Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Bowl with Gold Teeth

Craving quiet and beauty, I walked up to the Smith College Art Museum this afternoon. I found there an exhibit of Japanese tea wares that spanned 500 years of history. The room was dimly lit and the tea bowls held silence in their curves. I remembered attending tea ceremonies in my adolescence (once at a neighbor’s house and once on a field trip). The care and precision involved were too much for this tall, awkward American. I still can’t imagine enjoying the bitter, frothy tea and turning the bowl just right—but as an outsider in a museum looking at the arrangements of dishes and effects, I could better appreciate the meticulous beauty of ritual.

With the little I know of Japanese culture, craft, and art, I expect all of it to be delicate and nearly perfect. So I was intrigued by an asymmetrical bowl displayed on one wall of the gallery. Brick-colored and rough as cement, its circular form squashed towards oval, it looked— frankly, ugly. The card on the wall said the bowl was about 400 years old and beloved for its imperfections. Some of its defects were intentional; others were an effect of time. The rough texture occurred because the potter decided not to refine the clay thoroughly, so grit rose to the surface when it was fired. Centuries of use resulted in a chipped rim that had been repaired in several places with gold lacquer. These shiny spots, the card said, made the bowl especially prized. I thought: it’s a bowl with gold teeth!

Now, what’s the poetic equivalent of not completely refining my words so that distinctive grit will rise to the surface?

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