Talking with the Turners
Conversations with Southern Folk Potters
Charles R. Mack
(University of South Carolina)
Charles R. Mack is a professor of art history at the University of South Carolina, but has fallen in with these southern pot people. No, no ... not that kind of pot ... we're talking about those who throw or "turn" mugs, cups, plates, jars, crocks, churns, "face jugs," storage jars, and "batter bowls."

Mack tells us that his interest in Southern folk pottery is not all that far from his field, Renaissance Art and Architecture: "both buildings and pots are, after all, tectonic in nature." Hunh? I had to look that one up, thinking it had more to do with geology than Roman ruins (or pottery). I was right: "Of or relating to the deformation of the crust of a moon or planet (as earth), the forces involved in or producing such deformation, and the resulting forms."

Professor Mack does not see his beloved pots and potters involved in any form of deformation; he sees them as following an ancient, high and practical art. He reminds us that we learn much of the foods, doings, and the habits of the ancients by the shards we dig up in what were once Neanderthal garbage heaps.

In 1981, Mack traveled throughout the south, visiting over forty kilns (universally called "kills" in the this part of United States), reporting that the art still thrived, although it had died out in other parts of the south Atlantic states.

Talking with the Turners is a record of that summer adventure of his, including interviews with seventy "turners." The volume features color and black-and-white photographs, transcripts of conversations, and a CD.

For those of us with a lingering affection for the Old South, the transcripts and the CD are a treasure. The language of the backwoods and mountain folk of Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina is pure music:

    My husband could make a heap better pottery than I could...

    When you drink tea that's been in a stoneware, it has got a taste that nothing else has. Like these mugs that we are drinking this tea out of now, it just gives it a taste that you just can't get out of a glassware or a plastic.

    Casey liked whiskey, like a lot of potters. That seems to be ... I guess they were bored to death with their work and faced with starvation to death, the rest of them like they eased their woes with alcohol.

    When we'd open the kiln, you know, my daddy'd throw one of those big doors back when it was about 450 degrees, and my mother would have a big pan of homemade biscuits, and he'd stick them in there right quick, and in just a few minutes they'd brown all over and, boy, were they good. That was old fashioned, Italian, oven-baked biscuits.

The very art of making pottery comes across in an interview with Dorris Xerxes Gordy, of Meriwether County, Georgia. He speaks of "reduction" and "oxidation," but, because he has no instruments, "except what I see and feel and touch and hear," he has to

    ...hear it. The Chinese call it, they say it's a breathing, and they have different fancy names for it. But you can hear the difference in the sound of the draft going through the kiln. If that don't sound right, you've got to change something about your dampers and drafts. I can feel the kiln, and that gives me an idea ... I can almost tell the inside temperature by feeling the outside of the kiln.

D. X. Gordy's brother, Bill Gordy, of Barrow County, Georgia, tells of visits from Cornelius Vanderbilt, "the royal family of Tunisia," and Sir John Wedgwood of Stoke-on-Trent, England. He talks somewhat wistfully of another potter, Casey Meaders, and the jug that he took to the local whiskey-maker to get it filled:

    Casey made his own jug and he put a big fat three on it, to hold three gallons, and everybody accepted it as that. But the jug actually measured four and a half gallons. And he would take his three-gallon jug, so plainly stamped and beautifully made, to the distillery, and they would put four and a half gallons of whiskey in it, naturally just leaving room for the stopper, and he would pay them for three gallons and everybody went home happy.

"Casey was," says Gordy, "what my mother would call a dram drinker. It's the term for the guy who will sip a few every day but never gets drunk. And I mean every day, too."

--- Marcus Roosevelt

The Gateless Barrier
Zen Comments on the Mumonkan
Zenkei Shibayama
At one time we were gaga over Zen. It was probably the fault of Alan Watts. He presented us with a religion that was passive, funny, ancient ... and that violated all the Hegelian nonsense we were taught in school.

It was an old religion, certainly far older than the puritanical, passionless Anglicanism that we were raised in with its moss-bound cathedrals, high windows, great pointless pointed steeples, and Pastor Peabody droning on and on about the Holy Ghost and Jesus on the right hand of God (Peabody never told us --- we had to wait until many years later --- to find out who was sitting on the left.)

I suppose that the most striking thing about Zen is its finely tuned sense of paradox. In contrast to the wizened surety of the Episcopalians or Southern Baptists or the 700 Club ... in Zen, there are no answers. As soon as you think you have figured it out, you are wrong. The answer, it turns out, is another question; and that question leads to yet another. "What was the face of your parents before they had a face?" "Can a dog have the Buddha nature?" "What is the most valuable thing in the world." (The answer to the last is, but of course, "the head of a dead cat.")

These questions --- and their improbable, non-informative, and indeed looney, answers --- are known as "koans." They are not to satisfy those of us to the west who are seeking a Truth. They are, instead, to put off the inquisitive, non-stop, babbling mind from the belief that there can be answers to the Big Questions; they are to show us that to the biggest questions of them all --- "Why are we here?" "Why me?" --- are, have been, and always will be, unanswerable.

§     §     §

Shibayama's volume, The Gateless Barrier, offers forty-eight koans, with commentary as provided by a thirteenth century Master Mumon of China's Sung Dynasty. All of the koans are given in full, even though some are as short as ten words. These are followed by Mumon's brief commentary and a poem. Then there is a "teisho" --- a further, and lengthier commentary, by the contemporary Zen master, Shibayama Roshi. In all, the fourty-eight koans are explored at length, but, as always, with the caveat: explanations are no explanation at all. A koan is as mysterious as the world it chooses not to explain.

    A monk asked Master Tozan, "What is Buddha?" Tozan said, "Three pounds of flax."

One puzzled by this response can read further Mumon's "Commentary:"

    Old Tozan studied a bit of clam-Zen, and opening the shell a little, revealed his liver and intestines. Though it may be so, tell me, where do you see Tozan?

And one puzzled by the commentary on the koan, can read "Mumon's Poem:"

    Thrust forth is "Three pounds of flax!"
    Words are intimate, even more so is the mind.
    He who talks about right and wrong
    Is a man of right and wrong.

Koans are not the sole province of the exotic and ancient East. Just 350 years ago, Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) asked "Why is there something instead of nothing?" A fine koan that. The moment you think you get it, you don't.

--- Nick Hoppin

A Memoir

Confessions of
Forbidden Love

Tom Hathaway
(Dandelion Books)
So you are a horny 18-year-old guy who goes to a Stones concert with a fine-looking older woman in her mid-30's. You both get high and then, later, you get lucky. The sex is great and you keep doing it. Now, this older woman is also your mother.

Mr. Hathaway, who later became a computer programmer, isn't much for introspection, but he's as good as most porn writers in describing hot sex. Lots of straight sex, some light B&D, and a tragi-comic subplot involving his long absent sleazoid father's attempted blackmail.

The book's only real hook is the mother-son relationship. Other than learning that once they got over the initial "omigod" moments they had a pretty good time together with lots and lots and lots and lots of sex though, there is very little that informs the reader about the dynamics of this particular incestuous relationship.

The writer describes the sex and a few other details; most of the theorizing is left as an exercise for the reader. What you get out of the book will likely bear a striking resemblance to what you bring to it.

Life changing? No. Mildly interesting. Yes.

--- Robin Harris
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