March 13, 2014

Carol Denson

TRANSFERTLE THE PLUM

An Essay

A few days ago, Ethan, who calls poems plums, walked over to me with a baseball picture book written in Spanish and asked, “Mom, will you transfertle this into English for me?” I love his re-naming of things. “Transfertle,” as if words in different languages were fruits we could hybridize. Good poems are like good plums—juicy and sweet after the bite through slightly tough skin to the soft, wet, deep purple inside blending to yellow orange at the pit, the kind of plum that doesn’t make you think, “Damn, it would’ve been better tomorrow,” or “Shit, I should’ve eaten it yesterday,” but instead the kind that bypasses all words, pure pleasure in the eating.

Ethan loved plums as a baby. As now, at five years old, he treasures and laughs and reaches for rhymes. He would twist on my hip, reaching for the countertop where the plums glowed their deep muted purple. “There are the plums,” I would say, “do you want a plum?” He loved them so much I sometimes wondered if it were a mistake for me to name them. He was having an experience not encumbered by words and I was giving him the words. As Joseph Campbell puts it:

Poetry involves a precise choice of words that will have implications and suggestions that go past the words themselves. Then you experience the radiance, the epiphany. The epiphany is the shining through of the essence.

Watching Ethan eat a plum was to see that epiphany, and I worried about teaching him a word to circumscribe that experience. Would giving a name to the object of such intense pleasure lessen that pleasure as it circumscribed it? Though I worried, my words, at least, had little effect on him eating them. He ate as many as I would let him have each day the whole summer he turned one, when we lived with my brother’s family in the Missouri hills, his cousins like siblings, an uncle he would reach for while saying “Da,” and my brother would scoop him up saying, “That’s right, Scott, Uncle Scott.”

Now we live in the city where I was born, and yesterday I looked down at his sleeping face cradled on my upper arm and I could suddenly see his baby face—the curve of shut eyelids, the shape of his forehead and cheekbones, the position of his nose—in his five-year-old face. Then this morning, I laid my cheek against his head nestled into my shoulder and inhaled. In trying to put into words the exactness of that smell, I thought of hay and cookie dough, but then it came to me that it was bread—a white bread with texture, a cracked-open baguette or a country loaf. Once his Missouri cousin Kevin said his head smelled like a mushroom. I’m not overly insistent about hair washing.

Now that I consider it, how natural that flesh would smell like bread. The transubstantiation of turning bread into flesh, the smell lingering on the living body. “Whatever Miss T eats turns into Miss T,” whispers a childhood poem. Every day we turn bread into flesh in our own bodies, and the poets among us hope to turn plums into poems. William Carlos Williams ate the plums in the icebox and transfertled them into his famous poetic and slightly unrepentant apology. Here’s Joseph Campbell again: “It’s been said that poetry consists of letting the word be heard beyond words.” Beyond “so sweet/ and so cold,” we hear his savoring.

I love my son’s invention of “transfertle” because it seems more accurate than “translate.” Poets often feel that something is lost in the naming of things, in trying to put something into words, or in bringing something from one language into another. And if that is true, perhaps translate is the more appropriate word: tran-slate, a flat, heavy gray; or trans-late, a mistake, something done at the wrong time. Whereas transfertle is alive, sparking sparkling life. Isn’t it possible that this crossing over—of a thing into language or of a poem from one language to another—might enrich or add to the thing or poem? I see Mendel in his garden creating hybrids, not the genetically modified Frankensteins that Monsanto is spewing onto the planet (how terrible to feel uneasy when eating an ear of corn), but offspring the plants themselves might have requested: “Dear Mr. Mendel, gentle man, might you help us achieve a plumper pea?” Similarly, I imagine that the things of this world appreciate being noticed and transfertled into a poem and that a poem enjoys twining its way through the slightly transfertled images and different rhythms of its new language.

My son and I have a small flowerbed in front of the porch. This late spring we added a pumpkin vine and some Swiss chard to the bougainvillea we planted last fall. The bougainvillea was on sale for six bucks. It survived the winter and is growing, but it hasn’t bloomed this summer, though the neighbor’s across the street has blossomed a gorgeous magenta. Perhaps he’s added fertilizer. A year ago, we planted an orange tree in the front yard near the street. I’d like to plant another tree today, but I’m unsure where. We could put it right along the side fence line, where eventually it could shade some baseball games, though not ours. Well, maybe Ethan’s in 50 years. I’m very likely not to be here then: 88 years old, my parents gone, my child a father or perhaps a grandfather. Then I remember my grandmother and know that not being here is all the more reason to plant a tree.

I grew up on this city block, and I’m aware it’s not beautiful compared to other places. I’ve been stunned by mesa moonrises and awed by ocean sunsets. I’ve felt the magic of encountering a tiny waterfall in the woods. So why did I move back? Like all parents, I wanted a place that would foster my son’s growth. Being a single mother, perhaps I had an even more intense longing to give him the fertile ground of a home. And this place where the roots of his family run four generations deep called me. Four generations would seem laughable to indigenous Americans or Europeans or even Bostonians, but they’re the deepest roots I have. Perhaps this is why planting a tree here on this city block seems vitally important, though the chances of my child playing ball here with his grandchild are unlikely in this country where corporations (not being people) have no sense of home and nonetheless often dictate where we live. Yet I’m here, two houses away from my parents. My son plays ball with his grandmother in her yard. I’m six houses away from what was my grandmother’s house. Anna, my grandmother, dead since I was six months old (I’m told I loved to watch her braid her gray hair), planted four live oaks around the front and side yard of that house. They shaded my play as a child, and now, though they mostly shade the neighbor’s children as they play, sometimes they shade my child when he joins in. They shade our walks down the sidewalk buckled by their roots. Our walks took place daily when he was one-and-a-half and two, but now he’s civilized, wants to be indoors or playing baseball. Back then he was an explorer of the block we call home.

We often met Milo on our expeditions up the block. She’s a cat after my own heart. After her human family moved two blocks away, she came back here again and again, until a neighbor adopted her. She’s big, has lots of presence, pale orange, and is very sociable. After a while, if you’re barefoot, she begins licking, then biting your toes, not too hard, but hard enough. Perhaps she likes to see humans dance or just can’t resist the salty morsels. She’s annoying and wonderful and I completely agree with her. This is the block to live on. This is “the best block in the Heights”—not an uncommon phrase in this gentrifying, almost completely gentrified, neighborhood—but I have my own, different, reasons for saying so. My love of this neighborhood is informed by a lived knowledge of its history. In my childhood, people thought it was dangerous, but my family’s been here since long before that phase, almost since it was a new neighborhood. My mother grew up here, within six blocks. My father was around the corner by the time he was twelve. It was a 20- or 30-year-old neighborhood then—cows grazed in the alleys; you could hear roosters at dawn. There were little grocery stores every couple of blocks. There was a streetcar. They roller-skated, went to church, to war. Met and married. Then the ’50s and ’60s and then, about the time I was born, the neighborhood began to ebb. But I liked it, because it was mine, though our neighbors were mostly old people, or people who rented here to be close to the bus line. In the ’70s there was a serial killer, teenage boys buried in the backyard. There were murders in the car washes. And then young people started moving in, urban pioneers, yuppies. Some had little kids. I attended a private high school in the old rich part of town and was thought of as poor and strange for being from The Heights. Now those ex-classmates of mine live here.

Campbell quotes Goethe as saying, “All things are metaphors,” and then goes on to say, “Everything that’s transitory is but a metaphorical reference. That’s what we all are.” The cat Milo, the roller-skates, the car wash murders, my ex-classmates, they are all metaphors for divinity, a way to glimpse the world beyond the world as the words in poems, we hope, give way to a glimpse of the word made flesh, the thing itself, itself a metaphor for the formless form, the pure eternal pleasure of eating a very real plum.

Watching over all the changes of the last 50 years, the live oaks sway in the breeze, provide shade, and make me want to stay even longer. Make this block home even as the bungalows are torn down and huge new “Victorian-style” homes are built. It feels right that my son has to slow down on his roller skates at the same patch of root-buckled sidewalk where I had to slow down. The mourning doves still call all day. The train whistle still runs through my sleep. I’m glad the place I feel is home feels that way to Ethan too. Maybe we have to find our stability inside ourselves, but I’m glad that some things on the outside remain constant as they move or call in the breeze. As long as they can grow and sing, I can love and hope. “Just sit still,” Campbell says, “and see it and experience it and know it. That’s a peak experience.”

When I was looking up “transubstantiation,” not being too sure of the meaning (not being Catholic) or the spelling (that ability having been ruined by learning Spanish or by parenthood or both), I happened to see “translate” and thought I might as well check that word out too, since it is important to this essay. (I also looked up Mendel, having almost called him Mendelssohn, but that’s changing the subject.) I discovered that “translate” is from the Middle English translaten (from L. translatus, transferred, used as pp. of transferre; trans, across, and ferre, to bear). Transferre—to bear across, taking the plums across the great divide into words. I see a swinging rope bridge high above the chasm, and a patient toiler, a humble human, slowly carrying across whatever truth can be held in the heart. I think of lightning too, the flash and brilliance of ideas overhead, but then, out the window, just now, I see a firefly. (Ethan thinks fireflies are the fairies we read about in stories.) Perhaps the ideas we want are not the bright and scary ones, but the flickering subtle ones we almost miss if we’re not up late at night or before dawn, wide awake in the dark, listening.

Over the years, the Latin transferre has become our English translate, and thus when Ethan said “transfertle,” he was just going back to the roots of the word, adding his own little nudge to the present tense of the original Latin learned, I imagine, in a previous life. He was transfertling the present with the past, as he daily transfertles my life with his creative, inventive, remembering self. He is my lovely boy, my plum, my poem.

Note:

All of Joseph Campbell’s quotes are from his interview with Bill Moyers, called “Masks of Eternity,” as transcribed in The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, Betty Sue Flowers, editor.

from Rattle #41, Fall 2013
Tribute to Single Parent Poets

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Carol Denson Carol Denson wrote this essay while living in Houston. She now lives in Austin, Texas. Her poems have appeared in The Adirondack Review, disClosure, Earth’s Daughters and Gulf Coast among others. Her work has been supported by the Houston and Harris County Cultural Arts Council and the Jentel Foundation. A chapbook Across the Antique Surface was published in 2013. It can be found here.