Oliver Bendorf, “Queer Facts About Vegetables”

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My reading for the Griffin Prize introduced me to a number of young trans poets who are pioneering new ways of thinking about gender and identity in poetry. They are very different from each other, and so I don’t want to make generalizations about what “trans poetry” might be, but I’m happy to be made newly aware of an emerging subculture in the literary world, one that offers new challenges, questions, and realms of experience. One of these poets is Oliver Bendorf, whose first collection, The Spectral Wilderness, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize and was published by The Kent State University Press. Here’s a poem from that collection:

Queer Facts About Vegetables

            In 1893, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the tomato is a vegetable.

 

I know I am a nightshade,

it says to its own limp vine.

I know how to burst

 

against teeth

with my juice and seed.

I’m as small

 

as a thumbnail, no,

I’m as big as the harvest

fucking sun.

 

I’m fresh blood

on a small curled fist.

I can be a boy, I know,

 

but never a man.

I can be Sunday gravy

or a pickled green.

 

This is still the tomato

talking to the vine,

as told to me.

 

— from The Spectral Wilderness, published by The Kent State University Press, used by permission.

 

This poem gets me right from the epigraph. As a footnote points out, taxation was one of the primary motivations the Supreme Court had for deliberately mis-classifying tomatoes as vegetables in 1893. (If you’re curious, you can find out more about the case here or here.) The point is that classification is political, not just scientific or even practical. If this is true for fruits and vegetables, how much more so then is it for categories like “male” and “female”? In that context, it makes some sense that Bendorf would empathize with the subject of these legislative maneuvers. But the antic gumption of speaking in the voice of the tomato is what delights me.

So, ok then, Bendorf sets out to explore the identity of a tomato, overheard speaking “to its own limp vine.” Of course we know that it’s the invisible poet orchestrating this, and (especially given the title, and other poems in the collection) we can be forgiven if we read the poem on the hunt for some sort of allegorical representation of what it is to be queer, trans, or simply trapped in over-determined gender categories. Part of the fun Bendorf is having here is that he knows we’re over-reading the poem for insight into trans experience, and so he can toy with our trigger-happy metaphorizing impulses. He teases us with a line like “burst // against teeth / with my juice and seed,” which perhaps we’re tempted to read in a sexualized way but which seems to be, really, just about the tomato.

Meanwhile the tomato itself is not remotely interested in whether it is a fruit or a vegetable. Rather it declares itself to be a part of the nightshade family – a loosely defined scientific classification that includes a huge range of plants from chili peppers to eggplants to tobacco, and even to some toxic herbs like belladonna (deadly nightshade). Does the tomato claim membership in this arbitrarily defined identity group with any ambivalence? It doesn’t seem so. So if some categories fit more comfortably on us than others, the same seems true for the tomato.

The poem continues with the tomato recognizing some of its physical characteristics – it knows how it responds to being chewed, and understands (and exaggerates) its range of sizes, colors and shapes. Tonally also the poem is feeling its way around, starting with a more formal proclamation (“I know I am a nightshade”) and eventually breaking into the slangy-grandiose “I’m as big as the harvest / fucking sun.” It’s worth remembering that if this poem is about identity, the tomato is doing its best to answer our question. If someone were to ask, “Who are you?” how would any of us respond? We might very well assert these same sorts of family affiliations, physical characteristics, abilities and desires.

But the poem makes a crucial slip between the fourth and fifth stanzas: “I can be a boy, I know, // but never a man.” Could this really be the tomato speaking? In what way could a tomato be a boy but not a man?! It appears as though for a moment the strain of the metaphoric construction has split, and that the poet himself has fallen out of the game and into confession. But if that’s the case, then why can the poetic speaker only be a boy and not a man? How are we going to differentiate between these two categories? What changes a boy into a man? Is it puberty, reproductive capability? Psychological maturity? Self-awareness? If a trans person has grown up as a boy in a girl’s body, how will he understand himself shifting into a man’s body? The poem doesn’t offer clear answers, but it exposes an important question that complicates and deepens our understanding of the predicament of identity.

With the ending our poet recovers his composure, and shuts down the confession with an obvious lie: “This is still the tomato / talking to the vine, / as told to me.” Like an embarrassed interviewee who realizes that he has just revealed too much, the speaker ends the poem abruptly, without resolution, almost with an “asking for a friend.” But the raw confessional question – I can be a boy but can I be a man? – still hangs in the air, troubling, a bit confusing, and revealing of more searching to come.

 

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5 thoughts on “Oliver Bendorf, “Queer Facts About Vegetables”

  1. Regarding “boy” , many tomato variety names use the word Boy as in Bush Big Boy, Better Boy which layers those particular lines further and injects more humour. Enjoy your informative essays, Adam.

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