by Craig Arnold
Winner of the 1998 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, Craig Arnold's Shells was acclaimed as "a gifted collection of daring writing" by the contest judge, the distinguished poet W. S. Merwin. The book is an intriguing set of variations on the theme of identity. Arnold plays on the idea of the shell as both the dazzling surface of the self and a hard case that


Winner of the 1998 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, Craig Arnold's Shells was acclaimed as "a gifted collection of daring writing" by the contest judge, the distinguished poet W. S. Merwin. The book is an intriguing set of variations on the theme of identity. Arnold plays on the idea of the shell as both the dazzling surface of the self and a hard case that protects the self against the assaults of the world. His poems narrate amatory and culinary misadventures. "Friendships based on food," Arnold writes, "are rarely stable"--this book is full of wildly unstable and bewitching friendships and other significant relations.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This extremely accomplished first volume presents difficult poems, both in form and subject matter. They revolve around the hardened, supposedly protective shell; instead of feeling safe, however, the living creature cowers within. "Freud thought/ the brain developed from the skin, not/ to admit sensation but to shut it out." Seamlessly, the focus turns to people. Flavors and recipes remind Arnold of specific friends and lovers. But then, "friendships based on food are rarely stable." "Shore" is a little masterpiece, depicting friends joining friends, hinting at the severity of their lives and friendship but never telling, titillating the reader just enough to think more about his or her own life. Long and rambling, given structure as they are shoved into tight two- or three-line stanzas (reminiscent of a terrified clam or oyster), many poems teeter on the edge of loose rhyme. Shells is not an easy book to read. For those with the time and patience, it is not easily forgotten. Recommended for most poetry collections.--Rochelle Ratner, formerly with "Soho Weekly News," New York Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
W.S. Merwin's first selection for the Yale Series of Younger Poets bodes well for his tenure as judge: he admires Arnold for his simple ability to give enjoyment in poems about the pleasures of food and sex, which Arnold celebrates (often together) with all the indulgence of a pansexual gourmand. In graceful, fluent verse that's formal without drawing attention to its technical expertise, Arnold saves his transgressions for his subject matter: he memorializes a cook who masturbates into a dish returned by a customer ("For a cook"); he instructs in cunnilingus while eating raw shellfish; and advises on proper locker-room behavior at the gym, despite an interest in others' bodies ("Locker room etiquette"). If the body is like food, and vice versa, then enjoying both involves risks: the nausea of bad shellfish, for example, and AIDS, which are linked in "Hot," a long narrative about a friend who loves spicy food but who's lost his taste with illness. "Living with it" makes things more explicit: it's a short, bleak counterpoint of two men nursing each other till death. Food also serves as a way to avoid difficulties: lovers joke about artichokes rather than give voice to feelings ("Artichoke"); and, in the narrative "Transparent," during a painful Christmas dinner with his family, they gorge on seafood rather than confront the ghosts of the past. Throughout the volume the shellfish's exterior becomes the controlling metaphor for the armor we build around ourselves—a smooth exterior much like the expert meters that house Arnold's disturbing thoughts. A wit born of excess leads to some to negligible poems about merpersons (not maids) and eccentric collectors, but alsoto moving elegies. A piquant debut.

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Yale Series of Younger Poets
Edition description:
New Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

         Hermit crab

A drifter, or a permanent house-guest,
he scrabbles through the stones, and can even scale
the flaked palm-bark, towing along his latest
lodging, a cast-off periwinkle shell.
Isn't he weighed down? Does his house not pinch?
The sea urchin, a distant relative,
must haul his spiny armor each slow inch
by tooth only—sometimes, it's best to live
nowhere, and yet be anywhere at home.

That's the riddle of his weird housekeeping
—does he remember how he wears each welcome
out in its turn, and turns himself out creeping
unbodied through the sand, grinding and rude,
and does he feel a kind of gratitude?

         The Power Grip

Out of the blue he calls, to report our mutual friend
    has just dumped her lover of seven years,

and why? Because he hit her. More than once? She says
    it's gone on since they started going out.

She never breathed a word ... Maybe she was afraid
of what we'd think. Maybe she thought he'd stop.

Me, I suspect the worst of everyone—I bet
    the sex was great. I bet he gave good head.

This should make me upset, I know, but the receiver
    is warm and round and is an exactfit

to my ear, the voice that fills it—so easy to get used
    to the liberties he takes, the indiscretion

of age, skill, seasoning. Men don't talk enough
about fucking
, he told me once, and leaned

closer across our table in the bar's dark corner,
the tip of his middle finger wet, tracing

obscure designs in a pool of spilled beer. Think
of the slack we 'd pick up if we just sat down,

knocked back a few drinks and compared notes. His notes
    were by far the more exhaustive; he did all

the talking, the connoisseur's attachment to the part
spare of the whole—the way bodies may be

compounded, spread out and open, made explicit,
to grow loose, to spasm, the joints mapped,

the soft parts, their degrees of sympathy—putting
    fresh drinks into my hand, keeping up

the low murmur, seamless, fluid as Latin Mass,
its litany go down on her—go down

on her again—practice, in case of emergency,
    the Power Grip
. The what? He held his hands

to his face, index and little fingers thrust up, pressed
    together—this is the church, this is the steeple—

thumbs enticingly open. Pinkies tickle the ass,
    pointers spread the lips, thumbs for a chin rest ...

and then as now, not knowing what or if to say,
    struck dumb, made all into one open ear.

Someday I'll get a call, some time after the fact,
    a relative, a friend-perhaps the woman

whose last bruises are fading as we speak, who won't make
    the same mistake again—but more likely

someone who knows only my rank in his Rolodex:
    He passed away last week. When I ask how,

a silence, long enough to suggest in what poor taste
    the question is. Not knowing is worse

than what I can imagine: he died of eating raw
    mussels, the ones he freely harvested

from the black rocks on the cleaner stretch of coast
    upcurrent from the harbor. He'd been warned

again and again—by beachcombers, by stray marine
    biologists, by the diehard fishermen

whose poles he found wedged between the larger pebbles—
    been lectured on dioxin and red tide,

been sick two times already, the second nearly died.
    Perhaps, instead, tipping a scrubbed clipped shell

between his lips, he breathed the wrong way, stifled
    on fringed orange flesh. I watched him once

lie belly-down on the steep pitch of a boulder, boots
    locked between the rocks, freeing his arms

to plunge, now to the elbow, now up to the shoulder
    in a tide-pool, where he knew mussels grew

thickest, their fractal clusters dark as new bruises,
    shells liable to chip, and once chipped

their insides quick to rot—a blunt butter knife
    in his right hand, the left sounding blind

under the surface, contours of curve, crevice, valve—
    Perhaps he slipped in headlong, struck rock,

was dragged out of the brine too late, or not at all,
    his body left to slowly evanesce,

the blueprint for bouillabaisse, never trusted to paper
    in twenty generations, the thin layer

of man between the brain that held it, the salt broth
that stocked it, now dissolved. All that remains

is the Power Grip, a secret handshake, the device
    of an old cult, a rite not softened

by long use, by cultivation, a sacrament
    of which I've now been made receptacle.

    For a cook

What I remember most is what he did to the couple
who sent his best pasta back to the kitchen,

pronouncing it "too thin." Capers and kalamata
olives tossed with squid-ink angelhair

—salty, he used to say, as sweat on a black man's cock.
He said this often, not only to shock:

food should be made with love, and love to him was sweat,
saliva, tears. What do they want from me?

he muttered, adding an egg, more Parmesan, a pint
of heavy cream, and tossed it all together,

the straw-yellow sauce stringy with albumen,
thickened with semen as an afterthought.

Now he is dead. I write the recipe of all
of him that's still out there in circulation:

tips of fingers and knuckles, pared away to scars
by the big knives, carelessly julienned

together with the root vegetables, the stray chips
of thumbnail, here and there a curled black hair,

spit hissing in a skillet, a drop of blood in the sauce,
the oil of his hand glazing the dough.

    Scrubbing mussels

Easy at first to think they're all alike.
But in the time it takes your brush to scour
away the cement their beards secrete to stick
to the rock, to one another, you find the lure

of intimacy a temptation. Palm
cupping each shell, you learn a history
from what you scrape off—limpets, worm-
castings, their own brown crust—the company

they've kept, how many neighbors, on the fringes
or in the thick. This patriarchal shell
suffered a near-mortal crack—hinges
skewed by a scab, its valves will never seal

perfectly, ever. This one lost a chip
of its carapace—the nacre gleams, steel plate
in a war veteran's skull. Here is a couple
tangled by their beards—but do they mate?

You can't remember how they reproduce.
Now and then you'll find one open, startle,
fling it aside—your fingers come too close
to what you hoped would stay hidden, the veil

lining the shell, flushed pink, not orange,
no, not yet. Once they are cleaned, and more
or less alike, they're ready to arrange
in the skillet, large enough for a single layer,

with chopped onions and garlic, maybe a pinch
of tarragon—no salt, they will provide
the salt themselves—butter, a half-inch
or so of dry white wine. Replace the lid,

turn on and light the gas. Make sure the match
is thoroughly stubbed out. If you've been tempted
at any point to see in them an image
of yourself, you must make sure your mind is emptied

of all such madness. Mussels cannot mind
the slowly warming pan, the steam, or feel
real pain, which requires sympathy, a kind
of tenderness. The worst, most capable

monsters admit a feeling for the flesh
they brutalize—the inquisitors who cry
with the heretic they rack for a confession,
the kind cop who stops the third degree

to offer coffee, a smoke, the death camp
doctor who celebrates a patient's birthday,
slips him an extra piece of bread—all sympathetic
men. Think how delicious they

will be, the shells relaxing, giving up their humble
secrets, their self-possession. Your demands
are not so cruel. Don't follow their example.
Slice the lemon. Make sure to wash your hands.


Baffling flower, barely edible
camouflaged in a GI's olive drab
—out loud you wonder

Who's it trying to fool?

It is a nymph that some god tries to grab
and have his way with, I explain. She scorns
his lust, and when he sees he's met his match,
he turns her into a flower, covered with thorns
to keep her other lovers out of reach.

You say You made that up. You say That's sick.
You say The things men think of are so cruel.

Under the bamboo steamer there's a slick
of emerald-green water. I watch you pull
the petals off, each with a warm knot
of paler flesh left hanging at the root.

A "loves me, loves me not" sort of endeavor,
I say, but you don't laugh. It hasn't been
so long since liking me for being clever
stopped being enough for you. Sly pangolin,
endearingly nearsighted, belly rolled
up in a spiky ball—that's how I keep
my wits about me. I notice how you've polled
the petal-points an inch, how you scrape
each leaf with your incisors, the two
small grooves they leave. It makes me sick to watch.

You're awfully quiet today. What's wrong with you?
I want to tell you what ... but there's a catch,
deep in my throat, that stops me, makes me choke
the words back, crack another pointless joke.


The recipe is written in your voice:
Sauté the rice to the color of a pearl
in oil flavored with pepper, cinnamon bark,

bay leaf and cardamom, the small green kind.
Simmer until the spices have all floated
up to the top—if you want to, pick them out

Just before it's done, stir in the saffron
crumbled and soaked in milk.
Such frail red threads,
odd how they bleed so yellow, so contrary

to what a purple flower's genitals
should look like. It was in a dirt-poor dive
somewhere in Spain that I had my first taste

of paella—how anything could cost
so much, I couldn't bring myself to believe
until you brought me out into the fields,

the ragged sweeps of autumn crocuses.
Not like the ones I've seen breaking the frost,
clumps of three or four, with the forced cheer

of things made to wake up too early
—these were a paler purple, less audacious.
The harvesters were children, mostly girls,

working their way in no special pattern
from bloom to bloom. One of them let me plunge
my hand up to the wrist in what she'd gathered

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