This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman.
Approaching a collection adapted from a book of turn-of-the-century domestic wisdom (recipes and instructions that range from “How to Destroy Army Worms” to “How to Cure Distemper in Horses”) is an exercise in a strange kind of abstraction. In addition, a collection that is not strictly found creates another level of complication. The original text, Chas W. Brown’s Standard Cyclopedia of Recipes, provides blueprints for the kinds of boutique household knowledge that developed through columns such as “Hints from Heloise” into the short-forms and “listicles” that dominate Internet fix-it sites and home-and-garden magazines. Brown’s book is the product of the assumptions of two ages: one during which all books demanded a level of dense prose, and the present—in which information is stripped down to its bare essentials. The formula of what constituted a book was a tacit understanding, the contents of a book and its format being expected things.
Often, this resulted in unnecessarily flowery prose that, at best, provides rich data from which to find new poetries or, lacking invention, simply an awkward and enjoyable reading experience. Edwards’ From the Standard Cyclopedia… certainly recognizes the possibilities resident in the original text, even if bending them more to poetic will than what even the Found Poetry Review publishes or considers a traditional approach to found poetry (if there is such a thing).
Edwards, the meeting of these two sensibilities arrives through an injection of a first-person speaker into the poems that acts as a mediator between the experiences of the original prescriptive texts and the oddity of a modern reader attempting to access them and synthesize their experiences and map them to contemporary life. On many occasions, the poems intersect through how objects have been repurposed or in words whose definitions have morphed over time such as in “No. 569 Alum for the Hog Cholera,”
after I’ve thought too hard, attempting to ignite a bundle of sticks / with only my mind, after I’ve had any amount of cocaine…your inclination will be to abandon the one last chance / that you chose to dole out to me.
Not being able to verify the distinction between interpreted and wholly appropriated pieces of the puzzle-in-verse, it is difficult to assess these as necessarily “found” poems, but perhaps that’s not the point. The melding of voice and unity of elements such as Edwards’ use of sound in the lines serves to mask the fact that any of the text is derived from a source outside of the poet’s own voice.
Many times where found poets are successful, the success of a poem or a collection lies in the writer’s ability to manifest such an individual voice despite different degrees of sampling from others’ tones, attitudes, and styles.
In this, Edwards’ From the Standard Cyclopedia… is a major achievement. Able to master what may endeavor to be a source full of archaic aphorisms, these poems speak loudly and clearly.
In addition to reducing, streamlining, and updating the kinds of content that expect of a recipe or instructional guide, Edwards challenges the expectations that we bring to reading “recipes.” These adaptations act as a commentary on both concern and construction as he reassembles and updates the text, allowing it to exist in a fragmented original form. It is a collection of varying poetic structures, engaging with traditional stanzaic and prose poems. After breaking a non-lineated source into lines, Edwards even challenges our notions of how much weight lines can bear. Expectation might dictate that we expect recipes to contain brief, focused lines that cut directly to the idea or “ingredient” at hand.
While there are several poems that do conform to such a precondition (such as “No. 31 A Cure for Giddiness”) most test the boundaries of the page. Though not quite Whitmanesque in their broadness, poems such as “No. 662 To prepare and Bleach Skeletons” vacillate from an opening line of six words in eight short syllables, it ebbs and flows to a concluding ten-word, eighteen-syllable line: “After, I cling to your femur / It is from waking most mornings with our hairs tangled / arms and legs around each other, and I am there / still worked into the top of your skull, / I have filled your ribs—sharp / peninsulas of whiskey and dime store lubricant—I am everywhere.” The lines are sweeping in their dynamism; Edwards’ dense syllable counts packed into an average line of just over eight words gives a sense of the weight of these poems. Though the book is shorter than some (at 88 pages), it feels much more substantial. Even shorter pieces, line-level construction prolongs the moments of the piece such as “No. 911 How to Cure Small Pox,” the closest poem to a list contained within the collection,
There are things that we fear: / Grains… / Zincs… / Foxes’ Glove … / Children, in proportion … / Teaspoons of full of water … / teaspoons full of sugar … / Bathing at a comfortable temperature … // (This is the complete catalog)
The use of ellipses in contrast to the building density of lines creates a thick knot of a poem; difficult to unwind, though simple to tie into. It gives From the Standard Cyclopedia… the same sense of unity that other books such as Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow and Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager maintain even though it is broken into three sections and further divided into individual poems.
There are moments where Edwards’ adapted poems show an obvious break from the source material such as in “No. 708 How to preserve Ice” which contemplates wrapping the speaker in “something from the nineties / … an old flannel. / … a Honda Civic. / … a mountain of ecstasy. / It will hold solid. Repeat. Again. / It will hold just fine.” Being that the source text’s publication year was 1902, there is an immediate anachronism here. But, it strikes a similar tone to that of plays using chiming clocks (as in Julius Caesar) – it is not merely a poet attempting to own poems, but to bring some level of familiarity and a frame of understanding to the text. Initially, one may feel distanced from the text as a set of “adapted poems.” However, on sitting with the collection for some time, these updates (slight gestures peppered throughout) combined with the use of first-person speakers in some of the poems is an adaptation that strengthens the voice of the collection circumventing the risk of being a book of curious oddities crafted from yesteryear. Instead, From the Standard Cyclopedia of Recipes has a sense of belonging to it. It does not lean on whimsy or cleverness. While these elements do exist within the text, these asides ensure that the book from merely operating as a gimmick or trick sourced from an antiquated text.
Instead, what we have is Edwards interpreting and offering additional dimensions from, as he writes in his notes, the “strangest book [he] has ever read,” one whose context may be foreign, but (in content) is closer to our own experience than we may imagine. Writing through this strangeness, From the Standard Cyclopedia… becomes not such an odd thing. Though the knowledge from which the book is sourced may be outdated, esoteric, and obscure, the reactions to and the contemplation of the kinds of issues that we face in contemporary society are no less different – there are no prescriptions that we can follow nor approaches that we take which are enduring. Perhaps when future audiences read Edwards’ text, they may think the same thing about us and our preoccupation with Honda Civics and Segways – finding that, though they think they, too, live in a more “enlightened” time, that they, too may not be truly that strange.