Academic journal article Antipodes

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Kate Llewellyn's Self-Portrait of a Lemon

Academic journal article Antipodes

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Kate Llewellyn's Self-Portrait of a Lemon

Article excerpt

Bitter breast

of the earth

I've picked this one

from a dark green laden tree

this is a cold hard

obdurate fruit

yet one swift act

releases the juice

enhancing oysters

fish and almost everything else

the acerbic aunt

of the orchard

beautiful in youth

yet growing thorny

in old age



("Lemon," Kate Llewellyn)

The poem "Lemon" was first published in Kate Llewellyn's poetry collection Figs (1990) and most recently in Playing with Water: a story of a garden (2005). Llewellyn is a popular Australian poet, diarist, and travel writer1 whose "story of a garden" takes the form of a journal in which she records the day-to-day joys and frustrations of the gardens she planted in a suburb of Wollongong - a mining-cum-university town, squeezed between the mountains of the Great Dividing Range and Pacific Ocean on the southern coastal strip of New South Wales. Like Llewellyn's song in praise of lemons, Playing with Water is also a self-portrait - the story of a writer, and the story of creative process. In both the poem and the journal, a dash of lemon adds pungency to the plain water of the ordinary and the everyday - enhancing "almost everything."

Lemon is the brightness of yellow, the solidity and fit of shape in the cupped hand, the texture of knobbled skin, the fresh sweetness of smell, and the shock of sour - physical, sensual reactions to color, weight, shape, texture, smell, and taste. Like Margaret Olley's still life, "Lemons" (1964, see cover),2 the verbal still life of Llewellyn's lemon poem encourages us to reconstitute the lemon through "remembrance of things past." The lemon is the taste of memory for writer and reader/ listener, and memory being constituted and stimulated as much by the cerebral as the visceral, it is perhaps a mistake to attempt separation of the two spheres of being. To hear the word lemon is, for me, to hear the chanted rhymes of childhood play (equally sour as sweet) - "Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clements" - and to feel the pungency of exclusion and loss. The arches of the arm steeples came down to chop you off - relentlessly, no matter how hard you tried to avoid them: "Here comes a chopper to chop off your Head." The tongue both tastes and tells, and language itself is as much corporeal as it is ephemeral. You have only to speak and hear Christina Rossetti's poem "Goblin Market" to experience the sensuality of language and its capacity to stimulate both body and mind:

Morning and evening

Maids heard the goblins cry:

"Come buy our orchard fruits,

Come buy, come buy:

Apples and quinces,

Lemons and oranges,

Plump unpeck'd cherries,

Melons and raspberries,

Bloom-down-cheek'd peaches,

Swart-headed mulberries,

Wild free-born cranberries,

Crab-apples, dewberries,

Pine-apples, blackberries,

Apricots, strawberries;

All ripe together

In summer weather,


Taste them and try:

Currants and gooseberries,

Bright-fire-like barberries,

Figs to fill your mouth,

Citrons from the South,

Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;

Come buy, come buy." (13)

My father grew fruit trees in our back yard in Yarralumla, Canberra - blood plums, prunus plums, white and yellow peaches, pears, nectarines, apricots, loganberries, raspberries, blackberries - the exotic fruits of Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" that each summer were tasted in the sourness of first color, and later, our hands and faces sticky with the sweet corruption of Seamus Heaney's "Blackberry-picking," we would glut ourselves in secret:

You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet

Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it

Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for

Picking . . .

. . . our palms sticky as Bluebeard's. (5)

The hot little room at the back of the garage held shelves of wax-topped jams and tall glass jars of bottled summer whose taste, scent, and color would be released and relived throughout the cold Canberra winter months, enlivening the mutton chop, boiled cabbage, and mashed potato with peaches and cream. …

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