Taste of Cherry is a beautiful, carefully crafted, and sensual display of poetry; the verbal, pyrotechnical, unabashed bravery of the poems is their most significant quality.
Kara Candito’s Taste of Cherry is an intense, finely crafted, bodily book: the poems are physical; the lines shove space around the page, bending form with content, which concerns the mingling of sex and danger. Like Luther Allison’s “Cherry Red Wine”, an important blues song, Candito’s book has the wallpaper-melting, air-tearing leathery feeling that can best be described as a “blues aesthetic.” Candito’s blues statement expresses an affirmative sense of life. Her poems have the wisdom, the insight that the intimate connection we seek (through sex, through poetry) somehow also leaves us feeling alone, yet also wanting more.
The blurbs on the back of the book will tell you how witty, wry, and funny the book is, but I find it more serious and provocative than joking. The woman speaking in most of the poems knows she is brilliant and gorgeous, and uses language that is both. On one level, the poems are about physical connections: people wrangling with city streets, late night intoxicants, and blind alleys; on another, they are about the problem of thinking—how not to be solipsistic even when making love. Like Lynda Hull’s work, Candito’s approach to personal and collective memory merges her historical context with an intense, ethical, empathic language.
The first poem, “Self-Portrait with an Ice Pick,” uses a tiered, tercet form and is set on the Lower East Side, a formerly impoverished neighborhood of tenements and now a site of gentrified, virus-like commercial properties. Candito feels the tension in a bodily way, reflected in the lines:
…What the body
wanted was its penance; scar, reminder that I
could love anyone, gnash my teeth on their
shoulder, then forget them in the subway car,
the stale air and grime of it, metal bar still
warm from a stranger’s hand and the shock, almost
erotic, of being jostled by so many limbs.
Like Anaïs Nin’s persona in her short stories, the speaker’s constituent parts (teeth, scar, shoulder, limbs) are part of the scene and reflect a potent inner desire. These are served up almost voyeuristically for the reader, whose enthusiasm for the speaker’s mind is relied upon to make the situation work. The end-words “body” and “I” are precariously enjambed, increasing the tension of the idea that the body wants something, penance. Similarly, the wonky rhyme of “car” and “bar” is sublimated by the end-word “still,” a meaningful adjective in the center of the lines’ long, sinewy syntax.
Some of the poems here reflect a time and place, maybe only imagined, of late nights and late-sleeping mornings that relish in the hedonism of “oleander blossoms,” “champagne flutes,” and “chambord.” “Notes for a Novice Flâneur” follows the speaker through midtown:
And do not repress the thrill,
vaguely sexual, of knowing that somewhere
beyond the windows’ mise-en-scene, or blended in
like an artificial god in camouflage,
there is an industrial fan making a mimicry of tropical
wind, flattening a silk bandeau across
the mannequin’s nipples, which are hard and unapologetic
as the eyes of a stranger that follow you
up Madison Avenue, where breath from the subway
grating rushes up your bare legs and the day’s
momentum begins to pass through you—the spring wind
lifting skirts, hands lifting suitcases from the curb,
the trunk of a cab flapping like a slack, sleeping mouth
all the way to the Queensboro Bridge.
Like Frank O’Hara’s city poems, this poem introduces the city-as-conversation trope and proceeds to the stranger’s eyes aligned with the woman who experiences being followed like a plastic mannequin and blowing subway grates: she is organically connected to her physical spaces. Evoking maquillage and disguise in various ways (camouflage, the mannequin, film scenery, and Marilyn Monroe), Candito shows the body revealing and concealing itself as the speaker moves through cross-streets and through the turning, surprising lines. She maintains energy and reading interest in spite of long sentences; the lines are never end-stopped. Each line pays attention to tension and includes both actions and images. Unlike the style of O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” poems, Candito always has a thoughtful, intellectual concern that is the hidden center of Taste of Cherry.
There is no doubt that Candito’s speaker had an active nightlife, with its consequent sex and drinking, but these were not self-destructive impulses. They were instead an effervescent love of personality, energy, and the honeycomb grid of the city itself; she seethes to experience it all—and uses language as a way of organizing chaos. She is a master at shifting long line across spaces, with enjambment, indentation, or leaps across stanzas. Clearly thought, practice, and talent went into all the little and big choices that resulted in these poems.
At their best, Candito’s poems are crimson-colored raunchiness and terror. Her “Barely Legal” meditates on the discovery of a father’s porn collection that ironically considers the speaker’s own nascent awareness of sex, power, and exploitation. Like Jerzy Kosinski’s Steps, these poems blur the lines, like a prism, between sex and gender. They question commonly held assumptions like: “Men can’t cry,” “Women are the victims of patriarchal oppression,” and “Heterosexual intercourse is an expression of men’s power over women.” Since Candito’s language is especially fraught and concerned with overturning such complex situations, Taste of Cherry is frequently electrified with a delicate mix of both clarity and complexity.
At their most transparent—poems in which I could recognize her choices from a mile away—there are levels of artifice between the speaker and these questions; the allusions tend to refract the psychic distance between the writer and these political edges. For example, “Sleeping with René Magritte,” is so breezy that it becomes more about the speaker than the interesting subject. “Gilead Red,” a mediation on Margaret Atwood’s dystopia in A Handmaid’s Tale, reads like a paraphrase of the novel which is its catalyst. Poems like these show the writer winking at the reader, not in an appreciative flirtatious way, but with an oh-so-clever insouciance.
However, Taste of Cherry is a beautiful, carefully crafted, and sensual display of poetry; the verbal, pyrotechnical, unabashed bravery of the poems is their most significant quality. Because the poems use pacing so perfectly, the best and bravest ideas are pushed through; they’re given time to simmer and fire the same neurons inside the reader. That reader meets her bravery inside each poem because the masks ironically make the speakers’ private moments and the intimate, yet public act of reading the poem a pleasurable instant. The poems have the anticipation and anxiety of a first date: they’re attractive, talkative, mysterious. We want to know more about the other, yet remain unsettled.