I’ve always loved the word ‘bubble’. It says what it is: a puff of air in a tense bracket of plosives finished with a liquid gloss. Bubble bubble bubble bubble bubble. Say it five times fast and hear the pot boil – a sound so ancient that it was probably heard by your grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother, when she was a little girl. If anyone had asked her about her bubble, she might have assumed the soup had stopped simmering because the fire had gone out. In 2020, though, bubbles have taken on a whole new meaning, and a new social greeting has entered the language: “How’s your bubble?”
How many times a day did we use to say ‘bubble’? Not often, unless we happened to teach swimming. Suddenly it’s the word of the day, the word of the week – heck, ‘bubble’ is probably word of the year already. But it’s not ‘bubble’ as I used to know ‘bubble’. It’s got me thinking about why I love the word ‘bubble’ … I mean, why I love the old word ‘bubble’.
The best story ever starring a bubble is surely Margaret Mahy’s “Bubble Trouble”, in which a baby floats away in a giant bubble, and all the people of the town have to work out how to get him down. It begins:
Little Mabel blew a bubble and it caused a lot of trouble …
Such a lot of bubble trouble in a bibble-bobble way.
For it broke away from Mabel and it bobbed across the table,
Where it bobbled over Baby, and it wafted him away.
Rhyme, alliteration and a steady, dancing rhythm keep this story bubbling merrily along. It’s so delightfully silly, impossible to read or hear without smiling: bibble-bobble, quibble, dribble, gabble, gibber, chapel steeple, Greville Gribble, feeble Mrs Threeble … you’d have to be a seriously curmudgeonly old goat if reading “Bubble Trouble” didn’t give you that feeling of being a fizz bottle, bubbles of mirth rising and your diaphragm convulsing with giggles.
Soup I’ve already mentioned, but the other essential (and ancient) kitchen bubbler is yeast. Bread: the staff of life. I found an almost empty jar of yeast in the fridge. Just enough to bake my first ever tray of ciabatta. At the other end of the country, up north in her Tauranga-based bubble, my daughter has also been discovering her inner chef. She spent Good Friday making hot cross buns, a process of mixing and rising and kneading and rising and kneading and baking that left her a bit of a hot cross baker. Now she’s making a sourdough starter, a process that is all about making bubbles. You have to feed those critters every day. No wonder you develop a bond with your starter and give it a name. Several days on, apparently it resembles Manny from Black Books, so Manny it is. Welcome to the family Manny.
And one final bubble thought. This one’s a bubble memory from 2011 when my partner and I took a midwinter solstice break at Lake Hawea in Central Otago. Everything seemed paused, frozen in place. The lake was glassy, the light soft and grey. We walked along the shore, our feet crunching into the shingle. We were the only figures moving in that grand landscape. It began – very lightly – to rain. After a while we rounded a corner, and chanced on a small bay. Here, and only here, the raindrops had caused bubbles to form on the water’s skin. Dozens of them floated on the surface, some were mere pimples, others the size of tennis balls. As the rain fell, more bubbles formed. But even as this was happening, other raindrops were striking existing bubbles, and each of these, before it burst, chimed like a bell. For perhaps twenty minutes or so, we stood, mesmerised while the lake sang its exquisite song.
Only these particular noon winter solstice raindrops
primed by a year of quake, eruption and eclipse
could compose exactly this: to round the corner
of the lake and find it chiming,
bubbles doming the surface, gliding there
like a fleet of glass cupolas.
Struck, they ring and die,
ring and ring under rain in the mountain bowl.
This peculiar percussion to call this bay
to bell so true, so close to a sob. And only now
to hold one’s breath for fear of breaking
this aligned specific tension,
this enchantment, spell, this
what planets do.
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus. The poem “At Hawea” appears in her poetry collection The Yield (Otago University Press, 2017).