Pandemic Assignment

May 16, 2020

This is a guest post
by T. Clear

Tasked with the poetry prompt tomato, I sat down to a white page, and waited for something to happen. I’ve never been one to write to a prompt. All attempts have resulted in a ho-humness that’s not worth the energy it takes to type. Stabs at keeping a journal and establishing a daily writing practice have never amounted to much. A poem chooses me, instead of the other way around. I won’t say I’m happy with this arrangement, but I’ve come to accept it. Yet there I was, with an assignment, and because I had the time, decided to give it a chance.

Tomatoes belong to the nightshade family — Solanaceae — which includes potatoes, peppers and eggplants, as well as several poisonous species. As children, my five sisters and I feared deadly nightshade, whose dark purple blossoms with yellow starburst centers grew vigorously on the fenced edges of our property. We knew not to eat any of the crimson berries, and our idiomatic folklore taught that we would die within 15 minutes upon ingestion of any part of the plant. We wore gloves to yank it out; it exuded a bitter scent, as if even inhalation had the power to strike us down.

Nightshade seemed a good place to start work on a poem. A quick search informed me that the nightshade we so deathly feared was actually bittersweet nightshade (also known as felonweed, snakeberry, violet bloom); and death, though a possible outcome, is generally not a consequence, unless one were to consume ripe berries in great quantities, and with no ensuing intervention. Just like that, a large swath of my childhood beliefs was proven wrong. I wondered: what else did we believe would do us in, or not? And how were we so lucky to survive childhood’s real dangers? — Maple trees from which to plummet, the wrath of stinging nettles, blackberry vines whose unforgiving thorns snagged our arms in bloody zigzags. Skinned knees and elbows, a little finger sewn back on after surviving a door-slam, ice on a headbump: we persisted. Disease was not part of our vocabulary, except for the vaccination scars on our upper arms, which we compared and rated for their size and visibility.

Wait — wasn’t I trying to write a tomato poem? Yes, well….

Okay. Nightshade fit into the first line. That qualified it as a tomato poem, in a species-roundabout way. But from there, I veered to fairy-ring mushrooms, to a remedy for nettle stings, to the wild sorrel that grew abundantly in open fields, and on to the hazelnuts we cracked with our molars (which initiated long years of fracture). Death came only with the dogs killed on our busy street because they roamed freely then, as did we.

Until the summer we adopted a stray black cat and named him George. He moved in as if returning from a long journey, glad to get back to his own bed. We couldn’t have been more delighted with this affectionate, good-natured pet. And all that cuddling-up-in-bed with George resulted in a summer-long lockdown, of sorts, confined to our half-acre yard while we recovered from a nasty case of ringworm, compliments of…George. Though less than three months, it was an eternity to a six-year-old. Our dad drove away with the infected pet and we stayed on our side of the fence, nightshade and all. No explanation as to the cat’s destination, but none of us wanted to know. The protective innocence of childhood is a kind of virtue. The truth of the cat’s fate was too much for us to hear.

And suddenly there it was, on the screen: my poem, 33 roughly drafted lines. My tomato poem, veered from its triggering subject to my own childhood folklore. So lost in the stream of consciousness generated by the realization that my nightshade wasn’t deadly nightshade, I’d surrendered to the afternoon, and the poem essentially wrote itself. From a prompt.

Perhaps I succeeded because I’m home all the time now, compliments of the truly deadly danger from which we hover behind walls. Or maybe my belief that I can’t write from a prompt is faulty, like the belief in immediate death by nightshade. Maybe, it took this time to be able to stretch out, more time than I’ve had since childhood, minus that nagging sense that I was missing some essential task. And yet, when I sat there poemless with tomato looming before me, that become my essential task: a tomato, a poem, a black cat named George, and quarantine.

. . . . .


 
 
A co-founder of Floating Bridge Press, T. Clear’s poetry has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Iron Horse Literary Review, Lily Poetry Review, Poetry Northwest, Raven Chronicles, and The Rise Up Review. She is on the editorial board of Bracken Magazine, and facilitates the Easy Speak Seattle critique group Re/Write. Her website is tclearpoet.com.

. . . . .
[Ed. note: T. Clear’s tomato poem is being submitted for publication. Please stay tuned.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: