Opposite the title page of Sarah Gambito’s third book, Loves You, is printed a black-and-white photo, circa 1985, I ’d guess. Eight people, mostly women, are perched on seats or stand around in a living room, balancing plates of food in hand. Those closest ones to the camera look straight down at their plates, eating and not talking to each other. Despite the lack of interaction in the photo, there is an intense sense of intimacy. I presume this is a Filipino family, perhaps Gambito’s own, sharing a moment of togetherness not through language or touch, but through food.
Loves You is many things: a collection of poems and an assertion of the corporeality of life via real recipes you can follow; a meditation on racism, colonialism, patriarchy, and the diasporic experience; an exploration of the identities of woman, daughter, mother, sister. It is also, as importantly, an exploration of the collective experience—as depicted in the photo preceding the poetic text. The image captures the momentary lull that often occurs during a family gathering—after the serving of food and before the explosion of talk, laughter, teasing, conflict, confusion, and reconciliation. Throughout Loves You, Gambito approaches this moment of transition between the self and the collective from many different angles. Just as the recipes in the book invite readers to roll up their sleeves and do the work of cooking, the poems also ask us to roll up our metaphorical sleeves and do the work of listening, integrating, and synthesizing the voices and experiences Gambito has gathered for us.
Indeed, this collection of poems, recipes, and poem-recipes is an unlikely call to action in our current moment, one of increasing oppression of and virulent hatred toward immigrants and people of color. But Loves You invites us to expand our experience of ourselves so we can understand others better, and in doing so, we can learn or re-learn what it means to be family, loving and caring for each other across differences and through what we share. We all need to eat, and we all need to connect to others. This book is about how to do both.
Structurally, Loves You mimics a cookbook, beginning, after the photograph, with a poem-recipe titled “On How to Use This Book.” We’re given both literal instructions for cooking the traditional Filipino dish adobo and hosting a party—“Invite at least 15 people. It’s okay if your apartment is small”—and the metaphorical instructions for how to extend our own experience into the larger, sometimes hostile, world around us. The rest of the book is divided into five sections corresponding to the five taste sensations on the human tongue: Umami, Sour, Salt, Bitter, and Sweet. Several pieces are titled “Cento”—suggesting a big bowl of lines that Gambito has collected from her garden of experience, mixed together, and plated with exquisite care.
In an interview on the podcast Commonplace, Gambito explains that she felt she needed to understand what she, as a poet, should be doing following the U.S. presidential election in 2016: “How are you called to your time?” she asked herself. And the answer came to her as she ate hot ramen outside in the cold with a friend. She realized she was called to write poems that “light you up from inside.” Poems to “nourish you through the bone and take you through the door.” Thus, she found her way to the connections between recipes and poetry. In the same podcast, she describes both at once:
It’s call and response. It’s inert as it lives on the page. But then what I create is some kind of action, that we do something, that it impels you to action in the world. I’m impatient with poetry that stays in the brain, which is still lovely, but I found I crave a different relationship. I love the idea of the recipe as a spell, as alchemy—you put these things together and something can happen. And the audience is the one that you feed, or yourself.
While the call-and-response format in the recipes is fairly straightforward, the poems require an alert and engaged reader, able to respond to Gambito’s call by leaping lightly, with trust, between ideas, perspectives, and positions. Consider the ending of “When I Hated My Body,” which invites the reader to take part in breathing life into the lines and taking action as citizens of the world:
You eat like you are being chased.
You who are living. What is your responsibility?
Illuminated light and
holding the hymnal with your boyfriend,
I wanted the poems to breathe prettily,
to be ecstatic and extroverted citizens.
The subjects and objects of these poems continually morph, shift, and melt into each other—creating opportunities for the reader to embody and inhabit a multitude of perspectives. Gambito’s poems always add up to something greater than the sum of words, lines, or images. It is the same in Loves You, where the poems are flashes of insight, half-told stories, invocations, prayers, chants from many different voices. Gambito leaves it up to the readers to tie these voices together, to do our part in creating the alchemy, stirring the pot of the poem, making our own sense and meaning from the poem’s experience.
However, as this ending of “Bilingual” indicates, Gambito is looking for more than a metaphor-driven story co-created by the reader:
She said the rain made her hair come down
in points that met each other.
The rain becomes a metaphor
rather than just what happens
You should want to tell a story.
But, I want more, more than that.
She’s also seeking to ground the poems in the real and lived experiences of those of us who live in the “dread forest / that is not our forest.” There are many political poems that uplift the collective experience of immigrants, the Filipino diaspora, and women of color. While Gambito’s two previous collections often came at racism and sexism sideways, here she is much more explicit—though even the most explicit poems come with plenty of nuance and intelligence. There’s the multi-voiced “We, Pacquiao,” where Filipinos around the world transform into boxer-hero Manny Pacquiao. There’s a “Cento” of lines spoken by an employer to a domestic worker: “Go down to the hands and knees with the rag under the kitchen sink. . . . You cannot cook Filipino food in the kitchen. . . . Please don’t walk with your friends toward or around the house.” Another, “Cento: Don’t Eat Filipinos!” meditates on the surreal/too-real fact that there’s a brand of Spanish cookies called “Filipinos.”
In “Citizenship,” the speaker begins the poem “so afraid” of “it,” which I read as the lure or promise of citizenship of a new country. “It was bigger than me and three-horned. It dashed for me and missed and missed again.” The poem turns on its head the concept of U.S. citizenship as a coveted goal of immigrants. It is a logical progression from Gambito’s previous collections, which included poems like “How to Make Your Daughter an American” in Matadora (“Once, I shipped my sister’s broken hand to my mother. / For laughs.”) and “A Borderless Ethos Would Please Everyone” in Delivered (“They want to wind up their American. / Who can blame them. / Access to reliable birth control.”) Here, Gambito continues to explore how, while citizenship offers economic and political advantages, to become a citizen of a country that cannot see you as a full person is a complex and fraught experience. At the end of “Citizenship,” the speaker is surprised by “our unsugared silhouette,” their “slightly whiny children,” and “Pompous jars of mustard in the fridge.” Who are you when citizenship catches you? Perhaps, Gambito suggests, not who you hoped you ’d be: “Us, blunt as gum / under tables in restaurants.”
If the individual experience of citizenship turns us “blunt as gum,” our familial relationships return us to each other—particularly the relationship between women. Sisters, mothers, aunts, daughters, even women who are strangers to each other, play a central role in Loves You. In another “Cento,” Gambito expertly evokes the devastating ways we, as Asian women, become invisible to each other and ourselves:
When I bumped into another Asian woman on the stairwell. We shouted. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. How could you not realize when I’m standing here. I didn’t know if you were talking on your phone or going through your purse. I’m not you. I’m not you. You are very weird. You are very weird.
But Gambito is also interested in how we provide for and help one another become ourselves. The poem after “Citizenship” is “Immigration,” which portrays a speaker and her sister learning about each other a little bit better:
She wrote her name like a poem and there was a division symbol and the pots of her name and it was kaakit-akit healing. She said, tell me about poetry. I really want to know. It meant that she really wanted to know me.
Many poems contain beautiful gestures women and femmes make to each other: “Let’s hand each other honeycomb with honeycomb in our hair,” and “I held my face over the face / of my daughter.” In “How to Turn Water into Wine,” the speaker writes books for daughters to read about themselves. “We repeated each other, you and I. I saw your handwriting, your cloth-covered books. We touched each other’s mouths as mothers.” Collectively, the women in the poem both mother and “daughter” each other into being (to loosely borrow Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s concept of “daughtering,” which she uses to describe the intellectual and political co-creation of meaning and experience between generations of Black women).
In the end, Loves You is a book of recipes and spells that require audience participation to turn them into something more than inert lines on the page. Loves You calls out, and if we so choose, we can respond by handing each other the sweetness of honeycombs. In today’s political chaos and fracture, we need to know how much we love each other, and Gambito offers instructions on how to do this—literally. The recipe-poem for “Watermelon Agua Fresca (For When You Need Me)” teaches us how to balance the bitterness of grapefruit with the sweetness of watermelon, to mellow the sour of lime with a bottle of white wine. We learn that we need to put in the labor of chopping and blending, of pouring libations for each other. “Serve in ice-filled glasses and know how much I love you,” the poem-recipe ends. Loves You is that moment when we raise our heads from our plates, recognize ourselves in each other, and raise our glass to the joy and responsibility of what it means to love each other as a human family.
Loves You. By Sarah Gambito. New York: Persea Books, 2019. $15.95, paper.