Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Happiness Bowls

Pink and blue and lavender, poured glass
no bigger than a hand, not round but
pinched on either side like small boats,
and they seem to be brimming with water
but they’re not. Inside, incised on the thick
glass, there are letters and lines,
a chemical formula, I suppose.
                                I wait for the woman
to finish with the customer who wants
a piece of art small enough to carry in a pocket.
As I wait, I decide the woman doesn’t love
her job. She wears her unhappiness. Hear
the way she snaps off words like new
asparagus, and how she opens the cupboard
which has pots fit for a pocket, and holds
the door as if she wants to shut
it on a hand. The customer looks and looks
and shakes his head. The cupboard door
is closed. He leaves, hand in a pocket. Please,
                                 I say, what is this
written in the happiness bowls? Seratonin,
says the woman,with no love for the word
or the bowls. She’s gone back to the table where
she watches people enter the shop. She stands
like a teapot – one hand ready to what?
It’s the chemical equation, she says. Oh, I say.
I never knew it was like that. I stare
at the hexagon, the pentagon, lines
linking letters, NH2 – HO –HN, inside the pale
poured bowls. He’s done more serious work,
                                 she says, I’ll get it,
and she walks up the stairs and brings
down a larger bowl like the happiness bowls
but this one is in the colours of fire and has no
equation on the glass. Is still angular, still
brimming. It looks heavy, primordial, like
a wedge of something precious cut from a rock
and polished. She places it in the natural light
by the window and the colours lighten and
redden, rise and fall, burn like a brazier. I
am enthralled.
                                 She says the artist
makes a wax shape and, from that, a mould, and
pours the molten glass into it. He fires it, cools
it, uses acid to make the outside opaque.
Against artificial light, the red flares, she says.
The word ‘flare’
sounds like it’s flaring in her mouth. Even
the word ‘light’ has a lightness. The ‘t’ just
the merest tip of something. I imagine her
upstairs on her own under the lights
watching it flare.
                                 Oh! she says,
fingermarks! She picks up the bowl in both
hands and takes it to her table. I go back to
the happiness bowls. They are less serious
now: just pastel, glib. Something to carry
in a pocket, to bring out when conversation
flags. What are they here for? To give
happiness or to hold happiness? Or perhaps,
and I feel this might be it, the bowls are happy.
And what is that when it is so small a thing,
so easily etched? I thank the woman
who is back behind the table again, polishing
the red bowl with a soft blue cloth, her whole
attention on it. I wish her good afternoon.

                                                   Mary McCallum

This is a poem that tells a story which I think is a pretty fine thing for a poem to do. Some people tell me poems shouldn't tell stories like this, but why not? It could easily be a short story, but I love it as a poem. So here it is.

When you've read it, there is a poem on the Tuesday Poem hub by Peter Bland who just won the PM's Award for Poetry, with a wonderful write-up on him by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman. I was at the awards, and Peter's speech was a fascinating paean to NZ poetry and what makes it different from English poetry. He was born in the UK and came here in the 50s.

The next night, I went to Peter's book launch for his collection Coming Ashore and was privileged to meet him for the first time.  I have seen his name in poetry books for as long as I can remember, and have a feeling he won a Louis Johnson Award thirty years ago which a poem of mine was runner-up for, but had never met him. His readings were wonderful - as an actor, he delivers them so damn convincingly!

Do go to Tuesday Poem, and then check out the wondrous poems in the sidebar by other Tuesday Poets including a poem about Hurricane Irene by Melissa Green and a video of Sharon Olds ...


Penelope said...

I like your story very much and it makes me think of yesterday's AWAD quote: The willow which bends to the tempest, often escapes better than the oak which resists it; and so in great calamities, it sometimes happens that light and frivolous spirits recover their elasticity and presence of mind sooner than those of a loftier character. -Walter Scott, novelist and poet (1771-1832)

Mary McCallum said...

Thanks Penelope! A wonderful quote.

Kathleen Jones said...

Lovely poem Mary - I like poems that tell stories. After all, isn't narrative poetry the oldest form of all?

The Americans seem to be going that way more and more - the big US poets write poems that are more about stories than language or clever effects.

Helen Lowe said...

I am definitely of the cabal that loves a spot o' story in my poetry---in fact I will be so bold as to say that I think every poem is also a story, even if it is only a very slender, delicate, spindly sort of one ... And boldly say that I love your narrative of the woman and the bowls and the shop. There is an energy to the poem, a rhythm that draws the reader in and sweeps her along, not unlike the rise and fall of colour in the pot that is like a brazier ...

T. said...

A poem can be whatever it wants to be. I believe that the best poetry assumes its own persona, form, language...we are merely the channel by which it gets to the page.

And I'm so intrigued by bowls that have the chemical equation for seratonin etched within! And the "He's done more serious work" is a fantastic detail -- as if seratonin written in scientific formula inside a glass bowl wasn't serious enough!

Thank-you for this....I'll carry it with me all day as I do my own work on the surfaces of glass.

Mary McCallum said...

Thank you all so much for your affirmation of Happiness Bowls. The title alone makes me smile when I say it. And I am thrilled it can be carried for the day by a woman who works on the surface of glass (thanks T.) I parked across the road from the shop in question yesterday and looked over and saw the woman in there, arranging things. I crossed the road and slunk past, wondering if she knew I'd written a poem about her or if she'd even remember me! In the window was another work clearly by the same man - larger though, less bowl-like, and at the back on her table were the happiness bowls...

Jayne said...

Poem or short story, I loved it. Felt like the glass was in my hands. And the woman--really, as multi-faceted as the glass, now isn't she?

maggie@at-the-bay.com said...

My favourite line is about snapping off words like new asparagus - love it.

Alison Wong said...

Hi Mary

This is Alison Wong - not sure how else to get hold of you. I'm organising a fundraising concert & art auction for the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal for next Sun 18 September here in Geelong, Australia. It's a celebration of popular NZ music and poetry following 'the story of Christchurch' and I have lots of people involved who are ex-pat Kiwis or who have connections with NZ. Are you OK about me reading your poem 'Earth'? It's going to be accompanied by a double bass player.

Hope your writing is going well, Alison

Mary McCallum said...

Dear Alison - I would be honoured to have you read my poem. And with a double bass? Perfect (I am learning how to play the acoustic bass and you've suddenly opened up all sorts of possibilities for me...). Any chance you could record it? I'd love to see. If you want to email me I'm on marymac21ATgmail.com - replace the AT with an @ ... Good luck with your event. I'll be thinking of you on the 18th. Cheers.