I heard Michael Symmons Roberts give a magisterial reading from his book Drysalter recently. It was exemplary on so many levels, not least the way he tactfully but nevertheless forcefully argued for poetry’s durability as an art-form. ‘It may well be marginalised,’ he conceded, ‘but it’s still not going anywhere.’ With its combined tone of obstinacy and realism, I like this remark very much.
When I find myself going in to bat with my non-poetry friends on such questions about poetry’s efficacy in the modern world, those 99% of my acquaintances who look at me with affectionate nervous sympathy, it is aphorisms such as these that I cling on to. Somewhere at the back of my kitbag I also try to remember to make space for poems such as Esther Morgan’s ‘Avocados‘.
I came to it twice in quick succession in 2002, first in a magazine, then at a live reading at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. There are poems that you know you love and will always need well before you finish reading or hearing them. This is one of them. I think there is a good case to be made that poems as good as this are often apprehended as much by the body as the rational, conscious mind, on the nerve, as Frank O’Hara would say.
Partly this is down to its supple handling of successive alliterative-suggestive ‘S’ sounds: ‘sly’, ‘squeeze’, ‘slit’, ‘soft’, ‘suck’, ‘skin’, ‘slippery’, ‘soap’, ‘serve’, ‘sliced’, ‘smooth’, ‘scooping’, which find echoes in ‘twist’, ‘ripeness’, ‘easily’, ‘myself’ and ‘glistening’. It isn’t merely the appearance of the word ‘naked’ which prompts the forceful connection here between food and sex.
It is a miracle of a thing, bringing to mind the thing and activating desire of it in the same breath. Poetry will not go anywhere as long as poems like this continue to be written. Ask the avocado-sellers at Aldeburgh.
I like the way they fit the palm –
their plump Buddha weight,
the sly squeeze for ripeness,
the clean slit of the knife,
the soft suck
as you twist the halves apart,
the thick skin peeling easily.
Naked, they’re slippery as soap.
I serve them for myself
sliced and fanned
on white bone china
glistening with olive oil,
or I fill the smooth hollow
with sharp vinaigrette
the pale, buttery flesh.
Every diet you’ve ever read
strictly forbids them.
Esther Morgan, from Beyond Calling Distance (Bloodaxe, 2001)