Musky as the cedar drawer
in Grandmas’ standing metal trunk,
a genie scent, improbable and
distant as the sound of hooves on sand
in some Arabian tale read by Father
in the hall between bedrooms to say goodnight.
Rose petals, five generations of fragile crinkles
once supple, fresh, pressed on at a precious time
into the four-inch cloisonné on pointed golden legs
fat as a Buddha tummy …
(Mormon) Poet Highlight 4: Emma Lou Thayne, “The Rose Jar”
Disturbing the dust on a bowl on rose leaves …
—T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
In the opening section of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton,” the poet muses on the interconnections and “unredeemab[ility]” of time (line 5): “What might have been,” he says, “is an abstraction / Remaining a perpetual possibility / Only in the world of speculation” (6-8), the business of imagination and memory. He opens the door to this possibility when he hears
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind. (11-5)
The poet’s job, this implies, is to pursue the footfalls of memory into places we’ve never been. “But to what purpose,” he asks, does “[d]isturbing the dust on a[n imagined] bowl of rose-leaves” serve (16-7)? Why pursue these “echoes / [that i]nhabit the garden[?] Shall we [indeed] follow” them “through the […] gate” of meaning; “[i]nto our first world, shall we follow / The deception of the thrush?” (17-8, 20-2). And yet the voyage into and through deception, he suggests, is the end “which is always present” (48). So perhaps, though the past is ultimately “unredeemable,” we can redeem ourselves, our identities, as the poet’s efforts suggest, in the myriad possible passageways of and rhetorical passages written by memory.
Emma Lou Thayne takes this poetic cue in “The Rose Jar” wherein she quite literally (if we can take her at her word) disturbs the dust in her grandma’s jar of rose petals, stirring up the fragrance of rose and memory as she runs her fingers and her mind over the intricate surface of the “four inch cloisonne [jar] on pointed golden legs / fat as a Buddha tummy” (lines 9-10). Finding this jar in the “cedar drawer” of her “Grandma’s standing metal trunk” (1-2), she enters the intersection of several memories, some her own, some others’. The cedar musk reminds her of “some Arabian tale read by Father / in the hall between bedrooms to say goodnight” (5-6); the rose petals call forth “five generations of fragile crinkles” in lives “once supple, fresh,” but now only “fragile” memories (7-8); the jar itself inspires visions of “centuries of Chinese hav[ing] their way” in an intricate culture, their “careful hands […] pluck[ing] each [intricate] piece in place” (18-9); and the fragrance of it all, of this “holy mash,” becomes “tiny gusts / of history waft[ing]” community rituals—“the gatherings of births, graduations, / weddings, funerals, celebrations”—“into decades collecting / but never filling [the jar] to the top,” instead infusing the space of life, of memory with the “subtle, still surprising breath of God” (20-7).
And that, I think, is one reason we disturb the dust on our metaphorical bowls of rose-leaves: because doing so draws us together in bonds of imagination, kinship, and shared memory, such that, like Adam and Eve, we are infused with the breath of God and so become living souls, living communities.
And that, I think, is one thing poets and poetry are for.