A chair in which to breathe

fllll
Breathless, John Lyons (oil on wood)

A chair in which to breathe

An open window means
           a stiff breeze is blowing
means knowing you’re alive
           means painted flowers
will never fade
           means the books
in their cases are there
           to be read

and when love
           becomes a stranger
it might rain
           and the summer
may end prematurely
           and the birds will fly south
while honey is harvested
           and the wax is turned
to candles that burn
           at the midnight hour

and dreams
           may lose their way
and the days
           may accumulate
until there is nothing left but time
           and an empty chair
where she once counted
           her fingers and toes

John Lyons

When times are hard

glass2
Looking glass, John Lyons (oil on wood and paper)

When times are hard

A table means
           necessary places
means presence
           and necessary absence
in times of war
           in times of peace
a table means steadiness
           a strong line in life
a surface upon which
           plates and glasses
and knives and spoons
           and silver-plated forks
look their best :
           sometimes there is jam
and sometimes cream
           and sometimes milk
and sometimes honey
           and sometimes bread
or toast in a rack
           or scones or cake
and a pot of tea
           with cups and saucers
a sugar bowl
           and yellow daffodils
in a porcelain vase
           casting their light
on the crisp white linen cloth
           and sometimes
people come together
           to commemorate a life
and to celebrate
           their love

John Lyons


Revised

Tender Buttons

Gertrude-Stein-Pablo-Picasso
Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso (1906)

First published in 1914, Tender Buttons, by the American writer, Gertrude Stein, is a collection of poems written in a style which some critics have described as verbal Cubism. Stein’s close friendship with Pablo Picasso, detailed magnificently in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), undoubtedly exerted a great influence on the experimental style of composition in which everyday objects are described in ways that detach them from their familiar context so that the reader has to reassemble the parts in order to derive the sense. Plainly, it is a modernist work that demands some effort on the part of the reader, and this explains why it is one of the great unread classics. This is a pity because the work contains some of Stein’s very best writing and with the correct approach it can bring a good deal of pleasure. Each poem has to be read slowly and with a relaxed, meditative voice so as to handle each fragment of syntax with care, to examine it closely and allow the unconscious to assist in the process of assembly. There are many beautiful observations within the poems but they have to be teased out by a sympathetic reader, one who genuinely enjoys the true power of poetry and is attuned to its often unconventional rhythms and syntax. The theme of the work is, of course, explicit in the title, which celebrates the tenderness of homely relationships, including the people who occupy the home and the ordinary, everyday objects that surround them and which they use.


Tender Buttons

A reading for Gertrude:
           a table means
necessary places
           cutlery on the starched
white linen
           and a glass of any height
a looking glass
           a lamp and a cake
a tin lined with crumbs
           a precocious blue
but not so sad after all
           green can be lean
but nothing tendered
           nothing gained
A table means also
           and also perhaps
full of possibilities
           a commitment
and a compromise :
           the light was gracious
one might say forgiving
           so that they all
looked their best
            A table is geometry
and dynamics
           and sometimes crosstalk
and sometimes silence
           it has moods and expectations
and some things are certain
           and some things are not
A wet-weather window
           opens us to the elements
and chance as we know
           is a very fine thing

Picasso once ate
           and drank and smoked
at her table and loved
           in her all that there was
to love and more
           and Alice once sewed
a button on his shirt : :
           that was a tender
thing to do
           don’t you think ?

John Lyons

The kitchen – a preliminary sketch

The poem below was written in Spanish many years ago and it was partly inspired by a reading of several works by Gertrude Stein, in particular her stories, Three Lives, and her long prose-poem dedicated to the home, Tender Buttons. Having been written in Spanish it benefited from the sounds and rhythms of that language, some of which have been lost in the English translation. 


The kitchen – a preliminary sketch

The kitchen is the household’s nest and home’s soul
it is the homely heart of hearts and so much so that
we must admit that without a kitchen there is no home
       just as without a heart there is no body
new paragraph

And it doesn’t matter whether it has a gas or electric
or even a wood stove the kitchen is always
the great engine the main driver that powers a home
it is the turbine the dynamo and the source and origin
       of all domestic and experiential energy

In the kitchen the plants and flowers and wood all feel at home
       cold cast iron and tender marble at home too
       at home cork and wickerwork
       surrounded by glass and ceramics
and everything just as natural as can be in the kitchen with only plastic
and polyurethane and anything at all synthetic feeling a little out of place
       surrounded by so much vegetable
       mineral
       and human nature

Here technology counts for little
in the role the kitchen plays in home life
because every technological device has a single purpose
to fulfil an ancient task in the newest
and most efficient manner nothing more
so that while not exactly redundant
technology is indeed par excellence expendable
and so much more so
than the cry of a cockerel or a lark
       at the crack of dawn

A kitchen has its own rhythm and its own music and in that
it resembles a poem a poem perhaps hanging on a kitchen wall
amid photos of grandparents and great grandparents as though a recipe
for the preparation of some stuffed eggplants
because in reality poems too are stuffed in so many different ways
with so many different sauces to give them a particular flavour and
likewise certain recipes too are followed to carry them off
so that poetry and cooking
       -in practice and in situ-
       are two quite similar things
although on the other hand
       totally different and no comparison

In a kitchen to come up behind someone who’s peeling potatoes
or rinsing vegetables under cold water running
over the sink can be a real treat because the person
with their hands full cannot defend themselves and one can
hug that person from behind or give them a peck on the neck
or do both simultaneously and there’s nothing
the poor person can do with busy wet hands
but let out a scream and laugh and try to turn around or dodge
but most of the time it’s in vain because from a kiss
which by the stars is bound to be bestowed
there’s no escape because it’s fate
and no one escapes their fate as we all too well know
although rarely do we know what exactly fate is
especially our own random luck
our destiny or that of those we most love
       because that’s life
       with a destiny but unpredictable
       as though there were no destiny
       at all

And notice that a kitchen occupied by one person barely counts
as a kitchen because the nature of the kitchen requires the minimal presence
of two so as to classify as a real kitchen
and the reason for this is that the kitchen is a place of sharing
and by definition solitude’s not something to be shared
so it fails to qualify as a kitchen but rather undermines it authority
or at least removes authenticity and I’d go as far as to say takes away the taste
from the food served in that room that I daren’t
even call a kitchen given that it’s occupied nothing more
than by one person alone and that’s not sharing
and by failing to comply with the rules of the kitchen
       is hopelessly disqualified

And a rhetorical question would be
where else can one find such an intimate and innocent
formal and informal promiscuity in a house than in the kitchen
and that is largely due to the fact that a main ingredient of a main kitchen
is miscegenation
or rather the confluence
of a huge variety of ingredients in a single dish
because to tell the truth when the culinary art
is practised seriously very rarely does the kitchen not assume something
of the atmosphere of the General Assembly of the United Nations
when a host of products from various flags around the world congregate
all of which are destined in accordance with the talent
of the person in charge of the cuisine to melt into
a unique combination into a single unified taste though there might
persist a plethora of minor or secondary flavours
       underlying the unicity of the dominant flavour
       and that’s why all prejudices have to remain
       out of the kitchen so as not to impede the peace process
which is cooking within the confines of that space
that is indeed a kind of sanctuary
for all human rights and values
of respect and democracy and friendship and affection
       and quite simply love

Moreover as if this weren’t enough the kitchen is a place
where many alien things are always mislaid
and where other equally alien things are always found
a phenomenon that is repeated so often
that it gives the impression that the kitchen is a magical space
with frankly surprising powers of attraction
and it’s impossible to hear the question
where’re the keys or the newspaper
without thinking with an almost pathological automatism
of the probability that the blessed newspaper quite certainly
is in the kitchen not far from the cup and glasses
and perhaps beneath the keys to the car
       or to the house itself

And that’s why friends prefer to be in the kitchen instead
of anywhere else even after the meal they’ve just
ingested because the host or hostess will constantly
have experienced the following and that is that after filling
their stomachs friends want to fill their soul with delicacies
no less nutritious than an oven roast or a fried fish
or a plate of rice with shrimp or chorizo
since it’s true that the human species
       cannot live on bread alone
       but on daily conversation and dialogue
       and the exchange of ideas and impressions
       and tastes and sometimes even mild or strong
       disagreements and opposing politics and it seems
that being surrounded by utensils and pots and heavy porcelain
lends to some if not to most people
an unparalleled sense of security so that rarely do they
accept the suggestion to file out into the living room
while the leftovers are put away and the dishes washed
and the stove is cleaned and the coffee has been filtered
because they fear that they’ll lose that frank and warm
human quality that is
       the necessary environment
       of a fine inexhaustible kitchen
       whether here
       or in Timbuktu
       and in saying all this
       I feel I’ve said so very little
       and that I’m really
       just getting going

John Lyons

© 1990, 2015