The Existentialist Cookbook, Shawnte Orion
NYQ Books, 2014
Reviewed by Julie Demoff-Larson
The Existentialist Cookbook by Shawnte Orion attempts to tackle the realities and absurdities in society, addressing everything from moon cheese to Keith Richard—getting to the heart of existential thought. The cover art by Carol Roque is exceptional and makes TEC eye-catching and an easy purchase. The collection is set up into five sections, each titled after an object found in a kitchen. Many of the 59 poems in the collection can be found in various journals such as Barrelhouse, Juked, Up the River, as well as New York Quarterly.
Orion’s strongest work in the collection includes political banter, twisting of words and ideas, and the juxtaposition between his reality and the “other.” Interesting that at the beginning of the collection Orion dissection of truth makes the reader compare all other ideas and themes presented. “The Geometry of Truth” states:
They pretend that graphing
Polar extremes enables the truth
To be plotted as a coordinate
Exactly halfway between.
But truth cannot be balanced.
Truth is not a linear equation.
It might be evident and obtuse, but often
Truth is dangerously acute. Sharp enough
To slice misconceptions or wrists.
And what is truth? Orion’s twisting and changing of established ideas that are familiar to us creates a version of his own truth. He definitely sees the world through a different lens. However, that does not mean his truth comes across as meaningful or profound enough to sway one’s point of view. And I am not sure if that is even the point to his work. Maybe the point is just mere entertainment—and yes, that has its place too. And maybe I feel this way because in many of the poems here Orion fails to go far enough, leaving too much up for question and presenting emotionally vacant. Too many clichés and used ideas keep pieces like “Iku” from doing what Orion intends. For instance, “my adolescence/was a simile but felt/like a metaphor” subtracted from the rest of the poem which was humorous in some parts.
There are some solid pieces in the collection. “Kentucky Freud Chicken” and “The Existential Chef” are spot on and I imagine are a great live read. Fun and quirky—just the way I like them. And “Barracuda” addresses the absurdity of Sarah Palin and the fascination society has with her. Just gotta love any political jabs toward the far end of anything. But it is in “Sincerest Form of Rejection” where Orion captures my attention most. Reminiscent of other work that addresses the writer, journal, publisher, and rejection in tongue-in-cheek fashion, this works oh so well for Orion too. He twists the submitter/journal rejection situation to a journal subscription offer/writer rejection scenario. It is truly hilarious.
The Existentialist Cookbook is light-hearted and is an overall accessible read. I think this is a good text to introduce poetry to new readers. It has a young feel to it and in the right hands could open the door to looking at the world in a whole new light.