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The Tomatopoet


Here is an account of a man who could generate tomatoes. This man was able to engender shiny red pomes and make them appear in front of him by will. He had figured at the age of seven that he would in fact be able do this. When this thought had occurred to him it seemed to just make sense. And he almost dreaded it, knowing beforehand he might be right and then would have to deal with it as another fact of life. The act itself required no effort at all, nor was any source material needed. These fruits cropped up from an unknown spring, one at a time, fashioned out of thin air.

In terms of appearance they were sapid, firm, quality tomatoes. All of them full-fledged, varying slightly in size and shape, and aside from some blemishes there was never a rotten one. He did not understand the mechanics of the process, he simply remembered how to get it done, how it had worked the first time. Tomato-generative meditation would from there on be a matter of fact, but still, it needed a place in his day-to-day reality.

He decided to be quiet about the discovery: this would make things less confusing. And yet it made sense to put it to use in some furtive way. He could easily imagine the possibilities. It does not take long to realize how the tomatoes could be commodities, things produced rather than created. In what seemed like the natural course of action, the poet entered or pretended to enter the farming business. Some would say he did in fact become a farmer, evidently owning a farm that produced tomatoes—large quantities of them. This seems to depend solely on what is believed to constitute legitimate tomato farming. The question, ultimately one of definition, came to occupy the man’s mind more than anything else. He knew there were certain rules. Just to forge and sell tomatoes was not going to be sustainable. He was going to be an agrarian rather than a demiurge.

The new venture would require him to invest much of his time and energy into productive resources (viz. an actual farmstead and additional equipment), which in effect served only as a masquerade, a front to the secret. He had to wait at least until June—growing season for tomatoes was in the summer—to start pretending to grow tomatoes. To pretend non-fertility in wintertime. And so the man gradually built up an actual tomato farm, complete with authentic nightshade plants, just to get the image across. The legitimate tomatoes were all thrown out, useless in comparison to those at his fingertips. Over the course of many months, he became a farmer simply by custom. Day upon day of painstaking effort into a farmstead that might as well burn to the ground.

Soon he would grow to be the chief supplier in the province. The man came to wonder whether he was a really good farmer or a really good performer, and where exactly these two diverged. Organic or synthetic, mundane or extramundane. How was he different from the Solanum lycopersicum?

While the tomato is commonly regarded to be a vegetable, it is strictly—anatomically speaking—a fruit. This means the tomato is not the root or stem or foliage of the plant but its ovary. It is a thing of its own.

In truth the man knew little of the technicalities that surround tomato farming. He quickly received a visit from the Food Safety and Inspection Service. During the review of his practice, the tomatoman was nodding and stuttering, unable to answer any of the questions. He would stand on the fields as if on a stage. The farmer was then told he needed register his company. Arriving at a grey office building, he met with a public official to sort out the details of his venture. In an offhand attempt at honesty, he explained to her how the tomatoes were not technically tomatoes. He insisted that they couldn’t even be classified as food. She told him the institute was only for businesses related to food, to be eaten. When he was asked about the processing of his tomatoes he named his fears and affections and childhood memories. But those did not apply, since they were not nutritious.

Later, invited to the local biannual farmers convention, the exotic tomatoes were widely acclaimed. All of his colleagues wanted a sample. Fantastic! one of them cried out. What’s your secret? He told them not to question his methods, to look at the evidence right there, and to taste it if they will. Should he have told them that they were all in the wrong business, that the farmland wasn’t necessary? Cultivated but not arable. The words make no sense in his autocratic head. Their meaning is rooted in the land of every farmer there. He was among them, standing at a farmers convention selling craftworks, only because he’d called them Tomatoes.

For his own peace of mind, the man felt compelled to study the essentials of the farming trade. He needed to understand the craft before he could enjoy it. Indeed during subsequent research, the man discovered his tomato offspring to be exclusively of the Alicante variety, which, as he later found out, could not even grow in the region. He was mortified. To be exposed would mean they catch him two-faced: This man knew nothing of farming, yet he proved to be a great farmer. He would not be able to explain himself.

The realization came too late. For all his ability, the man was generally clueless. And like most of his concerns, the inner workings of a capitalist market system mystified him. A botanic prodigy sans business model. The concept of deflation never even crossed his mind.

And so his volunteer tomatoes caused all kinds of tensions in the regional fruit trade. He couldn’t help himself: sprawling in all directions were mountains of sweet, capitate tomatoes, enough to feed a continent. At this point the line had long been crossed; the man was laboring tomatoes in amounts so vast they became worthless. In his self-made monopoly the prices had dropped low enough to cause a massive collapse in the market. Competitors were forced to go out of business. Flocks of them began to appear at his door, some of them with threats, others begging for mercy. Greatly discouraged, his talent rendered useless, there was no choice but to leave the farming business entirely. His tomatoes have been eaten but they have not fed: They come from fallow land, their bright red is never truly red. Farmers and their families would go starving for every other fruit he produced.

One last reason ruled the gift pointless: The fact that this man did not himself enjoy tomatoes, that he could barely even stand their smell. Whether a gift or a curse or just something strange, in all truth it was not so much of anything. The theater is empty. The fruit has a life and purpose of its own. Fertile and nutritious and defined. This is where the man differs from the plant; in the unrooted nervous system, the tomatoes never leave the sprigs. A body can be shortened but not made taller. When the sun heads south the fruit lets go. It drops and survives and does not conceive.