Poem as Fissure: Geophysics and the Value of Weakness

The title here comes from poet Debra Wierenga, who offered a comment to this post when it was originally published on the Best American Poetry blog. Debra wrote: “I like the idea of poem as fissure, the artful crack in the mask through which authentic feeling becomes palpable to the reader.”

We’ve created a culture that worships strength – physical, social, psychological and professional – but is it possible that a degree of fragility is vital to our wellbeing? French geophysicist Xavier Le Pichon says yes. Featured recently on NPR, Le Pichon is famous for his comprehensive model of plate tectonics, or the large scale motions of Earth’s lithosphere.

The earth’s surface is made up of constantly moving plates shifting against one another. You might suppose that a solid, steel-like lithosphere would make for a more stable structure, but the opposite is true. The pressure, tension, and sublimation between the shifting plates – much of which occurs beneath the ocean floor – is one of the reasons the planet can sustain life. The earth’s seemingly stable surface and molten interior are in constant dialogue, sometimes manifested as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis.

The human parallel is striking. The more ductile our outer surface, or ego, the more seamlessly we can flow with the subterranean shifts in our awareness and understanding. Poetry is one conduit. The poet accesses the deep, unseen currents and invites the reader to follow. Nature is another portal, as are music and art. But if our ego is too stiff and rigid, like the dense rock surface of the San Andreas Fault, we cannot make the tiny, ongoing adjustments to our own inward movement. The ego and the soul become disjointed, causing pressure to mount until the correction comes in one cataclysmic jolt.

The character Oliver, in my novel, April & Oliver, exemplifies this. He has a created such a fixed, closed outer reality that he has left no room for the influence of more subtle, interior energies, such as insight and instinct. In fact, he is afraid of the power of those blocked off magma chambers, which harbor the musical sensibility he has long buried. Disowning one’s power is a dangerous thing, however, and the seismic adjustment for Oliver will be, by necessity, catastrophic.

The metaphor is illustrated by this poem taught to Le Pichon by his mother. Can it be a coincidence that the boy who memorized this poem in childhood went on to become an expert in plate tectonics?

Le Vase Brisé (The Broken Vase)
by Sully Prudhomme

The vase where this verbena’s dying
Was cracked by a lady’s fan’s soft blow.
It must have been the merest grazing:
We heard no sound. The fissure grew.


The little wound spread while we slept,
Pried deep in the crystal, bit by bit.
A long, slow marching line, it crept
From spreading base to curving lip.

The water oozed out drop by drop,
Bled from the line we’d not seen etched.
The flowers drained out all their sap.
The vase is broken: do not touch.

The quick, sleek hand of one we love
Can tap us with a fan’s soft blow,
And we will break, as surely riven
As that cracked vase. And no one knows.

The world sees just the hard, curved surface
Of a vase a lady’s fan once grazed,
That slowly drips and bleeds with sadness.
Do not touch the broken vase.

The artful cracks in our masks are the seams through which compassion can flow. It took me a long time to get my novel right; every day I sat down and drank tea with my dejection. That was nothing, of course, compared to the loss of loved ones that life inevitably brings us. But failure and loss can be powerful teachers. Six months after sending my revised manuscript to the last agent I was ever going to try, I made a decision to purge my house, donating old clothes and children’s toys, and throwing away cartons of old manuscripts – first drafts, teacher’s comments, everything. I saved nothing. I had not given up writing, just the dream. A few days later, the agent called and asked to represent the book. Two days after that, the book was sold. I’m not suggesting cause and effect, only that the fissures created by so much failure allowed me to release old energy, like a long exhalation, and invite in the moment at hand.



Comments are closed.