I restored three Japanese ivory figurines made, by the look of them, during the late 1800s.
They are not rich men, these three,
Though their clothing is proper,
Normal for workers in ink and paper
In their romanticised era, pre-Meiji.
One has a big brush, he is a painter
Of something big, slogans or crests.
Inside his flat ivory hat, a bee
Has been quickly painted, tucked under
There, waiting over a century.
The materials are diverse:
Indian elephant tusks, maybe
Some from hippo or walrus.
The three faces, the hands and shins
Are carved out of the same
Grainless material, polished shiny.
Smashed and glued by servants
Repeatedly, they are layered
With all the error of their years.
My hands—for days
They smelled of the wintergreen oil
That scents rubbing alcohol.
Dissolved the glue away
In sticky ethanol
Smears, wiped the years
Off, each crack and craze
Probed with a porcupine quill.
Dabbed and wiped again.
Their heads came off, their hands,
Hats, arms, and their neat
Obi. Their waists parted, their feet
Unstuck from the ivory stands.
Laid in pieces, an incomplete
Puzzle, some parts missing,
But easy to understand.
All week I teased them apart,
The wintergreen on my hands.
All that was not broken
Was just as the day it was made,
The old workshop neatly displayed
On my table—the care taken
By this one in his trade,
Carving the tendons of the feet.
This one’s lesser skill with blade
And file, a token of his status.
The sensei carved the faces.
Reassembled, their ancient eyes
Don’t smile or glitter. They are serious
Men. They look slightly unctuous,
As though trying to please.
The old master, imperious
In his own workshop,
Has carved his own anxieties
Into their faces, his cautious
Deference to authority.