I have been thinking about made things — a poem, a piece of visual art, a pie, a cabinet, a bolt. There’s a poignancy, I find, to the things we humans make and make, lose, throw away. Here’s a poem I wrote some time ago, the title the name of a train that travels through the US northeast.
Skeletal small towns’ rebar remains,
heart of a grange hall, a church revealed, shards
pierce and work their way inwards, shattered
bones all alight. A coil of brown barbed
wire, a torqued stave, some fence rod or road tie,
the curled hand of a man blasted
by sun, rain, snow hip deep. How we unfold
across our own horizon, beautiful
waste of our made things strew,
slow destruction of our mettle.
I studied anthropology in college but took all the archaeology courses offered. I was less interested in the (oh, endless) study of different types of arrowheads than modern archaeology, what our material world now tells us about ourselves now. We are what we make, buy, and throw away, even more so than what we say we are with words.
I read an article recently about an exhibition of what remained of the refugee camp at Calais, the things carried by people who, forced to again move on, carried them no farther. Notes and small weapons and paper dolls. I think about the artwork by the children of the Terezin ghetto, now held in Prague’s Jewish Museum. In an article in the Atlantic, “Elegy for the American Century,” George Packer writes about Richard Holbrooke and the break-up of Yugoslavia, and atrocities in Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. In the article, Holbrooke visits a refugee camp near Zagreb hosting Bosnian Muslums who had escaped the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The author wrote:
“As Holbrooke started to leave, the baker brought out a dirty plastic bag from under his mattress. Inside was a pair of small figures, three or four inches tall, in blond wood. Human figures, with nearly featureless faces and heads bowed and hands together behind their backs. The baker had carved them with a piece of broken glass while he was interned at the Manjača camp, where the prisoners had stood bound for hours with their heads down to avoid being beaten.”
We are makers, we people, of objects that, though mute, express the best, and the worst of us (there are at least eight torture museums in Europe alone). For all our wordiness, our flapping mouths, it’s what we make that remains to tell the tale.
Poetry too is a made thing, and I love the “poem in your pocket” day idea, although I’ve never actually taken part, love the idea of that little curled piece of paper, an artifact of a tender skinned human in the world.