Introduction to an Idea
I've got a column! Every month I'll be posting a single poem analysis followed by an author Q & A for The Poetry Question. Each column will open up with an annotated, interactive version of the poem, followed by the BROWN STUDY.
For those wondering, the term Brown Study means to be absorbed in thought/daydreaming with such complete emersion that the entire world around you disappears. We could all use a little of that. To give you an idea of what you can look forward to, here is a mini-BROWN STUDY of my poem "A Recipe for Imperial Rice"
Immigration, assimilation, identity, and food. If I had to reduce the body of Jeni De La O's work to discrete topics, the four mentioned above would certainly be near the top of the list. In her piece "A Recipe for Imperial Rice" Jeni brings these themes together using allusions, historical context, and visual space.
The way the words are arranged on the page in this poem matters a great deal. When you think about Cuban immigration to the United States, it is impossible not to think about the ocean. This poem has been arranged to resemble concentric circles, the kind you might see after a stone sinks underwater. At the right edge of the poem, the letters become less compact, windblown across the width of the page. The image created here is multi-layered. First, the concentric circles being blown apart can represent how cultures shift and expand in the (literal) wake of assimilation. Secondly, the concentric circles call to mind the expression "drop in a bucket" which could allude to the central issue driving the entire piece: if you have to ask for a recipe for Imperial Rice, making that dish won't be enough to reconnect you to the culture.
The use of Biblical references is curious. The poem opens with some light allusions to the death and resurrection of Christ. This folds nicely into the theme of assimilation and cultural preservation in that despite dying, the Christ is resurrected and lives on, in a different (less tangible) form. Culture follows a similar trajectory in migration, according to sociologists, with first-generation children of immigrants eschewing large portions of their heritage to "blend in," only to have their own children who seek out more information about their heritage and its traditions.
Saffron is mentioned in connection with the Bible even though the spice itself only exists in one verse of Songs of Solomon. In that scripture, saffron is referred to in as something appealing and seductive, this is a steep contrast to how saffron is used in making Arroz Imperial. Because of saffron's high price, most cooks use annatto powder (Bijol) to color their arroz imperial. This is a subtle allusion to the way traditions shift and crack under the constraints of immigration, even for people genuinely seeking to stay connected to their culture.
This idea brings us right back to the title. The author is providing a recipe for an Americanized dish, not a Cuban dish. The person being addressed in the poem is so disconnected from their traditions that even what they consider to be an authentic dish is an American hybrid. But a connection, no matter how small, to our past and who our people were, is a place to start. A family circle, blown apart by distance and challenging shifts in ideology is still a family, and Cuban food is still Cuban food, even with cheese on top.
So, there's a taste of what you can expect from BROWN STUDY (minus the Q&A because it would be silly to interview myself, I'm not Paul Rudd). If you would like to have your poem considered for a BROWN STUDY, please fill out this form.