Readings — From the August 2015 issue

The Custom of the Country

Download Pdf
Read Online

By Jeff Dolven, from A New English Grammar, a collection in progress. Dolven, who received a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship, is the author of Speculative Music, published by Sarabande in 2013.

The custom of the country is to twist
a length of plain white thread from the wooden spool
set on each table;
to make a simple net, a sketch of a harp,
strung taut between the thumb and the first two fingers;

to catch up, next, into the air a portion,
suspended above the plate, and then by a quick
slacking of tension
to make of it a simple gift to the mouth.
Properly done, the fingers need never touch.

They are about the meal like seamstresses.
Two hands, cat’s cradle–wise, may painlessly
pare a red apple;
a loose strand may be trailed through a dish of spice,
and then across a still and civil lip.

And all in silence, save for the scissor-whistle
of the threads as they cross, recross, and never knot,
rising and dipping,
composing a sweet aeolian oversong
that is at meals the only conversation.

By this the natives keep a cardinal tenet
that the major functions of life be held apart
each from the other,
that the mouth, for example, when taking nourishment,
be reserved from the sibling art of making talk.

Each length of thread is discarded between the courses,
between each taste, and placed in a wooden bowl
laid for the purpose.
I admire them, but from a distance: as you can tell
from the rude pleasure I take in telling you.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Single Page
Share

More from Jeff Dolven:

Readings From the July 2009 issue

The Ironic Cloud

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2019

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.