In sixth grade, I chose a poem as my favorite poem for a school assignment. It was “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity” by John Tobias. I’ve included the poem below for your reading pleasure. The funny thing is that I don’t like watermelon pickles and I didn’t even really get the poem when I was 10 years old. But I really get it now that I’m 59.
I read it every year to my class when we study poetry and I think of it as my autobiographical poem, of sorts. And even though I try hard not to, I get choked up every year when I read this poem. Each year there are new layers added that tug at my heartstrings.
A cool aspect of this is that I’m still friends with my sixth-grade teacher, Lynn Arwady, who gave me the assignment in the first place. Nearly 50 years ago.
I love Tobias’ asides – where he describes things in a mish-mash, jumbled-together sort of way, set aside by parentheses. It’s as if he’s whispering something important to you separate from the overall poem. It brings the reader in closer, in an intimate way. Like where he says,” When shiny horse chestnuts / (Hollowed out / Fitted with straws / Crammed with tobacco / Stolen from butts / in family ashtrays) / Were puffed in green lizard silence.”
The mixing of fantasy with reality is also charming. Endearing. Like in “During that summer – / Which may never have been at all; / But which has become more real / Than the one that was.” I love that line. How many times have we immortalized a fictitious version of events, simply because they are more enjoyable to remember that way than the real way?
And then there’s the incredibly descriptive language, especially around the discussion of watermelon. You can almost taste and feel the red, ripe, sweet fruit on your tongue as you read Tobias’ line: “Thick imperial slices / Melting frigidly on sun-parched tongues / Dribbling from chins.”
And then the poignant part comes. The reminder that during the poem’s time, it was a season of limitless bites. But that time has passed and the bites are fewer now. “Each one is savored lingeringly / Swallowed reluctantly.” That’s the part that I find it tough to read without choking up. Especially after some major losses I’ve endured in the past two years. The death of my mom followed just one year later by the death of my grandmother.
But Tobias brilliantly leaves us with the hope of tomorrow. Because Felicity, who is aptly named, has pickled some of that luscious fruit, or at least its rind, to help us remember the joys and beauty of simpler more carefree times. And “When we unscrew the lid / And slice off a piece / And let it linger on our tongue: / Unicorns become possible again.”
REFLECTIONS ON A GIFT OF WATERMELON PICKLE RECEIVED FROM A FRIEND CALLED FELICITY BY JOHN TOBIAS
During that summer
When unicorns were still possible;
When the purpose of knees
Was to be skinned;
When shiny horse chestnuts
Fitted with straws
Crammed with tobacco
Stolen from butts
in family ashtrays)
Were puffed in green lizard silence
While straddling thick branches
Far above and away
From the softening effects of
During that summer—
Which may never have been at all;
But which has become more real
Than the one that was—
Thick imperial slices
Melting frigidly on sun-parched tongues
Dribbling from chins;
Leaving the best part,
The black bullet seeds,
To be spit out in rapid fire
Against the wall
Against the wind
Against each other;
And when the ammunition was spent,
There was always another bite:
It was a summer of limitless bites,
Of hungers quickly felt
And quickly forgotten
With the next careless gorging.
The bites are fewer now.
Each one is savored lingeringly,
But in a jar put up by Felicity,
The summer which never maybe was
Has been captured and preserved.
And when we unscrew the lid
And slice off a piece
And let it linger on our tongue:
Unicorns become possible again.