“The world begins at a kitchen table,” writes Creek poet Joy Harjo, “No matter what, we must eat to live” (“Perhaps the World Ends Here”). A domestic space, the kitchen table is traditionally considered a woman’s space, in many cultures and contexts, but it is also a place of ritual and sustenance. The kitchen is where great minds meet to argue and further ideas, where mothers prepare meals, where hot sauce bottles are uncapped and bowls of soup seasoned, where cakes are sliced, and where countless poets shove aside dirty dishes to sit down with a notebook, desperate to capture not only a record of events but also the underlying emotional situation.
We sit at the kitchen table to unload our heartache, to bandage our cut fingers, and to slice vegetables. We brush the crumbs away, refill our cups, and open mail. After all, the kitchen is a space of ritual; of sharing and nourishment. It is the space where change is born through the nurture and passing of knowledge from generation to generation.
“Perhaps the World Ends Here” opens with a bold stance: “No matter what, we must eat / to live.” However, there is an important link between the food in its raw state and the food eaten at a kitchen table. The “gifts of earth” must be “brought and prepared, set on the table” before consumption. The speaker of this poem stresses the ritual of eating, the importance of following a pattern before consuming. It is at the kitchen table “that children are given instructions on what it means to be / human.” She focuses on the fundamental humanness of this space, this place of birth and rebirth.
Such ceremony also ties in to the ritual of writing and reading—knowledge must be processed, worked through, then shared. This necessary pattern is similar to that of preparing food: without time spent in preparation or sitting together to eat a meal, something essential is lost. In a way, the ritual itself is nourishment; it’s a salve for trauma, allowing a speaker to reckon with her painful past.
In this poem, ritual becomes a kitchen table, that which “has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.” It offers protection, becoming “a place to hide in the shadow of terror” while also being “a place to celebrate the terrible victory” of war. Perhaps the “war” Harjo refers to is the reckoning of the self with its past: dealing with trauma often means bringing it in close and allowing it to disrupt whatever semblance of comfort we’ve found. However, such a disruption can lead to salvation, and, eventually, joy. It is a process, like many others, and a difficult but vital part of life.
People “have given birth on this table, and have prepared [their] parents for burial here.” In other words, the table is a symbol of the cycle of life. It is a place of sustenance, of beginnings as well as endings. It is a space of tension and multiple emotions: “laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.” The centrality of this space is what makes the speaker predict that “perhaps the world will end at a kitchen table,” while her loved ones are gathered around to put their “poor falling-down selves…back together once again at the table.” It’s a space of healing. It is where food is prepared and consumed, where new life is born and all is celebrated, even the end of the world.
Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and other anthologies & journals. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft. Find her online at http://www.staceybalkun.com/