"slash that adjective!" Cousin Henry admonishes me. "And that! And that! Double adjectives! Triple adjectives! Out, out, out!" My magnificent modifiers fall like weeds beneath the scythe of his pencil. He glances from my manuscript to my anguished face.
"Unadorned nouns are stronger than cluttered nouns," he persists without apology.
"You've ruined my rhythm," I complain.
"Now you have a new and stronger rhythm."
Cousin Henry reads aloud my original poem as if it were laundry list. Then he reads hism dessicated and desecrated version. His voice is sonorous. No problems emerge here, because Cousin Henry is bending my words so mellifluously that even a laundry list would sound like Shakespeare.
"That's not fair," I argue. "You're fooling around with artistry."
"Artistry is nothing without craft." He gets up from the table cluttered with manuscripts, looks out over the cove cluttered with gulls. "Your poem is much better now." He goes off to practice his violin. The black-and-white kitten stalks off after him and, I think, as self-righteously.
I abandon my muted manuscript, pick up colander and bucket, slip off the pick berries at the edges of fields.
Wild raspberries, or bramble berries -- pick your adjective -- are still the same blastula-like berries reddening in clusters at the ends of maroon shoots covered with hair-fine thorns. The berry patch is sometimes my refuge. A fruitful one this July: the berries are red, ripe, juicy, sweet, plentiful.
I'm still cross at Cousin Henry for decimating my adjectives. But grateful, of course. Of course.
As i move through the briars, I almost step on a elderly box turtle. He lifts his orange-striped head to hiss at my intrusion, then continues to eat the fallen berries. I drop him some more as I pick.
As my colander fills higher with each cluster of bright berries, I notice small insects among them. They are struggling up the mountain of fruit, like Sysiphus tumbling down after imaginary boulders, then up the colander's sides. Tiny green katydids and praying mantis, positive ladybugs with black spots on red wings, negative ladybugs with red spots on black wings, leaf-hoppers, leaf-skippers, leaf-jumpers, bugs like armadillos, bugs like tyrannosaurs -- as I flick each one out, I try to remember it for later identification.
I come home quietly with overflowing bucket and hands as if stained permanently red with berry juice. Henceforth I shall personify Homer's rosy-fingered dawn. I dare Cousin Henry to slash that adjective.
While the last insects crawl/tumble/fly from the bucket, I saunter through Swan & Papp, "The Common Insects of North America." Fascinating, but frustrating , without enough color plates: hard to match those glistening fluorescent technicolore creatures of the fields with these two-dimensional black-and-white drawings. . .
By now, Cousin Henry has got me feeling guilty, or at least self-conscious, for even thinkingm adjectives, and double- and triple- headers at that. He emerges from his study, violin in hand. I give him a bowl of berries.
"Cousin Henry," I begin, my brambleberry fingertips pointing in the bug book, "how would you distinguish a Raspberry Cane Borer from a Raspberry Crown Borer if it weren't for adjectives? Without modifiers, how would you mediate between a Colorado Potato Beetle, a Three-lined Potato Beetle, and a Western Potato Flea Beetle?
Cousin Henry glances down at his brambleberries.
I protest, "No, no, there isn't a raspberrym rootworm, not in this book." I turn further. "but listen," I persist, "without extra adjectives you might confuse the plain Tumbling Flower Beetle with the Two- Spotted Tumbling Flower Beetle or the Eight-Spotted Tumbling Flower Beetle . . . or the Red-Shouldered Ham Beetle with the Red-Legged Ham Beetle, or the Red-Blue Checkered Beetle with the Dubious Checkered Beetle . . ."
Cousin Henry stands there violin in one hand, bowl of berries in the other, sinking in my seas of essential entomological adjectives. The surf of my self-justification continues to break over his head.
"Then the Argus Tortoise Beetle as distinguished from the Golden tortoise Beetle versus the Black-Legged Tortoise Beetle and the Mottled Tortoise Beetle -- you couldn't cut those adjectives without depriving the bug of his identity. And consider the weevils . . ."
"I'd rather not." Cousin Henry prefers butterflies.
"butterflies? Just wait . . . " With my Homerically rosy-dawned fingertips, I flip the pages rapidly backwards. "gossamewinged butterflies -- too lyrical for you? Alcestis Hairstreak versus the hedgerow Hairstreak -- they sound like international racing cars . . . and each of these brush- footed fritillaries has its own irrefutable adjective: the Variegated Fritillary, the Nokomis --"
"all right, all right," Cousin Henry sighs. As earlier I retreated from the Editorial battlefield into the less thorny brambles, now he retreats from the entomological fray, clutching his violin and his bowlful of berries.
"Marvelous berries!" he murmers over his bowl. "Really sweet berries . . . Sweet and tart . . . And so juicy . . . incredibly good . . . Imagine! You picked me all these lovely ripe red bramble berries . . ."
"My own mouth is too full of berries to delete any of his adjectives, and I'm too busy bluepenciling through another one of my manuscripts, deleting my own, to speak. Later he may show me a chapter of his. Meanwhile, I refill his berry bowl, then return to my shrinking and strengthening poems.