Box by Box
My life is a life of boxes. It’s temporary, I trust. The hope, when one puts her whole life into boxes, is that, soon, her whole life will be out of boxes. But my parents speak, sometimes, of the as yet unpacked boxes they packed when they moved into their current house (that move happened in 1986) and so I fear, each time I pack another box, that I will never encounter its contents again. So, as I tried to think about what poems I wanted to share this week, I could only think, with much trepidation, of boxes.
First, I thought of a poem from Kyle Dargan’s first book, The Listening. The poem is both uplifting and daunting, describing all the gems a student discovers, searching through his mentor’s boxed archives:
Search for Robert Hayden
for Charles Rowell
The garage has not been allowed to breathe
for months now. The smell of moving,
uprooting, cures in the arid Texas heat—
scents that cannot be romanticized, but must be
handled carefully so that no boxes topple.
We are looking for “The Middle Passage,”
first we must clear a walking path.
Books yelp like kennel pups through holes in their crates,
books that are no longer books
but sub-headings in chimeras of collected poems.
Next, Copacetic Victims of the Latest Dance Craze—
all originals baring signatures
like birth certificates. Clifton, no grey.
Komunyakaa, w/beard. Eady,
looking young as the lost member of New Edition.
Most out of print and born before I was pressed
in flesh. The past presented, Hayden is still hiding somewhere.
Putting an ear to the walls doesn’t help, this year-old house
barely knows its own nooks and stashes.
Hell, round them all up—in minutes
we’ll be standing knee deep in
the unselected poems of black literature.
This is how we will find him:
on our hands and knees
combing over flailed books—sea shells
beneath a forgotten tide.
Occasionally we’ll wrench something up,
not what we are looking for, and read it anyway.
This poem reminds me there’s hope, when the time for unpacking comes, of discovering more than I bargained for. For a poet, finding more than one bargained for is an exciting prospect. Thinking that way puts me in mind of Hart Crane’s lovely poem “My Grandmother’s Love Letters.” I love the start of Crane’s poem:
There are no stars tonight
But those of memory.
Yet how much room for memory there is
In the loose girdle of soft rain.
There is even room enough
For the letters of my mother’s mother,
That have been pressed so long
Into a corner of the roof
That they are brown and soft,
And liable to melt as snow….
The description of these letters that have been packed into the attic is such a splendid blend of permanence and ephemerality. Elizabeth’s letters take on such importance, importance perhaps even greater, and certainly different, than whatever importance they once held for Elizabeth herself. And yet they are so delicate. Any little mishap could destroy everything they are and were and could ever be.
When one’s life is in boxes everything takes on different, and I believe greater, proportions. Perhaps it’s all the packing material that doubles the weight and heft of these material representations of me. When my life is in boxes I want to clear everything out, trim down, throw out, but these poems make me wonder what could be discovered if I left my boxes alone for the remainder of my days. What could someone else find if I simply stored my life away without overmuch culling?
But, of course, I think I need all the things I have in these boxes. Which is, I’m sure, not true.
Not long ago I had lunch with Jerry W. Ward, a critic and writer who lives in New Orleans. His new book, The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery, documents his experience in the aftermath of the storm and flood that destroyed his home and enormous library. Ward claims that, having lost everything, he was free to think again. To think for himself, without having to refer to all the books at his back that he’d thought, all those years, he needed. This put me in mind of a poem by Miller Williams in the voice of a curator at The Hermitage during the war, when all the paintings had been removed for safety but people still came to tour the museum. The thing is, the tours were all the more wonderful for the absence of the paintings. Here’s a snippet from the poem:
…We pointed to more details about the paintings,
I venture to say, than if we had had them there,
some unexpected use of line or light,
balance or movement, facing the cluster of faces
the same way we’d done it every morning
before the war, but then we didn’t pay
so much attention to what we talked about.
People could see for themselves. As a matter of fact
we’d sometimes said our lines as if they were learned
out of a book, with hardly a look at the paintings.
But now the guide and the listeners paid attention
to everything—the simple differences
between the first and post-impressionists,
romantic and heroic, shade and shadow…
(from “The Curator” by Miller Williams in Adjusting to the Light)
Ward and Williams remind me that I might be holding on too tightly to the wrong things. Crane and Dargan remind me there is plenty that the boxes might, one day, reveal. They are helpful, these poems. So, as I watch the men haul my possessions away, worried they will break them, worried I haven’t packed them correctly, these objects that represent the things I hold dear, and worried I have packed too many of the objects that represent the things I hold dear and that, therefore, I will never be able to unwrap and access all of these objects again, my mind turns to poetry.
Of course, this is the sort of thing we poets think about, what will become of all the things we’ve put in boxes. Just last year there were two interesting posts here on Harriet about the stuff we stuff in boxes. Check out the links here and here.
Even as I watch the men haul my possessions away and can’t help hauling one or two precious items myself, I think of a poem by Eliot Khalil Wilson, author of The Saint of Letting Small Fish Go. In my case it’s always the house plants I insist on dragging about on my own, and the little bookshelf I got back in graduate school and have hauled around the country ever since, painting it to meet each new home’s décor. That bookshelf and those houseplants are inexplicably precious to me. I guess, if I were to say it most honestly, my refusal to let anyone else haul them is something like a refusal to let anyone else be responsible for hauling some part of my heart around. In the end, though, they are only some plants and a bookshelf, I understand. The gravitas in Wilson’s four-part poem is a little greater. The poem describes moving day for a navy widow whose possessions are being moved from the couple’s old home into a storage unit:
… The last to be moved was the barber’s chair.
It sat in the den, an enameled anchor.
Her husband’s chair from his father’s will.
IV. She seemed to want to carry it alone.
She had tipped it on its side and pulled it,
all wrong, with her arms and it left a long
gash in the polished hardwood floor.
Next she hooked her fingers under the headrest
and pulled the weight against her chest
as one rows a boat or pulls a fishing net
until the blood in her arms and legs drained
and she dropped the chair heavily down…
(from “Last Day with Mayflower” by Eliot Khalil Wilson)
The weight of loss in this poem snaps me out of my own mourning. I’m only leaving one habitation for another, after all. These boxes, for me, have nothing to do with an eviction, a natural disaster, the death of someone I love. Thanks to these poems and their measured views on loss and recovery I have the perspective to return to my boxes.
It’s the end of the school year. From all the “for rent” and “for sale” signs I see, I know I’m not the only one packing my life into boxes. Do any of you Harriet readers have any other good moving/packing/boxing poems to share? Perhaps they’ll help get someone else through too.
Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...