Earth from three regions: pale volcanic salt, jade pebbles from the ocean’s rim, a cake of vermilion—reveal the preciousness and strangeness of the mineral. To hold a crinoid bud, like an armored star, or the tempered fern of fish bones, is enough to summon a need within me. Out of the same uncertain nature that fashions the antler’s growth, bone cysts binding to a careful shape, clay or lime yield forms more precious than art.
Art is not found in simplicity; we must not surrender its attainments to futility. The useful pot is more than artifice; it is something found only in cold places, mocking the wind. I prefer the scent of wet hands to the world itself, hands that stand in the water and become the rain. As if those hands were planting rice or bleeding pitch from an incense tree, the hand that casts or molds in clay momentarily (at least) inhabits the world.
There is a history here, reflected in the infirmity of stone, from dry shale decaying in lenses to limestone melting before time like a face. The feeble coral, broken to shards. But the shards become stone, marl, unconsumed, even by the mouth of a river or encasing desert. Like the ever-widening mouth of a cave, time leaves its impression.
Or the polished teapot. The soft, green cake falls into a boundless pool, embodied in a mouth, a hollow, leading to the perfect sphere. The globe, the simple lidless spout, patient and quiet, obvious as a maple leaf, floating on the still, shaded water. And the chawans are islands in an endless sea; little waves splash up on their green, uneven coastlines.
Once, near the great pyramid of Cholula, that black and red heap of lava, cursed and useless, I saw a cornfield scattered with red, orange, black, and yellow shards of a Mixtec battle with malevolent fish and whales.
And I saw it in the forms of architecture: concrete, mud-brick, patted clay, wattle-work, painted like a chicha pot of Ayacucho, or one of its protecting churches, whitewashed with ochre-stained lime.
Despite the discipline that clay demands, it lives in a world of fluid guises. Where else does humanity make its house, stout and round and decorated? I want a human heart to emerge from the furnace!
From a basin of smoke and sky, or a burning pond of glass and fins, out of the mountain and winter’s end, the swallows return to the sheltering thorn, and cavern mouths stained with bitter guano. Tears of mud yield a womb for their frail, struggling broods, mixing song with cries of hunger. The wasp builds a lair of clay paste for its own cruel flesh of offspring, in trees, in the soil, and in the light. Who taught that kind of symmetry?
“I wish to be buried in an earthen jar, that I might be worthy of my ancestors.”
I have seen it. I have seen it near the desecrating waters of the coast, below the stormy cordillera, in burial mounds between the sun and moon.
I watch from behind a gate that has rusted shut. It is like looking through shade, or a mirror occluded with crossed rutile spines—a world without hands. Everywhere, there are poisonous red powders, oils, gray base metals damp to the touch
I wish for the scent of young lianas, or the smell that weeps from the waterpot’s soft, tender skin. The earth still sleeps in the bowl, and the bowl still sleeps in the clay.
Hand skills are gone, on this street scorched by asphalt. Who goes to their work unhurried, creative, and useful? Not only is the artisan, with tools of sharp bamboo and nails burning like meteor fragments, unseen, but these as well.
I ask for that beauty—a fading animal track across sullen swamps—to hold this chain unbroken, that the round belly of a pot might give birth to a constellation.
A few years after the British brought mill cloth, “The bones of cotton weavers were bleaching the plains of India.”
I speak of what the world scorns, take it upon myself, because I have seen those blind horses weathering out of the mountains, and farmers huddled in the city catching rain.
The contested hills are silent now, between burnt glyphs and rot-stained bones. There, on the damp floor covered by insects, among curved obsidian chips and knives, clay wings lie scattered from a heaven of the past. I will look for molded clay to be the daylight this late day. And in the night, behind shouting acids and wire, the soil will open its devouring mouth.
Charles Haddox lives in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, and has family roots in both countries. Recent publications include work in Stonecoast Review, Turnpike Magazine, Verdad, and the Eastern Iowa Review Best Lyric Prose Plus Anthology.
Illustration by Aliya Smith.