Poetry has a bit of a reputation among mainstream society for being “difficult”, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not in the case of Heaney’s most cherished efforts. There’s the sense among many that the meaning should be clear, unambiguous. While such poems can be enlightening, I do like to be confronted with questions as I read. I don’t like to know 100% what each line is supposed to “mean”. Some lines just stand there with a scornful lip and mean nothing. “Ruminations on the Plum” is bursting with such attitude. It’s enigmatic, coy and eccentric.
There’s a dangerous line you tread when you choose to write an eccentric poem. On the one hand, it can be wildly original, leading you to places you couldn’t have expected. On the other, you could end up annoying the arses off people, maybe even coming across as pretentious and egotistical.
Gail Dendy succeeds at the former. You can tell that she delighted in the journey this poem took her on. As with Sylvia Plath’s work, the poet seems comfortable in the company of her words, trying them on like fancy clothes. It’s likely to have a similar effect on the reader, I think. Bask in the luxury of its freedom. Feel the plum wrap round you in its odd way. Don’t interpret, just feel.
Ruminations on the Plum
The pip lying in the heart of the plum
as though fastened with hooks and eyes,
as though sewn into its purple jacket,
having dressed for dinner.
You’d think it inviolable.
But the sheets show the blood of the plum,
or something like.
Allow me, you say, and prise away
the flesh from the pith.
You have such kind hands
for this brutal work.
In the heart of me lies the purple plum.
In my heart of hearts fi fy fo fum
a giant walks with his clumsy boots,
tearing my hair, digging my roots.
When the plum bursts from over-ripening, the pulp smells more sweet than bitter. We must open the windows, momentarily, to let the fresh air in. In the fresh air two birds balance themselves as though treading water.
We have dressed for dinner, this evening,
you in your suit,
and me with my plum-coloured dress
it takes on the shape of a river.
I wind myself
around the island of you.
I swear a plum lies in the heart of me,
deep and moist in the root of me,
it is the lie in the heart of me.
My heart is not like a plum at all – this is a lie,
although, admittedly, it’s red and moist
and is carried by four little branches.
It constantly ticks
to remind of the end of the world.
My heart is far too much like a plum
fastened with hooks and eyes
and sewn snugly into its purple jacket.
But one kind word, a gesture, a glance,
and it promptly undresses.
Conclusion: my heart is a bloody nymphomaniac.
I was born in the coastal city of Durban, South Africa, a sub-tropical – and hence winterless – environment. Leaves never fall from the trees, and everything is verdant all year round. Although I’m rooted here (I now live in Johannesburg) my ancestry is diverse: my maternal grandparents came from Dublin and Cardiff, my paternal grandmother from London, and my paternal grandfather from Izmir, Turkey. As for my maternal great-grandfather, he came from Russia. I wish I’d had a chance to meet even one of them, as they would’ve had fascinating stories to pass down.
As a poet, I was first published by Harold Pinter (met him, had drinks with him, enjoyed a great deal of laughter and no pauses), and I’ve shared a collection with Peabody winner and Oscar nominee Norman Corwin. My work is oriented towards people and emotions, with a tendency to exploring the edginess of self (whether inner or outer). As I mature, I find that issues of ageing, reflection, and mortality are coming to the fore. Curiously, many of my characters are physically disabled in some way. Animals also feature in my work, not only cats (I’m an unabashed cat lover), but also wild animals, most particularly the rhino, which, here in Africa, is being decimated to the point of extinction by the scourge of high-tech and well-funded international poaching syndicates.
Regarding influences, I explore a great deal of British poetry, as well as reading works (poetry in the broadest sense) in translation from diverse sources and eras. So you might find me reading anything from The Epic of Gilgamesh, to the writings of Cavafy, or Du Fu. Most recently, though, I’ve rediscovered Louise Glück, and think she’s sensational.
To date my poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies in South Africa and internationally, and I have seven collections which have appeared in the UK, South Africa and the USA. My eighth collection has recently been submitted for consideration. As for the nuts and bolts of earning a living, for the past fifteen years I’ve been the Library & Research Manager for the Johannesburg office of an international corporate-law firm, but I’ve also worked as a university academic, a radio news writer, a compiler of radio poetry programmes, an advertising copywriter, and a legal production editor. I’ve never had the opportunity to write full-time, but hopefully there’ll be a time when I’ll be able to bask in this wonderful privilege.
This poem gives me the impression of a writer who intended to write something very loose and humorous but who ended up hinting at something deeper in a very abstract and playful way. Can you tell us about the inspiration and the writing process here?
I started with the simple image of a plum in my mind, followed by a rhythm that entered my head and simply wouldn’t leave. (Many of my poems begin with the rhythm which, almost simultaneously, conjures up many of the vowel sounds. I tend to joke that it’s the consonants that give me all the trouble.) Actually, when I started writing I was “playing around” with the simple image of a plum, so there is indeed an overarching playfulness to the piece. I began imagining the plum as something prim, inviolable, and corseted, and then immediately reacted against that rather Victorian image by becoming visceral. From there the poem became a process of exploration which led me intuitively to the introduction of nursery rhymes and rhythms, the “flash fiction” prose piece, as well as the “yes” and “no” aspects of what the plum really is.
I feel the influence of TS Eliot here, both structurally (in terms of the feeling of an ad-libbed structure and tone) and thematically (I’m thinking of Prufrock’s peach). Do you feel this was the case here and/or in general in your work?
I wouldn’t say there’s a conscious similarity, but now that you mention it, I can see the parallels. This particular poem is perhaps a literary version of Cubism, presenting an image from myriad different angles or, if you like, several different ideas and flights of fancy relating to the same image. Of course Cubism and the Prufrock poem derive from a similar period in history, that notion of seeing something differently. Regarding my work in general, there’s a great deal of sensuality and even sexuality in my writing, something that’s very evident in this particular poem.
On the surface, this appears to be a poem about a plum and the heart/emotions, but I wonder if there is something else underlying it all. Basically, I’m wondering, did you intend for the poem to function as a kind of allegory?
For me, this poem is very much about revealing the nakedness of self, and of emotional fragility. It’s a story about a relationship that’s becoming off-balance, with one partner doing everything possible to please the other. So the poem teeters one way and then another. If it’s an allegory at all, it’s of the life cycle with its images of blood stains (birth, sex), death (bursting from over-ripening) and the irrevocability of time (a constant ticking to remind of the end of the world).
The last line could hark back to the notion of forbidden fruit, as portrayed in the Bible. Do you think religion (and particularly religious texts, such as the Bible) somehow influence our relationship with metaphors and allegory even today?
You’ve hit the nail on the head – this is very much a “forbidden fruit” poem, and yes, I do think that religious metaphors and allegories are pervasive within and between cultures. I don’t think one can expunge them from the collective conscious, any more than one could expunge, say, Shakespeare (ironically, as I write, there is an active movement in South Africa towards “decolonising” the syllabus at universities and schools). Within my own work, I’ve sometimes deliberately used religious themes, stories or images. In my 20s, I lectured in the Semitics Department at the University of South Africa, teaching, among other things, Biblical history, literature and culture, so I suppose it’s inevitable that biblical images and themes pop up in my writing from time to time.
Why do you write?
It was something I needed to do from a very early age, around eight years old. As an adult I suppose that, being a dancer, I have an innate need to articulate ‘another voice’, to be heard in words as a way of complementing the non-verbal expressions of myself. Interestingly, I can’t do one without the other. If I dance and don’t write, I become unbearably tetchy, and life seems to lose all its colour. If I write and don’t dance, I can become seriously depressed!
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
“Just do it”. Don’t freeze up in trying to write well, and don’t keep trying to top yourself as a writer. You need to throw caution to the winds. Try writing even before you start thinking, and you’ll sometimes be amazed at the results.