Experience: Wild Plums

A few years ago — a Google search tells me it was in the January 2001 issue of Poetry — I ran across a W.S. Merwin poem called “The Night Plums”. I was stunned by it, and went on to memorize it. I can’t find the original, so I’m going to quote it here from memory — consequently the line breaks might be off:

The Night Plums

Years afterward
in the dark, in the middle of winter
I saw them again,
the wild sloes on the terraces,
flowering in the small hours of the night
after the turning of the night, and of the year, and of years
when almost all whom I had known there in other years had gone
and the stones of the barnyard lay buried in sleep
and the animals were no more,
I watched the white flowers open
in their own hour
naked and luminous
greeting the darkness in silence
with their ancient fragrance.

by W.S. Merwin

I love that poem, especially the line and the stones of the barnyard lay buried in sleep. The trouble is, I have never seen a night plum. I have no idea what Merwin was talking about. Some online research uncovered that there is a night club called Plums, information of limited usefulness. Right now I’m reading Local Wonders by Ted Kooser — on the cover, it quotes my beloved Jim Harrison as saying it’s “…the quietest magnificent book I’ve ever read…” and I have to agree with the assessment. Kooser’s book is a series of warm essays about his home in the Bohemian Alps of southeastern Nebraska. It’s written in a style that is attentive to language and to the feel of the place, reminscient all the way through of a sort of poetry, even though it’s prose. This, of course, makes sense, as Kooser is a poet and has recently been named the nation’s new Poet Laureate. I suppose I’ll have to read some of his poems now!

But back to the book. Right at the beginning is a short essay on… wild plums! It echoes in its own way Merwin’s poem —

From mid-April into early May, depending upon the lateness of spring, the plum thickets are in bloom. Waves of foamy white break along the roads and at the margins of the woods, contrasting with the dusty greens of the warming fields. The perfume of the wild pum is strong and intoxicating, and the thickets hum with bees. A sprig in a glass of water will fill an entire house with a delicious fragrance that will make you long for something you thought you had forgotten. The blossoms last only a week or so, then they begin to shrivel, turn pink, and soon they are gone, taking a piece of your heart with them.

Later Kooser is examing the history of the name for the plum, going back to the Greek, and ends by saying

And the heady perfume of the wild plum in blossom, drifting through an open window to braid itself softly about us, all wildness itself – how it carries us back even further, to a time before history, to a place through which we grope our way, longing for something we cannot quite define, waving a peeled and painted wand with a packet of tobacco tied to its end.

Damn. There really must be something to those wild night plums. I think I better find some. But where can I find them, short of southeastern Nebraska in late April or early May?

2 Responses to “Experience: Wild Plums”

  1. anne Says:

    here i am on ocracoke, and my cottage, the coffee shop, and the library (school library in morning, community library in afternoon) are all within a block of each other. for many more reasons than that, i am past heaven.

    i tried to check my work email but the encryption doesn’t support it. not a bad thing. i tried to check ‘nicco.org,’ but that site, it says, is blocked by the pornography filter. lucky me, ‘nicco.org/blog/’ is not blocked.

    i’d like to know more about plums myself. i almost bought some small, odd ones at a roadside place on the way down here.

    there are also damsons, a.k.a. bullace, which are like wild plums. they are responsible for the 6 inch scar on my left knee. ten years old, i was biking to pick them when i crashed.


    Kooser’s excerpt is gorgeous.

    i think the night plums is in your poem notebook.

  2. As If It Matters » I gain in speed and confidence. Says:

    […] Ted Kooser is the current Poet Laurete. I wrote about his book “Local Wonders” a while back – but this poem of his both cracks me up and stops me in my tracks: They had torn off my face at the office. They had torn off my face at the office. The night that I finally noticed that it was not growing back, I decided to slit my wrists. Nothing ran out; I was empty. Both of my hands fell off shortly thereafter. Now at my job they allow me to type with the stumps. It pleases them to have helped me, and I gain in speed and confidence. […]

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