Keats and grandmother's cookbook

John Keats's famous poem, 'To a Grecian Urn,' and an old cookbook bring back lost worlds.

For National Poetry Month this year, I read "The Complete Poems of John Keats." I especially liked looking over his less-than-famous works: a sonnet to his brother George, which proclaims: "Many the wonders I this day have seen." Here he celebrates the morning sun and the joy of sharing it with his brother.

Another poem, "Sweet, Sweet Is the Greeting of Eyes," hints at the pleasures of friendship and recognition.

These, of course, are not the poet's masterpieces. Rather, they represent his apprentice work. For me, these poems reveal the reality of the life that Keats lived. It's a human life filled with worry, friendship, and all the simple things that make up the unvarnished framework of everyday experience.

But in the imaginative conversation that takes place between the writer and the reader, I can speak to this young man as a fellow traveler and partake in a discussion that continues even after almost two centuries have passed.

I live my life through poetry. Take, for instance, this moment. Oops. Too late. It's gone. I was going to tell you about the sun reflecting off the bare branches in my yard, or describe the intricate geometry of the birds soaring overhead, or the majestic procession of clouds that parade across the sky.

We are never fully in the present. Rather, these moments just slip though our fingers before we can grasp them. But poetry can save those moments better than any photograph.

Take Keats's "Ode On a Grecian Urn." Keats had been walking through the British museum marveling at the Elgin Marbles, treasures from ancient Greece brought to England by Lord Elgin.

The poet's eyes rested on the scenes painted on the urn, scenes that captured moments lived thousands of years before and now frozen against time on this beautiful "attic shape." There are the young people running through the trees while the piper plays the sweetest music. Two lovers almost touch. There is the old town, emptied by a procession attending a sacrifice.

John Keats celebrated this historic work of art in his poetry, and though he didn't live to see his 26th birthday, his poem is a taste of eternity wrought in graceful, human terms.

Not long ago, I had the occasion to look through my grandmother's old trunk. It had been stored away in a neglected corner of the attic, gathering dust and obscurity. Black, with brass reinforced hinges, it has been shoved from house to house and town to town over the years.

Like my late grandmother, it is strong, resilient, and more than capable of sustaining itself through all the hard buffets of time and circumstance. She had come over from Ireland as a baby, grew up in Pennsylvania mining towns, lived her adult life in Lackawanna, and raised a family beneath the dark smoke of the steel mills.

I fondly remember sitting for hours in her parlor and hearing stories of her parents and grandparents from Ireland. These were epic tales of men who fished along the salty brine of the Atlantic coast and women who sang poetry like faeries in the night.

Today all that remains of her life is here in the trunk: a few black-and-white photographs and a cookbook with her personal collection of recipes neatly written in her own patient hand.

I suppose it might seem strange to say so, but for me that cookbook is like the Grecian urn. It brings back an ancient time and a lost world where oven heat was measured by placing your hand in and out as quickly as possible. No built-in thermometers or digital timers! For my grandmother, ingredients were measured in pennies of sugar and handfuls of flour.

Then there is the perfect logic of baking pies "until done."

Indeed, this is the stuff of poetry, a life of poetry refined and measured like a recipe. The pages of the old book are dry and brittle, and so I gently close the cover and return it to a safe corner of the trunk.

But in my hands remains the sweet fragrance of a life lived well, and in my imagination a whole world becomes real, measured in the careful cadences of my grandmother's recipe book.

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