A Review of Kory Wells’ Sugar Fix
By Chase Dimock
When Kory Wells sent a submission of poetry to As It Ought To Be Magazine last Spring, I was first struck by her sense of history. In “The Assistant Marshal Makes an Error in Judgement”, Wells writes about a census taker in the 19th century whose guesses at the races of citizens become their legal racial identity inscribed in his government ledger. Today in 2020, it took a court battle to resolve the citizenship question on this year’s census. This poem is more than just a historical footnote; its reminder of how the politics of identity and who has the right to recognize it have continually defined American society. In this way, Wells follows the words of fellow southern writer William Faulkner, who famously wrote (and was even more famously quoted by President Obama) “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
With Sugar Fix, Wells explores the never dead past of today through the personal and cultural memories of sugar. Recipes handed down from generations are clues to her family mythologies, the proustian taste of chocolate ice cream on her tongue is a confessional, the trade in sugar and sweets in the south is a material history of the racial and class tensions of reconstruction to today. It would be easy for a book of poetry centered on the metaphor of sugar to lapse into saccharine sentimentality and syrupy cutesiness, but Wells is a poet who understands the cost of pleasure and the sweat demanded of our brow before we taste the sweet. She knows the personal price of indulgence and the social cost of supplying society with its sugar fix.
In “Still Won’t Marry” Wells takes on the persona from the traditional Appalachian song “Angeline the Baker,” envisioning her as weary of the constant propositions of trading sugar for skin:
He says a little taste of sugar will cure
my weary back, my aching shoulders, my
singed arms. Like I don’t know what that man wants.
Angeline’s side of the story is wise to the after effects of the sugar fix “The bed a pleasure too short. Babies Chores./ His wants ahead of mine.” Wells connects this folklore of indulgence in sugar and flesh to her own past in a poem whose title conveniently saves me from having to summarize its premise: “He drove a four-door Chevy, nothing sexy, but I’d been thinking of his mouth for weeks.” During a date at a Dairy Queen Drive in, Wells is fixated:
I wanted to be free
of want. Do you get that way
sometimes? Where all
you can think about it
chocolate, chocolate, chocolate,
or in my case man, man,
that man. The bench seat
of his Chevy became a pew
Wells knows what Angeline knows, but as a young woman, she is far more tempted by desire.
I kept telling myself
it’s just an ice cream,
but even then I knew
love is a kind of ruin.
When those cones arrived
so thick and voluptuous,
I almost blushed to open my mouth
before him, expose my eager tongue.
Does she give in and suffer the fate that Angeline so resolutely defended against? We don’t know for sure. Wells leaves lacunae in her histories that we fill in with ourselves, our own projections, our own yearnings for the sweet caresses of yesteryear.
Sugar is more than a treat or a temptation; it is a commodity that came at a human cost and a chemical compound fueling and composing the bodies in which we all live. In the brilliant four page poem “Some Notes and Three Word Problems on Red Velvet Cake” the recipe for Red Velvet cake is a personal genealogy that connects her to the unspoken history of policing race in the south:
I’ll bake an all natural version with beet juice and butter.
We’ll trace our fingers on the family tree
to the grandmother we share–
Mahaley or Lucretia or one of the unnamed–
and imagine her singing from heaven to all
With the substitution of red beet juice for her Grandmother’s original recipe that called for red food dye, Wells extends the idea of sweet red drops to her family’s history of anxiety over their racial heritage:
If in the white woman’s veins
there are one hundred drops of blood,
one and a half of which are from Sub-Saharan Africa,
does that knowledge change her?
Wells understands the politics of fractions and drops in the south, bringing up Dr. Walter Plecker’s “one-drop rule” theory of race and its enforcement in Virginia, which she terms “bureaucratic genocide.” The image of the drop of blood combines with a drop of sugar in stanzas about the material history of sweets interspersed with her family’s unclear racial ancestry:
It is true that in the 1870s, the Juneteenth drink of choice
was lemonade tinted red for the blood shed by slaves.
Some people claim red food coloring has no flavor.
I don’t believe this is true. It’s true that
in 1894 the Supreme Court in Plumley vs. Massachusetts
said that food coloring serves only to delude customers
Wells confesses that she was “a grown woman with children” before she realized “red velvet cake is made with cocoa.” It’s the same realization she makes about race and ancestry. She knows that the past is never past because we cannot help digging up the census and reading recipes for hints about the fractions of us that we try in vain to add up to a whole number.
Recent controversial studies in epigenetics have proposed that trauma can be inherited from an individual’s parents through DNA. Freud proposed that we inherit trauma by witnessing the symptoms from our parents and learning their neuroses. Sugar Fix is a testament to both; recognizing the recipes that were baked generation to generation, and the molecules of sugar in our genes that drive our desire for something sweet, whether it’s a comforting slice of Grandma’s pie or the sugared saliva of a forbidden desire.
For more information about Sugar Fix, visit Terrapin Books.
About the Author: Chase Dimock is the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be Magazine. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship has appeared in College Literature, Western American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His works of literary criticism have appeared in Mayday Magazine, The Lambda Literary Review, Modern American Poetry, and Dissertation Reviews. His poetry has appeared in Waccamaw, New Mexico Review, Faultline, Hot Metal Bridge, Saw Palm, Flyway, and San Pedro River Review among others. For more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.
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