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What’s Got Away: Niedecker, Takuboku, Wabi-Sabi

I’d like to discuss two short poems about objects, specifically, objects remembered, in light of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi; however, this consideration must occur in a slant light, because applying wabi-sabi to an object no longer present isn’t, according to its definition, possible. Wabi-sabi is difficult to define, but here’s a famously accepted version of the term (at least in the west) from author Leonard Koren’s book, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers: “Wabi-sabi is the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, the antithesis of our classical Western notion of beauty as something perfect, enduring, and monumental.” Using this definition as a basic premise, I will introduce the poems and then return to some of Koren’s finer distinctions of wabi-sabi to suggest a relationship in slant.

The first poem is by Lorine Niedecker, the great, Midwestern Objectivist who wrote several of my all time favorites, including:

Remember my little granite pail?

The handle of it was blue.

Think what’s got away in my life—

Was enough to carry me thru.

The second poem is by the late 19th-century Japanese poet, Ishikawa Takuboku, whose often tragic view occasionally flowers with tiny, miraculous surprises. The following poem offers a tinge of both, while simultaneously functioning as something else entirely:

The ball I threw on a school roof

A long time ago,

I wonder how it is now.

First, what the poems share and where they diverge, in the same breath: Niedecker asks us to remember what we can’t possibly, i.e. her “little granite pail.” Her address to the reader, “Remember,” assumes we were there, which obviously, we were not; thus, we are invited into a strange space of imagining the impossible. We are both welcomed into and left out of a familiarity and an intimacy associated with the pail and the feelings it conjures for the speaker. In Takuboku’s poem, the speaker’s wondering essentially functions as memory. In this case however, the reader “listens” to the memory of another, whereas in Niedecker’s poem we try to actively participate in “remembering” a memory that does not belong to us. Nonetheless, in each poem we visualize objects, both of which feel the stuff of childhood: a pail, a ball. And after that, we wonder about their unknown trajectories: “Think what’s got away in my life,” and “I wonder how it is now” (it’s “got away,” too).

Now, to return to some of wabi-sabi’s finer distinctions as applicable to these poems. Koren writes: “Wabi-sabi has a compelling pedagogic dimension. Because things wabi-sabi reveal ‘honest’ natural processes such as aging, blemishing, deterioration, etc., they graphically mirror our own mortal journeys through existence. Accordingly, interacting with wabi-sabi objects and environments surely inclines us towards a more graceful acceptance of our existential fate.”

I find it extremely compelling to imagine the ball on the roof (if not rotting in a garbage heap somewhere), surely deflated and faded, as well as to imagine the little pail, rusted, broken, half-returned to earth in its very specific granite and blue. I feel myself pulled, with the speakers of these poems, toward an awareness of “our existential fate.” Whether or not this acceptance is “graceful” is another matter, but Niedecker’s speaker’s “enough to carry me through,” feels to me like an embrace, if a bit somber, of everything lost. What’s got away in her life has previously fulfilled its roles of keeping her in life. On that note, most intriguing to me is the poem’s conclusion, “carry me through,” where “through” feels like “finish,” or at least the precipice of no longer existing, much like the pail has been reduced to a memory that will fade with the speaker’s own consciousness. Thus, the memory activates an awareness of wabi-sabi, despite the “invisibility” of the object in question: the self, like the pail, trembles at the divide between being/not being. What we do know, even in the object’s absence, is that time has altered it, like the person, with the marks and scars that signify our passage toward an ultimate unknown—i.e., the “graphic mirror” the object provides the self.

Furthering this idea, we can look at Koren’s description of wabi-sabi as “…a beauty at the edge of nothingness. That is, a beauty that occurs as things devolve into, or evolve out of, nothingness.” The ball in Takuboku’s poem is so far from being a tangible known, that on some level it exists as “nothingness” already. Only the wondering about the ball keeps it on the edge of being, as the speaker tries to reconcile who he was when he held this object in his hands, with who he is now. The wonderful understated quality of the poem helps to emphasize this marveling, given the entire action would be mundane in a different arrangement. Takuboku’s choice of the ball, versus a ball lets us know that this moment hums distinctly in the speaker’s memory—an emblematic moment of youth? A reminder of his former freedom, mischief, strength, play? Whatever the case, the intrigue resides in the fact that the ball was like any ball before it was thrown on the roof by the speaker who couldn’t possibly have predicted that, one day, the moment would return to him as profound. Life rolls on, making “how it is now” heavy with an awareness of time—the speaker’s attempt to comprehend his own evolution from one physical state of being to another. In this regard, the ball, weathered in ways we can imagine if not know, becomes the “graphic mirror.”

So we are unnerved by a child’s ball as by a little pail, even if only in memory. This is the heart of wabi-sabi, really. We catch glimpses of physical objects falling away from our lives, before our lives fall away from our lives. Easy, difficult, I don’t know, but we would do best to love the objects’ lessons.