01 MAY, 2014
By: Maria Popova
Refreshingly direct verses with a strong existential bend and an undercurrent of science and astronomy.
As a lover of little-known children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups — including these gems by Mark Twain, Aldous Huxley, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and J.R.R. Tolkien — I was thrilled to discover that in 1964, Carson McCullers penned Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as Pig (public library), a charming collection of short verses for young readers illustrated by the acclaimed German set designer and painter Rolf Gérard.
Written three years before her death, by which point McCullers had suffered multiple strokes and had lived with the entire left side of her body paralyzed for more than 15 years, the refreshingly direct poems straddle a peculiar balance between innocent optimism and wistful contemplation.
Many of the poems not only have an existential bend, concerned with such contemporary questions of science and philosophy as the nature of nothingness and why the world exists, but they also exude a palpable enchantment with science, astronomy, and cosmology — no doubt due to being written during the golden age of space exploration.
HOW HIGH IS THE SKY
The sky is higher than a tree I know.
I know it’s higher than an airplane
But when at night there is a starry sky —
I wonder which is higher
Stars or sky?
I SOMETIMES WONDER
I do not wonder where everything is.
Everywhere is shops and children, trees and air,
Our gate, our garden, these are everywhere.
But Mama darling, Papa dear, I sometimes wonder
Where is nowhere?
I’ve seen a mountain,
I’ve seen the shore,
I’ve seen so many, many things more;
I’ve seen fireflies who light up in the dark,
I’ve even seen Yellowstone Park.
But the thing that I, and anybody else has
Never seen, I swear,
Neither I nor anybody else has ever seen air.
I’m not afraid of space ships or orbital flights
Where the lights are blue and purple and
There is a zooming sound.
I lie in my space suit important and brave
While zip zing the world goes round.
Today at recess Buddy dared me to fly
To the moon, dared and double dared.
While I was thinking he called me chicken.
I was only thinking that if Daddy went first
I would not be so scared.
I am afraid of the black-patched pirate.
I am afraid of Captain Hook
And of dares and double dares,
While I was only thinking that if Daddy went first
I would not be so scared.
Others pull into question the seeming absurdities of adult conventions:
A RAT AND A RAINBOW
This afternoon the sun shone while it showered.
This afternoon there was a rainbow —
Bands of orange, gold and red, like many-colored flowers
Bent in a big bow across the sky.
Children ran across wet grass, pointing at the
Rainbow shouting, “Look, oh my!”
Why is it rude to point at people,
But not to point at a rat or a rainbow?
Others still are bittersweet, even decidedly wistful, exploring such darker subjects as loneliness, hopelessness, and the interplay between badness and sadness:
At the zoo I saw: A long-necked, velvety Giraffe
Whose small head, high above the strawy, zoo-y smells
Seemed to be dreaming
Was she dreaming of African jungles and African plains
That she would never see again?
I knew Sport Williams in second grade
He was a bad boy.
He was a repeater.
Failed in his number work,
Scribbled in his reader.
He threw spitballs.
He stole money,
And always lied and said
He had not done it.
When Betty had a sore toe
And had to go to school
With a cut-out bedroom slipper
Sport jumped into the air
And stayed there
Until he landed on Betty’s sore toe
In the cut-out bedroom slipper
Oh! Sport was a bad boy.
No one loved him but his mother.
And when he was suspended, she said, “He was not
A bad boy,
But a sad boy…” because
No one loved him but her, his mother.
There was a little girl called Pandora
Who opened a magic box.
The magic box was a tragic box,
So look what happened to poor Pandora.
SWEET AS A PICKLE AND CLEAN AS A PIG
When you’re sweet as a pickle
And clean as a pig —
I’ll give you a nickel
And dance you a jig.
Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as Pig, should you be so lucky to track down a surviving copy, is an absolute treasure. Complement it with Sylvia Plath’s little-known children’s verses, Gertrude Stein’s posthumous alphabet book, and Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls.
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