Tony Harrison (1937-)

A Kumquat for John Keats

Today I found the right fruit for my prime,
not orange, not tangelo, and not lime,
nor moon-like globes 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 fit to be Joy’s fruit,
when, two years before he died, he tried to write
how Melancholy dwelled inside Delight,
and if he’d known the citrus that I mean
that’s not orange, lemon, lime, or tangerine,
I’m pretty sure that Keats, though he had heard
‘of candied apple, quince and plum and gourd’
instead of ‘grape against the palate fine’
would have, if he’d known it, plumped for mine,
this Eastern citrus scarcely cherry size
he’d bite just once and then apostrophize
and pen one stanza how the fruit had all
the qualities of fruit before the Fall,
but in the next few lines be forced to write
how Eve’s apple tasted at the second bite,
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 Micanopy 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 it’s the kumquat fruit expresses best
how days have darkness round them like a rind,
life has a skin of death that keeps its zest.

History, a life, the heart, the brain
flow to the taste buds and flow back again.
That decade or more past Keats’s span
makes me an older not a wiser man,
who knows that it’s too late for dying young,
but since youth leaves some sweetnesses unsung,
he’s granted days and kumquats to express
Man’s Being ripened by his Nothingness.
And it isn’t just the gap of sixteen years,
a bigger crop of terrors, hopes and fears,
but a century of history on this earth
between John Keats’s death and my own birth-
years like an open crater, gory, grim,
with bloody bubbles leering at the rim;
a thing no bigger than an urn explodes
and ravishes all silence, and all odes,
Flora asphyxiated by foul air
unknown to either Keats or Lemprière,
dehydrated Naiads, Dryad amputees
dragging themselves through slagscapes with no trees,
a shirt of Nessus fire that gnaws and eats
children half the age of dying Keats . . .

Now were you twenty five or six years old
when that fevered brow at last grew cold?
I’ve got no books to hand to check the dates.
My grudging but glad spirit celebrates
that all I’ve got to hand ‘s the kumquats, John,
the fruit I’d love to have your verdict on,
but dead men don’t eat kumquats, or drink wine,
they shiver in the arms of Prosperine,
not warm in bed beside their Fanny Brawne,
nor watch her pick ripe grapefruit in the dawn
as I did, waking, when I saw her twist,
with one deft movement of a sunburnt wrist,
the moon, that feebly lit our last night’s walk
past alligator swampland, off its stalk.
I thought of moon-juice juleps when I saw,
as if I’d never seen the moon before,
the planet glow among the fruit, and its pale light
make each citrus on the tree its satellite.

Each evening when I reach to draw the blind
stars seem the light zest squeezed through night’s black rind;
the night’s peeled fruit the sun, juiced of its rays,
first stains, then streaks, then floods the world with days,
days, when the very sunlight made me weep,
days, spent like the nights in deep, drugged sleep,
days in Newcastle by my daughter’s bed,
wondering if she, or I, weren’t better dead,
days in Leeds, grey days, my first dark suit,
my mother’s wreaths stacked next to Christmas fruit,
and days, like this in Micanopy. Days!

As strong sun burns away the dawn’s grey haze
I pick a kumquat and the branches spray
cold dew in my face to start the day.
The dawn’s molasses make the citrus gleam
still in the orchards of the groves of dream.

The limes, like Galway after weeks of rain,
glow with a greenness that is close to pain,
the dew-cooled surfaces of fruit that spent
all last night flaming in the firmament.
The new day dawns. O days! My spirit greets
the kumquat with the spirit of John Keats.
O kumquat, comfort for not dying young,
both sweet and bitter, bless the poet’s tongue!
I burst the whole fruit chilled by morning dew
against my palate. Fine, for 42!

I search for buzzards as the air grows clear
and see them ride fresh thermals overhead.
Their bleak cries were the first sound I could hear
when I stepped at the start of sunrise out of doors,
and a noise like last night’s bedsprings on our bed
from Mr Fowler sharpening farmers’ saws.

A Cold Coming

I saw the charred Iraqi lean towards me from bomb-blasted screen,
his windscreen wiper like a pen ready to write down thoughts for men,

his windscreen wiper like a quill he’s reaching for to make his will.
I saw the charred Iraqi lean like someone made of Plasticine

as though he’d stopped to ask the way and this is what I heard him say:
“Don’t be afraid I’ve picked on you for this exclusive interview.

Isn’t it your sort of poet’s task to find words for this frightening mask?
If that gadget that you’ve got records words from such scorched vocal cords,

press RECORD before some dog devours me mid-monologue.”
So I held the shaking microphone closer to the crumbling bone:

“I read the news of three wise men who left their sperm in nitrogen,
three foes of ours, three wise Marines with sample flasks and magazines,

three wise soldiers from Seattle who banked their sperm before the battle.
Did No 1 say: God be thanked I’ve got my precious semen banked.

And No 2: O praise the Lord my last best shot is safely stored.
And No 3: Praise be to God I left my wife my frozen wad?

So if their fate was to be gassed at least they thought their name would last,
and though cold corpses in Kuwait they could by proxy procreate.

Excuse a skull half roast, half bone for using such a scornful tone.
It may seem out of all proportion but I wish I’d taken their precaution.

They seemed the masters of their fate with wisely jarred ejaculate.
Was it a propaganda coup to make us think they’d cracked death too,

disinformation to defeat us with no post-mortem millilitres?
Symbolic billions in reserve made me, for one, lose heart and nerve.

On Saddam’s pay we can’t afford to go and get our semen stored.
Sad to say that such high tech’s uncommon here. We’re stuck with sex.

If you can conjure up and stretch your imagination (and not retch)
the image of me beside my wife closely clasped creating life . . .”

(I let the unfleshed skull unfold a story I’d been already told,
and idly tried to calculate the content of ejaculate:

the sperm in one ejaculation equals the whole Iraqi nation
times, roughly, let’s say, 12.5 though .5’s not now alive.

Let’s say the sperms were an amount so many times the body count,
2,500 times at least (but let’s wait till the toll’s released!).

Whichever way Death seems outflanked by one tube of cold bloblings banked.
Poor bloblings, maybe you’ve been blessed with, of all fates possible, the best

according to Sophocles ie “the best of fates is not to be”
a philosophy that’s maybe bleak for any but an ancient Greek

but difficult these days to escape when spoken to by such a shape.
When you see men brought to such states who wouldn’t want that “best of fates”

or in the world of Cruise and Scud not go kryonic if he could,
spared the normal human doom of having made it through the womb?)

He heard my thoughts and stopped the spool: “I never thought life futile, fool!
Though all Hell began to drop I never wanted life to stop.

I was filled with such a yearning to stay in life as I was burning,
such a longing to be beside my wife in bed before I died,

and, most, to have engendered there a child untouched by war’s despair.
So press RECORD! I want to reach the warring nations with my speech.

Don’t look away! I know it’s hard to keep regarding one so charred,
so disfigured by unfriendly fire and think it once burned with desire.

Though fire has flayed off half my features they once were like my fellow creatures’,
till some screen-gazing crop-haired boy from Iowa or Illinois,

equipped by ingenious technophile put paid to my paternal smile
and made the face you see today an armature half-patched with clay,

an icon framed, a looking glass for devotees of ‘kicking ass’,
a mirror that returns the gaze of victors on their victory days

and in the end stares out the watcher who ducks behind his headline: GOTCHA!
or behind the flag-bedecked page 1 of the true to bold-type-setting SUN!

I doubt victorious Greeks let Hector join their feast as spoiling spectre,
and who’d want to sour the children’s joy in Iowa or Illinois

Or ageing mothers overjoyed to find their babies weren’t destroyed?
But cabs beflagged with SUN front pages don’t help peace in future ages.

Stars and Stripes in sticky paws may sow the seeds for future wars.
Each Union Jack the kids now wave may lead them later to the grave.

But praise the Lord and raise the banner (excuse a skull’s sarcastic manner!)
Desert Rat and Desert Stormer without the scars and (maybe) trauma,

the semen-bankers are all back to sire their children in their sack.
With seed sown straight from the sower dump second-hand spermatozoa!

Lie that you saw me and I smiled to see the soldier hug his child.
Lie and pretend that I excuse my bombing by B52s,

pretend I pardon and forgive that they still do and I don’t live,
pretend they have the burnt man’s blessing and then, maybe, I’m spared confessing

that only fire burnt out the shame of things I’d done in Saddam’s name,
the deaths, the torture and the plunder the black clouds all of us are under.

Say that I’m smiling and excuse the Scuds we launched against the Jews.
Pretend I’ve got the imagination to see the world beyond one nation.

That’s your job, poet, to pretend I want my foe to be my friend.
It’s easier to find such words for this dumb mask like baked dogturds.

So lie and say the charred man smiled to see the soldier hug his child.
This gaping rictus once made glad a few old hearts back in Baghdad,

hearts growing older by the minute as each truck comes without me in it.
I’ve met you though, and had my say which you’ve got taped. Now go away.”

I gazed at him and he gazed back staring right through me to Iraq.
Facing the way the charred man faced I saw the frozen phial of waste,

a test-tube frozen in the dark, crib and Kaaba, sacred Ark,
a pilgrimage of Cross and Crescent the chilled suspension of the Present.

Rainbows seven shades of black curved from Kuwait back to Iraq,
and instead of gold the frozen crock’s crammed with Mankind on the rocks,

the congealed genie who won’t thaw until the World renounces War,
cold spunk meticulously jarred never to be charrer or the charred,

a bottled Bethlehem of this come- curdling Cruise/Scud-cursed millennium.
I went. I pressed REWIND and PLAY and I heard the charred man say: