Sweetest Things Turned Sourest

Jehanne Dubrow | Contributing Writer

During a summer in my early twenties, I had a brief obsession with strawberry sour belts, those vivid pink candies cut into long, flexible strips, their texture gummy, their surface covered in a glittering layer of tart sugar. I bought them by the pound at a small candy shop in town. The rule was this: I had to eat the whole bag in an afternoon. There was an element of punishment to the pleasure. I ate the sour belts until my taste buds burned. My tongue felt scorched for days.

At the time I was living in an apartment I had once shared with a man I loved. After he moved out, I sweated alone in the unairconditioned rooms, bored and furious to be the person left behind and not the leaver. I began to scribble poems in a notebook, my handwriting tiny, black knots on the page. I listened to music that sounded like keening. And, of course, there was an open bag of candy beside me. It felt good to rip apart a sour belt with my hands, the sugar crystals sharp against my fingers. I liked to bite hard into a piece, the flavor of artificial strawberry simultaneously caustic and neon-sweet.

When I research the ingredients that go into making these kinds of candies, I learn they’re mostly comprised of sugar, corn syrup, and something called invert sugar syrup. They also contain many starches, including modified corn starch, wheat starch, and more corn starch. Their color, I’m unhappy to learn, comes from cochineal extract, a bright red food dye made from the bodies of dried, crushed insects. The colorant is also known as carmine and, innocuously enough, as natural red 4. As for the ingredient that gives the candy belts their sourness, that comes from a dry coating of fruit-derived acids, such as citric or malic acid.   

I was miserable that summer and didn’t care that I was eating something that scalded my tongue. In fact, I developed a theory about myself: that I could only appreciate the sweet if it caused me a little hurt. Without their sour coating, the strawberry belts would be cloying, too pink and ecstatic a taste, I was sure.

By late June, I had decided my suffering made me a poet. I had already started writing in a second notebook, as I worked my way through Shakespeare’s sonnets. Some form of sourness appears five times over the sequence of 154 poems: sourly, sour, sourly, sour, and sourest. And in three of these poems, Shakespeare links the sour to the sweet.

In Sonnet 35, for instance, a speaker in conflict with himself addresses the young, unfaithful man—often known as the Fair Youth—who has hurt him. In the opening eight lines of the poem, he forgives his beloved, acknowledging that beautiful things can also have flaws. “Roses have thorns,” he argues, “and silver fountains mud.” Even the speaker, in making these kinds of poetic analogies, should be judged, his metaphors a small “trespass.” In the poem’s closing six lines, he turns to the language of the courtroom to asses his own failings. He is “an accessory” to his lover’s misdeeds. He resents the young man for his betrayals and hates himself for excusing these infidelities. He concludes his case by calling the young man a “sweet thief” who “sourly robs” the speaker. Robs him of what? The text doesn’t say. Peace of mind perhaps. An unburdened conscience. A night of easy sleep. Whatever the theft, the speaker recognizes that his pain lies in the tension between sweet and sour, between the beloved’s beauty and his lacerating acts.

Sonnet 39 examines the way lovers may be both united and divided, may exist as a single being and also remain two distinct individuals. The speaker questions how he can praise the young man without sounding conceited. In extolling the Fair Youth, does he not compliment himself: “And what is’t but mine own when I praise thee?” The poem keeps turning back on itself, the speaker reasoning that it would be best to maintain some distance from his beloved, then immediately regretting the expanse between them. And as soon as he wishes his lover close again, he acknowledges the value of remaining apart. “O absence,” the speaker exclaims, “what a torment wouldst thou prove, / Were it not thy sour leisure gave sweet leave, / To entertain the time with thoughts of love.” Here, the sour and the sweet are two distinct tastes, but they are joined as well, brought together in the same way that farewells and reunions respectively make the lovers two and then one.

Sonnet 94, the thorniest of the three sour-and-sweet sonnets, considers what it means to have power and to wield that force ethically. Scholar Stephen Booth characterizes 94 as “a stylistic mirror of the speaker’s indecision,” so faltering and uncertain that it has frequently “impinged on the consciousness of readers” and has therefore become “the most frequently interpreted” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In the poem, the speaker contends that the best rulers are stoics who have power but choose not to use it, who are “[u]nmoved, cold, and to temptation slow.” These regal men are “the lords and owners of their faces,” serene as figures carved from blocks of marble, while people of lesser character are merely “stewards of their excellence.” Of course, despite its examination of the aristocracy, the sonnet remains a love poem. Shakespeare uses the metaphor of nobility and commoners to depict a romantic relationship in which one person has dominion over the other, love a hierarchical thing, imbalanced by its very nature and design. If the Fair Youth is self-possessed, a distant lord managing the estate of his heart, then the speaker is of a lower class, coarse and emotional.

After its opening octet, the sonnet takes a sharp turn toward a new metaphor, looking instead to the garden for its closing argument. The powerful man is now refigured as a flower. He is “sweet” as long as he maintains self-control, discipline, all of the desired traits of a Shakespearean hero. But if he meets “with base infection,” perhaps giving himself over to volatility or jealous passion, then even the most ordinary weed will smell better than this flower rotted at its roots. The poem ends with a pair of lines that ring their condemnation: “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; / Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.” Literary critic Helen Vendler explains that these closing lines are “a turn toward the proverbial” and reveal “the speaker’s despair at solving by himself, in personally formulated language, the conundrum presented by the sonnet.” Unable to fully explain what he feels about the Fair Youth, the speaker must resort to a proverb, echoing familiar language because his own creativity has failed him. Of all three poems, sonnet 94 pairs the sweet with the sour to create the sharpest contrast, the flower’s degradation made worse by the sweetness of the fragrance it once held in its petals.

In that long summer of my loneliness and fury, everything seemed sour to me. Beyond the pages of my notebook, I was not self-restrained. If I had been able to claim any power “to hurt,” I certainly would have done it. The man I loved had left, and I was the “basest weed”; the roots of my anger felt as if they stretched far below me into the dirt. Every day I wrote a Shakespearean sonnet of my own, trying to get right the form’s meter, the intertwining rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg. The sonnet, I concluded, was fourteen lines of argument, an essay in miniature. A good sonnet had a thesis statement, which the poet then supported with textual evidence. The hardest part of the Shakespearean sonnet was the closing couplet, the final rhyme so difficult because it had to chime like a tiny piece of music while locking only part of the argument shut, leaving some room for ambivalence and inconclusiveness. It had to make both sound and (almost) sense.

That summer nothing much made sense. Over and over, I wrote the name of the man I loved in my notebook. I wrote his name in the margins of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I was forever opening a new bag of strawberry sour belts. I sat and chewed, my taste buds almost barbed with sourness. The candy tasted like grief but also like the emotion that follows grief. The sweetness came at the end, after the crystalline layer of acid had melted off and I could discern the syrupy fruit beneath. That’s when I could finally taste the sweet: when my lips stung and my tongue was a fierce, scraped thing.

Jehanne Dubrow is the author of nine books of poetry, including most recently, Wild Kingdom (LSU Press, 2021), as well as a book of creative nonfiction, throughsmoke: an essay in notes (New Rivers Press, 2019). Her previous poetry collections are Simple Machines, American Samizdat, Dots & Dashes, The Arranged Marriage, Red Army Red, Stateside, From the Fever-World, The Hardship Post, and a chapbook, The Promised Bride. She has co-edited two anthologies, The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems about Perfume and Still Life with Poem: Contemporary Natures Mortes in Verse

Jehanne’s poems, essays, and book reviews have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Poetry, Southern Review, Pleiades, Colorado Review, and The New England Review. Her work has been featured by American Life in Poetry, The New York Times Magazine, The Slowdown, Fresh Air, The Academy of American Poets, as well as on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. She is the founding editor of the national literary journal, Cherry Tree.

She has been a recipient of the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Adrienne Rich Award for Poetry from Beloit Poetry Journal, the Crab Orchard Series Open Competition Book Award, the Diode Editions Book Contest, the Editors’ Prize in Prose from Bat City Review, the Firecracker Award in Prose from CLMP, the Mississippi Review Prize in Poetry, the Poetry by the Sea Book Award, the Towson University Prize for Literature, an Individual Artist’s Award from the Maryland State Arts Council, a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship and a Howard Nemerov Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and a Sosland Foundation Fellowship from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The daughter of American diplomats, Jehanne was born in Vicenza, Italy and grew up in Yugoslavia, Zaire, Poland, Belgium, Austria, and the United States. She lives in Denton with her three Bedlington Terriers, Lola, Bandit, and Ella, and with her husband, Jeremy, who recently retired from a 20-year career in the U.S. Navy. Jehanne is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas.