Few words bewitch the senses quite like those that recall the world of food. And even fewer ignite the prosaic ear in worlds of poetry. Yet, Lilah Hegnauer did not choose to call her second collection “Snickers bar,” “bell pepper,” or even “cellar door.” Pantry—winner of the 2013 New Southern Voices Book Prize selected by D.A. Powell—arrives in humble felicity. Here, among the canned, jarred, and bagged, is where Hegnauer unleashes her unusual, mystic domestic.
Dark Under Kiganda Stars, Hegnauer’s first collection, traveled Uganda bearing witness to the experiences of a young American woman confronting her cultural assumptions. In Pantry, Hegnauer embarks on a different inquisition, investigating the intimate and often misunderstood frontier of the indoors. Divided in five sections, her book is a full course meal, making curious every daily space and object.
Most poems take their titles right off the counter—“Rolling Pin,” “Ladle,” Whisk,” “9x13 Inch Baking Dish,” “Ice Pick.” “Pitcher,” the third poem of the collection, delivers Hegnauer’s speaker, a feminine and home-loving voice, in address, as she indulges in her own reflection:
Reader, how I thought I’d put a finger
through that thin, lit bubble
and become a better me. Of course
there was no bubble. Of course I’d stripped
to my skivvies in the middle of what
was just my own shower. And there, chilling
Recalling the voluminous shape of this kitchen vessel, “Pitcher” spills its heart to the reader nakedly, unabashedly. In relishing this luxury of body, Hegnauer’s speaker admits a liberty, a kind of vanity discovered in identifying as a container, be it body or bottle. Hegnauer’s collection is brimming with this type of meditation, of the still life basking in its domain.
In “Trivet” one finds a different shade of voice as it aligns with the heat-protecting object. In pugnacious profession, the speaker promises, “One day I will tell you / how I burned and wanted to.” With this addition, the reader begins to feel the project of the poet, as one holy with variety, a million tenses of womanhood. Yet, inbred in this verse is its negative image, an other diversity contained in a woman voicing herself through days of deformity.
By the middle of section 2, Hegnauer’s poems are boisterous with questions of utility, or inutility, as a mode of self-identification. “Double Boiler,” then, presents a mood of decadence, the delight of power in dual action, through the humorously pious voice of a woman convinced of her “couple-dom”:
I’m known for my salt horse sandwiches.
He’s known for his perfectly pitched
citrus. And together we’re known
around this town for chocolate
soufflé. When it falls, he fills it with
what you will, berries, lemon curd,
mint cream, &c. I dust it with sugar
These moments of ta-da, of total assurance in traditional roles, beg meaty, modern questions. For Hegnauer’s speakers, this world privileges at once a sultry kind of solitude and a sure suffocation. While we observe the voice of pleasure in knowing exactly one’s identity, of having a space however domestic, we also note what emerges passively. By the third course, Hegnauer delves deeper into this underlying aggression.
In “Spoon” we catch the glimpse of a woman talking back to herself in daily rounds, in the eye of the world’s quiet but glaring expectations, when she says, “Your longing is not more than you ever imagined. / It’s barely there, pulsing in the grocery bag.” The realization of the long trajectory of her domesticity bites back, and in the closing lines, we can feel what is stewing just under the surface: “This story is not new. I’ve lived with my fist gripped / around my heart for years, saying Quiet, you; you are not mine.”
This rich world- and self-indictment pipes up in other registers of feminine experience as Hegnauer makes toy and tool of the entire kitchen. In “Breadknife” the speaker pretends an exposure, a handicap: “Here I am tending this fire in ignorance: all I know / is how to set it hissing,” and in “Teapot” we hear the soft degrees of deprecation a woman enjoys at daybreak: “Some mornings I am capable of that pure nothingness: I am nobody’s / milk tooth, nobody’s rocky garden, no door, no mouse, no hive. But most / mornings I am it all, brindle bruise, footsore & famishing.”
Indeed, Pantry depends on the reader recognizing what kind of hungers are here in this special closet of womanhood where all objects are designed to delight, to provide, to please and profess a kind of plenty. Yet, it is here, too, where Hegnauer intends to show a kind of depravity. Like the speaker of Sexton’s “Her Kind,” we feel a woman simultaneously embracing and rejecting a heritage. To step out of the kitchen means to lose a history, to kill a connection to the female line, but to stay, boxed in by butter dish and bread box, is itself a throw to the lion’s den.
This stressed position continues into the final pages. In “Jam Funnel” we can see the voice fighting form and content, calling on the special properties of authority:
Thinking you could hold court even in this belly. You
who do not exist: once it seemed the function of poetry
was to mean. It was to last and to be and to hold
a place for you. While I slept you stood in the kitchen
The pantry is where one might find an answer to the tongue’s lust. Places in charge of this power have a curious air to them, especially since this space must indeed house, in balance, practical tools. Just next to the pie bird one might find also a typical something-or-other. However, for Hegnauer’s women, it is this place of wonders that is the shackle. The poet lays it on the table in “Skillet”:
pantry shelves: jimberry, jamberry,
red beans and black. Lentils
and popcorn and everything
you lack. I could pace your
acres and come to nothing—
still. No roots, no vines, no
This ghostly inner voice admits no sense of wealth. And by the end of the collection, whatever charm Hegnauer used to hither us into this cozy nook suddenly appears in new light, showing a different kind of real estate, and we, free to read and think and pace wider spaces, must combat the quaint at the same time we are swimming in it.
Carrie Chappell is originally from Birmingham, Alabama. She received her master of fine arts from the University of New Orleans’ Creative Writing Workshop. Some of her work has appeared in Bateau Press, Belleville Park Pages, Blue Mesa Review, Harpur Palate, Parcel, Paris Lit Up, and the Volta. Currently, she serves as assistant editor of Sundog Lit and lives in Paris, France.
by Lilah Hegnauer
Hub City Press, 2014
$14.95 softcover; ISBN: 978-1-938235-02-3