The poison lives only in the leaves,
thick with instant bitterness to warn you,
and my Polish grandmother said
this was to kill off the lazy ones, the stupid ones,
the ones who wanted things handed to them,
who couldn't find it in themselves to dig.
And planting it told everyone
you didn't mind dirt under your nails,
that you knew life was hard work if you did it right.
So she grew more than the whole family could eat.
By May, her narrow terraced backyard
in the city’s First Ward was a lapping sea
of palm-sized leaves; by June, a solid ruff of green,
a pruning knife’s hooked blade biting
through the stalks with a flick of her wrist
and a quick snap.
The one time I tried this I sliced deep
into my thumb knuckle at first swipe.
We were both red inside,
me, the rhubarb.
That’s the stuff I didn’t really think about at ten,
how everything bleeds;
how everything must die somehow—
the stupid ones poisoned, the hard workers
heart-worn and wrecked.
We ate the rhubarb raw, stripped of all its leaves.
Dipped in sugar, it still lingered
bitter on our tongues as some inoculation
against the worst of what was yet to come.
“Rhubarb” came around when I was getting into a big gardening kick. My first “real” garden that I had put together, managed, and tended, seed to fruit to seed, all on my own and in my own space was in full swing, and I was amazed at the process and possibility in it all. It’s not anything special and a lot of kids get that, but I was over thirty and really only beginning to understand the whole thing. My dad always had things growing out behind the house, and his parents—that grandmother in the poem—and their parents were gardeners, so I often catch myself going back to that when I’m looking for a story or metaphor or something to build on.
The poem really grew out of a general memory of being at my paternal grandparents’—babysitters for me while my parents were at work—in the summer and getting rhubarb for dessert after lunch: go out back, cut, strip leaves, dip in sugar, eat. That, combined with a whole “Holy crap; I’m an adult now, too!”—kind of realization that was bubbling up at the time I was writing brought out the last lines that, I think, really drive the whole poem.
I really like that idea of being able to endure because of some little thing—something to get one through the night or whatever—and the thanks we can give to it for doing something so simple yet so meaningful.
Matthew Burns teaches writing and literature at SUNY Cobleskill in upstate New York. His poem “Rhubarb” won the 2010 James Hearst Poetry Prize from North American Review, and his other poems and essays are forthcoming or have appeared in Lime Hawk, Graze, Quiddity, Folk Art, Ragazine, Spoon River Poetry Review, Memoir, Camas, and others.
Illustration by Hye Jin Chung, a Korean illustrator who was born in Singapore. She has lived in Singapore, Iran, and Korea, and has finally settled down in New York. The illustration featured in this blog is from issue 299.2 of the North American Review.