A crucial ingredient is the right frame of mind
so abandon all ideas of getting on. Stop pedalling,
dismount, go indoors and give yourself masses of time.
Then begin by heating a pool of oil in a frying pan
and, Mrs. Beeton style, take a dozen onions
even though the space you’re working in is smaller
than the scullery in a Victorian mansion. Pull off
the papery wrappings and feel the shiny globes’ solidity
before you chop. Fry the segments in three batches.
Don’t fuss about weeping eyes, with a wooden spoon
ease the pieces as they turn translucent and gold.
When you’ve browned but not burnt the cubes of beef
marry meat and onions in a deep pan, bless the mixture
with stock, spoonfuls of paprika, tomato purée
and crushed garlic. Enjoy the Pompeian-red warmth.
Outside, the sun is reddening the pale afternoon
and you’ll watch as it sinks behind blurring roofs,
the raised arms of trees, the intrepid viaduct.
In the kitchen’s triumph of colour and light the meat
is softening and everything in the pot is seeping
into everything else. By now you’re thinking of love:
the merging which bodies long for, the merging
that’s more than body. While you’re stirring the stew
it dawns on you how much you need darkness.
It lives in the underskirts of thickets where sealed buds
coddle green, where butterflies folded in hibernation,
could be crumpled leaves. It lives in the sky that carries
a deep sense of blue and a thin boat of moon angled
as if it’s rocking. It lives in the silent larder and upstairs
in the airing cupboard where a padded heart pumps
heat, in the well of bed where humans lace together.
Time to savour all this as the simmering continues,
as you lay the table and place at its centre a small jug
in which you’ve put three tentative roses and sprigs
of rosemary. At last you will sit down with friends
and ladle the dark red goulash onto plates bearing
beds of snowhite rice. As you eat the talk will be bright
as the garnets round your neck, as those buried
with an Anglo-Saxon king in a ship at Sutton Hoo,
and the ring of words will carry far into the night.
Myra Schneider, Circling The Core (Enitharmon Press, 2008)
With thanks to Myra Schneider
The more I think about it the more I realise the purpose of this blog is not self-seeking promotion of myself but finding connection with others. This was brought home to me with some force just over a year ago, when I came across ‘Goulash’ by Myra Schneider. We had been corresponding via the comments boxes on this site, and then via email. And then we exchanged books, a ritual that never fails to persuade me that I am up on the deal.
Part of the newly discovered treasure that day was Myra’s book Circling The Core (Enitharmon Press, 2008). I opened it at the page that contains ‘Goulash’ and began to feel that familiar (though it is never familiar, it is always new, always surprising) sensation of the air slowly leaving my lungs, my pulse rate slowing, and my eyes pricking with moisture. Here was a poem, and I had found it. Only later did I read the book’s blurb and notice that the poem had been short-listed for the Forward Prize for the Best Single Poem in 2007. I wrote to Myra and asked if I might post it here and she graciously said yes.
A year is a lifetime in poetry. Things happen. I lose things. Poets go missing. I forget. But the memories of first-encounters, always the gold standard test of any Lifesaving Poem, tend to stay with me. What I recall vividly on encountering ‘Goulash’ is awareness of the absolute mastery of the tone, somewhere between precision (‘When you’ve browned but not burnt the cubes of beef’) and the quietly rapturous (‘bless the mixture/ with stock… Enjoy the Pompeian-red warmth’). The playful allusion to Mrs Beeton is marvellous: she would recognise the action, and the sentiment, immediately. This is allied to concrete language which is never less than fully aware of its need to pull clear of its moorings in the world of mere instruction. It may contain ‘spoonfuls of paprika, tomato purée/ and crushed garlic’ but it also takes time to look up at ‘the raised arms of tree’ and that ‘intrepid viaduct’.
Thus, when the poem begins its turn, at the line ‘By now you’re thinking of love’, its leap into the abstract-unknown is both fully-earned and inevitable. It’s final lift-off (and I do think it is that) into the orbit of ‘darkness’ and love, ‘the well of bed where humans lace together’ is palpably realised in that astonishing image of the buried treasure at Sutton Hoo. The distance travelled by the poem, both in terms of time, language and diction is remarkable and could not have been predicted: we begin at the chopping board and end beneath the ground. And all the time its key wisdom, that the key ingredient for seeing that food, and love, and friendship, and sleep are interconnected and may all even come from the same place, ‘the right frame of mind’, stays hidden in plain view in line 1.
You can also find ‘Goulash’ in Poems of the Decade: An Anthology of the Forward Books of Poetry, now an Edexcel GCE AS/A level set text.