Mad Pieces

1.

In 1392, King Charles VI of France suffered the first of forty-four recorded psychotic episodes, turning on his soldiers and killing four before he was subdued. During subsequent bouts of insanity, he forgot he was king or thought he was Saint George, failed to recognize his wife, or ran screaming through the castle. In later years, according to Pope Pius II, the king believed he was made of glass. He took pains to protect himself—wearing padded clothing, forgoing the touch of others—so he would not shatter. “She can’t kiss his lips,” writes the poet Eavan Boland of his wife, Isabella, “in case he splinters / into a million Bourbons, mad pieces. / What can she do with him—her daft prince? / His nightmares are the regency of France.” He had been known briefly, during the early, prosperous years of his reign, as the beloved. He became known as the mad

The glass delusion suffered by Charles VI was a phenomenon of late Medieval and early modern Europe. In The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton discusses the delusion in the company of other manifestations of melancholy: “[T]hose feral passions and symptoms of such as think themselves glass, pitchers, feathers, etc., speak strange languages, proceed à calore cerebri (if it be in excess), from the brain’s distempered heat.” Those afflicted often believed themselves to take specific forms: vases, pitchers, even urinals. 

This equation of the body with a vessel, writes Gill Speak in his 1990 article “An Odd Kind of Melancholy,” was common in theological and philosophical writings of the time—the soul was considered the priceless commodity carried within. Speak says, “[P]sychiatry is concerned with the most difficult of all medical-physiological problems: the body-soul problem, which still remains unsolved today,” and he quotes Saint Teresa of Avila, a melancholic herself, who wrote “Lord, put not so precious a liquid in this fragile container, for you know that I shall spill it.” Speak also notes that accounts of “Earthenware Men,” who believed themselves made of clay, date from the classical and Medieval periods, but glass became the preferred medium of madmen in the early modern era. Small wonder: glass was (figuratively, here) on fire, with eyeglasses invented at the end of the thirteenth century, microscopes in the sixteenth, and telescopes at the start of the seventeenth. The limits to our sight were exploded, expanded beyond belief. Glass was vital to science—and to art. 

In 1292, the Venetian republic concentrated its glassmaking operations in Murano. The secrets of Venetian glass could be kept more easily on the small group of islands a mile from the capital, and Venice itself would be protected from the risk of fire posed by foundries. Murano glass soon became the most valued in the world, each piece an exquisite example of new (or newly refined) techniques: cristallo, lattimo, smalto, vetro a filigrana.* A corresponding rise in status was accorded Murano’s glassmakers, who were permitted to wear swords, were exempt from prosecution, and were afforded other trappings of the upper class. With this elevation, however, came entrapment. Glassmakers were forbidden from leaving the republic, for fear they would share the city’s production secrets and lessen its monopoly. Travel was traitorous and punishable by death: a century before Charles went mad in France, Murano’s artists were confined by glass. 

 

2.

“Pain without a cause is pain we can’t trust,” writes Leslie Jamison in 2014’s The Empathy Exams. “We assume it’s been chosen or fabricated.” Jamison speaks generally of angst, of heartache, but clinical depression (modern melancholy) is pain that seems to many to lack a cause. Depression, like many other mental illnesses, has no cause beyond the body—some faulty wiring and a hair trigger tripped by changing seasons, shifting light. 

I was fifteen when I first read Boland’s poem and learned of the glass king, a few years from my opening tilt with what Virginia Woolf called “this monster, the body, this miracle, its pain.” I was a few years more from understanding the intricate patterns of my illness, the almost-beauty of its symmetries, and yet more from considering the danger in ascribing intricacy and beauty to a disease that maims and kills. At some point during those years, I remembered Charles VI and his padded clothes, and he no longer struck me as an oddity but as a totem. 

In the thick of depression I move slowly, gingerly, from bed to kitchen to couch and back. I cannot possibly work. I cannot make anything more strenuous than toast. I watch television endlessly, its chatter a distraction from the pounding silence in my mind. I ignore invitations, let phone calls go unanswered. To speak would be to shatter. I do not believe I am made of glass, only that it feels that way; I do not wear padding or fear sharp edges, but I burrow in bed and fear sharp words. The distinctions grow fine, the lines thin. I can imagine crossing over. Madness invites madness in. 

 

3.

A large case, bolted to the wall at chest level, holds a horizontal row of objects made of mirrored, silvery, handblown glass. They resemble vases with no openings, stoppered decanters, and other such vessels meant to hold beautiful, extravagant indulgences beautifully, extravagantly. Sumptuous is the word their creator, the artist Josiah McElheny, uses to describe the overall piece. “Anything that is very seductive is also very awful,” he has said, and his work is certainly seductive. The case is walled with mirrors, and the objects within seem to repeat, receding infinitely, like the faceless soldiers of an endless and approaching army. One-way glass, however, fronts the case, so that viewers, like vampires, do not see themselves reflected. No matter how closely you press your nose to it, no part of the shining world within admits your presence.

My presence, I should say. I’m the one bending my back, craning my neck, trying to figure out why I can’t see myself in the abundance of mirrors before me. Annie tells me about the one-way glass. She’s an art historian, and free admission to various museums—Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, in this case—is one of our friendship’s several perks. Annie is an excellent tour guide, irreverent in her dismissals but adamant in her passions. She adores McElheny and she’s seen this piece—Czech Modernism Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely—before. “It echoes the Prague skyline,” she says, of the row of glass objects. “See?” I don’t, but I trust her, and we move into the next room, she splicing facts with gossip about artists and curators, me writing away with a weak, museum-approved pencil. A guard caught me with a pen, so my notes for the day turn, a few sentences in, from inky to faint. Against the pale page, I can hardly see them. 

 

4. 

Glass might look like ice, but it comes from fire. Flamework is the process by which sand, soda, and lime, mixed like a gritty cocktail, are made into mirrors, vases, and sculptures, and have been for thousands of years. A Mesopotamian recipe for glass has been dated to the fourteenth century BC, and specimens exist that were shaped in ancient Egypt. Critic Dave Hickey says, “Like civilization, glass is only destroyed by violence. It does not wear away as stone and metal do.” The technique for blowing glass was developed as early as the first century BC—unlike other substances, glass doesn’t crystallize as it transforms from a hot liquid to a cool solid, allowing the material to be blown, stretched, and draped. Glass, unlike pottery, can only be shaped when too hot to touch; the glassblower must work with tools and at great speed, frequently returning the glass to the furnace to keep it nearly molten. Glassblowing is as physical as it is mental, requiring strength, stamina, and precision from the glassblower’s body. The artist cannot be as fragile as the art. 

When I was twenty, I became friends with a man who blew glass. The most basic demands of the form began to obsess me as metaphor: glass beads are heated in flame, cooled in vermiculites, heated and cooled again—the process making them strong, weaning the material of its native fragility. I began to think of my moods as thermal: manic fire and depressive ice in which I might be strengthened. James Howell, investigating Venetian glassmaking in the seventeenth century, had a similar thought: “[I]f this small furnace-fire hath virtue to convert such a small lump of dark dust and sand into such a precious clear body as crystal, surely that grand universal fire which shall happen at the day of judgement, may by its violent ardour vitrify and turn to one lump of crystal the whole body of the earth.”

I’ve always been drawn to metaphor—as I am to glass—for its beauty, not its use. Not that metaphor has any use, at least in the arena of illness, but I keep trying: writing, reading, craning to see my disease reflected in that shining world. Anything that is very seductive is also very awful. And vice versa, perhaps.

5.

Virginia Woolf begins her strange, exquisite volume On Being Ill by lamenting the fact that literature has neither examined nor elevated illness as a topic in the manner of love or war: 

[L]iterature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind, that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent. On the contrary, the very opposite is true. All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze from the pane—smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instant.

This body that keeps us captive was long thought to be governed by humors—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile, with disease resulting from an imbalance of the four. When the sixteenth-century physician Vesalius attempted to analyze this theory, however, he found no sign of black bile in the human body. Black bile—the humor blamed for causing melancholy—is the only one that doesn’t exist. Depression was (and is) a pain the cause of which cannot be isolated, cannot be separated from the body and addressed. Its shade is built into that sheet of glass. 

In Anne Carson’s 1994 long poem, “The Glass Essay,” a doctor asks the narrator why she keeps seeing disturbing images during her daily meditation: “Why keep watching? Why not // go away?” The narrator’s response is confusion: “Go away where? I said. / This still seems to me a good question.”

 

6.

Pain without a cause is pain we can’t trust. My pain is causeless, and the man I live with can’t trust it. Madness, by definition, trumps rationale, and he struggles to understand the lack of reason for my sorrow or delight. When depressed, body and brain (body and soul, Saint Teresa would say) grow apart, stop speaking, and lose touch, each blaming the other for the lost connection. My body sobs, though my brain can’t name a cause. My brain spirals, though my body insists it is healthy and hale, capable of standing and dressing and getting to work. My sheet of Woolf’s plain glass grows transparent, unable to absorb light. My boyfriend tries to make me laugh—and he might succeed, briefly—but the moment passes through me, the fact retained but the feeling forgotten, impossible to imagine. The glass king within wins every time. I am trapped, still and silent, speech as difficult as any other bodily task. This silence drives him . . . I almost said crazy.

Relative to this mess, caused sorrow (grief, heartbreak, physical pain) feels cathartic and cleansing. When I am on the edges of depression, not yet mired in its swamps, I try to render my illness into these terms. I say I’m tired when I mean I’m desolate; I say my head hurts when I mean my heart does. The translations, however, are inexact. What’s wrong? my boyfriend asks, and I want to say Everything, but Nothing comes out. I can’t seem to make him understand that the wrongness is in me, is me, and therefore is inescapable. Go away where? In 1621, Burton wrote,

[S]o have melancholic men an inward cause, a perpetual fume and darkness, causing fear, grief, suspicion, which they carry with them, an object which cannot be removed, but sticks as close, and is as inseparable, as a shadow to a body, and who can expel or overrun his shadow? Remove heat of the liver, a cold stomach, weak spleen; remove those adust humours and vapours arising from them, black blood from the heart, all outward perturbations; take away the cause, and then bid them not grieve nor fear, or be heavy, dull, lumpish; otherwise counsel can do little good; you may as well bid him that is sick of an ague not to be adry, or him that is wounded not to feel pain.

This line of thinking frustrates my boyfriend. I don’t blame him: our relationship—and those of many others, I imagine—relies on the idea that we make each other happy. He takes this effort seriously and is, under normal circumstances, exceedingly good at it. When I’m depressed, however, his attempts can only fail. Who can expel or overrun his shadow? He cannot help, he can only harm—and he does, when frustrated, when angry, when tired of trying to make me laugh and getting only tears from me, for days. Then his careless words come, like sharp edges or strong light—and then, only then, does something break through to where I am. 

The most intimate experience most of us have with glass, after all, involves not creation but destruction: a dropped wine glass, a smashed window, and shards lodged in our feet or fists. When we think glass, we think shatter. We think spill.

 

7.

Annie and I are at the Seattle Art Museum this time, walking through an exhibition of artists associated with the Pilchuck Glass School. She explains her dislike of some of the work, which she sees as driven by spectacle instead of intellect, showing off the artist’s ability instead of the medium’s qualities: “Any time an artist chooses a medium—especially one as notoriously difficult to work in as glass—it should be for a reason,” she argues. “What does this medium do that others don’t? How does that change your work?” She points out pieces that could have been made with ceramics, metal, or stone. 

“Don’t play Mozart on a toy piano,” I say. “Respect the instrument.” I did not make this up; I read it somewhere.

“Right, exactly.”

“Fragility,” I say. “Transparency. What else can glass do better than anything else?”

“Reflection, of course,” she adds. “Also, there’s the way someone like McElheny thinks really critically about the medium’s history, about the invention of glassmaking as a new technology, about the anonymity of glassmakers throughout history.”

She shows me McElheny’s The Only Known Grave of a Glassblower. Thirteen colorless dishes and other household items are laid out in a display of simple, utilitarian glass. Without a guide I would not have stopped to look more closely, but Annie points me to the accompanying text:

From the invention of glassblowing until the Renaissance in Italy, few glassblowers’ names are known. Only one marked grave has been found. The tomb of Roman glassblower Julius Alexander was near present day Lyons, France. The gravestone, along with the glass found in his tomb, tells us something of his life. We know that he was married, and died before his wife. She left the glass hairpin, which he had made for her, near his head in the tomb. The other pieces, examples of his best work, were placed in the grave by his family. We know that he practiced his art in France (Gaul), but was a citizen of Rome, possibly born in Africa (Egypt, or Carthage). Earlier historians attribute a bottle found in Rome to him. The gravestone is in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Lyons.

“I gave a tour recently,” Annie says. “People read that and asked, How can that be? How could the glass have survived? So the nature—the fragility—of the medium plays into McElheny’s fictional narrative.” 

McElheny often works with such narratives. Museum Storage: Please Do Not Remove the Labels is composed of eleven glass vessels in a display case, each tagged with a paper label declaring the work “Fake,” “Original,” or “Reproduction.” A note tacked at the top of the case and addressed to the museum staff reads, “Please do not remove the labels! These are first through fifth century Roman drinking glasses from the collection of Felix Slade of England.” Slade, the note explains, was a nineteenth-century collector who reassessed his collection after learning of a growing spate of recent forgeries. The labels remain as a testament to his knowledge. 

The Theory of Tears comprises glass vials of various dimensions arranged on two shelves against a black velvet backing. Pinned below the display, a card dated c. 1860 explains, “These elegant vessels were used in funeral rites. Mourners collected their tears in the bottles and then placed them on the breast of the corpse . . . The form was only made in glass because the material was closest in appearance to the transparency of tears.” A second card, however, is dated c. 1925 and offers a different explanation: “These pointed, bottomless, mostly long glass vessels are called unguentarians, or cosmetic jars . . . The vials were made in glass because it was light, transparent, and reusable.” 

Verzelini’s Acts of Faith consists of a large, standing display case filled with glasses, plates, and other vessels, most colorless and all delicately rendered. Each piece re-creates an object depicted in a Renaissance or Medieval painting portraying a scene from the life of Christ. (This re-creation is a kind of inverse of historical precedent: we know the Ancient Romans blew glass because handblown pieces—which have not survived—are shown in extant paintings from the time.) As always, an attached card “explains” the pieces’ provenance: 

The objects in this display were made by Giacomo Verzelini (1522–1606), a Venetian glassblower. . . . This group of objects was made not as an exploration of form but as an act of devotion, a way for the glassblower to become closer to the reality of his belief. . . . They connected him to, and reinforced his belief in, the miraculous events of Christ’s life. For him these objects were both symbols of the events and sensual relics.

The card goes on to detail what we know of Verzelini’s life, and—here’s the thing—those details are true. Giacomo Verzelini, Venetian glassblower, actually existed, as did Felix Slade, English collector. Glass lachrymatories (the tear-shaped and tear-holding vessels) have been found in Greek and Roman tombs, though they are now believed to be unguentaria. McElheny’s fictional narratives are based—or buried to their necks—in truth. 

True, too, are the glass objects with which each story leaves us: there they stand; we can see them and we could, were it not frowned upon, reach out and touch their cool, smooth surfaces. Like Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones (an early influence), McElheny’s re-creations are the real results of unreal imaginings. “Art is essentially a physical remnant of a moment,” McElheny has said, and if the physical remnant comes first, if the moment is only speculative . . . well, who am I to say what is real and what is fake? I’m a writer, after all, and what my medium does better than anything else is imagine. I am no less moved by the idea of McElheny studying Renaissance paintings, painstakingly reproducing Venetian glass, learning of Verzelini and then crafting a narrative, than I am by the idea of a sixteenth-century glassblower finding time between assignments to celebrate his belief. Whether the artist’s devotion was to glass or to God, each piece is an act of faith. 

 

8.

“Empathy comes from the Greek empatheiaem (into) and pathos (feeling)—a penetration, a kind of travel,” says Leslie Jamison. “It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you ’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query.” Perhaps I have built high walls around the land I am. Perhaps my boyfriend hasn’t the will to climb them, or the right equipment: ropes and stakes and grappling hooks. Or perhaps the other—the other’s pain, at least—is less a foreign country than it is an abstract piece in a back gallery, one we come upon bored, disgruntled, impatient: I don’t get it. Perhaps we are too old to learn new languages: “I am haunted / by the feeling that she is saying / melting lords of death, avalanches, / rivers and moments of passing through,” writes the poet Jack Gilbert. “And I am replying, ‘Yes, yes. / Shoes and pudding.’ ”

He knows me better than I know myself, people say, but I think they’re lying. “We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others,” writes Woolf. “Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so.” I agree—and I like it better so—but this defense seems an easy way out, and untenable. I cannot be in a relationship only when I am well. Yet the task before us—this translation, this travel—begins to seem impossible. Words exist in one language which have no equivalent in another. There is an island in the Antarctic Ocean where no one has set foot. 

 

9. 

To talk about glass is to talk about light, our vocabulary emerging from the meeting of the two: transparent, translucent, reflective, refractive. Glass can change the color of light and vice versa—the source becomes unclear, cause and effect confused. McElheny’s Chromatic Modernism series plays with this notion: vessels of red, blue, and yellow glass are arranged behind respective red, blue, and yellow panes. Standing before this work, the viewer can’t be sure if the objects themselves are tinted or if each grouping is lit, somehow, by a contained and colored light. Step a few feet to the right or left, however, and the colors are no longer confined to their respective cubes but encroach upon their neighbors. The unified groupings dissipate, and purples and greens appear. The piece asks, and does not answer: What is inherent and what is intrusive?

Sunshine through leaves, lamplight through billowed sheets. This is translucency, transparency’s lithe cousin, so inherently beautiful it has mesmerized us for millennia. (Stained glass windows date to the late seventh century.) Transparency’s beauty, on the other hand, is tempered by its strangeness. Think of the trickery of windows, the exposed depths of clear lakes, the stunning otherworldliness of jellyfish. We shouldn’t be able, we feel, to see through a living thing. But consider cells under a microscope, their insides alight. Perhaps, given enough light, we can penetrate anything.

A fear of shattering is one symptom of glass delusion; the other, according to Speak, is a fear of sunlight (photophobia). A body made of glass is not only fragile but easily seen through. Children might press their faces to it, their fingers. Birds might fly into it, mistaking the body made of glass for open air. 

 

10.

We go to art to see ourselves: glass makes this platitude literal. Too literal, perhaps. In Boston, I stood before another piece by McElheny—Four Mirrors after a poem by Jorge Luis Borges—and wrote, pressing the pencil hard into the page, a museum of mirrors / ourselves the artwork to be judged. Glass, like my depressive mind, can’t help reflecting. Depression is not just a body but a world of such glass, claustrophobic and repetitive as McElheny’s mirror-lined case: from without, impossible to enter; from within, impossible to escape. Sight grows myopic, and I forget that anything exists on the other side of the mirror, of the wall. 

Of McElheny’s reflective pieces, Hickey writes, “We behave before these ranks of mirrors as we might at a crowded party, moving about in search of some confirmation of our own existence.” The man I live with offers this confirmation daily: seeing, hearing, touching me—me, the beloved. When I’m depressed, however—the mad—my reflection in him is distorted, as in a fun-house mirror. He doesn’t know what to believe. With illness as with anything else, we’re biased toward trusting in what we can touch: a swelling, a wound, the hair coming away in our hands. But the light is no less real than the glass, just harder to explain. 

I am trying to explain. 

 

11.

Annie reminds me that glass has long occupied a secondary status in the art world, has been demoted for its utilitarian values, derided as craft. “It’s funny, we don’t call McElheny a glass artist,” she says, “though he works almost exclusively in glass. There’s something pejorative about the term, like it ’d make him less a serious Artist-with-a-capital-A and more of a craftsman.” Curators, like metaphor and madness, prefer beauty to use. But the same stuff McElheny crafts worlds and stories from makes my eyeglasses, smudged windows, beer bottles. 

I am trying to find an equivalent use in metaphor, in madness. 

 

12.

In 1613, Miguel de Cervantes published El Licenciado Vidriera, or The Glass Graduate, about a young man who develops glass delusion after eating a poisoned quince. His delusion naturally handicaps him—he has to sleep in hay bales, wear only loose clothing, and walk in the middle of the street to avoid falling roof tiles—but it also confers on him a previously unknown degree of knowledge. Suddenly pithy and wise, he becomes an oracle for others to consult: 

He asked people to address him from a distance, and said that they might ask what questions they liked, because he was a man of glass, not flesh, and since glass is of subtle and delicate matter, the soul works through it with more speed and efficiency than through the material of the normal body.

Or, in the words of Woolf, “These 9 weeks give one a plunge into deep waters; which is a little alarming, but full of interest . . . One goes down into the well & nothing protects one from the assault of truth.” This intellectualization of madness is, as Cervantes’ story attests, nothing new; glass delusion in its heyday was considered a symptom of “scholar’s melancholy.” In his 1990 article “ ‘El Licenciado Vidriera’ and the Glass Men of Early Modern Europe,” Gill Speak reminds us that “[I]t was black bile which natural philosophers since Hippocrates had evoked to explain extreme cases of Melancholy . . . This bile, which allegedly became shiny, black, and viscous, due to overheating . . . had been associated with intellectual genius since publication of the pseudo-Aristotelian Problemata.” We cannot accept insanity at face value: surely, some benefit must accompany this cost. This line of thinking is not entirely wrong—it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective—but it is as dangerous as any other act of glamorization. Anything that is very seductive is also very awful. We cannot contemplate our pain out of existence. We can write it, draw it, paint and sculpt and play and dance it, but we cannot make it end. 

“[D]oesn’t this search for meaning obfuscate the illness itself?” writes Jamison. “It’s another kind of bait, another tied-and-painted fly: the notion that if we understand something well enough, we can make it go away.” Or make it stay, but in service. The old myth of class mobility fuels us: now bossed about by disease, we might one day become its master. We begin to heed the trite sayings of motivational speakers: we own the disease, and not the other way around. We begin to admire the way the light shines through us, turning our glass limbs this way and that. 

 

13. 

This is one trouble with glass, with illness: my interest tends toward obsession. Depressed, I become one of McElheny’s blown-glass objects, trapped between mirrors, and I can only look at myself, through myself, endlessly. I don’t realize the pane before me is made of one-way glass. I don’t realize someone else stands on the other side, looking in, trying to see me as I am despite the illusions and distortions, the faded reflections that threaten to take my place. 

This is my pale excuse for how the man I live with appears here, in this writing: as a foil, as a shadow, seen only through the dulled, myopic vision of depression, through tears and theories, through a glass, darkly. (The last phrase comes from Corinthians—a fact I ’d forgotten—and precedes the Bible’s most famous pronouncement on the topic of love. The Greek word translated in the King James Version as glass is ambiguous: it could mean mirror or lens. Both are inventions we think of as aiding and improving sight, but technology is a trickster in that way. Glass can’t help affecting whatever lies behind it, or within. In the edition on my shelves, Paul’s letter is translated: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.”) When I am in the clear, untarnished light of health, the man I love shines so brightly, so beloved and fully known, that it can hurt me to look at him—but it would hurt even more to be forced to look away. 

 

14.

Fragility. Transparency. That we might shatter, that we might be seen through. I am not sure which fear is greater, which failing worse. The art of McElheny reassures me that these qualities—fragility, transparency—can be beautiful, and sustained. This reassurance might be false; these qualities might be flaws. Nonetheless, I’ll keep all of it: the work of McElheny, the words of Woolf, the stained glass of Chartres and the mirrors of Versailles, the glass I drink from and the glass I see through, glass as metaphor and glass as fact. 

What does this medium do that others don’t? A glass king’s no good beyond a chess board, but he might be heated and remade: a magnifying glass, a vase. Glass need not always be beautiful. Sometimes it—sometimes we—might simply (or not so simply) function. “If we could see ourselves,” writes Boland, “not as we do— / in mirrors, self-deceptions, self-regardings— / but as we ought to be and as we have been: / poets, lute-stringers, makyres and abettors / of our necessary art . . . what would we think of these fin-de-siècle // half-hearted penitents we have become?”

 

15.

And the man I live with and love? How do I make him trust this causeless pain? How do I make him understand me when I am, as Boland writes of Charles VI, “untouchable, outlandish, / esoteric, inarticulate and out of reach / of human love?” 

I have begun to think of glass as a translation of light, a way of making the intangible graspable, more easily known. This idea is flawed, of course, as glass itself so often is: distortion seems inevitable. Nonetheless, such translation—conveying light through an object, through a pane—seems to me the best use of the medium, taking advantage not only of glass’s fragility and transparency but of its strength, its capacity to startle. 

And the strengths of writing, of this medium made of words? “[T]he virtues and imperfections of glass empower the vast majority of our insights into the virtues and imperfections of language,” writes Hickey, listing

our ideas about the thoughtful sobriety and willful narcissism of self-reflection; our sense of language as a mirror, of seeing through a glass darkly; our sense of disinterested, distanced speculation, its admirable curiosity and subliminal aggression; and, most critically, our understanding of the limits and distortions of even the most apparent transparency.

I am trying to travel to those limits, to point out those inevitable distortions. I am trying to articulate this pain without a cause, to say it in another language, to open up the gates. And if I fail, as I’m sure I will, I hope these mad pieces—these shards of art and fact and story—might be beautiful, if not useful, and earn your faith that way. 

Here: take them. 

 

_____
*Respectively: crystal, milk glass, enameled (varnished or painted) glass, finely striated glass.

 

Mairead Small Staid is the 2017–18 George Bennett Fellow at Phillips Exeter Academy, where she is at work on her first book. Her poems and essays have appeared in AGNI, the Believer, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere.