The paper I published in the journal East-West Cultural Passage entitled ‘”My Palate Hung With Starlight” – A Gastrocritical Reading of Seamus Heaney’s Poetry’ is now available online! You can find it here: https://doi.org/10.2478/ewcp-2019-0010
Nobel-prize winning poet Seamus Heaney is celebrated for his rich verses recalling his home in the Northern Irish countryside of County Derry. Yet while the imaginative links to nature in his poetry have already been critically explored, little attention has been paid so far to his rendering of local food and foodways. From ploughing, digging potatoes and butter-churning to picking blackberries, Heaney sketches not only the everyday activities of mid-20th century rural Ireland, but also the social dynamics of community and identity and the socio-cultural symbiosis embedded in those practices. Larger questions of love, life and death also infiltrate the scenes, as they might in life, through hints of sectarian divisions and memories of famine.
This essay proposes a gastrocritical reading of Heaney’s poetry to study these topics in particularly meaningful ways. Gastrocriticism is a nascent critical approach to literature that applies the insights gained in Food Studies to literary writings, investigating the relationship of humans to each other and to nature as played out through the prism of food, or as Heaney wrote: “Things looming large and at the same time […] pinned down in the smallest detail”.
Wet snow drips misery from the rooftops.
I shouldn't have had that last bottle of beer.
Or the dozen before it. Or that shot of tequila –
I guess that was not such a brilliant idea.
But last night, I was thirsty for beer and adventure
and a glint in your eye told me you were too.
So the drinks had no bottom, and the clock had no meaning,
'til the sky started turning a lighter blue.
You bought the first round at the bar of the venue,
a scene we've rehearsed on many a day.
Cold beer in the dark, heartbeat soaring with drumbeat,
and on stage someone sings what we never could say.
We picked up more drinks on the way to the party.
It was somebody's birthday, with cake and a grill.
Someone brought out tequila. Someone brought out a camera.
In the pictures you smile as only you will.
Early this morning I woke up on your sofa
and snuck out of the house while you were asleep.
Maybe the next time we meet I will tell you
that it's for you that my thirst runs so deep.
If you go for a walk in the woods one of these crisp Piemontese autumn mornings, you may meet a man carrying a wicker basket. In it, a few small mushrooms on a bed of fern. ‘Oh,’ you will say, ‘not so lucky today?’ – ‘No,’ he will answer, with a rueful look into his basket. ‘Not much luck today. Or maybe I just don’t know where to look.’ And, with a slight shrug of the shoulders, he will say: ‘Maybe this wood is not good for mushrooms. Good luck to you though.’
But if you were to come to the house of this man in these days, you will find him sitting at his kitchen table, carefully cleaning porcini mushrooms the size of his fist. He will be surrounded by several wicker baskets, full of glorious nut-brown and stone-grey specimens, resting on their bed of fresh green fern.
I looked up from the roster. Dario nodded towards the white-haired, red-faced man leaning on the bar with one elbow, clutching his wine glass. The man glanced erratically around the room then unsteadily focused on Manuela behind the bar. She had moved to the far corner by the coffee machine and was stiffly staring ahead. Her hands kept polishing the rim of a wine glass, round and round, and her eyes seemed shiny.
I sighed and got up. He owned a clothes shop in the neighbourhood, a confusion of colourful velvet, beads and mirrors. If it weren’t right on the main tourist thoroughfare, he would have been bust long ago. As it was, it still seemed to support his drinking habit. He seemed worse than usual tonight. Continue reading →
Even in our days of the internet, when almost everything can be found and traced online, there are still some things that are handed on, from person to person. In a creative writing course a few years ago, I received a copy of author Rick Moody‘s ‘Guide to Revision’. It is a very helpful essay, detailing twelve useful steps to improving one’s writing. The document itself seems rather quaint: there are no publication details, but rather a PO Box address for the author, and any source I could find on the internet seems to provide copies of the same, home-typed document. Here it is again, and thank you, Mr Moody: Rick Moody ‘A Guide to Revision’
I just finished a book I had been meaning to read for a long time: Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. For anyone involved in studying food, this catchy title is irresistible. Cooking made us human? That validates our entire field of interest! This is particularly attractive because the preoccupation with food, even at a professional, scholarly level, is often considered at best to be a nice hobby, at worst a vain, superficial interest for a frivolous topic. As if the study of food was limited to the private appreciation of decadent luxuries such as white truffle or expensive wines. As if the study of food was not dealing with an absolute essential, with something that structures our entire lives from social relationships and physical surroundings to our time. Continue reading →
Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was a US-American astronomer, astrophysicist and author. One of his many awards and donors was the Pulitzer Prize for his book Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence and Emmys for his television work. If such an accomplished scientist and scholar of human intelligence calls something magic, it’s about as serious a compliment as you can get!
A grey and drizzly Sunday is perfect for visiting a museum or gallery, so my friend and I went to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin today. The current special exhibition of Vermeer was sold out, but we were actually more curious about the new wing of the Gallery, which has been done very nicely and now houses part of their permanent exhibition of Irish artists (and entrance is free, so go have a look!).
I am fond of modern art (say, from the last 150 years), and I particularly liked this painting above: Frying Pan, Eggs and Napkin (1950) by Irish-Scottish artist William Scott (1913-1989). The colours and lines remind me of retro fabrics (the painting is from 1950, so that is not far off), but I also like the everyday subject matter, of food, no less. Scott, as I have learned, painted almost exclusively everyday items, mostly food and kitchen tools, with different levels of abstractions. Some of his works consist of colourful shapes only, reminiscent of the outlines of cups and pans; in others, the fish, eggs, fruits and forks are more clearly visible.
William Scott apparently said that for French Cubist painter Georges Braque, “the guitar was his Madonna” and that “the frying pan could be [Scott’s] guitar” – his muse or artistic theme that never stopped urging him to paint. I find this rather similar to the creative urge behind literary non-fiction with its focus on the patterns and dynamics of everyday life.
Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was an American poet and one of the leading figures of the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the counterculture of the 1960s. His poems often mix impressions from his life as a Jewish, homosexual intellectual in modern mid-century USA with Eastern mysticism and literary references.
In his prose poem “A Supermarket in California”, he places two famous poets, American Walt Whitman and Spanish surrealist Federico García Lorca, alongside himself in the very mundane setting of a contemporary (1950s) supermarket with its neon lights, stacks of cans, frozen foods and shopping families. It is Walt Whitman that he references most in the poem, not just by name, but by the very form, tone and content of the piece. Continue reading →
I heard Gillian Slovo, the South African-born author, last Saturday at the International Literature Festival Dublin 2017. She was talking, along with fellow writer Danielle McLaughlin, to author and psychotherapist Susie Orbach, on the topic of Why We Write. Orbach was fantastic in gently teasing out subtexts and hidden corners of thoughts – it felt more like being privy to an intimate conversation than listening to a panel discussion where, in the worst cases, the same old clichés are being rehearsed.