Short Takes: A Summer of Luscious Fruit


Oh my, almost every Short Take in this Summer 2017 issue is a poem! How did that happen? Not because we went out of our way to choose poetry, I assure you. There is a perfectly good – no, absolutely fabulous – poetry section in every issue of Persimmon Tree, so normally we feel no need to include it here. But this time around, unlike most, there was not only a plethora of poetry among the submissions, but it is astonishing. It is singing and sensuous and dripping with the warm, sweet juices of summer. It is – in a word – very like a fruit.

Oh. My. I think perhaps we’ve figured it out. Figured out, that is, why we received so much poetry (and such spectacularly pulpy, yummy, juices-running- down-your-chin poetry it is) in response to this issue’s call for Short Takes. Because Short Takes this time is all about fruit. And there is – who knew? – a synergy there.

Fruit, as these poems remind us, is very good to eat. There is something sensuous in the enjoyment of a cool ripe plum on a hot summer day, something almost sinfully delightful in the way a crisp red apple complements a long, good book on a September afternoon.

Fruit is so good that it is hard to remember that fruit is, mostly, good for you, too. Right up there with vegetables on the handy FDA food chart. And yet, somehow, fruit has escaped all the negativity heaped on vegetables. There is no fruit equivalent of the broccoli that one of the President Bushes refused to eat. And very few parents require children to finish their fruit before they can have dessert. Maybe that’s because fruit is dessert.

But even fruit has a dark side, and the darkness coming out of something so good – the worm in the apple that is rotten to the core – is an easy metaphor for everything that is wrong in a world that jangles and jingles, ripely and brightly shining on the surface, curdled beneath. So, before we return to sampling the luscious pleasures of the fruit of the vine, let’s give one sad thought to the journey the fruit makes to get from the vine to us; let’s pause to remember the migrants who come up from the Mexican border to do the dark and heavy work of picking those melons and strawberries, those tomatoes and avocados and pears and apples – and, oh yes, those persimmons – that dribble down our chins and inspire our verses. Let’s give the pickers one song of their own:

 
柿
 
 

 

For Lois Who Read Me The Li-Young Lee Poem

That bright day toronjas not lemonade
fifty cents each, large and lumpy
picked from a Grandpa’s yard in Arizona
bursting with sweetness out of this world.

Remember the Hood River peaches hanging over the fence?
We rollicked in juice and hungry luck that day.
Ran across the fifty-years-ago highway and jumped into the Columbia
bobbing like fruit in a wash barrel.
And the day you parked your truck under the Bings
in that old filling station lot on the back road to Eugene?

I climbed atop the cab filling the looseness of my blouse
or was it my full skirt, with cherries so ripe,
so imperially rich, you sat fidgeting, beautiful you,
your chambray sleeves rolled up
afraid it wasn’t fair to get so much so easily,
you who grew up on a farm, knowing the cops hated
your hair and face and perfect body, hated my attitude
that we could take what we wanted as if the fruit gave permission.
The cherries were all we’d eat that day, living entirely outside the law.

And fifty years later, it’s grapefruits from Arizona
sold by darling girls, their brothers standing with toy swords
to protect them should la Migra happen by.
We can barely believe our good luck at these
golden globes of champagne-colored fruit, sold by
the children who believe in and practice protecting
their rights.

 
 

Pomegranate

…She could have come home and been safe
And ended the story and all
Our heartbroken searching but she reached
Out a hand and plucked a pomegranate. …

— Eavan Boland
 

Only knobby knees gave away her youth that day she felt she could not go on.
I felt that too, lay on the floor, beyond sobbing, drove to the lake,
watched the geese, finally slept in the car.

Once home I called, offered to come for her now, but she refused.
Tired, I put on the white lawn nightgown trimmed with lace
and fell into bed in the liminal dusk.

The phone. Insistent ringing startled me from sleep,
but not so much as the voice on the other end of the line.
“Edie took some pills. They took her to emergency.”

Stomach pumped, face blue, lying flat on the gurney,
head rolling to and fro as she rolled into intensive care,
I wondered if she would live.

“We won’t know the damage for several days, if then.
The pills could have affected her liver, her kidneys.”

When she woke she said “You are here. Why?”
“If you died I could not go on.”
Until she moved to the psych ward I stayed.
Without someone to watch, she would be tied to the bed.
Neither she nor I could stand such restraint.

We talked. Her brother carried her to the car she said.
“He didn’t care. He said I was heavy. Dead weight.”

She has entered that dark world where nothing blooms
over and over again, where euphoria and despair are strange partners.
Cocaine, crack, heroin. The poppies bloomed briefly and she,
lost on the pathway out, that bleak span between knowing and not,
again reached for the needle, her pomegranate.

No matter my warnings, no matter my love, poppies beckoned.
Nothing was as strong as the taste of the fruit.

 

 

How a Peach Is Not a Lemon

First of all, it is not yellow, and
it is round instead of lemon-shaped.
The skin of a peach is thin; it can be easily peeled.
But a lemon is thick-skinned and must be sliced.

Both a lemon and a peach can be thinly sliced.
But only lemon slices are circular. Lemons,
unfortunately, have small annoying seeds,
while a peach has one big pit in it.

Peaches are best in August when they are ripe,
when sweet peach juice runs down your chin
as you bite into them saying Mmmmmmm.
Which never happens with lemons.

A peach is not a lemon. But you can count
on a lemon. You know what you will find inside,
whereas a peach can disappoint. A peach can be
too hard or too soft; a peach can break your heart.

 

 

Chaenomeles Japonica

In my memory, the Japanese quince bush was always there, planted by my father before I was born. The backyard where it grew, rolled bumpily down a bit of hillside like the neighborhood itself. Pittsburgh is like that. When I was nearly grown, everything on that street where I grew up, including our home and yard, was reconfigured or relocated to accommodate a highway that would run through the East Street Valley.

Thirty years later, driving through my old neighborhood I spotted that same Japanese quince flowering on a hillside, surrounded by the absence of homes. Howard Street was still there, cracked and pitted with potholes, and the quince, crowded by weeds and brambles, sat on the hill behind where my home used to be. I parked, climbed the overgrown slope and carefully uprooted the dear Chaenomeles Japonica with the shovel I kept in my trunk. At home, in a neighborhood on the other side of town, I replanted it in my backyard.

A few Septembers later, when the frenzy of spring growth in my garden was just a memory and the end-of-summer grasses grew slowly, before the grapes were fully ripened, I found the quince bush, for the first time since its move, loaded with fruit waiting to be picked. Peering through its thorny branches I was caught off guard by the memory of that other backyard. I remembered standing by that very same bush, next to my father, when I was a little girl.

“What’s on the bush?” I hear my small self ask.

“That’s a quince,” my father answers, reaching cautiously between the sharp thorns, cupping his broad, rough hand around a quince and plucking it. He shows me the fruit in his calloused palm.

“Can we eat it?”

“Nope,” and he tosses the fruit aside. “You can’t eat ‘em. Too hard and sour.” He pronounces the word “sour” like a Pittsburgher, squishing the vowels, making a word as blunt as his workingman’s fingers.

We called our neighborhood “Norside,” preferring also to ignore some consonants in our speech. Back then we edited out of our blue-collar existence anything that didn’t make sense, anything extra or useless. We questioned anything and anyone that didn’t step up and do its job, like a bush that made beautiful blossoms but bitter fruit. We never ate the quince back then.

In the years since, I think I have learned how to love my past and the people we were, and the same time to embrace a broader world view. One that accepts more. That fall day, in my grown-up home, I pulled the quinces from their spiky limbs and cooked them in a shiny pot with apples and lemon zest, the juice of the lemon, too, and a pinch of cinnamon. I sweetened the pot with lots of sugar, sweetening the past at the same time. When the jam cooled, I spread it on warm buttered toast and ate, savoring the memory of places and people long gone.
 

 

Stone

There’s complexity in stone.
Bird, fern, bark, bone
compress and carbonize to shadow.
So much of what we love
lies in rock.

My mother hunted geodes in Iowa fields,
delighted at the prize inside: amethysts
deep as purple plums, agate
burnished tiger hide.

My husband free-climbed cliffs,
studied each nob and crack,
clung to stone the way
a lover cleaves to skin,
one misstep death.

I keep my mother’s agate ring,
sit beside my husband’s grave.
Pink granite warm to the touch,
gold flecked, face of Annapurna
at sunset. In summer

I eat peaches, claret
cherries, bruised plums.
Strip sweetness from their
stone hearts, seed and cyanide
locked within.

 

 

Ode to an Artichoke

I’ve often wondered how it was discovered
These bits of pale green flesh
Beneath their spiny tips.
How hungry must that person have been?
How desolate of choices – to take this convoluted fruit
And patiently peel back the painful petals
To reveal   the food.

The outer leaves don’t offer much
But with each round
More tender they become.
The smooth, curved end pulled loose
When dipped in melted butter
Drips warm from fingertips
And down my chin.

Gently now      so not to tear the tiny ones
Around and round
I nibble off each   dipped    end until
The very heart      is all that’s left.
A blush of purple on the smallest inner   petals
Delicately    protects   the furry    moist center
Where   the true treasure has been hiding.
It is this that makes the tedious unveiling     worthwhile.

With fuzz removed    there is but
One   delicious   mouthful     dipped and dripping.
My tongue   quickly licks the drips before they fall,
Then takes it all into my mouth.
Ahhh, the earthy taste upon my tongue
Without a doubt, well worth the wait!

 

 

Kauai

In Kauai nature’s up front, personal,
exploding in your face.
Though the air is soft and welcoming,
some protest your presence.

Roosters, for one, squawk in annoyance,
scurry by, a hazard for tentative walkers.
Doves fly close enough to touch, yet scold
if no crumbs fall for them to munch.

Kauai flowers are brilliant,
over excited, a panoply of excess.
Exclamation points of beauty,
punctuating gardens.

The cacophony of fruit unending
Mango juices slither down our chins each morning.
Papayas ripen on the windowsill, lie in wait.
Cinnamony Chicos substitute for sugar.

Pineapple challenges us to strip off its armor
Guava plays Cinderella to sexier cousins.
Starfruit struts its shape, tries to atone for its
blah taste, can’t live up to that dream name.

Avocados, an unashamed exaggeration,
compete with grapefruits in size.
Skinny green beans snake long enough
to reach a neighboring farmer’s stall.

Though the thought of Spam makes me recoil
in Kauai even that is lushly tasty.
It’s patriotic, after all, inspired
by scarcities imposed by WW II.

Fowls, fruit, flowers — color unrestrained.
Couples, too, in wide ranging hues.
Kauai may be a foretaste of the future
with its offspring emerging tea-colored, accepted.

 

 

Picking Concord Grapes

To disturb a branch with my elbow
was to set off a hail of willing fruit –
a broken strand of royal pearls
lost in the airless mash beneath.

The late August riches surrounded
three sides of a field where boys
hung ’round until enough were ready
for a pick-up game with ball & bat.

I was in a frenzy filling plastic pails
my jeans a purple riot at the knees
hauling more than my share to put up
jelly the way my grandmother did.

You may think me greedy
but it satisfied a need to work by myself
in the wild bushes, to do a job no one else
in the neighborhood had thought to try.

 

 

Apple Medley

My new baby, the apple
of my eye who
is changing my life, cries
because she is hungry, burps
because her stomach is full, cries
because her diaper is wet, and laughs
because she loves my ridiculous song. Then cries
again, so that I never sleep.

Standing on the cliff, he could smell
the apple blossoms at his feet
mingle with the scent of brine
from the water at the base of the rocks,
and he was transported to the place
where he had lived as a young boy with his grandmother.
A grandmother who once smiled at him from her doorstep,
who still spoke to him in his sleep.

When she turned ninety-five, Flossie was unhappy
to find that her toes were parallel
with her head,
to find that her body was adrift,
bobbing like an apple
alone in the sea.
She wanted to put her feet on the ocean floor again
and wade right back to the beach.

To enhance his blue sky,
to animate his cerulean canvas,
Vincent painted the limbs of an old apple tree,
gnarled brown branches that bore
amber buds and green leaves,
twisted gray twigs that held pink and white petals.
Age spotted fingers that promised
green and red fruit.

 

 

Edible Art

My father was a produce clerk for large, chain supermarkets,
Food Fair, Penn Fruit, and others, all of which are no longer around.
He carried the heavy crates from the back refrigeration,
Got rid of the old produce out front, and replaced it with the fresh fruit.

He was proud of his displays. Like an artist creating his palette,
The reds, and greens, would blend into the yellows and oranges.
I can see in my mind’s eye, him standing back and assessing the effect.
Did the fruit look appealing and colorful? Perhaps like a Cezanne painting.

He worked hard, and never made a lot, but he had a special perk,
He got to bring home (for a small charge), the fruit that was no longer saleable.
Not so much rotten, but no longer pleasing to the eye.
Most of the fruit would be mixed with Jello to make our favorite dessert.

Into the cherry gelatin would go soft, brownish bananas, red and yellow. A summer sunset.
Or, into the lime gelatin would go pieces of Granny Smith’s apples. Shades of green,
Our favorite was when mom mixed three or four fruits together.
We needed to eat them fast, so she created a rainbow of colors.

I have later pictures of dad standing in front of his displays. Hands behind his back,
Wearing a long white smock. The colors of the fruit behind him. The
Whiteness of the smock looks like a still-life. Perhaps on purpose.
Title: Self-Portrait of the Artist with Fruit.

 

 


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12 thoughts on “Short Takes: A Summer of Luscious Fruit

  1. Virginia C Wood

    Why are so many of your pieces so sad. Persimmon never publishes anything funny or humorous. I know we live in troubled times, but it would be nice to read a few pieces that show humor, an essential to life!

  2. Marj

    The Japanese quince bush piece was especially lovely–and so very Pittsburgh!! Love it!
    Once a Pittsburgher, always a Pittsburgher. Where are you Joann? I’d love to write with you.

  3. Norma T

    Love Joann Kielar’s quince piece, especially her jam “recipe.”. My mother loved quince jelly – I look for a jar every time I go to a new market — hard to find. Joann was motivated by memory. Me too.

  4. Merimee Moffitt

    Patti Swartz ,
    Your mother of an addict poem struck deeply. So glad I’m not the only one writing poems along this line. I have a small collection now. Working towards a book . Is someone anthologizing mother-of-the-addict poems? We must give voice to this illness and sorrow. Thank you for this beautiful and heart-wrenching piece.

    1. Patti Swartz

      Thank you for your comment. I agree that someone should be working on a book, an anthology, of poems of mothers of addicts. I am working on a book of poems about addiction. The going is slow because I can stand to write only so much at a time, but I believe this is important work.

  5. Frances Dunn

    The Arlo Guthrie audio was so true and difficult to listen to. However, it was a beautiful and poignant song. Thank you for sharing it.

  6. Marian Posey

    The Arlo Guthrie piece moved me to tears. This section touches me in so many ways. We had a horrendous winter.
    No apricots, no apples, but pears and plums to wait for: natures bounty and beauty as a kind of optimism of continuance.

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