Everyone was talking about “entropy,” how everything was inevitably caught in a process of deterioration, disorder, decay. There was sound physics behind the concept—in the theory of thermodynamics. But as popularly used, “entropy” was not a technical term but a loose vision of the crumbling of culture, of the unavoidable disintegration of our lives and of all meaning.
I was reminded of the “entropy” days while reading the title poem of Jill Peláez Baumgaertner’s new collection, What Cannot Be Fixed. This delightful poem begins:
Anything can be repaired,
the violin-maker says,
except for woodworm
or the violin inside
the fire-melted case.
I love how that confident, initial “anything” gets quickly whittled away by the two “exceptions” that complete the stanza: the woodworm and the fire-melted case. Ah, those exceptions to reparability! And they multiply as the poem goes on:
Things can go wrong, he says.
The glue must not petrify
the instrument. Even the soundpost
sometimes eats the wood and begins
to push its way through.
Yes, things can indeed go wrong. Many things. The litany of potential disasters continues:
Or the fingerboard can loosen
and warp the soundboard.
Or a person changing bad strings
can release tension
so fast the soundpost shifts.
I start to wonder how any violin remains playable with all these dangers lurking to destroy it. The next verse offers some poignant hope:
Or the instrument can be fraudulent,
aged with artificial nicks,
fake repairs. But most can be fixed
again, he says, the last button
missing on his shirt.
It’s that absent “last button” that I find so poignant. This master fixer of violins, acutely attentive to their every way of falling apart, doesn’t notice (or care about) his own missing button. He can fix a “fake repair”—while his own clothing is in disrepair.
How human it all is! For I read this poem as an extended metaphor for our human condition: how our bodies, our belongings, our beloveds, are falling apart in immeasurable ways at each moment. They are the ultimate referent of the poem’s title: “what cannot be fixed.
And yet, as a Christian I believe that ultimately everything can be fixed and will be: in eternity. “All shall be well,” Julian of Norwich famously wrote, speaking of the eschaton. Baumgaertner is a Christian, too; in fact many of the poems in this collection reflect on explicitly Christian themes. But in this poem she’s focusing on the things of this mortal world.
And for the things of this world—well, my doctor said it right-on when I reported the mild chronic pain on the side of my knee. “Parts wearing out,” was her technical diagnosis.
What endears me to Baumgaertner’s “What Cannot Be Fixed” is its images for how things do wear out, fall apart, disintegrate: images for our fragility. After reading the violin-fixer’s long list of hopeless brokennesses, I wonder how anything, anyone can stay maintained enough to survive.
And not only to survive: to make music. Because think what a violin is for: it exists as an instrument (literally) of human creativity. What a miracle this seems to be, in the context of the poem’s delineation of dangers to the instrument.
Earlier in the poem, the violinmaker evokes the very essence of the violin:
A violin is more than its own strings’
sound, the wood thin and flexible,
loose for sympathetic resonance,
leaning into the cello’s timbre,
leaning into your own voice.
Not only, then, is a violin more than the sum of its (extremely fragile) parts. Its fullness resides in the music it makes with other instruments, including the human voice. Its essence is to “lean into” surrounding sympathetic sounds.
I hear this, too, as a metaphor for our human condition—in this case for our fulfillment even in this world. Our very fragility opens us to the “sympathetic resonance” around us. We “lean into” others to reverberate with their (equally fragile) lives.
We cannot be fixed. At least not perfectly. Not in this life. But in our brokenness, we can still make music. We can create community. In fact, it’s out of our brokenness that we resonate with the frailties and injuries of others.
A button is missing on your shirt? Of course! It matches the frayed collar on mine.
Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media) and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.