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.

Originally Published: May 20th, 2009

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...

  1. May 21, 2009
     Colin Ward

    Staring (by Charles Cornner)\r

    She found a picture\r
    of the grandpa I never knew\r
    and laid it on the lace\r
    atop the bedside chest. Dead\r
    two years before my birth,\r
    expressionless here, his brow\r
    shadowing brown eyes to black.\r
    No menace, just gathering. Wind\r
    splits his tie in two. Sleeves\r
    roll back from his hands\r
    like geese from winter.\r

    He is about to say something.\r

    Best regards,\r


    Though guilt's the ghost of failure, dreams remain undaunted.\r
    We'll live with yesteryear in houses not yet haunted.

  2. May 21, 2009


    Your last two posts have been real treats. The medley of poems and the way you weave them together around your own thoughts, almost inventing a poem in the process. First we had a poem called “The Green Sweater” and now we have one called “Boxes”…are we inventing a new art form here, a new way of reading? Your posts, your readings, accrue through association. There’s levity, gravity, but absolutely no touch of monumentality and along the way we have poems we’ve (I’ve) never read, and snapshots of your own process, your own relationship to memory and loss, the small worries, the large worries and then, inevitably the solution, always in soft focus. Thanks for reminding me about “My Grandmother’s Love Letters” – the only one I knew already in this week’s tapestry. \r

    This whole notion of how significance gathers inside a box, the trauma of boxing, the revelation of un-boxing. I’ve heard said that next to death of a loved one, and divorce, moving house is one of the most stressful things any of us will ever face. That falls into perspective by the end of your post, and of course one reflects upon larger movements: migrations of refugees, moving themselves, their children, the clothes on their backs and an odd assortment of things in a bundle, a satchel, a wheelbarrow. They’ve made choices too, of what to hold onto and what to let go of…objects standing in for bits of memory. Perhaps those choices are what get them through an experience which most of us will never know. Never have to face.\r

    Your meditation echoes in both directions, towards fortune and towards misfortune. And the poems you share with us give us the tools we need to trace that line. \r

    I moved a lot when I was a kid. But I’ve lived in the same city now for twenty-two years. The same house for thirteen years. Of course I travel, but even packing a suitcase is a trauma: those deluxe short-term storage receptacles, boxes with wheels and handles designed to fit neatly in overhead storage compartments - pure unadulterated trauma, until a actually remember how spoiled I am. \r


  3. May 21, 2009
     Don Share

    Curiously, I saw this the other day in the Washington Post about Supreme Court Justice David Souter:\r

    WEARE, N.H. – When he joined the bench of the nation's highest court, David Souter packed his belongings into a U-Haul and drove down Interstate 95 from his boyhood home in Weare to a rented Washington apartment. But the Supreme Court justice never took to the federal city, and after 19 years, his things are in the same boxes.\r

    "He never unpacked," said Thomas Rath, one of Souter's closest friends. "A few years ago, he said, 'I figured I'd take the pictures out of the boxes and hang them up, but I figured in a few years I'd be coming back to New Hampshire and I'd have to pack them back up, so I might as well leave them in the boxes.'"

  4. May 21, 2009
     Rickey Laurentiis

    Camille, thank you for this post. You don't understand how appropriate it is for me at this time, as I busily pack away the last of my boxes at the end of my sophomore year in college. There is some panic that happens every time I do this, as if I think I won't ever see these boxes again (which is in fact a very legitimate worry) or as if I think that without constant access to the objects in the box, somehow, I will be destroyed.\r

    This weekend I will be flying back home, which is New Orleans. Thank you for mentioning Jerry W. Ward, whose book I will hurriedly read. I was a junior at the time of Katrina and lost all of my books, plus everything else. For a moment I was panicked, but eventually relieved. Wards words that you quote really articulate the reasons why. Though it is true that I am inevitably (being still a college student) building my library up again, though it is true I just shipped two boxes of books home and I can't wait to open and to shelve those books, what Ward has to say really does make a lot of sense, even if in a paradoxical/oxymoronic way (he has, after all, written and published a book).\r

    Thanks again.\r


  5. May 22, 2009
     Camille Dungy

    Don: \r

    Do you think Souter's failure/refusal to take things out of boxes was an act of empowerment or disempowerment or both? The way the story seems to be playing on the media circuit its as if he never wanted to connect to DC and so never bothered to take his precious things out of their boxes and put them onto DC walls. Souter sounds, in these stories, rather like hang dog, sort of moppy and out of his depth. But was the fact he didn't unpack act of acceptance or resistance? Was he active or passive?\r

    I just packed a huge container of shells that I'd never even touched since I first moved back to CA. The shells used to be all over all my houses while I was living on the East Coast. You couldn't hardly come across a shelf or table in those East Coast places that didn't have a shell or sea rock on it. Each shell would be carefully wrapped and packed with each move then pretty immediately unwrapped and placed somewhere note worthy when I got to the next place. Now that I'm back in California, though, near the Pacific Ocean I love, those shells have been in their container for three years. Untouched. Hardly, actually, even remembered. I think that's an act of acceptance rather than resistance. Acceptance isn't always a bad thing.\r

    This is a long response, but I'm actually wondering about this in terms of character or persona development. What can we learn from a person who DOESN'T do something like unpack a box? As much, obviously, as what we can learn from someone who DOES. \r


  6. May 22, 2009
     Camille Dungy


    Good luck with your move. Let us know what you think of Jerry Ward's book, The Katrina Papers. \r