2011: Denise Duhamel, “Ode to the Maraschino Cherry”

I had my first in a Shirley Temple at my uncle’s bar.
He plucked one from a heap near the other garnishes—the tart lemon
and lime slices, the briny olives. I sipped the fizzy drink, trying
to make it last, but was more interested in the cherry,
a plump preserved potbelly. The cherry was violent
and seductive—the texture of a bloody nose, the stickiness of lipstick,
what went on at the bar at night when I wasn’t there. I snuck a few more
from the bowl near the cash register. Piled on top of one another,
the cherries looked like drupelets, as though together they made a huge berry.
After my first, I kept on the lookout for Maraschinos—one impaled on a straw
of a homemade Cherry Coke. Another settled into the whipped cream
of a chocolate sundae or stuck like a scarlet freckle in a slice of ham.
I would crumble apart a piece of otherwise boring fruitcake
hoping to find even a lopsided Maraschino sliver.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that something so delicious
wasn’t good for me, that I wasn’t even getting the benefit of the fruit
once the sulfur dioxide and food coloring got through with it.
The cherries were bleached first, my mother told me—and I imagined Clorox
bottles and boxes of Clairol. Red dye numbers 1 and 4 were actually banned
for a time before the FDA let them sneak back into Maraschino cherries,
which were considered mainly decorative and not really a foodstuff at all.
An apple may be nutrition and knowledge, but to be tempted
by a Maraschino is to be tempted by excess and glitz.
Knowledge that the neon bar sign will sputter and fade by morning.
Knowledge that marriage will squeeze your aunt’s whole face closed.
Knowledge that your uncle will die bankrupt, cirrhosis of the liver.
Knowledge that the cherries you loved bobbed for a month
in calcium chloride until devoid of color
then were soaked for a week in artificial flavor. Knowledge, yes,
and reaching for the embalmed fruit nonetheless.

Commissioned by the Eta Chapter of Ohio, Phi Beta Kappa, 2011

About Denise Duhamel

Denise Duhamel was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island in 1961. She received a BFA degree from Emerson College and a MFA degree from Sarah Lawrence College. She is the author of numerous books and chapbooks of poetry, including: Ka-Ching! (University of Pittsburgh, 2009), Two and Two (2005), and Mille et un sentiments (Firewheel Editions, 2005).

Her other books currently in print are Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (University of Pittsburgh, 2001), The Star-Spangled Banner, winner of the Crab Orchard Poetry Prize (1999); Kinky (1997); Girl Soldier (1996); and How the Sky Fell (1996). Duhamel has also collaborated with Maureen Seaton on three volumes: Little Novels (Pearl Editions, 2002), Oyl (2000), and Exquisite Politics (Tia Chucha Press, 1997).

In response to Duhamel's collection Smile!, Edward Field says, "More than any other poet I know, Denise Duhamel, for all the witty, polished surface of her poems, communicates the ache of human existence." A winner of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, she has been anthologized widely, including four volumes of The Best American Poetry (2000, 1998, 1994, and 1993). Duhamel teaches creative writing and literature at Florida International University and lives in Hollywood, Florida. (Poets.org)

Ms. Duhamel has offered poetry readings at Ohio Wesleyan in the fall of 2010 and also in academic year 2009-10.