Poet's Pick April 18
Claude McKay: "The Tropics in New York"
Selected by Adrienne Su
National Poetry Month 2018

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Adrienne Su's Poetry Month Pick, April 18, 2018

"The Tropics in New York"
by Claude McKay (1889–1948)

Bananas ripe and green, and ginger-root,
      Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,
And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,
      Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,

Set in the window, bringing memories
      Of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills,
And dewy dawns, and mystical blue skies
      In benediction over nun-like hills.

My eyes grew dim, and I could no more gaze;
      A wave of longing through my body swept,
And, hungry for the old, familiar ways,
      I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.



* Adrienne Su Comments:
 “The Tropics in New York” captures for me a neglected aspect of New York City life, one common to those who flock to it from elsewhere in search of their tribe. No matter how successful that quest - McKay found fellow poets and people of similar political leanings - and no matter how narrow the world of home might have been, the loss of home never fully heals. It is probably worse when home is a place rural enough to have “parish fairs”; such places seldom register among urbanites, except as vacation spots or exoticized fictional settings, and home becomes increasingly marginal and imaginary.

New York also makes it easy to forget your origins, as it seduces with art, food, interesting people, the promise of a brilliant career. Yet the very city that offered you the world also provides an occasional glimpse of what you sacrificed in exchange for that worldliness. In “The Tropics in New York,” a display of fruit, evidence that a community of immigrants is nearby to support it, awakens the poet’s homesickness for his native rural Jamaica. In a neighborhood that lacked such a community, the “wave of longing” might not have been felt, since doing without “ginger-root, / Cocoa in pods and alligator pears” would become habitual, their scents and flavors forgotten. Until the moment of the poem, this seems to have been the case for the speaker.

Iambic pentameter and exact rhymes in ABAB quatrains provide scaffolding for the poem’s central moment, one of emotional unraveling. This structure makes the fruit display orderly and predictable; someone is ordering the right quantity of bananas for the clientele, so that some are “ripe” and some “green” at any given moment. The now-uncommon name for avocados, “alligator pears,” is locked into place by rhyme.

The catalog of fruit in a formal structure frees McKay to mention “memories” outright, and to devote the next stanza to the resurgent landscape of home. Even with a generous dose of adjectives - “dewy,” “mystical,” “nun-like” - which could easily become too heavy for such a short poem, the vision stands. In part this is thanks to the oddness of “benediction” and “nun-like,” which sanctify rather than idealize.

I credit the strict form, also, for sustaining the last stanza, in which the speaker describes being “swept” by “A wave of longing” and driven to tears, without lapsing into easy sentimentality. This would be harder to pull off in free verse. The ear and the eye, drawn to rhythm and shape, clear the way for a statement of emotion. The form is doing at least two other things as well: it ensures that, in a straightforward and possibly cliché scenario, something else is going on to prevent collapse: a song is being sung. Secondly, it stakes a claim, for a poet of color and an immigrant, to the prosodic inheritance of writing in English.

Unlike McKay, I am American-born, but like McKay, I went to New York in early adulthood and found a literary world. And like McKay, I was and am susceptible to immigrant grocery displays, surely because I am a child of immigrants who frequently found ways to have the foods of the old country despite limited options in our time and place (Atlanta in the 1960s and 1970s); also, despite speaking limited Chinese, I am often perceived as an immigrant myself. While my triggering fruit stands are East Asian next to McKay’s Caribbean ones, many of the items likely to be displayed are the same as in his poem: tangerines, ginger, bananas, mangoes. While you can now get those particular fruits in almost any large supermarket (although I would argue that the mangoes are not actual mangoes), my reading mind immediately fills in my own significant fruits - piles of lychees, longan, massive Asian pears, persimmons, and that cousin of grapefruit, pomelos – in a setting where the turnover is fast and thus the fruit sweeter and riper than when it languishes in the “tropical” or “international” section of a mainstream store, more image than substance.

Today I live in a place with few urban distractions - south-central Pennsylvania - but also with limited Asian foods, which must be why fruit stands and markets loom so large in my imagination; my current collection-in-progress centers around food. And while my early affection for writing in forms was not politically motivated, I have recently begun to consider my use of form in tandem with the current political climate, in which the Americanness of people of color is being openly questioned, if not challenged. “The Tropics in New York” is for me a model, as well as a pleasure, in multiple dimensions.

About Adrienne Su:
Adrienne Su is the author, most recently, of Living Quarters (Manic D Press). Recipient of an NEA fellowship, she teaches at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Poems from her current manuscript-in-progress appear in 32 Poems, COG, Gargoyle, A Gathering of the Tribes, New England Review, and Poetry.

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