Poem of the Week

Life and Death in a Plate of Fruit

T. Carmi contemplates what comes next.

"Still life with Fruit and Flowers," by Balthasar van der Ast (1593-1657).
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Last Days

T. Carmi

The berry is redder than it was.

The apple is greener than it was.

The banana is yellower than it was.

The platter, white with a blue rim,

Glints like a sapphire.

Such a still dance in white and blue!

T. Carmi
Lilach Peled-Charny

Such perfume is hidden in those fruits!

(If they are bitten.)

From “Selected Poems, 1951-1994,” Dvir, 1994. Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden, with permission from Lilach Peled-Charny

Is this a painting of a still life – or edible fruit on a dish? We aren’t told, so let’s assume it refers to both art and life. The first stanza reports: The color of each of the fruits is more intense than it had previously appeared to the observer. There are objects and an observer, apparently life before art.

The one-line sentence pattern – “The [fruit] is [color name]-er than it was” – hints that more might follow. However, after the line break, the poet foils expectations: The next subject is inorganic and of two colors while the sentence continues on into the next line, comparing the subject, in a simile, to something that is not actually in the picture or the observer’s direct line of vision. It “glints like a sapphire” and isn’t merely there – it is also doing something.

This stanza moves beyond reporting to imagining. Defiance of expectations and figurative language mark this as art.

“Such a still dance in white and blue!” illuminates a state of being simultaneously alive and not alive, like artists living on intensely in their works after death.

Romance for Harmonica, Strings and Piano by Ralph Vaughan Williams YouTube

In the final stanza, the hidden content of the display of fruit brings to mind the forbidden fruit of “the tree of life ... and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” in Genesis 2:9. The fruit yielded the knowledge only if bitten – and that brought trouble and “perfume” into the world. This is human life and art, suffering and beauty.

This is the sixth of 10 works in a sequence entitled “Poems and Imagings (Despite Myself)” that begins “There’s a significant chance of a return, / said the oncologist, / and he wasn’t referring to the Messiah,” which Carmi wrote during the final weeks of his life.

T. Carmi was the pen name of Carmi Charny. He was born in 1925 to a Hebrew-speaking rabbinical family in New York, where he studied at the Yeshiva and Columbia universities. He reached Palestine by ship from France in 1947, accompanying Holocaust orphans. He made a lasting mark on modern Hebrew culture in his many books of poetry – all of them written in Hebrew – and translations from English and French, particularly for the theater.

Musing: Why do the colors blue and white appear twice?

Bonus: When asked what he believed would happen to him after he died, British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams said, “I’m going to become music.” Here is his “Romance for Harmonica, Strings and Piano.”

T. Carmi-'Last Days'- Hebrew