A Review of Consider the Oyster by Blanche Brown

I’ve joked among friends, with varying sincerity, about Cool Fact Poetics: The poet listens to an episode of RadioLab or watches Cosmos, and, aghast at the new world of their knowledge, offers the Cool Fact as metaphor. I’ve done the same, but I’m lately suspicious of the method. Surely the producer and researcher recognize the metaphor; that’s why it reached a popular audience. But the poet often ascribes it to chance listening or divine vision, erasing the hard work and research behind the discovery while tacitly assuming that the reader of new poetry does not, say, also listen to NPR. It feels to me dishonest, and not in the way I like. 

From that predisposition, I’m infinitely grateful for and admiring of Blanche Brown’s Consider the Oyster, which seems, among many other things, a willing rebuke of the mode. There are 56 formal citations at the end of the volume, which includes essays in popular cooking publications, recent news articles, summaries of court decisions, scholarly works on water scarcity and oyster archaeology, and the MFK Fisher book from which this work borrows its title. The familiar mechanism of etymology that opens the poem—“oyster from old French oistre”—goes on a further 13 lines, wending through Greek and Roman origins and various regional pronunciations before ending on “I open with a little oh,” the word’s definition reduced only to a sound, the reliable convention flipped on its head.

That initiating interjection is repeated at the top left of every page of the book, which I read as one long poem divided into repeated forms. Rather than attempt to describe it verbally, I’ll instead say that if you open to anywhere in the poem, you will see something like this: 

The top left section on each page most often offers research focused on the oyster’s role in local and world history and contemporary affairs. We learn for example, that a seaside cave in South Africa “contains / evidence of a shellfish dinner enjoyed by / early humans. the oyster remains date back / 165,000 years.” And we learn that in 1959, a poacher was killed by gunfire “during an outbreak of territorial / oyster wars.” The oyster’s appearance in paintings of the old masters, in 20th century fiction, in just about every facet of human culture, argue for its enduring cultural value, whether we’ve been aware of it or not.

The bottom center-left section begins always with the imperative “consider the oyster” and presents a lyric exaltation of the oyster and its marvelous attributes. Here in full is such a segment: 

consider the oyster
how grit enters its
held open body
and is passed over
let loose allowed
through. the mollusks
that produce pearls
belong to a different family.
Aviculidae instead
of Ostreidae. but one
shell against another
shell is still solid anchor.

The headbutting of dictions—the visceral “grit enters its / held open body” against the scientific “Avilculidae instead of Ostreidae”—is a defining characteristic of the collection, and one which creates and releases a great deal of tension. Examples are endless: After reading that some oysters “filter 50 gallons / a day of industry / and sewage,” they are restated as “the mature / suckers who gulp / and strain and do / the work of living.” The personhood inherent in a phrase like “mature suckers” calls to mind not just the thankless life of the oyster, but that of so many human laborers caught up in the nets of capitalism. The precision of the preceding lines becomes, then, a metaphor for all of that work, whether related to industry and sewage or not.

The right-hand sections, bladelike in their oblique descent down the page, combine the researched and the lyrical with the personal. The speaker here describes a life around the Apalachicola River estuary, one of America’s oyster capitals. (Brown is from the region as well.) But that fishery has been nearly destroyed by politics far upriver, by hurricanes, by human disasters such as pesticide pollution and oil spills. The effects of these disasters on the community are interwoven with anecdotes of childhood and family history. The language here is sonic and idiosyncratic, the closest we get, it feels, to an internal consciousness of the speaker: 

pluff mud in estuaries
makes oyster clumps the only
safe footpath through the sulphur brack’s
avenging suck. for oysters settle on other
oysters, heavenward spirals as wild as.

The short “u” sound huffs like a foot struggling to lift its way out of mud. And later in this section:

there is a shrimp boat in Apalach named
Miss Martha. Martha is my mother’s name.
one year she glued oyster shells into wreaths
and I made oyster angel wings that
hung crooked from red ribbon.

The metaphor here—a person striving heavenward like the oysters and vice versa, both in futility—and the indistinguishability between family and shellfish is the book’s thematic heart. The oyster’s cultural and historic value is inseparable from the value of the people who live off it. To disregard the oyster is to disregard humans. The book, ultimately, is an argument on behalf of both.

And the urgency of that argument, and the way it’s delivered, is perhaps why I admire the book so much. In my experience with docupoetics, I’ve read a lot of work that leans more toward the poetics than the docu-. Such work seems to know that it’s one new facet of an ongoing conversation, and that scientific research is better done elsewhere. But Consider the Oyster is, as far as I can tell, the single most comprehensive and well-articulated argument for the survival and aid of the Apalachicola oyster fishery. (I perused the works cited list; nothing appears to be as comprehensive.) Pure lyricism, in as much as it defamiliarizes, can sometimes get in the way.

So, when I read in a poem that “less than ¼ of 1% of U.S.  / rivers are protected as National Wild and Scenic Rivers / that is about 3,000 miles out of 3 million,” and that “the Apalachicola River / basin contains the highest diversity of amphibians / and reptiles in the United States and Canada” I’m no longer tempted to say the lines aren’t all that poetic, though I was at first glance. They seem lifted, perhaps verbatim, from an infographic or report. But at some point, there’s no need to say it differently. The presence of such lines here—rather rhythmless and frankly stated—for me destabilizes the very idea of what a poem can be and what poetry can do. These are not Cool Facts. They’re just facts. We should take them seriously.


Michael Pontacoloni

Michael Pontacoloni’s poems appear in Cincinnati Review, Denver Quarterly, Copper Nickel, Pleiades, and elsewhere. He has received scholarships and fellowships from the Sewanee Writers Conference, the Vermont Studio Center, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi. Find him on twitter @mike__pont.

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