On Finding a Box (1994?)
A dusty brown corrugated cardboard box,
stained and faded,
the kind your groceries come in.
Put on the shelf outside, in the shed behind the house,
a miracle it didn’t get rained on –
when the boys cleaned out their grandpa’s desk
after he died two years ago.
Now the box is there,
containing – if such a thing exists –
my father’s soul.
The odds and ends of a lifetime.
A hodgepodge of objects,
oddments one might say,
that somehow have survived in this consumer age of throwaways.
The box, I was saying –
I pull the objects out, one at a time.
A collection of rulers – plastic, wood,
centimeters, inches, centigrade, Fahrenheit,
grams and equivalents –
opaque with use and years, grimy, unpleasant to the touch.
What looks like a pocket calculator – Sears Roebuck.
Start, reset, pacer, pulse, time, and numbers 1 to 0.
On the back it says pulse monitor.
Does it still work?
The pulse it once monitored has long since ceased to beat,
has fused with the pulsing of all matter.
Pipettes, rectangular glass microscopic specimen slides.
Lenses, mirrors – circular, enlarging, concave,
for capturing, for focusing the intangible.
I finger an odd angular shape wrapped in a paper napkin.
It turns out to be a prism,
painted black all sides but two.
I hold it in my palm, look in and see
the wedding ring that’s hidden at the side –
some magic, sorcery it seems,
that lets me see what lies concealed.
Almost frightened, I quickly wrap it up again.
A batch of filing cards, held together
by what was once a red rubber band.
Fifty or even more.
Each card neatly typed with the scientific name,
the habitat, description of a tree.
Quercus rubra, quercus stellata, sorbus, thuya –
and a drawing of the leaves.
And half a dozen small plastic wind-up toys –
the monkey with his banana tries to somersault
and tumbles on his side,
the bear plays his cymbals –
and the shoes – just two shoes – blue and grey sneakers –
you wind them up and set them down
and they start walking by themselves,
one foot after the other.
I shudder. They have something unworldly,
I put them back, hoping they will stop.
Two parrot feathers – macaw – red and blue.
Two brown leaves – one is oak – so dry they crumble at the touch.
And underneath them all,
in the corner at the bottom,
two matchboxes of the kind that Alexander Beetle lived in –
remember A.A. Milne?
On one is written “Porcupine quills” – it’s neatly stuffed
with short sharp needles, all alike,
packed tight as they can go.
The other says “beetle wings”.
I slide the box out from its cover.
Inside the remains of iridescent green and golden beetle wings.
Science has nothing to do with this hoard.
They’re not classified, not labeled.
They’re here because they were so beautiful
but time has begun to break down this fragile shell
leaving only the memory of beauty.
How he loved things that glittered – like a jackdaw –
flashy ties, a golden cummerbund,
an enormous barbarian ruby – fake of course – set in a ring,
a dressing gown, mandarin style, floor length,
in gold brocade.
The box holds all the man – like a Harnett still life.
The objects tell you more than any portrait ever could
but no, not all.
Some always has to be guessed at, completed with what we know,
what we ourselves remember.
And if someday my children’s children
chanced across a box –
the emptying of my desk –
what would it tell them of this woman they
might have thought they knew.
But did they?