The big philosophical questions that humankind has been struggling with for millennia — Birth, Death, The Meaning of Life, Love, Infinity — are inextricably woven into our daily lives. We are all born, we all die, we all wonder what, if any, meaning there is to our lives, almost of us want to love and be loved, and we look up at the night sky and ponder the infinite.
Chana Bloch (1940-2017) writes about the Big Questions manifest in the Everyday with great clarity and a deceptive simplicity. (‘Chana’ is the anglicized spelling of the Hebrew name, pronounced with a throat-clearing ‘HAH’ like Chanukah and chutzpah, but the English version is ‘Hannah’)
Kintsugi means ‘golden joinery’ in Japanese. Dating from the 15th century, it is raising the repair of pottery into Art, traditionally done with urushi lacquer and real powdered gold. The expensive materials, high level of skill and time required has meant that only pieces of great historical, sentimental or monetary value, have been repaired in this way.
Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending precious pottery with gold.
What’s between us
often seems flexible as the webbing
between forefinger and thumb.
Seems flexible, but it’s not;
what’s between us
is made of clay,
like any cup on the shelf.
It shatters easily. Repair
becomes the task.
We glue the wounded edges
with tentative fingers.
Scar tissue is visible history,
the cup more precious to us
we saved it.
In the art of kintsugi,
a potter repairing a broken cup
would sprinkle the resin
with powdered gold.
Sometimes the joins
are so exquisite
they say the potter
may have broken the cup
just so he could mend it.
As Ernest Hemingway put it:
“The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places.”
Even on a wedding day, there is a break from the past and a new joining, as we see in these two poems with very different perspectives:
There was a ghost at our wedding,
the caterer’s son,
who drowned that day.
Like every bride I was dressed
in hope so sharp
it tore open
my tight-sewn fear.
You kissed me under the wedding canopy,
a kiss that lasted a few beats longer
than the usual,
and we all laughed.
We were promising: the future
would be like the present,
even better, maybe.
Then your heel came down
on the glass.
We poured champagne
and opened the doors to the garden
a little drunk, all of us,
as the caterer made the first cut,
one firm stroke, then
dipped his knifeblade
in the water.
I warned my son about strangers
and candy, as a mother should,
but at four he was baffled:
“I didn’t know grown-ups be bad.”
At his wedding I lifted a glass
and prayed like a mother
for all the naked unknowing
under his three-piece suit.
And his bride in a satin
like moon on snow.
You might have thought twice
before talking tough to Eve
—a motherless child,
and what’s more, a new bride.
I mean, to be innocent is to fall
for snake talk, a language
it takes skill and damage to learn.
An exquisite musical instrument comes from trees that survived hundreds of frozen winters. The pattern breaks and reforms.
The Little Ice Age
Europe shivered for centuries in the Little Ice Age.
Rivers froze; crops failed;
people chewed on pine bark, begged
the stubborn heavens for mercy;
That’s why the Stradivarius cries so convincingly.
It’s the wood remembering,
the stunned wood shuddering,
too numb to grow,
the tree rings huddled close against the cold.
This last poem takes us to the frontier of old age, where it is we who break and reform. Each reformation is another step toward the unknowable. Just as Kintsugi pottery is often more beautiful after being repaired, there can be great beauty in the time-sculpted faces of old people. But frustration with losing our memories and where we put things is a universal challenge of aging, especially in a world that seems to being moving faster and faster while the reason for such speed is out of sight, just around the next corner, or beyond the horizon.
THE SIXTH AGE
Words slip from me lately
like cups and saucers
from soapy hands.
I grope for the names of things
that are governed, like me, by the laws
of slippage and breakage.
I am like a child
left behind by the fast-talking
grownups. A tourist
lost in the blind alleys
of a foreign language.
How will I see my way to anywhere
without my words?
I slam up and down the stairs of our house:
Where are my glasses hiding?
Rimless, invisible as oxygen.
I need glasses to find them.
There must be words left
to go on searching for the ones I’ve lost
the way the blind man I once loved
first with his fingertips,
then with his whole hand.
Chana Bloch sees the extraordinary in the everyday. She shows us how an argument in a marriage is like a broken cup lovingly repaired; how wedding days are seen differently as past and present overlap; a connection between hard winters and magnificent musical instruments; and our searches for items and skills misplaced in day-to-day routines become like the blind ‘seeing’ a face, finger by finger.
Sources and Further Reading
Chana Bloch — poet, translator, scholar, and teacher — author of six books of poems; six books of translation from Hebrew poetry, and a critical study of George Herbert. Bloch was Professor Emerita of English Literature and Creative Writing at Mills College, where she taught for many years and directed the Creative Writing Program. She died in May of 2017, after a long battle with cancer.
- “The Joins” reprinted from The Southern Review Winter 2015 in The Best American Poetry 2015 — http://www.ayearofbeinghere.com/2015/02/chana-bloch-joins.html
- “The Kiss” from Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2015, © 2015 by Chana Bloch, Autumn House Press
- “The Innocents” from Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2015, © 2015 by Chana Bloch, Autumn House Press
- “The Little Ice Age” was first published in Field — http://www.chanabloch.com/NewSelectedWork/TheLittleIceAge.html
- “The Sixth Age” from Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2015, © 2015 by Chana Bloch, Autumn House Press
- The Secrets of the Tribe, © 1980 by Chana Bloch, Sheep Meadow Press
- The Past Keeps Changing, © 1992 by Chana Bloch, Sheep Meadow Press
- Mrs. Dumpty, © 1998 by Chana Bloch, University of Wisconsin Press
- Blood Honey, © 2009 by Chana Bloch, Autumn House Press
- Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2015, © 2015 by Chana Bloch, Autumn House Press
- The Moon Is Almost Full, © 2017 by Chana Bloch, Autumn House Press
- Red Kintsugi Cup
- Wedding Chuppah
- Green Snake
- Grey Kintsugi Bowl
- Photograph of Chana Bloch
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud
Just beautiful, Nona. Thank you so much for this lovely post.
You’re very welcome Joy!
An art that teaches more than just repair of broken pottery, but on a deeper level, how to repair ourselves. We are all broken in some way, but from that brokenness, we can make ourselves more than we were, if the will is there.
If I ever go to Japan, I would like to visit Kawamura Seji’s coffee shop in Iwakuni. To experience both his coffee and his music.
Chuck – Sounds like a wonderful trip!
Very interesting word cloud. I would have never thought of using gold to repair pottery. For those wondering, kintsugi written in Japanese would be 金継ぎ (きんつぎ).
Thanks for that, Brent. It is interesting to see it written in the original language.
If I ever get to make it to Japan to have coffee with Kawamura Seji you are going with me as interpreter. I want to learn some of his Weissenborn guitar techniques.
I am rather wabi sabi myself these days, and that’s OK.
One of my favorite songs – John Legend’s “All of me”:
It’s a wonderful song – Thanks Joy!