A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Concrete objects, whether they are intricately described or merely named, can reveal who we are and who we have been. There are stories in our objects, in what we choose to be surrounded by, in what we keep and what we let go. By focusing on the concrete in our writing we can find meaning in the moments of joy or distress in our lives. Objects evoke meaning for readers, too.
In his book, “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien uses concrete objects – things – to ground the reader in place and time, to convey emotion and to reveal character. He uses “things” to describe objectively and metaphorically the Viet Nam war. Notice how he omits or includes details, or how he pauses to comment on what an object evokes in the following lines:
“The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water…
… and Dave Jensen carried three pairs of socks and a can of Dr. Scholl’s foot powder as a precaution against trench foot. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried 6 or 7 ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity. Mitchell Sanders, the RTO, carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father, who taught Sunday school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother’s distrust of the white man, his grandfather’s old hunting hatchet. Necessity dictated.”
In the following essay, I used my things to help calm me and to understand why I was so unsettled when I packed my house to get ready to have my floors refinished. It was during the pandemic when the world felt chaotic anyway and upending my living space was unnerving. Focusing on my objects reminded me of who I was and who I am and grounded me. I hope it does the same for the reader.
Things I Packed Away Before Getting My Floors Refinished During the Pandemic
Frosted Tom Collins glasses with polka-dots, seldom used champagne flutes and crystal wine glasses, short-stemmed water glasses. The water glasses are chunky and shapely, and I use them regularly when I have guests for dinner. Lately they’ve been gathering dust.
A blue Hawaiian glass vase purchased from an art shop on Oahu before Jeff and I were married. We had taken a drive, looking for art and antiques. I felt disoriented, so we stopped at an ABC store to buy a map. The man at the counter told us we didn’t need one. “It’s an island,” he said. “Just keep driving and you’ll end up where you started.”
Grandma Sib’s old metal kitchen canister set. The canisters are common, like the other handful of family belongings I inherited from my ancestors. Like that blue and white set of Haviland china from Grandma Meier that I thought was a treasure until I saw a set like it for sale at an antique store with a sign that read “as sold in Acme” during one of their dish giveaways.
A set of cocktail plates my daughter gave me for Christmas. They are artful with a mid-century vibe, real Mad Men. I last used them at a socially distanced backyard gathering with my women’s group, before we rejected the term “socially distanced.” It was in the spring when my rhododendrons were at their peak.
A German chocolate pot, a pair of art nouveau vases, maybe Czech, clear glass with blood red paint, a few pieces of collectible pottery, an Italian pitcher, yellow, with red, blue, green and orange flowers. After my son almost had “the high school party of the year” at our house when we were out of town and he was supposed to be at his dad’s, I felt only anger until I picked up that pitcher to water a plant and began to cry. My weeping over what could have been lost or broken, the fragility of our things and our family, had more impact on my son than harsh words.
A crystal pitcher and two cut glass bowls that belonged to my mother-in-law. I occasionally use the pitcher as a vase, and sometimes use the bowls as vases, too. I didn’t know that rhododendrons made good cut flowers, but they do, and they look spectacular jammed into a glass bowl.
A small, stuffed koala bear made from kangaroo fur. The koala was my daughter’s little familiar when she was small, and a lot of the fur is worn off where she held onto it. It adds a little jolt of softness to the cut glass and pottery that share the same shelf.
Four framed linen postcards of rodeo scenes that I got in Montana. The postcards are 8×12 and, framed and matted, they’re much larger. Crazy Snake Up to His Tricks, Smoky Branch Riding Glasseye, Nesbit & Elliott’s Famous Bucking Bronc “Five Minutes to Midnight.” Two small landscapes. An evocative folk-art print from New Orleans, the artist’s rendering of the old hymn I’ll Fly Away.
A cigar store wooden Indian, almost life-sized. A large Andy Warhol version of John Wayne. A painting of three views of a reservation dog done by a Navaho artist on wood, in deep purple and gold colors. One day I stared at the painting and thought, “hmmmm…that dog looks like a kangaroo.” Then I looked at my own dog and thought, “hmmmm…he looks like a kangaroo, too.”
With the world so disordered and chaotic, it’s been particularly unsettling to dismantle my house. I’ve taken apart, taken down and created havoc in the small space where I spend most of my time right now. The boxes and blank spots are unnerving.
But as I wrapped and tucked the newspaper pages around the breakables, I recalled connections with times past, and with people I love but am not seeing right now. I felt grounded by the ordinary, even as I longed to tidy up and have my house and my world restored.
My stuff is just stuff, and someday it will all be scattered. But I will re-order things after this disorder. Like a lot of people, I’m trying to sort through what’s important. I will carefully choose what I keep and what I toss, trying to be mindful of what has currency for me now. I will be more deliberate in what I want to bring forward with me, leaving room for something new.
Prompt: Write a poem or essay that springs from your own object or objects. You might want to:
Beth Peyton is the author of Clear Skies, Deep Water: A Chautauqua Memoir (Excelsior Editions, 2014)
Copyright 2021 Beth Peyton.