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Honey. That viscous, golden-amber liquid produced by bees has been praised for centuries for its delicious taste as well as its medicinal (and sometimes magical) qualities. Many ancient cultures considered honey and milk acceptable gifts to the gods. It comes as no surprise then, that the poems and short prose in Amal El-Mohtar’s The Honey Month (2010) draw upon the sensuous and mythical qualities associated with the golden nectar.
The Honey Month had its beginnings in a set of twenty-eight different types of honeys that had been given to El-Mohtar as a gift by a friend. Inspired by this collection of exotic honeys, she set out writing poems or pieces of prose for each flavour of honey she tasted in the following month, preceded by short sections of sensory notes describing the smell, taste, and colour of each sample. Written in a journal-like format, each day has a new entry of honey-inspired poetry or prose to whet your sweet tooth. The pieces in this collection are dripping with language that excite the senses and expand on the sensory notes given at the beginning of each entry. They also pay homage to the mythical history of honey by telling tales of daring, lonely, and not-altogether-human women and the enchanted worlds they inhabit. El-Mohtar mixes honey with fairy-tale worlds so well that honey itself takes on magical qualities, as seen in “Raspberry Creamed Honey”:
‘Where, if you’ll pardon my asking,’ I cleared my throat slightly, ‘is the dawn?’
‘Being swallowed by the ogress,’ murmured the river. ‘She’s pulled it from me like a tablecloth, and I am bare and cold when I should be warm.’
‘Why now? The dawn has risen for every day of the ogress’ long life; why should she fancy a taste for it now?’
‘Why not?’ shrugged the river. ‘She’s an ogress; you’ll find they’re always hungry. Perhaps she ran out of raspberry creamed honey and thought the dawn an appropriate substitute.’ (31)
The poems and prose are laced with magic, injecting the otherworldly into their lines. The dream-like mood of these pieces transports the reader into new and intriguing worlds, while the sensory language helps ground them in real smells, sights, and tastes. The book itself is a work of art, with beautiful illustrations interspersed among the entries. The images reflect the written poems and prose in bewitching washes of vibrant colour that are as pleasing to the eye as El-Mohtar’s words are to the mind.
With Rhysling Awards for Best Short Poem in 2009, 2011, and 2014 under her belt, El-Mohtar’s skill as a poet is well recognized. In fact, the poem that won the 2011 award, “Peach Creamed Honey,” is in The Honey Month. Anyone who has read El-Mohtar’s other poetry will be familiar with the speculative lens through which she frequently writes, and this collection is no exception. The book oozes with magic, mystery, and intrigue and will leave you guessing at what has truly taken place at the end of each work of prose and poetry.
The tone of El-Mohtar’s magical pieces oscillate between whimsical and coy and something far more oblique and dangerous. The more cheerful poems and short fiction use the motif of honey and sweetness to emphasize pleasure. In “Peach Creamed Honey,” the poem is lighthearted, a tale of playful young lovers under the summer heat:
I’ll see her lick her lips, and I’ll see her bite a frown,
and I’ll see how she’ll hesitate, look from me up to the town
and back, and she’ll swallow, and she’ll say: ‘can I try?’
and I’ll offer like a gentleman, won’t even hold her eye.
Because she’ll have to close them, see. She’ll have to moan a bit.
and it’s when she isn’t looking
when she’s sighing fit to cry,
that I’ll lick the loving from her,
that I’ll taste the peaches on her
that I’ll drink the honey from her
suck the sweet of her surprise. (17)
Other pieces hint at the darker side of these charmed, magical worlds. Often, these depict the destruction of a naïve or lonely young woman who ignores her gut feelings or the advice of others, and ultimately meets their end. In such works, honey is like bait in a trap, luring girls in with surface-level beauty or pleasure before they finally succumb to hidden danger. These are cautionary tales about the magical intoxication these honeys can bring. “Lemon Creamed Honey” is one of these bleaker tales:
The lemon road is long, the lemon road is wide,
The lemon road is pleasant maid-sung song;
The lemon road will have you for its bride.
When first I ventured my feet from the salt-stitched tide,
They told me I was foolish, told me I was wrong.
‘The lemon road is long, the lemon road is wide,
It will sour all your footsteps, sour you inside.
Stay here with the brine, with us, where you belong—
the lemon road will have you for its bride.’
I laughed at their warnings, but I couldn’t—though I tried—
put them from my thoughts while I walked myself along.
The lemon road is wide, the lemon road is wide,
and I felt myself pucker, felt a tightness in my side,
a frown on my lips, with the whisper growing strong:
the lemon road will have you for its bride. (25)
Whether it’s for the magic, delicious language, or beautiful layout, The Honey Month is the perfect book for anyone who likes a bit of magic and honey in their lives. This wide array of honey-inspired stories offers something different with each entry. It’s almost guaranteed that you won’t be bored, as Amal El-Mohtar is a master of sensory language and enchanting poetry and prose reminiscent of fairy tales. Read it like a sampling and enjoy your own honey month.
El-Mohtar, Amal. The Honey Month. Papaveria Press, 2010.
Review by Amanda Dawson. Amanda grew up in rural Alberta, Canada, where she spent her time reading books, stargazing, and searching for a door to the Faerie realm in the forest near her house. She is currently pursuing a MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan.