Another poem about things. This poet exults in the intimacy of humans with their things, walking on them, dropping them, nearly wearing them out — but to him, all that improves their appearance and even makes the things happy.
Since first publishing this poem, I have been prompted by Jody’s comment to add the photograph below, from Elizabeth Goudge’s beloved Wells Cathedral, completed before 1500, the steps to its chapter house since that time well “trodden by many feet and ground down.”
OF ALL WORKS
Of all works I prefer
Those used and worn.
Copper vessels with dents and with flattened rims
Knives and forks whose wooden handles
Many hands have grooved: such shapes
Seemed the noblest to me. So too the flagstones around
Old houses, trodden by many feet and ground down,
With clumps of grass in the cracks, these too
Are happy works.
Absorbed into the use of many
Frequently changed, they improve their appearance, growing enjoyable
Because often enjoyed.
Even the remnants of broken sculptures
With lopped-off hands I love. They also
Lived with me. If they were dropped at least they must have been carried.
If men knocked them over they cannot have stood too high up.
Buildings half dilapidated
Revert to the look of buildings not yet completed
Generously designed: their fine proportions
Can already be guessed; yet they still make demands
On our understanding. At the same time
They have served already, indeed have been left behind. All this
Makes me glad.
I ran across two poems about things and our relationship to them. In this first one the poet might be merely looking around the room to notice a few common items. I used to do that when I wanted to write a letter to a friend or parent, to help me get started. I would mentally extract one thing at a time from the clutter spread all around the kitchen and family room, and ramble on paper about the everyday doings of our tribe. What books was everyone reading? Was there bread rising in a big bowl? Maybe some tools had been left out after a repair job. There was always so much stuff that my method produced a broad glimpse into our family life.
But I never waxed philosophical about the things themselves, the way Borges does. He gives us an elegant and thoughtful view of some of his belongings, with a kind of reverence:
My walking-stick, small change, key-ring,
The docile lock and the belated
Notes my few days left will grant
No time to read, the cards, the table,
A book, in its pages, that pressed
Violet, the leavings of an afternoon
Doubtless unforgettable, forgotten,
The reddened mirror facing to the west
Where burns illusory dawn. Many things,
Files, sills, atlases, wine-glasses, nails,
Which serve us, like unspeaking slaves,
So blind and so mysteriously secret!
They’ll long outlast our oblivion;
And never know that we are gone.
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes —
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands —
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
“The answer to materialism is actually to become more materialistic in the true sense of the word, not to seek possession of objects for a spiritual deliverable, but to value an object for its own inherent beauty and goodness.”