my friends, my sweet barbarians,
there is that hunger which is not for food —
but an eye at the navel turns the appetite
with visions of some fabulous sandwich,
the brain’s golden breakfast
eaten with beasts
with books on plates
let us make an anthology of recipes,
let us edit for breakfast
our most unspeakable appetites —
let us pool spoons, knives
and all cutlery in a cosmic cuisine,
let us answer hunger
with boiled chimera
and apocalyptic tea,
an arcane salad of spiced bibles,
tossed dictionaries —
(O my barbarians
we will consume our mysteries)
and can we, can we slake the gaping eye of our desires?
we will sit around our hewn wood table
until our hair is long and our eyes are feeble,
eating, my people, O my insatiates,
eating until we are no more able
to jack up the jaws any longer —
to no more complain of the soul’s vulgar cavities,
to gaze at each other over the rust-heap of cutlery,
drinking a coffee that takes an eternity —
till, bursting, bleary,
we laugh, barbarians, and rock the universe —
and exclaim to each other over the table
over the table of bones and scrap metal
over the gigantic junk-heaped table:
by God that was a meal
- This poem shows us to a table where a very unusual meal is being eaten. But this is no ordinary meal; it’s more mystical than actual. What’s going on here, really? What is that meal standing in for? What is the voice of the poem actually inviting its audience of “sweet barbarians” to do?
- If you look closely, you’ll see that there’s lots of repetition in this poem, and that a lot of clauses start the same way, with the same words. This is called anaphora. What phrases get repeated, and what is the effect of that repetition? Does it calm down the poem, or does it intensify it?
- This poem addresses “my friends, my sweet barbarians.” What’s a “barbarian”? What does this choice of words evoke or imply? And what does it mean that the poem’s speaker counts barbarians as her friends?
- The poem builds up to that last line all alone at the end: “by God that was a meal.” That line is conversational, in a way, but you could read other meanings into it as well. How do you understand that last line? What meaning(s) can you take from it?
- There are four short lines in the poem that don’t sit along the left margin like the rest of them. Would you recite those four lines any differently? Do they read or sound different than the rest of the lines in the poem?
- Try your hand at an “invitation” poem. Address those you’ll invite, and show in detail what otherworldly, fabulous things your invitees can expect if they accept your invitation. Be large and wild with your offerings. Like MacEwen, who’s inviting her guests to join in an exploration of the world’s mysteries, make myth of the party you’re throwing.
Listen to Gwendolyn MacEwen read “A Breakfast for Barbarians,” which she says is about “appetite and hunger, a sort of celebration of the world.”
Compare MacEwen’s poem to this poem by C. P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley), which approaches the concept of “barbarians” in a very different way.
And finally, here’s a short description of anaphora, one of our oldest known, and most useful, poetic devices.
Gwendolyn MacEwen, “A Breakfast for Barbarians” from Magic Animals: Selected Poems Old and New. Copyright © 1974 by David MacKinnon. Reprinted by permission of David MacKinnon.
Source: The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse (Oxford University Press, 1983).