“Mu Chi’s Persimmons,” The New Yorker October 20, 2008
Like much of Snyder’s work, “Mu Chi’s Persimmons” has a simple, straightforward approach to its readers. Its language is simple, though not unvaried, conversational, and rooted in natural image. As well, much of the rhythm is chopped into very palatable units such that the poem feels very tenderly, carefully paced, which grants much of it a certain humility and grace, at least until the very end where the poem speeds up.
Like a scroll, “Mu Chi’s Persimmons” is built vertically. By that I mean the lines are on the shorter side, and the poem (though it’s broken across two pages in The New Yorker) reads up-and-down as opposed to side-to-side as a result. In contrast, even though we still read them down the page, poems with longer lines generally read horizontally. Because all but one or two of Snyder’s lines are under ten syllables, “Persimmons” maintains a vertical appearance. The 13 short stanzas, all but one that’s three lines or less, also push the poem down the page, and the white space between creates a slowly unfolding scroll-like effect. Though the poem is short, it takes time and consideration to be read. I get the feeling each stanza should be considered in and of itself, that each acts as a thought unit, a meditation object as much as it acts as a smaller piece of the whole.
Virtually any stanza can be examined to see how Snyder creates this effect, so consider his opening, a simple sentence that begins with a prepositional phrase (a one line stanza), continues with the verbal half (another one line stanza) of a passive-voice sentence and culminates with the subject half (a couplet) of that passive-voice sentence that interestingly doesn’t end with a period: “On a back wall down the hall // lit by a side glass door // is a scroll of Mu Chi’s great / sumi painting, ‘Persimmons’.” The lines/stanzas are carefully cadenced. You can’t read them swiftly—well, you can, but you’d miss their elegance. It’s like Snyder is leading readers around a corner in his house, down a hall, asking us to actually look at and admire this work as it physically hangs in his house. There’s even a sense of pride in his speaker’s voice when he, like a tour guide might, explains bits of the painting that have nothing to do with the painting itself but with how its been hung (by him): “The wind-weights hanging from the / axles hold it still” and “I chose the mounting elements myself / with the advice of the mounter . . .”
Like the single-line stanzas, a number of the enjambments keep the poem slowly moving. The first line in stanza four, for example, ends with the word the, which sort of makes the line float off into space, incomplete as both thought and grammatical phrase. As well, the line is longer than what will follow it—roughly double the length—which helps create this floating effect: “The wind-weights hanging from the / axles hold it still.” The shorter, second line, in contrast, is a complete thought and phrase (clause, actually), which brings the stanza to a close with a satisfying sense of complettion. The poem’s movement has stopped; the stanza must be read slowly, ultimately. The brief, succeeding description of the painting works in similar fashion to keep the poem’s movement carefully modulated: “Perfect statement of emptiness / no other than form // the twig and the stalk still on, / the way they sell them in the / market even now.” Each line requires its due consideration even though some lines may be read more quickly than others. And, when the reading speeds up, a particular enjambment, like the aforementioned, or white space slows it back down.
The exception to these meditative stanzas is the one long(er) stanza in which Snyder’s semi-lyric becomes narrative. Here, though the lines are roughly the same length and build as their precursors, the poem speeds up. This one stanza lumps seven lines together (roughly as many lines as there are in the first five stanzas!) and the last four of them all contain verbs, which keeps the action rolling. But these are real persimmons the speaker’s talking about now, and he’s not just talking about them—he’s eating them, “suck[ing] the sweet orange goop . . . gripping a little twig . . .” He’s relishing them over the sink with a joy equal to but very different from that which he experiences in the presence of Mu-Chi’s painting. You can practically feel the goop, see its juice running down to the speaker’s elbow. It’s a deliciously rough image not altogether unlike that of a barbarian who grips a mutton leg to tear into its meat.
So, we have two sets of persimmons: those in the painting, and those in the speaker’s mouth and belly. The first set, Mu-Chi’s, are described with elegance and mindfulness; the second, the speaker’s, are described with violence (in comparison) and unchecked physical drive. As such, they allow the poem a nice contrast and tension that mirrors Mu-Chi’s work. Sumi, or sumi-e, is work of opposites—yin-yang, for example. You can see this in the actual persimmons painting with its black-and-white contrast, its empty and full fruits, and you can see this in the two persimmon sets in Snyder’s poem. The idea is that by bringing each opposing side together, a harmony rather than conflict can be created. So, in the poem, only the combination of a mental and physical digestion of persimmons can bring the speaker to a complete understanding of them. One or the other by itself is insufficient.
But, to keep this poem from moralizing that fact, Snyder ends with a quick and quippy last line: “those painted persimmons // sure cure hunger.” The three stresses in a row coupled with the repeated R sound move readers swiftly through the line, as though the speaker can’t wait to take another bite. And, the line makes light of the poem’s epigraph by suggesting the painting cures hunger by making its viewers seek out real persimmons, thus satisfying physical desire with food for the belly and not just food for thought. The bottom line? Because the speaker’s been mindful of Mu-Chi’s work, because he’s first digested those fruits, these from “Mike and Barbara’s orchard” are even better than they should be.