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On Silver Handles, Spouts

Nobody ever says “born with a silver handle in her hand,” though there’s much fuss made about babies who slip into the world gumming silver spoons. Get a handle on it, we nag, handle it, get a grip. But no one mentions the necessity for handles on silver teapots. Without one, you’d burn your fingers pouring a cup of Earl Grey.

Silversmiths form the pot first, then a handle designed to complement the pot. And of course, a pot needs a spout. Before the Ming Dynasty, people drank tea from clay bowls. The earliest teapots held only one serving, came from the YiXing region of China, fourteenth century, and you drank your tea directly from the spout.

So much you shouldn’t spout. What shouldn’t be said. “That’s not very nice,” or  “I don’t want to know about it, or “That’s enough on that subject!” The evening’s dishes crashed on the kitchen floor, my mother’s screaming, my father’s raging, and the next day, not a word. The night my mother stood at the front door with a suitcase, my sobbing at her, pulling at her skirt, “Don’t leave, Mommy, don’t leave!” And the next day, not a word.

It’s complicated fitting a handle—or a spout—to a silver pot with bent shears, soldering and filing. Not as simple as our little arms mimicking handles and spouts when singing the kindergarten ditty: “I’m a little teapot, / Short and stout, / Here is my handle, / Here is my spout, / When I get all steamed up, / Hear me shout, / Tip me up and pour me out!”

Certain subjects for tea time, for dinner talk: the weather, bubbly anecdotes from work or shopping expeditions, politics (if you know everyone present will agree), pastel sketches of past family gatherings, fashions, films, or anything to cause a gentle chuckle. Nothing so heavy you’d be forced to get a grip.

A handle must be easy to grasp. How to move steaming liquids from interior spaces without harm? A slender trickle is always preferable to a torrid gush, especially if one is chatting in polite company. And how would you hold a scalding, heavy pot in your hand without a sturdy handle and a clear spout, a way to lighten the weight inside?


Bird Brains

We looked, Mom joked, like two birds bobbing our beaks—Great Aunt Dorothy and I perched on her cluttered sofa, chattering as if we’d lived next door all our lives. It took visiting Granny’s spinster sister on my first trip to England to convince me I hadn’t been adopted. Such a sad life, Mom said, no money, never married, reduced to living on the top floor of a boy’s school, where a nephew, the headmaster, had taken her in. Poor Dorothy, never very attractive.

Here’s that scrub jay pecking at the window, looking straight at me, hopping side to side. I’d forgotten to put out more peanuts. For decades, I’ve fed the birds. Sunflower, safflower seed, thistle, and, recently, peanuts, which they devour. Right now, fluttering in the oaks, the hackberrries: cardinals, titmice, chickadees, finches, kinglets, wrens, a ladder-backed woodpecker. And the jays.

Filthy, relatives complained—fifty pigeons roosting in Dorothy’s attic. Over tea and biscuits, we’d heard their burbling sound, like water in a fountain. And so odd, her nieces grumbled, the way she’d pack a dozen in a carrying case, take the train to Kettering, release them, hop the next train to Watford, race them home.

Bird brain, they say. But jays—and other members of the corvid family—are smarter than most mammals. City-dwelling crows will scurry into crosswalks, drop nuts, wait at the curb for the green light, for moving cars to crack the shells. The traffic light red again, the crows dash out and gather dinner. I’ve never kept one, but it’s true that parrots carry on real conversations with their owners: You be back soon? Now calm down! I want walnut. A parrot named Alex bent his feathered head and murmured I’m sorry, I’m sorry, after chewing twenty printed pages of his companion’s grant proposal.

And pigeons—rock doves—have been couriers for centuries. During World War I, rock doves carried classified information through rain, fog, artillery, and poison gas. World War II’s U.S. Army Pigeon Service numbered fifty thousand.

Aunt Dorothy’s roof would have been an ideal pigeon-launching site. But I knew nothing about her when, at thirteen, with no friends at a new school, I bought a parakeet with my allowance, and a book on how to train him. Before long, Topper was riding my shoulder around the house, piping Hell-oh, Hell-oh, Good Mor-ning, all day long. He’d nibble bird kisses on my neck, make little chirping noises. Until the afternoon I found him smothered in dust under the hi-fi cabinet. The man at the pet store said pneumonia, gave us drops, but he died that night, rigid in my hand.

Great Aunt Dorothy’s mother also lived with birds. Years after my first trip to England, Mom told me how she loved her granny’s parrot that spoke to visitors. Not just Hell-oh, but What a lovely hat, and What a horrid hat, and Time to go, time to go! when he saw his human drooping in her chair, bored with small talk, ready to be left alone, together with her parrot.  


Wendy Barker’s sixth full-length collection of poems, One Blackbird at a Time: The Teaching Poems, has been chosen for the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry and will be published by BkMk Press Fall 2015. Her fourth chapbook, From the Moon, Earth is Blue, is also forthcoming fall 2015 from Wings Press. Other books include a selection of poems with accompanying essays, a collection of co-translations of  the last poems Rabindranath Tagore wrote before he died, and a critical study of Emily Dickinson’s use of metaphor.  Individual poems have been reprinted in numerous anthologies, including The Best American Poetry 2013, and have appeared in many journals, including diode, as well as The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, The Gettysburg Review, Boulevard, and Poetry. She is poet-in-residence and the Pearl LeWinn Endowed Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio.