11 January 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/2

The Crossed Apple

I've come to give you fruit from out my orchard,
Of wide report.
I have trees there that bear me many apples
Of every sort:

Clear, streakèd; red and russet; green and golden;
Sour and sweet.
This apple's from a tree yet unbeholden,
Where two kinds meet, –

So that this side is red without a dapple,
And this side's hue
Is clear and snowy. It's a lovely apple.
It is for you.

Within are five black pips as big as peas,
As you will find,
Potent to breed you five great apple trees
Of varying kind:

To breed you wood for fire, leaves for shade,
Apples for sauce.
Oh, this is a good apple for a maid,
It is a cross,

Fine on the finer, so the flesh is tight,
And grained like silk.
Sweet Burning gave the red side, and the white
Is Meadow Milk.

Eat it; and you will taste more than the fruit:
The blossom, too,
The sun, the air, the darkness at the root,
The rain, the dew,

The earth we came to, and the time we flee,
The fire and the breast.
I claim the white part, maiden, that's for me.
You take the rest.

Louise Bogan

Here's a witty, teasing poem by Louise Bogan that begins in innocence and ends in experience. Maybe because the subject matter (offering an apple to an innocent) ineluctably brings to mind Satan and Eve in the Garden of Eden, there's an air of seduction here (It's a lovely apple. / It is for you. – how wonderful, these two brief sentences, with the delicate pause between, and the parallel structure suggesting that this lovely thing must be for you). But even more, there is a feeling that this seduction will bring with it great knowledge. Given this hint of the Biblical Fall, the appearance of cross will carry with it a reminder of the crucifixion, though in both the title and the end of the fifth stanza what the word officially means is that the tree is the product of interbreeding between two species (which are named in the sixth stanza). As a further troubling hint, in that detached line at the end of the fifth stanza (It is a cross) we might also be reminded of some other meanings of cross: to impose or thwart someone, or a burden one must carry (as in "it's her cross to bear").

In addition to the Biblical resonance, there's also a bit of a fairy-tale atmosphere here, with the offered apple pure red on one side and pure white on the other, and the magical-sounding five seeds as big as peas that will breed five different trees that together are capable of giving you what you need to survive in a forest (warmth, shelter, food). The tree that produces this striking apple is described as unbeholden, which means free of duty or obligation to anyone, though I feel there's also a suggestion there of un- (not) beheld (seen by anyone): that is, this is a fantastical tree, as well as a tree that doesn't owe anything to other trees – though this tree is yet unbeholden, suggesting that the tree will come to be beholden to (or beheld by) someone, perhaps the maiden who eats the proffered apple.

We move from a description of the many types of apple in the speaker's orchard to this particular and significant apple, with one side red (suggesting fire, passion, blood, love) and the other white (suggesting purity, innocence, virginity). The resonance of these colors is strengthened by the names of the parent trees (which I believe are Bogan's invention, not actual apple varieties): Sweet Burning for the red; the pastoral Meadow Milk for the white. Though joined in one fruit, the two sides seem self-contained. As the speaker moves into a description of this special apple, the language grows increasingly erotic: fine on the finer (which I take to mean superlatively fine?), the flesh is tight, grained like silk. Even the pips are potent to breed.

The speaker (I'm tempted in this case to say the seducer) says Eat it, which sounds like a command, but turns out to be part of an elaborate explanation: this apple will bring you more than a wholesome snack! In fact, it's not necessarily wholesome at all; it brings with a bite a deep, encompassing knowledge of the physical processes of earth: not just the pretty blossom and the dew, but the suggestive darkness at the root – a literal reference to roots underground in the dark earth, but also a symbolic reference, possibly to Original Sin, or maybe just to the mystery at the core of things; and with this, the knowledge expands towards the metaphysical: the earth we came to, and the time we flee, / The fire and the breast. The earth we came to might refer to the place these two have met, or more generally to the earth they were born into; the time we flee might refer to the lovers running off together, or more generally to death. They will share the apple, though it might be more accurate to say they will split it, since (as noted earlier) the two halves seem quite separate and even contradictory. The speaker will take the white part (the innocence), telling the maiden You take the rest – but rest is exactly what she won't get, since, as the repeated use of cross suggests, this love is not likely to be a happy one, though it might still have been worth it to move into the orbit of fire and the breast. (Of course, this is a speech from one side: we are never told what the maiden actually chose.)

This is from The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923 - 1968 by Louise Bogan.

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