from A Kumquat for John Keats
Today I found the right fruit for my prime,
not orange, not tangelo, and not lime,
nor moon-like gloes of grapefruit that now hang
outside our bedroom, nor tart lemon's tang
(though last year full of bile and self-defeat
I wanted to believe no life was sweet)
nor the tangible sunshine of the tangerine,
and no incongruous citrus ever seen
at greengrocers' in Newcastle or Leeds
mis-spelt by the spuds and mud-caked swedes,
a fruit an older poet might substitute
for the grape John Keats thought to be Joy's fruit,
when, two years before he died, he tried to write
how Melancholy dwelled inside Delight.* / /
and if John keats had only lived to be,
because of extra years, in need like me,
at 42 he'd help me celebrate
that Micancopy kumquat that I ate
whole, straight off the tree, sweet pulp and sour skin--
or was it sweet outside, and sour within?
For however many kumquats that I eat
I'm not sure if it's flesh or rind that's sweet,
and being a man of doubt at life's mid-way
I'd offer Keats some kumquats and I'd say:
You'll find that one part's sweet and one part's tart:
say where the sweetness or the sourness start.
I find I can't as if one couldn't say
exactly where the night became the day,
which makes for me the kumquat taken whole
best fruit, and metaphor, to fit the soul
of one in Florida at 42 with Keats
crunching kumquats, thinking, as he eats
the flesh, the juice, the pith, the pips, the peel,
that this is how a full life ought to feel,
its perishable relish prick the tongue,
when the man who savours life's no longer young,
the fruits that were his futures far behind.
Then its the kumquat fruit expresses best
how days have darkness behind them like a rind,
life has a skin of death that keeps its zest.
*Cf. John Keats, "Ode on Melancholy," lines 25-26
Tony Harrison 1981
I have cut a significant portion of this poem, because of limited space and because the poem spins into sentimental personal and social reflections. It is enough, for now, to get a taste of the kumquat Mr. Harrison would like us to mull over the course of this poem. Perhaps it will be helpful for the reader to know that Keats was a Romantic Era poet who died young; after the deaths of many family members from Tuberculosis, he had the premonition that he would die young, and many of his poems wrestle with issues of life and death, love and beauty. They are intensely compact works of art, almost effortlessly holding the reins of emotion, reflection and beauty, letting each lead as it sees fit. Metaphor is key to his work, from which Tony Harrison takes the cue for this poem.
Though not the densest or most profound poem ever written, I find it clever, fun to read, and a good reminder of the dualities we carry within life. One question it raises, I think, is: Do you know you are going to die? How often is this a reality? Does your life really carry with it the skin that keeps its zest? Interesting.