Dark as a Hazel Eye: Coffee & Chocolate Poems
(Ragged Sky Press, 2016)
$15, 5.5” ˟ 8.5”, 112 pages, perfect bound
(preface: four brief episodes from a life in coffee)
I once worked with a woman who enjoyed responding to an order for a “Tall Italian” by saying: “Oh yeah, I’d like one too!” and watching the customers, mainly older men, squirm.
Years later, blonde roasts became the thing, much to my dismay. Predictably, I found myself one morning in line behind a college student who guffawed his way through the statement: “I guess I’ll have a small blonde…ha, ha…” I would have checked him myself, except the look on the woman’s face who sloshed his coffee towards his oblivious hand was doing it for me.
Once, we were pushing a new roast from Chiapas, and had to remain silent as one of the more affluent regulars referred to the roast as coming from “Mexico…y’know, that place where are all the murder and rape happens.”
And there was the one time I was working at a place whose specialty was a unique blend of Mexican hot chocolate (here I must admit that I’ve taken it as a personal affront the way this phrase and flavor have become ubiquitous as I’ve grown older, from childhood treats of Abuelita mix to the incident that follows) when a white woman walked up to the counter, did the requisite hemming and hawing of trying to decide what to order, then very enthusiastically ordered a Mexican mocha, adding that she needed something “hot and spicy, and south of the border,” ending her statement with a shimmy and shake of her waist and torso.
I share the above incidents as preface to this review of Dark as a Hazel Eye: Coffee & Chocolate Poems specifically to give an idea of the reading experience I had. As a former barista, I have lived through moments like the above and worked in environments clearly shaped by the romanticized notions of coffee in America. As a Chicano, I have had to feel puzzled and strange in the face of artistic, black and white photographs of coffee farmers from various parts of Latin America, their images displayed in order for the shop and product to gain an air of authenticity. Whether it was a corporate coffeehouse or an independent coffee shop, my time behind an espresso machine was ever problematic and complex. (I almost forgot to mention the customer who asked if I was related to any of the coffee farmers in one photograph. No comment.) What I am hoping to convey here, briefly, is my own sense of coffee culture in America.
As can be imagined, all these recollections came up for me when I sat down to read an anthology of poems devoted to coffee and chocolate. And sure enough, my first reading into the anthology was a troubled, heavy one – troubled and heavy, that is, until I realized that it was inevitable that poems about coffee and chocolate, in their enthusiasm and veracity, would naturally reflect coffee culture and our human tendency to fetishize what we love.
An example of such a problematic moment for me came when I ran across a poem entitled “My First Turk.” The innuendo of the title made me pause: How easily, I thought, could this have been titled “My First Mexican”? Then I read a bit further down and, sure enough, there you are amigo, in the lines of nostalgia over “that handmade / Mexican mug the size of Kansas, fueling my thesis all-nighters.” I share these thoughts not to shame this particular poem or poet, but rather to highlight how sometimes there are hiccups in the intimate acts of reading and writing poetry. By hiccups, I merely mean a certain looseness in execution due to enthusiasm; when given a prompt or focus such as coffee and chocolate, it is easy to simply pull in everything that comes to mind – from wordplay to innuendo verging on the problematic (as seen here) – when reaching after a moment of insight or phrasing. Refining from this wide approach down to the particular singularity the poem would focus on is tricky, especially when the prompt is as specific as it is in this anthology. Ultimately, the poem in question is about praise for “The tiny gilded cup” that:
ooooooooooooooooooo …arrived with a
casual Mediterranean flick of the wrist
and I gazed into the foam of a caramel ocean.
And yet even in these lines with the lovely image of the crema (that’s the top layer on top of an espresso shot – you’ll be coffee-cultured yet!) there is the problematic “Mediterranean flick.” One cannot help but wonder: What exactly is a “Mediterranean flick of the wrist,” and how does it differ from an Italian flick, or even a Mexican one (of course, I am over here flicking my wrists in between thoughts now)? Where I feel a poem like this falls short is in such moments of inexactness; rather than push the image of the flick of the wrist into metaphor or even vivid specificity, the word “Mediterranean” is imposed over the action, and as a reader I am left with questions about what that means. The line that follows, again, does the opposite, and delivers a satisfying push in the form of image and metaphor.
Again, my goal here isn’t to dismiss this poem or any other, but simply to speak about the pitfalls that come with love poems. And yes, this anthology can be seen as a collective love poem to coffee and chocolate. For every moment of inexact fetishizing, there are several insights into human passions and appetite. Catherine Barnett’s “Acts of Mind” accentuates an already engaging Frank O’Hara-like meditation in a café with the line: “What do they put in this coffee? Men?” In another poem, Jody Struve depicts the nuanced moment of human urgency that is sitting in a coffee shop thinking, “each shout for a cup of ‘joe’ / is the beginning of my name.” Later, Jennifer Arin’s “Xocolatl” lyrically navigates for the reader the Náhuatl terms around the origins of what would later become the shimmy and shake I now forever associate with Mexican chocolate.
In each of these poems as well as in others, there are sharp depictions of the way coffee and chocolate affect human lives, as well as the way these, at turns bitter and sweet, treats are made human through such reflections. Through an artfully and conceptually sound layout of poems, the editors at Ragged Sky Press have created an anthology that delivers what Naomi Shihab Nye’s stunning poem “Arabic Coffee” terms “a motion of faith.” Faith not only in coffee and chocolate, but also in poetry’s ability to praise and connect.
The ending stanzas of Maxine Susman’s “A Tasting Game” bring me full circle in my reading experience. In the poem, Susman describes the game “Truffles,” which consists of taking a box of truffles and one at a time passing them around in a group, each person taking a small bite. This act of intimacy and appetite is rich with meaning; there is the human closeness of sharing chocolates but also of sweets travelling literally from hand to mouth. In the end, I was won over by the anthology’s spirit of praise even with my original “concessions” and reservations. Anthologies like this one work much in the same way as Susman’s game:
Truffles will teach you concentration. Foreplay.
That you and someone else can want the same thing,
but rarely want it equally. That many flavors beckon:
if you forfeit one, another tastes delicious too.
That triumphs and concessions stay sweet when small.
How to make something last that isn’t meant to last.
A CantoMundo fellow, José Angel Araguz has had poems recently in Crab Creek Review and RHINO Poetry. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of six chapbooks and the collection Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence. His second poetry collection, Small Fires, is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press in 2017.