Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “At the Corner Store,” by Lesley Valdes

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Because I know Lesley Valdes from the graduate school program (Warren Wilson) that introduced me to the concept of the “MFA Flyover” in workshop, let’s begin with that way of looking at today’s poem. “At the Corner Store” is free verse, unmetered and unrhymed, organized into five tercets (three-line stanzas), for a total of fifteen long lines. Grammar, syntax, and punctuation are mostly regular, and diction is plain, direct, and vernacular. This poem wants to welcome readers in and is, with one exception that will be discussed below, utterly straightforward in its approach. It recounts two very specific memories of the speaker’s father—one when she was nine and another when she was a newly married young adult—then revisits his death from cancer a few years later.

Taste and smell are the senses said to most effectively trigger memory—hence Proust’s famous madeleines, whose scent fires the recollections that became Remembrance of Things Past, and food is often a prompt for writing about all manner of things. In this case, it is a jar of strawberries that, for this speaker, animates a childhood memory of when she and her father enjoyed “a day to ourselves” to pick strawberries at a local farm. It was her “birthday month”—I am guessing June—and she surmises that he planned the outing to pick strawberries because he “must have remembered they were my favorite.”

I love the precision and clarity of the poem’s opening image, each strawberry having “the same squat size” with “pinprick pores” seen through syrup and glass, and reminding the speaker of “hearts / suspended.” That’s a great line break, by the way, one that delays the descriptive participle and thus enacts what is being described. It also rescues the usage of “heart” from sentiment and cliché; most poets have been taught to avoid that word like the plague, but it works beautifully here, mostly because of the addition—and delay—of that modifying participle, “suspended.”

Those strawberries are so very vivid. One reason is the precision of the description—the exact shape of the glass jar, how the magnifying properties of the liquid inside reveal each tiny pore. But something else is at work here, something about how seeing the berries not in their natural state but converted though the canning process into a more lasting art form that enhances our ability to really see them, to appreciate their strawberry-ness, as it were. It reminds me of the way lived experience can sometimes seem more real, or at least more intense, when we encounter it in literature or art.

Anyway, for this speaker, finding that jar in the corner store triggers the memory of picking strawberries with her father when she was nine. She recalls other details from that day: him calling “from another row” to “slow down,” something said to her (“how often he told me that”) on other occasions. She recalls, too, how her knees felt from the “scratch” and “mess” of kneeling in the dirt, as well as an almost magical sense of abundance and satisfaction  “while gobbling bounty under a sticky sun.” They spent the whole day alone together, and yet the speaker remembers “nothing of what was said father-to-daughter- / to-father on the long drive home.” He “wasn’t a talker,” she explains, meaning not that he was cold or uncommunicative but that “you felt” rather than heard what he meant to say. And what we feel from this father is love—communicated through actions like spending a whole day alone with his daughter, remembering how she loved strawberries, and waiting as long as he could not to burden her with the news of his terminal illness.

Not being able to remember anything discussed on their long drive back from the strawberry fields reminds the speaker of another memory of a later car trip, one that took place when she was “newly married” and had asked her father “about the war.” On this occasion, he did respond with words, albeit just a cliché: “When your time’s up, it’s up.” The speaker didn’t know it at the time, but her father was already ill with the cancer that would soon take his life. At the time she likely assumed he was talking about war casualties, but he was really giving her a talisman, something to hang onto later when she would inevitably find out about his illness.

In the poem’s last sentence we encounter its only instance of difficult syntax: “How calm he was, deliberate, everything a soft adagio / except the cancer that quick year time suspended.” The first clause is straightforward and radiates tranquility, acceptance, dignity, and beauty—all the things we hope we would manifest when faced with impending death. The second clause, though, jumbles words together in a way that evokes the vortex of the last year of a loved one’s terminal illness and might even be said to mimic cancer’s wild and undisciplined growth in the human body. It took me a few readings to understand what I think is being expressed here—the father’s strength and dignity lending a grace that, for the speaker, stands in counterpoint to the swift and terrible destruction of his disease.

The clause “except the cancer that quick year time suspended” is its own kind of verbal Rubik’s cube, one turn (or way of reading it) reading “suspended” as modifying “cancer” and another as modifying “time.” “Suspended,” in an example of ring construction, also makes us recall those strawberries—“hearts”—suspended in syrup in the poem’s first stanza. Notice how the words in that clause are jammed together without punctuation, making us work harder to parse their meaning. This is an example not of difficulty for difficulty’s sake, but of the poet wanting the reader to engage more, to really pay attention. The compression and lack of punctuation expands meaning here, making it possible to understand several things as having been “suspended.” One is time itself, and perhaps other readers like me who have lost loved ones to cancer will recall that feeling of time sometimes rushing forward and sometimes being held in abeyance during those awful last months, weeks, and days. Again, if my own experience serves, what also likely got “suspended” during that year was the speaker’s own life, apart from her father. Finally, because the phrase is not reined in by commas or other punctuation, we can also interpret it as saying that the cancer itself—its swift and terrible erasure—was at times briefly countered and held in suspension by the father’s deliberation and grace.

Reading “At the Corner Store” reminded me of one thing I love about poetry: the way it can seem to speak directly and personally to me as I read it and sometimes retrieve memories I didn’t even know I lost. I’ve never seen strawberries under glass, but encountering them in the artificial construct of this poem made me remember the strawberries of my own childhood. They were a big deal in central Pennsylvania back then, and every June brought church “strawberry socials” featuring homemade strawberry shortcake and strawberry rhubarb pie. A nearby farm grew and shipped tons of the fruit, and I worked summers with a crew of kids who earned eleven cents for each quart picked. I am thinking now about what that was like, the incredible bounty and the experience, for once, of having my greed fully slaked. We ate at least as many berries as we picked, and some of them were the size of my fist. Has anything since ever tasted as good as those fat, juicy berries warmed in the sun?

I love the poem for making me see and smell and taste them again, and for giving me back the memory of picking the fruit in the delicate, sun-breaking-through-fog dawns of my Pennsylvania childhood. And I love it for helping me remember my own father, also a taciturn man with a penchant for generalities and clichés, who also succumbed after a brief and vicious bout with cancer. For Dad and me, it was not strawberries, but a regional forcemeat delicacy called “Lebanon Bologna”. He knew I adored it and could not find it in the delis where I lived, so on my next-to-the-last trip home to see him, he presented me with a whole sausage (of about the same circumference as my thigh) at the train station on my way back to California. I don’t remember eating it, but I do remember cradling it like a baby the whole way across the country, and that was the day I most powerfully felt my father’s love.

 

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