Friday poem (Sunday): Peeling an Orange

7 02 2010

J.D. Salinger died recently.

The celebrated author published his first work in his twenties, and was in his early thirties when Catcher in the Rye came out. Over the next fourteen years he published some short stories and novellas, including Hapworth 16, 1924, in 1965.

And then he stopped.

He reportedly went on writing, and there were rumors of possible later publications, but when he died at the end of January of this year, his nonpublishing streak of over 45 years remained unblemished.

I mention this in contrast to the record of today’s poet, Virginia Hamilton Adair. Like Salinger, Adair began her writing career as a child, and while young won a number of prestigious prizes. She continued to publish as she aged, and taught writing at a number of universities.

But she didn’t publish in book form.

Didn’t have the time, she said. Had better things to do. And she was unwilling to ruin her joy in writing with the polluting effects of fame.

You can get a sense of that joy in one of her earliest poems, written at age eleven:

I should like to rise and go
To the land of ice and snow.
I would take a wicker chair
And sit and watch the polar bear.
The polar bear sits on the ice
Because it makes his rear feel nice.

Such wit earned her a D-.

Adair kept her wits about her as she moved about the country, raised her children, and, devastatingly, after her husband shot himself.

Through it all, she wrote.

Finally, around her eightieth birthday, she agreed to her friend Robert Mezey’s suggestion to gather a few of her many poems into a book.

Ants on the Melon was published in 1996. Adair was 83.

As Mezey notes in his afterword to Ants, ‘I believe Virginia Hamilton Adair is the only American poet—perhaps the only poet—to have brought out her first book of poems at the age of eight-three.’

While the short youth and long and silent adulthood of Salinger occupies one niche in the writing mythos, a kind of blankness onto which one can sketch her own story of the author, Adair creates a beacon for those of us who only committed to writing late. Salinger (unwillingly) draws us to him, to try to discover him; Adair sends us out, to discover ourselves.

Peeling an Orange

Between you and a bowl of oranges I lie nude
Reading The World’s Illusion through my tears.
You reach across me hungry for global fruit,
Your bare arm hard, furry and warm on my belly.
Your fingers pry the skin of a naval orange
Releasing tiny explosions of spicy oil.
You place peeled disks of gold in a bizarre pattern
On my white body. Rearranging, you bend and bite
The disks to release further their eager scent.
I say “Stop, you’re tickling,” my eyes still on the page.
Aromas of groves arise. Through green leaves
Glow the lofty snows. Through red lips
Your white teeth close on a translucent segment.
Your face over my face eclipses The World’s Illusion.
Pulp and juice pass into my mouth from your mouth.
We laugh against each other’s lips. I hold my book
Behind your head, still reading, still weeping a little.
You say “Read on, I’m just an illusion,” rolling
Over upon me soothingly, gently unmoving,
Smiling greenly through long lashes. And soon
I say “Don’t stop. Don’t disillusion me.”
Snows melt. The mountain silvers into many a stream.
The oranges are golden worlds in a dark dream.

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