Standing at the fruit and veggies stand with Laura waiting for our sweet corn to be shucked and bagged up, I noticed the little cartons of fat, ripe blackberries just waiting for some lucky soul to eat them up. It made me think of one of my absolute favorite poems, “Blackberry Eating” by Galway Kinnell. I also stumbled across another poem just yesterday, this one by Seamus Heaney, called “Blackberry-Picking.” I wondered, there at the fruit stand, what the two poems would look like back-to-back. So, here they are:
for Philip Hobsbraum
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
~ ~ ~
I love to go out in late September
among fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched or broughamed,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.
~ ~ ~
I really like seeing these two poems together. Both Heaney and Kinnell have a love for earthy, thick prose, full of wordplay and wonder. I love that both have taken this un-color, black, and given it a whole rainbow of emotion and flavor. “Thickened wine,” Heaney says, and “icy, black blackberries” Kinnell says. “Summer’s blood,” Heaney says, two simple words overflowing with drama and poetry. I also see Kinnell’s poem as something of a resolution to Heaney’s. The childlike narrator of “Blackberry-Picking” is all joy and energy in the first stanza; he is pained by nature’s joke of rot and death in the second. Kinnell’s poem represents the fulfillment he was searching for, the sweet, delicious moment when he could eat the blackberries he had so diligently picked. Heaney denied him that pleasure, and in Kinnell’s alternate universe the pleasure was finally granted to him.