The Arugula Fugues

The Arugula Fugues Adeena Karasick [Tenerife: Zasterle, 2001]

Doubtless Adeena Karasick's most accessible – and to my mind best – work to date, The Arugula Fugues take off from the epigraph:

Huddled in the shadow of these syllables
dwells the troubled grammar of
so many sentences.


The Fugues that follow are a joy to read. Funny and wonderfully punny, Karasick's Fugues trip lightly through the labials of many cultures. Though her language flows in ordered syllables that mirror the grammatical constructions with which English-speakers are most familiar, embedded in this "natural" sequence is a multilingual world of word-play.

While the riffs on Indian culture and comestibles in "Fugue IV" are readily recognizable, as are many of the French and German words and word-plays throughout these texts, what may not be so obvious to those unfamiliar with Ashkenazi culture is the enormous wealth of Yiddishkeit that imbues this work. The title itself, for instance, can be read to suggest not only the salad of choice among sophisticates of certain social strata but the small, elegant, yeasted crescents redolent of cinnamon – rugula pl. rugulach – that are a staple of Ashkenazi Sabbath, bar mitzvah, and post-funeral tables. Throughout Karasick's Fugues, the wonderful melt-in-the-mouth sweetness of freshly-baked rugulach is set off and balanced by the astringent and sometimes almost bitter bite of the arugula. This doubling and layering of meanings is typical of the Fugues, and in this instance provides keys and clues for reading them.

As always in Karasick's writing, the oral/aural and the labial/labial dance together. The act of speaking/making meaning is sexualized, as creative acts are in many cultures, the paradigmatic act of creation being procreation. The gendered Hebrew god alone creates the universe singly, asexually, by the act of invocation, thus forever sexualizing language and acts of speaking and making. Karasick plants herself firmly in the traditions that have arisen from this vision, in The Arugula Fugues combining the act of creation/invocation with an almost shamanistic musicality. The result is a process of hymnology wherein the notion of the fugue constructs and permeates a verbal feast. Thus Karasick's Fugues [polyphonic compositions "constructed on one or more short subjects or themes, which are harmonized according to the laws of counterpoint and introduced from time to time with various contrapuntal devices" (SOED quoting Stainer and Barrett)] might serve as psalms for a multi-ethnic, multilingual community of readers bound by belief in the primacy of language and the efficacy of invocation.

All this comes packaged in full-mouthed, delicious syllables, glorious glossals, frolicking fricatives used to send up current cultural iconographies as well as to invoke a multitude of feasts and traditions. I love, for instance, Karasick's "Phat gerund!" and "jubilato gelato latté" [Fugue III], her "ravaged in the frangipani panji gange" and "Hey bo idly — // Here we go dosa do" in Fugue IV. Perhaps what I like best about this work is the twinning/twining/fuguing/intertextualization of food and word/food and world. Food here mediates invocation and embodiment, word and world, a use that mirrors both our everyday experience and a host of mythologies. Tastily, Karasick's Arugula Fugues fill the mouth with a mélange of exuberant erudition and votive vocatives.