“Tin gods and all”: Lilah Hegnauer’s Pantry

Lauren Hilger

Spartanburg, SC: Hub City Press, 2014. 75 pages. $16.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

Pantry, Lilah Hegnauer’s second collection and winner of the inaugural New Southern Voices Poetry Prize, judged by D.A. Powell, explores both a relationship and a home through its happiness and uncertainty. Taking poem titles from the kitchen implements of a bon vivant, the table of contents reads: Pie Bird, Spoon Rest, Pastry Brush, Churchkey, Jam Funnel, et al. These poems, however, are not written through the personae of these tools, nor are they simply involved in the act of describing happiness. Each poem, rather, grows larger than the kitchen’s locality and tactility as Hegnauer’s lyric voice ricochets outward and changes each object she names.

In the poem, “Burning,” Hegnauer displays a swerving syntax:

I crept, a porter of your unknown hours.

Who you? Who, seriously, are you? A fawn.
A cobalt. A convalescent in a courtyard

in a time before mine. Whole milk scared you. You
cardiologist, you. What nothing undid you.

Here and elsewhere, placing home as the site of desire, Hegnauer writes candidly and assuredly. A poem entitled “Bowl” reads, “you made milk with our want, // you made wanting a full time job.”

Hegnauer admits desire with openness, with the courage to face it, to see what it looks like, and to speak it. In the dauntless spirit of Edna St. Vincent Millay, these heightened emotions come alive. To wit:

Gust, suck the curtains out the window. I want you standing in a hot
      shower
with an apple brandy perched on the edge of the tub.

Even when not describing actual surroundings, Hegnauer evokes and complicates this sense of desire by switching tones mid-poem. One line, jaunty and lighthearted, quoting Irving Berlin, “I want all my eggs in your basket,” is followed by the mysterious: “I move within a syllable of time and you, you watch me do it.”

In another tonal switch, she speaks directly:

If I put one leg around you in the night, if I press
your hands above your head—

have you ever seen such want?

This address of unadorned language adds a bare feeling of honesty. The layering effect of plainspoken speech, sensory image, and high lyric gives these short poems intricacy.

This linguistic complexity is evident in Pantry’s culinary poems. To be sure, writing about well-being, especially if it hinges on the auspices of eating well and cooking with cool savoir faire, can appeal less to the reader than intended. However, Hegnauer takes her attuned ear and eye to the challenge of making the lyric accessible to the reader without feeling twee. In the poem, “Rolling Pin,” she describes

an apple so small
and purple you could scalp it and dry it

for a mezuzah.

These visually apt and accurate descriptions give the poem a believable, lived-in feel, without getting too emotionally involved; the strangeness of the line squashes the sentimental desire to make everything more beautiful than it is.

To Hegnauer’s credit, coupling food with lust, a frequent literary pairing, feels engaging and vital to Pantry; these poems move about with ease. In the poem, “Sieve,” Hegnauer writes of scallops “which I’ll toss directly into the brown butter / thyme, into the improbable fevered // copper-bottomed expanse of our home.” Surely, this is rhapsodic and serves its emotion exultantly, but note the following images:

[…] What
venous insufficiency, what plasterwork

cell, what pantryman’s icebox, what bundle
of letters hidden between joists

in the ceiling of the Copland cabin,

In these lines, Hegnauer entertains a more peculiar coupling, one that suggests the home contains unknowns and bewilderment. The unknown of this poem expands. While we escape the aromas of the kitchen, we approach a cabin with letters written by a stranger, and we must confront the absence of heat, comfort, and sustenance; this division allows the poem its light and shade. Hegnauer does not merely revel in the quotidian or praise it. She points to its darker side, and what remains secret.

In addition to the couple, there is a third presence evinced—we can say it’s that of longing, heavy spirits, the blues. As the speaker travels within the rooms of the house, these shadows and doubt are never abandoned totally. In the poem, “Sifter,” anxiety is evident:

Child that wasn’t, everyday. Child
that set the wide skillet of my mind
to humming. Child that wasn’t, again.

Morning arrives like a tug
and anchors in the shoal—mud,
muck, suck, spray, take, take.

By employing “anchors in the shoal,” true with life, this poem, and others like it, remains close to this world, the things we touch, and pain we still have to endure.

Nevertheless, Pantry is a collection affirming the good. One need only read the admission: “I live to want the lush and slippery world /        I believe everything.”

Rilke, (tr. John J.L. Mood) wrote, “What right have you, in all displays, / in every mask, to be genuine? / —I praise.” Hegnauer shares this generosity of spirit, for she does praise, yet she also displays the questioning “other” voice, the one who provokes the response “I praise.” Even when celebratory, Hegnauer’s praise is not a bald, tepid ode. She writes into the sentiment with authentic incongruity.

Pantry pronounces the home as a bearable dream, the realized vision of the young and the hopeful. The poems speak to this intimacy, both familial and romantic. There are real moments of lyric elegance, where Hegnauer finds the fastest and also the most beautiful way to express the line. In “If the Mind” she writes, “Time moves in different directions. // One toward decay, one toward preservation, / holing up and tightening the hatchways.” In “Pasta Pin,” Hegnauer writes,

[…] watched pots love it, summer
      won’t last long, heat lessens, patience
gets easier, love is only a kind word

away.

In Pantry, sharing belongings and a home, ultimately, is intimacy—the tools we handle, the food we make, the kitchen unitaskers we admire, use, then put away. In naming its poems after the items we don’t ordinarily think of until we need them, the tools come to represent their action more than their stationary presence outside of use.

Reaching for the pie bird, one begins to understand it as whistle, a tool to release steam, that which allows the pie to keep its shape without crumbling under the weight of itself in the oven. As the first item invoked in this collection, the pie bird is an unnecessary object but also an accoutrement of comfort. Hegnauer asks her reader, “What is life for if not to want it, tin gods and all.”

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