Tuesday, 24 June 2014

POEM CLUB #2. 'The Smell of Apples', by Richard O'Brien

Welcome to the second instalment of Poem Club! Last week, we looked at 'Lys' by Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi and discussion was focused on people's interpretations of the situation depicted: was it part of a dialogue between lovers, or a refugee and an official, or a universal feminist cry of frustration? This week, we're going to look at a poem which is stylistically very different to Ikhda's, and where the situation is relatively clear: it's a love poem, addressed to a lover and intended to solicit affection.

Richard O'Brien at the BBC Proms Plus Late in 2013 
As I did last week, I'm going to share a few of my thoughts to kick things off and then suggest some ways of approaching the poem. This round of Poem Club is closed, but you can still read my summary of the comments we received and share your thoughts about the poem in the comments section.

And now, on with the poem!

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The Smell of Apples

‘And beyond these isles there is another isle that is clept Pytan. The folk of that country ne till not, ne labour not the earth, for they eat no manner thing. [...] These men live by the smell of wild apples. And when they go any far way, they bear the apples with them; for if they had lost the savour of the apples, they should die anon.’ — The Book of Sir John Mandeville
O give me the thread from the hem of your dress
              that you caught in St James’s Park
and give me the blank in the blink of your eyes
              before they adjust to the dark
and give me the space in the skin of your throat
              that you smooth away with a breath
and the infinitesimal decimal point
              between your tongue and your teeth;
then give me the drip of a droplet of water
              that found its way down through your hair
and give me the light that your body divided
              and spread like a sodium flare.

Now give me the dust that you brushed from your jeans
              on the chairs in the station café
and give me the spark that was spat from the track
              of the train that took you away
and give me the dot on the ‘i’ on the map
              of the village where you live –
the cross of the ‘t’ in a neighbouring town
              if it’s all you’ve got to give.
And then give me a signal, a cipher, a sign,
              a trinket, a token, a ring,
and I’ll follow it blind to the base of your spine
              and I’ll give you everything.

– by Richard O'Brien, from his pamphlet of love poems, The Emmores

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Emma's thoughts. I usually fail to read or properly process the title when I'm reading a poem for the first time, which means the title is often the last thing I read in my poem-reading experience. Sometimes I think 'Oh of course that's the title – I could have guessed that', but sometimes the title shines a new light on the poem and I have to read the poem again with this in mind. This goes for epigraphs too; if anything I'm even more likely to skim the epigraph without taking it fully in. In 'The Smell of Apples', the title and the epigraph work together like a key to the secret code of the poem, enriching my response to the poem once I'd gone back to the beginning and the penny had dropped.

One of the reasons I think this poem will become a classic is that it wears its epic romance lightly and focuses on the mundane but enduring realities of human attraction. The title and epigraph may indicate large-scale, life-or-death declarations, but the poem itself is concerned with minutiae and ephemera which ring true to me now and (I presume) will continue to ring true with readers who recognise the heady richness of the lover's long-lens gaze.

Your thoughts. We had two fascinating responses this week, both focusing on the depiction of romantic love in the poem. Hin-Tai Ting drew out the implied link between the people of Pytan in the epigraph, who need the smell of apples to survive away from their home, and the poem's speaker whose equivalent of apples is his sweetheart. He wondered: 'To what extent should we understand the speaker as abnormal, as a different and strange type of human being?' It hadn't occurred to me before to see the epigraph as a commentary on the speaker of the poem, as well as the key to understanding it, but I really like this idea of lovers being ludicrous creatures, capable of greatness but also immense folly. This reminds me of Elegies II.27 by the Roman poet Propertius, where the poet claims that a lover can shake off the final stages of death if called back by his mistress. I feel torn between my conviction that love is a strange and powerful force and my impatience with the tolerance which lovers-as-madmen demand, so I like the edge of bafflement in Hin-Tai's verdict on lovers: 'there is something really quite bizarre and wonderful about their life-and-death strength'.

Tom saw something else in the epigraph which had never occurred to me before: the lifestyle of the people of Pytan may offer a neat equivalent to the speaker's valiant attempts to sustain his romance, but they are also very definitely fictional. The poem is a collection of insubstantial trivia assembled with such urgency that it verges on creating something solid and living, though it's really 'a nothingness, or an almost-nothingness.' I like Tom's recognition that love is something more than the shadowplay of romance and love poetry, and I love the point he makes about the intent focus of the poem and how the list format could tip over into a parody of its own genre, so 'somewhere deep in the background there might also be a hint that a "real relationship" is more than all this stuff: it actually does involve tilling and labouring.' Hear hear!

You can read both of the comments in full below, in the comments section.

This week, I'm awarding the book to... Hin Tai Ting!

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The Emmores

This episode of Poem Club is over, but you can still add your thoughts below. What do you think of 'The Smell of Apples'? Do you find it romantic? Does it work as a piece of persuasion? Would it persuade you? Is it erotic, and, if so, why? Is it really a poem about love? What's your favourite detail? What do you think we learn about the speaker and the subject of the poem? Do you like the epigraph from Sir John Mandeville, and do you think the poem would work without it? Just say what you think and what the poem makes you feel – don't be afraid of sounding stupid!

<-- POEM CLUB #1: 'Lys', by Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi
--> POEM CLUB #3: 'Trickster', by Joy Donnell


  1. Thanks for this. Some random thoughts:

    I greatly enjoyed the meter which added to the sense of life-and-death urgency about these feelings.

    I'm reflecting on the epigraph, and thinking about the implications. I love the metaphor of all life-and-death bound up in this single smell, this single physical experience. What makes me wonder is how the folk described in that epigraph are not normal human beings. To what extent should we understand the speaker as abnormal, as a different and strange type of human being? It's an interesting tension, because on one level, the feelings described throughout the poem are easily relatable, as you said Emma, - those 'minutiae and ephemera which ring true' - yet as I reflect, there is indeed something strange about the long-lasting fascination and obsessiveness that love and/or physical intimacy can bring about in us humans. Compared to many creatures in the animal world, for instance. I guess one way to take this tension is to wonder again at love and attraction - that despite how natural these emotions and desires feel, there is something really quite bizarre and wonderful about their life-and-death strength. Lovers are 'the folk of that country'.

  2. I think this poem really underscores how love poetry depends so much on the absence and distance of the beloved -- or, to put it the other way round, the kind of imaginative effort it takes to sustain the romantic image of the beloved that constitutes the relationship when she or he isn't around. That romantic image isn't something that's necessary, or even possible, when the lovers are together. The romance -- and the poetry -- come from being apart.

    So the lover's voice in this poem is constructing an elaborate kind of mental scrapbook, a bit like casting a magic spell (which is notionally for him, but because it's a love poem addressed to the beloved, it's also really for her -- he's giving her an image of the image that he has of her); that's the stuff, the smell of apples, that his love has to subsist on. And like the smell of apples, it's really a nothingness, or an almost-nothingness, like a thread, a blink, or a spark.

    For me, the poem has the kind of doubleness that really any love poem needs if it's going to avoid mawkishness. It's not a disavowal of the absurd business of constructing a love-fantasy out of a bunch of insubstantial, meaningless stuff -- something as crazy as living on smell alone -- but it almost is. I think it's having a wink at itself, and at the whole idea of love poetry, and love. And somewhere deep in the background there might also be a hint that a "real relationship" is more than all this stuff: it actually does involve tilling and labouring; Mandeville's story is, after all, mythical.