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  • David Toms

(SPAM Cuts) 'A Vision of Whitemeats' by Ellen Dillon

An image of a lush Irish landscape behind the Kerrygold logo and the slogan, 'Made of Ireland'. The logo features a black and white cow and four daisies on a green background.
Image: Kerrygold advertisement

In this SPAM Cut, David Toms reads butter’s socio-political churnings in Ellen Dillon’s poem, ‘A Vision of Whitemeats’, published in Issue 13 of Junction Box.

When I opened Ellen Dillon’s ‘A Vision of Whitemeats’ from her longer, in-progress work butter/business/living in Issue 13 of Junction Box, the beautiful block of the text reminded me immediately of the feeling of peeling back the gold foil of a fresh block of butter for the deep yellow goodness hidden beneath. And this is how the poem proceeds down the page, the block text full of buttery goodness surrounded by the imagined folds of the foil, the white space standing in for the peeled back packaging. And this poem, like the larger work it points to, is in every sense the peeling back of the packaging of one of the great Irish food products: butter.

In this poem we get hints of the social power of such a banal product (byproduct indeed) of animal domestication and farming. We are told from the beginning that ‘This composition will circle close to / the creameries of south Limerick. Its people / are farmers, butter-makers, dairymaids, co-op / workers, creamery managers, scholars in / varying states of hunger’. Dillon goes into the butter to see what it is made of, the ‘curds and soft cheeses, milk in / stages of sourness needing chewing, porridges / and pottage enriched with yellow cream, / sweet and salted butter’.

Butter, as the poem sets out, is an ancient foodstuff in Ireland and it has often been found in bogs, preserved, many thousands of years old. It was also a major product of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Irish economy, centring on the butter market of Cork, from which the butter made its way around the world on merchant ships, thus entangling itself and the place it was produced into stories of colonialism and capitalism. This poem, focusing on whitemeats, ‘the masses of spun milk / that fed this island before the tubers got here’, mixes an eleventh century parody of the aisling or vision poem from the Irish tradition (translated by Kuno Meyer), Dillon’s own ‘apocryphal MacC’ and ‘another “I”, a 21st century / scholar/poet addled from the sources she’s / trying to string into a dairy story’. The apocryphal poems, written in the dán díreach (direct verse) with seven syllable lines riff on the original Visions of MacConglinne, also set in Munster, the province of Ireland where you find Limerick, Dillon’s home and focus in this poem, we see the through-line that can be traced like scraped butter across the centuries on the island of Ireland from ‘the Butter-mount of / MacConglinne’s vision to the EU’s butter / mountain’.

Butter, as Dillon handles it, becomes a nexus through which to explore power relations between lords and their servants, men and women. We learn that ‘There are milky rewards for those who serve / the powerful well. Gratitude takes the shape of a cow’. Earlier, she writes that while ‘praying for the well-being of their king may / be a welcoming vision for some. Others flinch / at the sight of so much blunt flesh in service / of power’. She wonders perhaps if it is possible to imagine ‘From this luscious substance we / might picture ourselves crafting smaller and / more malleable men to lord it over’. The vision has one woman in it, Bridget, according to Dillon. Bridget, or Brigid, is a pre-Christian goddess connected with the spring festival of Imbolc, and she was later reappropriated as a Christian saint. Ellen Dillon sees her as ‘Saint, bringer of chaos, cow’ –– ‘the three feminine forms’. The play with language here between the cow who gives milk which begets butter –– an animal that feeds and can be given as a gift for hungry wandering poets — elsewhere in the poem can also be an insult directed at women. She finishes off this vision, this deeply textured and enriching poem, so full of play, by declaring through the dán díreach, and still holding on to the parodic form of the aisling that

To Bridget we give our thanks the seven-fold spirit’s grace of infrangible substance from Butter-mount to Milk Lake

Hopefully this won’t be the last of butter/business/living we encounter and that in time we will get to see the fullness of Dillon’s vision realised through these poems. Blending poetic form and experiment with historical research to create an entirely new this poem creates a new product. It provides an entirely different means for us to engage with how everyday objects we consume (in all senses) have long strange histories. This poem, and the accompanying ‘milk testing’ also in the same issue, are best enjoyed with a slice of toast, well-buttered.


Text: David Toms

Published: 9/5/21


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