The Book of Donuts, Jason Lee Brown and Shanie Latham, eds.
124 pages. Terrapin Books, 2017.

Review by Matt Geiger     

John Falstaff once bragged that he was not only witty himself, but also the cause of wit in other people. While I doubt donuts possess the sentience necessary to write a clever poem all by themselves, they clearly have something in common with that corpulent rogue. In fact, donuts provided the inspiration for not one, but 54 poems (by 51 poets), all of which are compiled in Terrapin Books' new anthology, The Book of Donuts. In addition to being delicious, these ubiquitous gobbets of fried dough clearly possess the power to inspire wit and sentiment, which is no small thing.


It's a quick read, and thanks to the alluring picture of a rainbow sprinkle-dappled donut on the cover, it's also the first review book my three-year-old daughter has expressed vigorous enthusiasm for. It's often silly. And it's poetry, which is one of the rare art forms that allows for a glut of sentiment.


There is even a poem shaped like a donut.


But somehow, after I finished it, I was surprised by the emotional weight contained in many of the poems. Of course, there are donuts in all these poems, but this book is not about eating donuts any more than Don Quixote is about wearing a barber's basin on your head. For all its Bismarks, gulgulas and bombolones, the collection is far more human than pastry. The poems are really about family, international terrorism, anguish, love, and an array of other topics. The book is brimming with memories of mothers and grandmothers, glistening with perspiration as they tend crackling pots of oil. It's full of those who lose the ones they love and turn to trans fats for temporary but palpable comfort.


I'm a devout skipper of introductions. After all, true art is that which can be expressed only by itself, so they usually feel superfluous or redundant. But the introduction to The Book of Donuts is actually one of this anthology's many highlights. In it, Grace Cavalieri (the host of "The Poet and the Poem" from the Library of Congress for Public Radio) tells the legend of shipmaster Hansen Gregory, who allegedly stuck his fried pastries on the spokes of his ship's steering wheel. She also points out that donuts have been a "centerpiece for political party causes, human stories of rehab, police coffee breaks, and so on." She explains how a "sweet fried lump" again and again is "an emotional calculus for comfort."


In "Before I Had Been Wise," C. Wade Bentley mixes bacon, a murderous hawk, an eighth grade love story, breast cancer, and the allure of "blood-red" jam" into a tight, beautiful tale of woe. It is filled with insight and narrative cohesion.


"Babci's Apron," by Dianalee Velle, tells of childhood days spent eating donuts in her grandparents' Brooklyn kitchen "as fast as they were made"—with no worries about calories or fat.


Some images are too good not to mention. Tim Suermondt, in "A Doughnut and the Great Beauty of the World" writes of the chocolate smudge on his lips, "beautiful as lipstick on a woman." When he talks of shamefully cleaning up the evidence, there is something deeply human about it.


My favorite is "Job Offer in Mobile." In it, Mira Rosenthal tells a moving story that's free from cliche or forced meaning, right through the final sentence: "So take another sip of coffee, and let's stay."


Some of the poems were cute, but many—including those mentioned above and several more - carry real emotional heft.


"No ideas but in things." That's what William Carlos Williams wrote. It is clear that ideas do not only exist in our minds. They are, Descartes be damned, in a lengthy and complicated relationship with the people, places and things with whom we share the planet. There are countless donuts being fried and devoured right this instant - in greasy spoon diners, at high end confection shops. They are enjoyed ironically by hipsters and sincerely by the rest of us. It's all real—the donuts, the people, the pain, the beauty. That's what you see in the pages of this little book.



Reviewer's Bookwatch: October 2017

Midwest Book Review

9870998215945, $17.00, 124 pages

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