A Brief History of Fruit (2020) is the award-winning debut poetry collection by Kimberly Quiogue Andrews, who is a poet, literary critic and Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Washington College.
When you’ve been separated from your past, sometimes it helps to start with the fruit, in order to work your way back to the tree and the root. This is what Andrews does, working from without to within, in her excavation of her family history and her dual Filipina and white American identity. First, she breaks the shell:
“Wholly mediated, I step as through a door from room to room, first / a fish, then a hare. Thus my hollows, surrendered, unseen carapace.”
Then she bites into skin:
“or [Agonized associative thinking about the nature / of something politically urgent, like colorism]”. All this she does, in the hope of reaching what might lie at the center, no matter how painful: “When soft appears, / … I break out into the tiniest hives. / … things I love that cannot touch my lips.”
In terms of writing style, Andrews’ use of language does not land cleanly on the accessible end of the spectrum. But rich depth is promised to the reader willing to look harder at each piece, and in every line, the smallest seed gives way to a universe of meaning. For example, in ‘Ode to the Letter Q’ Andrews writes, “what strangeness allows, what ‘I see,’ what ‘what’ / in the plumage of a kickstand — ”. Andrews trusts the reader to make their own nebulous connections — to the quality of questions, perhaps; or to the arcane knowledge that to quiz also means to look intently through an eyeglass; or to the abstract quintessence of que; or even to the queer tail that hangs down from the letter’s round body to anchor it to nothingness.
Perhaps Andrews’ language is layered in complexity because she wants the reader to share the work of understanding, in the same way that she herself had to work to investigate her Philippine heritage when she made a pilgrimage back to the motherland that her family had not seen in half a century:
“In Pasig, they put up a barricade of façades / … the slant corrugate, the pink / blockade… / maybe I’ll arch over it, gather several banana leaves / on each arm like glossy flight feathers / and wave myself over everything covered / … because nothing that’s awkward is worth doing / halfway.”
If Stephen Hawking stunned the astrophysics community by condensing the universe into A Brief History of Time, so too does Andrews stun her readers by condensing, at times with scientific precision, the constellation of poetics and geopolitics of identity into A Brief History of Fruit.
“Raspberry, cherry, coconut, santol, passionfruit (dislike), apricot, lychee, mango, blueberry. So many different centers.”
Just like this listed cornucopia in its titular poem, the collection as a whole is a veritable grove of different poetic styles (ghazal, sestina, prose, erasure, and so on); different settings (Pennsylvania, Maine, Quezon City, Binondo, Bulacan, and so on); and even different moods (the terrifying reality of dementia in ‘In the Morning, in the Evening,’ the snarky revolt of IKEA furniture in ‘The Collapse,’ and so on). Every piece in the collection invites pattern and categorization, only to ultimately defy them. In the end, maybe the plumage’s beauty enables it to stand just as itself.