Saturday, November 22, 2008

Heaney's Oysters

Jenna Krajeski at the NY'er Book Bench has compiled a list of poems about food, with some assistance from Major Poets. There's some good stuff there but to my mind this poem is better than anything on their list.

Oysters
Seamus Heaney

Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.

Alive and violated,
They lay on their bed of ice:
Bivalves: the split bulb
And philandering sigh of ocean --
Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered.

We had driven to that coast
Through flowers and limestone
And there we were, toasting friendship,
Laying down a perfect memory
In the cool of thatch and crockery.

Over the Alps, packed deep in hay and snow,
The Romans hauled their oysters south of Rome:
I saw damp panniers disgorge
The frond-lipped, brine-stung
Glut of privilege

And was angry that my trust could not repose
In the clear light, like poetry or freedom
Leaning in from sea. I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

4 comments:

zbs said...

Never liked that Heaney poem myself, but I agree in the sense that the ones they picked are worse.

I feel like there is no shortage of poems closely tied to food that are great but I can't seem to think of any just now that are squarely enough about the thing itself. I don't have my books here so how about this one, which on some level I think is rather bad, but which I like on a visceral level:

Well, nuncle, this plainly won't do.
These insolent, linear peels
And sullen, hurricane shapes
Won't do with your eglantine.
They require something serpentine.
Blunt yellow in such a room!

You should have had plums tonight,
In an eighteenth-century dish,
And pettifogging buds,
For the women of primrose and purl
Each one in her decent curl.
Good God! What a precious light!

But bananas hacked and hunched....
The table was set by an ogre,
His eye on an outdoor gloom
And a stiff and noxious place.
Pile the bananas on planks.
The women will be all shanks
And bangles and slatted eyes.

And deck the bananas in leaves
Plucked from the Carib trees
Fibrous and dangling down,
Oozing cantankerous gum
Out of their purple maws,
Darting out of their purple craws
Their musky and tingling tongues.

Sarang said...

The Heaney isn't among his best (though I love the "split bulb / and philandering sigh of ocean") but yes, it's better than their picks -- which I like more than you do. Amusingly I think the problem with the Heaney poem is rather the same as the problem with the Stevens (I assume it's Stevens?) you quote -- they're both intensely self-parodic. (Also I don't know if it's _about_ food; I'd classify it, if I had to, under fairytales. On that note, is "The Revolutionaries Stop for Orangeade" about drink?)

If I think of better food-related poems I'll post them.

zbs said...

Stevens, yes.

I guess I meant "about" as in, are concerned with throughout, rather than just meriting a well-turned mention.

So is this one:

An olive, capers, or some better salad
Ushering the mutton; with a short-legged hen,
If we can get her, full of eggs, and then,
Lemons, and wine for sauce; to these, a cony
Is not to be despaired of, for our money;
And, though fowl, now, be scarce, yet there are clerks,
The sky not falling, think we may have larks.
I'll tell you of more, and lie, so you will come:
Of partridge, pheasant, wood-cock, of which some
May yet be there; and godwit, if we can;
Knat, rail, and ruff too


About hospitality or the about feast. I'll take it either way.

Sarang said...

I thought of the Jonson -- pretty much the first thing to come to mind -- and rejected it on the grounds that it isn't really about food because it doesn't say anything about any of the food that it lists. Admittedly it's a Major Poem. The hard part, as I see it, is the poetics of the taste buds, which involves writing about food as food rather than a cultural or (in Heaney) historical or (in Stevens) geometrical phenomenon. Probably be boring to do this throughout a poem, but e.g. the Heaney or the Strand at least touch on it.