Poem: Three Studies of Fruit


Have I painted these scenes?
Or merely collected them?
I will try to display them
in pure colours, simplest

Illustration by Ethan Rilly



First: the orange of an orange1

in the dining room, Caroline
is cutting the fruit for me
and I am sitting on her lap
when a cow rushes past the window
startling me so I startle the knife
and it bites2 my thumb
between the knuckles.


I do not remember the cut itself
but the pain must have acted like a
flash—citrus spark sting—
illuminating the moment
for my memory to capture.3




The outline of a house
and a small shop.


The house I am staying in
while on vacation with my family
and the shop contains a shopkeeper
who offers me a fig4 in exchange
for a kiss from the maidservant—
a good trade to a four-year-old
and better yet when I find the fig
is not one but two, fresh fragrant
ripe purple, both of them.


Later, I am locked in a room,
an attic, for being naughty
and I try to break the windows to escape,
but at the window I get caught
in the view:
the sea.


We stayed there for weeks,
my family always in the background
where I can’t make them out.




A cottage, shaded
by plum trees,


inhabited by a hermit—an old man
with white hair and a beard
that seems to stretch to the floor—
who gives us plums.


I do not know why this scene
impressed itself upon my mind5
the taste of the plums, their rich indigo6,
an indistinct fear of the old man. What instinct—
hunger, pleasure, fear of death—
grabbed hold of it?


To get to the cottage, we crossed
a broad stream in a carriage.
I remember the white foaming water.
I had heard stories
of people drowning.


1 My father kept nine orange trees in the hothouse at Shrewsbury—a collection that rivaled the Orangery at Kew.

2 I use the verb ‘to bite’ here not in a metaphorical sense. A knife may be thought of literally as an evolution of our teeth that has taken place through the mind. A knife is a tooth we carry in our hands. In this way, the injury I sustained as a child may be compared to the accidental biting of one’s own cheek. I still carry the scar.

3 In January 1839, a brief notice appears in the journal of the Académie des sciences introducing the daguerreotype process.To encourage the French government to offer the process as a free gift to the world, Dominique François Jean Arago reminds officials of the fleet of artists Napoleon took to Egypt to record discoveries made during his campaign. The daguerreotype, he claims, would make the same undertaking less expensive and improve its accuracy and speed.

4 The ape and the fig have carved their initials into our genes. We can trace all of our arts, of which memory is the first, back to the fragrance of dates—the fruit-eater and the invisible flower.

5 Memory uses light and sensation to make its pictures, then pours the solution down the drain.

6 Green is the primary colour from which all others descend. I am told that ancient Roman texts contain instructions for making purple dye from damascene skins. The ruins of their camps are littered with pits. For my own part, eating the sign of Caesar out of hand is a sour experience.