I Smile Lemon Peel
By Elizabeth Shvarts
“I Smile Lemon Peel” is a heart-wrenching, at times sour (no pun intended) journey of a woman finding her place in the world as she navigates her relationship with her body and her struggle to reclaim her agency over it. An homage to the image of the 1950s housewife baking a lemon meringue pie, this poem depicts the untold story of women as survivors, not victims, as they witness sweets curdle before their eyes, refusing to crumble when people pillage their bodies/souls.
Lemons are ripest in the winter tenderized, tossed into sweet tart Baked into the space between the night sky and infinity Fruit falls softly from the tree only to rot If golden orbs shatter in the shadows do they really bruise? The wind’s wolf-whistles lacerate the silence basso-profundo brushes my lips like pine needles like daggers slice my peeling skin and suckle milk enough to leave a drought Didn’t Mama tell you too much milk makes your bones brittle? Too strong for the mouths of little boys so how can you stomach lemon juice but you Lick pulp like lollipop whistle becomes sigh becomes snarl So instead I bite back block caustic citrus crackling My tongue corrodes beneath its golden aura When life gives me lemons my mouth contorts into pucker- up Pluck lipstick labors as easily as I lace up my apron Palimpsest of sugar and spice curdles into eggshells and lemon peels sprinkled with pepper spray and whale-bone smile and yellow pinwheels shiny house key wedged between tongue and tart to taste I singe my hands on ceramic Let cooling-rack bones and pitcher-hips simmer before prep-boy prick double-prong-licks the spatula clean Mama, isn't this how love is supposed to taste? Like pit Like pillage The difference between hearth and hellfire is in the hand that does the lighting Look at my calluses lemon-flesh-pulp seed and all choke on the hollow till you learn to harvest your own Life gives me lemons Suck them sour or not at all
Initially, I simply titled this piece “Lemons,” as a nod to the adage, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” As a writer, especially one who writes through a satirical, introspective lens, I’ve always been captivated by the idea of subverting quotes we’ve heard time-and-time again, like, “The early bird gets the worm,” or, in this case, “When life give you lemons, make lemonade.” While the adage generally means to make the best out of a bad situation, I wondered, “What if you can’t sweeten every bitter aspect of your life? Why should you subject yourself to a harmful situation on a fraying thread of hope?” Thinking back to my experiences being cat-called and reading national headlines about women being dismissed after coming forward to share that they were sexually assaulted because they were “asking for it,” or expected to enjoy unwelcome male advances. Eventually, this infuriated attitude towards women being expected to pucker up and smile with a lemon in our mouths, that is, smile through the pain manifested itself into lines then verse then stanzas, eventually forming “I Smile Lemon Peel.” However, in addition to chronicling women’s experiences with being taken advantage of in a raw and unflinching way, I wanted to capture this feeling of fear, I wanted to return agency to the woman, drawing upon the image of a house-wife baking a lemon-meringue to a reclamation of her femininity as a reflection of her power, not a commodity to be plucked from a tree or sheltered behind a glass counter.
Elizabeth Shvarts is a 16-year-old writer hailing from Staten Island. An avid spoken word poet, Elizabeth is an NYC Youth Poet Laureate Ambassador and finalist in Climate Speaks, a climate-themed youth spoken word program, highlighted by PBS, the Apollo, the New York Times and more. An advocate/entrepreneur as well as an artist, Elizabeth is the co-founder of the nonprofit Bridge to Literacy, which fosters a love for language through literacy in underserved kids from around the world. On the writing side, she's the co-founder of the international literary journal and youth community Aster Lit and its companion podcast Ad Aster.