As a boy, I stopped
discarding apple cores –
I ate everything but the stalk.
I’d even pick seeds
from my jersey to crack
their bitterness between my teeth.
I came to think of it
as an interesting, if wafer thin,
part of who I was: The Boy
Who Eats The Core. It was
a performance piece
for friends or for
to be watching. Did you just …?
they said or surely thought.
I saw myself as a magician
who’d swallowed a mouse,
and flicked away its tail.
In only one way
has my habit changed.
Lately, I’ve begun pocketing
the stalks. I find them,
brittle bird-bones in my pockets,
in deep nests
of loose threads, receipts
and paper clips. I roll them
between my fingertips.
I break them where they are.
Each stalk is an anonymous
portion of time.
I tell time by apple stalks.
I stretch it out in my pocket
like a little god.
An Essay On Courbet
Still Life – Fallen Apples, 1871-72
Forbidden live models in prison, Courbet’s
sister, Zoe, brought him a basket of apples.
To the apples, Courbet brought all he knew
of tradition and the powerful, earned sense
of what it took to make Courbet Courbet.
Seeing the result, the Salon was ‘shocked
by such senseless impudence.’ Talking
of Courbet’s nudes, Cezanne had once said,
‘You’ve got your mouth full of paint,
running down your chin.’ But it’s that vulvar
richness that makes these apples both ripe
and radiant with life. In the dark times
‘of terrible loneliness between life and death,’
Courbet had followed these apples back
along the many rutted tracks that brought them
to his prison cell. He followed them
to the fields of Flagey, where as a boy
he’d gathered hazelnuts with his mother,
and to the pine woods where he’d stained his hands
with wild strawberries. His apples, speckled
with their own impending deaths,
speak of that village world – the commonality
of all its metaphors. Courbet,
painter of L’Origine du Monde,
whose depthless shadows play among
his apples, wrote, on his release, of a desire
to ‘take the earth of the fields in handfuls,
and to kiss it, to smell it and to bite it.’
He wanted ‘to eat nature, to devour it.’
He would start with those fallen apples.
In his final years, illness attended
the artist. His friends brought him flowers
and, in modest works, when free from pain,
he gave them his fullest attention. Each
became a study in concentration
and in the memory of paint: testament
to the moment. One instinctive still life
of that period is of a fat bundle
of asparagus, each stalk fleshily
overfed, ready for the kitchen.
The purchaser paid over the odds,
so Manet, in recompense, sent him
a small oil painting of a single stalk.
‘There was one missing from your bunch.’
Its body, pearly-grey as the belly
of a fish, lies inert on the marble top.
But its purplish tip curves gently up
in the way that a fish, brought to land,
will raise its head and gawp for life
though there is nothing that can save it.
Unlike The River
I have walked along the river’s side for miles – and yet it feels like nothing.
All the same, I thought its straight would be beyond me; I thought its bend would never unbend.
I passed many houses whose gardens ran down to the river, but because it is
still winter, chairs, tables, barbecues were shrouded, leaves lay where they had fallen.
The river, with its depths of light, was what was living. How unlike pornography
the river is. Though the river accepts whatever surrounds it – in this case,
trees, ducks, swans, geese, the sky – I cannot hold pornography and the river,
not the river I walk along now, in my mind. The river does not coerce, does not contort;
the river does not make demands. If anything, the river is love. In all this time, only one
cyclist has passed and the only sound, apart from pigeon calls, has been me stamping
mud from my boots. How unlike war the river is. (This river, so calm it soothes
the fisherman I forgot to mention.) The women I saw in a sorrowful camp, telling their stories
through fingertips, their eyes brimful of horror…This river has not seen them. When you walk
into the women’s eyes, you won’t find a river like this, hardly flowing – blue-grey,
green-grey – through the still countryside. How good it would be if they could walk here,
their children running before them, almost out of sight around the endless bend, but safe
in the eyes of the river. How unlike fanaticism the river is, so sure of belief in itself, it has
no interest in imposing itself on others. The river takes no hostages
nor holds you to ransom. At the end
of the walk, you are free to go.
Tom Pow was born in Edinburgh, but has lived in the south west of Scotland for many years. Primarily a poet, he has also written young adult fiction, picture books, radio plays and two travel books: one about Peru and another called In Another World – Among Europe’s Dying Villages. In The Becoming – New and Selected Poems was published in 2009. A selected poems, Recolectores de Nueces, was published in Mexico this year.