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
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;
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,
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.