Edward Harkness, “Brown Eyes”

Rosemary Bailey, WC 7



Brown Eyes

Under the silver grinder by the shelf of day-old bread,
he’d crawl on all fours to find coffee beans while his mother shopped.

He’d sweep them up with his palm, crouch behind the apple bin,
and put in his mouth one bean at a time. He’d suck on them a while,

then chew, eager for the strange acids to leap inside his eyes.
He’d sneak into a corner and spit out the bitter grains.

Mother knocked on the cantaloupes. Then, once, Bud, the butcher,
slender curved knife in his hand, looked down and said,

“Well, young man. How about a song?”  “He’s shy,”
said his mother. “Honey, sing ‘Brown Eyes’ for Mr. D’Angelo.”

The boy swallowed the handful of beans under his tongue,
turned away to face the shelves of Campbell’s Soup and sang—

whispered, rather—pushing out with all his might the words
to the old tune:  Beautiful, beautiful brown eyes. Ill never love

blue eyes again. Years later, that moment would return.
He would taste them still, those bitter beans from the floor,

still taste the words to the song as they had risen
from his thin chest. He would see himself in the aisle

among bags of flour, stacked soda boxes of bottled Dr. Pepper,
near the trays of bloody steaks, chickens, slabs of bacon,

their smells dizzying in the warmth of a summer afternoon.
Once again, the words would catch in his throat. His heart

would thump just as it had then. He wondered if anyone—
besides himself—might come to see the act of a child

singing to a man in an apron smeared with blood
as a kind of bitterness, something never quite swallowed,

still hidden under the tongue, chewed in secret. Bitter
they were, those beans, always bitter, always delicious.

Edward Harkness


Review by Massimo Fantuzzi

Forget the verbose semantic intent of beautifully crafted descriptions and linguistic reminiscences—those won’t keep in your memory. Memory works on coffee beans.

In this composition, taste and smell find their primordial ambition of being instruments of survival, communication and evidence/storage of knowledge. Channeling authenticity, our taste buds offer an experience that is truer than any narrative.

The poet asks us to liberate our senses and trust them to deliver what they were programmed to create: a precise read, an unwavering record for us to access and decipher our personal experience of the world in a meaningful manner that will define us to ourselves.

A vivid reenactment of multiple eras and realities overlay one another and come alive. You step inside your own wormhole while a handful of coffee beans appropriately toasted, firstly sucked, then chewed in secret, work their magic.


Review by Kaci Skiles Laws

I love how “Brown Eyes” captures the private world of a child, details that are often alien to adults like crawling on all fours at the supermarket. I like that the poem is centered around the stray coffee beans and what they represent, sort of a hidden guilty pleasure that is only acceptable in the adult world.

When he swallows down the beans to sing I sense the bittersweet moment is having to swallow the whole beans instead of spit them out after sucking out their juices, to welcome the caffeine high mixed with the adrenaline from almost being caught, to keep the secret, then having to perform for this butcher smeared with animal blood in an attempt to please the adults and get them off his back.

In this interaction there is a sense of shame. It ties back to the title, “Brown Eyes,” which I feel represents the boy losing his sense of self where the addictive coffee beans will soon become a numbing agent of choice as he gets older and the bridge of disconnect widens. The beans are a gateway into other addictive substances as he hides and delights in them.

Perhaps in the song, the blue eyes are innocence, a dislike forming for childlike nature in favor of more thrilling, addictive—Brown Eyes (coffee beans)—an effective method of escape from shame and emotional discomfort.

Sometimes when I write I find these subconscious connections coming through which are unintentional but universal, other times I know a poem’s interpretations depend upon the reader.

I enjoyed Edward’s poem and feel it is packed full of insights waiting to be discovered, and that some things, though they seem innocent or mundane, are more multifaceted than they appear.


Review by Dave Mehler

“Brown Eyes” makes the perfect complement to go with “At the Curling Rink,” because now we get to see the speaker interacting within his mother’s setting, buying meat from a butcher in a country grocer’s market. There are some interesting moments in this lush poem, first scavenging coffee beans from the floor, while the meat’s being cut and wrapped, but also the choice of song in which the speaker of the lyric dreams of brown instead of blue eyes and one extrapolates this to the child thinking the grass is greener perhaps? The shyness and singing while facing away. The strangeness of the detail of singing to a man in a bloody apron. The scene is familiar and mundane, but also redolent with a kind, calm, neighborly violence and death: innocence on display next to experience and cuts of meat to buy and eat. This scene is so original and well-described, but also sonically rich with unpretentious diction, and highly alliterative, utilizing both consonance and assonance. So many B’s. Take for example these lines:

     among bags of flour, stacked soda boxes of bottled Dr. Pepper,
     near the trays of bloody steaks, chickens, slabs of bacon,


     still hidden under the tongue, chewed in secret. Bitter
     they were, those beans, always bitter, always delicious.


Review by Matt Thomas

Poems are events, some more so than others, and Edward Harkness’s “Brown Eyes” rides home with you on your clothes and in your hair.  The stylized nostalgia of the narrative is offset by a subtle, sullen pugnacity that left me with a sense of having been witness, and so the poem stayed with me as I synthesized the details of the observation with the intimacies of my life. 

I spend a large portion of my day with non-human animals and I often wonder if they suffer the same ennui related to memorable developmental experience.  The calf dropped in a snowy ditch, the bitten puppy, the colt denied a teat; do they, as Harness writes, “chew in secret” these memories from time to time while going about an adult day? 

Or could it be that unlike other animals we do the majority of our pre-natal forming outside of the womb and so recall our maturation, that harsh process imbuing even the mundane events with a dramatic quality? Every happenstance of childhood is both entrance into a lonely, new intimation and exit from the home-like qualities of what had, seconds previous, been certainty:  a point argued by the nicely analogous coffee bean, which the child protagonist is compelled to suck even as he’s offended by the bitterness.

From a child’s perspective, adults are grotesque:  looming, demanding, “bloody aproned” by trade. How does the recollection of this vantage not “stick in our thin chests”?  And then of course there is the narcotic byproduct of directing adult empathy to our remembered child selves: the “strange acids” which, as Harness notes, we are eager to feel “leap inside [our] eyes.”

Most obvious, the past is truly lost, no matter how acute our memory of it.  Like the tragic hero of the song, our attempts at recall always fall short of an exit to the present, leaving us unable to love the blue eyes of the moment while knowing that we will never again see the brown eyes of the past.

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