Like many Muldoon poems, “Pineapples and Pomegranates” is not quite what it first appears to be. The title indicates that the poem’s subject is fruit, and the poem begins as a personal anecdote with the speaker recalling his first experience with the pineapple. In the long opening sentence, the speaker muses on the fruit’s exotic appeal, its seductiveness to his thirteen-year-old, relatively naive self. However, Muldoon’s associations soon lead the reader away from the familiar world of objects to more complex and disturbing issues below the surface of daily life. Muldoon makes this transition from one mode to another seamlessly, by employing his distinctive use of rhyme, word-shifting, and repetition.
A master of poetic technique known for his verbal virtuosity and odd, ingenious rhymes, Muldoon also frequently uses association to juxtapose divergent ideas. In this poem, the speaker begins free-associating in lines 6–8, as he recalls that even as a young adolescent, he knew the pineapple “stood for something other than itself alone / while having absolutely no sense / of its being a worldwide symbol of munificence.” These lines contrast the innocence of a younger boy with the informed, literary consciousness of the adult, poet-speaker. Although the tone is casual and confiding, the contrast hints at more ominous things to come.
In the next line, the shift to more complex and disturbing concerns begins. As the speaker continues to free-associate from his initial memory of the pineapple, he begins to muse on the words that arise, stating “Munificence—right? Not munitions, if you understand / where I’m coming from.” The association seems believable, as the two words “munificence” and “munitions” sound similar. However, these words convey very different meanings, as “munificence” refers to generosity and “munitions” are explosive armaments. This typically Muldoonian word-shifting juxtaposes two divergent ideas, which are held together by sound. By invoking this word-shift, Muldoon ushers in the theme of mutability, of things quickly and almost imperceptibly morphing from one thing into another.
These types of shifts continue throughout the last part of the poem, and in “Pineapples and Pomegranates,” this movement tends to go from good intentions to something more sinister. Sometimes the word-shift involves the repetition of a word, as in lines 10–12, when Muldoon writes, “As if the open hand / might, for once, put paid / to the hand grenade.” The word “hand” is repeated but in entirely different contexts, as the generous, peace-extending “open hand” becomes the explosive munitions “hand grenade” two lines later. In these lines, the speaker expresses a desire for peace, but that wish is undermined by the word-shifting. As with the fluid transition from “munificence” to “munitions,” the verbal closeness of the two phrases “open hand” and “hand grenade” indicates how easily one thing can become another and vice versa. Muldoon’s slippery use of language emphasizes how porous the borders can be between two opposing modes.
A final instance of word-shifting occurs in the poem’s last line, as the speaker concludes, “I’m talking about pineapples—right?—not pomegranates.” After all the free-associating in the poem’s first thirteen lines, the speaker returns to the idea of the fruit that sparked the chain of associations in the first place. He immediately interrupts himself by comparing the subject to another fruit, one that sounds somewhat similar, as both multisyllabic words begin with the “p” sound. Once again, the two similar-sounding words convey very different ideas, and the shift is from positive to ominous. The expressed symbolism of the pineapple is generosity, whereas the pomegranate recalls a descent into hell.
In Greek legend, Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, eats six pomegranate seeds and thereafter must live in the underworld for six months of every year. In Muldoon’s poem, both the pineapple and the pomegranate are, like the apple in the Garden of Eden, symbols of temptation. The pineapple is associated with adolescent sensual longing, as in the first five lines, in which the speaker compares the first pineapple to a breast. This relatively innocent desire contrasts sharply with the temptation associated with the pomegranate, which leads to life in the underworld. Or does it?
The pineapple’s function as a “worldwide symbol of munificence” may not be as nice as it first seems to be. “Munificence” is a very liberal giving or bestowing. Gifts can be double-edged, and while the pineapple is symbol of generosity, it is also a symbol of empire and colonialism. Christopher Columbus first encountered the pineapple when he “discovered” the West Indies, bringing European domination to the New World. Like Muldoon, Columbus wrote about the fruit, helping to spread its proliferation throughout the planet on plantations that often exploited laborers. In Muldoon’s poem, the juxtaposition of pineapples with the ominous pomegranate incites the reader to reconsider the connotations of the first fruit. Similarly, the slip from “munificence” to “munitions” leads the reader to think about the less benevolent aspects of gift-giving associated with the first word.
Words and their meanings become more complex in the world of Muldoon’s poem, because the poet’s word-shifts encourage the reader to question first-glance meanings. In this poem as in others by Muldoon, definitive, black-and-white definitions disintegrate in the face of word-play, creating a sense of uncertainty. Muldoon’s poem is not the usual personal anecdote ending in a reassuring realization about the self. As Clair Wills notes in her introduction to her book-length study Reading Paul Muldoon, “Rather than a subjective journey of discovery, or a drama of consciousness, the poems offer an arena in which layers of meaning, image, story jostle one another, and slip into one another, mutating and transforming in the process.” With all the shifting of words and meanings, the reader may feel that there is no firm ground on which to stand in Muldoon’s poem.
Muldoon compounds the sense of uncertainty by using another repetition. He has the speaker use the questioning phrase “right?” twice, once in line 9 and again in the middle of the final line. This phrase serves to undermine the speaker’s confidence. In line 9, the phrase immediately precedes the first disturbing word-shift to “munitions.” In line 14, the phrase enables the shift from pineapples to pomegranates. Rather than ending the poem on a declarative hope or wish for peace, Muldoon has his speaker question whether or not he even knows what he is talking about. This sense of persistent doubt seems to stem from the musings on munitions, grenades, and pomegranates, which harken back to the violence of the Troubles in Northern Ireland during Muldoon’s teen years and adulthood. The whimsical word-play leads to serious and distressing memories, which lay beneath the surface of the innocuous-seeming recollection of the pineapple.
In spite of the feelings of doubt and anxiety inspired by the instability of both words and peace in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, to which Muldoon alludes, the poet does not leave the reader hanging in the poem. In the face of this instability, Muldoon meticulously creates structure. This poem is a version of the sonnet, with fourteen lines and an almost entirely regular rhyme scheme of two-line rhymed couplets. In addition to this formal structure, Muldoon’s repetitions of words and sounds serve to create a cohesive pattern that holds divergent meanings together. The full end-rhymes throughout the poem, such as “bones / alone” and “understand / hand,” generate a sense of satisfying expectation. In addition, the more inventive echoings of sound in instances such as “pomegranates / grenade” add to the sense of structure and cohesion. In a Muldoonian twist, the poem’s last word also mimics the meaning of “grenade” when read as the pun “palm-grenade.” Although the poem ends with this would-be explosive, the feeling imparted is merely unsettling—not devastating. Using sound and word-play, Muldoon shifts the emphasis back to a sense of security by creating an intricate edifice to house both expansive and destructive impulses in a place where wry musing, and not the weapon, wins the day.
Source: Anna Maria Hong, Critical Essay on “Pineapples and Pomegranates,” in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Did this raise a question for you?