‘Kitchen Music’, by Lesley Harrison

Front cover of Kitchen Music

Kitchen Music is a book about northern place. The collection traverses Lewis, Shetland, Orkney, and Iceland, and the reader is transported to these islands through Harrison’s exploration of weather, water, the land and sea, in poems that draw upon myth, memory, archives, and history. As Kirsty Gunn writes in the Foreword, there are poems ‘as though made out of others’ texts, […] created out of archival documents, reorganized and reframed, or from fragments of a story, a past event witnessed or retold.’1 Harrison pieces together different forms, photographs, maps, and images throughout the collection. In ‘Hether Blether’ – which we learn is the name of the mystical island west of Eynhallow and the setting for an Orkney folktale – a photograph of an empty beach is repeated like a refrain throughout the poem.2 The poetic form mirrors the girl’s journey and the waves that lap the shore road that she winds along: 

she took the peat road up the hill 
now right then left, now right, following a line

still rising, in a kind of dance, moving without hindrance
growing smaller and smaller 

Harrison imagines the father of the missing girl from the folktale ‘constantly arriving’ at a deserted shore (‘Hether Blether’, p. 25). His grief is fathomless. Like the desolate beach, the walls of his home are endlessly white, ‘like daylight in suspension,’ leaving him ‘out beyond loss or mourning / locked in brightness’ (‘Heather Blether’, pp. 26, 28).

Harrison plays with form throughout the collection. Gunn describes Kitchen Music as a book of poems and voices, adding that it is a book that is also a map (Gunn, p. vii.). The collection is a map of places, and through form, individual poems often map out the subject matter that they explore: land mass, the skeleton of a whale, the ebb and flow of the tide. Whales appear repeatedly. Harrison reflects on whale hunts in ‘Old Whaling Days’, ‘Whale Songs’, and in ‘Wou as in Wound’, which takes its inspiration from Litany for the Whale (1980) by John Cage. An exhibition of whale bones on a gallery floor provides the inspiration for ‘C-E-T-A-C-E-A’, extracts of which also appear in a film poem of the same name. In the poem, Harrison refers to Marina Rees’s exhibition at Húsavík Whale Museum in Iceland, in which Rees employs the bones of a long-finned pilot whale carcass. The poem is split into seven parts, and each is accompanied by photographs of the bones taken by Rees. The fragmented but carefully considered form echoes the placement of the whale bones on the gallery floor. In this poem Harrison recreates the whale’s song. She describes how its ‘long, low tones’ have been ‘degraded by the air’ as it lies washed up on the beach, whereas previously its sound could be heard repeating for hours, ‘the vast dark hung with / ropes of song’ (p. 34). Harrison gives the whale a voice, and the inanimate bones that are laid out on the floor speak the whale’s song in a way that undermines the hunt. 

The title poem, which comes halfway through the collection, showcases a different song: the soundscape of New York. At first this poem is notable for being thematically different; it is set against ‘the sky towers of Manhattan’ (p. 31). However, alongside observations of daily life in the city – ‘the lush tyres of yellow taxis’, ‘the subway crush’, ‘a girl in a window’, ‘wild piano music’ (pp. 29, 30, 31) – there are references to the natural world. Harrison sees life in New York through the lens of nature. Outside a coffee shop she hears birdsong. The sounds of sparrows and ‘butterflies that churr’ can be heard through an open café kitchen window (p. 30). Where the reader might expect ‘kitchen music’ to be the clatter of pots and pans, the steam of a coffee machine, and the hum and buzz of people chatting, we find ourselves back ‘among the tidewrack: / azimuth, whale bone’ (p. 31). The poem opens with a reference to Joseph Cornell: ‘collage = REALITY’ (p. 29). Indeed, the collection might be described as a collage of mixed media. ‘Kitchen Music’ is a patchwork of sound and image that concludes with a description of the flotsam and jetsam of the city:

shoes and twine, a tedium of
cartons, floats
varia, et cetera. (p. 31)

Harrison draws upon the work of another artist in ‘Oslo Water Colours’. The poem is a response to Callum Innes’s exhibition of the same name at the i8 gallery, Reykjavik (p. 60). As the title suggests, both the artist and the writer present their musings on the different colours that water might appear as depending on light, time, and place: ‘blue violet  / transparent yellow’, ‘olive green  /  magenta blue violet’, and ‘lamp black  /  titanium white + neutral grey’ (p. 60). The artist’s palette becomes the poet’s palette. Both Innes’s and Harrison’s work spans mainland Scotland and northern islands, and the colour blue is particularly important. It is present throughout Kitchen Music, where oftentimes things are almost blue. In ‘C-E-T-A-C-E-A’ for example, the imagined fins of the dead whale are ‘almost blue’, as is the day owl in ‘Kitchen Music’ (pp. 34, 31). Meanwhile the ocean is ‘blue-black’ in ‘Roses’ (p. 46). In this way, Harrison avoids any black-and-white certainties in a way that is fitting with the unfamiliarity and at times otherworldly nature of the places she describes. She leaves space – sometimes literally – for the reader to ruminate on life in the past and present, and to reflect on what the future might hold.

Kitchen Music is published by Carcanet


End Notes

  1. Kirsty Gunn, ‘Foreword: The Sound of the Sea’, Kitchen Music (Manchester: Carcanet, 2023), pp. vii–xi, p. viii.
  2. Lesley Harrison, ‘Hether Blether’, Kitchen Music (Manchester: Carcanet, 2023), pp. 18–28, p. 18.
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Nia Clark

Nia Clark graduated with a PhD in Scottish Literature from the University of Glasgow in 2021. Her thesis titled, ‘[N]ew connections strung out over time’: a study of Liz Lochhead’s poetry and drama from 1972–2016, won the Ross Roy medal.

More articles by Nia Clark

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