“The Kitchen” from the new collection WHAT SWEETNESS FROM SALT, by Francine Conley (poetry, ’14)

The Kitchen

“A wise woman puts a grain of sugar into everything she says to a man,

and takes a grain of salt with everything he says to her.”

                                                                                                –Helen Rowland

They showed me how to finger wild carrot blunts,

snip flowered kale leaves, tear the terse from sturdier

stems. The kitchens I knew were womanless; full

of men who cooked, silently, mouths riven enough

to sample sauce or graze. I snuck in, helped them

cut, trim, heft handfuls of severed greens into bowls

covered and ready to simmer.  Shaved frozen

butter into flour, a few splashes of water, careful

not to knead too much or you’ll kill it, then

rimmed wily sides of pans with flattened dough

stabbed by a fork so the apples could breathe

sugar.  I peeled and stripped knots of ginger,

gleaned scallions, sliced them into thin rings

stuck to each other.  Stout, bolder onions startled

tears that filmed and blurred everything I saw. 

I guarded myself cutting meat, for how I sliced

through a thumb once.  There was the bled wound

a man mended with the same fat needle and thread

he used to stitch a turkey.  Nights were bottomless,

boiling pots of water; days: pans seared with oil,

peppers sautéed crimson.  Years honeyed into

turnip torment; the past a splash of vinegar

that worried beets from plum to sanguine,

potatoes yellowed into curry, anise clumps. 

To cook with men was to learn how to season

the world into something we’d consume, and we

did.  Quickly.  I loved the exquisite, pinioned forms

of their hostile hands, scarred fingers that pinched

saffron, gripped iron skillets scorched with living. 

I tasted everything.  There was one who handled

lit flames and fired garlic into chords of music I’d

never forget.  A mound of ripe tomatoes we stacked

into a tower leaning crimson, on the verge of falling.