Failure
at the conference on restoration
“These are objects damaged and repaired
in ancient times,” she says, as we slip in, late.
On the dark screen, a nymph is running away
from a pursuing satyr, but one staple
fixes her billowing hem to the frieze below—

one large, lead staple on the Apulian
red-figure bell krater, where it suffered 
a break to its ancient body. Rivets of bronze 
attach the foot to the bowl of a black kylix.  
These holes once held staples long since missing 

from the Attic Black-Figure Little Master Lip Cup, 
holes in the knee of the dancer—but the dance 
continues, as it has for centuries, 
despite each crooked fragment broken and lost, 
despite these scars or welts over the seams.

“An object’s useful life doesn’t always end 
with this garden,” she says. Or no, end with discarding.
The conservator’s accent (she’s Dutch) is hard to follow 
through a lecture whose “fusses” turn out to be vases.
“Erasing” marks of breakage? Raising them?

“We must recognize, it is crucial to recognize,”
she says, with a tone of care approaching awe,
“it is crucial to recognize the added failure.
The ancient repair adds failure to the vessel.
Failure—” Wanting to share that awe, I listen 

harder, straining to hear, while historians 
and conservators consider failure there 
in the auditorium of the museum 
on museum island in the heart 
of Berlin, great city of added failure—

city of gaps and welts, of broken walls,  
of joins like staples forged from lead or bronze.
Sleepy in the dark, it slowly dawns 
on me that what I hear is not (as I’d thought) 
failure, but value: she means there is value

in repair—each crooked scar a sign,
in fact, of care. For us, the value of keeping 
damage visible, what keeps us returning 
to gaps once filled with filed-down, alien fragments 
from objects that exploded in the kiln—

wasters, they’re called, but failure needn’t be wasted.
And now, when she says, value, I hear feel you—
and do my best to feel what she says—we’re joined
by efforts that matter.  It rings true, this mishearing
of failure, value, fuss, beloved vessel

filling with failure, feeling for us all.
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