Poetry

To the Tomato Gods

A poem, with a side of basil.

If it’s miracles you’re after,
then in the darkest days of December
purchase packets of tomato seeds
and hold them close, like holy cards,
and recite the litany of their names
as a stay against winter’s cruel claws:
Brandywine, Oxheart, Black Krim, Rosella;
Honey Gold, Pink Girl, Moon Glow, Tigerella;
Chianti Rose, Sunrise, Orange Jazz, Tangella.

And wait. Attend.
Abide as the Earth spins you around again
to the laughing days of late February,
the sound of snowmelt running
off rooftops in strings
of shimmering beads,
singing the prelude to spring.

This is the time to begin.
This is the time for burying things,
now, during this ancient Lent.

Hold each seed in your hand until you feel
its weight; bate your breath, and wait
for a vision of unfolding, & division, & growing.
If the vision never comes, proceed on faith:
bury the seeds like so many treasures
in so many tiny fields, and wait.

Stay awake! The miracle is happening,
even if unseen: each seed spinning
something bright, something green —
reaching, rising, pushing up to the light,
finally flinging off the shroud,
unfurling twin flags, a gift unbound.

Then, when the first orioles sing,
bring the fountaining seedlings
out under the rounding sky.
Kneel in the soil,
cup your hands and pray:
that the sun would be kind,
that the rain would be gentle,
that the ripening moon keep vigil,
blessing them with dreams
of indeterminate design.

How do miracles grow?
Sit still awhile, and watch: attend.
Breathe: perceive the vines unfurl & unwind.
Mind how the green lines bend,
tracing ancient pathways
bespangled in yellow stars
with their orbiting bees.

When the crickets and cicadas sing,
gather in the gold orbs and the rouged globes,
the laughing cherubs, heavy in their twined swings.
Gather the Chocolate Cherries, the Black Pearls,
the Green Zebras and Orange Zingers —
all the fragrant fruit of that weightless seed.

Gather them in your arms,
(or if those fail, use pails);
carry them into your kitchen
and spread them across the counter,
the first sacrifice upon the altar.
Don’t you wonder how the smallest of seeds
wrought wind and rain, sun and soil
into this abundant feast,
this saucy festival rioting
on your humble counters.

This is how most miracles go: slow.
And this is faith: not to apprehend,
but to attend, to spend the long season,
to hold out your empty hands,
to receive the once-forbidden fruit —
to taste, at last, the sweet heart of mystery.


About the poem

It’s a cliché to talk about finding miracles in ordinary things…but every September I am a little awed by our tomato harvest: Where did these good things come from? is what I am thinking, because as I recall, four or five months ago all I held in my hands was a handful of seeds so small and insignificant they’d blow away in a strong breeze; and here on the other end of summer, I have this amazing feast.

Where did these good things come from? Inside those tiny seeds are 31,760 genes (someone actually counted) and a microscopic manufacturing operation that makes the assembly of the Mars rover look like a kindergarten project. Give them enough wet soil and sunlight and they’ll weave vines and flowers and fruit out of air and water (and traces of minerals from the soil).

Some people like to roast them with a little garlic and olive oil, and spread the resulting sauce with some basil pesto on a bit of bread. That’s how I enjoy them best, although they make the best pasta sauce, too.

But I also like to stare at a basketful under the late summer sun for twenty minutes, or an hour, and see what kind of feeling they stir, and from there, what kind of poem they might make.

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