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Food for poetry

Sunday, 16 August, 2015

In Irish, the word “Ballymaloe” means “the townland of sweet honey”, from baile (town), lua (sweet) and meal (honey). Ballymaloe is located in Shanagarry, which means “old garden”, and Ballymaloe Cookery School is set in 10 acres of organic gardens, which are surrounded by 100 acres of East Cork farmland. The school is the generous sponsor of the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize, in association with The Moth magazine, and there’s a total of €13,000 in the pot.

The American poet Elizabeth Bishop was an accomplished cook and here she creates food for thought with the repetition of the words crumb and coffee. The coffee turns from a drop to a cup into gallons, while the crumb evolves into a roll, a buttered loaf and finally “my mansion, made for me by a miracle.” It should be noted that she wrote the poem during the Great Depression when she saw the jobless lining up for coffee and bread. They were dependent on the charity and goodwill of the “man on the balcony”, who represents the elites and the bureaucrats, who never hunger or thirst. The miracle Elizabeth Bishop’s masses hope for alludes to the Biblical story in which Jesus fed 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish.

A Miracle For Breakfast

At six o’clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
— like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.

The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river.
It was so cold we hoped that the coffee
would be very hot, seeing that the sun
was not going to warm us; and that the crumb
would be a loaf each, buttered, by a miracle.
At seven a man stepped out on the balcony.

He stood for a minute alone on the balcony
looking over our heads toward the river.
A servant handed him the makings of a miracle,
consisting of one lone cup of coffee
and one roll, which he proceeded to crumb,
his head, so to speak, in the clouds — along with the sun.

Was the man crazy? What under the sun
was he trying to do, up there on his balcony!
Each man received one rather hard crumb,
which some flicked scornfully into the river,
and, in a cup, one drop of the coffee.
Some of us stood around, waiting for the miracle.

I can tell what I saw next; it was not a miracle.
A beautiful villa stood in the sun
and from its doors came the smell of hot coffee.
In front, a baroque white plaster balcony
added by birds, who nest along the river,
— I saw it with one eye close to the crumb–

and galleries and marble chambers. My crumb
my mansion, made for me by a miracle,
through ages, by insects, birds, and the river
working the stone. Every day, in the sun,
at breakfast time I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.

We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.

Elizabeth Bishop


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