By Sandra M. Gilbert b. 1936

—in memory of Angela Marie Incoronata Caruso Mortola,
May 21, 1903–January 14, 2001


In-and-out sun   like the light of her mind   that knows
and doesn’t   feels and forgets   pelts of rain
hid and seek   of thought   first gray then rose
but still a steady backlight   (sometimes hidden):
“Remember Woody Allen’s line?   I’m not   
like that   I don’t care when it happens   where
I just don’t want to die   not scared   not that
I just don’t want to   and I told the doctor!”
and the doctor   laughing “Cute old lady   said
she doesn’t care about the why and wherefore
she just doesn’t want to die . . .” and therefore?
then she forgets   smiles   turns her head
to nod   grande dame   at shadows on the walls
that gather where the light collects   and falls


They gather   where the light collects and falls
we can’t see them   but she seems to think
at least a few are smiling   so she feels
she has to say hello   politely thank
these thoughtful ghosts who visit   sister   brothers
Sunday best in black   old Brooklyn friends
who hardly see   the gulf of sixty years
mama and papa   severe Sicilian bookends
“Come in, come in” her eyes light up   she waves
and beckons all to chairs around her bed
so she can boast to brothers   and their wives
of all the special things   her daughter did
and how her grandkids won   so many prizes
and as she vaunts   and glows   her smile blazes


But though she glows   but though her smile blazes
the sister flickers   fades   the brothers falter
her eyesight’s bad   it’s hard to see their faces
as if she peered through gauze   or a thick filter
and then the others come   the ones she calls
“co-tenants” of her rooms   the lovers screwing
coarse as goats   in corners   nasty girls
smart-aleck guys   who do know what they’re doing
and what they do   is occupy her place
back home they swarmed   all over her apartment
set up a stove   behind her lovely bookcase
nursed babies on her sofa   bold indifferent
and even here   still shameless in their clingings
they mean to steal   they’ll steal   her best belongings


What should she do   to safeguard   her belongings?
she begs for help   urges us to lock
to triple lock   the doors   to hide her things
her pearls right   here   her fruitwood in New York
her mother’s hand-carved walnut chairs   the leather-
surfaced desk   at which my father sat
so long ago   wearing the cashmere sweater
grandma bought him   and the Sulka shirt
Listen!   Are we listening!   Have we heard?
How well he dressed!   How beautiful their place!
four rooms in Queens   what lots couldn’t afford
in an age of breadlines   shameful jobs   or worse
Tuono di Dio!”   thunder of God   she looses
the curse she learned in childhood   for most uses


The curses learned   in childhood   have their uses
Tuono di Dio!   she swears when they strip her   bare
to bathe her   Tuono di Dio!   when the nurses
slide the soiled bed pads   to the floor
or prop her   in the wheelchair   to be fed
thunder of God   echoes along the halls
when she tries to fight   the husky nurse’s aide
come to sponge her bruises   stains and spills
embarrassed   we shiver   in the corridor
while she flails   and shrieks for the police
Tuono di Dio!   Call the police!”   God’s thunder
will scorch us if we leave her   in this place
away from her apartment   calm   and peace
away from her belongings   purse and keys


Away from her belongings   purse   and keys
(and crumpled Kleenex   reading glasses coins
and comb she always   carries   in that purse)
she isn’t real!   she might be only bones!
yet the belongings   longings   must go on
the bookcase and the rugs   and tables must
survive   outlast her   so she tells her grandson
how to plan an auction   in the east
there are the costs   of those belongings   that
the value of mahogany   and this
the price of sterling silver (which she fought
to buy—a fifth-grade teacher   in the thirties—)
and the bracelets   furs   her in-laws gave
too bad they can’t   go with her to the grave!


What happens to belongings   after the grave?
They’ll be   up here and she   she’ll be   down there
what of the   stuff she worked   so hard   to have?
polished mahogany   and mink   and silver
and even the fifteen-year-old   television
still good   still just right for the nightly news
and the brand-new   vacuum cleaner   even
still a— a something   someone ought   to choose
her face is crumpling   like a handkerchief
don’t give it all   away   don’t give it up
if you don’t want it   at least sell it off!
don’t let the others   have it either   stop
the thieves before   they drag it all    away
don’t let my belongings   go astray. . . .


Don’t let my   belongings   go astray
call the super   tell the doorman   keep
the windows locked   and barred   the crooks away
the one who break   and enter   when you sleep
the ones   who follow   sullen   knife and rape
how many years   she’s warned us   can’t we hear
they’ll pick the locks   they’ll climb the fire   escape
just look   the crooks are here   are everywhere
a sudden nod   a glance at   the next bed
where a wizened   person   gasps and snores
that one now   she saw her   yes she did
peering in closets   rummaging in drawers
even in hospitals   they have   no pity
they rob you   when they see   your things are   pretty


Yet O it’s nice   that all her things are   pretty
her smile blazes   back in Jackson Heights
(on one of the   better   blocks   in New York City)
her beautiful   apartment   basks and waits
a hush of rugs   a drawn Venetian   blind
keeping the silence   keeping the bars   of shadow
gathered like silent   guardians   around
the hanging   shelf   the Wedgewood   the piano
and there the family   photographs   are massed
my father’s face   blade-thin   in sepia
my baby self   in flounces   or undressed
from times   when she was poor   but happier
belongings blurry   as if   underwater
bearing the prints   of mother   father   daughter


How far the age   of mother   father   daughter!
my baby room with walls   now pink   now blue
(but never yellow   though I begged   I fought her)
and the tiny snowman   globe   where snowflakes   flew
and the little silver   Virgin Mary   shrine
whose key I   turned   to play Our Lady’s song
“Ave Maria”   tinkling   out of tune
and the gray   hooked rug   where silent bluebirds sang
and a rabbit ran   away   among the trees
but never   vanished   never could   escape
whatever chased him   from the knitted haze
a scary   thing   because   it had no shape
though now the whole   room’s painted hazy   gray
and the rabbit   trees   and birds   raveled away


When did her mind   begin to ravel   away?
—that time she fell   outside   the beauty parlor
(getting pretty for   her grandson’s    birthday)?
she didn ’t   answer   when we tried   to call her
and soon   with mop and broom   she fought the others
called 911   the super   the police
there on the sofa   sat   the nursing mothers
the lovers   crawled and thrashed   under the bookcase
we flew   to Queens   we packed up all   her things
the fox-head furs   her mother ’s lion-necklace
“But what about all my other   best   belongings?”
she worried   then gave up   resigned   to silence
a roar of takeoff   buckled in   she hissed
“Here’s to my new   adventure   in the west!”


At sundown   tantrums   shake the sunset west
the nurses turn her toward the flashing   window
“See the flowers? See the pretty bird’s nest?”
bushes tug in tubs   on the patio
where a night   wind   rises   over Astroturf
batters the waiting   tables   chairs   and wheelchairs
as if they stood   in a swirl   of Pacific surf
whose icy water   glitters   darkens   clears
“Here’s dinner, hon!” the nurse’s aide   with bib
holds out a tray of lukewarm   grown-up   mush
last week a fall   tore muscles   cracked a rib
how did   she fall   did someone   really push?
she tries to remember   strains to see   remembers
(sometimes) the names   of sundown   visitors


Sometimes the names   of sundown visitors
hook into thought   sometimes the sounds   unravel
blur   sister   brothers   TV commentators
(Frank and Vito turn into Ted Koppel)
I visit   afternoons   bring cupcakes   chocolate
the only stuff she   ever wants   to eat
can barely swallow though   one night past midnight
she coughs   a little   chokes on   her own spit
the night nurse   didn’t hear   the radio
was turned on loud   she’s kind of scared   and sorry
and puts a rose   on the poor   old lady’s   pillow
and a mortician   calls   and tells us   not to worry
above the sunlit bay   the slicing planes
rise fast   and one speeds east   with her “remains”


Back among   her belongings   her remains
glide north northwest   in a shiny   SUV
designed to weather snowstorms   freezing rains
far from the simmering   fields   of Sicily
the East Coast cemetery’s stony   pressed
into a cleft   of hills   black ice   I skid on
leaning to greet the freckled   hearty   priest
looking   not looking at the box   she’s laid in
at the edge of the polished   boards   that hold her husband
the priest   says the words   she scorned   she didn’t believe
(she has to be blessed   to belong   to holy ground)
and O she would   scold us   if she were still alive!
no Tuono di dio   no bolt   so fierce and true
as the light of her mind   that felt   that thought   that knew

Sandra Gilbert, "Belongings" from Belongings © 2006 by Sandra Gilbert. Used by permission of Sandra M. Gilbert

Source: Belongings (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 2005)

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Poet Sandra M. Gilbert b. 1936


Subjects Living, Health & Illness, Growing Old, The Mind

Poetic Terms Series/Sequence, Sonnet

 Sandra M. Gilbert


Though widely acclaimed as a leading feminist literary critic, Sandra M. Gilbert is also a renowned poet who has published numerous collections of poetry, including the Patterson Prize winning Ghost Volcano (1997), and Kissing the Bread: New and Selected Poems 1969–1999 (2000), which won an American Book Award. Recent collections include Belongings (2006) and Aftermath: Poems (2011). Gilbert’s poetry is known for its erudition, . . .

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SUBJECT Living, Health & Illness, Growing Old, The Mind


Poetic Terms Series/Sequence, Sonnet

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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