Keith Gruber might be more widely known but for the whim of trends. After his challenging debut chapbook, The Rhyming of Orange (winner of the Obscurantist Medallion), it seemed he was destined for great things, but the unfortunate and ill-advised popular trend away from structure and rhyme has resulted in his work remaining obscure.
Although Gruber's newest work is still formalist, it is nonetheless a major departure, breaking ground with innovative subject matter. The Potato Professor is a long rhyming poem that tells, in interlocking Rubaiyat, the story of a professor of biology. More to the point, this professor is a botanist, who has spent his entire academic life studying the potato. Well, not THE potato, but potatoes, for actually there are many types (it takes Gruber three quatrains just to list his favorite ones and the best toppings for each). Obsessed with this lowly tuber, the professor's career produces a trail of detailed and significant papers about them-their reproductive cycle, their construction, the factors that affect their water retention-endless papers that almost no one reads or cares about.
The professor is nearly thirty-five when the story opens-unmarried and with few close friends, as you'd expect of a man who believes that potatoes are the only worthwhile topic of conversation. Few graduate programs, even at agricultural universities, focus exclusively on potatoes, which leaves him teaching biology classes at a small college; classes which, sadly, have little to do, directly at least, with potatoes. The professor develops a growing malaise, a sense that he is not fulfilling his destiny, that he might be failing the potato. His dilemma is best stated in the second canto:
It seemed much like being on the rack, Teaching any subject where he felt his interest slack, And these unwilling children could not understand The fascination that dwelt within a potato sack.Thus far, the story has all the drama of one of the professor's papers. Fortunately, for the Professor, the reader, and the poem, he manages to change his life. To fill the lonely hours of his free time, the professor begins to study the phenomenon of the bruising of potatoes. Yes, they bruise. And there is a curious thing. Potatoes are related to Belladonna. They have alkyd poisons in their skin. When they are bruised, or indeed even handled roughly, the toxins migrate from the skin to the meat of the potato. Because potatoes are a well-liked food, the professor decides that, perhaps, study along this line might be of interest to a few more people than the more esoteric things he has investigated before.
First he tries to pin down exactly where, from planting to the grocery store, the bruising takes place. After spending an entire dull year relentlessly examining the techniques of loading and shipping the vegetable, the professor determines that the potatoes are being bruised during harvest. In a lapse into quatrains of Rubai, he sings (?):
My research, quite thorough, does reveal No damage here, no discolored peel. I conclude, after many a sleepless night, The bruising must occur out there, in the field. To free mankind from this dire plight Of potatoes bruised, and it's toxic blight I must take my study to the field Put the workers under my inquiring light.In order to determine exactly where the bruising occurs, the professor applies for a grant. His intention is to study the harvesting of potatoes, up close and personal. And here the professor's (thus far hidden) genius comes into its own. He defines a radically new approach to this research-he will actually dig the potatoes himself, right alongside professional harvesters. Of course he can't put his plan in these terms without earning the scorn of his colleagues ("Dig potatoes! You nuts?") And, acutely aware that no farmer in his right mind would hire a Ph.D. to dig potatoes, even if he offered to share the publishing credits, he couches his grant proposal in the correct jargon, which he cribs from some other successful field studies. ("Co-experiencing the harvesting process with the indigenous worker...")
While he waits for the grant, he takes a sabbatical and travels to Mexico. There he improves his Spanish and studies the dress, idioms and manners of the itinerant workers who do the bulk of the potato harvesting. Returning home, he practices in front of a mirror, until, having forgotten he was working in Rubai quatrains, he slithers back into Terza Rima to say:
Now I could see myself, as I saw them there. There was no longer a smidgen of difference, 'tween us, Not even a hair.Returning to the college he finds that the grant application, due to its significant ho-hum factor, and the Professor's unquestioned ability to write academic gibberish full of promise and formal doo wah without actually saying anything, has been approved. Fully funded, the Professor begins to launch himself as a full time researcher/itinerant potato harvester. He makes several intensive shopping excursions to Goodwill to buy clothing, then sets out.
This radical change in his life is harsh and hard, and yet somehow instantly satisfying. The poem glosses over this period of job hunting and drifting a bit, but one of the early notes in his journal (in the sixth canto, the poem uses the Professor's journal as a device for picking up the pace of an otherwise dull bit of realism.) comments:
The reality of this earth I had never known; It is quite dirty and has a strange dank smell, But from it my favorite tuber is grown. The results of the work I cannot tell, But the labor is good, I feel alive, Though digging makes my back hurt like hell.A few months later, while the Professor is happily rooting up potatoes in rural Idaho, one of his colleagues actually gets bored enough to read the professor's grant application. Delighted with his find, he exposes it for the bogus, silly, frivolous scheme it is, in the hopes that the grant money can be redirected to his own bogus, frivolous scheme, thus paying for his new car. Having the home court advantage, he succeeds in cutting off the Professor's funding. Notified of the withdrawal of the grant, the professor suddenly realized that harvesting potatoes, and actually being paid for it, is more fun than writing about disembodied tubers anyway. He doesn't need much money in his transient life. Besides, he had been too humanized by the experience to be allowed back onto a college campus. Breaking into a new and, we assume, triumphal cadence, the Professor cries:
I can see now the path I had taken With its paper triumphs, its wasted sense of mission, Was not wrong, just godforsaken.Further clouding the career choice issue, he has fallen in love with a girl who harvests potatoes alongside him. Her name is Gertrude. It's easy to understand the attraction. She has her own hoe and ambitions of being a union leader. The professor comes to love the sensual arc of her backswing, the whizzing sound it makes as it barely misses his ear, hour after hour. And she wins him over completely with her ability to talk endlessly about potatoes and other seasonal crops. Yes, he finds himself broadening his horizons. No longer are potatoes enough for him! With Gertude as inspiration, he begins harvesting yams, turnips, and even fruit, finding a different satisfaction in each one and discovering the joy of year round full employment. Eventually they marry and raise their own bumper crop of veggie harvesters.
The true music of The Potato Professor is the music of the fields, the rhythmic cadences of grant applications, and the stirring drama of potato toxins. The Professor learns to live happily, despite never learning why the potatoes are getting bruised. This, unfortunately, besides the unaccountable and annoying slipping between Rubaiyat quatrains and Terza Rima triplets, is perhaps the poem's greatest failing, for after raising our expectations to the fever pitch that only scientific discovery can raise, both the poet and the professor both abandon the effort, trading the adventure for ordinary happiness.
© 2002 by Ed Teja. All rights reserved.