LitStack Rec: ‘Fruits & Vegetables’ and ‘Renascence and Other Poems’

by Lauren Alwan

Fruits & Vegetables
Erica Jong

Long before Fear of Flying, before Erica Jong’s now-classic novel described an era with its knowing and irreverent voice, she wrote a small book of poetry titled Fruits & Vegetables (note the ampersand, as we’ll return to that in a moment). Fear of Flying, after it was released in 1973, went on to sell more than 20 million copies worldwide, and became one of the decade’s defining literary moments—a book that, if you’re a certain age, you likely remember seeing everywhere. And for valid reasons. There was its protagonist, Isadora Wing, a married academic and writer of erotic poetry, on her way to conference in Vienna in which a kind of sexual coming of age ensues. It may seem odd now, that a female point of view was notable in this respect, but at the time, it was. And then there is the book’s lexicon. Among the various phraseology the novel spawned, the term, “the zipless f—” meaning a powerful, spontaneous and inconsequential encounter, immediately entered the era’s zeitgeist. Fear of Flying did for college-educated, aspiring women of a certain class what Catcher in the Rye did for alienated youth two decades before: it gave voice to a character’s disaffection and alienation (and was considered shocking). If Holden Caulfield’s edge has tempered somewhat over time, Isadora Wing’s still has an edge that still glints, especially in its opening line: “There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna and I’d been treated by at least six of them.”

But, as mentioned, before all that, there was Fruits & Vegetables. April is National Poetry Month, and it seems ideal now to look at this small, vibrant work that, in contrast to the enduring success of Fear of Flying, is likely to be known mostly by diehard Jong fans. And of her many books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, Fruits & Vegetables was her first.

In fact, it was my first too, the first book of contemporary poetry on my shelf. Fruits & Vegetables was the perfect, youthful voice for my disaffected, ardent years of high school in which poems were read (usually) late at night with the radio on. Afterward, the window thrown open in which to furtively (or so I thought) smoke a cigarette in brooding contemplation. Jong’s poems helped narrate that angst-ridden period of life, as here, in “The Quarrel”:

It is a rainy night
when the wind beats at your door
like a man you have turned away

He comes back trailing leaves & branches
He comes back in shower of earth
He comes back with blades of grass
still clinging to his hair

Maybe to fully appreciate this, we need an audio track from Joni Mitchell’s “Clouds,” which came out around the same time—maybe “Tin Angel,” or “I Don’t Know Where I Stand,” songs  that have the same alienated tone and rich detail. Both artists seem to have captured a moment in the cultural and generational drift, and the inward feeling of that era’s youth, as “The Quarrel” goes on:

No matter how hard he holds you
he is still elsewhere
making love to another

No matter how hard you hold him
you are still

Though Fruits & Vegetables isn’t all angst. It pokes fun at love, at love poetry and the tradition of holding up the idealized other. This was the late Sixties/early Seventies, after all, when traditions were being torn down. Even that ampersand in the title held its own as a standard of dismantling tradition. These poems might hold up poetic love as written by Renaissance troubadours, and love poetry of the 14th century, but they are tongue-in-cheek too, as in “The Man Under the Bed,” which among other flights, considers an imagined man who waits, “The man who is silent as dustballs riding the darkness.”

The Poetry Foundation describes Jong’s poetry as an exploration of “female sexuality and [that] often focuses on the role of women in contemporary society; her poems reveal humor, understanding, and a thorough knowledge of her literary predecessors.”

You can read an excerpt of Fruits & Vegetables here.

—Lauren Alwan

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