I’m intrigued by images that recur in an individual poet’s work or across several poets’ works. Rocks, for instance, have a fascinating poetic pedigree in the English language, from Wordsworth’s “Rocks and stones and trees” to Gary Snyder’s “Lay down these words / before your mind / like rocks” to Lorine Neidecker’s geologically-informed long poem, “Lake Superior.” Recently, I find myself drawn to an image that may not seem particularly evocative or poetic: lemons.
To clarify: exploring an image is not the same as hunting for “symbols,” those secret-code-filled Easter eggs that well-intentioned but misguided teachers sent us scrambling for in The Scarlet Letter or Lord of the Flies or Moby-Dick. Whether we’re talking about a single author’s work or several authors, images aren’t mere receptacles for pre-determined meaning. Images, like words, are shaped by use. With each mention, meanings are altered, inflected, extended, or revised. When a single image is taken up by several authors, it becomes a site of conversation or contention. And that’s what interests me: what might be called the dynamics of meaning—how it shifts, and the process by which it does so. Hence, when reading how an image works in a group of writers, I assume nothing; I heed writer and artist Lynda Barry’s advice: “I always say to stay behind the image. Let this thing pull you.”
D. H. Lawrence’s essay on Cézanne, “Introduction to these Paintings,” is brilliant, bizarre, and hilarious by turns. It reveals as much about Lawrence as it does about Cézanne. Near the end of the essay, Lawrence states that Cézanne had an “intuitive feeling that nothing is really statically at rest—a feeling he seems to have had strongly—as when he watched the lemons shrivel or go mildewed, in his still-life group, which he left lying there so long so that he could see that gradual flux and change.” The decay of the lemon helped Cezanne “fight the cliche, which says the inanimate world is static.” Lawrence explains the stakes of this “fight”: “We can see what a fight it means, the escape from the domination of the ready-made mental concepts, the mental consciousness stuffed full of clichés that intervene like a complete screen between us and life.”
This fight against cliché, reasons Lawrence, is why Cezanne’s drawing is so often described by critics of his time as “bad”: “good” drawing conforms to our understanding of what we think an object should look like, and obeys the rules of perspective and proportion. In other words, all good drawing is, in a sense, a cliche, a presentation of prepackaged meaning— “static,” as Lawrence puts it. If Cezanne had been willing to “accept cliche,” argues Lawrence,
His drawing would have been perfectly conventionally ‘all right’, and not a critic would have had a word to say about it. But when his drawing was conventionally all right, to Cezanne himself, it was mockingly all wrong, it was cliche. So he flew at it and knocked all the shape and stuffing out of it, and when it was so mauled that it was all wrong, and he was exhausted with it, he let it go, bitterly, because it was still not what he wanted.
In other words, “bad drawing” in Cezanne is the analogue of that moldy lemon: both happen when static and established method/form is surrendered to a dynamic and tenuous process. Deformity in draftsmanship indicates respect for the real.
So, for Cézanne/Lawrence, the rotting lemon serves as an emblem/demonstration of the endless flux of the world, and of the artist’s fight against our tendency to see things as static, as “cliché.” Ultimately, and paradoxically, that lemon—the change it instances—embodies what it means to be alive, receptive to change, and able to engage the world that refuses our static notions of it.
Lawrence’s observation reminds me of one of the letters in poet Jack Spicer’s book, After Lorca, a fascinating collection of poems alternating with letters from Spicer to “Lorca.” Note the cautionary quotes: the book was written in the mid-fifties, published in 1957; Gabriel Garcia Lorca died in 1936. In the first letter, Spicer explains why, in part, he writes to a deceased correspondent: “You are dead and the dead are very patient.”
The passage occurs in the fifth letter:
I would like to make poems out of real objects. The lemon to be a
lemon that the reader could cut or squeeze or taste—a real lemon like a
newspaper in a collage is a real newspaper….The poem is a
collage of the real.
But things decay, reason argues. Real things become garbage. The
piece of lemon you shellac to the canvas begins to develop a mold, the
newspaper tells of incredibly ancient events in forgotten slang, the boy
becomes a grandfather. Yes, but the garbage of the real still reaches out
into the current world making its objects, in turn, visible—lemon calls
I’m struck by the similarities between Spicer’s and Lawrence’s lemon: for both, it is something that stands for the “real,” made more so by its inevitable process of decay. But Spicer adds a twist to the lemon: the lemon is not only an image of the living present, but also the future. In the same letter, he continues:
Things do not connect; they correspond. That is what makes it possible for a poet to translate real objects, to bring them across language as easily as he can bring them across time. That tree you saw in Spain is a tree I could never have seen in California, that lemon has a different smell and a different taste, the answer is this—every place and every time has a real object to correspond with your real object—that lemon may become this lemon, or it may even become this piece of seaweed or this particular color of gray in this ocean. One does not need to imagine that lemon; one needs to discover it. Even these letters. They correspond with something (I don’t know what) that you have written (perhaps as apparently as that lemon corresponds to this piece of seaweed) and, in turn, some future poet will write something which corresponds to them.
Correspond: Just as Spicer “corresponds” in these letters with Lorca, thereby bringing him “across time” to the present, so poems—through their capacity to accommodate the unforeseen contexts and readerships, and to provoke change—correspond with the future. The lemon is emblematic of this open-ended process of “translation,” an endless series of future “correspondences” that cannot be entirely anticipated, that are necessarily incomplete and in transition. It’s almost a macro version of Cezanne/Lawrence’s fight against cliché, but instead of happening within one artist’s body of work, it reaches across time and corresponds with other readers, other writers.
So I cannot help but read the next poem I’d like to discuss, “Sketches of a Lemon,” written 1980 by Canadian poet Robert Kroetsch, as a kind of correspondence with Spicer. The poem is part of Kroetsch’s “continuing poem” Field Notes, an open-ended project that, by its very principle, can never be complete. Kroetsch observes:
My own continuing poem is called somewhat to my dismay Field Notes. I think of the field notes kept by the archaeologist, by the finding man, the finding man who is essentially lost. I can only guess the other; there might be a hidden text. Yet, it is as if we spend our lives finding clues, fragments, shards, leading or misleading details, chipped tablets written over in a forgotten language.
Kroetsch wryly calls the one collection of his poems Completed Field Notes. Not “Complete,” which is what we typically see in titles of exhaustive collections, but “completed,” suggesting that this is only what he has so far, that there may be more to come. Notes by their nature are incomplete. As he puts it in another poem, “Notation is a set / of instructions for / reading (in) the / future.” Given this context, we can anticipate that Kroetsch’s attempt to put lemons into words will be no simple task.
“Sketches of a Lemon” is in twelve numbered sections. The first raises questions regarding the relationship between words and lemons (and all things):
A lemon is almost round.
Some lemons are almost round.
A lemon is not round.
First, the indefinite article: It’s not “the” lemon, but “a” lemon. “The” would mean either a specific lemon—the specific lemon that is being sketched—or the other extreme, to indicate that we are speaking generally: “The lemon is a species of small evergreen tree native to Asia.” A indicates something more indefinite/unspecified; as my dictionary puts it, “A connotes a thing not previously noted or recognized, in contrast with the, which connotes a thing previously noted or recognized.” The indefinite article aligns with Kroetsch’s poet-as-archaeologist conceit: a search for the unknown.
These lines read almost like a mock-syllogism, but instead of beginning with a generalized certainty (“All men are mortal”), it begins with a non-generalizable observation: “A (single/nonspecific) lemon is almost round.” We learn from the second line that we may find this quality in some other lemons, ”Some lemons are almost round,” but not necessarily in all. As the third line informs us, there are exceptions: “A lemon is not round.” So much for syllogistic proofs. The only conclusion we can derive from this anti-syllogism is privative and conditional: what a lemon is not, sometimes, in certain cases.
A syllogism is a form of deduction, working from general principles to a specific conclusion. The first stanza demonstrates that that method is unfruitful. So the poet tries the opposite approach: induction, working from observation of a real lemon to extract general principles. Amusingly, the first section ends with the poet asking his wife, Smaro, to help him find a lemon to describe:
I said, to Smaro,
(I was working on this poem),
Smaro, I called, is there
(she was in the kitchen)
a lemon in the fridge?
No, she said.
So much for that.
Humor aside, the poet’s inability to find a lemon has its own epistemological implications. Language may not bring us closer to the lemon, but finding a “real” lemon doesn’t solve our problem either. Locating a lemon depends upon us knowing what a lemon is. And the only way we know that is the same way we learn the name of anything: by being shown a lemon by another speaker of the language. It’s no accident that the speaker’s search for a lemon is conducted by a verbal exchange. Knowledge of the lemon—of anything, by name—is always second-hand, arrived at by our faith in others and their words.
In the third section of the poem, Kroetsch looks to another poem for possible inspiration/insight as to how to know and represent the lemon: literary precedent, specifically the poetry of Francis Ponge:
I went back and looked at Francis Ponge’s poem
on blackberries. If blackberries can be
blackberries, I reasoned, by a kind of analogy,
lemons can, I would suppose, be lemons.
Such was not the case.
“If blackberries can be / blackberries,” the speaker reasons, why can’t lemons just be lemons? But the speaker is being cagey here, since Ponge’s blackberries clearly are not just blackberries. Ponge’s poem begins: “In the typographical thickets that go into the making of a poem, along a road that leads neither beyond things nor to the mind, certain fruits are formed by an agglomeration of spheres, each filled with a drop of ink.”
For Ponge, the blackberries are a kind of writing, with their thickets serving as a knotted calligraphy, and the thorns suggesting the difficulty/peril of putting things into words, of tangling with language. And of course the berries themselves are the very substance of writing, with the juice in each of the berry’s “spheres” being “a drop of ink.” It’s difficult to tell if Ponge is describing blackberries in terms of writing, or writing in terms of blackberries. Most likely he’s suggesting that the relationship between the two is as intertwined as the berry’s brambles themselves.
Yet the comparison of Ponge’s blackberries is instructive. As Ponge’s blackberries embody writing and its difficulties, the speaker obliquely suggests, so do these lemons. Consider one parallel: the juice of the berries stains like ink, but the juice/ink of the lemon is no ordinary ink, but, as you may recall from childhood science experiments, invisible ink. Here’s how one website describes it:
Making invisible ink is a lot of fun! You can pretend you are a secret agent as you keep all your secret codes and messages hidden from others. All you need is some basic household objects and the hidden power of lemon juice.
To read a message written in lemon juice, you need to expose it to heat, which causes the juice to oxidize and darken. Oxidation is a kind of disintegration and decay. In other words, the writing is either invisible, like a secret message, or legible only when the lemon juice begins to break down. Recall Lawrence: the lemon is real only when it rots and becomes something other than what we typically recognize as a lemon. Recall also Spicer: decay is what allows for correspondence, communication across time.
In any case, Kroetsch is indeed acting as poet-as-note-taking-archeologist: “looking for clues, fragments, shards, misleading details—attempting to decipher a forgotten language.” What’s foregrounded is not the legibility of language and the things it allegedly represents, but their resistance to legibility. The lemon is absent, either invisible or altered by our efforts to decode it.
The fourth section brings this “absence of the lemon” home by listing all the things he’s not describing. It ends with another kind of absence: the poet’s hunger for the lemon:
Sketches, I reminded myself,
not of a pear,
nor of an apple,
nor of a peach,
nor of a banana
(though the colour
nor of a nectarine,
nor, for that matter,
of a pomegranate,
nor of three cherries,
their stems joined,
nor of a plum,
nor of an apricot,
nor of the usual
bunch of grapes,
fresh from the vine,
glistening with dew —
Smaro, I called,
The lemon is described in terms of negatives, very much like well-known negative space paintings by Donald Sultan:
“Sketches of a Lemon”—especially the sections like this one—has been read in the light of deconstructive theory: a lemon in language is an indicator of the “real” lemon’s absence–that the “signified” is never present, and all were have are signifiers, that is, words, which are indices of absence. I’d argue, however, that this section could also be read as a critique of this sort of postmodern theory, showing that its notions of “present absence” do nothing to satisfy the poet’s—and our—actual hunger.
With that hunger in mind, I’m going to skip ahead to the tenth section of the poem, where we are presented with a recipe for something like a hot toddy, called “The lemon cure”:
The lemon cure
In each glass
mix:1 stick cinnamon
1 teaspoon honey
2 jiggers rum
½ slice lemon
hot water to taste
Repeat as necessary
Once again, the poet draws us into complex considerations with a casual, seemingly off-hand, remark. The key word is cure. Cure: 1) To restore to health; to provide a remedy or solution; 2) to preserve (as in cured meat); 3) to eliminate. Contradictions abound here: the entire poem is an attempt to “solve” the linguistic riddle of the lemon, to cure the poet of his citric aphasia. But to cure the lemon is to preserve the lemon, to prevent it from rotting and changing—in other words, to prevent it from becoming legible (like invisible ink). Also, the speaker is attempting to cure himself of lemons—to get rid of them and the linguistic difficulties they’ve caused.
Section 12, the final section of the poem, ends with poet satisfying his hunger for the lemon, eating it on baked salmon:
This hour is shaped like
a lemon. We taste its light
on the baked salmon.
The tree itself is elsewhere.
We make faces, liking the
sour surprise. Our teeth melt.
“Our teeth melt”: this is not a surreal turn, or a mixed metaphor, but a simple fact about lemons. As your dentist may have warned you, the high amount of citric acid in lemons softens and erodes tooth enamel. The poet thinks he has the lemon, has filled the lemon-shaped void in his mind and belly, but the lemon is corrosive, changing that which attempts to assimilate it. Hence the odd shape of the lemon: in section 9 Kroetsch suggests that “a lemon is shaped / exactly like an hour.” In this section, “This hour is shaped like / a lemon.” The conflation/confusion of the spatial with the temporal indicates that these sketches, like all notes, are merely a prelude to a lemon, “instructions for / reading (in) the / future.”
All three writers place their lemons within a visual work of art—painting, collage, and drawing/sketching—thereby aligning their “correspondence” with an analogous moment in art history: 17th Century Dutch still life. In his meditation/memoir Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy, poet Mark Doty points out that for this group of painters, rendering lemons became a sort of competition. The lemon presented these artists with many representational challenges: the transparency of the flesh, the “stippled surface” of the fruit, the sharp color, the subtle form of a long, delicate curl of peel.
Similarly, for these writers the lemon becomes a site, not of virtuosic mimesis, but a consideration of the limits of mimesis, which in turn provokes each writer to consider alternatives to the notion that language is simply a system of representation. For Lawrence, language doesn’t capture an image—as in the Imagism of his time—but embodies the flux present even in the most seemingly stable things. As he puts it in “The Poetry of the Present”: “everything [must be] left in its own rapid, fluid relationship with the rest of things. This is the unrestful, ungraspable poetry of the sheer present, poetry whose very permanency lies in its wind-like transit.” For Spicer, the lemon marks the shift from “correspondence” as static resemblance, to correspondence as exchange, surrendering one’s words to the future to correspond in unforeseen ways with future readers/writers. Finally, Kroetsch shows that even the most tangled linguistic conundrums are not so much abstract demonstrations of the failures of linguistic representation, but articulations of a very human hunger for the real.
Doty, Mark. Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy. Beacon Press, 2001.
Kroetsch, Robert. Completed Field Notes: The Long Poems of Robert Kroetsch. University of Alberta Press, 2000.
Lawrence, D. H. “Introduction to These Paintings.” Poets on Painters: Essays on the Art of Painting by Twentieth-Century Poets, edited by J. D. McClatchy, University of California Press, 1988.
—-. “The Poetry of the Present.” The Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/essays/detail/69403
Ponge, Francis. Selected Poems. Translated by Margaret Guiton et al., Wake Forest University Press, 1994.
Spicer, Jack. My Vocabulary Did This To Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, Wesleyan University Press, 2008.