Review of The Existentialist's Cookbook by Shawnte Orion
New York: New York Quarterly Books, 2014. 96 pp. $14.95. paper
An existentialist exists in a world that is incapable of being understood, one with no moral certainties. As a result, he is ultimately responsible for decisions made of his own free will. Therefore, his cookbook should be full of the ability to both question and embrace his world and his decisions, recipes seasoned with humor and a sense of uncertainty about his place. The poems in Orion's book offer up a menu of diverse options that both embrace the world around us and turn inward to explore the expansive and exhausting options within one's own mind.
The syntax of many of these poems is clipped, fragmented, and end-stopped, giving the reader a sense of authority and reality. The speaker in these poems does not ramble. The speaker in these poems has conviction. This serves Orion particularly well in the most tender and relatable poems in the book, those that ponder small moments or big emotions in a straightforward way. In "Weathered," the meandering wind seems wild and untamable, but still finds "each miniscule opening/between the buttons of your/brand new jacket." This poem (along with "Things that Make Me Cry," " Colors Stored for Never," "Beyond Translation," "Ink," and "Sleeveless") serves as an ode to existing as a small being in a big world that can be lonely and incomprehensible. These small poems pack a big punch and bear multiple readings.
Several poems in the book reference pop culture or familiar characters in history and literature. It is in these poems that Orion's gift for wordplay and juxtaposition are best showcased. In "in jest (lowercase)”, ee cummings's famous ode to spring turns into a warning about a sex offender ordered 500 feet from the playground as a "wee condition of his parole." In "Mallville," Clark Kent is imagined as a super hipster, " faster than an Instagram upload," a man with "conspicuous plastic eyeglasses” who "liked the design on his chest/before it became the letter S./Back when it was just symbolic." Extending his metaphor for humorous impact in "Kentucky Freud Chicken," Orion asks the reader, "Would you like your soda Id/Ego or Super Ego sized?" He describes such phenomena as "Original Recipe Transference" and "eleven herbs and childhood traumas" before pointing out oral fixation and inadequacy through the drinking of a milkshake.
My favorites of the allusion-filled poems are two very different pieces which pay homage to Edgar Allan Poe: "Breaking Dawn Within A Dawn Haibun" and "Edgar Allan Poe Elegy Delivered by Basho." The first marries Poe, Nabokov's Lolita, and the popular Twilight phenomena: "he would surely side with vampires, who despise sunlight for making them sparkle like golden scarabs." The second contains tiny observations such as "Lenore to Miss Clemm/Poe only pined for women/dead or underage." At first glance, these poems may seem just humorous, but their juxtapositions and metaphors are carefully planned and well-wrought, addressing everything from Kurosawa films to Project: Runway. These are not jokes, but they are clever and funny. This is a good thing, as we don't laugh often enough when reading poems.
Although some of the poems seem too deeply-based in abstraction for my personal taste (especially since images and diction choices elsewhere are so specific and sharp), this may be in service of the book's title. Also, a few poems seem to stretch their metaphors a bit too thin ("Vegan" for example, really stretches the moon as cheese metaphor). But as a whole, the book delivers on its title's promise. It is a mélange of recipes for the human condition, one that runs the gamut from the philosophical to the cultural, from the historical to the personal. Orion's voice is unique, his poems reminding us always that "objects of affliction/are closer than remembered."
You can purchase Mormon Boy here.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of A House of Many Windows (Sundress Publications, 2013). Her work has appeared in many journals including Rhino, Linebreak, Cider Press Review, Stirring, Sweet, wicked alice, and Weave. Her fifth chapbook, We Build Houses of Our Bodies was released in late 2013 by Dancing Girl Press, and her second poetry collection is forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2016.