Oct. 20, 2009
The First Artichoke
Though everyone said no one could grow
artichokes in New Jersey, my father
planted the seeds and they grew one magnificent
artichoke, late-season, long after the squash,
tomatoes, and zucchini.
It was the derelict in my father's garden,
little Buddha of a vegetable, pinecone gone awry.
It was as strange as a bony-plated armadillo.
My mother prepared the artichoke as if preparing
a miracle. She snipped the bronzy winter-kissed tips
mashed breadcrumbs, oregano, parmesan, garlic,
and lemon, stuffed the mush between the leaves,
baked, then placed the artichoke on the table.
This, she said, was food we could eat with our fingers.
When I hesitated, my father spoke of beautiful Cynara,
who'd loved her mother more than she'd loved Zeus.
In anger, the god transformed her
into an artichoke. And in 1949 Marilyn Monroe
had been crowned California's first Artichoke Queen.
I peeled off a leaf like my father did,
dipped it in melted butter, and with my teeth
scraped and sucked the nut-flavored slimy stuff.
We piled up the inedible parts, skeletons
of leaves and purple prickles.
Piece by piece, the artichoke came apart,
the way we would in 1959, the year the flowerbuds
of the artichokes in my father's garden bloomed
without him, their blossoms seven inches wide
and violet-blue as bruises.
But first we had that miracle on our table.
We peeled and peeled, a vegetable striptease,
and worked our way deeper and deeper,
down to the small filet of delectable heart.
It's the birthday of poet and essayist Robert Pinsky, (books by this author) born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1940) who said, "I grew up in a disorderly, unpredictable household, jangling alternations of comedy and history, insanity and idealism, doubt and head injury, music and anger, loss and wit." He's the author of 19 books, including his recent poetry collections Jersey Rain (2000), Samurai Song (2001) and Gulf Music: Poems (2007).
He's been asked many times how he got started as a poet, and has variously answered: "Imitating Yeats, Allen Ginsberg, Frost, Eliot"; "Reading the dictionary and daydreaming about the sounds of words when I was a kid"; "Liking entertaining people when playing the saxophone as a teenager." And another time: "Whatever makes a child want to glue macaroni on a paper plate and paint the assemblage and see it on the refrigerator — that has always been strong in me."
Pinsky also translates poetry, and in 1995 he published a new translation of Dante's Inferno. He said that the inspiration to translate Dante's epic work was an accident; it started when he was assigned just one Canto as part of a group project.
In his translation, Pinsky preserved the terza rima rhyme scheme, which Dante invented. It's an interlocking rhyme with the pattern aba bcb cdc ded, etc., which works well in Italian, Pinsky explains, because Italian is rich in rhyme, but "can put tremendous strain on an English translation." Rather than "squeezing unlikely synonyms to the end of lines, and bending idiom ruthlessly to get there," Pinsky explained that he decided on a more flexible — though still systematic — definition of rhyme. He keeps the consonant sounds at the ends of words the same, even though the vowel sounds may differ greatly. It's a system he borrowed from W.B. Yeats, and it's sometimes called "Yeatsian rhyme." In the opening Canto, for example, Pinsky has as rhyming triads in the terza rima the words "tell/feel/well" and "sleep/stop/up" and "night/thought/it."
Robert Pinsky's The Inferno of Dante begins:
"Midway on our life's journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard — so tangle and rough
And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well
I'll tell what I saw, though how I came to enter
I cannot well say, being so full of sleep
Whatever moment it was I began to blunder
Off the true path …."
Notes on rhyme from Robert Pinsky's own "Translator's Note" in The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation (1995)
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®