Citation: NATALIA TOLEDO, “A Hand in the Bush Makes Sweet Work in the Kitchen.” In The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems. Trans. from the Spanish and the Isthmus Zapotec by Clare Sullivan. Los Angeles: Phoneme Media, 2015. Pp. xi, 244. $16.00. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-939419-46-0.

Image credit: The designs of Natalia Toledo’s poems on amate paper that are featured as images in this post were designed by Mexico City Lit.

Introduction:

“You open your legs wide,” writes Natalia Toledo, “when you sit down in the hammock/so that the chocolate chili of your man/may enter your calabash.” In select poems like this one, “Chocolate Chili Pepper,” Toledo puts the erotic dimensions of her poetry on full display. She constructs intimate pieces that are short and sweet, and descend into palpable meaning like water falling over cliff sides. Throughout, she scatters poignant comparisons between food and sex like rocks on the falls, throwing them into the water’s path to create a confusing and entangled fall of sensuality and sustenance. The reader is left like many subjects of these poems, feeling both hungry and aroused. They crave food and they desire orgasm. Most importantly, they question the very idea of artificial boundaries between two of the most primal activities of human life. One is the ritual crafting of food that resurrects life in its subsequent consumption; the other is the intimate crafting of actual people that reproduces life through the cycle of sex, cooking in the womb, and then birth.[1]

The following essay is a short piece that explores select themes from one section of Natalia Toledo’s Black Flower, a translated compilation of her poetry from 2015. The essay begins with a biographical section on Toledo which is intended to provide context for those who have not heard of her work. The essay will then discuss the interwoven themes of food, life, and sex in her section of poems, “A Hand in the Bush Makes Sweet Work in the Kitchen.” Meanwhile, it will draw upon language from the “Embodiments” track of the Performance Studies discipline. The discipline describes this track in one of its statements by writing that it “deals with questions of representation and documentation of bodies in performance that will encompass not only artist/practitioners but also those working in discursive fields such as literature and languages.” The language of the track also refers to the interaction of “bodies in space” and “bodies in motion.” In the sections of Black Flower relevant to this essay, we will explore how Toledo uses the vehicle of her native language and the themes of food, life, and sex to explore the body as a physical site of sensuality and sustenance, as well as the idea of the “body in motion” as it creates and sustains life.[2]

About the Author:

Natalia Toledo is a native poet who hails from Juchitán de Zaragoza, an indigenous town in the southeastern part of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. More specifically, this town is located in the Juchitán District in the west of a geographic region known as the Istmo de Tehuantepec. Before she moved to Mexico City at the age of seven, Toledo grew up in an indigenous community here that spoke the native language of Isthmus Zapotec—one of 57 distinct forms of the Zapotec macrolanguage—and she started writing poetry in this language from a very early age. As a result, she now has the distinction of being the first woman to ever write and publish in this native language.[3]

Toledo also hails from a tradition of artists. Many members of her family have inspired her work in poetry and continue to collaborate with her in the process of writing and publication. Her father, for instance, is the painter, sculptor, and graphic artist Francisco Toledo; he made the cover art for Black Flower. Similarly, one of her siblings is the artist and tattooist Dr Lakra. As translator Clare Sullivan notes, some of Toledo’s principal hobbies have also informed her work as a native poet. These include her skills as a jewelry and clothing maker as well as a chef and a cook. As we shall see, Toledo’s experiences with crafting directly inform her work in Black Flower.[4]

Map

Map indicating Natalia Toledo’s hometown of Juchitán de Zaragoza in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Toledo has been writing poetry in her native language, Isthmus Zapotec, from an early age. She is now approximately 48 years old, and she has published four books of poetry and two books of prose. She first started gaining recognition for her works of poetry in the early 1990s, when she received the first of several career fellowships from some national and regional organizations like the National Fund for Culture and for the Arts (FONCA) and the Fund for Culture and for the Arts of Oaxaca (FOESCA). However, Toledo’s poetry rose to national and international renown in the year 2004, when the first native-language and Spanish edition of Black Flower, titled Guie’ yaase’ in the Isthmus Zapotec and translated to Olivo negro in the Spanish, won Mexico’s Premio Nezahualcoyótle de Literatura. This is a prestigious award bestowed by the country’s main government for extraordinary literature published in the nation’s indigenous languages.[5]

Cover Art of Black Flower

Cover art for the 2004 and 2015 editions of Black Flower, made by Natalia’s father Francisco Toledo.

Toledo’s work has contributed to a contemporary revival of Isthmus Zapotec specifically, and the indigenous languages of North and Central America generally. Her willingness to write, publish, and translate in her native language has encouraged her direct collaboration with publication houses like Phoneme Media, whose editor David Shook is committed to publishing bilingual and trilingual books of indigenous poetry. The 2015 edition of Black Flower is part of that collaborative effort. Here, Toledo’s poems have been presented in three different languages: Isthmus Zapotec, Spanish, and English. Their translation has been a joint effort by Toledo herself; a translator with Phoneme named Clare Sullivan; and a Zapotec poet and friend of the author, Irma Pineda. This brief analytical essay will now turn to analyzing a few select themes from one particularly captivating section of Black Flower. The title of this section, derived from a local Juchitán saying, is “A Hand in the Bush Makes Sweet Work in the Kitchen.” Since I do not read Isthmus Zapotec and have a relatively poor grasp of Spanish, the analysis will focus mostly on the English translations.[6]

Reading Poetry

Natalia Toledo reads at La Sala Manuel M. Ponce at México City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes in March of 2012.

The Embodiment of Food, Life, and Sex in Black Flower:

Toledo’s main theme from this section of Black Flower is that food and sex are the basic building blocks of life, and the physical body is the site of that construction. This theme is evident in the title of the section that Toledo has chosen for the work, “A Hand in the Bush Makes Sweet Work in the Kitchen.” In this wording, “the Bush” acts as a euphemism for the vagina, the clitoris, or the female genitalia more broadly. The phrase “A Hand in the Bush” puts the image of masturbation front and center in the piece. Toledo expresses the idea that masturbation takes place in the kitchen where food is prepared and this act gives rise to a “Sweet Work.” The adjective “Sweet” is typically used to describe the flavor of food. So, in this way, we can see how Toledo plays with words to erode the assumed boundary between enjoying food and enjoying sex. Both activities are “Sweet and result in enjoyable products when combined together—one of those products being food itself and the other being either orgasm or, in some other poems of the section, a child.[7]

The double-meanings in Toledo’s choice of title for this section become even more apparent if we consider the Spanish translation. The title in Spanish reads, “En La Cocina, El Que Juega Su Sexo Tiene Buen Sazón.” The idea expressed in these words is that one who plays with themselves in the kitchen has good flavor or seasoning. The word sazón, in this sense, could evoke the juices of life—juices that the body produces when it is sexually aroused, as well as juices used like seasoning or marinade in the act of cooking. Finally, the title grounds us in the physical site of this comparison between production and re-production. The site is the kitchen and also the body. Typically, one is where we produce food and the other is where we produce orgasms—often used in poetry as a metaphor for our connection with the divine—and physical human life. By combining the acts of masturbation and cooking in her title, Toledo suggests a relationship between these two sites. She suggests the idea that the body is also a type of kitchen where life is prepared. In reference to the performance track, Toledo discusses interactions between a “body in motion.” As food sizzles on the comal, or griddle, so too does the body become active by producing juices.[8]

Where else do we see these kinds of themes played out in this section of Black Flower? On a subtle level, we encounter the dual themes of sensuality and sustenance—and a body in motion— evoked in Toledo’s choice of foods. More specifically, her references to food often serve to evoke male and female genitalia, mixing them up in explicit and implicit ways. For example, in the poems “Craft” and “Still Life,” the reader is given imagery of a phallic crustacean swimming in a growing sea of juices. In the first part, Toledo writes of an action: “to thicken the broth where shrimp swim,” while in the second piece she refers to “a shrimp in mole sauce.” To investigate these choices more closely, the first uses a verb “thicken” to describe the creation of juices. This is an example of how the language of the poem is embodied. The juices thickening specifically recall a body in motion. This choice also recalls the ideas of arousal and masturbation embedded in the title. Meanwhile, the second quote is paired with the Spanish word ojo, which serves as an abstraction for the image of a male genitalia. Yet, while this visual comparison between ojo and the phallus is subtle, Toledo is much blunter in the comparisons she makes in other parts of “A Hand in the Bush.”[9]

In comparison to the subtleties above, the eroticism of Toledo’s poetry is on full display in the piece I quoted for the opening of this essay. The poem is “Chocolate Chili Pepper.” Here Toledo overtly compares a “chocolate chili” to a penis. The comparison is unavoidable because she describes the pepper as “the chocolate chili of your man.” Afterward, the chili literally enters “your calabash” to “stir up the coco beans,” perhaps a reference to ovaries. In both of these cases, Toledo once again places her metaphors in the context of bodies in motion. She also employs pronouns to engage with the reader and make the sexual implications personal and clear. The calabash is yours; the pepper is your man’s. For those readers who are unaware, a calabash is a gourd; it is hollowed out, dried, and used as a container. A person can mix foods for cooking in a calabash or they can store food inside its hollow space before throwing it onto a comal. So, while Toledo never invokes the typical words for genitalia (like penis or vagina), she clearly embodies sexual organs through the images of the pepper and calabash. Following this analogy, the calabash is also the site where life can be prepared in both of its two forms. Food can be mixed in the calabash before cooking, and the calabash as a womb can be the site where human life is churned up. In other words, both the womb and the kitchen are invoked as physical sites of production, while desire for interaction between two bodies in motion and two bodies in space is at the center of that process.[10]

But “Chocolate Chili Pepper,” “Craft,” and “Still Life” are not the only works in this section where Toledo alludes to genitals through food. On the contrary, as soon as the reader accepts this conceit, they begin to see the comparison in almost every piece. Is Toledo describing cherries in her poem “Wild Cherry Sweets,” or is she describing testicles? The cherries are like “a teardrop formed in a forest.” If we recall “the Bush” from Toledo’s title, we remember that a forest can also be a reference to pubic hair around the genitalia, not just a literal forest of trees. The cherries are also sweet, and they are compared to a “Little marble from a tree.” Again, the tree here can be read as a double-entendre, symbolizing both a literal tree and a phallus. Finally, desire and consumption are placed at the climax of this piece. After describing the cherries, Toledo pens a final line, writing it in stand-alone fashion to capture its importance. “I devour you in May,” she writes. In moments like this, Toledo both represents and documents the body as eatable. It is the combination of this embodiment and Toledo’s use of the personal pronoun “you” that arouses the reader.[11]

Toledo’s visceral comparisons between sex and food are sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle. The result is that one can never be entirely sure how far the comparisons are supposed to extend. Is the image of “Smoked Fish” also a sexual reference? What about the fruit “Soursop?” In such poems as this one, Toledo makes use of the fact that fruit and humans both have flesh for biting into, either in the act of eating to quench hunger or having sex to quench desire. In fact, both actions involve embodiment—the physical placement of real mouths on real flesh. And so, those “cherries” which are devoured in May are not the only fruits depicted in Toledo’s work that make contact with body parts like lips or the mouth. “I bite your newborn skin,” she writes of Soursop. And these themes are even more explicit in the poem “Bacchus.” The title here refers to an ancient God of debauchery and sex, called “Binnigüé‘” in Zapotec. In this work, Toledo makes a comparison between her eyes and “two hard coyol fruits” which “ferment from missing you.” When the reader makes the connection that coyol fruits are often used as a euphemism for testicles, then they must question whether the ripening of these fruit is the sexual tension that comes from abstinence. The coyol fruits being ripe and ready to eat is a symbol for a pair of testicles or ovaries being ready for sex. So, when bodies are not displayed in motion, then a palpable longing hangs in their place. This is how Toledo can invoke embodiment in multiple forms. In some cases, the embodiment is represented by the presence of an ongoing act—bodies in a physical motion. Other times, the embodiment is represented by a noticeable longing—bodies in a space of suspended desire.[12]

Bacchus from Black Flower

The tri-lingual poem “Bacchus,” “Baco,” or “Binnigüé” from Natalia Toledo’s Black Flower. Image design by Mexico City Lit.

Occasionally, Toledo chooses to play with the connection between juices, genitals, and re-production without any explicit references to food. In her poem “Loving,” for instance, she writes, “A water lily is born on the river’s surface/as you break forth/from the dream between my legs.” Toledo’s intentions in this piece are slightly more obscure than in previous works. The “water lily” born on the surface of the river could refer to the vagina, which is quite often compared to a flower in other poetic works. In this sense, the “river’s surface” once again invokes juices that are produced in the act of sexual union. The lily that forms upon the surface of the river could then refer to the opening up of female genitalia—once again a reference to the physical embodiment of sexual union. Yet there is also some ambiguity with the line, “as you break forth/from the dream between my legs.” Here Toledo remains unclear whether the subject of the poem is entering or exiting the opening between her legs. While one possibility (that of entering) implies the act of sex, the other possibility (that of exiting) implies the act of giving birth. In this sense, the subject could be either a lover or a child. Overall, the poem is another example of a body as a site of reproduction, whether through conception or through birth. As Toledo reminds us, these are two acts which exist on the same continuum of life and both of them find expression in bodies through motion.[13]

One of the most beautiful yet explicitly sexual poems that Toledo includes in Black Flower has no title at all. This piece consists of only four lines, and it can be easily quoted in full. Its words go, “Like hummingbirds to an orchid/my flower offers you a drink./You enter where the stem is tender/in search of a mirror that says your name.” Once again, Toledo refrains from writing vulgar words that are typically used to describe genitalia. This choice adds both elegance and ambiguity to her poems. Nonetheless, Toledo makes it clear that the beak of a hummingbird has phallic connotations, while the tender stem of the flower is vaginal. As in other pieces, the idea of liquid and sustenance is also at the center of the sexual union. “My flower offers you a drink,” she writes, implying that sex is an act which provides sustenance by quenching thirst. The closing line, “in search of a mirror that says your name,” is also a quite beautiful and striking image that invokes two people facing each other during the act of having sex. These figures are connected as reflections from a mirror; and, in their desire, they speak each other’s names. This part is perhaps Toledo’s most literal portrayal of two bodies currently in motion and interacting in space. As in other pieces, sexual desire and/or intimacy is portrayed as a form of physical nourishment.[14]

“Naked Women” is the last poem that I would like to discuss in the body of this essay. This piece aptly demonstrates the treble themes of sex, life, and the body in Toledo’s section, “A Hand in the Bush.” In this piece, the poet refers to “the humid magma of their bodies.” This is exactly the sort of image that suggests the physical performance of sex and not just the idea of sex. “Humid magma” invokes a hot sweat that is created when two bodies in motion rub up against one another. Then “The hill’s hollow sheds tears/mire laps at their hair.” These lines employ verbs in the present tense—“sheds,” “laps”—to advance the idea of physical embodiment. Toledo is describing how a body reacts in a narrative process that moves from the beginning of the piece to the end. Something is happening to the body right now, in this exact moment, and this is how it reacts.[15]

And there is other, more blatant evidence in this piece as well. Without the explicit title of the poem to indicate that the author is writing about, at least partly, the idea of “Naked Women,” the reader might be at a loss for interpreting some of these images. But, given the explicit title, as well as the other themes from Toledo’s work, the reader may infer that the hill’s hollow is a sexual reference. Perhaps it is another representation of female genitals, producing the liquids of life once again, yet this time in the form of tears. Likewise, the image of a “mire” which “laps at their hair” could extent the sexual metaphor. It may refer to the thickening of liquids which flow out from the “hill’s hollow” before washing in tides over “the Bush,” or the forest of hair, to draw upon images that Toledo has used elsewhere. Last, the two images of “turkeys” and a “market table” remind the reader that food and the human body are never far apart from one another in terms of comparison. Similarly, when one recalls this action of eating or devouring flesh, then the idea of oral sex—and the hair in “Naked Women” as a beard rather than pubic hair—becomes a real possibility. Overall, “Naked Women” is another example of how Toledo plays with the themes of sensuality and sustenance, and the fact that both are necessary to the act of creating and sustaining life.[16]

Conclusion:

In a 2005 poetry collection Evidence of Red, the Choctaw poet LeAnne Howe writes in the voice of corn personified: “With my own hands/I slay all reason/I become Corn Woman/And I am mercy in their mouths.” In this piece, the author demonstrates how the essential, life-giving qualities of food can transcend all reason and rational thought. She reminds us that food and our desire for sustenance and nourishment is the most basic building block of human life. Before and beyond any other human projects—be them social, intellectual, or otherwise—food creates and sustains us as a species. In “A Hand in the Bush” from Black Flower, Toledo adds sex to the mix.[17]

The sensuality of sustenance is a main theme of “A Hand in the Bush Makes Sweet Work in the Kitchen,” a section from Natalia Toledo’s book The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems. In poems from this section, readers encounter two basic acts which create and sustain life. These acts are mixed together in a fashion that is sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit, and often ambiguous. In poems that are short and sweet, like cherries, Toledo blends the twin ideas of sexual desire and hunger, always reminding us that the physical spaces of the body and the kitchen are construction sites for these building blocks of life. Foods and the body are both made of flesh, meant to be devoured; when cooked, they both produce juices that support human existence. As such, sex and food are meant to be enjoyed together, “En La Cocina,” the calabash where life is made. In perhaps her most brilliant contribution in Black Flower, Toledo reminds us that life is made in the “Clay pot oven: sarcophagus for the sea’s harvest;” and that our bodies are also a type of oven.[18]

Notes: 

[1] Natalia Toledo, “Chocolate Chili Pepper,” in The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems (Los Angeles: Phoneme Media, 2015), 47.

[2] Inés Hernández-Avila, “Syllabus for ‘NAS 202_SPRING 2016 Graduate Seminar: Indigenous Poetics and Performativities,’” 2.

[3] Clare Sullivan, “Translator’s Note,” in The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems, 119.

[4] Esther Allen, “Preface: Flores De Papel,” in The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems, x; Sullivan, “Translator’s Note,” in The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems, 119.

[5] Ibid, 119. A very short yet official biography of Natalia Toledo appears on page 125.

[6] For a short reflection on the process of translation by Clare Sullivan, see the “Translator’s Note” on pgs. 119-123. Natalia Toledo, “A HAND IN THE BUSH MAKES SWEET WORK IN THE KITCHEN,” in The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems (Los Angeles: Phoneme Media, 2015), 43-67.

[7] Ibid. 43.

[8] Ibid. 43. The Spanish translations are printed on the opposite side of the book as the English translations, even though the page numbers are the same in both sections.

[9] Ibid. 59, 45.

[10] Ibid. 47

[11] Ibid. 49.

[12] Ibid. 51.

[13] Ibid. 63.

[14] Ibid. 61.

[15] Ibid. 57.

[16] Ibid. 57.

[17] Leanne Howe, Evidence of Red: Poems and Prose (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2005), 10-13.

[18] Ibid. 51.