Oystering

By Richard Howard b. 1929 Richard Howard

“Messieurs, l’huitre étoit bonne. Adieu. Vivez en paix.”
—Boileau

Secret they are, sealed, annealed, and brainless   
And solitary as Dickens said, but   
They have something to say: that there is more   
Than one way to yield. The first—and the hardest.   
The most nearly hindered—is when you pull   
Them off the rocks, a stinking, sawing sedge   
Sucking them back under the black mud, full   
Of hermit crabs and their borrowed snailshells,   
Minnows scattering like superstitions,   
The surf dragging, and every power   
Life permits them holding out, holding on   
For dear life. Sometimes the stones give way first.   
Before they will, but still we gather them,   
Even if our hands are bloody as meat,   
For a lunch Queen Victoria preferred:   
“A barrel of Wellfleet oysters, points down”   
Could last across the ocean, all the way   
To Windsor, wakening a widow’s taste.   
We ate them this afternoon, out of their   
Armor that was formidably grooved, though   
It proved our own reversal wiser still:   
Keep the bones and stones inside, or never
Leave the sea. “He was a brave man,” Swift said,   
“Who first eat one.” Even now, precedent   
Of centuries is not always enough.
Driving the knife into muscles that mould   
The valves so close to being impartial.   
Surrender, when it comes—and it must come:   
Lavish after that first grudging release   
Back there in the sea, the giving over   
Of despair, this time—makes me speculate.   
Like Oscar and oysters, I feel “always   
Slightly immortal when in the sea”: what   
Happens now we are out? Is the risk worth   
While for a potential pearl? No, what we’re   
Really after is the moment of release,   
The turn and tear of the blade that tightens,   
Tortures, ultimately tells. When you spread
The shells, something always sticks to the wrong   
One, and a few drops of liquor dribble   
Into the sand. Scrape it off: in the full   
Half, as well as a Fautrier, a Zen
Garden, and the smell of herring brine that   
Ferenczi said we remember from the womb,   
Lunch is served, in shiny stoneware sockets,   
Blue milk in the sea’s filthiest cup. More   
Easily an emblem for the inner man
Than dinner, sundered, for the stomach. We   
Take them queasily, wonder as we gulp
When it is—then, now, tomorrow—they’re dead.

Richard Howard, “Oystering” from The Damages. Copyright © 1967 by Richard Howard. Reprinted with the permission of Wesleyan University Press, www.wesleyan.edu/wespress.

Source: The Damages (1967)

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Poet Richard Howard b. 1929

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Subjects Nature, Eating & Drinking, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Activities

 Richard  Howard

Biography

A distinguished poet, critic and translator, Richard Howard holds a unique place in contemporary American letters. Howard is credited with introducing modern French fiction—particularly examples of the Nouveau Roman—to the American public; his translation of Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (1984) won a National Book Award in 1984. A selection of Howard's critical prose was collected in the volume Paper Trail: Selected . . .

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SUBJECT Nature, Eating & Drinking, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Activities

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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