Karen Leona Anderson’s forthcoming poetry collection, Receipt, is a groundbreaking repurposing of—and response to—the overlooked scraps of daily life. In this book, Anderson illuminates images that I myself normally sweep aside: the asparagus tips, the receipts, the department store dresses, the sparrows. Reading her book has beckoned me to see the poetry in the ordinary domestic objects of my own life.
This is Anderson’s second collection. A graduate of the MFA workshop at the University of Iowa and a Ph.D. program at Cornell University, Anderson now works as an associate professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She has won a number of literary awards and has had many poems published in journals and anthologies, such as the Alaska Quarterly Review, the Colorado Review, Ecopoetics, the Seneca Review, Books that Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal, and the Best American Poetry 2012. A number of her poems that were published in these journals may be found in Receipt.
The collection is divided into three parts: “Recipe,” “Receipt,” and “Re.” Inspired by a range of cookbook recipes as well as personal receipts, Anderson’s poems ponder what these artifacts say about the formation of modern American identities, particularly for women. She considers women’s identities as mothers, daughters, workers, sexual beings, pregnant bodies, wives, and single women. With a fresh, wry voice and smart precision, Anderson reads between the lines of both recipes and receipts to find deeper meanings. She’s particularly interested in the psychological, social, and spiritual costs for women of being stretched to fit so many roles that necessitate so many domestic duties. For instance, in the poem “Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air,” the narrator considers costs that aren’t at all monetary: “All the great tips (the bread-crumb coat, what little kids eat) / but what I like best is myself calling in: like them: / a voice: costing time.”
In many of the “Recipe” poems, it’s as if Anderson is opening a vintage cookbook and stepping right into the page. She draws on the basic form of all recipes—lists of ingredients followed by instructions—to rethink the recipes of women’s daily lives. Lurking behind cake recipes and picturesque kitchens, Anderson finds caricatures implied by the aesthetic of 20th- and 21st-century cookbooks as well as the commercialization of women as domestic goddesses and men as the consumers of their products. Personally, I haven’t quite mastered the art of baking a pie without the inevitable accompaniment of a smoke alarm, but Anderson uses all of this food imagery to discuss gender beyond caricature. Her poem “The Complete Cookbook for Men (1961)” illustrates masculine expectations through a character named “Fred” who is compared to a steak—”Beetpink on the inside, beetcold. / Outside, you are grilled to black.”
Anderson explores similar characters and caricatures in her recipe poem “Hollywood Dunk,” written after a Betty Crocker recipe for a party dip. That fantasy homemaker Betty Crocker sets a tone that allows the narrator to imagine herself as part of a glamorous scene: “the careless cool around the staged pool party.” From here, the narrator then comes to see herself as an extra on a set, “if not a star or guest. / If just the dip’s / vegetable chewed, ragged by the end / almost horrorfilm.” This poem ends with a fierce resistance accomplished through humor, which is a tone that Anderson sprinkles throughout her collection: “Maybe it will be more fun / with my apron on.”
And, in fact, across the whole of the “Recipe” section of her book, Anderson’s poetic narrator expresses disillusionment regarding the confines of modern motherhood, marriage, and female identity, all without a hint of self-pity or sentimentality. Instead, her narrator has an understated wit and a dark playfulness. Her dry sense of humor serves her larger message, such as in the opening to the poem “Caramel Cake”:
It’s a great plot, hot sugar.
Simple: the bubbles are loose as change.
The mange of white on the stove’s knob
is a declaration of sex to come, crystalline, boutiqued,
sterile metal. Accruing as it turns. One could sit here,
secretarial, watching the nice but boring pot caramel
and never get as much as high-end butter on a finger,
as I now call it, investor.
Here and elsewhere, Anderson both toys with and twists conventional meanings of words, just as how the language of cooking can often mean more than one thing.
In order to talk back to what recipes might signify to women beyond the kitchen and the table, Anderson also brings her readers into an emotional dialogue with these poems. For instance, in one called “Holy Face Community Cookbook,” Anderson repurposes the language of recipe instructions to reveal a broken family dynamic between the narrator and her children:
These recipes tell us Mix well. Or Bake
till done. Some dumb sun blighted this land,
no, you did; no, you. The receipt
for repairing damage: shape batter
into bells. I can’t. Add salt to taste
to the dough….
Incorporate the fat in layers;
careful not to overdo it;
you’re overdoing it; exactly; I am;
kneading hand over hand
over hand; now, Fight well,
you two, as the kids watch the world
burn down. Did you fight to save it?
If not, start over.
In reading Receipt, this was one of the poems that hit me the hardest—particularly in Anderson’s delivery of this dark message through such a casual, instructional format.
As she moves from “Recipes” to “Receipts,” Anderson approaches the fantasy of the American dream as it is represented in consumer culture and department stores by transplanting utopian imagery with stark reality. In this section, Anderson’s poems are offered as forms of cash register receipts. By reflecting retail images back to her readers, she reveals their distortions. These distortions evoke in me that sense of trying an outfit on in a fitting room and, under the fluorescent lights and endless mirrors, seeing the difference between myself and the mannequin. Through such unconventional angles, Anderson looks at women’s social roles through life-changing events such as weddings, honeymoons, separations, and pregnancies, especially in such poems as “David’s Bridal ($0.00),” “ClearBlue Easy ($49.99 CVS),” “Epidural (25.00 copay),” and “Little Black Dress ($49.99 Nordstrom).” In essence, Anderson’s narrator is in conversation with these articles of clothing, these products, these services, and the cultural weight each item carries. In “Paid ($3,678.53 Capital One),” the narrator realizes, “But see I’m now definite debt, / an existence built on dinner, out and clothes, men, / and the management of myself.” Here, Anderson turns a bank statement into a woman’s reflection of herself, asking that woman to rethink who she is, given what she buys (or doesn’t buy) as well as what she eats and wears.
Anderson’s smart use of poetic devices shows up here, too. One poetic device she often uses is juxtaposition. For example, she highlights a familiar frustration when she contrasts the struggle women feel when “just getting by” against the impossible platitudes and unrealistic advice found in consumer culture. In the poem “Gospel ($0.00 Bed Bath & Beyond),” the narrator feels like a failure when comparing her reality to the commercialized gospel of the perfect (not to mention expensive) mother/wife /homemaker/woman: “back at home, a damned shame and me / always fucking it up. Is love in your home?” and “Dishes stuck with crap even after I washed / and dried them. Make home a baby haven!” In reading the cash register receipt poems, I found myself wondering again and again who or what has set these unrealistic standards—and who or what is profiting from them?
Anderson’s third and final section in her poetry collection is “Re,” and this section continues the theme of having a female narrator engage in conversation with everyday objects. Many of these poems respond to particular places. “Re” takes on ideas of re-conciling, re-vising, and re-constructing these locations and their inhabitants. Here, Anderson’s poems blur the manufactured line between society and nature. In the poem “Retired,” for example, Anderson’s narrator “stalks the dead mall,” to find the bats and larvae doing their own renovations inside and out. Or in “First House,” the narrator finds “morning glories restored / by the shovel that severs and buries, severs.” In a sense, the final “Re” section of Receipt speaks to a potential reconciliation between the tensions between the “human-made” and the “naturally made” in women’s day-to-day lives. Computers and baby carriages and showerheads mix with fungus and squirrels and echolocation. And eventually, the wildness seems always to restore itself, and perhaps that includes the wildness within domesticated women as well.
The captivating poetry within Karen Leona Anderson’s Receipt has made me view the small, ordinary things in my own life through a critical lens: a recipe, a price tag, or a cash register receipt may operate as a mirror or a looking glass to reflect the social roles we women embrace, reject, and struggle with. This collection will resound with readers who already ponder the many questions it begs: What parts of women’s identities are planned and by whom? How do women respond to the unplanned and the wild? And what do we women consume—and what is it that consumes us?