A Lemon

by Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto

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The Poem

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“A Lemon” is an ode (an ode was originally a vehicle of praise, either civic or lyrical in nature, intended to be sung in public) written in highly flexible free verse and composed of four stanzas. Pablo Neruda wrote three volumes of what he called “odas elementales” (“elementary odes”), which were translated together into English as The Elementary Odes of Pablo Neruda in 1961. As in all those poems, the subject matter is a seemingly “unpoetic,” simple, ordinary object.

The poem opens with a wild and sensuous image of “lemon flowers/ loosed/ on the moonlight.” In the next several lines, the sense of smell dominates; the lemon blossoms become “love’s/ lashed and insatiable/ essences,/ sodden with fragrance.” As the poem moves from the sense of smell to sight, the blooming flowers are suddenly transformed into yellow lemons. Continuing the stanza’s vertical movement (from moonlight to the tree to the earth), the lemons fall from their branches—which are likened to a planetarium—to the earth below.

Once the lemons drop to the earth, they are no longer described in romantic terms but rather in practical terms; they become the “Delicate merchandise!” referred to in the opening line of stanza 2. Thus the images of moonlight, love, and lemon blossoms alluded to in the previous stanza are superseded by images of bustling harbors and bazaars where lemon becomes “barbarous gold,” a commodity to be bought and sold. The pace of the poem quickens.

Next the poet focuses his attention upon the individual buyer of the lemon. This person cuts the fruit and opens it, finding “the halves/ of a miracle” within. The simple fruit becomes elevated to the level of the extraordinary. Comparing the fluid that emerges from the cut lemon to blood flowing from a cut vein, the poet describes the fluid as “a clotting of acids.” Alluding to the first stanza, in which the lemons are fixed like stars in the firmament, the second stanza describes how the juice of the lemon “brims/ into the starry/ divisions”—that is, the symmetrical divisions of the pulp of the cut lemon. Next the poet conjures up images of the creation of the world and the garden of Eden, referring to lemon juice as one of the essences of life, one of “creation’s/ original juices.” In the final lines of the stanza, the lemon’s rind is compared to a house, the proportions of which are both “arcane and acerb,” secret and bitter.

In the third stanza, the lemon is further endowed with a sense of reverence. The movement of the opening line continues the action of cutting the lemon, portrayed in stanza 2. Here the visual image is of another house, a “cathedral” that remains when the knife slices into the lemon’s core. At this point in the poem, cutting the lemon becomes a religious experience. The sliced lemon contains “alcoves,” “acidulous glass,” and topaz-colored drops; these drops are described as “altars,/ aromatic facades.”

The final stanza of the poem unites the religious and metaphysical imagery of the previous stanzas. For the first time in the poem, the poet addresses the reader directly, using the pronoun “you.” The act of holding a cut lemon is likened to holding “half a world,” “the gold of the universe.” The lemon half returns its holder to the elemental forces of nature, to Mother Earth, with “a breast and nipple/ perfuming the earth.” In the last two lines of the poem, there is a play on words that changes the biblical phrase “and the Word was made flesh” to “a flashing made fruitage.”

Forms and Devices

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(This entire section contains 369 words.)

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the poems in Neruda’sResidencia en la tierra cycle (1933-1947)—in which readers are always somewhat outside the system because of the complex language and content, mere spectators whose function is to admire the poet and his extraordinary experiences with the ordinary matter of, for example, wood, wine, and celery—the poems in the Elementary Odes series reverse the situation. These poems, including “A Lemon,” are designed to draw the reader directly into the process of wonder and discovery.

The poem is designed as a didactic construct, helping the reader to see and to speculate on the extraordinary significance of the world in which he or she lives. For this reason, the poem (as is the case with most of the Elementary Odes) ends with a kind of philosophical maxim summarizing the lesson in order to help the reader comprehend the poem’s practical import.

In “A Lemon,” as in most of the poems in The Elementary Odes of Pablo Neruda, the basic formal pattern is as follows: The elemental subject is introduced, transformed, and then summarized at the end. At the outset of the poem, the subject announced by the title is metaphorized promptly so as to bestow it with a certain level of poetic dignity. It is introduced indirectly (with the hint of lemon-blossom fragrance), then directly in the object of the lemon itself. The subject is more completely transformed later in the poem; the juice of the ripe yellow lemon cut in half is associated with religious imagery and precious gemstones, elegant and noble points of comparison for a simple lemon. Instead of simply dropping to the ground when ripe, the lemon is depicted as traveling from the heavens (the planetarium) above to the earth below.

Finally, in the poem’s conclusion, the religious/philosophical dimension predominates as the speaker philosophizes on the significance of the elemental. The speaker of the poem, addressing the partaker of the lemon directly, reminds him or her that partaking of the fruit connects that individual with the miracle of the universe and its creation in the garden of Eden. This individual is partaking of no simple, ordinary fruit but becomes part of the “diminutive fire of a planet.”