There are good reasons I cannot NOT write about persimmons every winter. I love that they seem defiant, wild, beyond my control, that they are only of one season in an age when we routinely eat fruits of another growing season… And that their ripening is completely unpredictable. The moment when they will be ripe is impossible to predict, and when it comes you must act. When fully ripe, persimmons become quite homely, sometimes even rotten looking, yet inside lies a velvety translucent custard reminiscent of flowers, honey, caramel. Yet if you taste a persimmon too soon, you will be punished by their astonishing astringency that will make your mouth feel as though it has suddenly become a desert.
And I love that they inspired the most extraordinary poem: Li-Young Lee‘s “Persimmons”, which reads like a short story with revelations and instructions. It knocks me out every winter as I eat a ripe persimmon.
I write about persimmons year after year because I want others to find their way to the rare poetry they offer.
Every year I buy batches of persimmons and set them aside to ripen. As one or two become ripe, I often give them to friends, because so many people these days don’t have the patience to ripen them (which can take weeks), and are even afraid of them, concerned that the darkening peel is really the sign of rot, that they must become THAT falling-apart-soft to eat. I figure that a persimmon, accompanied with Li-Young Lee‘s poem makes a surprising gift.
In sixth grade Mrs. Walker
slapped the back of my head
and made me stand in the corner
for not knowing the difference
between persimmon and precision.
How to choose
persimmons. This is precision.
Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.
Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one
will 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, eat
the meat of the fruit,
all of it, to the heart.
Donna undresses, her stomach is white.
In the yard, dewy and shivering
with crickets, we lie naked,
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 her
she is beautiful as the moon.
that got me into trouble were
fight 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 class
and cut it up
so everyone could taste
a Chinese apple. Knowing
it wasn’t ripe or sweet, I didn’t eat
but watched the other faces.
My mother said every persimmon has a sun
inside, 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 cardinal
sang, The sun, the sun.
he was going blind,
my father sat up all one night
waiting for a song, a ghost.
I gave him the persimmons,
swelled, heavy as sadness,
and sweet as love.
This year, in the muddy lighting
of my parents’ cellar, I rummage, looking
for 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 untie
three 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.
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