“The Word Plum” by Helen Chasin
The word plum is delicious
pout and push, luxury of
self-love, and savoring murmur
full in the mouth and falling
pierced, bitten, provoked into
juice, and tart flesh
and reply, lip and tongue
I never get tired of this trick, even though I’ve had this tattoo for four years now. Like the Italian plums that pour into the markets every August and September in Philadelphia, the plum on my skin is reddish and oblong, the very embodiment of summer when it waxes sweet and vivid just before waning into autumn.
The summer I got the tattoo, I had been reading Wallace Stevens’ ”Sunday Morning” for my dissertation, writing the first stanza’s coffee and oranges into a chapter about Barthes’ The Neutral. But I couldn’t help noticing the way plums haunt that poem, and they changed the way I read it. “Sunday Morning” is often taken to be a dialogue between a foggy, sepulchral worship, voiced by the narrator, and a sensual paganism voiced by a peignoired female character who lounges with her breakfast and parrot with her thoughts only half on church. But that opposition–heavenly rewards versus earthly pleasures–doesn’t hold, as the poem explores the ways death is apparent in the enjoyment of the living and vice versa.
Various fruits appear throughout the poem as palpable symbols of earthly pleasure: plums, oranges, and pears are pleasing to all the senses, as lovely to look at as they are to taste and smell. But to imagine the pleasures of fruit is to contemplate the limits of mortality, because fruit depends on a life cycle: it can’t be fully enjoyed unless it falls or is pulled from its branch. The narrator struggles to imagine an afterlife in which pleasures are available eternally, wondering:
“Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Why set the pear upon those river-banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?”
What kind of futile paradise would it be, indeed, to torture the citizens of heaven with rivers that go nowhere and fruit that never falls? But for this poem, the reverse is also true here on earth: just as the concept of beauty isn’t possible without the shadow of death, the thought of death compels us to seek out beauty, which is made more poignant and apparent by the shadow. “Death is the mother of beauty,” insists the narrator more than once; he imagines a feminine Death wandering around strewing fallen leaves and causing the willows to shiver. She also “causes boys to pile new plums and pears / On disregarded plate. The maidens taste / And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.” These plums are pretty sexy, as Helen Chasin’s poem (above) suggests, but their erotic power over these boys and maidens seems to be the chill touch of the personified Death character, reminding them all that summer (and youth, and beauty, and all that) is temporary.
“Plums and pears.” They are pleasing words to say, just as they are pleasing fruits to taste and look at. They are sweet and mild, unlike the pungent oranges that pierce the female character’s morning reverie. But it took several years of living in Philadelphia–a region that has more distinct seasons that my previous homes in Tennessee and Louisiana, and an accessible farming culture whose bounty is tied to the weather–before I realized that the plums and pears were so appropriate to this poem’s argument because they are both fruits of the late summer,
During the summer that I began to write about this poem, I sketched a branch with a locally favored variety of plum hanging heavy on it, bursting with flowers at one end and burnished autumn leaves at the other. The artist took my sketch and transposed it into a circular branch, indicating an eventual return to the flamboyant flowers of spring–a comforting idea. There are other, more personal associations embedded in the ink, as there should be. But some pleasures are simple, and I am always pleased to see the plums come in, even if I know that they portend the close of the summer.
I wrote this post on a lovely September Sunday morning while I enjoyed a slice of plum bread with plum sauce. Then I decided not to publish it. Too personal, too vague at the same time. What was the point?
Then I went to see a piece of performance art with my neighbor, and while we walked around in between shows, one of the performers caught my arm and told me that she loved my tattoo. I was quite startled–she and the other performers were all bustling about in white jumpsuits with actorly officiousness, and most didn’t seem inclined to break character–but I thanked her.
“Is it a plum?” she asked. I happily told her that it was–people who have never seen this kind of plum wonder if it is an apple or cherry.
“Does it mean something?” she asked, “Like, is it from a story?”
“A poem,” I told her, “called ‘Sunday Morning.’”
“Oh, I like that,” she said. “I like it when a tattoo means something.”
So, that’s the point. To share a little beauty and a little of what it means to me, just for a moment among strangers.