Here I am, attempting to think of what to say, but my coffee spilled, and it made such a lovely and dark display across my table. This is the sort of mindset in which Shawnte Orion places me: an area of in-the-moment appreciation, the odd humor of something spilled and its preoccupation with gaining our attention, and the beauty found in the small, the subtle and the sometimes-frustrating.
In Orion’s debut collection, The Existentialist Cookbook, I am floored by these poems’ honesty, their humor, and their seeming, underlying want for this Cookbook to be a recipe for a new kind of living. In this collection, living is truly in the details. Orion’s frequent use of fragment, as well as surprise and humor, reminds the reader of the potential for discovery in a chicken salad sandwich, a pause, an antiquated phone booth—and while his poems may not suggest our stopping to smell the flowers, they provide more world-specific examples of the absurdities of life, and the appreciating of a teacup over the din of traffic, or the sporadic nature of a midnight cat. “Despite” their pop culture references, these poems are timeless in their sentiment and challenge of ways of living, and their humor keeps them memorable, beyond relatable, and always surprising.
According to NYQ Books, “Orion shifts through the absurdity of modern living for scraps of philosophy, religion, and math to blend into recipes for elegies and celebrations,” which proved to me to be an incredibly accurate summation—these poems are fixated on the every day and the small absurdities that occur, but, as I found, they also present the opportunities for thankfulness that accompany. While I read a collection, I write down page numbers for the poems I enjoyed the most, but in this case, I wrote so many page numbers down, I had to rank them—for this exact reason, the relationship between thankfulness and the absurd.
Below, I have included three of my more-favorite poems that I would like to share before continuing my review:
DREAMS pl. n.
lake and sea
you lie on the embankment
plunging hand into stream
grasping at powerful currents
water flowing between your fingers
rushing toward the sea
but notice your hand still wet
water dripping from each finger
as the Sun dries your arm
THINGS THAT MAKE ME CRY
in our new kitchen
In our old kitchen
DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRONICALLY-DEPOSITED UNEMPLOYMENT CHECKS?
on this assembly line.
It might sound technical
but I basically press
buttons on a machine
while they invent a machine
to press the buttons
on my machine and I can only
hope this new machine
will have its own buttons
that also need to be pressed.
These poems are brief, but they are also lovely, imagistic, and raw. What is particularly interesting to me is how these poems are so deeply rooted in the mundane and still manage to find value and beauty in that moment and teach us something about the self. For instance, there is the water dripping from the narrator’s hands in “Dreams,” which represents beauty and simplicity, the cutting of onions in an empty kitchen in “Things that Make Me Cry,” which represents solitude, and what about the ever-shifting role of the factory worker in “Do Androids Dream…,” which can represent stability, hope and regret, and even a certain element of humor. These poems accomplish in tight spaces, through singular instances and images, truths that are often overlooked in our everyday lives but which are otherwise deeply telling of ourselves and our needs.
And if such sentiments were not compelling enough on their own, I also truly admire Orion’s writerly decisions—particularly his use of fragment and transformation from fragment to full sentence for emphasis. These traits are not portrayed in the poems I included, but what becomes so important about these techniques in Orion’s poetry is that they accelerate the poems forward and create an emphasis, in image and concept; the use of fragments isolates these images, and finalizing a poem with a full sentence emphasizes and finalizes the importance of that image. In the poems I included above, Orion focuses on double-meaning through the removal of (most) punctuation and the power of successful enjambment. For instance, in “Dreams,” I particularly enjoy the isolation of images that occurs, based on the enjambment of the lines and lack of punctuation—take “water flowing through your fingers,” for instance, which takes on a feeling of not only importance but a small, eternal continuity. Take, also, the images of the onions being cut in the second poem; not only are two instances of onions being described, but they are separated into a form of ongoing, isolated and deprecating silence. How this works is very lovely and surprising, as well as memorable and sharp-handed.
These poems, from the beginning, entranced me first in their earnest, humorous appeals but then kept me with their surprise and subtle movements at the level of the line. Shawnte Orion provides a unique snapshot of our world and its little absurdities, its humor, and even its beauty, often found through simplicity. The Existentialist Cookbook confronts some of our greatest inconsistencies, our sins, and reminds us of what we can and should focus on, how we should operate, and how we should live. It’s deeply honest, and in that honesty, humorous, and it is greatly memorable. This is one of those collections where you should take it to a quiet place, sit back and drink a cup of coffee as I did. And maybe spill it a little, close enough to the book for you to need to pull it away and watch the spill spread; it’s so worth it.
The line “Clark Kent is a super hipster” appears at the end of the first stanza of Orion’s poem, “Mallville.”
SHAWNTE ORION attended Paradise Valley Community College for one day, but his poems have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Barrelhouse, Gargoyle Magazine, Georgetown Review, New York Quarterly and many other journals. His chapbook The Infernal Gaze was published by Red Booth Review and he has been invited to read at bookstores, bars, universities, hair salons, museums, and laundromats. He hosts monthly poetry readings in Arizona.