The Sticking Place

Going to Pot: On the Endurance of the Earth

By Peter Whitehead

Why let yourself go to pot? Lying in a bed in Leicester heart hospital, eyes blood-shot and glazed, a day after my hectic arrival by ambulance, having survived a 90 minute angiography which should have lasted 15, my heart suffused (through a leg artery) with pungent dyes, the snaking encircling arteries photographed by x-rays to reveal my fate. How much time left? Minutes later I’d have been in the operating theatre (sic) for an emergency second bypass operation which, I was told afterwards, would probably have killed me. My heart too weak to take the strain. I was on my last artery, one setback and I’d be dead.

My son Harry (not Potter, though soon to be the son of one) secretly asked the consultant to tell me the prognosis, especially as I was now declared inoperable. Was he sending me home to die? “Not quite, not unless – listen Harry, tell your father to stop writing books, and to STOP talking so much!” True, I’d harangued the consultant that I was immortal, and it was all very unfair. And morphine makes me loquacious until it knocks me out. Harry transmitted the warning.

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A week before this attack, this collapse with acute atrial fibulation (not fabulation!), brooding a fatal heart attack for months it seems, I’d completed the third novel of my internet-based ‘Nohzone Trilogy,’ Girl on the Train. Set in Japan, a plagiarism of the Kawabata novel Snow Country and based on the Noh play Wind in the Pines, the prose was inlayed with hyper-text links to Japanese art – (When in Tokyo do as Tokyo does…) – many to the legendary potter Shoji Hamada, acknowledged as the greatest potter of the 20th Century. A book of his work was the only volume next to my bed; I was still trying to figure out why one particular pot haunted me. It seemed so irrational to be possessed by a mere pot, an empty vessel of fired clay, enriched with tinted glazes, ideal for a bouquet of dead flowers, or twigs of autumn leaves. Pine, cedar, persimmon.

So, stop writing and talking, or die! What to do? As I looked at the pot on the Hamada cover, the famed Mashiko khaki red (dead blood) decorated with ghostly pale figures like the quartz intrusions in Cornish ironstone, the image corresponded disturbingly with those still hovering in my mind’s eye of my dying heart. A vessel in bondage. The shape of an African cooking vessel, the blocked swollen arteries snaking round its surface like a network of veins on a dying cedar leaf; inside, the blood warbling like a trapped baby humming bird, around which its nest had caved in during the monsoon.

I phoned Mike Goldmark, local art gallery owner and friend. He’d shown Harris-based artist Steve Dilworth‘s work, totemic sculpture which often echoed ceramic shapes and textures. He’d published lain Sinclair’s text The Shamanism of Intent. I asked him the price of a lidded Hamada pot, to use as my funeral urn. Like the ones in prehistoric tombs burials. “£10,000, but probably a fake!” Back home, I dipped my fingers into the Yellow Pages; ordered a wheel, kiln, clay, powdered glazes. The book by Heath Robinson, Become Potty in Style! Yeah! Sod it! I would make my own bloody funeral jar, albeit a plagiarism of the Japanese. The Oriental style had been a good enough ‘point-du-depart’ for the two greatest English potters of the 20th Century; Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew.

But I soon discovered that, for me, the making of pots could not be disconnected from images of death; the process enabled me vicariously to flirt with death, linking with earlier obsessions… my earlier compulsive fascination with Egyptology at Cambridge while studying crystallography – thin translucent microscope slides of metamorphic rocks, nature’s own fused clays, thin slithers of exquisite multiple glass/glazed crystals as numinous as the stained glass windows in King’s College Chapel – the slides, seen in polarised light as if from the stars, inspired my paintings of the time, as I visited the Fitzwilliam Museum fired by an obsession with an Amarna period limestone head of a young girl, so still, so silent like Lear’s daughter, so perfect it seemed like porcelain.

I bought a mummified falcon case and ushabti figures in an auction, the latter as ceramic companions of Horus for my final journey across the Duat, translucent blue glazes reminding me of the film Blue by Derek Jarman; the turquoise and indigo, the Yves Klein blue of my own failing mind, as I tried in vain to read the Black-blood hieroglyphics, understand directly the profound language of Thot and the gods: those gods, alas, no longer speaking to me directly or indirectly, of life, but of death. And myself, doomed to silence.

Ten years later I can say that making pots has saved my life, time and time again. I doubt if I would be still be here without the calm and peace that pottery has engendered in my body. The clay, water, fire, the light shining magically through the crystal glazes, the smooth sensual movement of the spinning flat wheel; premonitions of cyclic time. The mystery of the kiln, every firing producing vastly different results, as if the pots had genes that could mutate.

But slowly I moved away, on my wheel, as if on a magic carpet, from Japan and Ancient Egypt, to Africa. Where mud and water brings life, where the clay is hardened in the sun and fire, modeled into vessels, wombs, water carriers, cooking pots, totemic figures to make women fertile and ward off the evil spirits, children of nature, as the gods once moulded clay into the progenitors of the human race. Blew wind into them and gave them the fleeting gifts of mutation, growth and entropy. The gods, the Neters, those insatiably sexy creatures beyond the stars who used, fused, the four elements into a fifth… a matrix of new dimensions of meaning… a fusion of love, art, transcendence, awe, and aesthetic delight.

In Africa it is only the women who are allowed to make the pottery. Like the first blood of virgins, it is to be kept apart from the eyes of dangerous solar-dominated men. It is a sacred process, that evolves best in the dark; in a cave carved into a hill, or, hidden under pyres, the burning of trees and grasses mould the pots into stone. In the ritual there must be sacrifice. Sacro facere.

Men hunt and fight, or sit idle against the clay walls, talking talking, words bouncing off the walls of clay houses, the outer perimeter walls keeping out wild dogs, barbarians at the gates, eyeing the harder, much longer enduring products of the women’s mysteries, (many pots in museums surrendering their erudition to us of the people who used them four thousand years ago), as they chew the roots of trees to clean their teeth ready for the next meal, as women decorate the new first-fired pots with blood-iron pigments, Lascaux-shapes of animals, birds, trees, leaves, flowers, geometric designs proving their inner perception of the workings of the 5th dimension… as with the Dogons, their occult knowledge of the cyclic movement of the black dwarf “wheeling where the systems darken” around the star of Isis, Sirius, spinning off light that is so hot it fuses fundamental particles into iron, the heart of our haemoglobin molecules, carriers of oxygen for us and so many other animals; iron, the most abundant element in the universe. The colour of the walls of prehistoric tombs.

Words! Words! Oh hell… how to escape them? Nothing to do but… throw another pot and stop bloody writing, which is, after all, only talking to myself. Will the gods be able to read the hieroglyphics on my pots? Lines and spirals and other impulsive jottings; in the heat and excitement of the moment. ‘those gods who abandoned me, who no longer speak to me, awaiting the ascending fumes, heralding the end of my other lifelong fuming, before my ashes are put by my children into the urn I made for them; with such love and hope.

From Artesian, Issue One, Winter 2008