Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Cherry Tomatoes": An Exercise in Translation

5 Irish Cherry Tomatoes from IvanWalsh.com on flickr.
Today Wilderness Interface Zone features a poem called "Cherry Tomatoes" by April Salzano. The poem struck me not because I think it fully succeeds as poetry: its language, like the speaker's tomato plant, hangs too loosely on its (attempted) scaffolding. As such, its rhythms, for me, fall flat; it feels like prose masquerading as poetry by breaking itself into lines—and free verse is much more than that. Additionally, I think it contains a bit too much verbal dead-space and it could do without the last line/word: by explaining the image that precedes it—an over-laden plant consuming water and expending energy to produce unused fruit—this word, "Wasted," weakens the poem's potential impact and, frankly, patronizes readers who surely don't need to be told that the plant and its dropped and uneaten fruit are a waste. In my mind, it's more compelling and potentially transformative to leave readers with an image of waste than to explain to them that what they've been shown was supposed to be an image of waste.

Having said that: while the poem doesn't, for me, succeed as poetry, it did recall an early poem I wrote that features cherry tomatoes. Because it struck a personal chord, I decided to translate it into my own language. That effort spawned the following poem, which borrows and remixes Salzano's image. I say "borrow" because I hope my language gives something back to hers, just as this exercise in translating her language into mine has re-emphasized for me my own approach to writing and revising poems, which tends toward focus and compression: cutting any lulls in rhythm or dead-space in imagery as created by unnecessary words. I've observed elsewhere that "focus and compression, as an editor once suggested to me, are keys to creating successful poems. Turn the innovative phrase, I add, but turn it succinctly; make it tight. Compress experience into the poetic vessel so when you light the fuse and release it on the world, it will explode in the reader's face, it will reverberate through the bones."

Anyway, here's my version of "Cherry Tomatoes," which I don't intend to publish anywhere but here. Let me know your impressions in the comments:

Cherry Tomatoes

cluster on thin vines vining their cage
in a garden lining the driveway, soil—
hose-wet and summer-worn—feeding
blossoms become cysts ripened and
split wide.
                 She plucks as she passes,
folding fruit into a shirt-basket, though
she knows no one will eat
just as she knows what's left will fall,
will farewell the vine and pulp the stones
below.