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Last week I attended a poetry reading at the last minute, because it seemed like a pleasant way to spend a cold winter afternoon and also because my week had been a little heavier on weird old sexist children’s books than usual and I needed an antidote.
It turned out to be a food-themed reading, and some poets stuck more closely to that idea than others. At least one wrote beautifully about the revelation of eating truly fresh farm eggs, and, being a devotee of all things egg myself, this was my favorite of the day. As I listened, it struck me that poems are uniquely made to consider food in a way I, a prose writer, may not get to. The reading had a sense of pleasant oddness, and of the pointillist way a poet can illuminate a single moment, teasing out its participants, its emotions, its conflicts and unexpected layers. When I think of food prose, I tend to think of either the service type—here is how to cook this, what this is, who creates it, or where to eat it, plus poetic descriptions for a more appetizing read—or the one I am more partial to, the food story. But the story of food can be awfully repetitive after a while, no matter how heartfelt and well-done. (We know how this goes: My mother made this dish for me, even if only once in my benighted childhood; or Here is a moment I cherish through a faint overlay of loss and time.) The pleasure in these poems was that many of them were free of the need for story and arc and instead delved into the poet’s own idiosyncratic experience of the food before her, its source, its associations, the sensory experience of consuming it and the companions with whom she was dining.
It’s usually not the same experience I can draw upon, and I like it best when that’s the case—that can be as startling and bracing as when you realize that, say, you and the person beside you have just experienced the same moment in totally different ways. I am generally more drawn to prose because story is how I think things through, how I communicate and consider –and obviously nothing says a poem cannot tell a story—but here I suddenly appreciated the poems that set story aside in favor of the fullness, and the smallness, of the moment.
Which brings me to my very favorite food poem of all time, and perhaps my favorite poem too, Seamus Heaney’s “Oysters.” I’m predisposed to love any poem about oysters, because oyster is one of those words I luxuriate in seeing on a page. I return to this poem every now and then over the years and for me its brilliance never dulls: Here is the flavor, the scent, the sound, the emotion of this sensuous and barbarous meal.
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.
I remember mentioning this poem to Tin House’s late poetry editor, Amy Bartlett, back when I was an intern, and admitting I loved it but didn’t know what it really meant. I think it’s about the pure experience of the moment, she said, and I think she was right. The poem is not evoking a moment of pure beauty (though the poem itself is a thing of pure beauty); it contains discomfort in its appetite, the shiver of unease that needles us even as we reach for pleasure. So, yes, it is about the moment of eating an oyster, or an egg, and just the moment, but when it’s done like this it is as large as the universe.
Michelle Wildgen is an executive editor at Tin House magazine. She is the author of the forthcoming novel Bread and Butter, the novels You’re Not You and But Not for Long, and editor of an anthology, Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in publications and anthologies including the New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, Best New American Voices 2004, Best Food Writing 2004 and 2009, and elsewhere.