Archive for July, 2014

The Noble Art of Pottery

July 20, 2014

(I’m trying to take a summer break from this stuff in order to get caught up on other work.  Here’s something to pass the time.)

Poets across time have recognized pottery as a metaphor for the great cycle of life.  It’s easy to see why.  Our pots spring from the same earth that they, and ultimately we, return. 

Unfortunately, the cycle of life can look very different to potters facing upcoming bill cycles, yet another pulled muscle in the lower back, or endlessly cyclical glaze problems.  Metaphors aren’t much help in these cases. 

Still, we can take some pride in what our efforts have inspired in others.  The Persian mathematician Omar Kayyám (1048 – 1123) penned a particularly timeless musing.  His collection of Sufi mystic poetry known as “The Rubaiyat” includes the “Kúza-náma,” or “Book of Pots.”  The Kúza-náma was written – and translated – with agendas far beyond a simple pot shop visit.  And wonderfully so.  But even at face value it’s a nice little mis-en-scene:

Listen again one evening at the close
Of Ramazán ere the better moon arose,
In that old Potters Shop I stood alone
With the clay population round in rows.

And, strange to tell, among that earthen lot
Some could articulate, while others not
And suddenly one more impatient cried –
"Who is the potter, pray, and Who the pot?"

Then said another – "Surely not in vain
My substance from the common earth was ta’en
That he who subtly wrought me into shape
Should stamp me back into common Earth again."

Another said – "Why, ne’er a peevish Boy,
Would break the bowl from which he drank in Joy.
Shall He that made the vessel in pure Love
And fancy, in an after rage destroy?"

None answer’d this; but after Silence spake
A Vessel of a more ungainly make
"They sneer at me for learning all awry
What! did the hand then of the Potter shake?"

Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
to grasp this sorry scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits – and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

Reading:

The Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam.  Edward Fitzgerald.  Dover Thrift Editions/NY.  2011.

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Mayan Lily Problems

July 4, 2014

Specialists are like librarians.  They know everything.  At least they handle information well.  The rest of us can only keep our eyes open and hope for the best.  Mayan Drinking Cup

Example: a visit to the Library of Congress in Washington DC.  The LOC’s small collection of pottery in their  “Exploring the Early Americas” exhibit included an 8” straight sided vessel from the Guatemalan lowland Maya circa 600 ad.  This slab-made earthenware pot has a base coat of burnished white slip.  A black swath runs at an angle up the side, encompassing two lilies daubed in red.  The swath ends near the top below an encircling inscription, or “primary standard sequence glyph band.”  The rim is also banded in black.

European fleur-de-lis, symbol of royal prerogative, closely echo the ancient flowers depicted on this pot.  Did Mayan lilies also imply noble aspirations?  Lilies regularly appeared on lowland Mayan pottery.  And much surviving Mayan pottery suggests commemorative usage, particularly suitable for the high-born who could afford such niceties.  But nobody knows what – if anything – lilies represented.

The ‘glyph band’ inscription says the pot was a drinking cup.  While the inscription is also a dedication, it oddly names no specific individual or event.  Maybe the cup was just something a typical Mayan ‘chicha bar’ kept on hand for whatever toast a drunken patron might shout out.  Or perhaps was it a generic ‘gift’ mug, somewhat like a blank greeting card.  Or a tourist-trade item for folks visiting the big city.

Several other Mayan pots in the exhibit had clear but totally meaningless glyphs.  They seemed to offer just the ‘idea’ of writing.  Why?  So illiterate customers could feel a little more highbrow?  Could the potter then charge more, explaining a deeper meaning?  Did the potter also not understand what glyphs meant?

In this context the lily cup  reminds me of certain modern marketing practices.  I’m not sure how to feel about that notion.  Is it a comforting example of how the more things change the more they stay the same?  Is it ironic?  Or is it somehow just disappointing?