THE GREEN STAMP BOOK
by Susan Wheeler
Child in the thick of yearning. Doll carted and pushed
like child. The aisles purport opportunities —
looking up, the woman’s chins, the straight rows
of peas and pretzels, Fizzies’ foils, hermetic
boxes no one knows. I’ll get it! What thing therein
— bendy straws, powder blue pack Blackjack gum —
will this child fix upon? On TV, women with grocery carts
careen down aisles to find expensive stuff. Mostly,
this means meat. This, then, is a life. This, a life
that’s woven wrong and, woven once, disbraided, sits
like Halloween before a child, disguised in its red
Santa suit, making its lap loom the poppy field
Dorothy wants to bed. Can I have and the song’s begun.
O world spotted through more frugal legs. O world.
“The Green Stamp Book” comes from Ledger (2005) by Susan Wheeler. In this piece, the poet calls into question the wonders and limitations of the grocery store as experienced by a child. (I wanted to include it in The Poetry Diet as it contrasts well with Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California”)!) Because so much is happening in only 14 lines, the poem begs a closer examination. First, there is the fact that “the green stamp book” from the title is mentioned nowhere else in the piece. This makes me wonder what it’s signifying. Food stamps? Some sort of child’s activity book found in the check-out aisle? We can’t be sure.
The poem then begins, “Child in the thick of yearning. Doll carted and pushed like child.” I like how Wheeler shrugs off typical article usage here, choosing to use “Child” and “Doll” as the direct noun subjects as opposed to writing “The child” or “A doll.” This simplifies the syntax and also creates a more universal entrance into the poem. I also like Wheeler’s choice of an otherwise forgettable turn of phrase (“in the thick of”) to classify the child’s yearning. While it generally means something like “amidst,” here it seems to do more. Yearning is a word that feels “thick” to me–aurally and in the way that it expresses a heavy desire. The second sentence – “Doll carted and pushed like child” is also interesting, because it so simply captures another level of role-play (parent—child———doll) that comes into being quite early on as we begin to model certain behaviors.
The next few lines sketch out the grocery store experience from a child’s perspective. A young voice interjects “I’ll get it!” right in the middle of a line, a fitting interruption. Wheeler then switches scenes a bit to note how some television game shows portray women rushing aisles in shopping sprees, shoving carts full of pricey items. Children may unknowingly take in these shows as reality. She writes, “This, then, is a life. This, a life that’s woven wrong and, woven once, disbraided, sits like Halloween before a child, disguised in its red Santa suit, making its lap loom the poppy field Dorothy wants to bed.”
In characterizing this life as “woven wrong,” Wheeler seems to be commenting on the more sinister effects of consumerism. But who is to be blamed? According to the poem, it may be the media or the way we have constructed society itself. The fact that children are simultaneously faced with and denied everything in the grocery store AND the parental act of saying “no, you can’t have that” may be the essence of the “disbraid[ing] that the poet describes. After this realization–that sure, an infinite number of things exist out there on the shelves, but one person can never have it all–Life “sits like Halloween before a child” and the ultimate consumer fantasy is revealed to be make-believe, with flashy packaging as tempting as Dorothy’s poppies.
Wheeler ends the poem with what feels like a sigh (for the children, perhaps, viewing the magical world without an acute financial awareness, or maybe for their parents) –“O world spotted through more frugal legs. O world.”
A final note — the active soundscape of this poem should not be overlooked. Wheeler has laced this piece with liberal amounts of repetition, (…this means meat. This, then, is a life. This, a life…) alliteration, (peas and pretzels, Santa suit, lap loom, etc.) and assonance (“child, aisles”, “thing, therein”, and “means meat”). You can hear the poet read it here.
The mention of pretzels in “The Green Stamp Book,” as well as the image of life as something woven, inspired me to open up a little pretzel factory in my parents’ kitchen a few weeks ago. I slightly underestimated the time it’d take to make these amazing doughy treats, but they are so worth it!
(Recipe Yields: ~12 pretzels)
- 1 pkg dry yeast
- 1 1/2 tsp. sugar
- 1 cup warm water
- 3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp. salt
- cooking spray
- 6 cups water
- 2 tblsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. water
- 1 egg
- kosher salt
1. Dissolve yeast package and sugar in warm water in a large bowl. Leave it standing for about 5 minutes.
2. Add 3 cups flour and 1 tsp. salt to yeast mixture. Stir until dough forms.
3. Transfer dough to a floured surface and knead it thoroughly. It should still feel slightly sticky.
4. Spray a large bowl with cooking spray and place dough inside. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 40 minutes or so. Dough should expand, and you can test it by poking it and seeing if an indentation remains.
5. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Divide dough into about 12 equal parts, depending on the size you want your pretzels. Grab one piece, and leave the rest of the dough covered. Roll into a rope. (The length will determine pretzel size.)
6. Twist rope into pretzel shape. Pinch ends in to seal. Let formed pretzels rest for a few minutes while you prepare their bath.
7. Bring water and baking soda to boil in a large pot. Reduce heat to simmering. Gently lower each pretzel into the water mixture for about 15 seconds. (I used a flat ice cream scoop!) Things may get a little steamy! Transfer pretzels to a wire drying rack coated with cooking spray.
8. Place pretzels on a baking sheet. Combine 1 tsp. water and egg in a small bowl and brush a thin layer over pretzels. Top with salt or cinnamon and sugar or whatever other spices you like.
9. Bake for 12 minutes or so at 425 degrees. Pretzels will turn golden brown. Let cool & enjoy!