Sunday, December 1, 2013

Nicelle Davis: It's an Entirely Human Sort of Thing—Poetry

Lately, I have been breaking all my dishes. I’ve been inviting friends to break them with me. I even let my five-year old son toss a plate down some concrete stairs. I’m convinced this is poetry—that the sound of contact—of opening—is the music of being.

Like poetry, you have to do it (be it) to understand. So here, go ahead. Try it. Even if the throw happens entirely in your head—please!—try it:

Here is the plate, the cup, the bowl, you choose. Here. The implications of its blank surface—smooth in your hands—the meal that was and wasn’t—the story that was and never will be. Now release it. Your dish becomes a bird—it sings like a bell when it hits—the ground is scattered with shark-toothed fragments. You are dry underwater. You are what shouldn’t be. You are stepping between pieces of wholeness.

You feel ridiculous; it is so serious. You are laughing. You are crying. You are letting go.  Great poetry can't happen without some level of letting go. You must unclench your fists, your life, your eyes, your legs for a moment and let it swing out into the open air not really knowing how it all ends.  It's the lack of knowing that means you have—gasp—stepped away from the prescribed narrative. Your hand twinges slightly from the shallow cuts. You see how beneath the skin, a red garden is blooming. Between the internal and external—between release and shattering—is poetry.

Poetry, for me, is the art of carving out the betwixt of existence—it is the moment of conversion, that quick intake of breath when dreams enter into reality. It is never pretty. No. It is quite awkward; the product never matches the intention. But there is a magic in the effort—and by magic I mean a hope that we can pull our dreams into reality. The poem evokes an infinite vastness, the motions of raw potential, the possibility of transcendence. It is more than words on a page; it is the plate breaking.


  1. Hi Nicelle,

    It has never occurred to me to equate writing poetry with smashing china. But I only ever break plates, bottles by accident but I can see how it might work. You are never going to end up with a decent cake if you don't break open the egg shell in order to add the egg as an ingredient. Without it you have a cake which refuses to rise.

    1. Caroline,

      Thank you for "breaking eggs." I love that.

      A key word for me lately has been "rise," so this post has some ordinary magic to it. Thank you again.

  2. Many Greeks in Greece do it every year. D. E. Steward

  3. You have a singular way of looking at the world, Nicelle! Always a startling pleasure.

  4. Isn't break glasses a traditional part of some celebrations? Certainly the Jewish wedding ceremony has it - the groom stomps the glass, shattering it, as a reminder of how fragile life is.

    "... to break crystal glasses
    in celebration,
    for you,
    when the dark crust is thrown off
    and you float all around
    like a happened balloon."
    Anne Sexton (1928–1974), U.S. poet. "Admonitions to a Special Person."

  5. Fun, Nicelle, I'm thinking of some photo I saw in perhaps national geographic of the remains breaker, happiest of all humans, gleefully smashing, for day job, imperfect plates and pots. I believe the physical shattering of objects back into pieces satisfies on a physical level some kind of primal freedom for anyone who has ever had a tantrum curtailed by force or choice. Maybe for release, or chance to let down the guard and re coalesce, much as one does when writing a poem.

    1. Tania I <3 you! "Some kind of primal freedom" is right.

  6. Dear Nicelle,
    You don't have to feel badly if you don't know about breaking plates in other cultures. Indeed, that’s what poets are for, to do just what you're doing in "Hairstylist Sam Villa -- Premiere Orlando Main Stage." Because poets have the responsibility to reinvent the wheels that have come off or gone missing in a culture, and goodness knows our own is impoverished. And now you're giving us back fresh broken plates!

    Poets are witch-doctors in every society, “witch” being one of our words in modern English that the wheels have come off totally [witan in Old English, “to know” – coming down to us in “wit,” “wise,” and wisdom]. Witch-doctor poets like you are what heal us.

    Cutting the hair – a WOW almost everywhere on earth from Samson to us. Why, even just touching the top of the head where I live is taboo, the hair is so ‘high,’ and for God's sake don't let anybody get hold of a lock of your own unless you love them a lot!

    I can remember when those posters first went up in the late ‘50s – “Keep America beautiful – get a haircut!” And of course we understand better now where those crew-cuts were coming from as we know a whole lot more about “skin heads!”

    Another irony is that if you really want to say something that matters with hair, dark hair is much more effective than blonde, and the nappier the better. That’s why the perm became so fashionable just when the Civil Rights movement really took off in America, and why dread-locks are still such an empowerment if your cursed with straight hair.

    Thanks for the very special poem, Nicelle – and I love the way you read it too.


    1. Chrstopher!

      Thank you for this amazingly thoughtful and smart comment. I actually did a lot of research about breaking before sending my son out to smash plates. There is some form of this in nearly all part of the globe. I find this beautiful—human—and intuitive.

      I think we all need to break something, sometimes.

  7. Wow! Thank you for all of these thoughtful comments; thank you for spending some time with this idea.

    I’ve done a lot of research about breaking dishes. I love how this is a sound heard round the world—a real human impulse.

    I also have many personal stories and collected stories about breaking dishes. My father is a potter and will take a baseball bat to all the work that doesn't meet his expectations. Imagine a studio full of ceramic art turning into sound. It was terrifying. My brother and I could only see the work of our father crashing to pieces; our father saw new room being made for art. This was a great / hard lesson for me. I have learned to love that sound, the sound of making more room for growth.

  8. The story that inspired this came from a boss (friend) of mine. She told me how when she was young her family was very poor. They lived in room and had to wash their dishes in a shared bathroom. As a little girl, she would have to walk past an old man who would make obscene gestures and sexual comments at her in the hallway. One day she had it.

    She took all the dishes to the roof and threw them. She said they looked like doves as they left her hands.

    We are all in search of some form of freedom.

  9. Last post...promise :)

    If you would like to see pictures of my son and I breaking dishes, they are posted here:

  10. I've been where you are now so many times, dear Nicelle -- I promise, and still there's silence. And then I break the silence myself, not for my own sake but because, as you say, "We are all in search of some form of freedom." And why should we ever stop trying?

    "Breaking" is also an entering of sorts, isn't it, as in "break and entry?" In a Thai village wedding the groom pays the old ladies who are keeping the gate to his bride's house with 20 baht (75¢) notes he's got stuffed in his pockets for the purpose. And only then do they let him break open the gate to enter. And the music plays on, and everybody is happy.

    It’s so obvious, but sometimes we have to break things to notice, or even take a life on occasion -- as is still practiced in so many folk cultures all over the world, as well as in Jewish, Muslim and Christian rituals. And that’s a warning, a big, big caution. When poets start exploring such matters there’s just as much darkness as there's light in there, and just as much breaking as birth. But whoever said there wasn't?

    Crazy Jane Talks With The Bishop

    I met the Bishop on the road
    And much said he and I.
    'Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
    Those veins must soon be dry;
    Live in a heavenly mansion,
    Not in some foul sty.'

    'Fair and foul are near of kin,
    And fair needs foul,' I cried.
    'My friends are gone, but that's a truth
    Nor grave nor bed denied,
    Learned in bodily lowliness
    And in the heart's pride.

    'A woman can be proud and stiff
    When on love intent;
    But Love has pitched his mansion in
    The place of excrement;
    For nothing can be sole or wholeThat has not been rent.'

    ……………………………………..William Butler Yeats