Sunday, October 7, 2007

Hot Chocolate in the Coffee House, Hold the Conflict

The essence of drama is conflict, they say, and probably the same can be said of fiction, short or long. It's not necessarily so of poetry, which certainly may have or represent conflict but which is also free to work at the edges of conflict, step back and meditate upon it, or go so far into conflict that it reaches a calm center. Poems are allowed merely to think, in words (as opposed to musical notes or pigment); readers are allowed not to like such poems or to like only an infrequent diet of them, certainly. Nonetheless, the meditative powers of poetry are useful.

The following poem thinks, so to speak, about one of those experiences that arguably compose the greater part of our lives, even if the conflicts compose the more vivid, telling, decisive parts. The poem is essentially about visiting a cafe. No one is murdered; no one even has an argument; and everyone seems happy with the fare, which includes hot chocolate. Of course, I had to look up "chocolate" in the OED online, and the word seems to have entered the English language in the early 17th century, probably about the time products from tropical cacao trees entered England. It seems as if "hot chocolate" was originally made from the seeds of the cacao tree, whereas now hot chocolate or cocoa is made from what the OED calls a "cake"--what we might call a powder or a bar, I suppose--derived from cacao beans. By "cake," the OED does not seem to mean "chocolate cake" in the sense of a birthday cake, composed chiefly of flour. Samuel Pepys ["Peeps"], in his famous diary (1664) speaks of going to drink "jocolatte" at a coffee house in London. --Interesting that "latte" has persisted--and indeed taken over the world in the form of a beverage sold by Starbucks, which seems to open a new "store" every day somewhere on the planet. Meanwhile, the lovely "joco" has been domesticated into "choco-" or "cocoa." Was the "cocoa" dissolved in water back then, as the OED suggests, or was it dissolved in milk, as Pepys's "latte" may or may not suggest? Considering the absence of refrigeration, I do hope they boiled the milk first. Considering the squalor of London then, I do hope they boiled the water. I guess it doesn't matter now.

Meanwhile, here's a poem in which hot chocolate makes a cameo appearance in a Swedish cafe. Conflict stays outside the cafe, as it should; after all, we go to such places to get away from or to treat, with the cafe's folk-medicine, the stressful effects of conflict. (Boden is a small city not far from the Arctic Circle in Sweden; it is a "garrison town," has a timber industry, and is surrounded by some farms.)

Café in the North of Sweden


There were tables under dappled birch trees,
dappling on white table-linens, waitresses snug
in skirts and starched white shirts, the fresh
Swedish breeze, a tinge of Nordic sadness,
which is composed of history, stoicism,
and routine. There was Swedish spoken:
efficient, supple, sounding like a creek.
There we were; we were there. Some
laughter, not much. There was cardamom
in the rolls, a flower in each vase; hot
chocolate and coffee. There
was a sense in which our lives had been
established by others for others and were
to include this interlude at an outdoor café—
a kind of play that wouldn’t presume
to have a major theme or conflict. There
is this clarified memory of the scene, café
outdoors in Boden, north, far north in Sweden.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom


I might just add that cardamom is one of my favorite words and one of my favorite flavors. Here's hoping a satisfying warm beverage is in your near future.


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