Rebecca Foster's Reviews > Strings Attached

Strings Attached by Diane Decillis
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May 18, 2014

really liked it
bookshelves: poetry, read-via-edelweiss, foodie-lit

A lush debut collection of poems dwelling on the author’s Lebanese-American identity. In the rich metaphorical language of food and color, DeCillis, a Detroit native, blends memories of her Lebanese grandmother with longing for her absent father and admiration of her unconventional mother. This is my first taste of the Made in Michigan Writers Series; I like what I see so far.

The poems are full of warm, diverse food imagery: almond croissants, osso bucco, bone marrow, a self-referencing fortune cookie, even the author’s shellfish allergy. Whether she’s remembering her grandmother boiling milk to make yogurt and teaching her how to stuff grape leaves, alluding to food-themed films (Babette’s Feast and Like Water for Chocolate appear in “To Be Fed”), or watching a girl ruin a Duncan Hines Pineapple Cake mix on a TV program, DeCillis finds food an endless source of inspiration. It often serves to emphasize the sensual differences between Lebanon and the United States:

“I say / Maxwell House coffee / is to Turkish coffee as Twinkies are to / baklava, crisp Lebanese / baklava made with chopped / pistachios, drizzled with fragrant // rosewater syrup.” (from “As Pressing Is to Flowers,” but later revisited in a sardonic way in “Baklava Killed My Father,” which includes a recipe)

“A young girl, my grandmother Sittu / looks out her window / at the mountain in her Lebanese / village. She describes it: soft purple, / yellow and gold—a smear of fig jam / on warm buttered toast.” (“The Grammar of Memory”)

Prose poem “Music from Another Room” is the culmination of all the culinary influences. It documents every dish of a typical Lebanese family feast: hummus, baba ganoush, tabouli, lamb kabobs, pita bread, pomegranates, date cookies, and ends with reading fortunes in the grounds of the Turkish coffee.

DeCillis’s dominant color palette is blue, red, green and especially yellow, as in the two poems “Reconsidering Yellow” and “Yellow According to Rilke,” sampled below:

O yellow of lemons—make that limoni,
(sounds even more yellow in Italian).

O honeyed stars [...] the yolk heart sunny-side up.

Who can sleep in a world with so
much yellow?


Green is present in the trademark ink her father used on all his postcards, the liqueur and “leaves / sprouting from baby green to sage adolescence” in “Artemisia Absinthium,” and “the funneled startle / of red, the green gesture / of photosynthesis” in “The Botanist and Her Amaryllis.”

DeCillis is playful with art forms: “Cubist Still Life” is a satire about a girl named Cubist (“she was viewed as one dimensional [...] Her yearbook described her / as ambiguous, shallow, and one most likely to collect dust”); “Falling in Love at the speed of the William Tell ‘Overture’” mimics that piece’s incessant rhythm; and “Reconsidering Yellow” teasingly describes a poetic form (“She obsessed as if she were a / pantoum, repeating the first / and third lines of her life”) – which then makes a proper appearance in “Origami Pantoum,” referencing Whitman, Stevens, Basho, Neruda and Chekhov.

I would also mention “What Would Hitchcock Do?”, a comic poem about how desserts torment the narrator on vacation while she is dieting; some of the lines are contrived to shoehorn in film titles (“The woman / offers us dessert and like / some psycho, I lose it”), but I still enjoyed it.

The collection closes on the title poem (one of the best), which celebrates DeCillis’s mother. She left New York to enter an arranged marriage with a Druze man back in Lebanon, convinced him to return to America with her, but then divorced him at age 23 and became the primary breadwinner for her family. “Mother was an Edward Hopper / painting—a woman drawn / to a wedge of sunlight, an oil drum / rolling down a quiet / street at night...She was modern / art, a light / in the window—never the apron, or even the strings.” I loved the way that title metaphor simultaneously evokes family ties but also a feminist shirking of traditional roles.

Reading poetry is so often assumed to be hard work, but these poems are a joy. I would highly recommend them for readers who prize cross-cultural fiction or memoirs with recipes.

Related reads, also from Wayne State University’s “Made in Michigan” series:
Making Callaloo in Detroit by Lolita Hernandez (short stories that share these culinary and intercultural themes)
Quality Snacks by Andy Mozina (short stories)
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Reading Progress

May 18, 2014 – Started Reading
May 18, 2014 – Shelved
June 4, 2014 – Shelved as: poetry
June 4, 2014 – Shelved as: read-via-edelweiss
June 4, 2014 – Shelved as: foodie-lit
June 4, 2014 – Finished Reading

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