Amal El-Mohtar, The Honey Month

I think as a reviewer I’m hardest of all on those writers and poets who like excess. I choose to believe that this is not because I’m an unfeeling beast who can only appreciate spartan prose, but because some of my favourite writers do that sort of thing so well that seeing it done badly irritates me more. This may be a sad attempt at justifying my own prejudices, I’m not sure.

What I’m trying to get at, though, is that I could easily have disliked Amal El-Mohtar’s collection of short pieces inspired by different sorts of honey. And instead, here I am comparing her to Angela Carter and Christina Rossetti. She must be good.

I wrote about The Honey Month in last week’s Left of Cool. Here’s an edited version.

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There’s something vast and mythic and story-ful about honey, even for those of us who don’t particularly enjoy the taste. Honey pops up in our fairy-tales, in medieval recipes, even as a euphemism for things connected to sex. It’s natural and of the world, it’s so connected to place that honey from different areas or from bees feeding off different plants tastes totally different. Honey has connoisseurs as dedicated as any who study wine. And because of all this the idea of honey is irresistible; both earthy and symbolic. This makes it wonderful to write about; it also makes it dangerously easy to overdo it.

In February 2010, Amal El-Mohtar performed an experiment of sorts. Throughout the month she tasted twenty-eight different sorts of honey; one for each day. What emerged from this was The Honey Month, a collection of twenty-eight poems and short prose pieces inspired by each of those vials of honey.

Each piece begins with a description of the honey: colour, smell and taste evaluated in a format that is almost scientific. In a way these descriptions serve to ground the collection – the description that accompanies perhaps the most outrightly sexy poem in the book is contrasted with El-Mohtar describing “peach creamed honey” as smelling “rather unpleasant; sweaty underthings”. Frequently there’s an element of self-mockery as she reflects upon her seeming inability to describe many of the honeys without resorting to alcohol-comparisons. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t beauty here too – her descriptions of colour can be startling, and her notes on taste contain associations that are quite as poetic as anything else in the collection.

El-Mohtar’s prose pieces often take the form of strange, half-forgotten fairy tales; something about them always feels familiar, though they are completely new. “Raspberry Creamed Honey” has the narrator speaking to rivers and rescuing the dawn from a hungry ogress by means of song. “Thistle Honey” harks back to the complex system of economics that pops up so much in fairy stories, where everything must be paid for, when a spontaneous gesture by the narrator has unforeseen consequences. Something about the deceptively light villanelle “Lemon Creamed Honey” feels like it could have come from Thomas the Rhymer. Equally simple, “Black Locust Blossom Honey” might almost be a nursery rhyme.

Many of the stories are darker and meatier, though still with elements of familiar tales. “Ugandan Honey” is a story of death and ritual sacrifice that might in another life have been written by Angela Carter. There is death too in the poem that accompanies “Blackberry Creamed Honey”. “Cranberry Creamed Honey” also has elements of a darker myth, but it may also be the one story here in which El-Mohtar’s prose is excessive.

“Manuka Honey” (described by the author as medicinal in smell and taste) is accompanied by something like a children’s horror story, in which the narrator explains her discomfort with a companion by looking back to a childhood encounter with a sinister group of ravens. “Hungarian Forest Honey” is another tale of childhood and mysterious forests and uncanny gifts.

Then there are the outrightly sensual ones (though almost everything has undercurrents of sex and romance). I’ve mentioned “Peach Creamed Honey”, the second poem in the book that has something of Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” (I’m not sure Rossetti would approve) about it, all fruit juice on skin. “French Chestnut Honey” is the story of an adolescent girl’s sexual awakening. “Malaysian Rainforest Honey” is a story about the sort of temptation that can only end badly but is entirely worth it. “Bamboo Honey” is a lighter story of attraction and seduction.

Read at a stretch The Honey Month might be too much, or (appropriately) too cloying. But dipped into over a stretch (there’s a terrible bee-related analogy trying to make itself felt here) it’s a gorgeous collection; dark, and sweet, sensuous and extremely beautiful. Interspersed with illustrations by Oliver Hunter, this is an absolute delight to read.

 

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