The Word Oregon, Persimmons, Photographs

Jenny would like to take a brief moment to revisit reverb10. The first prompt last year was, “One Word. Encapsulate the year 2010 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2011 for you?” If you responded to that prompt last year, does the word you chose for 2011 accurately capture this past year for you? If not, why not? If you didn’t do reverb10, what one word encapsulates 2011 for you?

I rarely go back and look at previous posts that I’ve written (is this self-defeating?), but today’s topic forced me to revisit this one from December 1, 2010 — a year and a week ago.

Guess what, you guys?! The single word I chose in anticipation of 2011 was Oregon.

I’m sure glad we ended up moving, otherwise this post would be taking a turn for the depressing right about now.

It’s not that I don’t miss New York. I definitely do. And it’s not as if Oregon is all persimmons and sunshine, because it has its downsides too.

But there has been a surprising amount of persimmons and sunshine.

For real.

Two days ago, I was walking through Northeast Portland on my way to deposit the rent check. That day was a crazy bird day. Maybe it’s because it was cold and sunny, or maybe birds just get manic at a certain time of year. I had started my day taking pictures of the western scrub jays out my office window. Robins and starlings were fighting over the holly berries in the neighbors’ trees. But the jays were the loudest. It was a regular avian ruckus.

Western scrub jay

Western scrub jay

These birds are loud and annoying and possibly a bit sinister. In college, a flock of them terrorized my sweet cat for months after she offed one of their kin. They would dive bomb her whenever she went outside.

After a while, the sun came out, and I set off to pay rent. I walked along in a fog until the unmistakable chatter of starlings broke through Bon Iver. I looked up and saw a flock in the most surprising tree I’ve ever seen in the Pacific Northwest.

Starlings, persimmon tree, Sabin water tower

Amazing tree in the Sabin neighborhood.

This is because it’s a persimmon tree, a fact I established via the squashed specimens on the ground. I associate this fruit so strongly with the Middle and Far Easts that coming across this tree seemed a little bit like finding the forest lamppost in Narnia. Later, I learned that the trees can grow in a variety of climates, but are cultivated mostly in Asia and Central Europe. So it’s not so strange that one can grow here in Portland, just that one is.

I ate a persimmon once. I remember thinking it was disgusting, but I’m reserving judgment. The starlings seemed to think they were delicious.


Starling, persimmonOn balance, New York provides far more opportunities for surreal experiences than Oregon. But this was right up there with the best of them. Such a shocking and transcendent spectacle. I kept thinking, How am I the only person who is seeing this?

I first learned about persimmons in college, when I read this beautiful poem by Li-Young Lee. I hadn’t read it in at least eight years, but it was one of the first things I thought of as I walked away. I still find it intensely moving and evocative. Maybe it’s time I gave them another try.

by Li-Young Lee

In sixth grade Mrs. Walker
slapped the back of my head
and made me stand in the corner
for not knowing the difference
between persimmon and precision.
How to choose

persimmons. This is precision.
Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.
Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one
will be fragrant. How to eat:
put the knife away, lay down newspaper.
Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.
Chew the skin, suck it,
and swallow. Now, eat
the meat of the fruit,
so sweet,
all of it, to the heart.

Donna undresses, her stomach is white.
In the yard, dewy and shivering
with crickets, we lie naked,
face-up, face-down.
I teach her Chinese.
Crickets: chiu chiu. Dew: I’ve forgotten.
Naked:   I’ve forgotten.
Ni, wo
:   you and me.
I part her legs,
remember to tell her
she is beautiful as the moon.

Other words
that got me into trouble were
and fright, wren and yarn.
Fight was what I did when I was frightened,
Fright was what I felt when I was fighting.
Wrens are small, plain birds,
yarn is what one knits with.
Wrens are soft as yarn.
My mother made birds out of yarn.
I loved to watch her tie the stuff;
a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.

Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class
and cut it up
so everyone could taste
a Chinese apple. Knowing
it wasn’t ripe or sweet, I didn’t eat
but watched the other faces.

My mother said every persimmon has a sun
inside, something golden, glowing,
warm as my face.

Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper,
forgotten and not yet ripe.
I took them and set both on my bedroom windowsill,
where each morning a cardinal
sang, The sun, the sun.

Finally understanding
he was going blind,
my father sat up all one night
waiting for a song, a ghost.
I gave him the persimmons,
swelled, heavy as sadness,
and sweet as love.

This year, in the muddy lighting
of my parents’ cellar, I rummage, looking
for something I lost.
My father sits on the tired, wooden stairs,
black cane between his knees,
hand over hand, gripping the handle.
He’s so happy that I’ve come home.
I ask how his eyes are, a stupid question.
All gone
, he answers.

Under some blankets, I find a box.
Inside the box I find three scrolls.
I sit beside him and untie
three paintings by my father:
Hibiscus leaf and a white flower.
Two cats preening.
Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth.

He raises both hands to touch the cloth,
asks, Which is this?

This is persimmons, Father.

Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,
the strength, the tense

precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times
eyes closed. These I painted blind.
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.

Since it worked out so well last time, I guess I’ll choose a word to project onto 2012: create.

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4 Responses to The Word Oregon, Persimmons, Photographs

  1. Valerie says:

    I’m here, and I’m reading. You’re wonderful.

    One time, a friend and I bought persimmons because we’d never tried them before. I had a down vest with big pockets and we went for a walk on the beach, and I had persimmons in one pocket and a beer in the other. Your post made me remember that; the first and last time I’ve ever tasted one.

  2. That is why I so want to love them: Data suggests that memories associated with them are 100% gorgeous.

  3. Katie says:

    Persimmons in Portland seem so improbable. I ate one for the first time a couple years ago, when I was visiting Evy in San Francisco. One of her high school friends had recently moved to Oakland, and we drove there one morning and she made us the most elegant breakfast of pancakes and persimmons. It was fall and the persimmons were like sunshine. I think you would like them now. I get them in my CSA box sometimes, and I very much wish to bake with some.

    On a louder note: I had that exact same memory about Greta and those accursed bluejays.

  4. Erin M. says:

    I have been eating persimmons with my lunch every day this week. They have been my favorite winter fruit for some time now, and I really miss being able to buy them at the farmer’s market in Oakland. I also dreamed about cooking with the weirder, squishier Hachiya persimmons last night–that was kind of strange! The main thing is that the two kinds of persimmons are very different, with way different textures, and different ways to tell if they are ripe. Kind of like bananas and plantains that way. So you just have to learn them. But the firm, ripe fuyus are delicate and a little crunchy, with just the right amount of sweetness.

    Also, I don’t generally go in for poetry these days, but that poem is gorgeous. Thanks for sharing, and you are awesome! :)

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