Four poems about fruit

Some people make pies from fruit, others crumbles and yet others poems. Just recently, I was re-reading a selection of poetry by the Bengali poet Jibanananda Das which i found on the Internet some time back and one poem in particular struck me:

Tangerine

When once l leave this body
Shall I not come back to the world?
If only I might return
Upon a winter’s evening
Taking on the compassionate flesh of a cold tangerine
At the bedside of some dying acquaintance.

(tr. unknown)

I was quite taken aback by this association of tangerines with death. Thinking about it, i realise that like most British people of my generation and background i connect them with Christmas. When i was a child that was the only time we ever ate them. They have always conjured up ideas of plenty, celebration, lightheartedness and hope. Now, juxtaposed with that is a picture of deathbed. For some reason i imagine the occupant’s hand to be cold and damp, like the tangerine itself.

Jibanananda Das was a great favourite of mine when i was at university. The slightly alien quality of his world resonated with me and i loved his sensual and yet sinister imagery: his poems were full of deer, grass and hands. The language was strange and oblique which appealed to me: i felt for once my lack of understanding of Bengali didn’t put me at such a disadvantage. In fact, it thrilled me that i could feel his distinctive style.

Another poet i discovered around the same time – actually probably a year or two earlier – and who appealed to me for similar reasons was Francis Ponge. His style was different: the poems were like free verse essays, almost extended dictionary definitions of the objects at their centre. One of my favourites was about blackberries:

Les Mûres

Aux buissons typographiques constitués par le poème sur une route qui ne mène hors des choses ni à l’esprit, certains fruits sont formés d’une agglomération de sphères qu’une goutte d’encre remplit.

Noirs, roses et kakis ensemble dur la grappe, ils offrent plutôt le spectacle d’une famille rogue à ses âges divers, qu’une tentation très vive à la cueillette.

Vue la disproportion des pépins à la pulpe les oiseaux les apprécient pue, si peu de chose au fond leur reste quand du bec à l’anus ils en sont traversés.

Mais le poète au cours de sa promenade professionnelle, en prend de la graine à raison : « Ainsi donc » se dit-il, « réussissent en grand nombre les efforts patients d’une fleur très fragile quoique par un rébarbatif enchevêtrement de ronces défendue. Sans beaucoup d’autres qualités, – mûres, parfaitement elles sont mûres – comme aussi ce poème est fait. »

Or, in English :

Blackberries

On typographical bushes constituted by the poem along a road which leads neither beyond things nor to the spirit, certain fruits are formed by an agglomeration of spheres filled by a drop of ink.

Blacks, pinks, khakis, all on a cluster, they look more like members of an arrogant family of varying ages than a very lively temptation to pick them off.

Given the disproportion of the seeds to the pulp, birds find little to appreciate, so little in the end remains by the time it has travelled from the beak to the anus.

But the poet on his professional walk mulls this over in his mind: “Clearly,” he says to himself, “the patient efforts of a very delicate flower succeeds to a large extent although protected by a forbidding tangle of brambles. Lacking many other qualities – blackberries are perfectly ripe – the way this poem is ready.”

(tr. Serge Gavronsky)

Very French! I’m not sure how i would feel about a poem like this if i encountered it for the first time now, but at the time i was enchanted by the way in which Ponge made ordinary things seem strange and perplexing; the way he made you look at things close up and at the same time distance yourself from them, so that you saw them for what they were and not for what they were to you. Blackberries reminds me of one of a postcard i have on my bookcase which shows a shoal of sperm captured under a microscope. It’s really rather pretty and people often ask what kind of ‘fish’ they are.

From a minute examination of blackberries to the raspberry as metaphor. This is a poem by my beloved Solveig von Schoultz:

Portrait of a raspberry

Just as raspberry runners travel under the sand
and put out new shoots each year
he had travelled
far from his beginnings, had forgotten
and since he only lived in his outpost,
his remotest rootlet, thought he was new
and singular to the species.
If he’d turned round
he’d have seen similar bushes the whole way:
even in the mother-bush the one he was.

(tr. Anne Born)

We might just as easily say: very Nordic. Schoultz uses images from nature throughout her poetry and in a very simple, yet powerful way. All these ordinary things, she seems to say, all these ordinary lives and ordinary sorrows which go unnoticed and yet matter so much. I can never put into words how much i love her poetry or why i love it so much. It’s often the way though: love eludes analysis just as admiration attracts it.

And that brings me to the final poem by the Turkish poet Oktay Rifat, a new poet to me. I picked up a book of his work during my recent trip to Turkey. The poem is about his love for his wife – but it does mention an apple!

To my wife

You bring coolness to the halls
A sense of space to rooms
To wake in your bed in the morning
Gives me daylong joy

We are two halves of the same apple
Our day and night
Our house and home are one
Happiness is a meadow
Where you tread
It springs to life
Loneliness comes from the road you go down

(tr. Ruth Christie & Richard McKane)

Four poems more or less about fruit: tangerines, blackberries, raspberries and an apple. Imagine a crumble made from those!

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My brother in the snow

My brother has just moved back to Britain to take up a new job. It’s been ten years since he last lived here and he’s never lived in London, or any other big city at all. As a result he’s a bit shell-shocked. For me it’s an interesting experience. I’ve grown used to my brother being ebullient and independent – a successful man of the world; yet in a moment he seems to have been transformed back into my kid brother, the boy who was desperate for me to sew the legs of his trousers tighter, so he’d look cool at the school disco (tight jeans were the fashion at the time). I daresay it won’t take him long to find his feet, and then things will return to the way they were, but that only makes me treasure this period of vulnerability and dependence more.

Meeting with him in last week during the snow i was reminded of a time when it snowed particularly heavily when we were kids. The two of us decided to go down to the river – probably to see if it had frozen (it never did). The journey took us across fields and on our way back one of us fell into a ditch. Now the strange thing is i can’t remember which of us it was. Sometimes i’m sure it was him and other times i think it was me. One moment i can clearly recollect seeing my brother waist-deep in icy water, the next i can recall the sensation of being in the water myself. Yet of this i’m sure: only one us fell in.

I’d ask my brother, but i know he won’t be able to tell me. It’s just another of the many, many ways in which we’re complete opposites: i am full of – some might say weighted down with – childhood memories; he is virtually empty/free of them. I sometimes joke that he’s not my brother at all but an alien imposter. Not at the moment though. Right now he really does feel like my brother. My little brother.

AIDS, death and trust

San Francisco newspaper the Bay Area Reporter has just put online all the obituaries it has published since 1979 – in other words, since the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The database is searchable by date range or name.

Early on there are just a couple of obituaries a month, sometimes not even that, but the numbers soon swell rapidly. What makes the greatest impact however is not how sadly numerous the memorials become, but how individual they remain – a reminder, if we needed one, of the individual lives which were ended so prematurely. These were not statistics, but real people with real achievements, quirks, foibles and friends.

For example, Martin Cox, whose obituary appeared on the 21 February 1985, died on the “eve of Valentine’s Day” and “will be remembered for his kindness and concern by the victims of the Folsom Street fire, whose tragedy he tried to ease.” I hope he is indeed remembered by somebody.

Gregory J. Guerin (28 May 1987) was “best known as Chi-Chi, when he worked at Without Reservations on Castro Street”.

As for Harold Gates (31 October 1991): “You had to notice Harold on the dance floor or the gym (he wouldn’t have it any other way!)”.

Interestingly – at least to me, of all the obituaries i read, the one that made the most impression concerns a dead man who is not – on the whole – remembered fondly. Ray Broshears, whose obituary appeared on the 14 January 1982, seems to have been a troubled soul: driven to help and to hinder the gay community at the same time. He is described as

“taking food and clothing to jail prisoners, advising male prostitutes, assisting transsexuals who were on the fringes of the Gay community, treating people to lunch, and always helping the elderly”

yet he seems to have made enemies more easily than friends. One person even goes so far as to say: “I am glad he is dead now” and many of the other responses to Broshears’ death are not much more positive. Why did someone who evidently wanted to do good end up alienating so many people and to such an extent? A psychologist, who was interviewed for the obituary, suggests:

“He had difficulty in expressing his love. Expressing love has to do with trust… I don’t think Ray ever trusted anybody – including himself.”

This rings terribly true to me and i think that’s what makes this story even sadder than the rest. So many men died too young, but at least most of them were able to know and express love before they died. Is there anything more important? Let the world take almost anything from you, but don’t let it take away your ability to trust.

You may have millions of stars and planets: Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1942): Bengali polymath and Nobel laureate. He has been one of my literary heroes ever since i was introduced to his work as an undergraduate student studying – supposedly – Bangla (Bengali). I remember the first time i encountered his writing. It was a letter, which he wrote home while travelling from India to Britain. I no longer remember the exact contents, only that in it he mentioned the Suez Canal. What i do recall is being awestruck, even with my very limited command of Bangla, by the beauty of his writing.

Reading him in English is, by contrast, a much more frustrating experience. The songs and poems fare especially poorly. Translators seem obsessed with rendering the most minute details of Bengali life to the exclusion of the real essence of the poetry. Do we really need to know the name of every musical instrument, flower or season? Tagore’s is the poetry of transcendence, of the way in which the particular points towards the universal; footnoting and exotic vocabulary can only get in the way. Nevertheless, i enjoy the translations by Brother James, especially of the song lyrics. They communicate the rapture, the devotion which is at the poems’ heart:

“…

You may have millions of stars and planets,
but you don’t have me.

You won’t be able to tolerate that,
You’ll have to draw me to Your side,
for You are alone
if i am alone.”

(Gitali 77, excerpt)

Tagore also wrote novels, short stories and plays. He painted, he founded a school – in fact the breadth of his accomplishments is astonishing. I feel almost as if i’m trivialising him then when i say that of all his works it’s what Wikipedia describes as his “autobiographies” which are my great loves. Two books in particular, “Glimpses of Bengal” and “My Reminiscences”, go everywhere with me: I carry them round with me on my iPhone to turn to when i feel drained by life’s pressures. Tagore had a magical memory. I don’t just mean that his memory was good, but that he remembered what mattered, the things that could make a scene live again for a reader – even one who’d never seen his world or anything remotely like it.

I’ll conclude by giving two very different examples, one from each of the titles I’ve just mentioned. Not exactly favourite passages, but ones i’ve alighted on tonight as i’ve been flicking through the books. The first i find touching – although others will perhaps consider it a bit mawkish:

“I saw a dead bird floating down the current today. The history of its death may easily be divined. It had a nest in some mango tree at the edge of a village. It returned home in the evening, nestling there against soft-feathered companions, and resting a wearied little body in sleep. All of a sudden, in the night, the mighty Padma tossed slightly in her bed, and the earth was swept away from the roots of the mango tree…”

(“Glimpses of Bengal”)

The second is just funny, but to understand it you need to know that the arrival they are awaiting is that of their dreaded English language tutor:

“It is evening. The rain is pouring in lance-like showers. Our lane is under knee-deep water. The tank has overflown into the garden, and the bushy tops of the Bael trees are seen standing out over the waters. Our whole being, on this delightful rainy evening is radiating rapture like the Kadamba flower its fragrant spikes. The time for the arrival of our tutor is over by just a few minutes. Yet there is no certainty…! We are sitting on the verandah overlooking the lane watching and watching with a piteous gaze. All of a sudden, with a great big thump, our hearts seem to fall into a swoon. The familiar black umbrella has turned the corner undefeated by such weather! Could it not be somebody else? It certainly could not! In the wide world there might be found another, his equal in pertinacity, but never in this little lane of ours.”

(“My Reminiscences”)

So there you have it: my plea for Tagore. Do not be put off by translations which seem designed to convince you he is unreadable, or by the idea that his work is all esoteric and mystical. It isn’t. If at least one person who reads this post falls under Tagore’s spell then my work here will be done!

The beige years

What do you remember about the Seventies? I remember they were beige. The bank in which we used to queue for hours for example: beige carpets, beige wallpaper, beige uniforms – I swear, even the wood of the counters was beige. I could be misremembering this of course, not least because beige is contagious: once it gets into one of your memories it spreads until it contaminates them all.

So my school too was beige: the headmaster’s suit, his shoes, his hair. Actually, I lie: his shoes weren’t beige, they were tan (even worse!). And they squeaked. My main memory of the school, apart from the headmaster’s feet, was the odour of “posh” instant coffee. Does anyone remember when there was such a thing as posh instant? Douwe Egberts for instance, such a step above Nescafé – though even Nescafé was better than that stuff made of chicory which came in a bottle. What on earth was that called? The teachers drank posh coffee. Their staff room, that mysterious place strictly forbidden to us, stank of it when the door opened. But then they were middle class and that meant something then.

Looking back, the Seventies is all about school for me. When weren’t at school we were on holiday from school. The summer break (six weeks!) was heaven. In my memory every summer was hot and sunny. Health & Safety hadn’t yet been invented so we ran wild “down the meadows” and in “the woods”. We swam with our dog in a river full of whirlpools. We dared one another to walk along a high wall of crumbling brick – with concrete on either side. We played football. We got into fights.

Easter i’m a bit vague about but Christmas was “ace”: suddenly beige was no more! The ceiling would be covered with crêpe streamers: pink, orange, green, red and blue. There would be balloons, there would be cards, a real Christmas tree (always huge in my memories) which we’d cover with tinsel and shiny balls, and then top with a star. Of course there were presents, almost all of them from Woolworth’s and only a few of which i can recall: a blue bike, a Monopoly set, two Tell Me Why books. Food: brazil nuts and tangerines. Television: Morecambe and Wise.

All too soon though it was Twelfth Night and time to take the bright colours down. Back to beige and back to school.

— For “M” —