Alchemic Kitchens: On Hannah Gamble’s Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast

Anna Journey

Albany, NY: Fence Books, 2012. 63 pages. $15.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

“The gypsy plays best when the ashes from his first wife’s clothes blow into creaking folds of his accordion,” writes Hannah Gamble in her poem “I Am Told a Told a Thing or Two about the Duende.” Peculiar folkloric characters, such as the gypsy and the “smoke-wife” who “fills his lungs,” populate Gamble’s debut poetry collection, Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast, a National Poetry Series selection. In Gamble’s book, we encounter a “little girl with gaps in her teeth clapping ‘Cake! / Oh, cake! It is so worth a soiled dress!’”; an “exhausted midwife, who was white // as a broken almond”; a man who “inched closer to religion, / lining his bird’s cage with scientology bulletins”; a grandmother who hits people with her hairbrush; a man who “imagined / a woman running the vacuum / and all of his thoughts / being sucked from the carpet”; the “landlady Mirta / with her crepe paper face”; a father who carries “a deep blue pot full of stew” to a cocktail party; and a speaker who lies in bed with his wife as grackles mate noisily on the roof and recounts, “It isn’t hurting them, my wife would say, // birds have tiny penises.”

Always audacious and dark, Gamble’s poems may be understood as elliptical fables of selfhood that combine lively characterizations, a giddy tonal muscularity, and the sense that a delightful, zany wonder resides around every household corner and that within every cranny of the imagination lies a supreme, holistic weirdness. In addition to the colorful characters of neo-surrealist fable who’d find themselves at home in the poetic universes of Charles Simic or Russell Edson, Gamble’s poems variously recall the tragicomic absurdities of Samuel Beckett, the grotesque fabulations of Franz Kafka, the domestic mysticism of Emily Dickinson, and the loopy self-interrogations of Mary Ruefle. Gamble’s voice-driven zeitgeist is what I’ll term the “goofball declarative”—that absolute statement of something odd or absurd—which she uses to cultivate surprise through bravura and, at times, provide a tonal counterpoint between witty and plaintive registers. Gamble’s braggadocio often draws from the self-aggrandizing deadpan wielded by Ruefle, who has a similar eye for the surreal image and for the ironies, hilarities, and disappointments that vie with one’s own warped sense of self-importance. Gamble’s speakers, for example, proclaim: “For I was born innocent // and stayed that way until only / recently”; “Everything I want to tell you / would make a wonderful sound / hitting your windowpane”; “I walked out into the yard, / trying to vomit and drink milk simultaneously. I tried to sleep / while smoking a cigar”; “All I ever wanted / was no cruelty.” Gamble refuses to dwell too resolutely in vaudevillian cleverness, however, as her voice—always intimate, odd, and conversational—swerves unpredictably from sardonic to giddy to doleful or quietly sincere.

The first couple of stanzas of Gamble’s title poem, “Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast,” show the poet’s nimble shifts from a gently teasing, conspiratorial warmth to an onslaught of dark humor:

It’s too cold to smoke outside, but if you come over,
I’ll keep my hands to myself, or won’t I.
I would like to tell you about the wall eaten up

by the climbing plant—it was so beautiful.
Various things have been happening to me,
all of them sexual. The man on the bus

took off his pants so I could see him better.
Another man said, “Ignore him darlin’.
Just sit on my lap.”

Gamble’s speaker isn’t too ironic to indulge in a little sincere praise, though her sly enjambment (“the wall eaten up // by the climbing plant”) hints at the vertiginous surrealist antics to come, with the creepy, pants-less overtures. Gamble swiftly counters her speaker’s sense of awe and her gentle seduction of the “you” with a (literal and figurative) full-frontal assault that destabilizes the poem’s tonal progression. Like the man on the bus who observes the speaker’s alarming sexual predicament and drawls, “‘Ignore him darlin’. / Just sit on my lap,’” Gamble’s speaker seems a similarly unpredictable judge of character. While the perverts on the bus elicit her breezy deadpan, an innocuous man eating too much protein for breakfast attracts the speaker’s sardonic eye: “But I’m not one of those // who’s hungriest in the morning, / unlike the man at the bakery / who eats egg after egg after egg.”

Shifting tones once again, Gamble employs the imperative mood to create a quieter, more intimate address to the “you”:

Listen. Come over: the cold has already eaten
the summer. I need another pair of ears:
from the kitchen I can’t tell if I’m hearing wind chimes

or some gray woman with failing arms
dropping a pan full of onions and potatoes.
                                     This morning I need four hands—

two to wash the greens, one to lift a teakettle,
one to pour the milk. This morning, one little mouth
will not do.

With so much eating going on—the climbing plant, the egg-scarfing man, the devouring winter—the speaker’s own hunger seems smaller, more vulnerable, at risk from even the tinkling wind chimes which conjure a marvelous disaster: “a gray woman” who loses the ingredients to her meal. Whereas the fabular old woman drops her pan full of tubers, Gamble smoothly juggles two contrasting kinds of intimacy: the sordid confrontations of the men on the bus and the tender intimacy of a would-be breakfast companion. And as we move from crowded bus to kitchen—from public to private sphere—Gamble’s Chaplinesque speaker drops her comic bravado to expose more private aspects than the flasher uncovers on the bus. In the tradition of the sad clown, Gamble reveals the plaintive loneliness beneath her speaker’s actions and her simple wish for “four hands,” for someone to come over and help her make a modest meal.

In addition to the ordinary tasks of washing vegetables and brewing tea, the speaker embellishes her invitation with absurdity:

             We could play a game

where we crouch on the tiles, two yellow dogs
drinking coffee from bowls. We could play a game
where we let the breakfast burn.

Outside there’s a world where every love scene
begins with a man in a doorway;
he walks over to the woman and says “Open your mouth.”

What the speaker harbors, we learn, is a particular existential hunger: an appetite for an imagination that engages the world with childlike wonder (“two yellow dogs / drinking coffee from bowls”), with risky abandon (“let the breakfast burn”), and with the expectation of nothing less than a grand, commanding romance (the love scene where a man appears in a doorway, “walks over to the woman and says ‘Open your mouth’”). Gamble’s “invitation to a modest breakfast,” it turns out, is simultaneously a tragicomic fable that rails against loneliness and an understated invitation—or invocation—to the muse, whose power lies not in the prescribed machinations of a Greek epic but in the piecemeal wonders of one’s own alchemic kitchen. The kind of simple companionship sought by the speaker in the title poem—and amid other charmingly eccentric inhabitants of Gamble’s collection—just might, as Beckett writes in Waiting for Godot, “hold the terrible silence at bay.” The manifold ways one fights that terrible silence—through absurdist or even ordinary domestic gestures—begin in Gamble’s modest invitation, that startling ars poetica in which to engage the world with existential boldness and a dose of dark humor you must, most certainly, “‘Open your mouth.’”

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