[Readings] | The Custom of the Country, by Jeff Dolven | Harper's Magazine
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August 2015 Issue [Readings]

The Custom of the Country


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.

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