The family picks over her things:
three purple vases
her favorite color
the silver rosette earrings she never took off
why didn’t they go with her?
the daybed, hand-carved by Father
once, her marriage bed
three Hummel figurines
no one wants
* * * * * * * *
Review by Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas
When I first read this poem I was immediately taken with the poet’s straightforwardness, her undeviating and direct approach to the subject of loss, coupled with descriptions that feel emotionally charged. Somehow she manages to maintain a certain amount of distance throughout the piece. The result of this subtle but skillful phraseology leaves us unprepared for the last line, which undeniably takes one by surprise.
Such a formula can be a difficult undertaking if timing is off, as the balance must be precise enough so as not to create too much reserve or a barrier naturally evolves between the reader and subject. In this case ‘her things’ are the aftermath of death, the casualties ‘left behind’ or so called inanimate objects that fall into the category of collectibles and keepsakes, with the exception of ‘one husband’.
Though this is the final line; ‘one husband already claimed’, this is where the magic begins, where the poem opens up and becomes more than just a discussion of things left behind. This is where the poem tugs at the heartstrings of the reader. The fact that the husband is already claimed, juxtaposed cleverly after the three Hummel figurines no one wants, conveys quickly the consequences of death; all nonliving objects are abandoned by the woman’s passing, as well as her once wifely role to a husband who has also been ‘left behind’ or possibly transcended this earthly place and passed into another realm.
One can only speculate why this woman was stripped of those rosette earrings. It becomes an unsettling image to me, a disquieting declaration that something so treasured would be removed from a loved one. It is as if the speaker is left to linger in that moment, so perplexed by the discovery, the reader begins to feel her ache and it becomes a haunting moment that remains long after the ending of the poem.
Perhaps there is a possible twist to the way that last line might be interpreted. Has someone else claimed one husband left behind? One would doubt it and logic leans to the first explanation, but I like the idea that the reader might find an alternative meaning though an unlikely one.
When I read this poem I am left with a feeling of distress. The narrator has described with such clarity the dreaded ordeal of going through someone’s cherished items and the inevitable reality for all of us. As Ayn Rand said, “you can’t fake reality.” There will always be things left behind. But if we are fortunate, we will have experienced love or even loved someone who’s gone before us. Hopefully our mementos such as rosette earrings will be insignificant tokens compared to the enduring memories created for those who find them.