Sometimes in life you get yelled at. No matter your moral fiber, it can’t be avoided all the time. It happens in Marine Corps boot camp; it happens in rush-hour subway cars; it happens if your mother catches you reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover at an impressionable young age. But one place you don’t expect to get harangued, one place where the lid’s supposed to stay on the pot, is poetry.
So cracking open D. H. Lawrence’s seemingly innocuous Birds, Beasts, Flowers is a bit of a shock. Lawrence is, of course, better known for his novels and short stories; verse can unleash in him an irritating Whitmanesque mania, an exhibitionist verbal autoeroticism. But that’s not the case here. You flip past the title page and the index to the first poem, “Pomegranate,” and before your eyes can adjust to the typeface, you’re in trouble. Big trouble:
You tell me I am wrong.
Who are you, who is anybody to tell me I am wrong?
I am not wrong.
No matter how many times I read these lines I’m stunned by their gutsiness, ferocity, and sheer verbal voltage. I recoil; I want to say, I didn’t say anything to you, D. H.! All I did was look at the damn book! Poets tend to beseech or cajole, seduce or flat-out ignore their readers; they don’t usually pick fights with them. Lawrence has got a lot of nerve.
But all’s fair in love and war, and “Pomegranate,” at its core, is a poem about love. As Lawrence beats you into submission, it becomes clear that it’s over a lot more than a piece of fruit. Indeed, you’re getting it about the entire history of love in the West—and your own complicity in that sad story.
If the authors of Genesis envisioned any one particular fruit dangling from that infamous tree in Eden, scholars argue it was likely the pomegranate. In the Greco-Roman tradition, those same ruby seeds cursed Persephone to an eternal half-life, consigned her to winter after winter with her abductor-husband, Hades, among the pomegranate groves of the dead. From Jerusalem to Athens to Rome, this is the fruit you get when love spoils into lust, when desire goes to seed. This is not a fruit you want to crack open.
Lawrence knows this mythology. His poem is, in fact, a highly compressed commentary on it. He take a tour of three cities—Syracuse, Venice, San Gervasio—and three of their pomegranate orchards. As Lawrence moves among these places, these pomegranates, he moves, too, among the fragments of lost—or soon to be lost—love. (As for his puzzling reference to the “viciousness of Greek women,” maybe he had a bad experience.) The fruits’ imperious grandeur—“barbed, barbed with crowns”—allures and inflames his memory, stoking his violent outcry until it bursts its confines. Literally. One of the wonders of this poem is that it is itself a pomegranate. Its prickly, defensive opening lines call to mind a barbed crown. That crown gives way to a tough rind and bitter pulp, the poem’s central section, with its various fruits and grievances. These, in turn, at long last yield seeds. By his fifth stanza Lawrence is railing about a “fissure,” and pretty soon “the end cracks open with the beginning,” and the poem reveals a prize too ravishing, too delicious, to be anything but the pomegranate’s bejeweled contents:
For my part, I prefer my heart to be broken.
It is so lovely, dawn-kaleidoscopic within the crack.
Lawrence does not deny the pomegranate its history of love and death, but neither does he view that history as problematic. Far from it: he rails against you, the reader, for your temerity and your squeamishness in matters of love. He “prefers his heart to be broken” and—millennia of human unease with the erotic be damned—he want you to as well. In eighth grade, I discovered my school library’s copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (true to Justice Potter Stewart’s dictum, I knew pornography when I saw it). Over a series of lunch periods, I read the faded paperback while crouched under a table, thus evading castigation and/or gentle joshing from the librarian or, horror of horrors, Mom. But not until the endgame of adolescence—which, for me, was about six months ago—did I chance upon “Pomegranate.” (No clandestine operations this time.) Sure,Lady Chatterley wins in the titillation department, but I find these twenty-nine lines of verse far more shocking. Certainly they’re seared into my memory in a way that their seedy uncle of a novel isn’t. Partly that’s because I’m not thirteen anymore; partly that’s because this is what great poems do.
Eli Mandel lives in New York.