Saturday, February 28, 2009

"It happened over an apple," Whatever It Might Be

In the second part of For All We Know, the poem titled 'Proposal' (66*) starts with the following sentence: "It happened over an apple." Though it is obvious that an apple is involved, what the "It" refers to remains unclear. On a sunny day in August graced with the occasional shower, Gabriel and Nina find themselves "in a market" and before "a barrel of apples." Nina then takes one of them:

Try it and see, Miss, said the vendor. You nodded, and bit
into the crisp flesh. You felt its juice explode in your mouth

as I did when you passed it to me for the second bite.

This little scene might recall how Eve first tastes the forbidden fruit, which has often been identified as an apple, and then passes it on to Adam so he might partake of it as well (Gen 3:6). Hence it comes as no surprise that, in the 'Proposal' of the first part (17), there is an explicit reference to the story of the fall of man as recounted in Genesis: "the Tree of Knowledge looming within reach." (There, however, the apple in question is capitalized and of a more electronic nature.) The Tree of Life, Eden's other prominent tree (Gen 2:9), is mentioned too (47).

After tasting the fruit of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve discover that they are naked (Gen 3:7).
We have to keep this in mind as we turn
back to the poem that caused this excursus, because, as I will show, it seems rather apt that the apples on sale should be called "Discovery" (66). Gabriel and Nina "bought a pound of them, some wine and cheese, / and repaired to the country where we picnicked by a stream" (66).

Though the location where the picnic takes place is not described, the stream alone brings to mind a classical topos, the locus amoenus. In this ideal, paradisal setting, "[Nina] offered [Gabriel] a Discovery" (66). The distinction between the apples bearing that name and an actual discovery is only apparent in writing. This means that if one reads the passage aloud it becomes ambiguous. Besides alluding to Adam and Eve's discovery of their own nakedness, this word also recalls the clichéd metaphor of the male lover as a conqueror and the woman as the terra incognita he discovers and explores.

Yet there is even more that justifies a reading of 'Proposal' that brings out its sexual subtext. Gabriel describes eating the second apple as follows:

This time I could taste
your mouth from it through the juice. We took bite for bite from it

until we finished it as one.

In the first sentence, the apple reminds Gabriel of the taste of Nina's lips and therefore taking a bite from it metonymically comes to stand for kissing her. The phrase "as one" at the end of the second sentence alludes to the lover's becoming one flesh (Gen 2:24). Thus, the ensuing exchange of kisses culminates in the consummation of their love.

Finally, the last line sheds light on the "It" with which the poem began, though it can be read in various ways (66): "Then we asked things of each other we'd never asked before." The most literal, if also simplistic, reading could be paraphrased as: 'We asked questions we had not dared to put to each other earlier.' As it is hardly possible to define the sequence of events between their first meeting and the fatal car accident, this might be their first rendezvous, which results in a second reading. What they ask of each other could then be taken to refer to physically expressing their love.

The reading I prefer, in accordance to the interpretation outlined above, would be that one of them proposed to the other in the heat of passion. Interestingly, the 1st person plural pronoun veils who it was and turns the proposal into something put forward by both of them equally. In a way, the idea that "[t]he lie is memorized, the truth is remembered" (19), that memories blur and change over time, is taken very far by not attributing the proposal to one particular person. On the whole, this reading explains why the trip described in the poem was more significant than many others and accounts for its title.

* All page numbers refer to Ciaran Carson, For All We Know, as published by Wake Forest University Press.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Mike,
    I really like your interpretation. Reading it, I wanted to know more about the symbolism of apples and here is what I found. Apart from the apple in Adam and Eve’s story, where it comes to symbolize sin and immorality, there are several instances in the Old Testament where the apple is more positively connoted. “The apple of your eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10, Psalm 17:8 Proverbs 7:2, and Zechariah 2:8) describes a person or object of great value. The apple is used in a sensual context in the love songs of the Song of Solomon. The apple is used as a symbol for beauty and in Joel 1:12 the apple appears in a verse with a sense of profound loss when the apple tree withers (the apple could foreshadow the loss of the beloved person – maybe?). In Celtic mythology there is a story about Conle who receives an apple which feeds him for a year but also gives him an irresistible desire for fairyland. And most interestingly, Irish folklore claims that if an apple is peeled into one continuous ribbon and thrown behind a woman's shoulder, it will land in the shape of the future husband's initials. This last symbol would tie in with your interpretation of the proposal of marriage. I don’t know whether this is of help, I just found it interesting, since I only knew the general interpretation of the apple in Eve’s fall.

    See you soon, Tanja


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