Eating Together. Think about that phrase. What feelings or images does it spark in you? What does it make you think about?
Whether family gatherings, celebrations, times of tragedy, eating together, sharing a meal over a table is something we all do, in any culture, in any country. What feelings do those memories bring? Warmth? Tension? Savoring — both the food and the time together?
Read the Poem.
First, read the poem a few times, out loud if possible. On first reading, what does this poem seem to be about? What feelings come up when you read? Which lines or details stand out to you, or seem most important? Any words you don’t know or lines you don’t quite understand yet?
Make a few notes of your first impressions, even just feelings, now. We’ll come back to your first reactions later…
Naming in Poetry
Let’s begin just with the first three lines of this poem. What are the things named here?
In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
steamer, trout, seasoned, slivers of ginger, sprigs of green onion, sesame oil. All of the main words (besides connecting words like “in,” “the,” “with,” etc.) lovingly list the ingredients of the dinner. I say lovingly because not only is the poet devoting three lines to this careful list, but also the sounds of the words, how they’re chosen is beautiful. There are soft s’s, the hard landing on “trout” (the main ingredient), the lovely rhyme of “steamer” and “sliver” and “ginger,” the soft accent of “g” in “sprig” and “green.” Can you find more repetition of sound here? What’s the effect for you?
Lee (the poet) continues with naming, listing:
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
Again, there’s a pleasure in the simple “with rice” and “for lunch.” Lunch is a common word, a daily routine. But here just that simple word is something to be savored.
Then in the next line, what does he name?
“Brothers, sister, my mother who will …” Again, like “lunch,” we have the naming the some of the most basic vocabulary in language, the first words you learn when learning a new language: brothers, sister, my mother.” These are so commonplace and simple words, yet when the speaker says them here, I feel an honoring of them, a reverence.
And, why use six lines in a 12-line poem to list every ingredient of food, the simplest words for family members?
Poets often do this listing or naming in poetry to honor things, to acknowledge their presence — even things that seem commonplace, that we see every day. Think about how many objects or people you see everyday, many times without really seeing them. Somehow when poets write things into poetry, give them that attention — like placing “brothers, sister, mother, together (!) on that one line — it honors them.
(Walt Whitman, one of poetry’s most famous “namers,” wrote many poems simply listing the people he would see on the street in this country, and somehow bringing them all together in a poem brought them together even if they didn’t notice each other or feel connected in everyday life.)
So Lee, here, devotes half of this poem to naming the food, the people together at the table — a way to give honor and appreciation for their presence, for the moment of gathering.
Shifts in Poetry
Then, the focus turns to the mother’s specific dish and the way she eats:
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
Do you see how much space here the mother gets? Almost four lines in this short poem are dedicated to describing the mother’s eating.
What is she eating? How is it described?
“taste the sweetest meat of the head.” Again, such a simple verb: taste, and a lovely internal rhyme “sweetest meat.” Mother gets to eat the “sweetest meat” of the head. Is she the most honored one, then? And I can see her savorig it, holding it between her fingers deftly.
What is “deftly”? If you don’t know the meaning of the word, how do you imagine it looks?
Deft means (denotation) skillful, or nimble — but there’s a connotation too. How does it feel? The word in this context feels soft with it’s “f” and “l” sound. I can see the mother carefully, softly but intentionally holding that meat, savoring it.
Another note here on line breaks. A line break is — literally– where the line “breaks,” stops and goes to the next line. I just want to take a moment to point out how “deft” this line break is! The mother holds the meat between her fingers — so we’re sitting here with her, holding, then there’s a pause as the line breaks, and then the word “deftly,” to describe her action. Then, the thought is interrupted by another thought, with the comma. The word deftly then connects the mother in the line before to the father in this line: “like my father did,” and then another great line break — “weeks ago.”
And with that line break, we have a huge shift — into the past. We’ve been in the present, and now we’re in the past tense with “did,” “weeks ago.” And the rest of the poem is about the father — who isn’t at the meal.
What does this shift do for you as you read? What do you feel as you really pay attention to that shift?
Images, Simile, Symbol in Poetry
So, you may have noticed I’ve been talking a lot about how many lines, how much space is devoted to each object or person or thing. This is an important aspect to notice in almost any poem, but in this poem in particular it seems like a key element to me. Just the word: devoted. This is a poem about honoring, devotion, and the poet devotes lines and space to the things and people who are important to name and honor.
These last four lines are about whom?
Then he lay down
to sleep like a snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.
The father. Remember, we’ve shifted into the past. What happened to the father? Why isn’t he there in the present?
Well, let’s look at the main action here: “he lay down / to sleep.” That’s the main action we have. The remainder of the poem is actually a simile. He lay down to sleep like a snow-covered road.
What feeling do you get from that comparison? Sleep like a snow-covered road. How does that feel?
To me, it feels peaceful, quiet, undisturbed (no one is driving on that road!). What is doing the action “winding through pines”?
The road is winding through pines — and another important detail “older than him.” Than who? The father. And that last lovely line, kind of a paradox: “without any travelers and lonely for no one.” He’s alone, without travelers, but not lonely. It’s peaceful, quiet, disturbed, solitary but not lonely. I’m left here with peace, with a settled feeling.
I read this as the father’s death — and the meal with the rest of the family as a sort of honoring, commemoration, maybe a first time gathering without the father there. To me, this makes the naming in the first part of the poem even more meaningful. The speaker doesn’t dwell on the absence of the father but savors, honors every object, every person who is present. Just as we savor the food, we savor each person, the event, the act of gathering and being together in this moment in time.
I didn’t know this before, but one time when I read this with a group of students, one student from China told me that in Chinese culture, pines stand for ancestors. So the father slept like that winding road through the pines, the ancestors, lining his path. He wasn’t lonely because he was led by those who came before, standing there overseeing — and honoring him. I love how I still get that feeling of the image when I read, even though I didn’t know that particular symbol at first. However, knowing that pines are a symbol of ancestors adds more resonance to my reading. They give another layer of honor.
Now, look back (if you made notes, or think back) to your first impressions of the poem. Do you see more in it now? Were your first impressions more or less the same feeling you have now?
And finally, what did you learn about reading poetry in general as we went through this poem? Anything you’d want to pay attention to as you read future poems? Looking at how much space is given to different ideas, or looking at line breaks, or sound?
Now, you can try to write your own poem. I wrote a creative writing prompt based on this poem here!
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