After typing out my zucchini recipes on Thursday, I spent a few minutes googling for some poetry that might add a bit of zest to the post. I did indeed find a poem where zucchini showed up, but as it opened into much deeper images than I had envisioned, it begged for a post all its own.
In Zucchini Shofar, Sarah Lindsay explores questions of meaning and permanence; its odd title lets us know from the beginning we're in for unusual fare. Shofars are typically fashioned from a ram's horn. Integral to Jewish feast days (most notably Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur) they function similar to clarion trumpets, their blast signaling the beginning of a holy day. Digging around on the web I discovered that they can also be a part of a wedding celebration. (For an interesting story on that and more background on shofars in general, you can check out this website here.)
While a shofar may not be unusual at a wedding, a zucchini shofar seems a bit ludicrous. Fashioned out of material that will last for days at most, it seems a meager substitute for its model, whose bone-like density assures the horn will stay intact for centuries. The impermanence of this shofar, whose notes bless the backyard ceremony, is the motif around which the poem is composed. Are we to measure a blessing by its duration? The garden, the wedding, even the names of the couple taking their vows, will not last for more than several decades; in the long history of humanity, each seem as fragile as the freshly-picked zucchini.
If endurance dictates the worth of an action, if we let time and posterity judge our choices, what does that say about most of the life we now lead? Lindsay's response is that some goodness is only appreciated in the moment. Butter is not meant to be eternal, but to be eaten now and savored. Such is also the case with paper cuttings, walks in the woods, and mustard-green soup. Much of life has no meaning outside of the present. "Nothing I do will last," says the gardener, and in some sense he is true.
But the momentary is not all there is. Many activities we engage in can lead to a greater joy - those trumpet lessons might have a payoff in future years, for instance - and there are some refrains that we continue to sound, much as the rhythmic notes of the shofar repeat over time. For a marriage to be successful, each partner continually plays the same melodies of kindness, patience and understanding. Such layering creates a strong pattern, an energetic permanence, I believe, that outlasts the physical bodies we inhabit.
Still, I love how the poem pulls me strongly into the celebration of the ephemeral, much as the shofar calls the faithful to stop and participate in something significant. I'm compelled to value -and receive - the blessing, the sacramental meaning in what is fleeting. Too much concern about the long-term worth of my activity can keep me from taking hold of the joy offered only now, only here. Keep me from those spontaneous moments of lightness, invitations to improvise my own ram's blast, and set the house a-singing.
No animals were harmed in the making of this joyful noise:
A thick, twisted stem from the garden
is the wedding couple's ceremonial ram's horn.
Its substance will not survive one thousand years,
nor will the garden, which is today their temple,
nor will their names, nor their union now announced
with ritual blasts upon the zucchini shofar.
Shall we measure blessings by their duration?
Through the narrow organic channel fuzzily come
the prescribed sustained notes, short notes, rests.
All that rhythm requires. Among their talents,
the newlyweds excel at making
and serving mustard-green soup and molasses cookies,
and taking nieces and nephews for walks in the woods.
The gardener dyes eggs with onion skins,
wraps presents, tells stories, finds the best seashells;
his friends adore his paper-cuttings—
"Nothing I do will last," he says.
What is this future approval we think we need;
who made passing time our judge?
Do we want butter that endures for ages,
or butter that melts into homemade cornbread now?
—the note that rings in my deaf ear without ceasing,
or two voices abashed by the vows they undertake?
This moment's chord of earthly commotion
will never be struck exactly so again—
though love does love to repeat its favorite lines.
So let the shofar splutter its slow notes and quick notes,
let the nieces and nephews practice their flutes and trombones,
let living room pianos invite unwashed hands,
let glasses of different fullness be tapped for their different notes,
let everyone learn how to whistle,
let the girl dawdling home from her trumpet lesson
pause at the half-built house on the corner,
where the newly installed maze of plumbing comes down
to one little pipe whose open end she can reach,
so she takes a deep breath and makes the whole house sound.
from Poetry 2008