January 16, 2013
The yams are as real as anything in Invisible Man. The mere smell of them sends a “stab of swift nostalgia” coursing through the protagonist. The years of his life seem so many yams eaten: candied, baked in a cobbler, deep-fried in a pocket of dough, roasted with pork and glazed with the well-browned fat, and “munched secretly, squeezing the sweet pulp from the soft peel as we hid from the teacher behind the largest book, the World’s Geography.”
“I yam what I am!” has got to be one of the most famous lines in American literature.
The nectarines in Marianne Moore are as unreal as can be. They are meant to be unreal: they come on a much mended porcelain plate, nine of them,” a grouping Moore finds flawless: “Like the peach Yu, the red-/ cheeked peach which cannot aid the dead/ but eaten in time prevents death/ the Italian/ peach-nut, Persian plum, Ispahan/ secluded wall-grown nectarine,/ as wild spontaneous fruit was/ found in China first.”
No smell, no sweet pulp, no bubbling syrup, just a thicket of snarled syntax, impossible to tease apart, and then the out-on-a-limb claim about the priority of China in cultivating this fruit.
Often it’s the other way around: the woman writer preoccupied with the taste and smell of home-cooking, the man abstract, cerebral, syntactical, in the grips of an idea.
I’m glad we have Ralph Ellison and Marianne Moore.