…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.
Many years ago, on a virtual mountain now lost amidst the electrons, I fell in love with the Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi: the flaw that perfects. Now, as it happens, my grasp of this idea was itself flawed – it’s more closely related to the idea of taking nature as is, not forcing nature into an artificial concept of beauty but letting blossoms rot and leaves fall, and it’s most often heard of in combination with its partner sabi, the acceptance of age with all its effects. Personally, I think my flawed understanding perfected the idea, but I suspect a few thousand years of Japanese philosophy might argue with that.
As it turns out, I was perhaps closer to the philosophy behind kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with golden joins. The artist does not try to hide the break, but instead makes it part of the aesthetic of the piece. It’s quite an honest approach to art, and an expansion of the concept of beauty to include history.
Bloch uses these ideas to approach a broken and repaired relationship in this poem. Interesting, how this is the second approach to broken cups included in this Pushcart. The first, Margaret Gibson’s “Broken Cup,” applied the metaphor to health, and saw the break as a weakness that imbued the cup with great value, as its handling now required extra care. Here, Bloch’s relationship metaphor also sees enhanced value in the broken piece, but feels it is for the opposite reason: the joined places are stronger than before the repair.
There’s no reason both can’t be absolutely true. And absolutely false. How each of us approaches the broken cup in our lives is up to us, and could easily vary depending on not just our attitude, but the circumstances of the break, and the nature of the cup itself. However, the point is made: a break can be successfully incorporated into history, can be embraced.
I use that word, “embraced”, under the influence of a video by nerdwriter, aka Evan Puschak: “Kintsugi: The Art of Embracing Damage”. He so beautifully sums up the concept, I feel like there’s nothing left to do, except to note that I can’t speak to the accuracy of his report, only to its meaningfulness, particularly in relation to Bloch’s poem.
Why is the poem written as it is? I can speculate. The opening line: “What’s between us” puts two one-syllables at either end, with a two-syllable between. Something bigger than us is between us. I find it interesting that, while the speaker is referring to the emotional bond that keeps people together in a relationship, as gravity keeps the earth and moon together, “what’s between us” could also be read as “something has come between us,” as a problem. Again, we have the choice of how to view what is between us: as a shared experience that lends depth and strength to our relationship, or as a problem.
After several rolling lines with varied rhythms, the speaker discounts the idea that the bond between them is flexible, like the thin sheet of skin that webs thumb to hand. No, she says, this thing between us “is made of clay.” The four syllables march across the page with an emphatic force. And again, it’s a question of what we make this: a wall between us, or a way to connect through the golden join.
Why is the poem written in three-line stanzas? I’m not sure if three has particular significance to Japanese art, but it tends to stand for completion in English language. A couple of years ago, I took part of a poetry workshop with Robert Haas through Iowa’s OPEN mooc platform. He had some ideas I found wonderful, among them:
― a single line poem is about identity
= a two line poem is about relation
≡ a three line poem is about weaving together different things.
≣ a four line poem is how we organize the world
Now, he was talking about poems, not stanzas in poems. But I’ve come to see poems written in couplets as being about relationships between two subjects, and so I can easily see how a three line stanza could involve this weaving together, a join. It could also be about two people and the thing between them – which, again, could mean the relationship made stronger by a break, or could mean the problem itself. I also wonder about my vague recollection (which may be as flawed as my long-ago understanding of wabi) of rhetorical structure: two is the structure for opposition, three is the structure for stability, four is the structure for conformity.
I’m not sure that we are stronger in the broken places that heal. If that’s the case, why don’t we break our children early and often, to make them the strongest they can be? Instead, we rely on the breaks of ordinary life – the death of a pet, the betrayal of a friend, a first love gone bad – to do the job for us. Maybe we think that’s enough. Maybe we know that some breaks do heal stronger, some remain broken, and some heal but hurt forever.
But sometimes, if we’re grown-up enough and have learned enough about relationship kintsugi, it’s possible to choose whether a break is a flaw, or art.