Why I Collect Netsukes

Mine are Japanese Tea-Stained 
Scrimshaw Ivory: a miniature
dragonfly on a textured pair 
of woven straw flip-flops, signed 
Koshido; two tiny amber bees dining 
inside a pear; a man seated on a pier 
with a fishing pole, signed Shodo; 
a scholar; a pumpkin that opens 
to show two men playing the board 
game, GO. 

Already our toddler grandchildren 
have tried to pry open the display 
case to touch the ridges of the ivory 
miniatures, a perfect size for little 
fingers to lick and squeeze, but we say, 
“No, no,” and distract them with toy 

I wanted a few netsukes after reading 
The Hare with the Amber Eyes, Edward 
de Waal’s memoir about five generations 
of his glittering Jewish banking family 
whose Austrian property the Nazis 
aryanized in 1938 when the servants 
opened the cast iron front gates then 
fled to make it possible for heavy boots 
to echo in the marble halls.

One servant stayed who knew how 
the Ephrussi family children were 
permitted to cuddle and caress 
their choice of netsuke selected 
from the collection of 264 pieces 
in a black vitrine cherished by Emmy, 
their mother, while she dressed for 
extravagant Austrian balls or opera, 
a gentle time.

Anna secreted the netsukes inside her
clothing then hid them in her mattress
as she stayed in the house during 
German occupation while the family
fled to London or were interred in
concentration camps. Somehow hidden 
until the war was over, the netsukes 
passed down through the surviving 
family, and now Waal’s memoir.

Jan Ball

3 Questions for Jan

What was your process for creating this work?

I had read Hare with the Amber Eyes and was very much moved by the behavior of the housekeeper who preserved the netsukes. I discussed my reaction with my husband so he started buying me netsukes and a small cabinet (vitrine) to put them in. I appreciated the fine carving of the netsukes as well as the idea of saving a special memory.

What is the significance of the form/genre you chose?

I write narrative, visual poetry, occasionally a prose poem. It's sometimes
difficult for me to articulate what form I'm using but I never write in rhyme.

What is the significance of the work to you?

I'm so glad I was inspired to write about a selfless character from the

Jan has had 364 poems published in various journals internationally and in the U.S. including: ABZ, Calyx, Mid-American Review, and Parnassus. Finishing Line Press published her three chapbooks and first full-length poetry collection, I Wanted To Dance With My Father. Orbis, England, nominated her for the Pushcart Prize in 2020 and Constellations nominated her for it in 2021.

Besides her poetry, Jan wrote a dissertation at the University of Rochester: Age and Natural Order in Second Language Acquisition after being a nun for seven years then living in Australia for fourteen years with her Aussie husband and two children. Jan has taught ESL in Rochester, New York and Loyola and DePaul Universities in Chicago. When not traveling, or gardening at their farm, Jan and her husband like to cook for friends.

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