There’s Poetry in the Kitchen

According to my New American World Dictionary, copyright 1974, a handsome blue
leather bound edition, the phrase “cock of the walk” refers to “a dominating person in
any group, especially an overbearing one”. This definition is reiterated by my battered
red canvas 1979 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. It’s always good to double check
sources. Of the two, 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 “lesser
sickle 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

Having grown up on a farm, my father having been an egg peddler, I really don’t have
this overbearing description in mind when it comes to roosters. I also don’t recall
roosters 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 the hens. They were skittish,
certainly hard to catch, and often one hen in particular was the bossy one. In any event,
I prefer the root of the word. Roost. The idea not only of a perch, but of settling down
for a rest.

On the farm there was a rooster weather vane 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. 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. I found it abandoned in the closet of yet another apartment
I was moving into. Finders, keepers. 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. 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. This illusion is aided 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.

Isn’t true cooking the art of a scholar? As far as that particular talent goes, I’m still
in Special Ed. This is why I hold in such high esteem those who can actually cook. Who
seem to enjoy both the science of it, and the sharing of its results. Very rarely do I
attempt to inflict 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. One of my
last, dismal attempts at preparing a meal for more than two people involved a lasagna
recipe which included sun flower seeds. OK, sounds interesting. But the instructions
didn’t say anything about shelling them. I figured they’d just soften up in the stove. In
any case, it made for a very crunchy meal with guests surreptitiously spitting in their
napkins and trying to be polite.

I learned a valuable lesson from that. It’s not good to play Dr. Frankenstein with
food. My kitchen, nevertheless, still tries to pay humble homage to some galloping
gourmet ideal.

My kitchen also aims to express my country origins. Colanders and measuring cups
line the ceiling. Resting on the counter are wicker baskets of spices, bottles of olive oil,
canisters of utensils, and an assortment of flower printed crockery kept scrupulously
full. This last 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
surroundings of distressed wood cupboards and micro-waving and gadgets that
percolate, I much prefer the old west campfire. In other words, I have a can opener and
some lovely tin or other, and one great black metal pan that I repeatedly use. There is
something cosmic about it. Constellations of small white specks printed in an onyx sea
of iron. Not only does it match the faux speckled granite of the counter, it reminds me
of cowboys and pioneers, of a life not of simplicity, but of necessities basic to surviving.

Sometimes while I’m washing that pan, I think of my Ex, an alcoholic. Of those valiant
spells when 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 a PBS special
about an elderly poet. In one 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 is about potatoes, the sanctity
of cleaning them, 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 once been so much less comfortable with, and confident about, my own
solitude, I find solace in thoughts about the commonplace being sacred and grand.
Having worked in health care, I’ve learned a great deal about the blessings which disease
and aging can rob us of. I also have a partner who still does home care and shares
glimpses of his patients lives with me. So I feel an affinity with shut-ins, those bound to
dwellings or within the confines of their own paralytic bodies while the brain and the
spirit remain 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 her
beseeching desperation having been fickle about suicide by gas, pro or con, on more
than one occasion. The sense of being cornered mouse, a rabid hamster trapped in its
wheel, magnifies emotion claustrophobically in the skull. Obsession and compulsion can
beat this state, however, If you open the oven door and there’s really a great deal of
grime in it for instance. It would be a shame for that be the last thing you see on the
face of the earth, particularly at a time when you’re feeling pretty grimy yourself. Better
to clean it first, and then maybe stick around awhile trying to feel proud of the results.

Still the stove surely 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
from a burner through the view of the glass frying pan, the way it sighs up, a moth of
flame, to create a circle, a miniature cauldron. Those who practice Feng Shui believe in
the myth of a well functioning clean stove, a metaphor for sustenance and a means to
acquire it.

The snapshot did not capture that essence. It came out pretty bland compared to
the original inspiration and its intent. That’s often the case with photos. In the
meantime I try to remember that all of consciousness, and dreams too, are just another
kind of film.



Stephen Mead is a published artist/writer living in northeastern NY. A resume and samples of his artwork can be seen in the portfolio section of Absolute Arts.  Stephen’s book “Blue Heart Diary” is scheduled for release in 2005 from