Poetry

Poetry Sunday:
“Scuppernong Grapes,” by Susan Williamson

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Today’s poem is free verse (unmetered and unrhymed) arranged into eight long-line couplets for a total of sixteen lines. Many people assume free verse is formless, but that is not the case. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics defines it as “lines of varying length without any metrical constraints, distinguished . . . by rhyme, and occasionally by assonance” (PEP, 1993 ed., p. 428). I’ve made the point before that free verse is anything but “free” and is instead a form like other forms, with its own set of rules and expectations requiring at least as much technical virtuosity as, say, a sonnet. Robert Frost famously said writing it is like “playing tennis without a net.” With meter, line length, and rhyme scheme not prescribed, the poet must write without a template and according to his or her own internalized vision of what the poem requires. Too many writers interpret “free verse” as “anything goes,” resulting in the flaccid, line-broken journal entries that sometimes pass for poems in contemporary journals.

“Scuppernong Grapes” is very carefully constructed into couplets of about the same length, using regular syntax and punctuation and simple diction. It’s accessible, wanting to invite us into the experience. I love poems like this one that help me retrieve memories of my childhood in Pennsylvania. When I was young, our family used to drive an hour or so “down to the country”—Williamsburg, where my grandparents lived. It was a modest farm, with maybe an acre under cultivation, land my grandmother worked with a hand plow. But she grew tomatoes, strawberries, and grapes that still rival the products of any farmer’s market I visit today. I didn’t understand how important terroir is to tomatoes—just as important as for wine—until I moved to California and sampled its gorgeous-but-tasteless produce. California is doing better now, cultivating heirloom varieties and paying more attention to the soil, but I still haven’t tasted anything as good as those luscious red-and-green Brandywines picked warm from Gramma’s vines. Ditto for her grapes, tiny purple-black globes with thick skins and seeds adding tartness and spice to the sweet juice, the very essence of hot July afternoons.

“Scuppernong Grapes” takes me right back to that old wooden arbor sagging under its bounty, with Papap sitting in his rocker on the porch and Gramma weeding her garden or yelling at the neighbor’s cows to get off the property. The details in the poem, delivered with precision and vigor, feel just right, capturing the grapes’ rich luster and abundance in “Ten thousand orbs of summer, lit against / the cobalt sky.” The sagging arbor, with its blistered white paint and holes bored by carpenter bees, also feels right, and I especially enjoyed the geometry of those round orbs and curling vines juxtaposed against (and helping to maintain the structural integrity of) the once-square angles of the arbor’s wooden structure.

The next image, of hand-sized leaves, also rings true to my memory, like the “wrinkled fruit” suspended overhead—grapes baking into raisins in the hot summer sun. The word “brickled” that begins line 7 is a neologism you will not find in any dictionary; it may be related to “brickle,” a word meaning brittle or easily broken. Poets are known for coining new words and phrases, or for using words as different parts of speech—verbs for nouns and so on—in their never-ending search to express something otherwise ineffable. I read “brickled” as meaning something like broken, but perhaps not-quite-yet broken—exactly what those combs, now leaking honey, seem to be.

What comes next piles sweetness on sweetness: “spun-honey / drops growing large on the surface of wild / purple skins.” For reasons I am at a loss to explain, “spun-honey” is so much better than just “honey” would have been in this context. What, exactly, do scuppernong grapes taste like? According to the Internet, “They’re wild and they taste like it. The inner flesh is rich and thick, with an intense sweetness like a Concord grape, and they have tough spicy skins that taste like plums.” Knowing the specific grape variety is no mere rhetorical flourish but does actual work in the poem by telling us where and when we are: in the South, in late summer when such grapes are ripe. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scuppernong]

The poem is a lyric, designed to re-create an emotion or some other intense experience from a moment in time in the life of the speaker. Narrative poems tell stories and move in a linear way through time, but lyrical poems stop it. Not much “happens” in today’s poem. Instead, we are treated, through appeals to taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell, to the fullness of an everyday experience that for the speaker—and now through her poem for us—becomes incandescent.

As the poem develops, we begin to understand that the bees are as important to the scene as the grapes. We first see them as the “carpenter bees” that bored holes in the arbor, then as the makers of combs and honey that spangles the fruit with tiny, sticky pearls. Then we see honeybees “tend[ing] each cluster” of grapes, feasting and harvesting the juice. The grape arbor is itself a “great hive”—a mélange of arbor, vines, grapes, and bees, all drizzled with a “harsh dazzle” of honey—discovered by the wonderstruck speaker as a child. The last lines of the poem distill these things to their essence and source—light—and remind us that this is more than a nostalgic memory. What that nine-year-old is seeing is creation and the struggle for existence in which “light” works as a “terrible,” inexorable component and force. The light that makes plant sugar is also a destroyer as it oxidizes the fruit, and its power is communicated in the remarkable image that ends the poem, of the grapes nearly boiling in summer heat. And that also squares with my memory of eating my gramma’s grapes—sometimes they actually were hot in my mouth, and those were the ones, of course, that tasted best.

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