A GOD IN THE KITCHEN: POETRY OF MEMORY, LANGUAGE, AND RISING DOUGH
An essay by Patrick Meighan
Poetry is breaking bread and sipping wine. Writing and reading poetry is communion, covenant, and celebration or lamentation. Poetry of course can be a form of prayer and perhaps incantation, as Annie Finch notes in “A God in the House: Poets Talks About Faith” (2012, ed. Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler).
Conversely, breaking – even more so, baking – bread is also poetry. Carolyn Forche in the same collection of interviews speaks of how “a language that’s used for certain purposes in the household becomes intriguing and mysterious.” In ethnic neighborhoods, such as the Detroit neighborhood where Forche grew up, people learn a common “’kitchen Polish’ or ‘kitchen Slovak’. . . at the side of the grandmother baking bread. My grandmother would reprimand us in Slovak,” Forche says.
My mother would reprimand me in Slovak when I got underfoot in her kitchen in our ethnic Western Pennsylvanian neighborhood. I’m sure cuss words were involved. Fourteen years after her death, this remains one of my strongest memories: Theresa (Shimek) Meighan wearing a scowl, Slovak words falling from her lips in epithet, or prayer, or somehow both, as her nutmeg and cinnamon stained fingers shake a wooden rolling pin at me, her little pest.
Decades later I recall only how to mispronounce those words. Through the assistance of Google translator I can write them more or less correctly as “Buzi som si zadok!” which translates to, “I’ll whip your butt!”
I also remember this: Mother, my mamicka, rolling out dough to make orechovnik (a nut roll). I remember a heavy pot on the stove filling the house with the odor of her kpustnica (cabbage soup). This was her poetry colored by the kitchen’s red-painted walls, the stove’s blue gas flames. The memory of the delicious smells and tastes I pray will never fade.
I pray for memory. Mamicka lost hers through Alzheimer’s. Toward the end, this disease with genetic roots robbed her of more than short-term memory. It gradually stole her away. She became a silent old woman huddled under her mother’s black shawl staring off into – an imponderable past? Into nothingness? We’ll never know, though given genetics and a strong history of the disease on the Shimek side, as I approach 60 I wonder if the same fate awaits me.
My own poetry has become a reaching out to the past, to her, to my Slovak roots. I fear the god in my kitchen may not be entirely benevolent, but a thief who will come upon me in the night. The past five years have been consumed with Dostoevsky, Akhmatova, Milosz, and other Slavic writers and poets. I feel a kinship, strange for someone forced into a lifetime of Hibernophiledom because of assumptions others made based on my very Irish name.
But I am as Shimek as Meighan, and more Slovak than Irish (there is some German and Scottish mixed in on my father’s side). In a sense, my poems try to recover a memory I never had, to stave off forgetfulness, and to reattach to roots and language I never fully explored.
My portal is those curses uttered in my mother’s kitchen. It’s through the memory of smells and tastes, of spice-stained fingers, and wooden utensils wielded as swords (all threat, and never a strike). I write now a poetry of prayer and communion, and of petition. My poems are an incantation too, a spell to keep my mother with me until the time, and perhaps beyond, when I have lost my memory completely, or distant memory becomes an undiscovered realm where I’ll live out my days.
Mamicka! My sweet mother!
You arise in vapors of your cabbage soup.
You made your kitchen a house of parliament
That trapped us, a coalition of the lawless.
Mamicka! Smell of peeled onions and carrots,
Boiling potatoes, smell of your constitution.
Four boys, dervishes of prohibitions and dirt,
The youngest who would one day bear my face,
“My little pest,” you called me, as I clung
To your skirt in this kitchen of red painted walls
And blue gas flames, and Mamicka,
The smell of your cabbage soup like law
Pulsing through everything.
Patrick Meighan lives the life of a nomadic adjunct, teaching composition, poetry, literature, and journalism courses at several four-year and two-year colleges in New Hampshire. His poems, reviews, and translations have appeared in online and print journals. He earned his MFA from the low-residency program at New England College.