Skylark Review of Deep in the Valley of Tea Bowls by Kathy Kituai & Fergus Stewart

Here’s an extended review of Deep in the Valley of Tea Bowls by Kathy Kituai and Fergus Stewart that appeared in the international journal Skylark.

Marks that Keep on Burning
Claire Everett, England

they linger
in the corner of the kiln
tea bowls
glazed in deeper hues,
smoke the colour of sorrow

I recall reading this tanka (in Simply Haiku, if I’m not mistaken) early in my tanka career. It stayed with me. I found it compelling, Jungian, shrouded in mystery. I knew nothing of Kathy, or the project she had embarked on, yet I found the tanka wholly satisfying; what did these tea bowls represent? Were they memories? Fears? Hopes unrealised? Words on the tip of a poet’s tongue? Perhaps they spoke of all that is ineffable in this worldly existence. Imagine my delight to find this tanka lingering within the pages of Deep in the Valley of Tea Bowls. Now, on reaching into the kiln to once more feel the shape of Kathy’s words, I am rewarded with the sight and scent of many tea bowls, of various shades and textures, all waiting to be filled with my own particular brew of poetic interpretation. Isn’t that part of the art of tea and its making that the experience is as much about the flavour as it is about the vessel in which the leaves are steeped and the cup or bowl from which the tea is sipped?

In Japan, we see the spiritual, ceremonial side of tea-making, Chanoyu, involving the preparation and presentation of matcha (powdered green tea), but in western culture ‘the Way of Tea’ is no less significant, whether it is made in a bone china pot and served in matching cups, or brewed in an earthenware mug, ‘builders’-style’, its strength determined by how long the bag is left to stew, or how many times it is dunked. Tea is brewed in celebration and as consolation, its therapeutic benefits far exceeding a simple elixir of ground leaves and boiling water; asked what place it has in their daily lives, many would flounder like a wrestler trying to get to grips with the Crown Derby. Fittingly, on the dedication page to Deep in the Valley of Tea Bowls, we read:

Strangely enough humanity has so far met in the tea-cup. It is the only Asiatic ceremonial which commands universal esteem.
– Akakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea (1906)

And just as the west has embraced the art of tea-making and made it its own, o its poets have welcomed tanka into their creative lives. Tanka was integral to the Chanoya; in his poetic afterword to Kathy’s collection, the potter Milton Moon observes:

Tanka embodies the gentle perception of words
Chanoya embodies the shape of the form.
At their highest expression
they take us into the silence beyond either.

Little did Kathy know when she first encountered Fergus Stewart plugging clay in a studio at Strathnairn Arts Centre, Canberra in the 1980s, she was about to embark on a friendship that would span more than two decades and lead to a unique collaboration between poet and potter. From the outset, she was not only fascinated by Fergus’ Aberdeen accent, but also the sheer physicality of his craft. In her prologue she says of potters, “knowing clay has a memory they learn its way of being and never lose sight of that fact.” For many of us tanka, too, is a way of being; moreover, it is a living being, born of breath and experience, something we can knead and mould into a form that expresses our deepest joys and fears, our full immersion in a given moment, our fundamental need to create, to make a mark. And afterwards, we can choose to keep that tanka-ware, or discard it; we can embellish it, or we can cherish it for its earthy simplicity.

can potter
and poet meet in each
turn of phrase?
test cones twist, melt
and break in the kiln

Throughout the collection, Kathy draws many comparisons between pottery and poetry, but as she says in her prologue, she and Fergus – whose beautiful work is showcased in full-colour photographs accompanying the tanka – concluded that the main difference between pottery and poetry is the extra ’t’ in the former. (How appropriate that the additional letter should be a ’t’ …) Potter and poet are both well acquainted with the is-ness of a moment; that space, however briefly inhabited, that reminds us we are beings, not doings. 

Was it synchronicity, serendipity, or some otherworldly blessing that the National Gallery of Australia exhibited ‘Black Robe, White Mist: art of the Japanese Buddhist Nun Rengetsu’ at the very time Kathy and Fergus were seriously considering the collaboration that was destined to become Deep in the Valley of Tea Bowls? In another nod to Rengetsu, Kathy went on to win the Tea Towel Tanka Award with the first tanka she wrote for the project – further affirmation:

every night
she raises to her mouth
his tea bowl
whose idea was it
to glaze it with the moon?

Kathy’s engaging prologue in which she outlines the history of and inspiration for Deep in the Valley of Tea Bowls, is followed by two free-form Western-style poems, the first of which, (‘Teapots and Cats’) is dedicated to Fergus. Kathy has already explained that she enjoys both Western and Eastern poetry and does not favour one over the other, but tanka with its associations with the Tea Ceremony and its potential for brevity, expansion, malleability, dreaming room, passion, ornamentation – qualities that we might find in clay itself and the process of making tea bowls – seemed most appropriate for her purpose. With the first section entitled ‘pricking holes’, like salt to the glaze, the magic begins. Immediately, we encounter Fergus through Kathy’s eyes:

she finds him
outside his studio
on the lawn
pricking holes in colanders
and thoughts she had on potters

With this arresting image, we have an inkling that as readers we, too, are about to have our preconceived ideas about potters (and poets) challenged; how will this synthesis be realised? How will the story unfold? On the page next to the opening tanka there are two colanders, one nestled inside the other. We are told these colanders are finished with ‘Bracken Green slip’ and a ‘Wood-fired salt glaze’. Image and description are a poem in themselves. One wonders if, in the process of crafting these pieces, Fergus was reconsidering the thoughts he had on poets. From the outset, there is a sense that this collection is as much about what is taken away as what remains. In the words of the Tao Te Ching:

… Shape clay into vessel,
It is nothing (the emptiness) that is of use as a vessel.
Open the door and frame the window,
It is nothing (the hollowness) that is of use as a room …

Potter and poet are experts at harnessing the use of nothingness, relishing in what others might carelessly discard. in the say way

after it rains
swimming in tea bowls
thrown away as seconds

Here is Kathy, pen poised above a clean page of her notebook while the clay spins on the wheel ready to become what ever the hands desire.

before they burst
before they fall
pots before they are thrown

The image that closes the opening section is of the ‘Old Stable Studio window’ with its pillar-box red frame stark against the white-washed wall of the cottage. Are not pottery and poetry both ways of looking at the world from outside-in and inside-out?
In ‘pots and poetry’, as witness to Fergus’ art, Kathy sees the rough clay at every stage of its journey to becoming a finished pot, perfect or otherwise, but is Fergus privy to the snippets and drafts in her notebook? As poets are we quite so open about the creative process?

no pinch pots
or coiled platters
will she shar
scribbled scraps of ideas
or poems trimmed and glazed

As we enter the mind-set of poet and potter alike, there is a certain poise, an awareness of the trance-like connection between artist and art; that epicentre into which none other than the dreamer and the dream can enter:

they limber up …
he with clay centred
on the wheel
she with pen on paper
steadying each word

Here, too, is a reminder to be fully engaged in the present moment:

how to wedge
the next what if
clasp hands
around lumps of clay
feel its roundness

I imagine (perhaps incorrectly) that most readers coming to this collection will be poets rather than potters; what, then, of these vessels we create? The potter’s wares remade for our hands, just so; the cup or jug invites us to feel its weight, to fill it, to tip it, to set our lips to its rim. How might  poet persuade the reader to interact with her creation?

no handle
or spout for this vessel
just five lines
pouring from the nib
to sip or savour

This can be seen as quite self-deprecating: just five lines? Or could it be that the poet must fashion something that will move or transfix the reader out of a mere five lines? To those new to reading tanka, it can seem quite simple and apparently easy to create; once one becomes more familiar with this versatile form, its capacity to say so much more than its five lines, is as endlessly spellbinding as that first sliver of light that brings its cursive to a dark moon. Poet and potter might talk well into the night about the things they share as artists, and those they don’t, but ultimately

for all their talk
on poetry and pots
the wheel spins …
look at what might be said
simply without words

And as we turn the page, there is a reminder of how we throw words away so thoughtlessly, or those occasions when we put our heads together in idle chat as the moments tick inexorably by: an image of ‘A Cluster of Colanders, red clay slip, gas-fired salt glaze’. Never before have I been so aware of the human qualities such vessels possess; how beautifully Fergus’ colanders (in association with Kathy’s carefully chosen words) convey the sense of an empty mind, whether that is a mind sieved of thought, stilled by meditation, or one that has allowed the finer points of life, or meaning, to slip away. Anthropomorphism is a theme that Kathy plays with throughout this collection. With a childlike eye she conjures all kinds of characters:

hands on hips
facing each other
on a wooden shelf

And reminisces as a mother is wont to do:

pots fired
ready in the kiln
look at me! look at me!
were her children any different?

Even the kiln takes on a life of its own, standing before the poet, mirroring her open-mouthed wonder, ‘not always speaking of perfect pots’, but endlessly enchanting when it is ‘cool enough to open brick by brick’. Here, too, we are alerted to the quiet presence of the potter who will ‘listen later, as best he can to pots with little to say’; just as the poet’s words will not always sit comfortably with their creator once reviewed in the cold light of day, the tableware made yesterday might not return the kindness of the hands that shaped it.
Not only do these vessels of clay exhibit human-like qualities, the glazed tea bowls themselves are mirrors of the landscape from which they came: the briefly-clouded loch, the sun-shimmered tarn, the green valley …

in a row
ready to be bisque
set outside at sunset
glazed pink, red and gold

Throughout the section, ‘a mantra of pots’, there is a real sense of the interconnectedness of all things; of clay beings rising from the spinning wheel just as our most distant forebears emerged from the primal slip.

do spherical
creatures arise
from the deep
with only finger and thumb tips
guiding them out of mind?

What does this tanka say about Kathy’s regard for Fergus’ art? This god is in his heaven and he has the power to create life:

and body-mind centred
he carves
the foot of each bowl
waiting to be discovered

*metal finishing tool

On entering ‘the potter’s mind’ we cross the threshold to even deeper mystery. A silvery shape at the window of the potter’s shed and glimpses of that inner sanctum with its carefully-stacked wood (‘preparing for the firing at Torbree’) segue beautifully into Kathy’s tanka-portraits of Fergus as alchemist: ‘keeping track/he charts temperatures/every hour’ and ‘diligently/with unwavering focus/he stokes and stokes the kiln’. These pages lie at the heart of the collection and seem to encapsulate the very essence of Kathy’s fascination and deep respect for the potter’s art. Suddenly, in white on a black page:

in the darkness
potter …
wood … firebox …
pen on the page

In bearing witness to Fergus’ creativity, Kathy is attuned to the flickering edges of her own. Here are echoes of William Blake’s The Tyger. There follows a journal entry by Kathy, dated 29th July 2010 in which she says: “Alive, throbbing and crackling, we abandoned all our energy to the flame … the last throes of creativity where there is nothing to do but give yourself up to the heat of the moment, the pain or joy … No light, or moon, just before midnight. Nothing more than darkness and the kiln, Fergus opened the firebox, flames leapt out at him, drawing us both in …”

In Kathy’s eyes, this might well be Hephaestus fashioning the shield of Achilles. This is myth in the making, and in reading it we become part of it, as we peer into the furnace of the potter’s (and poet’s) mind. We also learn that Kathy’s time with Fergus is coming to an end, and she must return to Australia. The sections that follow are infused with acceptance, reminiscence, a sense of holding on to what is dear even in the knowledge that all is transient.

head bowed … hands folded
she is thankful for mushrooms
in a bowl of soup
spiced with onions garlic thyme
and the outline of her face

careful …
hold it with both hands …
catch every drop
of Lochinver sunlight
spilling into the cup

plain simple teapot
she brews tea
whenever she can
just to say amen

This book does not preach – far from it – but it imparts a gentle wisdom:

to which
would Buddha bow …
this bowl
fitting the palm of her hand
or those the potter discarded?

I could say so much more in praise of this long-awaited collection; the images and themes are as many and varied as there are blends of tea. Kathy’s tanka invite the reader to pause, hold, weigh, consider, and time and again, I find myself wanting to reach into the photograph to take out one of Fergus’ creations and set it on my table. This unique collaboration, like the ritual it celebrates, is inherently comforting yet strangely tantalising:

lop-sided tea bowl
set on a tray …
the taste of tea
before it is poured

It is not a perfect collection: a discerning reader will spy minor flaws, but therein lies another of its charms. How apt that this tanka

imperfection …
drying too rapidly
crack without warning 

is followed by a double-page spread in which the potter can be seen at work surrounded by his pieces at various stages of their production; the accompanying tanka that overlays the image is quite difficult to read and this detracts from the delightful pairing. 

I am grateful for the gift of Deep in the Valley of Tea Bowls and where Kathy’s words offer a deep bow to the potter (her ‘mentor’) while he, in turn, creates vessels for her outpourings, I bow deeply to them both.

sheer poetry
leaping from the kiln
will her poem
make marks
that keep on burning

… the answer is “yes.”

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