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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Number 330: Stephen Dobyns "Tomatoes"


A woman travels to Brazil for plastic
surgery and a face lift.  She is sixty
and has the usual desire to stay pretty.
Once she is healed, she takes her new face
out on the streets of Rio. A young man
with a gun wants her money. Bang, she's dead.
The body is shipped back to New York,
but in the morgue there is a mix-up. The son
is sent for. He is told that his mother
is one of these ten different women.
Each has been shot. Such is modern life.
He studies them all but can't find her.
With her new face, she has become a stranger.
Maybe it's this one, maybe it's that one.
He looks at their breasts. Which ones nursed him?
He presses their hands to his cheek.
Which one consoled him? He even tries
climbing into their laps to see which
feels most familiar but the coroner stops him.
Well, says the coroner, which is your mother?
They all are, says the young man, let me
take them as a package. The coroner hesitates,
then agrees. Actually, it solved a lot of problems.
The young man has the ten women shipped home,
then cremates them all together. You've seen
how some people have a little urn on the mantel?
This man has a huge silver garbage can.
In the spring, he drags the garbage can
out to the garden and begins working the teeth,
the ash, the bits of bone into the soil.
Then he plants tomatoes. His mother loved tomatoes.
They grow straight from seed, so fast and big
that the young man is amazed. He takes the first
ten into the kitchen. In their roundness,
he sees his mother's breasts. In their smoothness,
he finds the consoling touch of her hands.
Mother, mother, he cries, and he flings himself
on the tomatoes. Forget about the knife, the fork,
the pinch of salt. Try to imagine the filial
starvation. Think of his ravenous kisses.

– Stephen Dobyns

Hap Notes:
I often get my books used, mostly thanks to my sister-in-law who scours thrift stores and books stores finding me treasures. I devour them ravenously because poetry, not tomatoes, is my mother. But, I mostly bring this up because often the books' past users write little notes in the margins. Most of the time the notation is a question they were more than likely asked in a class: "How does this relate to the first verses?' or"What is meant by this?" or "What does this symbolize?"

But the book in which I got today's poem ( New American Poets of the 90s) the notations are somewhat amusing/curious. Next to "Bang, she's dead." the note is "ouch!". Next to "Let me/ take them as a package" the reader writes "This guy is sick!" And next to the two end lines the note is "Was he intamint [sic] with his mother?" Interesting question if the reader means intimate and is not referring to some breath-freshening candy of which I am unaware (almost impossible to believe if you know me.)

Well, I wish I was teaching a class to this reader because the poem ends up making an impact even if the word "filial" has it's roots in the Latin word (filius -son, filia-daughter) so, no, the narrator is not talking about sex. Although, the bond between a mother and a child has certain sexual attachments, I don't believe that is what is being said here. But I'm charmed by the reader needing to make a few comments on the poem– there are few poems in the book  that even rate an exclamation mark in the margin for the book's former owner. The poem caught something "intamint" for that reader.

There is so much to this poem which is alternately amusing and alarming– there's a wonderful strange shock factor to this story in addition to talking about a man who can no longer recognize his mom. He misses her. He loved her. Which one is she? And, more interestingly, aren't all those women his mother in some way?

I'll let you toy with this– there's a good deal in this poem. I'll just add that an attractive women, in slang terms, can be called a "tomato."

Stephen Dobyns (born 1941) is an accomplished and award-winning poet and novelist. His book, Best Words, Best Order, is a must-read for understanding and writing poetry. He got his MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop (University of Iowa) and has taught at various universities.

You can find more Dobyns here.

Here's a good Dobyns quote:
" If I'm writing a poem, I want it to be finished, I want it to work, and I want it to be liked. There are arguments and sound structures within the poem which I am attempting to pull off in some way, and when I do them, I can say to myself, This works. This is good. This is finished. Many times when I say that, however, I'm simply wrong. I've confused the poem that exists in my imagination with the poem that exists presently on the page."

The two-part interview the quote was taken from in The Cortland Review is a good one and  is well worth reading. You can find it here

1 comment:

  1. Now, this is a poet to whom I can relate. Thomas Lux mentioned him as one of his major influences in a workshop I took with him last year - I admire Lux and thought Dobyns must really be somethings for Lux to mention him. I see now, why he does. I will be getting "Best Words, Best Order" asap, and going from there. Tomatoes is inexplicably brilliant. I wish I'd written it. Going now.