Thursday, October 22, 2009

Artichoke Poem

The First Artichoke

by Diane Lockward

Though everyone said no one could grow

artichokes in New Jersey, my father

planted the seeds and they grew one magnificent

artichoke, late-season, long after the squash,

tomatoes, and zucchini.

It was the derelict in my father's garden,

little Buddha of a vegetable, pinecone gone awry.

It was as strange as a bony-plated armadillo.

My mother prepared the artichoke as if preparing

a miracle. She snipped the bronzy winter-kissed tips

mashed breadcrumbs, oregano, parmesan, garlic,

and lemon, stuffed the mush between the leaves,

baked, then placed the artichoke on the table.

This, she said, was food we could eat with our fingers.

When I hesitated, my father spoke of beautiful Cynara,

who'd loved her mother more than she'd loved Zeus.

In anger, the god transformed her

into an artichoke. And in 1949 Marilyn Monroe

had been crowned California's first Artichoke Queen.

I peeled off a leaf like my father did,

dipped it in melted butter, and with my teeth

scraped and sucked the nut-flavored slimy stuff.

We piled up the inedible parts, skeletons

of leaves and purple prickles.

Piece by piece, the artichoke came apart,

the way we would in 1959, the year the flowerbuds

of the artichokes in my father's garden bloomed

without him, their blossoms seven inches wide

and violet-blue as bruises.

But first we had that miracle on our table.

We peeled and peeled, a vegetable striptease,

and worked our way deeper and deeper,

down to the small filet of delectable heart.

I heard this poem on Writers' Almanac the other day and loved it. The poem itself was like an artichoke, peeling away words and revealing little surprises. Like the prehistoric-looking vegetable, it contained both delicious memories and "skeletons," remnants of sadness.

I was listening to Garrison Keillor read the poem, and when he got to the line, Piece by piece, the artichoke came apart, the way we would in 1959, the year the flowerbuds of the artichokes in my father's garden bloomed without him... made me think of my own father and how he held our family together just by his authoritarian presence, and the fact that even though we also resented and rebelled against him, we three children worshipped him because he was our only real parent. Like the father in the poem, he expressed his love of family with food, food that he grew in gardens and that he cooked. He shared delight through tastes and textures, and showed compassion via meticulously prepared recipes. For sure, our family, like the one in the poem, "came apart,"  even before he died, and seems to be irretrivably broken now.

I have studied Family Systems for several years now, and I understand the reasons why we have become estranged from one another. Bowen family systems teaches that this can always be mended, in fact that it must if we are to be whole, even if the individuals involved do not physically reunite. But sometimes I think the wounds are so deep and the differences have become so vast that it is best to seek reunion only in one's heart, through a prayer and a hope that the sister/brother/parent/child will thrive and blossom, and taste of life's goodness.

Goddess of the garden, help us grow as long as we live. Amen