, husbands, brothers,
dogs, arrayed on walls and tables, all here
in one spell of soup for which there is a word
“finom”, delicious in its bright upward kiss,
its Magyar gift. Here, a strange adjective
becomes an intimate noun,
a necessary name.
In Paris together after twenty years, we walk half the map by one,
Porte Maillot down a zig-and-zag diagonal to our old Café Verdun.
We walk, and the Plan’s red-and-black lines block-by-block unflatten
into real-life streets, the smell of bread, and children wearing hats;
ancient echoing courtyards and the earthy exhalations of the Metro stations.
We walk alike, with ease, but talk like strangers stumbling through translation.
Still, I’m restored, quenched by northern light like water,
alive and on foot in Paris, remembering, zig by zag, what it was to be your daughter
long ago. When you brought us here, your little woolen family in the gloom,
the grit of war on walls, Europe was as strange as Asia, and yet made for us.
You weren’t much of a father, Father, but I eat Verdun’s carrot-leek potage
and the gritty long-lost warmth salves everything. How we made this home,
and then could leave, and how you shook your fist (You’d paid for us!)
is beyond me, mon père. Quand-même ! I give your page three stars: Vaut le voyage.
Both poems are from The Scheme of Things, David Robert Books, 2015.
I don’t know the recipe that Agnes used for the Hungarian soup, but here’s a poem by Daniel Hyikos about the making of a similar soup that might well have merited a “finom,” even if the author does wind up eating it alone: Potato Soup”. If you know of other winter-soup poems, please post a link in the comments!