A short close reading of Sarah Maguire’s phenomenal and beautiful poem.
‘[S]mall shards of sweetness’. Sarah Maguire’s ‘The Pomegranates of Kandahar’ is a long oxymoron that is wholly apparent in this single line. The ‘shards’, that which is broken, and jagged, and can inflict damage upon those who come into contact with it, is juxtaposed with the sensual receipt of the cloyingly ‘sweet’ taste. The poem is a conflicted battle between sharp and sweet; and the conflict that is battled out between the words of the poem reflects the battle that has been inflicted upon the location of the title; Kandahar.
While the poem’s title locates the activity of the poem within a definitive geographic zone, the verse itself shares nothing so specific. As such, I find myself recalling the epitaph of Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone, which locates the narrative of the novella to be ‘[s]omewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere’. In this case, even the use of ‘somewhere’ fails to specifically localise the events of the text; but this appeal to non-specificity is the intention. The thematic subject of exploration in both The Patience Stone and ‘The Pomegranates of Kandahar’ is not contained to one specific space but spreads out to other towns and cities, and to other countries. The essence and the meaning of ‘The Pomegranates of Kandahar’ can be taken and used to interpret the ways in which warfare and violence plays out in other parts of Afghanistan, and even further afield.
The subject of violence, the jagged shards that are implicated with the ‘heft of ordnance’ that weighs down on the poem from the very first line, is one that, throughout the poem, is always present, but also, in part, obscured, as images of ‘joyful fruit’ and ‘barefoot children’ take centre stage. The imagery that permeates the poem also locates the pomegranate as a clear metaphor for not merely the landmines themselves, but the effects that these brutal objects have. The poem is structured in such a way that the two objects become increasingly more difficult to separate, until the landmine becomes an image that, while wholly powerful and damaging, is also indoctrinated into normalcy; it is no less fantastical or ‘out there’ than a piece of fruit, in fact, I get the impression that the fruit is more precious and less available.
The first stanza introduces the ordnance, and its appearance as the first image we are given means that its presence is retained, in some part as we are next introduced to the ‘[r]ed balls’… the pomegranates. The next stanza follows as such:
A mirrored shawl
and dozens tumble down –
The solitary appearance of the word ‘splits’, which is visually and verbally accentuated by its drastically contrasting short and singular length, slices between the lines and emphasises the action. The disruption that this split causes, not merely to the fabric, but also to the reflective surface of the mirror, which further emphasises the role that duality plays in this poem, results in the loss of the divide that had separated the pomegranates and ordnance from one another in the previous stanzas. Instead, they are now one and the same as they tumble down together.
The previous concealment and separation of the ordnance from the scene of the marketplace is disrupted. The generally positive list of ‘poppies’, ‘rouged lips’, and ‘[p]roud hearts’ which, when standing alone in a single stanza, seem innocent enough, is disrupted by the presence of an overlaying sentence which reads, not as a list of positive images, but of ‘Proud hearts / built of rubble’. The line break is also a stanza break, and its apparent effect of disassociation actually, ironically, forces the images of the pomegranate and the ordnance even closer together as that which was initially associated with the positive ‘jewels’ of the pomegranate, the ‘[p]roud hearts’, becomes a living emblem that is grown out of the aftermath of violence; the ‘rubble’. What follows the image of ‘rubble’ is no longer images of ‘joyful fruit’, but images that suggest a build-up of violence; to ‘prise’ and ‘thrust’ and ‘twist’ with a ‘knife’, which ‘cleaves open’ the fruit in a deluge of negative and forceful language to reveal at the centre of the pomegranate ‘small shards of sweetness’:
till a city explodes in your mouth
Harvest of goodness,
harvest of blood
The ‘sweetness’ and the ‘goodness’ of the fruit becomes overpowered and sandwiched between the violent images of explosions and blood. The ‘city’, although the title implies that it is Kandahar, could also just as easily be ‘somewhere… elsewhere’. The ‘city explodes’; it explodes literally as the ordnance detonates, it explodes metaphorically, as violence and damage ensues, and it explodes as the pomegranates are sent ‘careering through the marketplace’… and suddenly those earlier images of the ‘joyful fruit’ are not so innocent, as the ‘shawl splits’ and tears, damaged, and the ‘shouts of barefoot children’ ensue, for a shout can be as negative and scared as it can be an expression of excitement and joy… and those images of the ‘[r]ed balls’; ‘jewels of garnet, jewels of ruby’ and ‘the deep red of poppies’ become haunted by that which might not be so much a ‘[h]arvest of goodness’, but a ‘harvest of blood’.
If you want to read the poem in its entirety then it can be found at the following:-
– Sarah Maguire, ‘The Pomegranates of Kandahar’, in The Pomegranates of Kandahar (London: Chatto and Windus, 2007), pp.42-3