A poem that captures the pleasure of the ordinary

Whether it’s making stew or having a lie-in, They Would Have All That by Mary Jean Chan is an homage to the gloriously mundane, says Ella Risbridger

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By Ella Risbridger on

You have no idea, before it happens, what you would miss most if you misplaced your life.

I say “misplaced”, because I don’t know what happened to our life, mine and John’s. I don’t think it’s lost, per se, but it’s certainly ... gone for now. I don’t know if we’ll ever get home again.

I still can’t fathom it, really: a year of therapy and thousands of words later I’m still not convinced any of the things that happened can possibly be true. I’m still not convinced that this isn’t one of those sprawling bad dreams with a backstory and weird diversions: it makes no sense. How can something so weird and alien have happened to us? To two quite normal people living such a lovely, normal life? That’s what I miss, you know. The normal.

I miss the absolute normal of having lived with somebody for five years: of supermarket shops and stealing the duvet and cooking together on a week night because you’re supposed to be making an effort to eat better, aren’t you, so you probably should. I miss arguing. I miss asking for a favour. I miss silently sitting next to each other tapping on our phones.

I used to say to John, before, that we ought to be doing something more meaningful with our time together than being on our phones on the sofa. I used to think that we were wasting time.

I want to tell you, very clearly: I do not regret one second of these boring evenings. I do not count one second of it as wasted time.

I don’t really think about our date nights, or fancy dinners. I barely remember birthdays, or even Christmases. What I do remember, with a force that literally staggers me and buckles my knees, is the ordinary.

I miss the ordinary more than I knew it was possible to miss something, which is why I cannot read this week’s poem without crying. You can read it here. It’s a poem about the small things of living, as all my favourite poems are, and about loving somebody a lot for a long time, and somebody coming home to you at night.

It’s They Would Have All That, by Mary Jean Chan, and if the title were different I couldn’t have got past the first line. It hurt too much, to hear about someone else’s domesticities. “To sing the evening home, the lover prepares / a pot of lentil stew”, she says “– her phone lighting up to the news of love’s imminent arrival…”  I wanted to watch my phone for an “On way home! xx” text, and prepare lentil stew for John.

Like learning to make lentil stew, you have to learn to be happy and you have to learn to be gentle, and it all takes time

But the title made it OK to carry on. They Would Have: not They Have, or even They Had, but something more complicated than both. Something that started with an unspoken “if”, a silent “maybe”. I understood that. I liked that.

And then that “All That”, you know? These things the poet talked about – the lentil soup, the phone, the bus, a warm bath, a supermarket at evening – were important. They weren’t unique, or clever, or anything but ordinary: they could belong to anybody’s life. But they mattered, and the poet knew it. They mattered! They were all that! They were everything.

Please cherish those things, by the way. Cherish “how the orchid must have stretched itself / a few millimetres overnight, how the stew must be / whispering on the stove and the table set for dinner” and all the rest of it. These really very tiny things –  these boring ordinarinesses of everyday life – are what you’d miss. I’m calling it now, ahead of time: that’s what you’d miss.

The poem has this steady, three-line verse thing going on, “with the regularity of heart-/beat, blood-breath”, she says. In a funny sort of way it reminds me most of this Philip Larkin poem I’ve always loved, called Born Yesterday. It’s to a baby.

May you be ordinary,” he says, to the baby, and then a little later:  

May you be dull — / If that is what a skilled, /Vigilant, flexible, / Unemphasised, enthralled / Catching of happiness is called.”

It seems like something to aim for, and a thing I love especially is that word “skilled”: happiness isn’t something you just acquire, it’s something to work for. It’s something to practice. It’s something to learn.

As Mary Jean Chan says, about this couple and their ordinary lives: “The lovers are gentler / because they have grown too / knowledgeable to love any other way.” I want to grow too knowledgeable to not be gentle: with other people, and with myself, too. I have always been very impatient. I have always been cross with myself for wasting time. But I am trying to be kinder.

I have learned, in John’s absence, to do a lot of things. I’ve learned to be by myself; to rely on my friends; to accept help. And I have learned to like lentils. I used to hate lentils. John has always loved them. It took me five years to find a recipe I liked for lentils, but I got there in the end. The key was salt: not too little, but not too much either.

Too much salt,” Mary Jean Chan says in the poem, “brings back the years of / loneliness”, and it’s comforting to know this: the domestic peace in this poem comes after years of being sad. We have to get through those years to get here.

Like learning to make lentil stew, you have to learn to be happy and you have to learn to be gentle, and it all takes time.

And then you get to the last line of the poem, and there it is: the two lovers are asleep in each other’s arms, “the two women will have their / tapestry of days and nights”. You see the change in tense, from the title?

No silent “maybe” there. No unspoken “if”. They will have their tapestry of days and nights; they will, they will, they will. It’s the future. It’s waiting. It’s like a promise, like a hope, like something worth doing all this learning for. We will get there; we will all get there; we will all get home again.


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