Nonfiction Spotlight: Amy Wright’s “Mēl”

(Post by Tina Lawson)

Source: Kenyon Review: September/October 2015

What I like about Kenyon Review most these days is their taste; many of the poems are tight, compressed, inventive, and unafraid of journeying into either strange subjects (“Nkisi Nkondi” by Jennifer Militello has a delightfully creepy note) or the more conventional ones (Dave Lucas’ “Narcissus Himself” and the ruminations on love in relation to the self). Amy Wright’s “Mēl” plays with the genre of the personal essay and infuses her non-fiction with something thematic: definitions of words that tie together a pattern within the work. From the definition of ‘meal’
to the ‘Milky Way,’ ‘meolc,’ ‘mēl,’ and ‘milk-and-water,’ weaving together the experience Wright’s perspective as she explains the context of a world many of us aren’t acquainted with. We live in a time when we need special education and an allocated day to educate young children where their food comes from, and Wright’s on point remarks on “the shift in human evolution that combined the cultivation of wild plants … the domestication of animals” highlight the receding knowledge and tolerance for independent, small agricultural practices in face of a worldwide increasing demand for cheaper food: meat, vegetables, grains.
“Mēl”’s focus on tracking the Agriculture Revolution of Then to the Now is informative in a fresh way, separated by dotted sections: tying together Biblical references of “milk and honey”, but it is easy to be unsettled by the facts and figures in the tension Wright builds; as the plentiful bounty is stressed over and over, one gets the sense that time is running out for the full platter of food that the current system has in place. From the United Nations Environmental Program:

  • Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted.
  • Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).
  • The amount of food lost or wasted every year is equivalent to more than half of the world’s annual cereals crop (2.3 billion tonnes in 2009/2010).

Wright outlines alternatives to the high-energy, high-stakes current food sources (ex: small insects like crickets and grasshoppers in lieu of cattle/livestock), illustrating in her prose the absolute facts and following them with anecdotal scenes.
Her intent is to show her audience that “we have lost familiarity with the way our ancestors survived,” and to give examples on how we can change this course through choice. Now, more than ever, technology can aid in the world’s hunger, and by infusing ancient remedies and solutions with this technology, and Wright complicates this idea with her superb command of emotion that makes this nonfiction entry a delight to read.

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