By Blythe Clod
I can not believe my good fortune! Father James Brantley just forwarded me an unpublished poem of the late Maya Angelou! He heard about my interest in lost poetry from Father Arthur Scott who discovered a lost poem of James Dickey’s in his late mother’s attic. Father Brantley had an aunt who died and left many documents in her estate, which is how he found this one.
For a little literary critique, The Watermelon Runs appears to be a vegetative fertility poem in the vein of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. At one point in her life, Ms. Angelou worked in the sex trade, and she apparently combined knowledge gleaned there with ancient knowledge of the aprhodisiacal properties of watermelons.
Watermelons grow (or run) on vines, and vines are an ancient symbol of fertility myths.
Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and fertility, was known to the Romans as Bacchus. (Grapes grow on vines, too.)
Women flocked to his cult because of its association with the female responsibilities of childbearing and harvesting. According to tradition, these women would abandon their families and travel to the countryside to participate in Dionysia festivals, known in Rome as Bacchanalia. They wore animal skins and carried wands called thyrsi, made of fennel stalks bound together with grapevines and ivy. The thyrsi were symbols of fertility and reproduction and also of intoxication.
The watermelon is thought to have originated in southern Africa, where it is found growing wild. It reaches maximum genetic diversity there, with sweet, bland and bitter forms. In the 19th century, Alphonse de Candolle considered the watermelon to be indigenous to tropical Africa. Citrullus colocynthis is often considered to be a wild ancestor of the watermelon and is now found native in north and west Africa. However, it has been suggested on the basis of chloroplast DNA investigations, that the cultivated and wild watermelon diverged independently from a common ancestor, possibly C. ecirrhosus from Namibia.
Evidence of its cultivation in the Nile Valley has been found from the second millennium BC onward. Watermelon seeds have been found at Twelfth Dynasty sites and in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Watermelon is also mentioned in the Bible as a food eaten by the ancient Israelites while they were in bondage in Egypt.
The citrulline in watermelon (especially in the rind) is converted to arginine in the body. This can relax and expand blood vessels, much like the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra, and may increase libido. It can also be used to help treat people with angina, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems and is beneficial to the immune system
From these underlying facts, it is obvious that Ms. Angelou’s poem is about the sexual properties of watermelon. The lines about the “whore”, and the “hoochie coochie” man, make it pretty obvious. The line, “Don’t stop until the melon squirts” is of a piece with many Blues lyrics. Here is a short list:
’Til the juice runs down my leg: 23 songs that use fruit for sexual metaphor
1-2. Led Zeppelin, “The Lemon Song”
Robert Johnson, “Traveling Riverside Blues”
For some reason, lemons are the go-to fruit for nutsack metaphors. (Seems big, doesn’t it?) It may have begun with Robert Johnson, who allegedly sold his soul in exchange for lyrics like “You can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice run down my leg,” from “Traveling Riverside Blues.”
And if it was good enough for the most influential bluesman in history, it was plenty good for the blues lovers in Led Zeppelin, who first covered the song, then interpolated it (and brought the line to mass popularity) into “The Lemon Song,” and either grossed out or intrigued a nation of young ladies. Maybe some from column A, some from column B.
Add watermelons to the list. The place “out back” is a reference both to a trysting place, and rear entry sex. The remark about the “crescent moon” invokes the sexual imagery that has been around since the days of primitive man, and since the first writings of man in Ancient Babylonia:
An association with fertility may come from the moon god’s connection to cattle, and also, perhaps, from the clear link to the menstrual cycle, roughly similar to the timing of the moon’s transformations. The connection with fertility is demonstrated in the Old Babylonian (early second-millennium) birth incantations (Krebernik 1993-98b: 367; Veldhuis 1991). The magical-medical text A Cow of Sin relates the story of the moon god’s beautiful and pregnant cow, Geme-Sin. The birthing-pains of Geme-Sin are eased by Sin, and the incantation ends with a ‘supplication: “may this woman give birth as easily as Geme-Sin” suggesting this text’s role in human child-birth (Veldhuis 1991: 1).
The crescent moon is also associated with sexuality in Celtic Myths, and modern manifestations thereof. See for example this:
and finally, this modern paean to both Dionysus and fertility:
So, with that lead in, here is Maya Angelou’s lost or unpublished poem!
The Watermelon Runs
By Maya Angelou
Listen to me
Daughters and sons,
And watch out for
the watermelon runs.
So big, so green
So very mean
Like a whore all big and round
Spit that seed out on the ground
Hoochie coochie man so sweet
Dive head first in that pink meat
Eat it up until it hurts
Don’t stop until the melon squirts
Hurry scurry run out back
To the little wooden shack
Contemplate the crescent moon
Take your time, don’t leave too soon
Heed that rumble in your gut
Don’t dance the Watermelon Strut
And before you do your nailin’
Don’t you eat no watermelon!
My goodness, but what fantastic luck it is to discover two lost poems in my first two weeks here! Everybody have a nice day!
FootNote: Here is the link to the lost James Dickey poem, Au Courant: