Poetry Sunday: “Making Zelnik at the Sibling Reunion,” by Karen Paul Holmes

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

That recipe sounds delicious, right? And it did in the poem as well because of the care the author took to include specific details, such as every ingredient found in the dish, within its lines. It is in the poem, not the recipe, that we learn that the feta “must be sheep’s milk in brine” and that the leeks must be so fresh as to require repeated rinsing in order to cleanse them of sand. The ingredients are not simply listed but are rendered with mouth-watering detail, so much so that although I was grateful for the recipe, I almost felt like I could have managed to make a passable zelnik without it.

One thing that makes the descriptions so vivid and visceral is the author’s use of action, rather than static adjectives, to communicate details. That’s another way of saying she shows us the zelnik being made rather than just telling us how delectable the dish is. The leeks are given as metaphor, “crescent moons” that “bubble” in butter. We see them being rinsed and chopped before they are sautéed, and those actions carry the weight of the sibling’s collective memory about how their mother once performed that ritual. A flurry of food preparation paints a portrait of five siblings gathered to honor their mother’s memory by preparing a dish she used to make:  prepping the onions; careful and “swift” handling of the tricky dough; monitoring the baking to achieve the perfect degree of browning; and finally, sharing the dish and talking about whether it measures up. Through these acts, we learn that this is a close family with ethnic roots now dispersed to “five cities in three states” whose matriarch is very much missed. This tendency to use action rather than description combined with a wonderful specificity of detail are just two reasons “Making Zelnik at the Sibling Reunion” works so well as a narrative poem, for it makes readers feel as if we are there, in the warm kitchen with the family.

My graduate program taught me that poetry can be narrative, lyrical, or dramatic, and that many poems combine elements of all three. Here’s a good working definition of narrative poetry:

With its roots in the oral tradition of ancient cultures, narrative poetry tells a story. The three primary forms of narrative poems– epics, ballads and straightforward narratives–differ in length and style, but they all share fundamental elements: They use a narrator to tell a story, they include poetic and figurative language, and they aim to entertain the reader.

Most definitions of narrative poetry also prescribe that the poem be metered, but there are many examples today of free verse narrative poems. In such poetry, the story is told from the point of view of a narrator, typically one of the characters. In contrast, dramatic poetry does not have a narrator, and reading it is more like watching a performance or play in which characters simply perform their actions or state their lines. Lyric poetry attempts to capture a moment in time rather than a chain of events and the focus is less on what happened than on how the speaker perceives what happened; it “expresses personal emotions or feelings, typically spoken in the first person.”

Part of the power of poetry derives from its ability to engage all the senses, and another strategy that makes this week’s poem feel so immediate and real is the author’s evocation of other senses beyond seeing. Sight is evoked in the color and shape of those “pale green / crescent moons” of leeks, the “translucent” sheets of filo, and the “brown” crust of the completed dish. Other senses also figure significantly, especially, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, touch. The onions are “tender” and the final dish contrastingly “crisp,” and we are made aware of the tactile delicacy of filo, “onionskin thin,” and apt to “dry and crumble” and “like a dragonfly’s wing.” Touch is also evoked in the subtle distinction drawn between merely “warm” and “hot-hot,” and an actual touch happens in one sibling’s unconsciously affectionate gesture, in “Eileen touches his shoulder.” Hearing is stimulated in the mother’s instructions for cleaning the leeks and in the onions sputtering in the bubbling butter. Taste gets its due in “salty” and “sour.” The only sense not directly stimulated is olfactory, but I swear I could smell that combination of leek, onion, butter, and dough once it was put into the oven, again because of the author’s careful and artful detail in presentation of the dish’s raw materials.

Sometimes the action is used to create a metaphor, as in my favorite line, “Our 50 fingers roll the crust’s edges to seal the hollow / we’ll feel tomorrow,” and in the way that five-way split of the last piece of zelnik represents how the five siblings will separate and disperse the next day back to their own homes. The poem’s ending, following the narrative arc of the story told in the poem, comes when the action of making the zelnik is complete and the reunion ends. It does what good endings should do in poems—feels inevitable and offers closure at the same time that it opens up into something else—a portal rather than a closed door. How wonderful that the poem ends on the word “goodbye!” Imagine how at a reading that last word would hang in the air, making it unnecessary to say anything else before the poet leaves the podium. It reminds me of a poem I’ve heard Dean Rader read a few times, one of his whimsical and wise Frog and Toad poems ending with the word “thank you,” that in the same way makes a powerful final poem in a live reading.

“Making Zelnik at the Sibling Reunion” is emblematic of the collection it is drawn from, Holmes’s new book, called No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin Press 2018) and released just this month. The book includes many poems celebrating the author’s ancestral familial roots in Australia (through her mother) and Greece (through her father) and recounts the history of a happy immigrant family and childhood. We learn about how the author’s parents met, the places they lived, and the children they raised in poems that are accessible and gracefully wrought. Every life includes its measure of grief, and No Such Thing as Distance also includes work that reflects sorrow for the author’s mother’s last illness and death, and for the breakup of a long marriage, but overall its message is a positive one that focuses on familial love, friendship, beauty, and a nonspecific but authentic spirituality. I especially enjoyed the poems inspired by nature (wisteria comes up more than once) and place (Australia, Macedonia, Michigan, and the South). One of my favorites from the collection, “If You Plant a Bradford Pear,” is vividly imagistic and follows the pastoral tradition by moving from a visceral re-creation of something seen in nature to how it relates to the author’s emotional past. Some might call these poems old-fashioned for their accessibility and willingness to, well, mean something—but really, how else can a narrative poem, one that seeks to tell a story, be successful? I prefer to think of the poems as generous, using straightforward diction and syntax shaped with intelligence and precision, and there is much here to enjoy. And if you think the recipe for zelnik sounds awesome, just wait till you see the one for Macedonian bean soup, and of course, the poem by the same name that it inspired!

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