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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This poem is taken from PN Review 236, Volume 43 Number 6, July - August 2017.

Pomace (trans. James Womack) Alejandro Fernandez-Osorio
Today the orchard called for me.

I took the train without pausing to think. I travelled alone because that’s how they taught me to travel, needing to make it back alive, strong enough to bend and pick up the fruit, to screw down the platen with all my ancestral strength; to arouse, somehow, what has been till now dormant.

*

I guess it’s worth noting that I know what a PlayStation is. And an iPad. And David Foster Wallace. I know there’s a famous strip club in Mieres, and that people in Oviedo and Gijón don’t go out in their slippers to buy bread; but I’m back here to help, to catch the smell of my father (go on, call me bucolic, but I have a father), and to stand looking at this farm that no longer has its orchard but only four useless trees around a dirty swimming pool.

What are they waiting for?

I’m here for that eternal instant: forcing my memory and holding tight to the chill that comes through the door where the dog with the pricked-up ears stands watch.

Look, he’s like Cerberus, I say. My father stares at me in silence and I know, right, I’m not here to give lectures: I’m here to make sweet cider; I’m here for guesswork.

*

We set to work, and the first demand of our work is that we crouch down. I see him forcing himself, as though he still had energy, still had a reason to be working. He puts the apples down on the sack. I bend down too, embarrassed, and gather as many as will fit in my hand. I look at how he works. Do I take these ones as well? I ask. Of course, he says. I like to touch the grass with my knuckles; it is still wet from the night-frost, the night-frost that frightens the animals away and makes this place a northern desert, the kind that fits over life from above instead of lying beneath its feet.

*

Once the barrow is full you have to lift it. (Go ahead, laugh, you don’t know what I’m talking about. That’s fine.) We arrive with the apples and I pour them in without thinking. The ones on top fall first and mix with the older fruit, bounding and crashing against one another and leaving a crushed, bruised pulp, which will be of no use to us if we want to do things well.

Involuntarily, they all look at me as though I were an idiot child.

*

We take a stick, and on one end fix a Coke bottle cut in half (the same method that you use to catch sticklebacks; no reason to do it, and you just throw them back afterwards): it works to help us get the highest apples. The stick’s seven feet long and if you stand on tiptoe you can reach thirty or forty apples, and you can shake the empty bird nests down to the ground while you’re at it.

They don’t like me going up the tree with him: they say I could kill myself or break a leg and I’ve got to go away on Sunday; they’re not paying me to make the sweet cider.

But it’s a child who climbs the trees without them seeing him, and warily keeps on up until he gets scared; a child who climbs down when his conscience gets to him:

Oh, it’s not me who’s going to change this story. Not like this.

*

We use rake and spade to gather them when they are many. You have to move carefully so as not to crush them, and so it is better to dig up a little soil (it makes you happy here, to see the grass grow), than to lose an apple simply because you’re thinking about the origins of man, the reasons for literature.

It is pleasant afterward to put them on the plate and lay down the new-washed slats (it smells like a boat, here in the middle of Lena), and the press-plate and its backers, to prepare the screw to push down hard; pleasant, because it is correct.

And when our strength fails, more hands come to push the iron bar, so that the orchard will be proud, with each man giving what he can.

No. It’s a lie. No one comes here but my father. No one else makes cider; no one else even drinks it any more.

*

The bags against the wall look like herniated bodies, about to explode, white with pain, full of leaves and worms. We load them onto our backs and climb the hill to the press, moving from side to side, kneeling when we are beaten.

I came here for this and for this burden: I’m not going to give up now, not until I drink this blood to gain myself some eternal life; not until they lick my wounds when they recognise the family resemblance in my face, the resemblance to a land I came back to reencounter, under this low sky with barely room for a cross at the horizon.

*

You need to leave a barrier of rotten apples under the tree, like a wall to protect his painful body, a body that still exists after the beating and the shaking, after you have stolen his children and assaulted his home, scared away the birds and burnt the ants, climbed on his back, shaken his memory and forced him to release the very thing he loves most without saying a single word.

Because it is his destiny to endure and not remember us for the next year, when he will return leafy and abundant, even though the children come by to tattoo names on him with a knife and carve strange hearts on his skin, signs he will bear all his life unknowing.

Because he came to surrender himself to us and no one values him, and they will cut him down when he bothers them or when his fruit stops coming through, just as they hang greyhounds in Castile.

*

We throw the sack down on the floor and jumble the apples on top, wet as they are from the damp that numbs our throats and forces us to stay silent. The damp falls along with the coal dust on the trees which survived it all: the flood, the sickness that killed the ducks and ruined grandfather’s lungs, the sickness that has frightened my father into wearing a sweat-suit fulltime, ever since he first thought of retiring.

My godmother comes to help clean apples; she lifts her dress a little to sit down and I see her leg swollen like a Doric column, on top of which sits a green womb, a womb that gives birth rather than produces fruit.

She takes the apples in both hands and smiles at us.

*

… They’re full of worms, and the ones that aren’t have been pecked to pieces. There have never been so many crows as this year; the tree was full at dawn and I went out early to clap and scare them off, to see them all fly off together… Crows big as dogs flew across the meadow; they wanted to perch on Ángeles’s roof, so they waited for her to go in and then came back down. When Manolo was alive there were fewer of them; he hung dolls in the branches and they didn’t dare land. Now, with the apples how they are, it’s no wonder we don’t even have enough for applesauce.

*

We sit round the basket with the apples by our boots, covered in leaves and mud. My father asks me, Do you remember what the river was like before? I want to say yes, as though I had never left. I try to answer correctly, for my father is a serious man, and then I say something clumsy about the flood that took the bridge down and tore a ten-metre strip off the meadow. I ask him: Father, do you think that the water will block any of the ditches? All of them, he replies. And the river, I say, will it carry a cargo of the dead we never knew were there?

We carry on cleaning, because maybe you don’t notice a bit of shit, but it all adds up and taints the cider and our blood as well.

*

When the apple shines clean, I smile. My father cleans them quickly: he doesn’t like dwelling on dirty things. I hang around in the corners, pull out the tight leaves with my fingernails, wear no gloves.

I stop and look at my hands. They are swollen and red with cold; they tremble, useless for precision work. I clench my fist and it’s a weapon. I want to say, Do you see how big my fist is? but I don’t interrupt him.

I take an apple and bite into it for the pleasure of feeling life in my mouth, the water that pours out, the flesh healing my flesh.
*

What do you think of the new warehouses by the river?

The owners’ll be happy…

What if the river rises and takes them?

No, the river takes the good and leaves the bad; that’s the law of things. Didn’t you see what the banks were like?

Right.

Ah, I forgot to tell you, Olivi died.

Everyone in the village is dying. Every time I come back…

Not everyone is dead.

*

The dog comes to sniff them and sometimes you need to raise your hand to him because he wants to lick them after they’re already clean. I forget that he doesn’t know any better. What do you want, I say, get out of here. He walks off with his tail raised, not answering me, and throws himself down on the doormat, from where he watches me for the rest of the afternoon. Outside it’s raining steadily, stroking down, as Bertha says, rain clinging to the windows and seeping through the walls; mould grows here even though the room faces south, for all that they run the boiler inside.

Khan has to control himself so as not to run after the apples we throw into the basket, where they land and get a little crushed.

Every action causes damage, even if it is slight damage, hurt that cannot easily be seen.

*

You have to mix apples to get a cider you like. If we put together one sack of the apples from the trees in the top field, the little red ones, with three or four from the grazing meadow, and two more from the corner where Manolo is still buried, then we’ll have something pretty special.

We try, but the trees don’t bear fruit like they used to. This isn’t nostalgia, or regret; it’s a truth that you can sense all through Villallana, from Vallines up to the big house: the trees are dying and the newly planted ones give no fruit; it’s not easy to grow apples.

*

I hear the scratching sound and I go downstairs. The cherry-wood and oak slats are drying on the table, next to the willow. The smell of wet wood blends with the apples and the cellar-damp. He is alone with the dog and I go over to him. We pick up the grinding mill, which weighs as much as a dead body, and drag it over to the wall socket.

In an hour’s time I will be tasting the cider and I will be soaked, drenched, just like when the Catholics baptise their children, and give them names to make them feel superior to the apples, make them feel separate from this solid ground which receives the hoe with joy, the water and its constant fall keep on the theme of blessing, but the water has no God in it, and makes us love it each one in his own way, with its singing; and anyway, if it starts raining here it’s not like it rains anywhere else, because here it never stops.

*

The grinding mill has an old motor, but it still works. It’s barely used, which gives the spiders time to nest there: they run when we clean the mechanism and break their stasis, the calm they need to multiply and grow. They come in all sizes. I like to see them confused, not knowing where to go, stunned by the noise that’s coming now from what was their home, their family home. They run out without any goal, without knowing what a dwelling-place is, or memory.

Then I come across one, alone and lost, and to help it – nothing more than that –, to stop it from being abandoned and alone, from being homeless, I push it into the blades, because a body so small won’t understand, and might even thank me if it could speak.

*

I help him to lift the basket so we don’t have to crouch down to pick up the apples. We don’t crush them now, we throw them whole a couple at a time into the grinding mill that bites them and spits them out in shreds, ready to rust in the air. They do this just as all living things die: slowly, changing colour, growing smaller, returning to water. I have to put my hands in the mass to spread it around and make sure it doesn’t spill.

I taste it. It’s as though I were tasting the softest entrails of our men, the wombs of our women, the hearts of the children who still run through the waste land; I am gathering them raw with my fingers, staining myself with myself, as though you needed to hold yourself in your own hands to know yourself from the inside.

*

What do we do now.

Now we push.

And because I was born without gloves I push the pole with my bare hands, and the crossbeams shout, the screw roars, my feet shudder, I smile, because I am doing this with these hands that write, these hands I use to scratch someone’s back or pinch their buttocks, the hands I will later use to drink from the trough and hold out my fingers for you to suck; the hands I will use to wipe the foam, the dried pomace, from my beard.

I push and my skin burns. I have to cure it with sweetness. To wash my eyes with it when they are not looking and even put my whole head under the surface, because that’s why I’m here, as I already said.

*

By my count, there were three thousand and eighty-three definite drops that fell from when the flow stopped coming until nothing more fell into the trough. They came quickly to start with, and dark. Then they took longer to fall, and seemed to correct their fall mid-flight.

*

I cup my hands and receive the cider; I am on my knees, in silence, with the old stones supporting my back and the fury of the press pushing back against the slats; alone as one receiving communion who stops being what he was in order to become something new and unknown.

This was how I took in our land: through its blood, unhurriedly, in a slow stream, without any pressure, without any more violence than the weight of its fruit.

*

From this trough it is sweet to look at the world, that’s the most important thing. There will be time for things to grow sour or be lost, for the channel to break as the cider is poured, for the harvest to be good and for the world to look at us in envy. I don’t care. The barrels are filled and it’s no business of mine how things turn out.

*

For everyone else, for the tourists, cider is for quaffing, for getting drunk on, for being poured into glasses at arm’s length; that’s not what we’re talking about here. I took the train and went on a long and lonely journey to redeem myself with cider. They were all happy: the orchard, the dead, the dog…; the exile returns home and his home rejoices.

I did not come for them, but for myself.

And so, when they weren’t looking, I put my head in the trough right to the bottom; I thought about drowning myself in it, about dying where one is born, silently, with no language to confuse things and hide them inside some non-existent structure like time, or space, or a homeland.

*

I frighten myself when I write these things, when all I wanted was sweet cider and now look what happened. It’s the dampness in the sheets, it’s my grandmother and her insistence on squashing you between her breasts when she hugs you: what can I say? It’s setting out to name the world again from first principles, to point your finger at every manner of thing, capture it in words and be the first to do so; this is what the sweet cider means.

I’m not (repeat, not) talking about apple juice.

*

Because it’s like coming home drunk, and whirling like dervishes all the way up the road, or racing to see who gets home first and complaining that you never see shooting stars any more in the village.

This is old poetry, it’s true. But I don’t like not seeing the stars, when they call me from Villafranca at the same time to see the light falling over the vineyards, up here on the side of Ranero which grasps at everything.

I have to lie to her: Tell me when you see anything because I’m not wearing my glasses. I hear her say, look, there’s one. And then I make a wish, just in case, and she asks me what I wished for, and we both say that we wished for the same thing, only we don’t say it out loud in case it doesn’t come true.

*

To take the boards out and plunge your arm in up to the elbow, to feel the pomace bubbling against cracked lips: this is medicine; here no one can die if they do this every morning of their life, are reborn once again each day. It doesn’t matter if the drizzle never stops, if your lungs become sponges from the damp, if the flood tears down the bridge, if the cows burst from the pity of it all, if they buy their coal from Poland; as long as you have this trough where you can cure whatever dies every day, can smell the new flesh in ferment, can call things by their familiar names…

But that can’t happen, my father says.

It’s something that happens in cider time and then finishes.

*

I didn’t know that they threw the pomace away. Yes, it’s something I’ve heard them say in Asturias sometimes, about a footballer, a politician: he’s a dead man walking, he’s nothing but apple-mash; fine, but seeing them ready to throw the pulp out to the pigs, or the chickens, as though it were worthless, makes me hurt inside, as though I were suffering from some incurable disease. I didn’t open my mouth, because this is one of the prices you pay for coming home, but it hurt me to see the pigs nosing up what remained, and the dogs walking on it, and the chickens spreading it over the ground… Everything returns to its origin: it’s another law, I guess.

And so I let my father do it; a father’s blood is different, the clouds in front of his eyes are different; it was he who came home every night with his eyes stained with coal, he, not I.

I let them take it away and return with the empty basket, like they do each time the cat gives birth.

*

Pomace, heaped up like an omphalos pointing to the sky, facing up to the rain agape and letting itself seep away, a worthless body, flung down against the ground and exhausted.

Let’s go home, back to the false home, the home with no myth or memory, the home that gives shelter but does not nourish.

*

Before leaving I look back at the farm and see it in the middle of everything, motionless.

I have always liked apple trees. Apple is a sickly tree, delicate, it looks as though it’ll die if you stare at it too long. It’s shy. I remember climbing it to get my kite back once, just on a whim. It was as though it felt ashamed when you stroked its joints where the limbs met the bole: the apples turned red; it was the way we had of making them ripen more quickly.

I do personify it, I know, but it has a soul and no one sees it. It is steadfast, puts up with knives and ants; when summer comes it stays green to give us shade and hope, the idea that September is not too distant.

The tree of life, the tree of science.

And so I stand for a while, to watch it for a while, and then to be free to leave, certain that it is still fixed close to the house, and that we will die and it will be the apple once again that kicks off whatever history is to come; they’re not going to choose an acacia.

*

I leave, with my forehead cut and my lips swollen, with my red eyes made bigger by my glasses.

I look through them down the valley and see the permanent river, with the leafless black poplars and the robins flying low.

This is El Castillo as it always has been, half fallen into brambles, with the empty warehouses about to multiply until they get lost in some grey mitosis.

This is the petrol station burnt during the night while the guard was asleep.

This is Mundo Mueble going bust, a warning to the whole country.

This is the neighbourhood painted in bright colours, and the empty football pitch, and the broken basketball hoops.

This poem is taken from PN Review 236, Volume 43 Number 6, July - August 2017.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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