Stephen Alexander: Lip Service (2017)
The relationship between fruit and art is long and intimate; in paint and poetry - still life and free verse - mankind has attempted to capture the fleshy beauty and essential thingness of these delicious, nutritious, seed-disseminating structures formed from the swollen ovary of the flowering plant and heavy with cultural and symbolic meaning. People everywhere love to consume fresh, juicy fruit. And people everywhere love to articulate their own perishable existence in angiospermatic terms; we too blossom and go to seed; we too ripen and rot.
Now, I'm sure everyone will have their favourite fruit, favourite fruit painting and favourite fruit poem. Personally, I'm a big fan of the persimmon at the moment; the glucose-rich, lotus fruit of the ebony tree which ranges from pale yellow-orange in colour to deep orange-red, depending on species and variety. Belonging to the genus Diospyros, many mistakenly believe the persimmon to be a divine fruit, but, actually, it's an earthly delight found all around the world from East Asia to Southern Europe to North America.
As for my favourite fruit painting and fruit poetry ...
Well, in my view, Cézanne's apples are still the most brilliant and courageous attempt not only to astonish Paris, but to affirm the existence of the fruit as a mind-independent object; i.e. as something that has its own mysterious reality external to our ideas and ideal representations.
And, in my view, D. H. Lawrence's fruit poems in his magnificent collection Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923), remain the greatest verses ever written on pomegranates, peaches, figs, sorb-apples, and grapes. For Lawrence, like Cézanne, was sensitive to the otherness of the non-human world in all its libidinal materiality and allure; he doesn't give a fuck about what we might term the spiritual aspect of fruit which appeals to human vanity and results in reassuring artistic cliché.
But whilst Cézanne painted many types of fruit apart from apples - including pears, oranges and lemons - he unfortunately didn't paint any pictures of persimmons (as far as I'm aware). And so I've provided my own image to accompany this post; a photograph I've entitled Lip Service and which shows the eaten remains of a persimmon on a pink sponge background. It might not have the Zen-like qualities of Mu Ch'i's 13th century ink on paper masterpiece, but I think it's a provocative work of postmodern art.
Equally regrettable is the fact that Lawrence didn't write a poem about the persimmon either. However, this happily affords me the opportunity to offer a few lines taken from one of Li-Young Lee's rather lovely verses in which, amongst other things, he instructs us how to identify which persimmons are ready to eat and remembers how his mother alerted him to the solar nature of the fruit:
Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.
Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one
will be fragrant. How to eat:
put the knife away, lay down newspaper.
Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.
Chew the skin, suck it,
and swallow. Now, eat
the meat of the fruit,
all of it, to the heart.
My mother said every persimmon has a sun
inside, something golden, glowing,
warm as my face.
Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper,
forgotten and not yet ripe.
I took them and set both on my bedroom windowsill,
where each morning a cardinal
sang, The sun, the sun.
- Li-Young Lee, "Persimmons", from Rose, (BOA Editions Ltd, 1986).