my tongue was a filling estuary.

Thanks to my friend Lauren over at Food E., I re-read “Oysters” — one of my favorite Seamus Heaney poems — for the thousandth time and was as delighted, troubled, and enthralled as I was the first time I read it. You can practically feel the texture of an oyster, the violence that’s inherent in shucking them, and the contrast between the darkness of the oysters’ harvest and the fond, gluttonous memories we create as we eat them.

Really, it’s quite a violent poem [see the second stanza]. The oysters are powerless against the ocean and humans, and their consumption (it almost sounds like rape) is associated with privileged classes. But there’s also some beautiful imagery in the poem that causes me to pause and think about what I consume in the world and how much respect I afford the natural world when I consume.

I think what I gleam from this poem, the idea that’s stuck with me since my first reading of it, is the idea of eating deliberately and mindfully that appears in the first and last stanzas– of thinking about the history of what we’re eating, feeling its taste and texture in our mouths, how it’s related to the natural world, all the while acknowledging the bonds that are forged as we eat. Most importantly, eating deliberately means understanding how what you eat affects the natural world. What do you take away from this poem? xo, m

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.

Photo by Irish photojournalist Bobbie Hanvey.
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2 thoughts on “my tongue was a filling estuary.

  1. His reading was the first time I’d ever heard this poem, and he prefaced with how he wrote it with the idea of land being raped and pillaged, so that’s all I could think about, but I love your interpretation (obvs cause it has to do with food). It’s definitely an interesting angle on how we get what we eat.

    • Yeah, the man is brilliant! This poem is rich enough that I could spend way too long analyzing it. There’s definitely a huge element of violence towards the natural world. But those first two lines! They so perfectly encapsulate the experience of eating.

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