Ralph Ellison, Marianne Moore: Yams and Nectarines

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.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
This entry was posted in African-American literature, China, Chinese art, Ethnicity, Food in literature, Gender, lyric, Poetry, Twentieth century literature and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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