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A Vase

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There was a vase
that held the world’s riches, but it wasn’t cheap.
It cost a dime — and this in a time and place

when dimes were sizable, especially for
a girl of eight whose construction-worker father
was unemployed. The old metaphor

was literal in this case and she
counted her pennies till there were ten — 
then embarked on a mission of great secrecy,

a purchase whose joys ran so deep,
seventy years later, as she told the tale again,
her face flushed. It was a birthday gift for her mother.

There was a race
of people heretofore glimpsed only on hanging scrolls
in library books. They were on the vase — 

the smallest whole figures imaginable,
purposeful and industrious
as they fished or planted rice or hiked a hill

whose spiral trail led to a temple perched upon
a crag between cloud and waterfall.
They were a vision exported from Japan — 

a country far as the moon, and far more beautiful,
whose artists grasped an eight-year-old girl’s soul’s
need for the minutely amplitudinous.

There was a place
(Detroit, the thirties) now slipped from sight,
though here and there I’ll catch some holdover trace — 

maybe the grille on an old apartment door,
or a slumped block of  houses, draped
in torn sheets of rain, apparently posing for

black-and-white photographs. Even the out-
of-a-job, men like my grandfather, donned hats back then
before leaving the house — to circle endlessly about,

as if a lost job were a lost coin that might
yet be found on the street where it had been dropped,
making them whole again.

There was a face,
rucked with care, that would dreamily soften
if  talk floated off toward some remote someplace

beyond the seas. My grandmother had a yen for the faraway
(which she imparted to her daughter),
even as her life was tethered between a gray

icy motionless Midwestern city — 
stalled like a car with a frozen ignition — 
and a Tennessee farm without electricity.

(She did once see Washington — cherry season — and often
spoke of  those long pink walkways beside the water
that were  Japan’s gift to a grateful nation.)

There is a vase — 
a piece of gimcrack that somehow
made its way to a crowded curio case

in a small souvenir shop
in Detroit, seventy-plus years ago — 
which today stands atop

the mantel in the apartment in DC
where my fading mother is now living.
When she was eight, in 1933,

she gave it to my grandmother, who
for all her poverty bequeathed her daughter so
rich a bounty, including a taste for giving:

the gift of grace.
It seems a little miracle
almost — that it’s intact, the little vase,

conveying what its makers set out to convey:
an inward island spared by Time,
by the times. These days, she can scarcely say

who she gave it to, or on what occasion.
A — birthday? The pilgrim climbs the winding hill
forever, station by station,

and “Isn’t it beautiful?”
she asks. “You bought it for a dime,”
I tell her. It holds the world’s riches still.

Source: Poetry (January 2013)

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This poem originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Poetry magazine

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A Vase

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