December 10, 2021: Stephen Mead (essay)
There’s Poetry in the Kitchen
According to my handy dandy New American World Dictionary, copyright 1974, a handsome blue leather bound edition, the phrase “cock of the walk” refers to “adominating person in any group, especially an overbearing one”. This definition is reiterated by my rather battered red canvas covered 1979 copy of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. It’s always good to double check sources. Of the two, however, on this occasion I prefer Webster’s because it has quite a nice rooster illustration diagramming both the “main tail”, #1, right through to the “lessersickle feathers”, #28. There is no such drawing in the American World, though on the same page as “cock” is a very elegant cockatoo image. As Mama said, you gotta shop around.
Actually, having grown up on a farm, my father even being an egg peddler for many years, I really don’t have this overbearing description in mind when it comes to roosters. I also don’t recall them calling at the crack of dawn so much as at sunset, but perhaps that had something to do with the feed. If anything, I remember them as being fairly skittish, certainly hard to catch, and that often one hen in particular was the bossy one. If anything I prefer the root of the word, roost, when it comes to roosters, the idea not only of a perch, but of settling down for a rest.
On the farm where I grew up there was a rooster weathervane standing vigilant and pelican style at the apex of an old red barn. I can still hear the creak of its oscillations in the wind, still see the gleam of its silver mirroring the sheen of a nearby silo’s dome. To me, this seems a good symbol, a talisman of protection and hope, the mahogany rooster ever-alert in its watch while the other animals nestle.
From the small kitchen where I write this passage, it is by the light of such a noble fowl, a carved rooster lamp that is, which I found abandoned in the closet of yet another apartment I was moving into. Finders, keepers once again. Astonishingly enough, its wiring works fine and its original yellow shade creates a brown rustic glow, the glow of nostalgia. Home, it says to me, lent pizzazz by gold and emerald foil stars winding around its brass pole before trailing off into the air.
There’s a bit of Mercury in that, an allusion to good tidings as indeed, beginning with the rooster and ending with the window, a sort of stretched out tabernacle is formed on that entire left side of the room. Of course this illusion is helped by the fact of an oblong mirror placed horizontally against the wall at the back of the work counter. Across its top an ivy garland acts as laurel, for isn’t true cooking the art of a scholar?
Well, as far as that particular talent goes, I’m still in Special Ed class. This is why I hold in such high esteem those who actually can cook, seeming to enjoy both the science of it, and sharing the results. Very rarely do I attempt inflicting my concoctions on others any more, except for my partner. He is a master chef himself, but comes here with antacids and remains a good sport. I recall that one of my last, vain dismal attempts at preparing a meal for more than two people involved some lasagna recipe which included sun flowerseeds. OK, sounds interesting. Yet the instructions didn’t say anything about shelling them, and I figured they’d just soften up in the stove. In any case, it made for a very crunchy meal with the guests all surreptitiously spitting in napkins and trying to be polite.
I learned a very valuable lesson then; that it isn’t necessarily in good taste to play Dr. Frankenstein with food. My kitchen, nevertheless, yet tries to pay humble homage to some galloping gourmet ideal.
It also aims to respect country origins. Colanders and measuring cups line the ceiling. Then, on the counter, there are wicker baskets of spices, and bottles of olive oil, and canisters of utensils, and an assortment of flower printed crockery kept scrupulously full. Of course this isn’t very hard to accomplish since I rarely open them.
Being a retiring gentleman from the old school, not entirely sure I belong in these surroundings of authentic distressed wood cupboards and micro-waving, percolating new- fangled gadgets the well-meaning have felt I could use, I much prefer the ancient west campfire model. In other words, I have a can opener and some lovely tin or other, and one great black metal pan repeatedly used. There is something almost cosmic about it actually, the constellations of small white specks printed in that onyx sea of iron. Not only does it match the faux speckled granite of the counter, but it reminds me of cowboys and pioneers, of a life not simple, but of necessities basic to surviving.
Sometimes while washing that pan I think of a couple of different things. I think of my Ex, an alcoholic, and some of those valiant spells where he worked at staying sober. He learned from a woman friend in AA to take a pan or a cup, and wash it over and over, scrubbing it more than spotless, keeping the hands busy ‘til the urge for liquor subsides. I also remember a scene from some PBS special about an elderly poet. Can’t remember his name, but in that scene he’s washing potatoes at a sink, working spots off the russet skin, the clear water a blue geyser. As he washes there is a voice over, scotch and honey toned, reciting his poetry. The poem being recited is about the potatoes, the sanctity of cleaning them for himself and his wife, how at the end of one’s day, the end of one’s life, to be able to do such mundane acts still, with love, is enough.
Having been a person whom, at one time, was so much less comfortable with, and confident about, my own solitude, I often can find solace in such thoughts about the commonplace as being also sacred and grand. Furthermore, having worked in healthcare and learning a great deal about the blessings diseases and aging can rob individuals of, plus having a partner who still does home care and shares glimpses of his patients lives with me, I feel an empathic affinity with shut-ins, those bound to dwellings, and perhaps within the confines of their own paralytic bodies while the brain, the soul, remains active. Of course homelessness isn’t necessarily any great shakes either.
“Is there no way out of the mind?” , Sylvia Plath once asked, and I can understand such nearly beseeching desperation, being fickle about suicide by gas, pro or con, on more than one occasion too. There’s such a sense of being the cornered mouse, the nearly rabid hamster trapped in its wheel, and the emotion is magnified, claustrophobically so, in the skull. Yet, obsession compulsion can win out, for one opens the oven door and there’s really a great deal of grime to look at. Be a shame for it to be the last thing a person sees when feeling grimy enough. Better to perhaps try and clean it first, and then maybe stick around awhile trying to feel proud of the results. Of course, to the suicidal, perhaps there is no greater grime than how one feels about one’s self, or how it feels to try and live in the world.
Still, about the stove, surely it has a link to the Primitive, something reassuring and real in the coils and rings on top. I once tried to photograph the yellow-indigo nimbus issuing up form a burner as glimpsed through a glass frying pan, the way it sighs up, a moth of flame, to create a circle, a miniature cauldron. Those who practice Feng Shui also believe in the myth of a well-functioning and very clean stove, a metaphor for sustenance and a means to acquire it.
The snapshot I took did not capture that essence. Indeed, it came out pretty bland compared to the original inspiration and its intent. I’ve found that that is often the case with photos, though with the wonders of digital enhancements, this is changing. In the meantime I try to remember that all of consciousness, and dreams too, are a kind of film.
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Stephen Mead is an Outsider multi-media artist and writer. Since the 1990s he's been grateful to many editors for publishing his work in print zines and eventually online. He is also grateful to have managed to keep various day jobs for the Health Insurance. Poetry on the Line, Stephen Mead