Monday, April 17, 2006


To me, the best thing about Easter is finally being able to eat eggs. Most of the year, eggs are my nemeses. Morning meals outside of the house are an ordeal. I confront them on every breakfast menu and force myself to look away. Often enough, I’m tempted by sonorous words like hollandaise and benedict, but after countless days filled with cramps and dreams of a new stomach, I’ve come to accept the fact that eggs conspire against me.

On Easter, however, things are different. Chocolate eggs, peanut butter eggs, candy eggs, and malted eggs are everywhere. The tapered oval shape is no longer an anathema to me. Instead, it is a temptation to be indulged. It is a symbol of joy.


My wife is Catholic. I guess. So, this morning, the visiting family piled into their mini-van, and we drove down to Price Hill for Easter mass. During his homily, the priest stood at a lectern to the right of the altar—which was festooned with tulips, marigolds, and roses—and reminded his flock that the egg symbolizes rebirth, the resurrection.

If you pause for a moment, I do not doubt you could name any number of other notions that an egg represents. The word, tiny as it is, echoes with multitude meanings: fertility, causality, embarrassment. Such a word is a kind of poetry in and of itself. I think.


In the midst of an all-nighter during my senior year college, I sat at a chain diner in Pittsburgh beside a friend who also studied poetry. Although she was actually a few months older than me, she seemed to look up to me as someone wiser and more experienced—in poetry. So that morning, as dawn replaced the glow of streetlights and sparrows twittered in pairs into still bare maple branches, I sketched an inverted pyramid on the back of poem and inked four layers of sediment across the figure. In the top layer, I scratched the word “prose” to signify the most common of all languages. The next layer, which was slightly narrower, I labeled “simile.” Next came “metaphor.” Finally, I named the deepest layer “symbol.”

Part of me still thinks that this image is an apt description of figurative language. Part of me hopes that, as she listened intently, my friend wondered which layer would include bullshit. Part of me wonders if I had eggs for breakfast that morning.


My poetry has always flirted with symbolism. I’m intrigued by the participation symbols require. I’m also intrigued by the way such things accrue meaning. How, after all, could something as simple as an egg carry so much cultural currency? How can a word itself become a kind of metaphor with its own built in variances of meaning? And how can a priest use such tools of communication so much more effectively than any poet I’ve ever read? Personally, I don’t believe in absolutes, but I do believe they can be expressed, and I’d like to try.

At the risk of a hasty generalization, I think the history of American poetry shows a slow attrition of the symbol as a means to communicate. The modernists—notably Eliot—enjoyed their symbols, but since then, our poets have shied from such techniques. I can think of only five or six contemporary poets who seem to think of symbols as a method to communicate. And at least one of these poets infuses far too much of Derrida’s thought into her poems for her symbols to mean anything to anyone who isn’t a graduate student or Helen Vendler. And one can only be read with a tacit agreement that one doesn’t necessarily need to understand a poem. I think I’ll blame this state of affairs on Marcel Duchamp.


It is late, and I long to join my wife, who is already asleep upstairs. I step away from words for a moment and wander into the kitchen. A single light burns over the sink, but I can still find the candy dish in the semi-dark. I take out a chocolate egg, remove the foil, and bite into it. Caramel oozes from the center and into my mouth.

I stand there eating, thinking how good it is to eat an egg without the expectation of pain, and soon, the egg is gone.


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