The poem begins with a matter-of-fact tone used to describe what the family is going to have to eat. This is a traditional feeling meal, as is the fact that they’re eating it together. The only person missing from the meal is the father. The final stanza describes what he’s “like” now. ‘Eating Together’ is over quite quickly, but it should inspire readers to take a second look and consider how their own family dynamic matches up with that which is in the poem.
‘Eating Together’ by Li-Young Lee is a simple yet effective poem about the loss a family suffered and the time they spend together.
In the first lines of ‘Eating Together,’ the speaker begins by describing what his family is going to have to eat. These lines are a stark contrast with the final four, in which the poet is far more lyrical and emotional. Between these sections, the speaker notes that he’s there with his mother, brothers, and sister. Together, they’re sitting down for a meal that includes trout, ginger, and more. His mother has a new role at the table, he says. She tastes the “sweetest meat of the head,” as his father used to do. With this line, it becomes clear that the family has suffered a loss.
The final four lines, or quatrain, describe the father through a simile. He’s compared to a snow-covered road that has no travelers and is lonely for none. He went to sleep, likely a euphemism for dying, and now the family dynamic has changed. But, they are still together, and life goes on.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Eating Together’ by Li-Young Lee is a twelve-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines are written in free verse. This means that they do not conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This is common within contemporary poetry. But, it does not mean the poem is entirely without unity. For example, readers who carry out a close analysis of the poem should be able to find examples of half-rhyme, among a wide variety of other literary devices.
Throughout ‘Eating Together,’ Lee makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two and lines nine and ten.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses especially interesting descriptions. For example, “two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil” and “to sleep like a snow-covered road.”
- Allusion: can be seen when the poet references something but does not completely define it. In this case, the speaker spends time alluding to what happened to his father but doesn’t outright state that the man passed away.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “seasoned” and “slivers” in line two and “fingers” and “father” in lines seven and eight.
In the steamer is the trout
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
In the first lines of ‘Eating Together,’ the speaker begins by describing the food his family is about to eat together. These are simple statements that use imagery in order to evoke certain tastes and smells. The speaker’s language is quite formal here, using the phrase “We shall eat it with rice for lunch” as though it’s a grand occasion.
brothers, sister, my mother who will
deftly, the way my father did
At the meal are his brothers, sister, and mother. It’s unclear exactly how many people are there, but at least five, including the speaker. The mother is going to take the job of eating the “sweetest meat of the head.” This is something that his father used to do. It’s at this point that the poem develops a new layer. The father is missing from the table. The eighth line, in which the father is introduced, is enjambed. This means that readers have to go down to the ninth line in order to find out what happens next and to see if any additional details are revealed in regard to what happened to him.
weeks ago. Then he lay down
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.
The final sentence of the poem, from “Then he” to “lonely for no one,” is far more lyrical than the ones preceding it. The poet’s speaker is considering something far deeper than a meal now. He’s thinking about his father, who “lay down / to sleep like a snow-covered road.” This simile, which is an incredibly creative one, compares the father to a winding road that travels through “pines older than him.”
The father, like the road, is “without any travelers” and “lonely for no one.” These beautiful concluding lines, and the father’s absence from the table, suggest that he’s passed away. He’s now asleep, like the quiet snow road and at peace. The poem does not imbue the father’s death with a great deal of grief. Instead, the speaker states these things fairly matter-of-factly. He’s gone to sleep, and now he’s elsewhere. At the table are the remaining members of the family, eating together. Readers might be left with a few questions, such as, are meals like this the norm for this family, or have they started eating together in the weeks since the father’s death?
The tone is matter-of-fact and descriptive. The speaker addresses what is presumably his father’s passing and alludes to how it has changed his family dynamic. He doesn’t try, aside from the use of a simile, to make things more complicated or dramatic than they need to be.
Lee likely wrote this poem in order to explore the emotions and dynamics around the passing of a father figure. Whether he wrote it in regard to his own father or not is unclear. But, it feels as though he has some kind of experience with this loss.
The meaning is that life goes on even after a death occurs in the family. Simple things, like eating together, can remain a part of one’s life with only a few changes, such as who is at the head of the table.
The themes are family and death. The speaker addresses both of these as he explores the loss he suffered and the way its changed his family. The beauty in the last lines presents death in a peaceful and idealized light.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Eating Together’ should also consider reading some other poetry by Li-Young Lee. For example:
- ‘This House and What is Dead’ – explores themes of life, death, and the possibility, or impossibility, of finding peace.
Other related poems include:
- ‘Death is Nothing At All’ by Henry Scott Holland – speaks thoughtfully about the nature of death. The speaker explains that it’s not a real separation.
- ‘Death, be not Proud’ by John Donne – is one of the poet’s best poems about death. It tells the listener not to fear Death as he keeps morally corrupt company and only leads to Heaven.