Fruit, Bruce Snider’s third collection, opens with a statement about physicality: “The blue whale has the largest heart of any living creature.” This claim serves as both title and launch pad for a poem foregrounded—before the opening chapter—as a kind of prelude, anticipating what is to come: poems that anchor us in the lived experience of embodied beings.
The prefatory poem ushers a boy into the heart of the whale—a means of measure, a means of taking us into the realm of childhood, the realm of dream:
A blue whale’s heart is a wet muscle
that holds a child, who, when kneeling
in the flesh, might move the way
he’d move through the attic of his boyhood
home, turning to touch the blood-flush
as if touching a hearth where the fire
In the first chapter’s opening poem, Snider stakes the territory to be investigated. His title is “Homo,” as in homo sapiens, as in homosexual, as in human. He is all of these, at home inside himself—and proudly, assuredly assertive: “I love you,” he opens this poem, “as one grown man can love / another…” The epigraph tells us where we are: “The Hall of Human Origins, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.” The narrator and his companion are clearly at home here, inside the history of their kind: “All morning, / we walk hand in hand, passing leopard / skins, human skins, men huddling / over split logs, learning to make fire.”
Four pages later, Snider offers up the collection’s title poem. As with “Homo,” “Fruit” resonates with intriguing ambiguities. The poem opens with the literal: “I swatted a mob of flies / from the bowl of peaches.” But this bowl is for a still life assignment in the narrator’s high school art class, with the bully of his adolescence present, sneeringly implying that the narrator of memory is a fruit while the present-day narrator recognizes the mixture of attraction and violence:
On his chest: hair soft as peach
fuzz or the pale grass edging the road
where he’d punch me, glasses flying
after school; was it 1985 or ’86?
Acute bodily awareness pervades this poem, along with a natural progression from awareness of body to awareness of mortality. Consider the movement as this poem draws to a close: “Was hunger peaches, // I wondered, or a sketch of peaches? / Was pain just another word for sex?” Snider could have left us here, but he’s remembering the flies on the bowl of fruit:
I walked home down the road
past a dead dog on its way to resurrection,
more proof that a body could be erased
until—poof!—nothing but flies.
I don’t want to insist too much on ambiguities, but surely, along with the poem’s title, the word poof is more than just a common colloquialism.
Moments such as these acknowledge mortality, but they do not weigh the poems down. From the opening lines, celebrating human kinship with a grand creature of flesh and blood, I hear a voice claiming himself. “Creation Myth,” for example, proceeds by a series of declarations in naked first person:
I’m the great-grandson of a sheep farmer…
I’m drawn from fair grass on the north end…
I’m notes scrawled on freezer paper…
I come from boys unfastening in the 4-H bathroom…
The I-statements continue: “I breathe in… I breathe out… I rise… I sing…” And finally: “I’m born to thunder.” I hear Whitman in this song of self. But mostly, I hear Bruce Snider.
Sixty pages later, Fruit offers up a second poem titled “Creation Myth.” Here the narrator explores identity inside a sexual relationship, his lover’s “millions of sperm / extinguished inside me.” Then, riffing on an ancient belief that “semen was liquified brain,” he imagines himself made stronger by his lover’s ejaculate: “I feel myself filled… I teem… I am… I unfold.” This is the celebratory I, calmly confident.
Inserted into Fruit at intervals are nine poems with the same title—“Childless”—each one an occasion for speculation. What does it mean to be a fruitless fruit—a gay man in a long-term relationship? Nine situations, nine variations on a theme as Snider ponders the impossibility of biological fatherhood for two men, no matter the strength of their attachment. Clearly, the number is significant—nine months from conception to birth, nine occasions for a childless poet to consider that progression.
All nine of these are prose poems—no line breaks for emphasis or increased tension, no stanza breaks to interrupt the flow of words as the narrator casually ponders his predicament. The first “Childless” poem enumerates moments from a coed baby shower—the ultimate banality among prospective parents. The title increases the stakes—for both narrator and reader—focusing on the simple fact of childlessness, the shadow it casts over the vignette that follows. The narrator closes: “Wind shakes the back pond alive with toad spawn, geese. All morning, the poplars rattle, repeating green. They hoard their sticky pollen, then release.” These are more than incidental details. The title, the situation, make us acutely aware that toads, geese, poplars, male and female human couples, are replicating themselves while the coupled gay men among them cannot on their own.
The second of the “Childless” poems riffs on rituals of naming, starting with the most popular names for infant girls and boys. The third flashes back to rabbit hunting, a father-and-son ritual the narrator will not be able to have with a son of his own, though the memory encapsulated here is not a happy one. The fourth vignette opens on the narrator and his companion contemplating the seahorse tank in an aquarium, with a sign explaining about “the male’s ‘brood’ pouch” and then this: “All day I imagine bodies inside my body, each leading to some new us.” Pages later, another of these same-titled poems returns to the theme of what cannot be: “At the hotel, I lay beside you with this body that can never make a child with your body.” A girl child appears in this series, goddaughter of the narrator and his companion—her mother’s pregnancy, the child’s birth, a visit with her to the stork’s pen at a zoo. These are not poems of self-pity. Far from it. I would call them contemplative—the observations of an inquisitive mind, examining the parameters of living paired with another man. Accepting, embracing, what is offered, as in the opening to the penultimate of the childless vignettes: “Just the two of us, some days I love you without interruption.” And the lovely simplicity of this one’s closing: “There is you, and butter on my toast.”