Any flat surface will do

Any flat surface will do, but not every table is a desk.

A week or so ago, on the train into Oslo, I read Michael Smith’s Maldon & Other Poems. I reread his translation of the “Lament for Art O’Leary” from the eighteenth century. My favourite passage in his working comes early, in (ii) of Dark Eileen’s opening. It runs:

I had no regrets:

you brightened a parlour for me,

painted rooms for me

reddened an oven for me,

shaped loaves for me,

there was roast on the spit for me,

beef you felled for me;

I slept on duck-down

until the middle of day

or later if it pleased me.

This stanza has an unusual, almost Anglo-Saxon quality to it. In fact, I wonder if this is one of those sections that, as Smith admits in his preface to his version, came from the working of Trevor Joyce first of all. It feels Joycean. When I moved to Oslo I brought a handful of books that I hoped would reflect and would help in the achievement of what I wanted moving here to mean. Of the poetry I brought there is Smith’s Maldon, Trevor’s Selected, the Christopher Ricks edited Oxford Book of English Verse, and Eliot’s Wasteland. Any flat surface will do, but it needs to have room for the books of others. Other people’s books offer me a crutch when writing myself. The current crutches are Smith and Joyce.

The thing I think I love most about the passage in “Lament for Art O’Leary” is that many of the things Dark Eileen chooses to remember her dead lover by are in some senses the domestic jobs of feeding someone that we – erroneously – associate with the role of the woman in the home. It shows that, whoever is doing it, cooking for someone is an expression of love for them.

There is warmth – the cosy bed of duck-down, the warmth of the reddened oven, the fire over which the spit was roasted. Heart and hearth. Again we come back to the centrality of the kitchen – of food and feeding (any food any feeding, feeding, drink or clothing?) as an expression of love. Wining and dining, not just our guests or thanes, but those we make a space for in our lives – the people with whom we eat, giving them a place at our table, physical and metaphorical. The people for whom we cook and keep warm, who we nourish and who nourish us – physically and emotionally – in turn.

I have always loved the action of the kitchen. In my experiences, it is the centre of every house. It is the central point always. I loved the small tight kitchen of Carrigeen Park, my Granddad’s house, with its big old range.The kitchen table always seemed to be where the action happened in houses when I was growing up. Our family has gone through a lot of kitchen tables over the years.

I have always enjoyed the idea of a table full of scratches and dents, discolouration and stains. A palimpsest of the meals and conversations, the growing up, moving out and moving on of the house. A table in a kitchen free of blemishes was a table without a story to tell. A table should be able tell their own stories. Of their encounters with their users. At the table is where we tell stories.  We spin them out like sailor’s yarns. Serials that will never be collected into novels. The place at which we sit and eat, sit and talk; people, politics, joke and laugh, celebrate, commiserate.  Any flat surface will do, but not all can be a desk for writing, or a table for a kitchen.


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