"Eating Together" by Li-Young Lee is a poem best taken with its companion piece, "Eating Alone," a bleak but food-filled picture of a solitary dinner. "Eating Together" has its own bleakness, and food fills this poem as well, but the works' tone, and tone shifts, are very different.
Tonal Shifts in Few Words
Both of Lee's poems feature food as a substitute for human contact; the tone of "Eating Together" seems dispassionate, only a recipe, until one realizes Lee's love of all the mouthwatering ingredients he is listing. Three lines in, the poem makes it clear that this is no mere menu, but the stuff of life and enjoyment, as Lee's family joins him for lunch. Nostalgia, the dominent tone of the piece, suffuses the imagery of Lee's mother, eating "the sweetest meat of the head." Thus a few words shift the tone from distant to wistful.
Nostagia Turns to Sorrow
Lee's tiny but remarkable poem accomplishes more, however, with its last lines, describing his father eating with the family "weeks ago. Then he lay down to sleep ... hungry for no one." The father's death, and the bleak simile that makes him "a snow-covered road wandering through pines older than him," intensifies the tone of nostalgia, coloring it a deeper shade of sorrow. The tone does not turn bitter, however; the images of the father's death are those of rest, peace and oneness with nature, his death a natural inevitability.
Shifting Tonal Emotions
Tone is emotion, the attitude of an author to his work, and Lee's work manages to convey, in its tonal shifts, the shifting emotions Lee himself undergoes as he sits eating with the remaining members of his family. He feels enthusiasm that he disguises with distance; like a child, he lists the delicious elements of the dish he will eat, but knows that any eagerness is unseemly. His segue to warmth in the shared food only intensifies his sorrow at the thought that his father was alive, and eating, mere weeks ago.
Circular Tone Structure
"Eating Together" then closes an emotional circle. Lee realizes that his father now lacks nothing, and life must go on. The final line, "lonely for no one," restores the distancing tone of the opening; once again, this distance disguises a stronger emotion. The overriding tone of the poem is nostalgia but, like a dish with sweet, sour or bitter flavors commingling, shades of warmth, sorrow and eagerness commingle in the author's luncheon memories.