Posted by: John Looker | 23 January, 2013

MASTER BAKER

And now the last of seven poems exploring states of mind we can all experience at work:

MASTER BAKER 

It’s two in the morning when he arrives,
the hour that shouldn’t exist:
night watchmen are merely half-way through;
farmers have yet to stir;
only monks, rung into church for matins,
know this as a time to begin. 

He can leave the shop in shadow,
with the dark presence of the bare counter,
and feel his way to the bakery beyond
where he blinks for a moment in the light.
This is where he dons his white-friar’s habit,
his pristine bakery clothes. 

First things first. Before he drinks
that necessary coffee he fetches the dough,
made the preceding day, from where it dreams
in the cool and dark. Organic wheat, fresh yeast,
sea salt; nothing less will do. 

Ancient arts from Egypt, Rome and the East
will keep him busy until the neighbourhood wakes,
but finally the genie is released
as modern tools and know-how come in play.
Science, and cunning, and incantations. He bakes 

and as he bakes his hard-won skills display
such rich aromas that even the sun
is drawn down to the street, he likes to say;
and as the loaves build up he lets his fingers
linger along their crusts and, smiling now,
allows himself the thought: a job well done. 

© John Stevens 2012

I have the third part of this sequence of poems (Looking at Life through Work) in draft with the working title “The Ancient Guild of Hostage-Takers”. If I can manage it, it will be different in mood, trying to face up to humankind’s inhumanity. I’ll take a break with some unrelated poems before I continue with the series however.

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Responses

  1. This is beautiful, the art of the craftsman (and I do mean you, also the baker 🙂 )

    My grandfather was a baker, (but also a soldier, seaman, and he had a café once) and I remember the bakery, that was in a former farm in the street I live now. He went broke in the war, as he couldn’t say no to people and just gave the bread away. I have bene told his bread was very good! 🙂 Bread, baked with love, so much better in taste than the stuff factories call bread!

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    • Hello Ina. What a lovely little memory about your grandfather – thank you for that!

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  2. Love the quiet labour in the night, can feel the speechless hush of the baker’s business as he goes about his rituals.

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    • Thank you Bart – I appreciate your commenting.

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  3. The mix of the practical and the primordial seems justly proportioned. Routines are rituals in real work. So this poem is ultimately sublime, the final lingering fingers a blessing and a send- off into the blessed community. thank you John for your labors of love.

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    • It’s kind of you to give such time and thought to this piece of mine, Tom. It was meant to round off the second batch of poems in this series, on a high note, and you encourage me to think that I was part way there at least.

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  4. I had a friend who was a master baker.
    He would have loved this poem.

    As I used to love walking past his shop early mornings

    David

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    • By which time he would have been long at work!

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  5. One summer I made donuts at a convenience store. I remember just how hard that rising to work was. How honorably you word paint the profession. There really is nothing like freshly baked bread though.

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  6. Why would anybody want to become a baker? Up at some ungodly hour, solemn, lonely, solitary: Only the monks and the night watchman are up and going—but they’re either meditating or praying or chanting, or just watching. Could it be that dough—‘it dreams in the cool and the dark’—so much like Emily Dickinson’s hay—And then, in Sovereign Barns to dwell — And dream the Days away—or maybe it is the aromas that ‘draw the sun down into the street’—as he likes to say. I would almost think our master baker is something of a poet—except, well who is talking here? John, we’ve had this discussion before about the author’s voice, and I don’t mean to make my thoughts in to a Johnny One-note, let’s let the band play through—but, who is speaking here? He’s perceptive, he’s articulate, likes his rhymes and his careful structure of lines—but he’s not the baker, is he? He’s clearly on the outside, perhaps peering in through a shaft of light where the curtains don’t quite meet. Does he really know what the baker’s life is like? That Raymond Carver story I mentioned (A Small Good Thing) plays on this solitariness of the baker—he doesn’t really know what’s going on with his customers and they don’t know what is going on with him. He communicates through his bread.
    We aren’t quite introduced to Mr. Anonymous; again we don’t know too much about him. He’s a master of his craft; he runs a small bakery; makes all the bread himself. Fine. But I can’t help feeling the message lies in what is missing. You don’t know much about someone when you only know what he does, do you?
    Well, this is a poem, not a newspaper profile. What does it give us? Fine words sutured together in a skin tight, air tight, little objet d’art. It pulls the truly ancient craft of bread making into its slightly worn, slightly tired 21st century mode. It shows use that craft is still possible. That’s pretty good. In New York, we’d ask for a bagel with a smear.

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  7. I looked back at your earlier remarks about the author’s voice, or the narrator, in a poem; there’s always a decision to be made by the writer, consciously or not, and preferably consciously. It’s something to keep thinking about, so I welcome your comments on this Jim.
    If I may share that bagel with a smear with you, I will – thanks a lot – although I’m afraid I have a preference for the old-fashioned European loaves, especially with a little unsalted butter.

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  8. Hmmn…I loved this poem. It is absolutely delicious from start to finish. You had me from the moment 2 a.m. became holy to the white friar’s habit, the dough’s dreaming in the cool, and the ancient arts, the neighbourhood waking and even the sun coming down to the street. The power. The satisfied baker and his fingers over the crusts…this is a very sensuous poem and warm. Glorious.

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  9. Thank you, Anna. How very kind. I’m so glad you feel it worked.

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  10. Ethel is, of course, a marvelous baker. For a short while she got up in the wee hours and worked for a bakery in Shawano, Wisconsin. She also helped her sisters Lorraine and Pat operate the best bakery with the best Scandinavian breads and pastries that ever graced Grand Junction, Colorado. What I got out of Ethel’s experiences is that baking is about as difficult a craft as anyone can practice. The work is exacting, demanding, fast paced, and, mostly exhausting. That it creates the most wonderful aromas and most enchanting tastes in the world, making humans long for the sight of pastries or breads with fierceness, gives the poem and the memories of Ethel as a baker a glory that the baker himself does not feel at 2 a.m. Ethel bakes bread from scratch at least once a week and makes pies and cakes that are so popular at work that when I bring one it is gone in minutes. O what a delicious poem, John. What a delicious poem.

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  11. My, I can smell the bread just reading your description! Thanks Tom. Ethel clearly is a lady of inexhaustible talents. I hope she feels I got the technicalities of baking right; I did my research but I’m not a baker myself.

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  12. I really liked this, having worked nights at a doughnut shop, watching the baker go about his work and leave at 7am, satisfied with his job well done.

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    • How nice to hear that this matches up with experience! Thank you for commenting.

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