Because it’s about that time of year again: I have trays of soil that I have seeded with various kinds of vegetable, summer promises–one of which is pumpkins. There are other things I grow, of course, like the basil and tomatoes I love for the aroma they broadcast into the air around the garden. But I love pumpkins for their magical, transformational energy. I never see a pumpkin on the ground, one of my big ones, without thinking about enchanting it into a coach. I swear, one of these days I’ll do it. To have my giant pumpkin vines dashing out of the garden plot onto the lawn, and down toward the street, is to be invited to a foot race. I want to sprint alongside of them.
Maria Hummel, in her book House and Fire, has a poem that captures something of the hyperbole of pumpkins–something of that need, once you have really looked at pumpkins, to invent legends about them.
A Thousand Faces
In the creation myths of pumpkin,
bellies grew first, billowing out
before the light, the sea and flowers.
And the bellies commanded the void:
let there be hollows in this darkness
and arches hung with pulp as soft
as the inside of a cheek; let there
be a cathedral for seeds, a favorite
purse in the garden’s green closet.
So the pumpkins grew into portly
multitudes that try not to trumpet
their superiority, each laden
with irreplaceable burdens,
each shape original and derivative,
the plump bulge of matrons,
taut barrels of elderly generals–
and what of that color? Is there
a wish in this world that can blush
as beautifully as the pumpkin?
Gold for secrecy, red for richness
and blessing, a yam paint
mixed with the flush on a girl’s
face the first night she realizes
how to possess her body, then
darkened by rain, autumn, waiting.
The love affairs of pumpkins
are always long, full of slow kisses
and vacations postponed
in favor of staying on the mound,
savoring some peace and quiet
for once, this fragile forever.
In the lame stories of pumpkin
heroes, the bravest line up at dawn
to be carved and shattered for the glory
of harvest, but the waning garden
refuses to cheer for them, or perhaps–
like the sea and its waves, or a mother
watching her sons ride away–it merely
calls too softly for them to hear:
I couldn’t resist this, it’s one of my favorite pictures: a small, mystical life amid the pile of other lives with their orange glow. The little girl pictured here is now 28 years old, and has grown exquisitely into herself. But the photo reminds me of other of Maria Hummel’s poems. She will break your heart, and then heal it again, with her poems about her very ill infant son. For example:
Today your arm eats strawberries.
Tomorrow birthday cake and toast.
The tubes go in, their liquid clear.
As our life at home grows far
and faint, food becomes a ghost.
Today your arm ate strawberries.
I read you books on dinosaurs,
their lost hungers, fallen bones.
The tubes go in, their liquid clear.
I once loved words, their
fat red flesh, their roar and moan.
Today your arm eats strawberries
and what it tastes can never
be named or held or known.
The tubes go in, thin and clear,
sewing your skin to poles and air.
I once loved a meadow,
its clear little stream, lying there
on my arms, eating strawberries.
Her poem is a villanelle, which she brings off without visible effort. I have to keep going back to re-read it to see how she does it. The formal repetitions and cascading refrains remind me of the kinds of repetitions you find in early children’s books, such as Dr. Seuss, or maybe Sendak’s Chicken Soup With Rice–though here that reminiscence brings little joy, but instead conveys a wistful longing for an innocence neither she nor her son are allowed. Here the form, with its fragile order, must contain all sorrows, and bind the chaos of all fears. It’s a lot to ask. It’s a lot to live through.