Thursday, October 16, 2014

Kippers and cake

On my fourteenth birthday I woke up in a strange bed in an even stranger room surrounded by cakes.  They lined the top of the wardrobe and sat cheek by jowl on the dressing table and across the chairs.  There was not a surface that did not hold at least two cakes and even in spaces on the floor Mrs K had stashed a plate filled with iced meringues. 
     My brother had driven me to Moe the night before so that I might be bridesmaid the next day when he and his already pregnant wife to be walked up the altar in the Newtown Catholic church to take their vows.  There was to be a reception in the church hall nearby.              
     It did not take me long to recognise that the cakes in this room were not in honour of my birthday but for the wedding.  Mrs K must have cooked for days. I climbed out of bed.  The floor was covered with a circular coiled rug whose ridges rubbed against my soles. I lifted the covering from one of the cakes. Surely no one would notice one missing flower.  
    One was not enough.  I looked around for more, from cake to cake, undressing each from its wrapper and scratching at the raised chunks of icing.  Then I flopped back onto the bed, guilty.  I wanted someone to find me?  It was my birthday.  I did not want to eat cake alone.
  Finally, I braved the outside corridor where Mrs K greeted me.  She waved a ten shilling note in front of her.
  “For you. Happy birthday.” 
 I took the money and thanked her.
  “Come now.  Breakfast.”  Mrs K led me down the hallway to the stink of fish.
  “We have kippers.”
I had never heard of kippers before but the smell told me I would hate to eat them, more so with a stomach full of icing.  I stared at my plate. 
  My brother arrived, clattering through the back door.  He took one look at my face, another at the plate and accused his mother-in-law to be,
     Mutti.  Don’t force her.”
Mrs K lifted my plate and passed it over to my brother.  He emptied it onto his and then reached for more.

As part of a course in beginning poetry, Earl Livings instructed us to rote learn a poem.  It's good for you, he said.  Poets do it all the time. 

 The poems I learned as a child, even as late as a fourteen year old, I can still remember with ease, but these days it's so much harder to rote learn.  

To commit Emily Dickinson's words to memory.  Words I enjoy reading but remembering them is almost impossible. 
'I cannot dance upon my toes/no man instructed me...'

How I wish I could have the rote learning capacity of my fourteen year old self, but not her predilection to cakes, her aversion to kippers and her timidity.  


Jim Murdoch said...

I know very few poems that I could recite and get right. Not even my beloved ‘Mr Bleaney’. I don’t actually recall being asked to memorise poems as a child although I do remember a boy called Neil—we called him ‘Wee Nell’ to distinguish him from ‘Big Nell’ who emigrated to Australia when he was about eighteen—standing up in front of the class and delivering an impassioned rendition of ‘Scots Wha Hae’. Neil was an angry boy. He grew up to be an angry man. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Neil when he wasn’t outraged about something. The last time I met him—and we’re talking some twenty years ago—it was the taxman he was venting his spleen about; we got off the train together and for the length of our walk that was all he could talk about. He’s probably burst a blood vessel and died by now. That’s what happened to the wicked queen in ‘Snow White’, at least in the version I remember being told as a child. My party piece as a child—not that I went to many parties—was a poem:


        Had ‘em.

I’m actually not sure how many of my own poems I could recite from memory. Not many. Hardly any. I suppose if I was used to performing them I might do better. I don’t mind hearing them aloud but I’ve never particularly enjoyed reading them myself although as part of the writing process I often did, just to make sure they could be read aloud, that they flowed. Nowadays I tend to do all that in my head. Not that I write much these days—a dozen poems in the last two years—but then I’ve dried up completely and come back from the brink so I don’t fret overly much.

I’ve always reserved my poetry for the writing that matters most. I think of it as pure writing. Although I hold no mystical views when it comes to its creation I am aware that the quality of the writing is entirely dependent on the degree to which I involve my subconscious in the process. Anything else is simply technique. I posted a video on my McVoices blog yesterday. If you have eighty minutes it’s worth listening all the way through but if not at least listen to Joyce Carol Oates for both what she has to say about the differences between poetry and prose and the fact that despite her vast experience she still can’t just sit down and write a poem unless she’s in the mood. (You’ll find her at 1:03:20.)

I’m sure if I put my mind to it I could memorise a few poems. How long they’d stay intact I cannot say. We live in a world where we don’t need to remember. Machines do it for us. All we need to remember is how to look up stuff. And when that lets us down we end up spending years without access to a video because we couldn’t remember exactly what it was called but thought it was up on UbuWeb and not Vimeo.

Not a big fan of icing. I don’t mind a thin coating but I hate the soft stuff. I was a grown man before I had kippers the first time—my mother was not an adventurous cook—and I don’t mind them. Arbroath Smokies are good.

PhilipH said...

I find it difficult to memorise a poem nowadays. I find it much easier to remember every word of the songs that I love, no bother at all.

A book I'm reading right now is by Stephen Fry, one of our favourite celebs. He is an actor, a scholar and a very witty man. I never miss his half-hour tv show called QI - or 'Quite Interesting'. His book entitled "The Ode Less Travelled" attempts to guide one through the poetical maze.

I was surprised to learn that he is a poet, but he does not publish any of his works. He just enjoys the creativity of writing poems. He absolutely LOVES words.

Cakes? Not a lover of them except for Dundee Cake and Xmas cake!

Kirk said...

If you can't have an aversion to kippers when you're 14, when can you have it?