(Eds. Note: Interstitial March continues as writer and poet C.S.E. Cooney provides a guest blog entry about The Honey Month, a slim volume by Amal El-Mohtar that combines fiction, poetry, personal essay and food writing that has generated a lot of buzz since its release in Spring 2010, winning praise from the likes of authors Jeff VanderMeer and Midori Snyder. Claire Cooney has chosen to go about her review in a way that is in itself rather interstitial, making it doubly appropriate to share here. Tomorrow, we’ll bring her in-depth interview with Amal.)
In Lieu of a Review, A Love Letter
Isn’t that a lovely word? Meliphron. It is your new nickname. I found it on Facebook.
Knowing I’d be writing this review for your Honey Month, I asked my friends for a word that meant “Honey Expert” or “Honey Lover.” You would not believe the thread of replies! At last author James Enge wrote this:
There are lots of bee-words buzzing around the Greek lexicon, but “meliphor” (“honey-bringer”) might work (though it’s apparently used of a jar, rather than a person). “Meliphron” (“concerned with honey, thinking about honey”) is used of Aristaeus, inventor of beekeeping, who certainly thought all too much about Orpheus’ honey…
Meliphron. It is a word you embodied for a whole month in February 2009 – sipping one honey every day like Queen Titania’s own sacred sommelier. You let each new taste spin you off into realms of writing “fluens cum lac et mel.” And what resulted a year later? This beautiful book.
It would be silly to pretend here I do not love The Honey Month, have not always loved it, did not cover it in red marks while it was still in drafts, wincing at how tardy was my beta-reading, how all my Text Edit slashes looked like wounds. This cannot be a scholarly review of your book; it is too close to me – as are you.
And so, floundering, I borrow a structure from you, in homage, in reverence, perhaps in impudence. You would know better than anyone, Meliphron. This is a love letter to your work. Let the rest of the world be our voyeurs.
The Honey Month begins each of its twenty-eight short chapters in an analysis of the smell, color and taste of that day’s honey.
Here the writing is genial and informal. It is as if a friend is dabbing a dollop of whatever she’d just tasted onto your own lips. You share her reaction, smiling and smacking your mouth as she compares the smell of one honey to old socks, the shade of this to cider or caramel, the taste of that to the flesh of summer blueberries.
But all of this friendliness is just a lure.
Smell, color, taste. Again and again, these merge to form a Nepenthes rajah of the senses that lures the reader like a lizard to the lip of the trap. There she teeters, intoxicated, when suddenly the first line of a story or poem reaches up to drown her in its particular spill of nectar.
“Come to me, she said, and I will plait fireweed into your hair.”
“Sleep now, my love, hush; I will lay this rose against your lips and you will breathe it like a lullaby…”
“She drinks the light like lemonade…”
“She has eyes like penny candy…”
“The bees come when she lets down her hair.”
Somewhere in the drowning, you will find a creature named Scraggle. You will meet flower-mouthed maidens, a star-lady, a cranberry man, a disreputable urchin with raspberry eyes. There is a lemon road, a singing river, a silver ring, a harbor, a hive. Bees everywhere. Salt waves. Salt tears. The man who looks but does not see. The girl who has forgotten how to kiss. Rhyme, rhythm, bounty.
The reader thinks, Oh, I can only bear a taste. It is too rich, too sweet. I will read the rest tomorrow…
…Just one more.
Turn the page. Another feast.
Not including the cover, The Honey Month features seven illustrations by artist Oliver Hunter.
It seems there must be more. Each image resonates for pages beyond the story it is set to depict. The colors creep up behind the eyelids: deep pink, dark green, pale gold. Hints of ivory, blushes of blue. A few stark black silhouettes. Whether giving us glimpses of prismatic deserts or bursting blooms, birds or bees or reeds, taken together, the illustrations tell their own tale.
What might the author have written had she tasted of, not twenty-eight vials of honey, but these seven pictures instead? Had Amal El-Mohtar picked up this book with the large furred bee on its cover – that insolent flower, those estival tones – to find all pages within blank but for the illustrations, might she have created her honey book anyway?
I really do think so.
Like the text itself, the illustrations are very nearly edible, glowing and alive.
The sexiness of this book. The sheer appetite. The saliva of it.
Over the course of The Honey Month, El-Mohtar uses the word “kiss” thirty-three times.
By the last page, the reader’s mouth will be exhausted merely from imagining the exercise. Kisses pressed to seawater and to stinger. Kisses set to petal, wing, stone. Kisses wafting up from the pages with the hum of worker bees. Thirty-three kisses that surge wetly upon the reader’s tongue, foam-parading, hiss-receding, leaving behind a pleasant sensation both hollow and sticky.
In the poem “Peach Creamed Honey” alone, El-Mohtar gives us “suck” six times. Hers is not the suck of slang, the suck that denotes a thing’s bad or boringness. Hers is a primordial suck. The suck of the ages. Was it Elizabeth Gaskell who said suck was a vulgar word?
(Meliphron, make no mistake. Your “Peach Creamed Honey” poem is vulgar. Look to second definition: Indecent, obscene, lewd. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Now. If you please. Recite it again.)
“Lick” appears twenty-one times, “sip” eleven. Even discounting the introductory “tastes” of each short chapter, the word is ubiquitous as pollen in a clover field, smearing gold across the pages.
I have made my point, I believe. I will cease counting words while chewing feverishly on the soft flesh of my mouth.
The Honey Month is an oral fixation. The Honey Month is about consumption. It is your first taste of mead. It is the cake you eat at a wedding or a funeral. It is a book full of sunlight and unexpected splinters – as if one of those vials of honey had shattered, and the contents, being too precious to throw away, were served up anyway.
You simply take the sweet with the blood it brings when it cuts you. Perhaps it is this note of iron that makes each mouthful exceptional.
C.S.E. Cooney grew up in a desert city where her skin burned too frequently and she fell in love with thunderstorms. Her fiction and poetry can be found at Apex, Subterranean, Strange Horizons, Clockwork Phoenix 3, Ideomancer, Goblin Fruit, and Mythic Delirium.
Her novellas The Big Bah-Ha and Jack o’ the Hills have just been released by Drollerie Press and Papaveria Press respectively, and she has two more forthcoming at Black Gate Magazine, where she is currently Blog Editrix. She keeps her own livejournal at Beware the Flabberghast.