Gorgeous Fresh Green Vine Poetry:
Lucia Dove’s Say Cucumber (Broken Sleep Books, 2019)
Hymn to Adonis
The most beautiful thing I leave is the light of the sun,
second are the shining stars and the face of the moon,
and cucumbers, and apples and pears too.
Praxila, in Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome, ed Plant (University of Oklahoma Press, 2004)
a cucurbit (or cucurbite),
a cuckoo clock, a cuckoopint, and
a cucumber tree?
In a cucumiform light.
Jackson Mac Low, 22 Light Poems, (Black Sparrow Press, 1968)
Hwangdae’s Cucumber Song
Planted cucumbers beneath the yellow loft
Mature plant bears beautiful fruit
Pluck one and the cucumber is happy
Pluck two and the cucumber grows small
Pluck three without trouble
Four and folding the shoots it returns to the earth
Heo Nanseolheon (1563 – 1589), in Hai-soon Lee, Hye-sun Yi, The Poetic World of Classic Korean Women Writers, 2005
What is it about cucum-po? Beats me. One of the latest additions to this long established field is Say Cucumber, a fresh, crunchy, vibrant collection of vegetal poetics from Lucia Dove. In the poems quoted above, cucumbers seem to stand for life, for desire, but also a kind of naughty joke. Praxila’s poem above apparently led to ridicule, criticised for the apparently bathetic juxtaposition of cucumber with sun and moon. But for me the inconsequentiality, the everydayness of cucumbers is a big part of their appeal. I’d probably prefer the Williams plum icebox poem if it was about cucumbers, but that’s just me. What if it was about plums and cucumbers?
This is something that Dove’s poetics also enacts:
Emotionally, I am no different.
I am fuelled by spirit and seriously believe
that long walks followed by hot potatoes
and a glass of cold beer is the life.
The title of this collection of course isn’t just Cucumber. It’s Say Cucumber, which I take a few ways: I take it as a throwaway, like “oh say cucumber, it could be anything”…; I take it as a command to say the word cucumber aloud. I take it as a kind of test, like saying the word cucumber tells you something about yourself. Here I’m thinking of Caroline Bergvall’s renowned poetry performance Say Parsley (http://carolinebergvall.com/work/say-parsley/) in which she explores “how you speak will be used against you”. Is Cucumber one of these words too? A flashpoint in the language that lights up to signal a contested cultural space?
The poem that is actually called “Say Cucumber” begins: “Say ogurets. / Aloud I say ogurets,/ Feel embarrassed.” Ah, embarrassment, again the embarrassment of Praxila: saying the wrong thing. Being made to feel like you’ve said something wrong. In Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver tries to extract sunlight out of cucumbers but what about trying to extract the embarrassment from cucumbers? The embarrassed, hesitant utterance is the unit of poetry here, such as in the poem ‘Natasha’:
I am prickly
I have a headache
from the lillies
I am a hedgehog
I drink chiliken soup
from a splintered spoon
I am my hair
This to me is thrilling writing, Dove’s poetry edges forward in these uncertain – poetically charged - shifts and splurts. It’s what I think of as the Fancy, the radical poetic mode of antisynthesis. Cucumbers are monoecious: they produce male and female flowers on the same plant.
One poem, ‘That Park Bench’, exhorts disbelief about what has been done to the park bench:
I can’t believe what you did to the park bench.
Honestly I can’t believe what you did to that park bench.
What you did to that park bench was honestly unbelievable.
My imagination is going everywhere and nowhere all at once. My imagination is practically melting with wonderment about the “poor, poor, poor park bench”.
Fancy is like the vine logic of cucumbers. Nothing adds up neatly.
'Lenin’s Denim' is possibly my favourite poem of fancy, weird connections woven together – here’s a bit from its middle:
The red pepper’s ribs were ripped out and discarded. Charcoal turned the skin black. The barbecue was attended by the Bourgeoisie in numbers.
The sandbanks in Shoeburyness are made of shattered ceramics and sediment. Salt water sits differently to fresh. Grey jellyfish bob around unexploded bombs.
The writing here feels sliced – thin slivery slices of green cucumber writing that I just want to put on my eyes to freshen me up. In fact cucumbers have an association with precisely this kind of technique. In an essay by William Burroughs, ‘It belongs to the Cucumbers’, Burroughs laid out his cut up technique. But I mean cucumbers are not pre-sliced and they also exist whole.
I also can’t think about cucumbers without thinking about Samantha Walton’s brilliant essay on the ecopoetics of Peter Manson: ‘Slow Motion Cucumber Decay in Fridge’ (https://poetry.openlibhums.org/article/id/755/), and “unexpected interrelatedness”, which certainly feels like it also underpins Lucia Dove’s poetics here.
William Cowper wrote about growing cucumbers and related this to a marketplace of poetry: nutritional content, expense, the flavour of a fruit as somehow linked to the care taken to grow it. I can’t figure my head around that right now. I actually like cucumbers partly because they barely taste of anything, as they sometimes do, just a vaguely watery metallic burst.
Lucia Dove’s collection though is bursting with crunchy language, seeded with embarrassment, oozing with a kind of cucumber sap that feels good: good for poetry. “Does poetry have seasons?”, Dove asks in one poem. Well, yes, but cucumbers never go out of fashion.