Each month, Alexandra Barylski will offer a post on a single poem or a poet whose work draws attention to our embodied selves. She is fascinated by work that addresses ways we touch one another’s bodies in a progressively immaterial world directed by machines and how such an act helps us remain more human.
Lee Young-Li’s poem “From Blossoms” is in Rose, one of my favorite Young-Li collections, a book of poems that I must keep my distance from for periods of time. Too visceral. Too much feeling. Even now, on this cold New England day, hands of two decades take me by my blazer collar and grip me, demand to see my face, my eyes—the years want to know if I still remember peach pits licked dry and then buried in cool layers of sand. The years want to know why I shove away afternoons in New Jersey, Virginia, South Carolina, California, and Connecticut. Too much grace, too much life when I felt I was dying or felt I wanted to be dead, moments like the one in the opening of Young-Li’s poem, where blossoms stick out of a brown bag of peaches bought without thought after noting a sign in the road. Moments unexpectedly filled with “succulent peaches we devour” or their equivalent, surprising minutes that carry within them the memory of our genesis, our “dusty skin…dust of summer, dust we eat” and the promise of some everlasting elsewhere. From dust we are made and dust we shall be. The body is made of the earth, but not so our spirits. Such a moment (too good to be true, almost illicit) thrills us into awareness of our spirit, pulls us from the tethers of temporality, our own misgivings and manipulations, removes us from the stories we tell ourselves to stay only in flesh at our side of the bed evening after evening after evening. Such a moment makes promises we worry it can not keep, promises there is more to life than our present pain.
The book closes and opens again. I wonder if my reading here is right, if there is grief stored up in the body, in the poem, or if I have imagined the stanzas as a nook in the world to hide some of my own heartache. No. The sorrow is there. “O, to take what we love inside, / to carry within us an orchard, to eat”—only empty space can be filled. There is carved out of me space enough for orchard after orchard, space for acres of goodness, space for much I love and have refused to take inside. To eat. Reading this poem brings Simone Weil to mind, her starving, her reminding me in her letters how Eve lost our humanity by eating, so we must practice hunger. Once I believed looking at fruit without eating it would save me. Now I take some of what I love inside. I am caught off my guard by a roadside sign for fresh peaches.
There is a strange knowledge that comes to us in the tasting, some hint of eternity within us we are unaccustomed to encountering and so it feels prohibited, as if all our days conspire to keep us from knowing that we are spirit, that to neglect what animates the body is to lose the body entire. My spirit desires; my mouth waters and opens with the O even as I am afraid in my wanting futures full of peach after peach after peach. Any O in a poem stops me, makes my pulse quicken. In this poem it is interjection and apostrophe, both the speaker’s surprise and the direct address to the peach’s body, the surfeit of life one might feel when eating peaches, when encountering some unaccounted for tenderness and beauty. So often we deny ourselves, not only the satisfying fullness, but the excess, the decadent savoring of
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hand, to adore it,
then to bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
I wonder if the peaches know we do not have the courage in us, that we lack the bravery, and if they understand something like themselves - tender and beautiful and otherworldly sweet - is what allows us to risk taking those “days we live / as if death were nowhere.” Maybe Eliot knew most of us could not dare to eat a peach, that most of us do not know how to adore, accept, and integrate moments that pour over our bodies with “joy to joy,” that carry us “from wing to wing,” moments that take us “from blossom to blossom to / impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom” and lavish us with a sense of being alive in our bodies and spirits, the kind of life that is stored cell and soul deep, a sense of life defined not by its opposite, but from everlasting.