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add the savor of salt and the bite of pepper

91. The Domestic Science of Sunday Dinner

by Lorna Goodison

Lorna Goodison.png
Malika Booker portrait.jpg

A Friend to Malika Booker

91. The Domestic Science of Sunday Dinner by Lorna GoodisonA Friend to Malika Booker
00:00 / 27:57

In this episode of The Poetry Exchange, we talk with one of poetry's greatest leading lights, Malika Booker, about the poem that has been a friend to her: ‘The Domestic Science of Sunday Dinner’ by Lorna Goodison.

Malika Booker, currently based in Leeds, is a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, a British poet of Guyanese and Grenadian Parentage, and co-founder of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen (A writer’s collective). Her pamphlet Breadfruit, (flippedeye, 2007) received a Poetry Society recommendation and her poetry collection Pepper Seed (Peepal Tree Press, 2013) was shortlisted for the OCM Bocas prize and the Seamus Heaney Centre 2014 prize for first full collection. She is published with the Poets Sharon Olds and Warsan Shire in The Penguin Modern Poet Series 3: Your Family: Your Body (2017). A Cave Canem Fellow, and inaugural Poet in Residence at The Royal Shakespeare Company, Malika was awarded the Cholmondeley Award (2019) for outstanding contribution to poetry and elected a Royal Society of Literature Fellow (2022).

Malika has won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem TWICE: in 2020 for 'The Little Miracles' (Magma, 2019), and most recently in 2023 for 'Libation', which you can hear her read in this episode.

'Libation' was first published in The Poetry Review (112:4).

‘The Domestic Science of Sunday Dinner’ by Lorna Goodison is published in Turn Thanks by Lorna Goodison, University of Illinois Press, 1999.

This episode closes with a reading of the poem 'Su Casa' by Andrea Witzke Slot, published in her collection 'The Ministry of Flowers' (Valley Press, 2020).

Speaking of publications, don’t forget you can pre-order your copy of Poems as Friends – The Poetry Exchange 10th Anniversary Anthology – which is published by Quercus Editions on 9th May 2024.

The Domestic Science of Sunday Dinner

by Lorna Goodison


There is the soaking of peas; the red kidney beans

dried out for hard life, which need to be revived

through the water process, overnight osmosis.


There is the seasoning of the meat

always with garlic which you scrape

with the serrated edge of an okapi knife.


Mince these cloves of pungent flavour

then slice the circular onions, weeping

add the savor of salt and the bite of pepper,


add pimento kernels if you want and judicious

cut confetti of hot country pepper,

rub all this in with clean bare hands.


Your efforts will return to you

as aromas of contentment, harbingers of feasting

and well-being on Sunday afternoon.


I learnt how to prepare Sunday dinners

the August when my father was found to be housing

aggressive cells of destruction within him,


cells which were even massing for the final

battle against his system, which they would win

in the closing days of advent season.


“put the peas on after breakfast,” My mother said,

turning her domain, the kitchen, over to me

so that she could become his nurse at the end.


Their cooking requires close careful attention,

no long water will do, just enough to cover

and cook them till they sink to the bottom.


Then add enough water to buoy them again.

It’s a game, this cooking of the peas.

Sometimes you allow them to cook down.


until they almost burn, it is that cooked-down

near-burned state which produces that taste

of redeemed and rescued richness.


Repeat this boiling process over and over

until the hard red legumes soften

some of them will break open early


provided you do not cook them with salt.

The salt you add later when all the peas have softened,

flavour them again with pressed garlic pearls


Add the stripped length of stalks of escallion

pounded to release the onion brother juices.

Now toss a fragrant bouquet of thyme


into the swirling red waters of the pot,

which is even now awaiting the wash,

the white tide of coconut milk.


This part of the Sunday dinner ceremony

in times earlier was conducted by my father,

who would be summoned to the kitchen


and handed the instruments for performing

this ritual. A hammer, a knife, an ice pick,

a dry coconut bristling with fibrous hairs,


a male coconut in need of a shave

whose one eye you pierced with the ice pick’s tip

to release a cloudy white fluid.


My father pauses to pour the water

into a long–stemmed wine glass

and lifts it like a chalice to my mother’s lips.


then he turns from the tender holy

and gallant gesture and splits open

the head of the coconut with the hammer.


The shell of the coconut cracks loudly

and opens to reveal that inside its thick skull

it is cradling a lining of firm white meat.


My father uses the blade of the knife

to separate the flesh from the shell,

and then he symbolically dips


a jagged piece of coconut into sugar

and chews upon it. This signals

the ending of this high domestic ceremony.


The coconut flesh is gathered up

and grated and squeezed through a strainer.

The thick milk is tempered with water.


You pour that then like a libation

upon the seasoned red bubbling water

which is now ready to receive the rice,


clean sifted, picked and washed

of all foreign bodies and impurities

like small pebbles and chaff


which reminds us that all this is the produce,

the bounty of the earth into which

my father is preparing to return.


They come together, this integration

of rice and peas steamed in coconut milk,

mixed together and left to settle down


into a combined state of readiness.

all the time the meat has been roasting,

issuing from it’s side bloody gravy juices.


Now they will be serving her bland

hospital food, spices, meat, mashed potatoes

accompanied by pastel vegetables


This pale repast will be attended

by a nervous mound of red gelatin

and an eye cup of anaemic ice-cream.


They will encourage her to eat this

and to be thankful upon this Sunday

that at eighty-five she still lives.


For some days she can only feed

upon an essential mixture, an imitation

plasma of salt sugar and water


dripping into her veins through a long

winding serpentine tube.

Over and over I watch for signs


that hearts are softening

that hard things are breaking open

that in the end it will all come together


like the Sunday dinner rice and peas

as I pray for your soul’s safety mother,

as I pray for your blessed release.

From Turn Thanks by Lorna Goodison, University of Illinois Press, 1999.

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