Reading the Selected Poems of William Carlos Williams over the past weekend, I realized a deeper affinity on the part of the great American poet for an edible I thought he had only immortalized in his imagist masterpiece of 1934, “This Is Just to Say”:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Self-portrait, 1914

Some still debate whether the “plum poem” is really nothing more than a glorified post-it note left on a refrigerator, but I’ve always thought  “Just to Say” captures more mystery in its mere 28 words than many full-length novels. With striking simplicity, it almost implores us to create our own backstory for the circumstances behind what appears an otherwise uncomplicated communication, all the while poetically brilliant in its alliteration and sensual (“so sweet”…”so cold”) use of description.

The peripatetic plums of Williams’ imagination appear again in the stark and haunting “To a Poor Old Woman”:


munching a plum on

the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand

Comforted
a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her

And from the lovely “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” with its triadic line breaks (W.H. Auden once called it “one of the most beautiful love poems in the language”) comes another, albeit brief, appearance:

There the pink mallow grows
                and in their season
                                  strawberries

and there, later,
                                  we went to gather
                                                       the wild plum.

I don’t know if it all quite qualifies as a significant motif, but those plums sure were responsible for some magnificent poetry…

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