El Dorado Freddy’s
by Danny Caine and Tara Wray
Belt Publishing, 2020
$15.00, 150 Pages
Review by Michael B. Tager

Halfway through Danny Caine’s and Tara Wray’s hybrid book of poetry and photography, El Dorado Freddy’s (Belt Publishing, 2020), I was on an errand during my lunch break that ran longer than expected. I needed something to eat quickly. This is not unusual. I have a body, after all.

top to bottom: Blue Apple, Kansas City, KS, 2018 | Blue Drink Between Legs With Bruise, Topeka, KS, 2018

What surprised me, however, is that instead of stopping home to grab something, or skipping the rest of my errand in order to eat the food I had at work, I looked up where the nearest Burger King was. I ordered a (Impossible) Whopper meal and tailored it exactly to the specifications of teenage me, the one who only lives in my memory and who adores Burger King. I ate it in the car and nothing has ever tasted so good.

I haven’t ordered anything beyond the occasional fry or coffee from any traditional fast food joint in over a decade. This is partially due to taste buds, partially because of a distrust of any organization that size, and a dash of health reasons. As Caine says in the poem, “Chik-Fil-A:” “Everything is political, even malls.”

Yet, despite my long hiatus, the combination of poetry and photography in El Dorado Freddy’s awoke a craving that was undeniable. How powerful must a book be to impel behavior? To evoke a triple-whammy of nostalgia, hunger and action? “I’ve heard there’s a Simple Simon’s here and I’m interested in taste as time travel.”

Caine began writing this book as a column in the online literary journal Hobart, as a review of fast food restaurants. His poetry is irreverent and plain, except when it’s neither of those things. The book occasionally feels like a piss-take, but there’s a reverence of place and time that is powerful and unexpected. Caine doesn’t have any illusions about the quality of the food or about the corporations’ place in this world, but he also understands that battles have to be picked and sometimes food is just food. But poetry isn’t just poetry.

The poem “Domino’s Pizza” is indeed about the subject. But it’s also a poem about the birth of Caine’s child and about sharing a moment with a stranger during something wondrous, even when the thing in hand (pizza) isn’t. “I’m a dad. I take a slice of pizza. I haven’t eaten since breakfast. The dude says, me too, man. I want to say the pizza was good. It wasn’t.”

left to right: Hospitaliano #1, Topeka, KS, 2018 | Red Bag, Topeka, KS, 2018

There’s a great deal of poetry about family and fatherhood, all tied to food. Chain food. It’s an ode to reality. We all live and eat and birth and die and sometimes we have good fast food, sometimes we don’t.

Tara Wray’s photography captures these moments exceptionally well. She reached out to Caine after the first Hobart poem debuted and pitched the collaboration between them. It was a smart decision for both artists. Her images of stark Americana are joyous and sad at the same time, capturing images that don’t automatically mesh with the idea of Caine’s poetry on the first, obvious level. What does “Dick Hat, KS, 2018” or “Storm with Wires, St Joseph, MO, 2018” have to do with French fries and family? Nothing. Everything.

If the photos were all images of food and branding and broken drive through machines, there’d be too much sameness, too much on-the-nose. Wray smartly breaks up the wonderfully composed images that dovetail perfectly with Caine’s poetry with images of malls-in-decline, ants and statuary available in gift shops. There’s a symbiosis between them, a complementary similarity with what they’re doing individually as artists that make El Dorado Freddy’s feel complete in a way that many collaborative books don’t.

Of course, your mileage may vary. All sixty photos, which could have been interspersed throughout to contrast with the poems, are in the middle of the book, essentially turning it into a meaty defined three-course meal. It’s an understandable decision from, presumably, a production standpoint, but it gets in the way of empathetic reactions. Reading and talking about food is one thing, and seeing food is another, but combining all three is highly effective. It’s telling that my most visceral reaction to El Dorado Freddy’s was right after finishing the last poem in the first section and then looking at a few of the photographs. That’s when I felt my daily life shift.

One wonderful device is the use of prose poems utilizing a research device to segue between related but distinct ideas. About chicken. A key aspect of El Dorado Freddy’s is how intentional it is, how Wray’s photographs and Caine’s words combine in a meaningful way to create a great sum. The poems about chicken are perhaps cultivated from Wikipedia or Webster’s or any source text, or maybe just created from the part of the brain in charge of poetic license, but they’re delightful vignettes of stream of conscious chicken. As in “Chicken Tender:”

“…the abundance of the tenderloin muscle as by-product led to the prominence of the chicken tenders on children’s menus in the 1990s see also the best chicken tenders were at our location of a chain called Rockne’s, where I would order an adult portion of six and sub potato chips for the fires see also they were perfect with honey mustard and a sprinkling of salt see also to this day I’m dealing with hypertension, like many others in my family see also…”

These prose poems are such a delightful conflation of the poet as a person and as a consumer and as a child. It evokes memory and the surrounding environment and the current status of Caine to make this poem about casual effect and values that is dizzying. It’s a cascade of effect that is lovely in its confusion about life. Some of us eat to live, others live to eat. Either way, the way is forward and “I’m afraid to make noise beyond happy burger sounds.”