Clutter

by Brenda Levy Tate
PenShells
First Place, October 2015
Judged by Barbara Siegel Carlson


I shrink against this mountain of debris –
all the remnants, life abandoned
to mere stuff, unending stuff, the way
stars coalesce from dust and matter
bright or dark. So here I shiver,
a freshborn star in early fall, with no
name but Widow – and we are
numberless.

In smoky recesses behind the stove,
ash webs clot the brick and iron.
But this is nothing to do with me today.
I must reveal or re-conceal the boxed
parts of you, things seen, evidence
printed on cardboard. Filing cabinet, 
curio, big bookcase, night stand 
(more than one).

I pick through odd socks, argyle vests,
worn suspenders, underwear draped
like a flag of defeat over my forearm.
Vials of pills, ointment tubes oozing,
ostomy pouches, belts, safety pins,
rusty razors.

Your vintage dolls sway in their velvet
skirts, heavy with desire – how a proper 
lady ought to look, you’d remark,
then brush them more gently than ever
you stroked me. Elegant, immortal
in the blur of decay. Vivien Leigh, green
lace, straw bonnet over spilled curls.
Stick-hipped flapper, real mink stole
on her shoulders.

Marilyn in billows, fanned by a grate.
Gauzy maiden choked with pearls.
Her hair is human and I wonder who
gave it up. I stand them together
in a glass cabinet; they watch me nastily,
like hookers from a holding cell.
They will seek you one day, I think,
following their plastic hearts.

I am no gowned fancy-woman.
My jeans wear the grease of sliding
through loss and cardboard.
Size 13 sandals, old movies,
music of the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties,
siren songs that lured us to park
on a thousand thousand lusty,
moonsweet hills.

Doulton figurines – all men but one,
for you disliked flouncy-dressed
coquettes on your china shelves.
Perhaps you thought them cold? Fabric
murmurs promises, but porcelain
mutters only to itself.

I set Admiral Nelson in front
of a cableknit lobsterman; carpenter
beside a drummer pulling off his boots.
The Toby pirate, then Prince William,
who gleams red-wedding-splendid.
Katherine next to him – a bride,
and therefore safely possessed.
She doesn’t count. You have made her
an exception to your rule.

There’s disorder in this nascent cosmos.
And I am not God, nor even close,
just much too frail for so many
resurrections. Every kitchen utensil
a blade to open me. Every facecloth a rag
that will not purify me. All your sins
measured out in closet space,
where light never visits. Your hopes
adrift, moted in the solar winds.

Mine are the final tatters of you –
put away, shelved or dragged unaware
to the roadside. History on gravel
and Michalemas daisies. The place
where grief and excess go to die.


Richly detailed and resonant, this masterfully crafted poem leads us through the difficult physical and emotional task of sorting through a loved one’s possessions following death. What is admirable here is the way the author’s reflecting on these items opens to deeper and further dimensions fusing the personal and the universal, physical and cosmic. Powerful images such as “Every kitchen utensil/a blade to open me” and “All your sins/measured out in closet space,/where light never visits” reveal fresh often ironic perspectives. The language is weighted but scrutinizing to enact the heft and residue of the various things that define a life. In the process the ‘clutter’ that is relegated to history in the end has been transformed into the body of the life one must let go that becomes excessive to allow one to perceive “hopes…moted in solar winds,” that is the true nature of the spirit. --Barbara Siegel Carlson

  • August 2018 Winners

    • First Place

      The World Is Moist in the Morning
      by Terry Ofner
      The Waters

      Second Place

      My Epitaph
      by Guy Kettelhack
      Wild Poetry Forum

      Third Place

      I kissed a tree
      by Alison Armstrong-Webber
      The Waters

  • July 2018 Winners

    • First Place

      The First Time I Drank With My Father
      by Ken Ashworth
      The Waters

      Second Place

      My Bicycle
      by Andrew Dufresne
      Wild Poetry Forum

      Third Place

      J. Alfred Prufrock Searches for Mrs. Right
      by Laurie Byro
      Babilu