Kumquats and Communication

My theme this year is communication. I made it my theme because it is something I struggle with, in all aspects of my life.

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True to form, last week I tried and tried to write, but just couldn’t get the words out. I couldn’t seem to crystallise exactly what I wanted to say. Initially, I babbled aimlessly. Then I kept quoting other people. Eventually, I attempted writing the post as a poem, just to see if it helped.

It didn’t. 

So I took a break from trying, and sulked about how some things which are easy to feel are unbelievably difficult to express.

But after spending a few days trying to let it go, I remembered a poem I read and fell in love with years ago. It’s about kumquats – or at least, initially about kumquats. 

It’s called “A Kumquat for John Keats”, and was written by Tony Harrison. It explores how things can seem intensely wrong and yet be rebalanced unexpectedly. How you never seem to know “where the sweetness or the sourness start”. How overwhelming melancholy drowns out joy.

And perhaps it’s simply because I spent too many hours making marmalade this morning, and am seeing the world through citrus tinted glasses, but the poem brought me such solace. It was so reassuring to be told the infuriating complexities of life I was wrestling with – “the flesh, the juice, the pith, the pips, the peel” – are not the result of some error of mine. Instead, they are “how a full life ought to feel”.

The poem doesn’t glorify life’s tragedies. It dwells on Harrison’s depressive thoughts and nuclear war. How his fears, great and small, circle him like the buzzards above the citrus groves. But it does so without any sense of the sublime; the fears feel ugly and close instead of Great or Grand. 

Reading it has helped me to sift through my own anxieties, the endless questions which had all started to run together. I found that as I sat with it, my problems – the big ones and the small ones tangled up in a ceaseless, buzzing swarm – begin to unstick from one another.  

I know I cannot cook my problems away – believe me, I’ve tried – and I know the poets don’t hold all the answers either. But between a little help from the poets, and a little help from some marmalade, today I’ve found that cloud of worries dissolving into something a little more bite sized. 

If you would like to read the poem in its entirety, I can highly recommend picking up a copy of either the beautiful, illustrated pamphlet it was originally published in, or a collection of Tony Harrison’s works. But for now, I have attached a small extract below. I hope you enjoy it.

“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.”

 

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