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”.
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.
Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was an Irish poet, playwright, translator and lecturer. He won the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature and many other awards besides, honouring his prolific work “of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”
Born and raised in Northern Ireland, the topic of the struggle for civil rights and the sectarian violence in the region often shone through his poems. But he sought to reflect the private and apolitical side of it, describing the lives and voices of the people who lived and died in those troubled times.
His poetry was also evocative of his natural surroundings, of the bogs and seasides and not least the local food and foodways. He wrote of picking blackberries, peeling potatoes and eating oysters, “my palate hung with starlight”. The above quote is taken from his poem “Oysters”. It is a mark of his eye for the lyrical details of everyday life that he not only celebrates the food, “philandering sigh of the ocean”, but also the gift of friendship.
No.3 – Chapters on Parnell Street. A goldmine for hardcover books, and Ireland’s largest independent bookstore.
I used to think of Chapters as a sort of bargain bookstore. The prices are shown on the front of the books with large, red-and-white stickers, and often they are “special prices” and actual bargains. This makes a big difference on hardcover books. I have no great ambition to own my fiction in hardcover, in fact, I prefer paperbacks, as they are lightweight and fit better into my handbags. But food and cookery books often come only in hardcover, and Chapters was instrumental in helping me build up my collection of recipe and reference books on food and wine. For the same reason, anybody interested in coffee table books on Art and Architecture should not miss visiting this store. Continue reading →
No.2 – Hodges Figgis. The name sounds like a Dickens character, the shopfront looks exactly how you would picture Dublin’s oldest bookstore. Huge windows full of books curve towards the door like a bell jar. Their frames and the door are dark green, like the leather inserts on a library table.
But the shop is not resting on its long and illustrious pedigree (which includes being mentioned in Ulysses, no less). From humanities, business and sciences on the top floor to the sweeping selection of classic and modern literature, Hodges Figgis is eminently knowledgeable without being snobbish. Continue reading →
No.1 – The Secret Book and Record Store. A bookworms’ lair unfazed by fashions.
The Secret Book and Record Store is not all that secretly located in the city centre of Dublin. Around the corner from busy Grafton Street, amidst cafés and shops, a large yellow sign adorns the entrance. The corridor burrows away into the old building. At the end of it, boxes and tables and shelves full of books fill a low room almost to the ceiling.