Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Toad's Favourite: Take a Bite!

From the time I was quite young, I have loved poetry.  Before I could read, my mother read to me from A Child’sGarden of Verses by Robert Lewis Stevenson.  My grandmother gave me a book of poetry for my seventh birthday, One Hundred and One Famous Poems by Roy Cook. Over the years I read and reread those poems and still have my dog eared book! 

It was when I was a young teen, however, that I discovered modern poetry. I felt that I had found poems that were not only beautiful or interesting, but relatable. These poets wrote in the language that I wrote in, and this inspired me to begin writing poetry myself. I began filling pages of spiral notebooks with my own poetry, most of which I still have today.

The book that inspired my love of modern poetry is called Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle … and Other Modern Verse  by Dunning, Lueders, and Smith.  It was originally published in 1966 by Scholastic Book Services as a poetry anthology for young readers but has appeal for all ages, in my opinion. The final poem, by John Tobias, is called “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity.” It remains one of my favorite poems to this day.

my old copy

This poem is about childhood, memories, imagination, and nostalgia. Each time I read it, I find some new or different meaning, as I move through the phases of my own life. This is a poem that grows with the reader.  It begins:

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…

One can already glean the nostalgic mood of the poem as well as the dreamlike mingling of memory with imagination.  “Green lizard silence” is still one of my favorite phrases in a poem.

He continues:

During that summer--
Which may never have been at all…
…Watermelons ruled.
Thick imperial slices
Melting frigidly on sun-parched tongues
Dribbling from chins;
Leaving the best part,
The black bullet seeds,…

Tobias uses the watermelon as an extended metaphor for the changes experienced while maturing into adulthood. I love how he uses such a simple concept to explore a complex theme, the changes and losses of growing up.

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…

Tobias ends the poem with the gift of watermelon pickle, which resurrects his image of an ideal childhood that may have, or may have not, actually existed.

…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.

As I believe that this poem is still under copyright, I did not print it in its entirety, but it is definitely worth a read (or two or fifty!) Here is a link to the full poem :  Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle

The poem has been called a classic by both educators and critics, but despite many searches, I have been unable to locate any other poems by Tobias. However, he has written plays, including “My Husband’s Wild Desires Almost Drove Me Mad” and “Is the Real You Really You?” that have been produced worldwide as well as Off Broadway. He also wrote a book on American history and literature called The Adventure of America.

As a final note, a bit of trivia: There is an actual Felicity who did, indeed, give Tobias a gift of watermelon pickle. Instead of a bottle of wine, Felicity brought a gift of homemade watermelon pickle to Tobias’s publication party for The Adventure of America. She had argued with her husband about the gift, as he thought it made her look cheap. Later, the poem “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity” was published in The New Mexico Quarterly (1961). I guess Tobias enjoyed the gift!

I  hope you enjoy the poem! 

my yellowed copy of the poem


Kay L. Davies said...

OH, I love it, Ms Mouse, and can hardly believe I've never seen it before. I also love that there was a real Felicity whose husband didn't understand the gift, but who (I imagine) eventually figured it out.
I can understand why it's your favorite.

Lolamouse said...

Thanks, Kay. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. It's one I keep going back to over the years!

Mary said...

Lolamouse, I always loved that poem too. In fact, I also loved that entire book, which I own also own & love. When I was teaching, I read many poems to my students from that wonderful book. I had never known the story behind the "Watermelon Pickle" poem. It made me smile....as does the poem (again) when you shared it today!

Susan said...

I do like the poem, and now know I was deprived that it wasn't part of my childhood! I also like the way you tell this story and the truth of its origin. Thank you.

Ella said...

I love the poem! I can see the layering effect of its words. How each time read it impacts another insight! Thank you for sharing this poem-I had not heard of it! I too am happy to learn there is a real life
Felicity! I am now craving watermelon and pickles ;D
Thank you!!

Kerry O'Connor said...

This is wonderful! I have never had the opportunity to read this poem, and may never have done so if not for your choice to share it here. It is so delicately emotive and I felt the goosebumps on my skin at the sensitivity of his connection with the past. Thank you, Sheri.

Kerry O'Connor said...

Coming back to this after reading the full version, I think I love it especially for the unicorn line. When I was younger, i used to collect unicorns (still have many of them) but it is one of the many things I stopped doing when I "grew up". That last line brought it back to me - the things we lose, like magic and possibility.

Sherry Blue Sky said...

I loved this entire post - had not heard of this fantastic poem, loved the way you led us through it, and provided background information. This was a highly enjoyable read, Ms Mouse!

Marian said...

wow, i just love this, thanks so much for sharing it, Sheri. how melancholy, to think of one's own past, to consider one's children leaving behind those things that are so central to them now. really beautiful. thank you!

Sherry Ellis said...

Love the poem! It certainly is nostalgic.

Gail said...

If I did not love poetry already this poem would have convinced me to fall in love with the gift that makes words art.

Lolamouse said...

This poem made me fall in love with poetry. The book has some other gems in it as well. So glad everyone is enjoying the watermelon pickle!

Grace said...

Thank you so much LM ~ What a wonderful post to read & remember my childhood summer days this afternoon ~ Smiles ~

Anonymous said...

Lolamouse, this was a double gift - the watermelon pickle and the poem which it inspired! I remember reading that poem years ago and the best part was the title, which simply tickled me! Amy

Susie Clevenger said...

I love the poem. Thank you so much for introducing me to it and the poet! I can see why you were inspired!

Hannah said...

LOVE your yellowed copy...books that are old that one can hold are my favorite! Thank you Lola-mouse for sharing your favo(u)rite!