by Tess Taylor | Contributing Writer
This Line Cook is a special guest column from the poet Tess Taylor. In addition to being the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Rift Zone and Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange, Taylor has spent a good deal of her life growing and preparing food both professionally and as an intimate gift for those she loves. This one is for you, dear reader: read and eat deeply from the riches of solace she provides us here.
but it is June:
even in a hard year
a too muchness of plums
now splits the tree—
stems crack green moons sail
gnarled branches down
& at dusk my son
high among them is limber & light
That is the one fragment of a poem I’ve written in months. I’ve been so tired. I’ve been so sad. The world has been devastating.
So confusing, too. My kids have been home since March 1. My life has consisted of trying to school them and clean house, of trying not to lose my mind in the crevices. I haven’t even been able to language the loss inside the loss, ever since, in mid-February, my epidemiologist friend called me. “You’ll be cancelling everything,” she said, meaning my book tour, but also our lives as we knew them. “This thing is coming, and the world has other plans.” At first, what she said didn’t compute. Then the virus showed up and everything she had said became starkly clear. After one final scary trip to Chicago on the day that COVID was announced a global pandemic, I came home. In our world, we’ve been both lucky and cautious. My husband has scarred lungs from a previous illness. We can work from home but have jobs to keep. We have to get the kids through each day. It hardly matters anymore that I would have been on book tour, that I had work up at a major museum, that poems I’d worked on for over a decade have entered the world. The previous world’s plans were only sandcastles. They’ve crumbled amid much, much greater loss. I moved my book launch and my university classes onto zoom. We fumble inside the unswept house. I keep a frantic insomniac’s journal. So far we are healthy. We count our blessings. We are sometimes happy and sometimes lonely. We have given our kids’ lives partly over to screens, getting them through day after day of “distance learning.”
And the tree ripened, despite all.
Rift Zone, my book, is about my hometown, about the place I grew up. It’s about the precariousness of life now, about living in a place and time that reminds us often how fragile we are, how close to the brink we live. It’s about living above and within rupture. I wrote it about the pandemics before this pandemic.
And: to promote this book, about my hometown, I would have been on planes every week. I would have visited 42 venues in three countries. Instead: I am here, on my front porch, sorting fruit.
The tree made 250 pounds of fruit, an eighth of a ton. A record amount. It’s silly to use the pathetic fallacy, but yes, our unpruned tree seemed determined to overachieve, to explode out of itself. One branch cracked. One branch of plums fell into the sidewalk so that neighbors had to walk a long way around it. Plums fell in the gutters. When it was time to pick, we picked for two weeks, sometimes for several hours at a time. We invited our neighbors, our former babysitter, her kids, our friend’s friends. People came in masks and climbed ladders and filled bags of fruit and we sent them home with those bags and more. We left plums on people’s porches, sneaking away without taking no for an answer, the way people do with zucchini in the Midwest. We gave three crates of plums to my minister friend who was also taking sandwiches to the homeless, who go on being hungry in an era of fear and social distance, whose need is also this moment’s pre-existing condition. We gave plums to the neighbors with the baby, the neighbors who loaned us a ladder, the neighbors who’d once given us a casserole. Because of the fruit, our arms tendrilled out. People were gathered in.
Even so: we were left with perhaps 100 pounds of plums. A plethora of plums, a panoply of plums, a stomach-ache of plums. So, in late June, for two Saturdays in a row, I sat for an hour of the front porch sorting plums—unripe, ripe, ripest. And with the ripest, I hauled them in, to make jam.
This summer, with Rift Zone in hand, I would have been back in Belfast, Northern Ireland, a place with its own history of deep fractures, a place where I taught at the Seamus Heaney Centre in the seven months after the 2016 election. While I was there, I thought about poetry and civic stress; and thought about how a poem might speak into a splintering moment. I also wrote pieces of Rift Zone there, poems for the fault line and fracture that is California. Now, as I wash split fruit in my kitchen, I am listening to poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama’s 2017 podcast from On Being. He and Krista Tippett are talking in Corrymeela, the center in Ballycastle, an hour north of Belfast, that’s devoted to conflict resolution, to helping people risk the transformation necessary to live more fully with one another. I’m listening as I bob the ripe fruit in the water, as I cut the pits out of the plums, as I weigh 23 pounds of sour pink plum flesh in the pot. I’m listening as I measure out sugar.
I have chosen a recipe for a savory plum jam. I imagine it as a gift to people at Christmas. The recipe sweetens the sour plums but also tempers them with sun-dried tomatoes and salt and rosemary. It’s unexpected, tomatoes and plums. You wouldn’t expect they would go together. This is a bright sour jam you’d serve with sharp cheese.
Strangely, just about when Ó Tuama and Tippett would have been talking at Corrymeela, I was also visiting Ballycastle, a town perched on the northeast corner of the island of Ireland, from which you can see Scotland on a clear day, and Rathlin Island, a small island in between that holds a small town and a sanctuary for puffins. It feels lonely now, but it has been long battled over (the Scots and the Irish) and then populated and then abandoned during the potato famine. It still has an eerie feeling of emptiness. It’s hard for people on the outside to understand some of the hate that animated this place. To an outsider, even the island’s abandoned gardens seem lovely. I remember how the North Sea tilts between blue and pewter, and how the far-off sun paints wild lines of brilliance out at the horizon, as if at a great distance is the world’s silver lining.
There were so many pandemics before this pandemic and the urgency to name them has not gone away.
In the midst of this summer, people are marching. The world we were living in was very broken, even before this odd and painful spring, when this disease rerouted us. The world was already at a breaking point.
There are protests tonight and all week this week.
I am grateful to be here to protest. To be home to protest in my own town.
Also we live in a moment of enormous sorrow and fury. When will we able to talk to one another again? Will there be a time when we’d find some way not to fight about everything—masks, post offices, the arts, the schools, one another? Every time I write even the simplest editorial column that makes up one part of my income, I get vitriolic hate mail. I get hate mail when I write columns about raising chickens. I get hate mail when I write about fire season. I turn on the heat under the plums. Tippet is saying that she’s noting the seemingly successful path the north of Ireland shows us—that in past decades Northern Ireland has moved away from being so sectarian. She adds that America has become more sectarian, more openly torn. She’s asking Ó Tuama about this, giving him space to talk about the work he’s done in guiding a community towards conversation or reconciliation or peace. Ó Tuama is not talking about nations, exactly. He’s talking about ways through grief and anger. He’s talking about the ways words can wound, how people can get into places where they demonize or feel demonized and no longer listen to one another. He also talks about language in the work of softening us to one another. They are not having a straightforward conversation, and it doesn’t lead itself to plot summary. Instead, my ear falls on phrases: “reconciling relationship with grief” and “transformative power of human relationship” and “it is how to be in the here that is difficult.” What Ó Tuama is really talking about is building some relationship with the difficult present: With the moment, in its messy complexity. With the others with whom we disagree; with even the pain of our disagreement.
I am sweeping hundreds of plum pits into the compost. I chop up the salty sun-dried tomatoes. There is sticky syrup on my shirt. It’s surprisingly wonderful, this melding of things I wouldn’t have thought to put together. As for talking, I wonder: will we ever be able to do that here? Sometimes it seems that we’re content to be run by outrage bots. We’re so sure we know what we think, and so sure we’re ready to be angry at other people. Ah, but people: I miss people so much. I go outside and pick rosemary. My children and their friend Claire who we are sharing the summer with are still up in the tree. It’s a happiness to see them there, laughing and eating plums.
What I am present with right now is the plums and the tomatoes and the rosemary, and the jars, which I am sterilizing. Which I am lining up neatly to dry.
The plums and tomatoes are bubbling now. The vat of them is bright red as they lose their plum and tomato shapes and become common pulp. All together, indistinguishable. A rich savory flavor. The common life of a season.
None of the real work happens on Twitter. None of the real work happens in soundbites. Somehow, beyond this fight and the next fight and the next one, some day we will have to try to have a country again. We will have to be willing to blunder again towards one another.
Ó Tuama is talking about how it is possible to love the people you disagree with, to try find ways of speaking that open us to one another. He’s reminding us that we don’t have to agree with the people we hold in relationship, that there are ways of holding in tension profound respect in the face of disagreement; there are ways that let us not retreat from one another and to move towards common life.
Someday when this is over, I would like to go to Ireland again. There’s a town I love in Donegal called Ardara which has a wild coast nearby and about a hundred hiking paths out of it. Also—a pub that serves good beer and cheese-and-chutney sandwiches. Sweet pickle, sour beer, sharp cheese. Oh, yes, and good bread. I would like to go hiking and then eat those sandwiches. And look at the sea.
Here now: so many days I no longer know what I want, or how to want what I wanted before. The past and the future seem equally baffling. It’s hard to breathe into the radical openness, inside the confusion. I would have been on all those airplanes. What world was that? I realize I don’t quite know what my work is now, as the world splits open. I realize there’s a gift in this bafflement. This pause. This time in which I am stretched.
Ó Tuama is quoting a poem by David Wagoner, one he thinks about, one that guides him. It begins “ Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you / Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here, / And you must treat it as a powerful stranger, / Must ask permission to know it and be known.”
Okay, forest. Okay, strange present. Okay, wild stranger, I’m listening. Come talk. Come know me. I’m listening while the jam cools. Claire and Bennett and Emeline are playing with stones in the garden. Next weekend we’ll prune the tree. My would-have-beens are long gone. We are marching this evening for Black Lives Matter. Later today I’ll make signs with my kids.
My hands are dipping again in the water. He’s talking about being human, he’s talking about an old saying from Cork, that people say to one other: “you are the place that I stand on the day when my feet are sore.” How can we start to be more of that to one another?
I have made 24 half pints of jam. It is bright sharp and bright and slightly herbal. It is lined up and glinting. Later it will taste like this year and this place, like buried stream and mineral soil. It is so red, a bright jewel in jars. I have been picking and cooking for hours. My feet are tired. I am sore. I am here. We are here. Everyone’s tired. Everyone’s hungry. There are still more plums to give away. There are still more plums on the porch, on the tree, in the sink.
And if you need another episode of On Being to keep you going as you pit your own plums, here is Pádraig Ó Tuama and Marilyn Nelson discussing poetry as prayer.
Eugenia Bone’s Savory Plum Jam
from The Kitchen Ecosystem
Makes 3 half-pints
1 ½ lbs plums, halved and pitted, skins on
1 cup water
½ cup sugar
1 cup minced dried tomatoes
Three 3-inch sprigs of fresh rosemary
In a large heavy-bottomed pot, combine the plums, water, and sugar and bring to a low boil over medium heat. Boil gently until the plums are very soft and beginning to thicken, about 15 minutes. Add the dried tomatoes and rosemary. Turn off the heat and allow the sauce to rest for about 10 minutes.
Have ready 3 sterilized half-pint jars and bands, and new lids that have been simmered in hot water to soften the rubberized flange. Pour the jam into the jars leaving ¼ inch of headroom. Tuck a sprig of rosemary into each jar. Remove any air bubbles by sliding a butter knife into the jar. Wipe the rims, place on the lids, and screw on the bands fingertip tight.
Process the jars in a water bath for 5 minutes for half-pints. Be sure to make altitude adjustments.
Here’s a quick and easy guide to water bath canning if you’ve never done it before. For altitude adjustments, see the recommendations from this more detailed set of guidelines.