The Art of Losing

From poetry to plates, finding strength in what remains.

The Art of Losing

A scrap of paper, a poem I’d taped to the inside of the cabinet door, fluttered to the floor as I put the dishes away. It was an ordinary Sunday night, but fish stew calls for broad soup bowls, so I’d used my mother’s rosebud Haviland china.

Kneeling, I read the poem, Jeannette Maino’s “Collector.” Her final lines always resonate:

“Where would I be
Who would I be
if I had not saved what’s left of her pink rosebud china?”

Maino’s mother bought her china in 1908 “with the first salary she ever earned.” Mom purchased hers in 1944, on her first-year-teacher salary, at a Midwestern estate sale. Dishes for her hope chest; what she really hoped for was her fiancé to come home alive from war. He did.

The dishes didn’t travel east with the newlyweds to a cold grad-school apartment shared with a colder stranger in Massachusetts. Maybe the Haviland came later to their first solo home, faculty housing in Pennsylvania. But the dishes Mom collected and used there were Hungarian émigré ceramicist Eva Zeisel’s white, modern Hallcraft, obtained with supermarket trading stamps.

By the time my chores included table-setting, we lived in Maryland. “The Haviland china,” as we called it, resided in a sleek walnut cabinet my grandfather built from a 1950s pattern. Although the task interrupted my reading, I loved laying the table with those special-occasion dishes: impractical, rimmed with gold, unlike anything else in our life.

Over time, the collection grew. Mom inherited more rosebud Haviland, a slightly different pattern without gold. (Once, vacationing in Maine and rainy-day browsing in a used bookshop, I came upon a whole shelf of Haviland pattern books.) When my parents downsized, I had cupboards galore and so inherited the slightly mismatched service for 30 or more. Downsizing to an apartment in my turn, some of the Haviland made the cut, some went to the summerhouse attic, and some was donated to a thrift shop.

The other night, finished putting the soup bowls away and taping the poem back inside the cabinet, I noticed the photocopied page had neither date nor source. A saver of words as well as dishes, I looked for the original clipping in my commonplace book — a grand name for a makeshift file of favorite readings.

Commonplace books, a reader’s personal collection of quotations, go back to Aristotle. My version is far from Aristotelian, lacking systematic categories. Instead, it’s a scattershot anthology: poems, passages of prose, a couple fortune-cookie sayings, a few cartoons. Entries, slipped into plastic sleeves, hang on a ring-binder. It’s preferable to a notebook, infinitely expandable, accommodating to different mediums: clippings, handwritten jottings on envelopes, napkins, index cards. Recently, I’ve begun to back up additions in an online folder and have good intentions of scanning everything someday.

Flipping through the pages, I came upon Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Scribbled on an envelope and attributed to the New Yorker (April 26, 1976), it was the first of her poems I encountered and remains the one I love most:

“I lost my mother’s watch. And look! My last or
next to last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

On the next page, I found Maino’s poem on a yellowed scrap of newsprint clipped from the Christian Science Monitor, dateline Friday, September 2, 1977. (Not a Scientist, I read the Monitor while living in Boston. Raised on the Washington Post, I needed something to supplement the Globe.)

“One Art” and “Collector” side by side, an accidental but serendipitous pairing. On the surface, Maino writes of saving, holding on; Bishop about surrendering, letting go. Maino muses, more remembrance than lament. Bishop’s tone is deceptively lilting, almost mocking: grief disguised, deflected.

 Both testify, differently, to love, memory, loss, and transience.

The life and work of Jeannette Maino (1912-1995) are unknown to me except for “Collector.” Sparse internet information reveals she was a 1934 graduate of Stanford, the first poet laureate of Modesto, California, the author of fiction and nonfiction, as well as poetry. I may hunt down her out-of-print Left Hand Turn: A Story of the Donner Party Women. Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) well-known and celebrated in her life and since, had a difficult childhood, early and continuing practice with the art of losing. Her father died; her mother was institutionalized. Bishop’s collected poems and letters, along with critical assessments of her work, stay perennially in print.

Both poets gone. Their words remain, witness to how a poem may outlast its maker, outlast its readers — at least for a time. Remember John Keats’ lines in “Endymion”:

“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness…”

Beauty and transience bring me back to those gold rims on my dishes. Although a saver, a preserver, I do put the Haviland in the dishwasher. My practical mother kept a broken Haviland saucer in her dishwasher cycle after cycle, a long-term experiment proving that the gold doesn’t fade (well, only very slowly). The saucer may still have been in the dishwasher when they left the house and been crushed to bits by the bulldozer. Perhaps shards from that well-washed saucer worked their way up through the dirt. After all, a thing of beauty, even if it doesn’t quite last forever, does not pass easily into nothingness.

Beauty and transience. I use the gold-rimmed dishes and put them in the dishwasher. Practicing the art of losing.

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song was a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, Historical Fiction. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.

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