Bewildering Stories discusses
The Glass Jar Present
with Michael E. Lloyd
[Editor’s note] Mike Lloyd, as he is fondly known to our community, is a Review Editor emeritus. For more than a decade he has been an influential voice at our round table, which will always hold a place for him.
In this issue, Mike favours us with an explication de texte of a recent poem. Speaking as the author, I hasten to point out that the poem itself is relatively incidental. Rather, Mike gives us a model of critical thinking. What do you do when conventional approaches lead only to dead ends? What do you do next?
In “The Glass Jar Present,” Don Webb presents us with a real conundrum of a poem.
I read it through three times at first, and quite quickly each time. The result: largely bafflement. So it was clear that this piece merited a lot more of my attention ...
But let’s take it at face value, to start with, with some classic lines of literary enquiry:
Plot: So this chap Fil finds a jar in a small hill, decides it will make a nice gift for the old women back in his village, and carries it home. That’s it? Huh?
Form: Ah, even easier — a simple (rather simplistic?) three-verse poem, each of its lines containing a random number of syllables (from 8 to 14), and with some rather dubious rhymes on alternate lines (but at least there’s assonance to almost all of them). And that’s it, right? “Could try harder”??
Images and Symbols: Well, there are a few of these. That “mound” turns out (probably) to be the burial place of Fil’s great-great-grandfather. So perhaps the jar was buried along with him? Right ..... But later the mound is Philip’s “midden”: a rubbish heap or dunghill. Does Fil really think of it in those terms? Huh?
And the jar is made of glass rather than, say, pottery. Well, OK, but ..... And Fil may “explore” some more such “vaults” one day? Right ..... Hmm, I don’t think this particular line of analysis is getting me much further either.
Theme: It’s getting harder now. Generosity? Well, maybe, but what else would Fil do with that doggone jar but give it to someone who might be able to use it? No, that can’t be it. The potential income from a lot more focused beachcombing?? Surely not? An awareness of history? Perhaps getting a bit closer now.
Fil wonders when the jar might have been made and what culture created it. But he doesn’t seem to think that idea through very clearly: he’s going to “to re-present what once was but cannot be now.” Huh?? And will the village elders share his rather vague sense of history and revere the jar as an objet, or just exploit it for its utilitarian value? Well, who knows?
And is that it? More questions than answers, already .......
Hmmm. Let’s try again. Perhaps stand back a bit ...
And let’s forget Plot. There’s no time for the epic in a tiny philosophical work.
What about Form? Well, when a writer who’s studied more European poetry than you’ve had hot dinners and cold salads chooses to be fairly lax about structure, you can be satisfied that it ain’t too important here. Which just leaves those funny old half-rhymes. Hang on ... maybe that’s just the point.
Let’s look again at the weirdest ones: “represent,” “present” (noun), and “re-present.” Wow! None of those words actually rhymes with each other. How glaring!! But wait ... it’s so glaring that this may just be a clue .......
Let’s run with that idea for a bit. What’s the common element of those three words? Answer: “present,” of course, and not just meaning symbolizing, or gift, or giving (back). And we have the word “past” in the third verse. Aha! And the word “will” occurs no less than four times in this short poem, in each case in its pure modal verb form indicating action in the future.
Time. This poem hinges on Time. Let’s re-read it again with that in mind ...
The first verse is pure Present, but with conditional and future bubbling under. The second verse is pure Past, mysterious but seemingly gone for ever. And the third verse looks at once to both the immediate and the distant Future.
Now we’re getting somewhere on Theme. Fil is starting to think hard about Time and his place in it. We don’t know his age, but he’s surely neither a young child nor an old man. Hold that thought ...
And what about those Images and Symbols? That jar? Yes, it’s made of glass — which has various properties. Sometimes we “see through it darkly” and sometimes not, and (ignoring the biblical implications of a heavenly afterlife) perhaps those properties change as a function of our attitude towards what we are observing or experiencing.
And Philip’s mound is hardly an ancient monument ... little over 100 years separate the births of our explorer and his great-great-grandfather. Their family history goes an almost infinitely long way back before that.
So there must be much more still to learn from what is hidden — both literally and figuratively — in and beneath that mound and its counterparts. It’s certainly no unwanted “midden” for the archeologist of artifacts or ideas.
And let’s not forget the women of Fil’s village. Whether they use it “for cooking or as a shrine,” it is clearly those women, and not their men-folk, who will be the recipients of his prize. So they, in one way or another, will bear and husband (as in life itself) their small corner of humanity into the future.
Yes, Fil is quite the budding philosopher. And he has plenty of time left to consider ”Who made it, long ago, and how?” and many related questions, and to go again and again to “the mound” and all the other sources that it “represents,” and to “climb up and down” in Time to discover his place in the world and to determine his possible fate.
Copyright © 2015 by Michael E. Lloyd