A review of Recipe for Garum by Robert Letters

Reviewed by Beatriz Copello

Recipe for Garum
by Robert Letters
Paucus Publishing Company
Paperback: 102 pages, June 2019, ISBN-13: 978-0999285589

I am not sure if many people know what Garum is. For those who do not know. here is how the writer of Recipe For Garum Robert Letters explains it: “Garum was a pungent fish sauce made in Roman times from the leftover parts of many different kinds of fish.” I thought a lot about the relationship between the word and the title of this beautiful book of poetry. I believe that it is because many of the poems in this collection relate to everyday living and Garum was in every Roman household, as this product was highly appreciated. The author gives a hint when he says: “As with other domestic pungencies, it seems to make life worth living,” because Garum had a terrible smell. Yet, I did not find this book caustic, acrid or biting on the contrary I consider it to be poignant, sharply expressive and mentally appealing.

Recipe For Garum is the fifth book of poetry written by Robert Letters and is divided in three sections. The first one, titled like the book. contains a series of lyric poetry about domestic life. The second section, titled “Canal”, contains a long and fascinating narrative poem, and the final section is made up of short poems and Tankas about the everyday married to nature and its beauty.

In the “Recipe For Garum” section, the monotony of daily life is turned into poetry. Dreams and events adorn the pages with eloquent and meaningful words:

traffic in the village
a mother calling her son’s name
someone hammering.
the low growl
of the carpenter’s voice
drifts into the bedroom —
what is he saying?

the cat is crying again —
her friend
from beyond the broken fence
must be wandering. (“This Morning with the Window Open”)

Many of the poems contain nostalgic observations. In others things are said in a veiled way leaving the reader to decide on the meaning. The majority of the poems in this section appeal to the reader’s senses. The poet says so much with so few words, as in “After the Storm”:

after the storm
sweet smell of tree grinding

in sleeping houses
dogs bark when I pass

Nature is an important element in Letters’ poetry, impregnating his words and lines. The stanzas come to life on the page, not only the beauty of the natural world but little intimacies that subjugate the heart:

two green tulip leaves
blown over the house
lie in the gravel garden
anchored to one stem

outside the bedroom
transfigured by sun
the tulip tree
moans to the wind.

In Letters’ poetry we read the voice of the lover, the carpenter, the gardener, the farmer. These are voices of life, in the country, the city, the neighbourhood. In “Winter Rain” the reader gets a hint at the poet’s philosophy of life:

rain against the window — the one by our bed
it rattles the metal chimney in the still kitchen
it coaxes grey light out of January darkness
it surprises the green earth out of sleep

a moment ago we walked to the river
your stocking catching on the autumn nettles
that brown field abandoned
to the bones of your hips

the wind comes up — thirty years retreat
winter brown again in the edges of moonlight
snow will come tonight to cover dormant
as we sleep, dreaming another sequence of forgetting

I really enjoy the writer’s small gems and ponderings about what it means to be alive, about the real, about beginnings and endings. Letters covers a lot of ground in these very short stanzas:

the penetrating wind
distributes birth and death
from mouth to mouth
still we navigate
confident our path lies
over unimportant ground

The struggles of a hardworking man, his dreams, thoughts and wants are told in poetry form in the second part of Recipe for Garum. The story develops like calm waves travelling towards the coast. Slowly, with aplomb and self-possession, the man’s character unfolds:

His entire life
has been nothing.
Small. Small
as the red throated
at her flowers.

Some sensual stanzas are encountered in “Canal”. This piece is apparently simple, as it has no complicated metaphors or literary devices yet is profound and gentle.

The final section of this poetry book titled “Then You Said Come Outside” consists of Tanka and Haiku-styled short poems. The poems in this section express deep feelings for nature as is characteristic of the genre. The sensory details and expressive language in this section are enhanced with striking imagery and in some of them, deep emotions. Recipe for Garum is an unusual book: very well written and entertaining. Reading it is a quiet pleasure.

About the Reviewer: Dr Beatriz Copello is a former member of NSW Writers Centre Management Committee. She writes poetry, reviews, fiction and plays. The author’s poetry books are: Women Souls and Shadows, Meditations At the Edge of a Dream, Flowering Roots, Under the Gums Long Shade, and Lo Irrevocable del Halcon (In Spanish). Beatriz’s poetry has been published in literary journals such as Southerly and Australian Women’s Book Review and in many feminist publications.  She has read her poetry at events organised by the Sydney Writers Festival, the NSW Writers Centre, the Multicultural Arts Alliance, Refugee Week Committee, Humboldt University (USA), Ubud (Bali) Writers Festival.