A common poetry classroom assignment is to write a “how to” poem, explaining some activity or recipe. It’s often a fruitful exercise because it forces us to pay close attention to detail, and invites us to think metaphorically about something mundane (“How to Tie a Knot” or “How to Draw a Perfect Circle“), or to think concretely about something more metaphoric or abstract (“How to Judge” or “How to Continue”). Here Philip Metres draws on a recipe found in Nawal Nasrallah’s Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and History of the Iraqi Cuisine, which you can find out more about here. But aspiring chefs should probably go back to Nasrallah’s original text before attempting to feed their families – Metres has made some rather unappetizing alterations… Here’s the poem:
“Recipe from the Abbasid”
Skin & clean a fat, young sheep & open it
like a door, a port city hosting overseas guests
& remove its stomach. In its interior, place
surveyors in exploratory khakhi, a stuffed goose
& in the goose’s belly, a stuffed hen, & in the hen,
machine gun nests, C rations, grenades, a stuffed
pigeon, & in the pigeon’ belly, a stuffed thrush,
& in the thrush’s belly, contractual negotiations
& subtle threats, all sprinkled with sauce. Sew the slit
into a smile, dispatch handshakes. Add Chevron,
Exxon, Texaco, Shell. Place the sheep in the oven
& leave until this black slimy stuff, excretion
of the earth’s body, is crispy on the outside,
& ready for presentation.
I should mention before I dive in that Sand Opera includes poems that are much more wide-ranging and experimental than the one reproduced here. The first section, “abu ghraib arias,” is a mournful reexamination of the treatment of prisoners by United States servicemen and -women at the notorious prison of the title and at Guantanamo Bay, and includes text from a Standing Operating Procedure handbook, moving testimony from both Americans and former prisoners (some of it blacked out or partly erased), and texts from the Bible and the Code of Hammurabi. Other sections deal with Metres’ own conflicts between his American upbringing and his Arab heritage, and sometimes include such strange additional material as a floor map of a prison cell and a reproduction of Saddam Hussein’s fingerprints. All of this, especially as it accumulates, has a lot of impact, and there’s more to say about it all, but given the limits of my enterprise here, I thought it best to focus on something that can stand alone for readers. Please do go and check the book out further, though, because the collection feels particularly relevant today.
The metaphoric language being used as the poem begins appears at first to be in the service of vivid description– we are to open the sheep’s skin “like a door,” or perhaps like “a port city.” These similes might be a bit elaborate for a standard cookbook, but given the medieval source (more on the Abbasids shortly), and the fact that we know we’re reading a poetic rendering of the recipe, perhaps we should expect such leaps of language. I speak from experience when I say that over-thinking the correlation between a sheep’s internal organs and the structure of a port city is more fanciful than clarifying, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.
Soon, though, we are instructed to insert “surveyors in exploratory khakhi” into the interior of the sheep, and our metaphor-making has to change direction. For a brief amusing instant I admit I wondered if this was some culinary idiom – if we can make “pigs in a blanket” or a chow mein noodle “bird’s nest,” why not “surveyors in khakhi”? But it doesn’t hold up and we realize that it’s the sheep, rather than the stuffing, that is becoming the metaphoric vehicle. We speed through historical tag-marks that point to European colonial rule (surveyors) to the Second World War (C rations and machine gun nests), and eventually to more modern representations of the “West”: “contractual negotiations & subtle threats.” All of this is clever enough for us to wonder what it is we are cooking, and we sense the ironic anger simmering under the veneer of hospitality. But this poem isn’t merely an anti-colonialist screed; in fact it contains a much more far-reaching and complex critique of power and wealth.
The Abbasid Caliphate, based mostly in Baghdad, ruled a large section of what we now call “the Middle East” from roughly 750 CE until the 1500s, and presided over what historians now often refer to as the Golden Age of Islam. From the development of algebra to The Book of a Thousand and One Nights, the Abbasids were the epitome of an advanced civilization. Only a culture with significant wealth and expertise could conceive of a recipe that includes (if we stick to the edible parts) a thrush inside a pigeon inside a chicken inside a goose inside a sheep. (It makes John Madden’s turducken puny in camparison!) On the one hand, it’s glorious. On the other, it’s absurd. And knowing how luxury has usually been built on the subjugation of others, it is easy to surmise that few in the Caliphate would have had access to the kind of delicacy referred to in this poem. The final line of the poem, “& ready for presentation,” makes it clear that we who are cooking this fabulous meal are probably not going to partake in it.
One of the secrets to the Abbasid’s success was its openness to the influence of other nations – particularly from Persia, but also China and elsewhere, east and west. So the lines “Sew the slit / into a smile, dispatch handshakes” seems to point the finger not just at the colonial power-brokers from elsewhere who exploited the region, but also at those who have been complicit in those efforts, welcoming them with traditional hospitality on the one hand, but an eye toward personal gain on the other.
So while the poem invites a familiar reaction against oil companies like Exxon and Shell, a closer reading reveals that rather than some sort of historical aberration, these corporations are merely the most recent in a series of powerful forces that have always exploited the region and its people, contributing to the suffering that in this poem is in the margins (although it takes center stage elsewhere in Sand Opera) but also patronizing the craftsmen, artists, and scientists whose achievements might appear in a 21st century recipe book. Can we create luxury without oppression? Will it be ever thus? How much more must we shove into that pathetic, accommodating sheep?
One final note regarding tone. A recipe tends to be written in the imperative case: do this, mix that, bake for 45 minutes. When we read these instructions we rarely find ourselves opposing them – “What do you mean I should pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees?!” But by the end of this poem, I find myself cultivating a kind of internal resistance, not just to the recipe itself (“No, I’d rather not add Chevron to my roast thanks”) but to the whole enterprise the recipe now refers to. Of course, the poem doesn’t provide an answer for how to separate the seemingly inextricable pairing of luxury and oppression. But by calling our attention to it, Metres encourages us to imagine a different recipe altogether that will feed everyone with generosity and taste.