Chronicle: Promenade des Poètes: Still life

When we were children, my brother and I had household chores. No doubt part of the reason was to practice housekeeping as adults. A good strategy, but not as effective. My father liked the immaculate house and my brother came to imitate that. After finishing a meal, he immediately puts things away and clears the table of every crumb. I like to rest for about an hour after eating before I tackle cleaning.

My brother and I had some of the same tasks like washing dishes, but also different tasks depending on our gender. While my brother was mowing the lawn, I was given the dusting job, a tedious chore. Most of the time I hated the job, but there was one part I loved. My mom had a shelf of figurines on the living room wall and I spent time playing with them instead of dusting them.

Most of them were women in various fancy costumes – stiff dresses with several layers of frills, parasols, flamboyant hats. I spun them around on the floor, making up words for them to say and stories about their lives. They were rigid characters, however, limited in how they could move.

Among these beauties I also remember a wooden figure of a stagecoach with horses and a wooden man on the driving position. The wheels actually turned and it was fun to have them travel across the carpet, leaving the chic ladies in the dust. It’s not lost on me now that it was the male figure that began to explore when women were too fragile and rigid to seek adventure.

Claire Millikin’s Grandmother Lou also owned porcelain figurines, delicate and pretty objects that Claire enchanted and played with like dolls. She says: “When I was little I broke one and was so upset, then Grandma gave me a big hug and told me you were worth more than a figurine, and she gave me – as a gift – the figurine of my choice, to keep.The one I chose had the style of a ballerina.

This ballerina figurine inspired Claire to write an ode in fourth grade that won a poetry award. In this poem, Claire kills the ballerina at the end of the poem.

This poem is quite different. Claire grew up in Georgia and notes, “The poem is about the action figure still being on the shelf, still fragile. I don’t mean the poem as a critique of anyone in particular, just highlighting the violence of the Southern ideal of femininity, to remain fragile, like a doll, at perpetual risk of being broken. I guess I want to declare my formal refusal to be a figurine, or to try to be like a figurine.

This poem is from Claire Millikin’s book, “Dolls”, published by 2leafpress, 2021. Claire is the author of eight other collections of poetry, including the most recent, “Transitional Objects” (Unicorn Press, 2022). She is an award-winning poet, scholar and teacher. She also co-edited with Agnes Bushnell the anthology “Enough! Poems of Resistance and Protest” (Littoral Books, 2020).

Don’t forget to stop by the “Locally Grown Books” exhibit at Waterfall Arts’ Art Mart on Fridays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. where you’ll find books by 14 talented local authors.

Figurine

From the abandoned orchard to the bottom of the road,

apple trees cast shadows along glass cabinets

where porcelain figurines rest.

I can’t take it anymore, hold this porcelain silence

of the figurine —

ankles, wrists

figure forms have no life, of course, but they have plenty

Of the history. Those early summer days

the light seems fragile

as if someone opened the door

in a room where I change my clothes

suddenly exposed,

this thin shelf I’m sitting on, a direct descendant

of figurines. Puffed Apple Blossoms

inside through the open windows,

look like fragments of the broken world.

Judy Kaber is Belfast’s Poet Laureate.

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