Devil’s Advocate: Orion’s ‘The Existentialist Cookbook’ merges humor and beauty

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Shawnte Orion, a local Phoenix poet, will soon have a book produced by a New York publisher. A Downtown Devil editor and reporter reflects on her relationship to poetry. (Becky Brisley/DD)
Shawnte Orion, a local Phoenix poet, will soon have his book produced by a New York publisher. A Downtown Devil editor and reporter reflects on her relationship to Orion’s work and to poetry. (Becky Brisley/DD)

I often curl up behind the counter of my beloved bookstore, letting my pensive nature prevail as I delve into my treasure trove of books on hand. For the past week, my chosen gold doubloon has been local poet Shawnte Orion’s new book, “The Existentialist Cookbook.”

The first time I met Orion, I was attending Four Chambers Press’s Literary Oddities event. Poets stood around a circus-themed room, shouting their work to the masses. This was the poetry I was used to seeing — slam poems full of vigor and intensity. I enjoyed this style. I love the slam poets that thrive in our city.

However, as the audience looked on, Orion, in a whimsical disposition, grew tired of battling the other poets for available silence. He began to look at the group surrounding him.

“Who wants to hear a poem?” he asked. “How about you?”

I walked over to him, and he leaned over and quietly recited his piece. As he spoke calmly, it reminded me of all the times I’ve wandered off from the noise of life to quietly read my favorite poets, letting the words sink in and feeling lost, at least for a little while.

To encompass the droll beauty of these passages in one article with limited word count would be an offense to their contents. I can say, however, that Orion’s poems are filled with the thoughts we often think, using humorous diction in the most melodic of ways.

Orion said the title of the book was inspired by Albert Camus’ “The Myth Of Sisyphus,” which made an impact on him back in high school. In the famous work, Camus details his concept of “the absurd,” or the conflict between humans’ desire to find meaning and the meaninglessness of the real world.

At the end of the book, Camus delves into the Greek myth of Sisyphus, whose eternal punishment was to roll a rock up a mountain only to have it roll back down to the bottom when he reaches the top.

Camus connects this eternal comeuppance to the human condition. Eventually, if Sisyphus recognizes and accepts the absurd nature of his task, he can learn to find peace.

“After all these years, I realize that writing is probably a hill and poetry is my boulder,” Orion said.

The book is divided into sections reminiscent of a cozy kitchen — the poems are each nestled into their rightful place. The sections include Oven, Cupboard, Microwave, Neighbor’s Sugar and Freezer.

“I placed poems in those different sections according to how certain items are stored or prepared in that particular location,” Orion said. “For instance, the oven is used for baking, and I remembered hearing some chef say how baking is difficult because it’s more like science or chemistry than cooking. I like to think that the poems in that section reflect a pastry-like quality.”

In the Cupboard section, the poem “Shelved Before Kindled” describes the nature of different genres of books, each with their own lives from unbroken intervals of loneliness to scribbled annotations.

“collected poems: rows of books
decorated with abandoned bookmarks
rising like headstones from middle pages
commemorate where my fleeting passions
were abruptly laid to rest”

To those who hold these poems dear, those passions are never truly laid to rest. Some gather dust on my bookshelf as I let the days fleet past. But in those moments when I feel my heart beating again, when I walk past my bookshelf and see the row of poetry from stapled chapbooks to professionally bound books, I resurrect those fleeting passions and escape into another world.

Contact the author at Rebecca.Brisley@asu.edu

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