Thursday, March 10, 2011

'Goodwill, Thrift Store, Missoula' by Sheryl Noethe (1994)

Goodwill, Thrift Store, Missoula

It’s hard to hate
anybody when we’re
all maybe trying
on the shoes of the
dead together,
trying on their slacks
and reading their books.
So we are gentle
to each other
when we reach for the same glass
or some bracelet,
smile when we collide
between the broken couch
and a stain on the sheet.
We pass, cool ghosts who feel
the sleeves of jackets,
the hems of dresses, and hold
nylon stockings up to the light.
An old man tries on
a dead soldiers coat. It weighs
him down, he bends as though
he were carrying the man on his back.
When he opens the narrow pocketbook
a moth flies up.
We find blouses for our mothers
we never sent.
A past we never knew. White bowls
that fit inside each other.
Someone else’s babies.
Painstakingly embroidered pillowcases.
Empty jars. Proof of happier lives.
When we walk past the rack
of dark wool suits
I smell a human musk
like an animal would.
I get a sense of a man,
of my long-dead grandfather,
and am filled with love
for the suits, love
for the man holding
the double boiler,
love for the teen-age girl
with bare feet, searching the ends
of her hair and watching
the clock, love
for the lonesome one
that the shoes
will surely

After a slightly uncertain start, the poem moves with more sureness as it progresses, though remains tentative and tender as it does so. The speaker searches the thrift shop for clothes, books, bracelets... There is a sense, at first, of something fragile: the presence of the dead, the brittleness of those who walk among these discarded possessions. “So we are gentle to each other when we reach for the same glass...” Such places possess an implicit melancholia, evoking a faint feeling of hopelessness like the artist Christian Boltanski’s room of lost objects (shoes, blouses, wheelchairs, suitcases…). Perhaps also this is why the poem has no stanza breaks. One object suggests another and the fragility of those who peruse them are held together – for a moment at least – by these loose meaning and connections (they are all in the thrift shop after all).

Yet for those in the store, their being there is not fuelled by nostalgia but by necessity. They search for clothes, stockings, a dead man’s coat. They are in need and must wear what has already been against another’s – a stranger’s – skin. So they are gentle to each other, and find a kind of dignity and humility in the careful examination of garments.

And finally, where a stray human musk brings a flood of memories back (of the poet’s dead grandfather), there is feeling of love that extends out to include those others in the shop: a feeling generated by solidarity; a nearness to the past, its breath tangled in the starched fabric; a nearness to death also and the light (not darkness) it casts in those who are living, "for the lonsome one/ that the shoes/ will surely/ fit".

The plain and simple fact expressed: that there are moments (and maybe just moments) when we can love those we do not know.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this poem, which I didn't know. I have a real fascination for charity shops too, so I recognised all of this. I can't pass any of them as I walk down the high street each day, and have to see what has appeared in the window. I've written two poems about them myself.

    This poem really does go through a stream of consciousness that carries us along from object to object and to somehow combine everybody present and only present via their cast offs. You've summed it up well. Lovely poem that will stay with me.