a literary review
“The purpose of art,” says native upper-Midwesterner Bob Dylan, “is to stop time.” This is precisely what Michigan poet Cindy Hunter Morgan does in her short collection Apple Season, a cycle of poems about the time she spent at her grandparents’ apple orchard as a child and her relationship with her grandmother. Everywhere in these twenty pages, time is stopped and a vanishing–or perhaps already vanished–world is preserved in its prime fullness. Through images that are restrained and precise, honest and never romanticized, Morgan evokes an earthy nostalgia as lovely and intoxicating as the apple scent that wafts through the entire collection.
The opening poem, “Before Sleep,” is full of the wonder of childhood, haunted by ghosts that are truly just plants covered with sheets to fight off the coming frost. Near the end the poem moves into Roethke territory in its roots-and-dirt imagery:
apples and late-blooming annuals,
and roots, and tangles of roots
twisting around each other
beneath clods of cool soil,
trussing everything, all of us,
“Thaw” is also reminiscent of Roethke. Here “The skunk cabbage is up/and the river is flooded” while “Every living thing twists toward light/gurgling and blushing” and “Our boots sink into this earth/so gladly do we root here.”
The comparison is a compliment. Morgan’s images, direct and unadorned, are just about as close to actual experience as poetry can get. We can feel the squish of the earth beneath our boots and smell the thawing scents of nature. And of course there are the apples, baked by the fire in “Necessities”; eaten “sliced/like waxing crescent moons” in “Dormant”; picked early, “tart and sour,” and made into applesauce that “makes [Morgan’s] young/tongue squirm, so sharp/is its message” in “Early Apples”; “red and gold and sweet, streaked like the evening sky” in “Apple Season”; and enjoyed so often in “November” their eaters “bring their light inside,” leading to the promise that “By April . . ./we will glow.” The presence of the apples and the variety of their descriptions is such that their smell seems to linger even in the poems in which they don’t appear.
The same can be said about Morgan’s grandmother. She is the you and half the we in each poem, and her character becomes a strong presence even in poems where she is barely referenced.
But the plain-but-powerful style Morgan employs is an especially good fit for the poems that do deal with her grandmother more fully. For instance, consider Memento, which relates the story of a cruel teacher who ridiculed Morgan’s grandmother when she was a little girl for wanting a pencil case for Christmas. Morgan’s great-grandmother, in an act equally goodhearted and defiant, wrapped a pencil case herself so Morgan’s grandmother could open it at school in front of the teacher. This is the kind of story Morgan’s grandmother chooses to “thaw . . . by the fire, /pass it to [Morgan] to feel its wicked/ragged edges . . .” In the passing of the story, we suspect, a certain toughness and principle are passed as well.
Later, Morgan seems to consider this question herself. In the final poem, “After,” she allows herself a few stanzas of hard reflection on her grandmother’s death, Morgan ends on an image that reflects once again the hardiness and practical wisdom that would be her grandmother’s legacy:
. . .I find the dry carcass
of a squirrel. This I carry off
in a dust pan and toss in the trash,
saddened by the dullness
of disposal. Together, we would not
have squandered that skeleton.
We would have hung it by its tailbone,
collected lost acorns, and made
a wind chime for the porch.
And we’re left with the implied question that Morgan seems to be asking herself without saying it aloud: what qualities of this extraordinary woman has she kept?
In many ways, the world of Cindy Hunter Morgan’s Apple Season no longer exists. Just as a young Morgan in “Necessities” has the good sense to put the last of her grandmother’s darning floss in the closet “so the world will always have some,” I will place this tiny book in a safe place on my shelf so I will always be able to go back and find that world again, as visceral and alive as it must have been in real life.