Poetry – Baking by Phoebe Boswall

Phoebe Boswall won the Foyle’s Young Poet of the Year 2012 with this poem. It’s an annual competition for poetry from 11-17 year olds.

Smells of baking remind me of you.
Your red apron, my small striped one with the torn pocket.
Your soft stretched skin, fingers kneading dough
into a ball. My fat floury hands
grasped for your amber necklace,
Quick, Phoebe, the oven!

You played with flavours,
made little blobs of buttery dough on the tray
Your warm kitchen, my safe haven.

You taught me your language:
bicarbonate of soda, self-raising flour, vanilla extract,
millilitres of milk, grams of sugar: caster, muscovado, granulated.

Now your apron hangs empty on the peg.
I wear it from time to time; mine with the torn pocket
doesn’t fit anymore.

Discussion:

The beauty of this poem is, for me, in its simplicity and everyday language which gradually builds an impression of a homely, warm and loving kitchen – then, suddenly at the end, the sanctity of that home is ripped away, much as it is when a parent unexpectedly dies.

When we spend a lot of time looking for the metaphor of a poem or the simple, easy-to-spot technique, it’s wonderful how this poem does what it does so apparently effortless without labouring under a blanket of metaphor. Of course, it’s also very technically adept! But maybe not in the way that students often expect.

In the first stanza, Boswall establishes a tone of eulogy with her first line, “reminds me of you”, a clear – but quiet – comment on the fact that someone is no longer there. Yet this doesn’t automatically mean death, and I don’t think it does here, not straight away. The direct address, repeated “you”, “yourred apron”, “your soft stretched skin” makes clear this is a parental, mothering and nurturing relationship. Isn’t it strange how, often, mothers’ hands are what we can recall sometimes the most clearly of all? It seems that way with my grandmother and, to an extent, when I picture my (very much alive!) mother. Perhaps it’s the deep connection from birth, someone who washes, bathes, caresses and soothes. And, of course, here it plays into the baking motif.

The mother is contrasted with the child in the aprons they wear. That small detail of the “torn pocket” which echoes through to the last phrase, is such a key one that a slightly older child would recall, even if they didn’t have the apron any more. It speaks of practicality (who uses pockets in an apron?) and a pragmatism that seems perfectly suited to the baking they’re doing. The speaker’s youth is emphasised when her hands – again contrasted with her mother’s – grasp in that childish way for a necklace, an object of beauty and fascination, perhaps simply because it is her mother’s. The snippet of dialogue at the end of the stanza is so real, and speaks to us across time and place, the echo of the mother’s interaction.

Throughout, the kitchen is warm and inviting. The mother’s skill and care is celebrated in the second stanza, and the words “your warm kitchen, my safe haven” are read a second time with an additional pathos when we know that no longer exists. The first time through, the parallel structures balance perfectly, signifying the connection between the two. The third stanza, with its focus on the language of baking and the list of ingredients becomes a litany or recitation, as much to remember the mother herself; through the knowledge she has passed on and the repeatable experiences of baking, kneading, cooking, the mother can be recalled in a very physical way. I think it’s a wonderful choice to refer to the “flavour” but then recall the “little blobs of buttery dough”, something which so simple in its flavours – and language – and yet broadens this poem out just enough to that it enters everyone’s experience, the recollection of warm melted butter as something so domestically satisfying.

The final stanza is where this domestic warmth completely changes, and the poem turns. The apron “hangs empty” without the mother to fill it, the space mirroring the space in the speaker’s life. The final phrase, with its repetition of the second line, brings us back to that early childhood but now, it “doesn’t fit anymore.” With that, we’re brought into a shattered future where the child has grown, without her mother we assume as the childhood apron was never replaced, and the utter feeling of emptiness and loss that fractured ending brings us sharply up against.

I almost wanted a final stanza where instead Boswell takes the apron down and wears it herself, but in not doing that, she’s sidestepped a potential cliched landmine and ended with pathos, rather than a sense of resolution. Because there is no resolution when a  parent dies, simply a watershed that’s passed through. Although the speaker can recall the memories, maybe even bring to mind the physical sensations, the mother’s place will always remain empty.

What do you think?