Review: Epicurean Ecstasy: More Poems About Food, Drink, Herbs & Spices, Cynthia Gallaher
By Lennart Lundh
Cynthia Gallaher's latest collections of poems, Epicurean Ecstasy, is exactly what the subtitle promises: more verse about food, drink, herbs, and spices. The "more" references a previous chapbook, Omnivore Odes, while the promised topics are delivered in full, with sixty-four poems. That Chicago-based Gallaher has penned a trio of food- and nature-related poetry volumes (Drenched: Poems About Liquids was also released in 2018) should come as no surprise; she has been an officer of Illinois Consumers for Safe Food, and a volunteer for both The Alliance for the Great Lakes Shorekeepers Initiative and the Chicago Park District's Green Team.
We begin the buffet with champagne and eggs, proceed through various offerings of fruits, vegetables, and spices, and spend the last third of our time at the table amongst the delightful and healing herbs. Along the way, our guide treats us to histories, geographies, and lists of uses. From "Egg World" (page 13):
taking the same time as an over-easy whirl,
adding orderly, odd moments to peck around
and get cozy on her nest,
the chicken lays her egg.
"Massachusetts Cranberries", meanwhile, (page 21) ponders:
. . .are they gathered like scarlet colonies
of miniature planet mars vanquished to earth,
set loose from ancient-armored spaceship barrels[?]
while "Purple Coneflower Echinacea" (page 78) is credited with:
with abundant arsenals
of roots in our cellars
to help make the common cold
Overall, the poems are entertaining and enlightening. The choice of free verse for a collection which is light, but not frivolous, seems perfect. Forced rhyme on top of the easy-going tone might have lent a nursery rhyme feel, as it does momentarily when "The Irish Potato Famine" (page 54) unexpectedly dips briefly into and out of an abcb pattern.
The risks of rhyme having been wisely sidestepped, as a reader I found occasional difficulties with the flow of some of the poems. In addition to a general absence of leading capitalization, there is an inconsistency in the use of punctuation, leading to a mix of very fragmentary and very long strings of clauses running across multiple verses, as in "All-American Blueberries (page 19). This is, of course, a function of the poet's voice, and I know from experience, that Gallaher orates her poems wonderfully in person. For the reader coming to these poems for the first time by way of the page, however, there are some slippery spots to navigate.
Absent in the tight focus on the specific subjects of Gallaher's collection, and I think intentionally, is much in the way of human association with food. The reader is gently lectured, but there are no universal conclusions drawn. The few exceptions, such as the close of "Humble Onion" (page 60) and the beautiful "Sage, Cedar and Sweetgrass: Sacred Healing Smoke" (page 70) are noteworthy. This is not a shortcoming, and indeed might be the only practical way to approach the poet's chosen task.
Epicurean Ecstasy is a project at which Gallaher fully succeeds. Any reader wanting what might be thought of as the backstory or personal life of food will be amply rewarded.
About the reviewer: Lennart Lundh is the author of sixteen books of poetry, two collections of short-fiction, and six works on military aviation history. His work has appeared internationally since 1965.