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Somewhere Between the Monk and the Pear

Posted Nov 03 2008 9:00pm
for Mary Vyn

My friend Elizabeth's cookbook concludes with this elegant recipe: Poires en Robes de Chambre (pears in their dressing gowns), which calls for soaking dried fruit in warm rum, then packing this, along with sugar and slivers of toasted almonds, into the hollows of cored pears, which are gently swathed in pastry, glazed with egg, and baked, standing up, till golden. A note at the end of the recipe reads, "Serve with a small fork and a knife," which is pretty good, but my favorite line comes very early on: "Peel pears; place in large bowl of water to which lemon juice has been added."

I love the hiddenness of this step, the fact that no one eating the pastrified, rummified, apricot-and-raisin-packed pear would have reason to suspect the fruit recently lingered in a lemon bath. I love the ritualistic nature of the secret labor involved: procuring the lemon, slicing and juicing it, pouring its liquid into a bowl. I love the coddling aspect: the naked pears lolling in their fragrant tub, resting there before being further handled. And I love the decadence: the lemon bought only to salve the pear flesh, not to be ingested; the lemon-water, once its purpose has been served, spilled down the drain, untasted.

But there is something else I love about this line, and that is its utter plainness. All the images it evokes, all its shifting, ephemeral or dark-rooted meaning, is brought out by the simplest of words, so arranged as to be almost clinically direct:

Peel pears; place in large bowl of water to which lemon juice has been added.

Such a line makes me think with a sigh, I'll never be a writer. I doff my hat to such a line. As for me, I use too many words. I know it. As writer, talker, thinker, mother. Always an excess of words, always a fever, a fury, to further refine, better articulate, re-explain. To more closely approach the thing, the it, whatever matters, whatever connects.

There's a moment in Chris Marker's experimental film Sans Soleil when the western narrator, speaking of Japan, says:
To us, a sun is not quite a sun unless it's radiant, and a spring not quite a spring unless it is limpid. Here to place adjectives would be so rude as leaving price tags on purchases. Japanese poetry never modifies. There is a way of saying boat, rock, mist, frog, crow, hail, heron, chrysanthemum, that includes them all. Newspapers have been filled recently with the story of a man from Nagoya. The woman he loved died last year and he drowned himself in work—Japanese style—like a madman. It seems he even made an important discovery in electronics. And then in the month of May he killed himself. They say he could not stand hearing the word 'Spring.'
My mother has a picture, a framed photograph of a Buddhist monk sweeping. It was taken with a very long exposure, so that the image is not really representational; it's more a swirl of color and light. Lately she has been feeling something less than fully present. Between the chemo and the lingering effects of her surgery, words come more slowly; thoughts flicker without fully forming; it has been difficult for her to engage deeply in conversation - an act that under normal circumstances is like breathing for her - and she wrote me recently that she was feeling like the picture of the monk: there but not there, partial and blurred.

For some reason I thought of the pears in their bowl, the effortlessness of the pears - floating without language, uninterpreted, unneedful of description. I know the monk in the picture is not really a blur - his image having been rendered thus only by the photographer - but I find myself wondering, what if he were, or what if he knew how to exist in such a state: the state of sweeping, of being the sweeping blur, unclaimed by words?

And more and more I think, this is where we are all headed, what we are all meant to learn, and the better I become at my craft, the fewer words I will use, fewer and fewer, until a single word could bring me to my knees, like the man who could not stand to hear spring.
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