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Blackberry Picking
by P. G. R. Nair Bookmark and Share

Memories of past events provide us with a wide range of thoughts, feelings and emotions. Childhood memories often open a window to laugh, cry and reminisce. In the smiling summer nights of my childhood, I often lay anxiously awaiting the wee hours of morning to arrive. When the first rooster made its rumble, I would wake up and go out with a torch in my hand to all the mango orchards in my neighborhood to pick up the variety of ripe mangoes that had fallen the previous night. The last stop over of this gleeful gathering would be my home terrain. With a basketful of mangoes of the night and a heart of contentment, I would return and make a proud display of my plunder before my sisters woke up in the morning. It hardly mattered whether we ate any mango. The mango picking had more fun than munching the mangoes. Often the mangoes rotted in the sacks and the rotten mangoes fertilized our coconut trees.

I have often thought that many little acquisitions and luxuries we make in life have something to do with this mango picking. Many coveted purchases and artifacts now lie as ruined possessions in my home coated in dirt, dust and rust. The desire for them has disappeared with the attainment of it. They can now be dubbed as debris of my wanton lust for avarice. 

Some years ago I came across a poem titled “Blackberry picking” in a poetry collection. It was written by Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Laureate, considered as the greatest Irish Poet after W B Yeates. The poem instantly struck a chord in me and took me back to my childhood days of mango picking. This poem, though simple, encapsulates an essence that is important because it is fresh and universal.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
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. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned,
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

briar : a thorny plant
cache: hiding place
potato drills: Planted rows
Bluebeard's: Bluebeard is a character in a fairy tale who murders his wives
byre: barn

Seamus Heaney once said “I think childhood is, generally speaking, a preparation for disappointment.” Children are often disappointed in life: they ask Santa Claus for many things at Christmas time and rarely receive all their requests. Perhaps this is a learning stage for children, preparing them for the disappointments of life.”

Blackberry-Picking explores the dissatisfaction often involved in gaining an object of desire. When you pick hundreds of blackberries they're really yummy, but after a few days in your bathtub, they go all mangy and moudly. It shows how nothing lasts. You may think things are great now, but Blackberries don't last forever kids!  – that is the voice from an adult perspective. The poem may sound depressing and nostalgic poem even for a little kid. Heaney is unveiling greed here. The unrestrained quest for more of the same, for greater amounts of fulfillment leads to the destruction of the object of desire. Removed from its home in the sun, and hoarded, life is slowly destroyed, changed beyond recognition and enjoyment by hostile forces and by time.   

The poem runs into two parts, the first longer, describing the gallop for gathering of the blackberries, and their consumption, the arrival of joy and the almost convulsive mad rush to capture every drop of it and the second about half that length, the ruin of the remainder. 

The words are densely packed, marinated with verbs and adjectives and phrases, to establish the tone. It is deliberately rich. Some of the words and phrases used which describe the juiciness of the blackberries are, “glossy purple clot”, “summers blood was in it”, “flesh was sweet” and “the red ones inked up,” all telling of the freshness and ripeness of the blackberries with no trace of imperfections. The poem fills the mouth as the blackberries do. It is laden with that strange fruit, its sweet clammy experience ready to be tasted and stored. Similar sounding words such as "milk-cans, pea-tins, jam pots", "hayfields, cornfields", "trekked and picked" creates a resonant cadence. The poem is hypnotic in its unrelenting linguistic intensity, Rhymes and metaphors like “Grass bleached boots”, “Hands peppered with thorns” etc. The poet is careful to balance the copiously sonorous phrases with words that more than hint at a darker side to the bounty of blackberries (E.g.: Rat-grey fungus, stinking, rot)

There are three primary images in Blackberry-Picking. They are the child blackberry-pickers, carrying "milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots", the "fur" or the villain that steals their treasure, and the blackberries themselves. 

The children are an image of unrestrained desire. They succumb easily to the "lust for Picking", savoring the sweet taste and hoarding the unconsumed. They are controlled by their craving. They represent humanity in the poem, in their envy of that which is "gutting on their cache", and their sense of injustice - "it isn't fair" that what they have so greatly desired and gained is snatched from them by the swift processes of time. 

The "fungus" or “fur” is the explanation called by the speaker for the destruction of their "cache". It aids in the destruction of their fruit, and is the object of their hatred and derision. He ominously describes "a rat-grey fungus" creeping over a fresh cache of fruit. However, "once off the bush... the sweet flesh would turn sour" by its nature, portending corruption and decay. The pure enjoyment of the eating is subsumed by greed for more until most are lost to the processes of time, when they should have been left on the bush. The pain involved in getting them is multiplied when they are consumed by an outside force, the "fur". The speaker knows this, although he does not acknowledge it to the end of the poem.

Blackberries themselves are part of childhood, a yearly summer ritual, an object of enjoyment, of "trekking and picking" throughout the countryside. Next, the blackberries are intensely desirable, they are "glossy purple", they have "sweet flesh", and they "tinkle" pleasantly when thrown into a container. It is their richness that is so desirable; their contents carry "summer's blood”. They are also ephemeral, which is part of their desirability. Every year the speaker challenges the laws of nature and "hopes they will keep". Even as the picking days are continuing the berries grow from "green" to "red" and finally "ink... up" to "big dark blobs". 

The "lust" for blackberries is a blood lust. Their "flesh is sweet", like "blood". The children are willing to suffer a great deal of pain to satisfy "that hunger". Then Heaney's tone becomes decidedly ominous - the blackberries are "like a plate of eyes", their palms are stained with the juice, as "Bluebeard's" were stained with blood. 

The final part of the poem is a desolate relation of the half-innocent greed of the blackberry-pickers, and their horror and jealousy at their prize's ruin. It continues in the petulant tone of an upset child - "It wasn't fair/That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot" and concludes in a more distant, grave, accepting tone, revealing that even the child knew the berries would not "keep". 

This is indeed a wonderful poem that acts as restorative tonic to our sins and cravings in life and reminds us how things never live up to our expectation and leave a stain as well in their destiny of decay.    

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September 09,2007
More by : P. G. R. Nair
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