by Garrison M. Somers
He hides fingers deep in pants pockets,
not realizing the pants give him away.
(Planting, he crawls, row to row.
Sagging knees are faded in reverse stain
where Grandma bleaches them.)
He hears the family harping through the kitchen window
as he slowly navigates the garden,
string net and clean white wooden dowels.
Chewing an unlit cigar he spits juice on his fingers,
wiping away aphids lest they nibble each flower, future fruit.
Children play in the street. Once he showed them
the ball his children used when they were young.
By cutting the solid rubber Spaldene in half,
see how it curves when thrown.
Harder to hit, to catch.
The other half is saved for later.
The kids shrug, always,
scuffing their low-tops, yeah, yeah.
He pretends not to notice rolling eyes or sucking through teeth.
He is just an old man, he supposes. There is nothing to that.
The family in the kitchen: Where did he get that hat? It smells.
Like him, like sweat and tobacco smoke.
He even wears it when he sleeps in front of the TV
pretending to watch the Giants lose at baseball.
The grands take it and wear it.
They make fun. They play Tomato Man.
Who knows what kind of filth lurks in that hat?
We can afford a new one.
Let's get him a new one.
It's his old country, what can you do?
Ah, never mind. He won't change.
He won't even learn to talk American.
In the garden, he smells the furry leaves,
the rich raw stink of them he huffs deeply.
It's good, they will be healthy and fruit abundantly.
The old man thinks far back, just for a moment,
when he stood more straight, marched in column,
and wore a splendid soldier's uniform; si, si.
The children would have been proud.
But wasn't that dirt so poor,
you could grow nothing in it.
Garrison M. Somers lives in Chapel Hill
"Tomato Man" reminds us that the inner lives of the old and the seemingly ordinary, are unwittingly hiding and holding epoch moments of past lives. The poet enacts the sensual scene of a garden as an old man nurtures new seeds and honors the fecundity of the soil. The poem tenderly details fragments of the old man in character and action--his kindness, his smell, his cap--as those around him render him invisible, irritating, or amusing. The poetic twist, in the end, that holds memory, youth and value in an ironic juxtaposition, simultaneously unveils the contradictions between youthful pride and treasured growth. This poem questions what it means to be American, to be old and to be different, as it celebrates what it means to be warmly authentic, rooted by quiet dignity and remembered pride. The poet creates a small universe for us within the symbolic life of a man where tomatoes, pants pockets and a soldier's uniform take on greater implications of what it means to be an immigrant in this country, while living between generations and remembering both the plenitude and the impoverishment of what was once home.