Poem for Poetry Thursday

Happy Poetry Thursday!

I did not follow this week's prompt, but decided to revise an old piece, one that has not appeared on this blog.

The following is the first poem I thought, "Gosh, this is a real poem." Since I wrote it about 12 years ago, I don't feel as strongly about the message as I did originally. But I think it still holds up. When I was in grad school, I thought that this would be my signature piece. So for me, revisiting the poem is a walk down memory lane. And, I think it paints a palpable picture.

If you enjoy eating chitlins (or chitterlings), then you may want to stop reading now.


It came in 10-pound container from the meat section
next to the hog jaws and hog maws and cow’s tongue and scrapple.
Mom used to clean them mid-day when I wasn't home
and when I was, I tried to get out. The acrid mustardy smell
of intestines boiling coated the house. I wondered
if our neighbors thought we were re-enacting a tribal ritual
with animal sacrifices, maybe we were.
Dad just liked the fleshy taste and mom was indifferent.
It was something they did out of habit rather than tradition.
I watched her from the front yard as she’d take
a hunk like rope and scrape the fat, let the froth
simmer to the top of the pot like wet paper.
She’d boil a pan of water with vanilla flavoring
next to the chitlins to fool us but who was she kidding?
Nothing covered the stench of that pork mush.
I imagined that this smell was evil, like boiled human entrails,
and I’d get sick from my own thoughts;
thoughts conjured from a time before me,
of never having enough but using every part what remained.
Pasty as wet paper, I thought this is what it came down to:
choice—my father eating the viscera,
and my mother poised to offer me a bowl,
the off-ramp of a swine’s innards,
knowing that this was all a part of me.


Brian said…
I'm a vegetarian. :)

Love the poem though because of the tradition you wove through the tale. It links the generations and shows the family rituals that are passed down as talismans. Heritage is a powerful emotion.
January said…
Thanks Brian.

While I love this poem, I feel as if I'm stepping on my heritage. Chitlins are a big part of black culture so I post this poem with a bit of trepidation. But I still stand by it.

(I added you to my list of links. Hope that's okay.)
Brian said…
Thanks for the link, of course it's ok. I am very honored.

Heritage poems work though, because you have the emotion to drive you. My wife is part Irish and every year she eats corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick's day. She is always disappointed, but tries the next year.
J - it's an intense poem, and, responding to your comments to brian - I wouldn't say it is stepping on the hertiage so much as it pretty clearly shows a conflict, or curiosity in the speaker: why do we do the things we do anyway, is the underlying question as I see it (made clear to me by the sort of "autopilot" of the parents)? What is "heritage?" I think of all the various dishes my grandmother used to make when I was a child, and how gross I thought they all were, and how confused I was by the adults' delight in them - now I understand it means something other than "actual" flavor - it means flavor as memory. And that, in the end is what Heritage is. I feel your poem is doing all these things, in its description of the cooking, in portraying the speaker's conflicts and disgust in the smell. It's nicely done.

Yesterday I was at the blog lorcaloca and I linked to Sean Hill's poem from there - like yours it is about pork and heritage and conflict...it's also very good. Incidentally, he just got a Stegner!


And of course, GOOD LUCK on your manuscripts!
This is beautiful writing and though it's about your heritage, it has a universality to it. I doubt I could write as deeply about scrapple.
paris parfait said…
Very intense poem - childhood memories and associations can be so strong.
I remember thinking some of the very same things when my dad would eat scrapple and pudding... I would never get near the stuff but it was all a part of the PA German heritage- well, they can keep it!
This poem also reminded me of when we were in Barrow, Alaska and walking around the town after a successful walrus hunt- they were cleaning the intestines, then salting them, and eating it raw! They asked if we would like to try some, but we thought better of it...
Seems like this certain tradition is world wide!
An excellent poem, indeed...
No chitlins for me, thanks!
L. Monique said…
I saw the title and had to take a peek. You did a great job weaving the smells and the unwanted feeling of those things in youth. I felt like I was having a memory of my own. I think of Whitley from a Different World. makes me laugh. :)
Catherine said…
Well, that certainly enlightened me about chitlins! It was very vivid. I used to enjoy eating tongue but could never manage tripe which I imagine is similar.
January said…
Catherine, I think tripe is almost the same thing.
la vie en rose said…
what a fabulous glimpse into being a part of something bigger than ourselves and how it can clash with how we see ourselves as individuals.
Emily said…
I like the conflict of the narrator but also the knowing "this was all a part of me" Very vivid. I liked this. I also liked your intro...it's interesting to think of looking back at a "signature" work many years later.
Well written - the graphic descriptions drew me in to see, feel, smell from the speakers perspective. I look back through my family life and know that somehow it is all part of me, even those parts that are not quite so appealing. You conveyed this very well.
chiefbiscuit said…
A slice of life - I love the way the poem gives me an entry into 'your world' - distastes and all. This is such great poetry! I can see the younger January in it - and the older one bursting through!
I like the way you've captured the tensions here between taste and tradition.
I do not know anything about chitlins but I learn something about you. Thanks!

Leila said…
hey jan, very nice. never knew what chitlins were. my mom grew up on "poor" food. i think you nailed one conflict: that of taste vs tradition. but i can't help but feel you are skirting a deeper issue, a deeper divide. you hate(d) chitlins. the poverty it represents was enforced. the tradition was forged out of awful history. put a taste of that in your sauce. like your mom, sometimes i think you like to put the vanilla boiling on the stove and pretend that it's all just about that. january, i prefer seeing the little glimpses of your anger. it is powerful and eloquent.
Jone said…
The sense of family, culture, and customs comes through. I can see that scene in my head. Thanks for stopping by.

Popular Posts