Pencil Mug

By Kathleen Dawson
Kathleen Dawson


I was trying to write a poem, and the words would not come. I started with my cup of pencils, an ordinary thing I see everyday. It isn't really a cup of pencils, though; it's more a cup of writing implements, like four yellow Ticonderoga pencils, the yellow-painted hexagons with a pink eraser on one end, crimped to the wood with shiny metal, the sort of pencil used by every schoolchild in America. I keep mine sharp and use the eraser too much, so the eraser is usually gone long before the pencil becomes short and stubby, uncomfortable to use.

I have written about pencils in my poetry before, making analogies of the possibilities for dreams in a moving pencil, an interesting, humbling analogy, for a pencil could have written e=mc2 or sketched the shape of the Golden Gate Bridge, written Moby Dick, drawn Durer's study of his mother's praying hands, done any number of things that have changed the way we understand and appreciate the world.

But my muse does not move that way this day, and I pass on to the other items in my cup. There are pens, also, all with black ink and nibs of various sizes: a narrow felt-tip marker, a fine line Pilot, and my favorite, the Pigma Eight, which is not water soluble and makes a strong unwavering line. When a Pigma pen finally runs out of ink, I feel a sense of loss, similar to grief, as if a friend had become ill or moved away, a sense that something strong and reliable has been removed from my life. I have learned to live with ambiguity, even courted it at times, but the mark of a Pigma in its full strength is definite, assertive, incontrovertible. It is not a pen to be used by the unsure or tentative. No eraser removes its marks. What a comfort it is to have at least one tool that says, "Here I stand. This is my truth."

I do not write much using a standard ballpoint pen, but there is one in my cup, a donation from someone who picked it up at Sonoma State University, perhaps passed on by many someones before it came to rest in my cup, for I know no one who attends there. Ballpoints float around in a sea of anonymous exchanges. At any given time, I will have at least one pen that came from I know not where or whom, and I will always be lacking others that have disappeared from my life unremarked. When someone asks to borrow a pen, I might as well say goodbye to it, though sometimes they are returned. People seem to treat pens as their body parts; once used, their easy familiarity makes them unconsciously palmed.

A fluorescent pink Hi-Lighter, one of the fat ones, stands in my cup, stuck there more for storage than because of need. I rarely use it and now try to remember if I had it out to mark some path on a map or to mend some prose. That I can't remember tells how long it has been sitting there ready to be picked up by a hand that does not reach for it. I could justify its presence there, rather than in the drawer where it belongs, by the cheery note of color its bold pinkness gives to the contents of my cup, but I know it is my sloth that keeps it there, not aesthetics.

Among the marking implements, two brushes rest their wooden handles in the mug: one a black-handled round, a cheap one from China, and the other a tall flat with an unpainted handle. These get used fairly often, though they are far from the best in my collection. I keep no paints nearby, but even when I am in "writing mode," I find all sorts of uses for my brushes, from dusting the keyboard of my computer to blurring the lines of my various marking pens.

Another stranger to the cup is a small pair of scissors with orange plastic handles, child's scissors, not the sharply pointed ones I use for collage and mending. These helped me build a chart to map a story the last time I used them. They are a writing tool by extension. I need scissors close at hand for many things, but I find them disappearing and reappearing almost like ballpoint pens, except that it is within my own domain that these conjuring tricks are performed and I am the unwitting magician.

There may be a poem within the cup, a dozen or more, even hundreds, but I'll not write them, not even one, today. All the time I have spent on contents I have robbed from the container itself.


The mug holds tools for dreams

That lonely time, when my three children

left for schools hundreds of miles from me,

leaving me alone in my empty house,

its silence a twanging lament,

I found four cups, mugs really, a set painted

with landscapes symbolic of our separate

geographies. In family ceremony we use

those cups when we gather again.

I save them apart -- no chipping, daily use.

My care did not save my cup, the one with

the night sky full of shooting stars.

It cracked all over, a web of leaky lines.

Its solid ceramic seal gone, coffee oozed out

in brown abandon. My cup serves me still,

holding tools for dreams, a second life,

like mine, worn, separate and alone.