Monday, July 17, 2017

Thrashing Some Poetry

My friend Gretchen Joanna recently posted this poem on her blog. I love wrangling with a good poem, and this is a good poem. So even though I'd never read it before (nor heard of the poetess), I can't resist trying my hand at this challenge. What's this poem talking about? What's on the author's mind? I googled and searched just a little bit, but found no online assistance in this matter, so I'll just have to dust off my literary tools and take to it myself! Gretchen, on her part, thought perhaps the poem is a dream. What do you think?
Image result for peaches on the tree
The Leaving
My father said I could not do it,
but all night I picked the peaches.
The orchard was still, the canals ran steadily.
I was a girl then, my chest its own walled garden.
How many ladders to gather an orchard?
I had only one and a long patience with lit hands
and the looking of the stars which moved right through me
the way the water moved through the canals with a voice
that seemed to speak of this moonless gathering
and those who had gathered before me.
I put the peaches in the pond’s cold water,
all night up the ladder and down, all night my hands
twisting fruit as if I were entering a thousand doors,
all night my back a straight road to the sky.
And then out of its own goodness, out
of the far fields of the stars, the morning came,
and inside me was the stillness a bell possesses
just after it has been rung, before the metal
begins to long again for the clapper’s stroke.
The light came over the orchard.
The canals were silver and then were not.
and the pond was–I could see as I laid
the last peach in the water–full of fish and eyes.
The poetess is Brigit Pegeen Kelly
Here goes. After several readings, I note that the title of the poem seems to have nothing to do with the poem itself. Usually this means that the title is a clue, a key, and that the poem's meaning is hidden: the surface message is not the real one. So -- this poem is not really about picking peaches all night. Phew! That's a relief! Because that would be a silly poem.
The next thing I notice is that the poem starts with a relationship conflict. The daughter challenges her father. He says she can't do it, and she stubbornly insists she can. And then she does! But what does she do? What's the all-night, grueling activity that a daughter must do, that her father thinks she can't do? Well, I'd have to answer, it's the leaving. He says she can't leave; she insists that she can.
So, what does leaving feel like? It feels like picking peaches in the moonless dark all night long, up and down a ladder. Now that's a metaphor I can chew on!
I've invited our black Lab, Ned, into the garden with me a few times to scare off the rabbits who've murdered my bush beans. Ned quickly grasped the fun of chasing a rabbit around the beds. He enters the gate, sniffs high and low, flips his ears inside out (which looks hilarious), stands erect, and then bounces around the bed, fixated on the rabbit. I can become just like Ned when hunting down the whiffs of literary ideas in a poem or short story. So rather than hanging my entire interpretation of "The Leaving" on the word "leaving," I must find other clues inside the poem that tell me the daughter has travel on her mind.
First, each time she twists a peach from its twig, she is turning a door knob, opening and "entering a thousand doors" as she goes through this lonely process. A child leaving a parent is certainly opening many doors, looking for the right exit, looking at the many options for leaving, perhaps opening many doors in succession like Max Smart heading for his phone booth.

Remember that? How many doors must this girl open? A thousand.

In the next line, the daughter says of her picking/leaving, "all night, my back a straight road to the sky." In the poem, the trees, the ladder, the pond are the things tying her down, the final task she must master before leaving. Freedom is represented in the sky, the stars (which are moving, while the orchard is "still"), the sunrise which allows her to stop and comes "in its goodness" to end her vigil. The morning moves, it comes over the "fields of the stars." The light "comes over the orchard," while during the dark night, only her hands were "lit" and the fields of stars overhead, her companions. Her back, which is her hard labor, is her escape into that sky, into that light that is her future. Her past is in the orchard, the labor of childhood, which is full of murmuring voices (from the canal) and watching eyes (from the pond). The canal voices seem to tell her of all those who had left before her, who had also done this work.

The most obvious message is that a Herculean task is set for the girl, a task her father says she is incapable of doing. It takes all night, but when the darkness leaves and the morning light comes, she is free. Only at the end does she realize she has been observed each time she places a peach into the cool pond water ... a thousand times! A task she thought was a lone endeavor is not. 

At first this poem made me uncomfortable because of the girl's obvious awareness of her own body. She mentions it often: her chest, her hands, her back. She can feel, all night long, the stars moving through her body. At sunrise when the light comes, her body responds to it like a bell that's just been rung, and the vibrations still resonate and ring, an inner tingling and shimmering of response to the light -- a beautiful image. The focus on fruit and on a young girl's body reminded me of Rossetti's "Goblin Market," a poem designed to make the reader uncomfortable. It makes you squirm. But the night-time dreaminess of this poem also reminds me of Frost's "After Apple-Picking." Yet Kelly is charting her own path. Her character has no tale of sin or redemption, and the repetition of the ladder-climbing and fruit-picking doesn't make her stumble and stop. The daughter is driven to complete her leaving. She mentions her father only in the first line. After that, she's on her own course, accomplishing her own metamorphosis, moving from darkness into light. The only moment of hesitation and doubt is in the final line when she realizes she's been watched, supervised. Only the light of her leaving gives her the ability to see how she has had watching company through it all.

"I was a girl then." Doesn't that say it all? Beginning that night of picking, she was a girl; now she's a woman. Her heart then was walled in, secret and private. Now it is open. Leaving is a labor.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, MK. Thank you for visiting my blog and for your kind words. I read this poem and loved reading your thoughts on it. I tend to look at things at a more surface level so reading your thoughts about this was very interesting. I've read a couple of your Jewish Insight poems and was very blessed. I'll be back to read more. Have a blessed day.


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