A healthy Meal by Carol Ann Duffy

A Healthy Meal

The gourmet tastes the secret dreams of cows
tossed lightly in garlic. Behind the green door, swish
of oxtails languish on an earthen dish. Here are
wishbones and pinkies; fingerbowls will absolve guilt.

Capped teeth chatter to a kidney or at the breast
of something which once flew. These hearts knew
no love and on their beds of saffron rice they lie
beyond reproach. What is the claret like? Blood.

On table six, the language of tongues is braised
in armagnac. The woman chewing suckling pig
must sleep with her husband later. Leg,
saddle and breast bleat against pure white cloth.

Alter calf to veal in four attempts. This is
the power of words; knife, tripe, lights, charcuterie.
A fat man orders his rare and a fine sweat
bastes his face. There are napkins to wipe the evidence

and sauces to gag the groans of abattoirs. The menu
lists the recent dead in French, from which they order
offal, poultry, fish. Meat flops in the jowls. Belch.
Death moves in the bowels. You are what you eat.

By Carol Ann Duffy
From Standing Female Nude. 1985

There are five different semantic sources drawn together in this poem.
The scene set is the Restaurant, with words like ‘gourmet’ and ‘menu’; the ‘pure white cloth’ of the tables, fingerbowls and napkins and the swish of the green door which separates the diners from the kitchen. There are words from the menu. Tossed lightly, braised, bastes, and the food itself; tripe, charcuterie, sauces, the claret.
The restaurant terms sit uneasily alongside a vocabulary of live animals; of cows, of something which once flew, bleat, and intermediary words; offal poultry fish; oxtail, kidney, in the context of the mention of live animals there is ambiguity in the ‘suckling pig’ and is the ‘swish’ the baize door, or ‘of oxtails’?
But among the animal references are images of the humans, increasingly animal-like.
‘capped teeth chatter, and ‘the woman chewing’ moves to ‘leg, saddle and breast’ which seems to refer to the wife, just as the pure white cloth is at once the table cloth, and the bed where she ‘must sleep with her husband’. Sweat ‘bastes’ his face.
Another layer of vocabulary picks up the human emotions. ‘Secret dreams’, ‘languish’, ‘will absolve guilt’, ‘these hearts know no love’, ‘beyond reproach.’ There is more ambiguity in ‘on their beds they lie’ Bed of saffron rice, contrasted with the unhappy marriage bed.
The last layer of vocabulary is the language of crime: ‘blood’, ‘knife’, ‘lists the recent dead’, ‘to wipe the evidence’, ‘to gag the groans’, ‘will absolve guilt’.
She also slips in a writer’s observation, ‘calf to veal- this is the power of words’.
By the time she reaches the moral line ‘you are what you eat’ she has thoroughly merged the human and animal, guilty and innocent, living and dead.
FD 6/11/10
Sat, 6 Nov 2010 11:51:33 pm
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You are also what you write, Freda. And this poem seems to me to be, for all its ingenuity, quite unsubtle. I recognise that that is perhaps a reflection of the crudeness of its subject(s) but, that notwithstanding, I consider that the last line robs it of any pretence of being anything other than a political rant.
Tue, 9 Nov 2010 02:05:26 pm
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I am not actually claiming it is a great poem, Julian. I do agree it is propaganda, rather than literature. I just set myself to see how she was getting her effects.The techniques poets use are valid even when they use them in a questionable way. I might have talked about metaphor, but there were so many layers it seemed clearer to separate out the different vocabularies. I dont think they are 'registers' as that would suggest different voices. There are probably technical words to describe this better. maybe someone else will know.
Wed, 10 Nov 2010 10:36:54 pm
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I am intrigued - will catch up with you later! Presuming I've anything worth sharing.
Thu, 11 Nov 2010 11:18:58 am
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I suppose she'll have to write some tosh about the royal engagement now - poor woman!
Wed, 17 Nov 2010 07:00:13 pm
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