Posted by: John Looker | 20 April, 2012

SHE WAITS AT TABLE

The fifth poem in a series looking at life through work:

.

SHE WAITS AT TABLE

Always the same tables. Same menu too.
But every evening the faces and the voices change,
and this is pleasing.
They drift out afterwards into the darkness
leaving you wondering,
and somehow this makes every shift feel new. 

The hardest part at first was feet,
but she bought herself new shoes and better tights.
Getting her washing done is still a chore.
But mostly it’s the hours:
there’s someone out there meant for her, she’s sure,
but will they ever meet? 

Just look at Table 1: unaware of the time
although the room has emptied into the night,
they are calling her over again,
calling for brandy or a dram of whisky;
for schnapps or tequila; for sake
or a pitcher of wine;

a jug of mead – so sweet and still;
sherbet or perfumed tea;
chocolate foaming with bitter spices;
fermented mare’s milk; or water,
cool and clean, to be fetched (straight away!)
from the spring at the foot of the hill.

© John Stevens 2012

For other poems in this series, click on the tag ‘work’ – the first in the series,  ”Work (a noun)” can be found at:

https://johnstevensjs.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/work-a-noun/  

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Responses

  1. Hi John,
    what a nice portrait of a waitress’s life! Esp. the feet thing, it is murder!
    ( I’ve done that kind of work for a very short period ) It is hard work, esp. if you work in a bar I think.

    The 2 meanings of she waits at tables, waiting for someone to get her away as well, very clever 🙂

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  2. The mundane is told with such grace and details. A great poem. Love Ethel

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  3. I have to agree with Ethel, I really enjoyed reading this! Especially the lines:

    “sherbet or perfumed tea;
    chocolate foaming with bitter spices;
    fermented mare’s milk; or water,
    cool and clean, to be fetched (straight away!)”

    Wonderful! 😀

    Eve

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  4. Perhaps your finest outing yet in this series. I say this because of the degrees of difference between the opening and the close: how did you get from A to X? By the end, we are in the consciousness of the subject, in a profound (Baudelairian usage) revery, going to that Good Place of the imagination that is fed by the springs of the agapeic mind. We get to that great good place (a phrase of H James?) by wandering through her perceptions, both concrete and dreamy. The presentation has the concreteness of Degas’ working girl. But thanks to language you can go inside, as it were: and suddenly WE are that girl, and those drinks are providing us such solace, even though we serve them to others. Without the hard particulars of the first stanzas and the handling of the repeated form (I really love the handling of line length and the envelope rhyme and if I’m right there’s a discontinuous but always potential pattern of other rhymes; the interplay of syntax and line seems perfectly expressive of the consciousness explored). In a word: the almost obligatory gesture toward her romantic hopes give way to the most extraordinary fusion of pain and pleasure, suffering and ecstasy. The final line is splendidly laconic and perfectly pitched to express the ultimate desire for oblivion through recourse to the origin.
    I am aware many feel I “read into” poems my own notions, but my own notions are pretty well rooted in literary history and in how we think about ultimate things. The phrase “foot of the hill” coming at the end resonates with me so that the poem is suddenly linked with poems from various times and places and paintings too. Isn’t poetry just that: the awakening of the music in words we use every day or every other day or in tightly scripted sessions so that the music opens sources of transcendence that are always already there?
    This is a keeper! I really hope these poems find their home in a real book.

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    • I am most grateful, Tom, for your interest and your kindness in giving me the benefit of your knowledge and thought.
      You mention the lines and the rhyme. I decided to construct all the poems with that envelope rhyme, linking the first and last lines in each stanza. It’s very flexible but gives continuity – and, I hope, a pleasing effect.
      I am deeply honoured if some of my lines resonate in the way that you suggest they might. I should like the poems to open themselves to readers’ own experiences and reflections, but I can’t be sure they will.
      A real book? At the moment that seems like a secular grail.
      But I do have in mind a shape to the whole sequence, with seven batches of poems looking at life through work each in a different way.
      At this stage I’m working through eight poems in the first batch, which together are meant to illustrate the timelessness and ubiquity of Mankind’s work. On their own however, these eight might suggest that all is harmony between individuals, groups, cultures; moreover, they offer a rather generalised, schematic overview. That’s why I feel the need to move on to some contrasting and complementary batches – if I can sustain that, and if my on-line friends remain interested.

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  5. Thank you everybody for your comments and ‘likes’ – you are truly very encouraging (but also rather flattering).
    Ina – I enjoyed your remark about feet!

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  6. One more thing! Notice the “turn” from the kinds of drinks, moving from the penultimate to the final stanza. There’s a lot going on there. My take at the moment is that the list moves away from the kind of stuff I drink to more organic or spiritual stuff. This is what I call “inner form” moving us towards an unknown but urgently ultimate bourne. This is confirmed by the words used to evoke the water. The spring at the foot of the hill is a magnificent “double” to that image of purity, even the “origin” of that purity. Thus the poem reveals what the Chinese classic poets called “li”: the inner pattern of creation, which is not a geometric “law” but a process of change and we might say “purification” since it is Other, what Zhuangzi called The Creative.
    Water is of course one of the great symbols of the Way (inseparable from inner form, pattern, etc.).
    I don’t think we need say John “intended” all this “stuff” but he is a student of human culture, as anyone who undertakes a series on “work” must be. Human culture includes all these patterns of thinking and conscious response to existence. So he picks some of it up as we all would, like burrs in his socks. Poets who read carefully “know” a lot of things! This has always been a mystery to me, how they know so many things (foxes all) and also one thing (hedgehog): how to make it sing.

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  7. I always feel like I am in the presence of a great teacher whenever I am privileged enough to read Tom D’Evelyn’s commentary. He and Jim Kleinhenz always amaze me with the depth of their knowledge. I feel like the thousands of books I’ve read have not done me any good at all.
    What struck me about this poem right off, though, is a memory. Ethel and I were newly married, poor, or poorer than poor, I suppose, and I was picking Ethel up at the back of the Airport Restaurant at Walker Field in Grand Junction. It was late. I had just got off work at Safeway, a grocery store, where I was packing up bags of groceries and taking them to people’s cars.
    Ethel, dressed in the restaurant’s black uniform, came out into the dark counting her tips from the day. She made pretty good money in tips, at least as we saw money at the time, was intent as she got the change out of the small apron she wore for that purpose. She was exhausted. You could tell that by looking at her face in the rain in the dark. She crawled into the car and said, is it ever good to get out of that place. They were really demanding today.
    I suspect the waitress in this poem likes her job better than Ethel did hers. First chance she got she got an even harder job at a greenhouse where she had to work like a stevedore planting, mulching, tending, watering, moving full wheelbarrows from one big greenhouse to another, but that was a job she truly loved.
    The craft and language in this poem is up to the John Stevens’ standard. What makes me especially glad is that you seem to be working on a sequence that has a large design. Harrah! I shall try to read everyone of them and probably comment. I love sequences and epics and all the complex forms that so many do not appreciate.
    The lament in the middle of the poem is the key to the poem, I feel:
    there’s someone out there meant for her, she’s sure,
    but will they ever meet?
    It is from that moment that we are in her head rather than simply in the poet’s description of her and her work. She is a young woman making the best of things while waiting for her heart’s desire.
    And the demands, the day’s frustrations mounting toward the day’s end. The guy in la la land just sitting there taking up space and lost in himself:
    they [not just he] are calling her over again,
    calling for brandy or a dram of whisky;
    for schnapps or tequila; for sake
    or a pitcher of wine…
    For goodness sake, she’s tired. You can feel it in the lines, and they want everything perfect, even water:
    cool and clean, to be fetched (straight away!)
    from the spring at the foot of the hill.
    Not from the tap, mind you, but from the spring at the foot of the hill outside and miles away. Aren’t customers wonderful? Or, at least, that’s how I read this.

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  8. Hi John—I guess I’ll have to say yet again, I agree with Tom. Maybe it is reading too much into the poem, but, it seems right…
    (Okay, before I go further, the story that ‘I agree with Tom’ brings to mind. Casey Stengel, the great coach for the NY Yankees, was known for his ability to talk almost non-stop for as long as he wanted on just about any subject. The only trouble was, while it sounded like he was making sense, you couldn’t quite grasp what he was talking about. One year, there was some congressional investigation going on and a number of the Yankees were called to testify, including Casey Stengel and Mickey Mantle. Casey did his routine, talked a blue streak, dancing around the question, before a dumbfounded committee. Finally one of the congressmen interrupted and called on Mickey Mantle. “Well, Mr. Mantle. What do you think about this?”
    “Oh,” said Mickey. “I agree with Casey.”)
    …on the money. The poem seems to, in a quiet and measured way, simply explode. One minute we are thinking about sensible shoes and tights, the next we are knee deep in an array of spirits (masking are alcoholic beverages?)
    calling for brandy or a dram of whisky;
    for schnapps or tequila; for sake
    or a pitcher of wine;

    a jug of mead

    Mead? The next thing you know they’ll be ordering manna from heaven. Oh, and wrap the leftovers up for me will you, dear?

    What to make of this? For me, there’s a touch of Mr. Bleaney lurking in the lifestyle. But just as ‘Mr. Bleaney’, while it seems to be about a person named Mr. Bleaney, it may tell us more about the unnamed narrator of the poem.
    That how we live measures our own nature,
    And at his age having no more to show
    Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
    He warranted no better, I don’t know.

    I don’t know, indeed.
    (By the way, I’m aware that in some corners of the British Isles, ‘Philip Larkin’ is considered an insult. I do not share this view. I guess he was not a nice man, but…)
    What don’t we know about our protagonist in this poem? Practically everything. Okay, her feet hurt. That’s not hard to figure out. But how old is she? What are her hopes and dreams? What, no friends? We know that someday her prince will come. But, come on, is she seeing anybody now? Come on, Marge, you can tell us. Oh, Marge isn’t your name. Sorry…Beth? Read any good books lately, Cindy? What we know is her work. What we know of her is her work.
    Once again, we had better pay attention to what has not been said.
    How impenetrable people—and poems—can be. How noble and mysterious. Water, from the spring of the hill? That’s what the couple at table 1 wants?
    This poem could have been a complete downer (say, in my hands)—the ‘Richard Cory went home one night, and put a bullet through his head’ kind of thing—but it isn’t. It bristles with music and beverages. With a tired person, but not a defeated one. Boy, I sure wish I could get a job in a nice diner.
    John, this is an excellent poem. I do agree with Tom.

    Jim

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  9. I’m learning more from your comments everyone than you are from my poem.
    You kindly tease out some of the hints in the poem. But I always had another idea as well: that serving at table has been done in all parts of the world at all epochs, probably with many of the same overtones. I hoped my list of drinks would suggest medieval Europe, the Arabs and Ottomans, India/China, the Maya and Aztecs, Genghis Khan’s Mongols, and native tribes right back to the Stone Age fort in the first poem.
    But I failed to convey this. I didn’t give enough information even for astute and patient readers such as you all. I’ll think a bit more about the last stanza.

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    • It is interesting that nobody picked up on the ‘global’ use of your beverage list. The problem may have something to do with the status of a waitperson in our society, and let’s face it, a great many people put in a certain amount of time while in high school or college waiting tables. It’s something you do while learning to something else. I was a busboy when in high school. I did not find it rewarding work.
      There’s a book you might find interesting, ‘A History of the World in 6 Glasses’ by Tom Standage. Just as archeologists have found it useful to divide mankind’s development around different material—the Stone Age, Bronze Age, etc—one can also look at history from the perspective of the beverage consumed during that time. (Water is a constant.) The six glasses are filled with beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and most recently, cola.
      Cheers.

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      • I rather like that perspective on history!
        (I’ve tried redrafting my final stanza, but emphasising my first thoughts more only squeezes out other interpretations – which I would regret. I think I’ll leave it alone.)

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  10. Ah! Brilliant.
    I really ADORE this idea of a series on work…

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  11. I’ve enjoyed reading both your poem and the comments above. I am struck most by the ending of the poem — the impossibility of fetching the spring water from the foot of the hill, and in a rush, too! A good waiter or waitress is like an angelic creature remembering everything for everyone and doing it all with such grace and charm. And, oh, how we want someone in our life to serve our every need…

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  12. Thank you Evelyn and Anna – you are very kind.

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  13. This is such a lovely poem, quite like a scene in a novel, evoking characters from the drinks they have … and then how the room empties into the night.

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