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On Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “A Breakfast for Barbarians”

MacEwen’s gift is her voice. In “A Breakfast for Barbarians”, she exposes the deep, insatiable appetite of the soul for its mysteries, cajoling us with confidence, humour and a Rabelaisian delight in the universe that few contemporaries can match. She takes risks, offering us a diverse menu of possibilities that brooks no demur resistance. She will have passion, she will have joy.
The poem with its mythic overtones opens with an echo of Mark Anthony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”–addressing the reader in the intimate, knowing and suggestive voice that is MacEwen’s hallmark, “my friends, my sweet barbarians”. With the authority of an oracle, she asserts the claim that underlies all of her poetry — “there is that hunger which is not for food”. And then the transformation begins as a third eye seizes the centre of appetite, as it seizes the poem itself–“an eye at the navel turns the appetite/round” — enacting the turning point with the pivot “round” isolated on the middle line of the opening stanza. The first meal of the day becomes a visionary sacrament, “the brain’s golden breakfast” with its heraldic companions — “eaten with beasts/with books on plates” — an aside resonant of bookplates, claiming an ownership of extravagant proportions. Immediately we know we are in the territory of the soul, the insatiable landscape of MacEwen hunger.

MacEwen’s gift is her voice. In “A Breakfast for Barbarians”, she exposes the deep, insatiable appetite of the soul for its mysteries, cajoling us with confidence, humour and a Rabelaisian delight in the universe that few contemporaries can match. She takes risks, offering us a diverse menu of possibilities that brooks no demur resistance. She will have passion, she will have joy.
The poem with its mythic overtones opens with an echo of Mark Anthony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”—addressing the reader in the intimate, knowing and suggestive voice that is MacEwen’s hallmark, “my friends, my sweet barbarians”. With the authority of an oracle, she asserts the claim that underlies all of her poetry—”there is that hunger which is not for food”. And then the transformation begins as a third eye seizes the centre of appetite, as it seizes the poem itself—”an eye at the navel turns the appetite/round”—enacting the turning point with the pivot “round” isolated on the middle line of the opening stanza. The first meal of the day becomes a visionary sacrament, “the brain’s golden breakfast” with its heraldic companions—”eaten with beasts/with books on plates”—an aside resonant of bookplates, claiming an ownership of extravagant proportions. Immediately we know we are in the territory of the soul, the insatiable landscape of MacEwen hunger.


h1. Insatiable Appetite
bq. _a reading of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s poem “A Breakfast for Barbarians”_
_by Catherine Joyce_
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MacEwen’s gift is her voice. In “A Breakfast for Barbarians”, she exposes the deep, insatiable appetite of the soul for its mysteries, cajoling us with confidence, humour and a Rabelaisian delight in the universe that few contemporaries can match. She takes risks, offering us a diverse menu of possibilities that brooks no demur resistance. She will have passion, she will have joy.
The poem with its mythic overtones opens with an echo of Mark Anthony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”—addressing the reader in the intimate, knowing and suggestive voice that is MacEwen’s hallmark, “my friends, my sweet barbarians”. With the authority of an oracle, she asserts the claim that underlies all of her poetry—”there is that hunger which is not for food”. And then the transformation begins as a third eye seizes the centre of appetite, as it seizes the poem itself—”an eye at the navel turns the appetite/round”—enacting the turning point with the pivot “round” isolated on the middle line of the opening stanza. The first meal of the day becomes a visionary sacrament, “the brain’s golden breakfast” with its heraldic companions—”eaten with beasts/with books on plates”—an aside resonant of bookplates, claiming an ownership of extravagant proportions. Immediately we know we are in the territory of the soul, the insatiable landscape of MacEwen hunger.
The voice urges us on, extemporizing on the theme of verbal expression as culinary imperative—”let us make an anthology of recipes,/let us edit for breakfast/our most unspeakable appetites”, erecting a cosmos of cutlery and gourmet delights to answer this mythic hunger “with boiled chimera/and apocalyptic tea,/an arcane salad of spiced bibles,/tossed dictionaries”—an incongruous fabrication of soul food. The second stanza ends with another intimate and suggestive aside that anchors this fantastical tower of babel with the willful assertion—”(O my barbarians/we will consume our mysteries)”.
In the third stanza the rhythm builds to an ever more urgent, orgiastic tempo, running on without stop “and can we, can we slake the gaping eye of our desires?” echoing the opening image of that all-seeing, all-consuming eye at the navel, at the heart of soul appetite. As the rhythm rises, and rhymes begin to proliferate, MacEwen draws us down, down, rooting us at the barbarians’ “hewn wood table/until our hair is long and our eyes are feeble,/eating, my people, O my insatiates”. Hunger takes on the attributes of the body, “no more able/to jack up the jaws any longer” with a double play on the maw of appetite that yawns into the abyss of the “soul’s vulgar cavities”. We have become this hunger, caught, pinned in this insatiable and eternal moment in which we “gaze at each other over the rust-heap of cutlery,/drinking a coffee that takes an eternity”. At the pivot point of another short line “till, bursting, bleary,” with its echoing rhyme (cutlery/eternity), the poem sets up the final turning on its way to the climactic last line, enacting through the explosive “we laugh, barbarians, and rock the universe—” a satisfying release, a plateau of arrival, of alignment of soul and cosmos, of hunger and fulfillment. And then in the final lift off—charged by the repetitive detritus “over the table”—the poem climaxes in a single line stanza, the triumphant affirmation “by God that was a meal”.
Poetry as hunger, as addiction—addiction to language, to inner sacraments—springs from the hunger for spirit, for soul food, for the mysteries that lead us and ennoble us, and in potentia renew us. Gwendolyn MacEwen paid a high price for this hunger. In a world that pays more attention to the obvious needs of the body, her voice stands as a testimony to the invisible, fathomless but no less real imperatives of the soul.

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