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On the eve of Passover you remember, I remember
making homemade mayonnaise.
Your mother, and my mother too, round and round
your mother with a wooden spoon, mine with a fork,
tapping on the glass sides of the bowl, stirring.
And you are a little girl pouring oil, drop by drop,
I am just the watcher.
And if your small hand trembles
and one hasty drop too many falls
at the bottom of the yellow bowl
you get scowled at immediately from over
the tapping, scolding wooden spoon
and you slow your motions to an even drip,
ensuring drop after drop,
a steady infusion
from above a patient’s head.
And I hear the sharp clinks of the fork in my heart
and I just watch you,
how you drip the oil carefully,
so it will emulsify, turn white.
From Layla Vayom (Night and Day), Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2011. Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden.
Esther Ettinger defines herself as “a Jerusalem poet and a Tel Aviv writer” – she lives in the former and grew up in the latter in an Orthodox household. She has published five books of poetry since 1980 as well as a monograph on the poet Zelda, and her novel “Night Wonder” was published in 2005.
It is now the eve of Passover. We have done whatever we do to eliminate chametz (leavened products) from our homes – a procedure that ranges from simply putting the toaster in a closet at the last minute to a lengthy and elaborate frenzy of cleaning. We have shopped, we have polished the seder plate and we have decided what values we will emphasize at our celebration. All that remains is the last-minute cooking.
In this poem, two women and two young girls are deep in the preparations for the holiday, no doubt taking a long view about having leftovers for the coming days of the festival.
The two mothers do things in different ways, a notion of absorbing interest to children. While the other girl – the addressee – has a demanding and active role in the making of the mayonnaise, later compared to the calibration of a medical infusion, the speaker defines herself as “just the watcher” – but this is in fact the more important role in the poem.
“If I remember the background,” writes Ettinger in a recent email, “it was after a friend of mine and I shared a similar childhood experience, making mayonnaise for Passover. It was for some reason important for me to be the ‘watcher’ and to give the other girl the main part. She was an older girl. When I completed the poem I realized that it can be a metaphor for a creative process, so I called it 'Ars poetica.'”
To a percussive soundtrack of tapping and clinks, a tremendous amount of action occurs in this vignette of remembering – stirring, pouring, trembling, scowling, scolding, slowing, ensuring, dripping and emulsifying. Transforming an egg yolk and oil into mayonnaise is a perfect metaphor for metaphor, and whatever the historical truth behind it might be, there is no holiday more metaphorical than Passover.
*Which words appear several times in this poem and why?
*Make mayonnaise with neither a wooden spoon nor a fork: