Poetry Challenge, Day Two: The Meanings of Things


I’ve been re-reading Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum. This sounds kind of precious, I agree; but as you know if you have read my posts from the Spring of 2013, my visit to Pompeii had a profound impact on me. I like reading about the history of those places that were erased by Vesuvius.

However, apart from complaining about living in a suburban neighborhood defined by residences with things like garage facades, I have too often failed to give sufficient thought to what possessions mean.

And so to go back in history.

It’s good to think about the significance of the everyday in a culture completely removed from my own absorption in tangled earbuds, stupid things I’ve posted on voat, and the possible whereabouts of the remote for the TV in the front room. (Tracy, if you are reading this please ask the boys where they might have placed it or removed it to. Check the bag with their damp swimsuits.)

Where the ancient Romans had front doors that were thrown open every morning to allow passers-by a glimpse of the homeowners’ worldly goods and, by extension, his position in society, I live in a place where garage doors open on late-model SUV’s, or wall-to-wall masses of stuff. Although a teetering hoard isn’t my idea of excellence, when I peer into an almost-empty garage I feel an odd sadness, as if the house had been abandoned by its people.

Here in my little corner of heaven I have been known to wander into “estate sales,” some of which have yielded an assortment of new possessions that come into my house to be used or not. I love to eat junk-food soup (aka “Top Ramen”) for example, from one of two green glass bowls I picked up at an estate sale in our old neighborhood. They are of the “Depression Glass” era, those pressed-glass tableware items such as our parents received as premiums with the purchase of a ten-cent movie ticket.Just using one of those bowls brings back the entire experience of wandering through that 19th-century Austin home with a mixture of envy (having grown up in old houses) and relief (having grown up in old houses).

To be honest, I enjoy the fact that the first thing people notice upon peering into our garage is a row of bicycles hanging on the back wall. It says something about us that I like. It’s hard to go to someone’s estate sale and not wonder what people will think when the time has come for us to divest ourselves of our possessions and they come over here to ours.

Chapter One of Wallace-Hadrill’s book opens with two quotes, one of which is this:

In the protracted dialogue about value that is embedded in
consumption, goods in their assemblage present a set of
meanings, more or less coherent, more or less intentional.
They are read by those who know the code and scan them
for information. The great novelists have never doubted just
how far removed this function of creating meanings is from
the uses of goods for welfare and display.

Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood,
The World of Goods

My poem for Day Two occupies itself with the nature and meaning of goods. (With apologies to family and friends some of whose worldly goods I have used for the illustrations.)

 At the Estate Sale

Your door opens intoDSC_0041
a mothball haze, signaling clearly
that you have not moved on
to a better place.

Wherever you are, on this
damp morning a small array
of strangers trails through
your crowded empty rooms

to touch, consider, pick up, put backDSC_0121
a thousand items you appear
to have amassed with special
fondness for things Chinese:

dishes, statues, wall hangings,
jackets in silk and brocade,
one hundred purses, candlesticks,
a bathtub filled with pillows,

a bottle of mouthwash DSC_0190
one swig down. I walk among
your lamps, your trays,
a broken Buddha, a fountain pen,

refrigerator magnets fifty cents
apiece. I think you must have been
a woman of mild voice and
slender build, well-dressed

always, a touch of sadness
in your voice when now and then
your children phoned from
other, distant states.

Every object up for saleDSC_0194
yours, no trace of a husband
left. He must be gone
a long time now.

Now it’s come to this:
long tables and jammed shelves,
tiny price tags and a woman
in your garage with a cash box

wearing your diamond
wedding rings,
asking three thousand.
Half off everything tomorrow, she says.


Leave a Reply