Victual cover


Nick Vagnoni

Copyright © 2011 Nick Vagnoni. All rights reserved.


might not
be worth it.

Eau de Vie

Unpacking groceries in your Oakland kitchen,
you pull an apricot from your bag,
dig your thumbnails into the tiny well where the stem had been
and crack the fruit in half.
The cavity left by the stone, a dry, pebbly creek bed,
the fruit pulpy and fragrant.
Not the best, you say, but good to me.
Back in Florida, rain,
lightning flashing.
You say you don't have these storms out there.
The plums here are not nearly as good
as the ones you fed me in California.
And apricots, I cannot even find them.
So this is our trade-off:
lightning for stonefruit—
plums, peaches, apricots.
And for my last dinner in California,
a small tulip glass of eau de vie,
flashing bright and crystal clear,
bushels of apricots distilled,
swirling upward
on currents of alcohol,
traded, once again, for lightning.

Winter in Sarasota

When sacks of oranges showed up
in my Miami Publix
I thought of Sarasota:
On my way to the supermarket at night
my windows up
against the burnt-piss smell
that drifts down from the Tropicana plant,
the smell that actually turns orange in the fog
lit by the glow of the airport.
Stepping out of my car
into the cold, sparkling parking lot,
that odor, replaced by the feral orange grove
blooming across the highway—
the last dusty rows, thick with man-tall weeds,
girded by new condos, a medical center,
a retention pond.
Six years there, now six months gone
I wonder if I'll miss this place when I go,
which smells I'll write about six years from now.
Diesel and jasmine blowing through my parking garage?
Goat curry and hash in my building's hallways?
That night I dreamt of biking through dark neighborhoods,
past old satellite dishes roped with Spanish moss,
under sagging powerlines beaded with tillandsias,
the smell of orange and grapefruit blossoms
blanketing yards, gates and fences.
I dreamt of orange stands at flea markets,
sacks of Honeybells and Murcotts,
clear nectar, sections pulling apart like hesitant lips mouthing words.
I dreamt of waking from a tent in that dewy grove
and walking early through rows of trees
encrusted with small white blossoms
while honey bees still drowsed in their hives.

Butter and Wool

"I'm just trying to imagine
what three pounds feels like,"
my wife says as we drive north.
In her hands is a thicket of purplish gray yarn
and five slender bamboo needles.
"Three packages of butter," I tell her.
Her hands stop.
"That's a tiny baby," she whispers,
then goes back to knitting:
her long, clerical fingers
pushing the wooden needles
through tight tunnels of wool.
I stare ahead at the other cars on the turnpike
and imagine that each tow-hook or tailpipe
has tied to it a fat, unending piece of yarn.
As I signal and drift to the left,
the car in front of me drifts right,
and I see the pattern
we weave on the road—
knots and loops pressed on hot pavement—
as we all drive home.


for Buco

Packed in the early morning dark at the state farmer's market and driven down the Keys, the semi bumps up to the loading dock. I am wearing a coat pulled from a rack by the lockers—nappy, fake shearling lining, a box cutter in the left pocket, a Marks-A-Lot in the right. The tailgate slaps upward into the ceiling and we stare inside before we start.
We ram pallet jacks into the splintered wooden frames, pump the jacks, drag the pallets backward into the network of cavernous coolers: one has a ceiling as high as a gymnasium, yellow-gray sprayed-on insulation and rebar arching overhead; another, called Siberia, has low ceilings, banks of loud, tarnished fans, and a maze of gleaming Metroshelving. In the ripening room, stacked with flat cardboard cases of mangoes, papayas, and strawberries, the air is warm and thick as a greenhouse, everything smelling of earth and ethylene.
In Siberia, I move asparagus, rubber banded together and upright in cartons of corrugated lavender plastic. I carry long, narrow, feather-light boxes of mushrooms—shiitake, enoki, portobello, crimini. I toss garbage bags of basil, fat, piney bunches of rosemary, muddy, dripping clumps of cilantro. I smash my fingers between cases of cantaloupes, pull splinters from my palms. I unload scallions, bunches packed in ice and stacked into waxed cardboard boxes.
All of the rooms are separated by heavy plastic flaps. All of them breathe with the smells of cardboard, ice, and the vegetal aroma of so many cut green cells exhaling at once.
On break by the fish room, our grizzled fish cutter Byron, dressed in international orange vinyl overalls, again out on work-release, takes apart a missile-sized tuna. He waves me closer with his knife to show me the slot in the fish's back where its dorsal fin retracts. "Fuckin' badass, idnit?" he says in his West Virginia accent.
Beside me in the coolers, Frank, in a red flannel vest, pivots a pallet of carrots, the fifty-pound bags criss-crossed like logs. He quotes Einstein, keeps a dog-eared, hard-cover copy of the complete lyrics of Bob Dylan in his locker, sleeps under the loading dock some nights, I'm told, and when he leaves town, has his mail forwarded to the bar across the street from the Salinas Greyhound station.
When the truck is empty, I stand in front of a large basin sink and run my numb hands under warm water, all of the capillaries in my fingertips engorged, exploding, as if my hands will split wide open and bloom.

Two Dinners

Sitting alone at the bar,
I watch a waiter prepare branzino tableside
with a fork and a spoon—
he flips back the salt crust chassis, removes
tail, dorsal, head,
peels back skin,
puckered under salt and fire,
limp as wet paper, delicate
as my own.
He curls it around his fork
like a sardine can lid
and with a few fast strokes
splits the fish
open into hemispheres,
removes the spine,
excises the bloodline.
Over my shoulder
I see our table.
Would I have eaten any slower that night
had I known you would soon end our engagement?
The salumi with their constellations of fat.
Slivers of fennel, crackling
with sea salt.
Blood orange sorbet
orbiting our table
in a little metal cup.
And your osso buco—
you ate all but the marrow:
This distillate of grapes and nightshade,
fire and roots,
cocooned in long, cavernous rings of bone,
to be mined with a tiny spoon—
a little drip of silver—
or a tongue.
A hurried waiter
The levels of all the glasses
tremble in unison
as a quartino tips
and the valpolicella explodes slowly into the tablecloth.
The red stain, a growing thunderhead,
stops short before the edge of the table,
before the cloth is pulled back,
as if to say,
this was us
all bluster and storm
but no flood.


The Blue Points and Apalachicolas,
their names all slipp'ry and jagged cloisters.
Wellfleets, Chincoteagues and Kumamotos,
like tearful agates secreting moisture.
The ocean's ever-beating stony lungs,
their liquor hinting cucumbers and steel,
like swallowing a second chilly tongue.
To taste the minerals in which they sleep,
I fumble to find a hidden notch, and
with swearing and gashing and knuckles bled,
at last, twenty-two pounds of pressure pop,
and my blunt blade trawls fruit from briny bed.
And what have I reaped with this crude device?
Twelve cupped hands atop a bed of cracked ice.

Pigeon Pie

I am pulling over to remember this now,
because today,
the wind and the sun are the same
as that day
I found your car out front,
and you in a long skirt and fleece
standing on the walk,
in your hands
a sour orange pie
wrapped in a dish towel.
I am pulling over to remember this now,
because today,
the wind and sun were the same
when I saw a woman stop in traffic,
her SUV in the center lane,
her dress the shimmery copper peach
of your skirt
billowing in my driveway
as she tried with one hand to keep it
from flying up in the wind.
With the other hand
she rummaged frantically
through her back seat,
finally pulled out a cream cardigan
and dropped it
at her feet
onto a stunned pigeon in the road,
ruffled and still,
its feathers pulsing
with the passing of the cars.
She swaddled it
and, before putting the bird in her backseat,
before waving to me
and the line of cars that had formed behind me,
before driving off
to who knows where with the stunned animal,
she held it up to all of us with both hands,
shrugging, smiling weakly,
as if this was the only natural thing she could think to do,
to show us,
to offer it as an explanation,
when really, none was necessary,
as with any gift that comes to us
from a place of heat,
wrapped in cloth,
held up with both hands
still sighing and warm.

La Moon

Alone in La Moon
I ate sancocho de res,
—yuca, starchy green plantain, potato, and
a strap of brisket in a broth of cilantro
pulsed to a dark murk.
And on the side, between the shredded
salad and the turret of rice, a crescent
of fried cornmeal,
a moon-shaped arepa.
Outside, the smudge of a tropical depression
hangs over downtown Miami,
the illuminated roofs and penthouses
poking up into the low clouds
like immense tent-poles.
I want to tell the waitress
that the soup compliments the weather
but I cannot remember the word for weather,
so I say,
"con la lluvia, es perfecto,"
gesturing to the huge bowl in front of me.
"OK" she nods,
and walks away
to check on the one other man eating alone
in the next room.
From the sky right now,
Miami must look like this soup—
the glowing dome of a potato
poking up through the greasy fog,
the moon, half-eaten on a distant platter.
I trawl with my spoon,
whittle slivers of yuca and beef.
They have deep-fried the moon for me tonight,
draped rooftops in fog,
and set them on my tiny wooden table.
They must know how we love
to build things that reach into the clouds,
and how we love even more
to reach down into them.