May 10, 2021

A Word about Words

   One day, when I was as tall as an armchair, my teacher, Ms. Ewald, who taught us songs in German, or was it Sister Joseph, straight-backed, black-habit serious yet the kindest woman to ever grace that NYC school’s hallowed halls? No matter, one of those excellent women set forth on my lift-top wooden child’s desk a small volume that would change the way I looked at words.

  The title was “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle and Other Modern Verse.” 

  Back then, we had reading time scheduled every day. Once the prescribed reading was done, we could read whatever was offered in the classroom. That day, I read “Reflections.” A book compiled for children. A knee-high doorway into the paradise of poetry. The book’s pages grew worn under my thumbing fingers. I folded over the edges of my favorite poems, which I was forbidden to do because the book was the school’s, not mine, committed to a pristine handing-over to the next student the next year.  I was a precise student, a methodical, careful one. But love is messy. And I had fallen in love. With a book of poetry.

    As I grew older, I moved on to other poems and other poets, to Elizabeth Bishop and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Alfred Lord Tennyson. To Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, June Jordan and Adrienne Rich. Billy Collins and Maya Angelou.

    But I never forgot my first love, the one that introduced me to rhythm and rhyme, to melody and meter. To joy and sadness expressed through the glory, the romance, the power of words.  

   If we look, we find poetry in the everyday. “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle” reminds me of the importance of doing so. Here’s the title poem from this wonderful book, and I hope you are able stop to see, today, poetry where it awaits:

Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity”

By John Tobias

During that summer

When unicorns were still possible 

When the purpose of knees

Was to be ‘skinned’

When shiny horse chestnuts 

(Hollowed out 

Fitted with straws

Crammed with tobacco 

Stolen from butts in family ashtrays)

Were puffed in green lizard silence

While straddling thick branches 

Far above and away

From the softening effects of civilization;

During that summer

Which may never have been at all;

But which has become more real

Than the one that was;

Watermelons ruled. 

Thick pink imperial slices

Melting frigidly on sun-parched suns

Dribbling from chins;

Leaving the best part

The black bullet seeds,

To be spit out in rapid fire

Against the wall

Against the wind

Against each other;

And when the ammunition was spent,

There was always another bite;

It was a summer of limitless bites, 

Of hungers quickly felt

And quickly forgotten 

With the next careless gorging. 

The bites are fewer now. 

Each one is savored lingeringly,

Swallowed reluctantly. 

But in a jar put up by Felicity,

The summer which maybe never was

Has been captured and preserved. 

And when we unscrew the lid 

And slice off a piece

And let it linger on our tongue:

Unicorns become possible again.

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