Poet’s corner: From a witch’s brew… to something new

Stirring the Pot
My freezer’s full
of ice cream, cookies, candy
I want to forget I have.
And, in most of the space,
vegetable parts:
carrot peels,
zucchini ends,
external leaves of
cabbages, cauliflowers,
brown-ended broccoli stems,
fibrous asparagus stalks,
the cobs of summer’s corn,
mushroom stems,
onion skins and
the little onion bits around the root—
all visible in their unlabeled
zip loc bags.
When the freezer door
will shut no more
I dump these odds and ends
into a  giant pot my mother used
to boil both tongues and hams—
I add some water, garlic, s and p,
bring to a boil,
put on the lid, and simmer.
Hours later the broth
becomes the base
for other soups and stews—
hearty, healthy, filling,
as satisfying as the space
left by those odds and ends,
which quickly start
to fill it up again.
I am quite a different pot,
a cauldron into which I put
the slights, frustrations of my day,
the reawakened rage
from growing up a girl
I add the headlines of those times,
now re-echoing in our own:
Jim Crow, the lynchings,
Holocaust, Red Scare,
until recently bagged
as frozen memory.
Thawed now,
they bubble in me,
a witch’s brew,
stirred by a malevolent mind
with nothing on his own
but self-aggrandizement and wealth,
accompanied by a child-like cry:
“See me!  Look what I can do!”
This stew I can neither
swallow nor control.
It heats, boils over,
screams impotently,
Who will clean up the mess?
— Ann Cooper
Ann Cooper moved to Middlebury almost 30 years ago, about the time she stopped writing poetry.  Being mostly retired now, as editor, historian, and consultant to nonprofits, has created scope for her reawakened and insistent muse.
In this poem, “Stirring the Pot,” by Ann Cooper, the speaker plays on the idea of stews and stewing, brews and brewing. The poem begins with the stew of her left over vegetables, an innocuous melting pot of nature’s riches, bringing forth images of warmth, wholesomeness, and nourishment. We are given ingredients and aromas to mull about in our minds and mouths.
Then she carefully takes the image of the brewing soup and expands it to include the pot. It is still her mother’s pot holding rich nutrients, but now extends to her description of herself as “quite a different pot.” As her broth simmers on the stove, her mind is filled with images of mid-19th century American and European injustices and atrocities, ones not so different from what appear in our recent headlines — images now thawed because there are those who would like to keep them alive. Thawed, in part, because “a malevolent mind” with too much power is exerting too much influence. Thawed, because they fully never went away in the first place.
And so, the witches brew. I like the way the speaker doesn’t declare definitively whose brew exactly, or where it started. It would be easy to put all the blame on the one with the malevolent mind, and others who encourage injustice and hate in our country. Of course such encouragement has happened and continues to, but the speaker does not absolve herself of all responsibility and doesn’t draw a line between her and them, or us and them.
The brew was always there on the back burner, waiting for its ingredients, which were “until recently, bagged as frozen memory.” Some of us have witnessed these events, some have not, but most can likely feel the newly ignited simmer, and at times the boiling over in this current clime. And while it’s a communal brew, it also feels like a new breed of brew for these contemporary times, with disturbing ingredients and stirrings from high levels. I can’t help but think of the witches’ lines in that famous scene from “Macbeth”:
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double double, toil and trouble;
fire burn, and cauldron bubble
These lines are spoken at a turning point in the play, after Macbeth has been king for a while, and at a moment where his ambition reaches new heights, with little concern for anything but saving himself and continuing his throne and influence. There is certainly an analogy here for today, through these Shakespearean lines full of darkness, contradiction, and double meaning. But this current 21st century play of ours isn’t about just one person. It’s about all of us and what we’ve created as a culture.
We are entering a turning point of our own this fall, where there is opportunity to turn our political tides, or at least ebb the continuation of harmful ones. It has been said our current cultural and political situation can be seen as a mirror being held up to our country. Like all true mirrors, it can serve as a dose of truth of what is really going on, but also as a call for how we can change for the better as individuals and as a country. For how we can evolve, not just survive, through this time with intelligence, perspicacity, and respectful collaboration, and how we can create a new kind of politics made up of healthier ingredients. As our speaker says of the current one, “it heats, boils over/ screams impotently.” Autumn is upon us, and it’s time to help clean up the mess.
Susan Jefts is a poet and educator living in Cornwall whose work has been published throughout the state and country, most recently in the “Vermont Anthology, Birchsong.” She is currently finalizing a book of poetry and will be offering workshops this fall using poetry both indoors and out to explore our relationships to nature, and how we are informed by it energy and beauty. For more info, contact her at [email protected]. Her website is manyriverslifeguidance.com.

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