I became sensitive to every vibration in the air, to every nuance of the changing light. It would be late afternoon. It was then that the snake of emptiness would tighten around my throat. It was hard to breathe. I didn’t know if I could make it to the next day. There was a bottle of red wine on the chair. I grabbed and gulped it and enjoyed the warm swish of the liquid down my throat.” – Wade Stevenson, Flutes and Tomatoes: A Memoir With Poems
Flutes and Tomatoes: A Memoir With Poems by Wade Stevenson is not at all what I imagined it would be. Let me start with a confession: poetry confounds me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the cadence, the sentiment, the succinct nature of the writing; it’s just that I don’t always understand it. Without a context, it could be a metaphor for anything which is exactly the commonality of human emotion the poet intentionally taps into, but for a reader like me who wants certainty, assuredness, a good clean ending, the myriad possibilities that poetry presents can be downright frightening. That’s why I love this hybrid memoir/poem combo platter by Wade Stevenson. There was no guessing as to what had happened to make the poet lock himself in a basement studio in Paris with a bunch of tomatoes and a flute because he tells us, straight off, that he’s in mourning, that his lover has quite unexpectedly died, that he’s not coming out of the basement until he discovers the meaning of it all, or alternatively, learns to live with it. Having been apprised of the situation from the offset, I could relax, free to roam the pages of Stevenson’s poems, spending as much or more time on each as I felt necessary to understand because I’d been released from the chore of deciphering the code. I already had the rudimentary understanding; the rest was pure — wait for it — poetry, and it was illuminating and lovely.
I think poets, more than novelists, are the epitome of private people. Full disclosure is near impossible which is why they cloak everything in layers of metaphor. As with all good poetry, Flutes and Tomatoes is no exception. Stevenson keeps the details, crushing as they were, in the safety of his private zone. We have no idea, despite the broad brush of events, as to what actually happened in the atelier in Paris: how the lovers met, whether they were young or old, how long they were together, whether they spoke the same language or were perhaps the same sex, whether the trip to the countryside would have been the first or the last. All we know is that the flute and more than a dozen tomatoes remained, the flute maybe because Stevenson and his lover shared a flat. The tomatoes because, as he discloses, they were gathered/stolen from a farmer’s field on a trip that should have been but was/not.
Judge for yourself what could possibly happen to you that would cause you to spend a day, a week, a month, perhaps an entire summer living a solitary existence, just you and an external object(s) of your choice. How devastating the shock? How debilitating the news? It’s unclear from the text how long Stevenson remained underground. Long enough for the tomatoes to rot, for grief to move in with its own baggage and take up excess floor space in his sparsely furnished apartment, for questions of the existential nature of reality — living as he was, at the time, in Europe, the birthplace of existentialism — to be answered, or go unanswered, for him to turn on a tomato or two, to watch them rot and fester and disintegrate into nothingness, to violently throw one against a wall, to embrace his own darkness and ultimately his own light. It’s not an existence for a cowardly heart, perhaps not even a tomato heart. In the end, only the experience remained, and the words, resonating with an emotion the color of tomato.
If you choose not to eat it
A tomato quickly becomes useless
Unless by chance you learned to love it
Knowing buried deep inside
Are seeds of water and sunlight
To you it is transformed, a crimson flower
You watch its pink petals fall
Think of everything that might have been
Desires, sorrows and regrets
How to reconcile the shadow of your soul
With your real self? Tenderly, with blind
Fingers you touch the precious skin
As it swells and dilates
Like some enormous empty heart