Monthly Archives: October 2013

Tomato

Today I am returning to a theme I’ve often written about in previous posts: food and drink in poetry.  I’ve mentioned my surprise at the relative scarcity of poems written on the subject.  They may be few and far between, but occasionally you come across one that is exceptional and becomes an instant classic – like “This is just to say” by William Carlos Williams, which I cannot resist quoting, again, in full:

This is just to say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I’ve always loved tomatoes, and wondered if I could write a poem about them.  I remember hearing an Italian pop song, a few years ago, that was called something like “The Tomato Song” and seemed – as far as I could gather, from my poor grasp of Italian – to be saying “Wouldn’t it be lovely if life were like a tomato”.  Perhaps it was that song that first prompted me.  Anyway, after many false starts and struggles along the way, here is my attempt at the subject:

TOMATO:

Emissary of the blood-red sun.
It is compact, perfect, smiling within.
You must taste the music of encrimsoned
spheres; hear the juice fizzing through its veins.

Its rubicund flesh, its genial spirit,
spurns brutality.  Bite it, like a barbarian,
and it bursts into violence; a spiteful
rebellion of spray, spatter and stain.

Place it, whole, in the mouth; the caged bars
of teeth cannot contain the uproar
of slivers and seeds.  It imposes civility;
the clemency of cold steel.  Slice it,

chop it into quarters, and it accedes
to its fate.  Its lips peel back, revealing
Its vibrant vessels and capillaries;
Its valedictory seedy grin.

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Summer Twilight on the Street

I closed my front door, and started walking along the street, intending to do some local shopping.  I heard a man’s voice, shouting something indecipherable, and, looking across the street, saw a couple of men on top of a ladder, doing some work on one of the roofs.  I suddenly realised they were addressing me, so came to a halt, gazing in their direction.  The man then repeated what he’d originally said to me: “Are we in England, mate?”  I had no problems in hearing him, this time, but the meaning of his question still eluded me.  I stared at him, shrugging my shoulders.  “Is this England?” he then said, pointing in the direction of a group of young Asian women in brightly-coloured saris, who were chattering and laughing – “. . . ‘cos it don’t sound like it!” the man concluded.  Finally getting his point, I shrugged again, made some anodyne comment like “Oh, you get used to it” and walked on.

I happen to live on quite an interesting street: St. Martin’s Street, in Peterborough.  It’s a fairly innocuous-looking street, in a working-class area, with a lot of ageing terraced houses; what makes it interesting is the constantly-shifting nature of the populace.  I was thinking about listing the nationalities concerned, but, as it would be a virtually endless list, it’s easier to simplify it as mainly immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe.  I hasten to point out that – unlike the man on the roof – I have no problems with this at all, and find it an enlivening factor of living on the street.  When you add to this mix of population such elements as drugs, alcohol and a lack of available employment, you get an atmosphere that many could see as “unsavoury”, but I find intriguing and invigorating.  The introduction of bollards, halfway along the street, a few years ago, made a big, positive difference.  Prior to the bollards, the street was plagued by the intrusion of cars, speeding along, using it as a short-cut.  The introduction of the bollards transformed the street, turning it into virtually a pedestrian precinct – a place free for all to stroll and walk at their leisure.

Watching the passers-by, a few evenings ago, I started feeling nostalgic, at the ending of a glorious Summer; and my poem “Summer Twilight on The Street” is the result.

SUMMER TWILIGHT ON THE STREET:

White candyfloss drifts in pellucid blue sky.
Evening sunlight falls, as Summer ends,
on the street.

Gentle breeze flutters the white moustache
of an elderly sikh, cycling slowly,
magisterially, down the centre
of the street; fusing the stresses
and strains of this eventful season
into his calm visage.

Two Italian women argue volubly,
elegantly dressed, as if for
a Passagato Milanese.  Sun flares
off the silver nose stud of an Asian
woman in a shimmering sari.

A grey-bearded man, in robes
and fez, paces thoughtfully.
A skinhead in shorts marches
urgently, carrier-bags bristling
with clinking, jostling cans.

Two stocky Oriental youths,
hyper with MSG, stride past
a Polish woman cleaning her car.
Her small blonde daughter
is on a tricycle, cycling
an endless orbit around the car.

Another Summer slips by; Summer on the street.
Front doors succumbing, Police shields glinting.
Doorstep-sitting, cider-fizz-swigging,
bare feet padding, young lovers kissing.
Endless evenings of blissful blue sky;
comings and goings, neighbours, passers-by.
Kids trudging to school, then merrily returning;
enervating heat, pallid skins burning.
Shouting, spitting, drinking, eating.
Life on the street; transitory, fleeting.
And so it goes on; new sights, new sounds.
The girl on the tricycle goes round and round.
Round and round she goes; round and round . . .

 

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And Now I Lay Me Down

A radio programme I listened to a few days ago, about the life of Blaise Pascal, reminded me that I had written a poem in which “Pascal’s Wager” makes an appearance.  Pascal (1623-62) was a French mathematician, physicist and philosopher, chiefly known, these days, as the author of the “Pensees” – an acknowledged literary/philosophical classic.  His “Wager” is a metaphysical argument that goes, briefly, as follows: We don’t know if God exists or not.  Nevertheless, we can ask the question “Is it better to believe in the existence of God, or not?”  Pascal’s answer: “If God exists, then it is clearly better for us to have believed in God; infinitely better, given the prospect of eternal bliss for believers, and eternal damnation for non-believers.  If God does not exist, then we lose nothing by our mistaken belief.  So belief is the dominant strategy; it can win, and cannot lose.  The wager is infinity to nothing.”

There are, of course, many criticisms of this argument, which I do not intend to discuss here.  My poem “And Now I Lay Me Down” came about when I started asking myself why , on going to bed at night, I had started remembering the prayer my mother had taught me to recite, as a child.  The “Wager” is alluded to because it deals with primary thoughts and fears that I had categorised and parcelled-up as “child-like” and presumed I had forgotten about long ago.

AND NOW I LAY ME DOWN:

And now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray The Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray The Lord my soul to take.

“Now I want you to listen.  Say after me . . .”
I whispered it, dutifully, every night.
Like confessing sins; obligatory, right.
Thirty two syllables; four lines of eight.
A way to avert an unnameable fate.
An incantation; a magical spell.
As long as I uttered it, all would be well.
Later, much later, scales fell from my eyes.
Holy baloney!  A tissue of lies.
The scorn, the arrogance, of teenage years.
No longer a child; no more childish fears . . .

Thirty two syllables; four lines of eight.
Osiris assesses the soul by weight . . .

Fifty years or more, lying dormant in my brain.
Now, unbidden, they rise up again.
The rough magic of childhood has been abjured.
But Pascal’s Wager: shouldn’t one be insured?
Lame joke; dark humour, pitched against my plight.
Child-like again, in the dwindling light;
fearing the impending, unending night.

 

 

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