Completely Subjective: Jennifer Keith’s “Eating Walnuts”
“This is going to sound super pretentious but” is probably the absolute worst way to start any literary analysis. That being said, this is going to sound super pretentious but the act of eating walnuts in Jennifer Keith’s “Eating Walnuts” is a metaphor for life. Here me out. More specifically, it’s a metaphor for the process of growing as a person over time and gathering wisdom as well as the messiness of life itself. I think this poem is best analyzed in reverse.
The poem ends with the statement that “One of two things is bound to break: One the fiction, one the soul, the fact.” Truth and fiction cannot coexist without damage to the soul. Here the fiction is what is contrasted with the soul, and the soul is then clarified to mean fact. We can lie to ourselves, but our souls, our spirits, the deepest recesses of our beings, all know that we’re being lied to. Our souls are truth. So when we try to preserve a fiction and live a lie, holding onto the idealistic fantasies of our youth, the truth strains, pulling on our souls, tearing us apart inside. We must accept truth, because that is how unity is maintained with our souls.
Next is: “The shattered pieces tell / a story, but the perfect, unmarred meat’s the truth: two lobes, conjoined, intact.” As we find out later, or maybe earlier depending on if you’re reading the poem backwards or not, the shell of the walnut stands for the fiction and, as we see here, the meat inside is the truth or soul. The important thing here is that the shattered pieces are what tells the story. The fiction and the lies don’t tell a story. They conceal the true story. Only when they are shattered and the truth is revealed, do we see the full picture. When the shell is broken, not only is the truth revealed, but we can see what the lies were and how and why they were constructed, telling more of a story than the truth ever could.
Rewinding back to before the walnut has been cracked open, back when the shattered pieces are still concealing their truth from us, “You soon discover that the brains inside / are on right angles, so the shell / must be cracked open on its arc, / which isn’t neat.” So the truth and the fiction don’t line up. Trying to crack the lies apart neatly, following their seams, only harms the truth. After all, they’re lies. Why trust a lie to tell you how to find out its truth? No, we’re better off fending for ourselves, working from experience and what we do know, smashing the walnut’s shell apart right where it seems strongest. Lies are deception and by following what they want you to believe, you’re only fooling yourself. This strategy of confronting lies head on is messy. However, the alternative is to risk harming your soul, the truth, by attempting to preserve the lie. The lie must be shattered in its entirety. It is going to hurt, but it is also going to heal, in time.
So we can either preserve the lie and cling to it, risking harm to our own spirits, or we can destroy the lie, making a right mess of things and all around not having a very good time at all, but at least that little nugget of truth is preserved. “You turn the thing and make a choice / about what you prefer to sacrifice.” We know, because we’re reading it backwards, that this “you” ends up choosing truth and shatters the shell, but they don’t yet. They need to weigh their options.
Of course, that’s assuming you know that the shell is a lie at all. “Eventually you learn to disbelieve the testimony of your eyes,” but this takes time. It takes trial and error and failure and you’re going to spend a lot of time “sweep[ing] your lap and mutter[ing], try again.” You can’t get it right from the get-go, even though “it seems so clear and easy.” This is the folly of youth. It’s so straightforward and simple and easy to just believe what you’ve been told. To embrace the lies fed to us seems so much neater than trying to forge our own path and break through by asking the hard questions at the heart of the matter rather than dancing around it.
This skill takes time. It’s not always easy to spot the lies and even then, it’s not always clear where the best angle of attack is. “The old man eating walnuts knows the trick: / You do it wrong for many years, / applying pressure to the seams / to split the shell along its hemispheres.” We always want to believe the nice, clean, black and white straightforward answers we’ve been told. Just follow the rules; just break it open nicely on that seam. But that is only damaging. The truth takes a beating, at risk of being lost altogether, and our own souls weaken from the strain. But we’ll continue to believe that everything is simple because we’re so young and idealistic and we want to believe that it’s that easy. Facing a smooth rounded shell and smashing through it is scary. You don’t want anyone to get hurt by the shards of walnut shell that inevitably fly everywhere, even if your snack ends up getting smashed. But as we eat years and years worth of pulverized walnuts, we learn that it’s worth it to break that shell, to be bold, and to ask hard questions.
But full disclosure, something has to break. Regardless of what you chose, there will be cleanup. There is no way to protect everyone. You can’t eat a walnut without cracking its shell in the same way you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Life is messy and no matter how we go about it, we’re going to have to live with the consequences of our choices.
So, as ridiculous as this is going to sound, analyze your walnuts well, dear reader. Decide what you value and never be afraid. If you stand to the side, and neither accept nor deny what you’re faced with, living in a numb limbo, you won’t end up eating any walnuts at all. No matter what you do, it is going to be imperfect. However, it will still have benefits, if you’re willing to find them among the carnage. So regardless of what you do, do it boldly. It takes a certain amount of force to crack open that shell, regardless of how you eventually decide to go about it.