If I could choose just three words of poetry to survive for future generations, I’d be hard pressed to think of better ones than those forever associated with Praxilla, Ancient Greek poet of the 5th century BCE: apples, pears, and cucumbers. Those words occur in one of only five extant fragments attributed to her. In that brief passage, Adonis, having travelled to the underworld, tells what he misses most:
The most beautiful thing I leave is the light of the sun,
second are the shining stars and the face of the moon,
and cucumbers, and apples, and pears too.
The context of Praxilla’s hymn, like the rest of its words, is perhaps forever lost, eliciting a lament of a different kind: regret for the absence of that which can never be known. Adonis’ memory of sensual foods simultaneously invokes and resists their absence, and the survival of Praxilla’s words leaves a trace of gratitude for their startling imagery while also reminding us of the loss of so many of her works.
But like the homely objects that Anne Bradstreet lovingly remembers as she roams her burned home—a table, a chest, a trunk— Praxilla’s sensuous harvest, recalled from the depths of wintry loss, has a presence as solid as a Cezanne still life.