Poems to Live By: ‘Tomatoes’

There’s a certain irony to 24 hour news. It feels as if the more news we get, the less important it all seems. It certainly feels less real somehow. Whereas thirty years ago, a Michael Burke report seemed to move the whole population to respond to a crisis in a distant land, images of war and death are forgotten as soon as the next newsworthy item is read. Another bomb in Baghdad is hardly even mentioned. We’ve become so saturated with images of horror that we hardly manage to notice the difference between fiction and reality. Or at least, that seems to be true of me.

One of the things about the written word is that when it’s done well, apathy is not an option. ‘Tomatoes’ by Gillian Clarke does what no newsreel can manage. It takes us beyond the sudden image into people’s lives. People like you and I. People going about their mundane, everyday work but, as is typical of Clarke, she imbues these everyday actions with great value. Look, she says, these are human beings, these are people. Just like you. Just like me.

The language, the tone, is colloquial, reflecting the mundane journey the brothers take. This isn’t an extraordinary occurrence she seems to suggest, this happens all the time. What she does is write a simple narrative of this moment in the brothers’ journey but she fills it with their whole lives. The details are all tender, of actions completed with great care. Again and again she draws attention to the sense of touch: fixing ‘the flatbed/passing each nut and bolt’ and then the beautiful repetition of ‘hands’. Hands that ‘sowed’, ‘nurtured’, ‘slaked’, ‘cupped’, ‘stroked’. These are hands that have grown things, created and cared. You get it in the tender alliteration of ‘hands that cupped the cranium  of babies/and stroked scared children to sleep.’

The repetition of those ‘hands’ is then even more powerfully evoked in the next line, ‘hands that will fist the heavens with weeping’. Suddenly, we see and feel the senselessnes of it all. Of beautiful lives lost. Of gardens left untended, of mouths left unfed, of children left without a father. All we are left with is that image of the tomatoes, red-ripe, being turned, as if by magic, into a pile of human skulls. It’s poetry as politics. But not the preaching-from-the-soapbox-politics. It allows us space to see and to think and to respond.

Forget the news. Read poetry.

But be prepared to weep.

Two brothers and a truck
crossing the Tigris
on the road to Baghdad,
stopped at a checkpoint.

Their cargo is fruit for the city market,
not crated, not cradled against a rough ride.
Just a freight of fruit piled like stones
on the road to war.

Hours earlier, by starlight,
under the drums of the dark,
they’d fixed the sides on the flatbed,
passing each hut and bolt till it’s done.

Before dawn, hands that sowed seed
on the plains of the Tigris, or Euphrates,
that nurtured seedlings with dung
and slaked them with waters of biblical streams,

hands that cupped the craniums of babies
and stroked scared children to sleep,
hands that will fist the heavens with weeping
before it’s done, tenderly took in their palms

the cupola of each ripe fruit,
and picked, and filled
every basket, bucket and barrow,
tipping them into the truck,

a pyramid of fruit
bumping north
on the Baghdad road,
piled like skulls.

Gillian Clarke

‘Tomatoes’ is a poem from the collection ‘Making Beds for the Dead’, published by Carcanet.

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