Monday 19 November 2012

Persimmons, a poem about memory

Persimmons * (1986)
Li-Young Lee
(b. 1957)

     In sixth grade Mrs. Walker
     slapped the back of my head
     and made me stand in the corner
     for not knowing the difference
     between persimmon and precision.
     How to choose

     persimmons. This is precision.
     Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.
     Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one
     will be fragrant. How to eat:
     put the knife away, lay down newspaper.
     Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.
     Chew the skin, suck it,
     and swallow. Now, eat
     the meat of the fruit,
     so sweet,
     all of it, to the heart.

     Donna undresses, her stomach is white.
     In the yard, dewy and shivering
     with crickets, we lie naked,
     face-up, face-down.
     I teach her Chinese.
     Crickets: chiu chiu. Dew: I've forgotten.
     Naked: I've forgotten.
     Ni, wo: you and me.
     I part her legs,
     remember to tell her
     she is beautiful as the moon.

     Other words
     that got me into trouble were
     fight and fright, wren and yarn.
     Fight was what I did when I was frightened,
     fright was what I felt when I was fighting.

     Wrens are small, plain birds,
     yarn is what one knits with.
     Wrens are soft as yarn.
     My mother made birds out of yarn.
     I loved to watch her tie the stuff;
     a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.

    Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class
     and cut it up
     so everyone could taste
     a Chinese apple. Knowing
     it wasn't ripe or sweet, I didn't eat
     but watched the other faces.

     My mother said every persimmon has a sun
     inside, something golden, glowing,
     warm as my face.

     Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper,
     forgotten and not yet ripe.
     I took them and set both on my bedroom windowsill,
     where each morning a cardinal
     sang, The sun, the sun.

     Finally understanding
     he was going blind,
     my father sat up all one night
     waiting for a song, a ghost.
     I gave him the persimmons,
     swelled, heavy as sadness,
     and sweet as love.

     This year, in the muddy lighting
     of my parents' cellar, I rummage, looking
     for something I lost.
     My father sits on the tired, wooden stairs,
     black cane between his knees,
     hand over hand, gripping the handle.
     He's so happy that I've come home.
     I ask how his eyes are, a stupid question.
     All gone, he answers.

     Under some blankets, I find a box.
     Inside the box I find three scrolls.
     I sit beside him and untie
     three paintings by my father:
     Hibiscus leaf and a white flower.
     Two cats preening.
     Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth.

     He raises both hands to touch the cloth,
     asks, Which is this?

     This is persimmons, Father.

     Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,
     the strength, the tense
     precision in the wrist.
     I painted them hundreds of times
     eyes closed. These I painted blind.
Some things never leave a person:
     scent of the hair of one you love,
     the texture of persimmons,
     in your palm, the ripe weight.