The How and Why – Close Reading

Life Just Swallows You Up by Tania Hershman

One of the nice off-shoots of being shortlisted in the 2016 Saboteur Awards with my pamphlet was the invitation to write about a poem by another shortlisted poet. The Managing Editor of ‘The Missing Slate’, Jacob Silkstone, had the great idea of doing a Saboteur Showcase, which involved writing a response to a poem he sent. All I knew was that the poem was by someone else on the shortlist – the rest was up to me. Here was an excuse to do something for the pleasure of itself – and a chance to test my critical reading.

I was a bit daunted when the poem I was to write about arrived – Life just Swallows You Up – I knew I loved it, but I was back to that difficult task we get school children to deal with – why do you love it? The poem has an impact on you – how is that impact managed? It feels a little like explaining why a joke is funny – it just is. But when I spent some time with the piece and read it with a couple of people I was soon unravelling the poem, finding lots to say about it – too much for the article I’d been asked to write.

Once I had sent my response – and the invitation was as open as that – write a response – Jacob replied telling me my piece was just what he was after.  Then I allowed myself a look at the other nominees and discovered the poem was Tanya Hershman’s – well, lucky me.

So – read the poem a couple of times and then have a look at what I made of it. I’m not claiming any great ‘truth’, but I am claiming my truth and my interpretation.






Life Just Swallows You Up


 Father dies during the appetizers. Mother

            keeps on eating. How’s work? she says. I

                        pour more wine. She passes


            just before dessert arrives. Shame,

                        says the waiter, poised to whisk

                                    away her Eton Mess. Leave it, I say


                        and sit there, orphaned, staring at both puddings,

                                    wondering how I am ever going

                                                to lift my spoon again.








In Response To ‘Life Just Swallows You Up

I’m laughing, then thinking and feeling, and then admiring. I’ve read ‘Life Just Swallows You Up’ and I immediately want to re-read and then I want to see how this poem is managing all these effects. Here is a wonderful study in economy, but also sleight of hand: the poem appears to be straightforward, but actually an awful lot is happening here.

The extended metaphor is a good one; plenty of poems deal with death but few poems deal with something else central to our lives, eating, and even fewer combine the two! So here we are in a study of our lives — a tale told about three people, in three courses and three stanzas.  We see form married to content in the way we start in one place, but by way of the inevitable unfolding of life end up somewhere else.  I’m reminded of when I told someone my father had just died and they talked about how I was no longer in the same place — the world had shifted.  I’m struck by the word “orphaned” and realise that ultimately that is (or should be) the fate of us all; I like poems that I can nod along to as lines hit home and connect.

I should say again that the poem has me laughing — the whole scenario is darkly comic. The arresting first line (not even a whole line and we are thrown into the scene), the juxtaposition of the father’s sudden death and the mother’s lack of reaction before continuing mundane conversation, the expectation built into the line ending of  “She passes” (the salt? Oh, no, wait. She’s dead!), the over-zealous waiter and his expression of “Shame” in regard to the uneaten dessert, rather than the parental deaths, the detail of “Eton Mess” set against the huge subject and the idea that the speaker might try and battle through the meal.

Of course, battling through the dish of life is all one can do. Life’s bruises might leave you without appetite and energy to continue but what else can be done? Somehow you have to continue. I’m reminded of the witnesses to the boy’s death at the end of Frost’s ‘Out, Out’:  “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” It is easy to be critical of this apparently heartless response, but perhaps they turn to their affairs with broken hearts, and besides, what else can they do but continue their lives. In ‘Life just Swallows You Up’ the mother knows to continue and the speaker, perhaps daunted by the vastness of what has happened and what is left, however disinclined, also knows that they will need to get through dessert somehow.

 Full coverage by ‘The Missing Slate’ is here

Thanks to ‘The Missing Slate’ and Jacob Silkstone for the lovely opportunity. Many thanks to Tania for her poem, and for allowing me to share and write about it.

Tania Hershman is at

‘Life just Swallows You Up’ comes from Tania’s pamphlet  Nothing Here Is Wild, Everything Is Open







2 thoughts on “The How and Why – Close Reading

  1. It’s a great poem and you help me understand it better. A question-how do you know that the waiter’s comment ‘Shame’ only refers to the uneaten pudding?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Jane, Good point. That’s why I like the poem – it allows a reader room to find their own reading. It may well be that the waiter is commenting on the death of the mother – then you can do all sorts of things with that word “Shame” – is it said in a flat unemotioanl way that suggests an indifference, or is it more heartfelt?
    Thanks for opening my view on it!


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