Kitchens at Night, Dean Browne
Smith/Doorstop, 2022 £6.50
This award-winning pamphlet is charged with gusto (from the Latin gustus: taste). Zest, relish, appetite — all good kitchen words. The reader is taken on a wild ride, Googling — and quite possibly goggling — through a volume filled with wide-ranging vocabulary and references.
The opening poem, ‘Aide-mémoire’, starts:
A goat has been following me for hours. There is a sign
Hung around his neck that reads NEVER FORGET.
That's not very original I think but we’ll see where it leads.
And where it leads is a point at which:
I mash my cigarette,
touch my ear, and it comes off.
One thinks of Van Gogh, while realising that the surrealists are in fact the artists with whom Browne seems to have most in common. An indication is perhaps given in one of the two epigraphs preceding the poems, a quote from Theodore Roethke: ‘I think a bird and it begins to fly’.
And Browne goes on to think a number of birds, many exotic — from his native Ireland, France, Greece, Japan; from the classics to psychology to popular culture. This all gives his work an exhilarating edge.
The other epigraph though, from Elizabeth Bishop, warns that: ‘A storm piles up behind the house’. Gusts (from the Old Norse gustr) as well as gusto, then.
And when the poems are re-read, considerable sadness is found behind the bravura. Grief about difficult or failed relationships, and fellow feeling for the isolated. ‘Fado With Garlic Cutter’ — a title sounding like that of a painting, even as it references music — is a particularly poignant account of the numbed struggle to keep going after a relationship has ended.
Its wild ride finally over, the pamphlet closes reassuringly in a perfect — wittily titled — final poem, ‘Self-Checkout', which concludes:
It is necessary to remember
the hardy grain of the table
In a kitchen in Aherlo,
how it spoke to your elbows:
I was once a seed
so minute you could swallow me
whole and not notice.
Lean on me, be nourished.