A few months ago, intrigued by a passing mention of Yi-Young Lee’s poem Persimmons in the New Yorker, I found myself reading the long poem on a subway train barreling downtown underground. It read like a short story (by short story standards it is modest in length). By the end found I myself almost in tears, knocked out by its beauty.
It tells a number of tiny stories, and lovely very precise instruction about choosing and eating persimmons, which are in season now. I have never heard anyone describe a ripe persimmon so perfectly before, either its brown spots, or heaviness, or the effect of its astonishing flesh.
What could be better: stories, poetry, something exquisite to eat..?
Persimmons by Li-Young Lee
In sixth grade Mrs. Walkerslapped the back of my headand made me stand in the cornerfor not knowing the differencebetween persimmon and precision.How to choosepersimmons. This is precision.Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.Sniff the bottoms. The sweet onewill 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, eatthe meat of the fruit,so sweet,all of it, to the heart.Donna undresses, her stomach is white.In the yard, dewy and shiveringwith crickets, we lie naked,face-up, face-down.I teach her Chinese.Crickets: chiu chiu. Dew: I’ve forgotten.Naked: I’ve forgotten.Ni, wo: you and me.I part her legs,remember to tell hershe is beautiful as the moon.Other wordsthat got me into trouble werefight and fright, wren and yarn.Fight was what I did when I was frightened,Fright was what I felt when I was fighting.Wrens are small, plain birds,yarn is what one knits with.Wrens are soft as yarn.My mother made birds out of yarn.I loved to watch her tie the stuff;a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to classand cut it upso everyone could tastea Chinese apple. Knowingit wasn’t ripe or sweet, I didn’t eatbut watched the other faces.My mother said every persimmon has a suninside, 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 cardinalsang, The sun, the sun.Finally understandinghe was going blind,my father sat up all one nightwaiting for a song, a ghost.I gave him the persimmons,swelled, heavy as sadness,and sweet as love.This year, in the muddy lightingof my parents’ cellar, I rummage, lookingfor something I lost.My father sits on the tired, wooden stairs,black cane between his knees,hand over hand, gripping the handle.He’s so happy that I’ve come home.I ask how his eyes are, a stupid question.All gone, he answers.Under some blankets, I find a box.Inside the box I find three scrolls.I sit beside him and untiethree paintings by my father:Hibiscus leaf and a white flower.Two cats preening.Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth.He raises both hands to touch the cloth,asks, Which is this?This is persimmons, Father.Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,
the strength, the tense
precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times
eyes closed. These I painted blind.
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.