Exquisite Treasure: Amal El-Mohtar's The Honey Month

(Photo from Magpie Magazine)  

Amal El-Mohtar's The Honey Month  from Papaveria Press ranks among 2010's most exquisite and overlooked treasures. This beautifully illustrated volume of short fictions and poems by El-Mohtar takes as its inspiration the author's tasting of 28 different kinds of honey, one per day. Each tasting leads to a different literary creation, but she begins each entry by describing the honey in terms that will be familiar to wine connoiseurs.

Take, for example, "Day 3--Sag Harbor, NY, Early Spring Honey," which has a color "pale and clear as snowmelt" and the smell "cool sugar crystals," but also brings to mind "a stingless jellyfish I once held in my hand in Oman." The taste? "...like the end of winter...[when] you can still see clumps of snow on the ground and the air is heavy with damp but it all smells so good...the trees are black and fragrant though they've barely begun to bud."

As for the prose, "Day Five--Cranberry Creamed Honey," with its dark amber color, sharpness, and tartness serves as the jumping off point for a character study that begins with a similar intensity:

There is fire in his wrists, fire in his sharp-shod walk, fire beneath his fingernails. He is red, redder than rowan berries, for rowan doesn't bleed as cranberries do, and it is cranberries that he gathers, that he stews and crushes, cranberries in which he steeps his skin. Lacking a Mithrasian bull, he takes them, bathes them, rinses his hair red-black, seeking transcendence.

The differences between the types of honey allow El-Mohtar to move back and forth between the poetic and the more casually contemporary, with the experiment of the tasting enough to provide a unifying structure. For example, "Day 7--Thistle Honey," with its "pale clear gold" color, "light" taste with "a tiny bit of green apple," and taste that is both crisp and mellow at the same time inspires a vignette about the narrator's encounters with a (possibly magical) woman named Scraggle in contemporary Cornwall.

The poetry is similarly diverse in tone and approach, from "Zambian Honey" with tight lines like "You do not know me, little one/with your wings thin as sky/buzzing like rain" to "Peach Creamed Honey" with its more expansive style: "And I know she'll let me tell her how the peaches lost their way/how they fell out of a wagon on a sweaty summer's day,/how the buzz got all around that there was sugar to be had,/and the bees came singing, and the bees came glad."

To top it all off, Oliver Hunter's finely rendered color illustrations make encountering such rich, heady prose even more delightful. A lovely introduction by Danielle Sucher, whose honey provided the inspiration, is also unexpectedly moving.

The book's a slim 73 pages for a reason: like the honey described, any more and it would be too rich for most readers. As it stands, however, The Honey Month is the perfect length, and the perfect gift for the Omnivoracious reader: a hidden treasure that deserves your consideration. Highly recommended.

(Amal El-Mohtar)


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