Poetry Sunday: “Plunder: to a young friend,”
by Linda Pastan

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

“Plunder” is a strong word to use in the context of downsizing or of closing a beloved family member’s home. Its negative connotations make perfect sense in the context of the tomb robbing alluded to near the end of the poem, but what about in the poem’s first two stanzas, where the focus is on going through the possessions of a departed loved one, or even one’s own things in anticipation of a downsize? Well, anyone who has had to go through a deceased parent’s things is familiar with the unpleasant feeling of in any way reaping the benefit of another person’s demise. We cannot possibly value their things the way they did, and so even the act of throwing away what seems to us to be useless junk is fraught with sorrow and guilt. We go through their things to salvage what may be of value to us in our own lives going forward, whether that value is pecuniary or emotional, conduct that can feel at least disrespectful, if not downright opportunistic. I enjoy the details here of what the speaker’s friend kept—the glowing colors of an oriental rug, the Russian dolls, the bentwood chairs—but what I like even better is the way those details are given so as to reflect “plunder’s” negative connotations, the carpet tread upon and the chairs “wrenched” from their set-making table.

So, acquiring anything by means of another person’s loss is a kind of plunder, even if not by intentional “robbery, theft, or fraud” [dictionary.com]. We profit materially by means of the deaths of loved ones, and in time others will profit in the same way from our own demise. When my mother died, my thoughts turned if not to what I hoped to inherit from her, at least to what things of hers I could not bear to see discarded. The idea of her modest but beloved Wedgwood collection being broken up gave me a pang, and even though I don’t like knickknacks, I accepted a few of those tiny blue-and-white reminders of how much my mother loved the color blue. I didn’t put in dibs for the table whose tilt-top was fluted like a piecrust or the dry sink Mom antiqued herself, but when I see those things in my sisters’ homes, it brings back memories of our childhood home, and I am glad they were saved.

My husband and I downsized a few years ago, and the details of this poem—deciding what things to keep and what to let go, revisiting family heirlooms, and the memories those activities evoke—spoke eloquently to me. For example, the poem opens with the image of a “windy transition,” and that period of preparation for our move did feel “windy,” if not like an actual whirlwind. It made me thing of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Art of Losing” and how the lost things in that poem progress from tiny items like keys and forgotten names to a tornado of loss whirling away weightier things like homes, and even cities and continents.

Another concept raised in the poem, the idea of “plundering” one’s childhood, is likewise intriguing, as if we could sift through our past and take only the memories we want and can use, leaving the rest behind, despoiled by our busy, efficient hands. Maybe, with our brains’ propensity for denial and suppression, that is what we really do, even if we do not mean to. Maybe we plunder our past, searching for and retrieving even the bad memories for how they can serve us, such as in our writing or other art we create.

In the poem’s second stanza, the speaker takes what she’s learned about her friend’s experience and applies it to her own life, understanding that she soon will also become the dismantler and plunderer of homes. She has in fact already begun that process with respect to her own home, sifting through old letters, keeping some and discarding the rest. Maybe in an increasingly technological age we will find this task somewhat simplified and my entire file cabinet of photographs and rooms lined with books will become a few treasured artifacts and a slim cache of computer files. In the meantime, though, people my age are dealing with a lifetime’s accumulation of stuff, and I identify with that notion of feeling like an executioner, sentencing some books to oblivion and saving just a few, all the while feeling a wild urge to just “burn it all.” Near the end of our move, I briefly did succumb to that urge and gave away a rock and fossil collection it had taken my whole lifetime to amass, something I still mourn these years later. What was I thinking? Something about getting rid of the possessions that weighed me down (the box weighed a literal ton)? What I learned is that some things are worth keeping.

“Plunder” is in free verse, organized into three equal stanzas, each consisting of 10 lines, a symmetry and order that stands in nice contrast to the dismantling and disarray the poem describes. The origin of the word “stanza” is in the Italian word for “room,” and here each stanza evokes a room in a house (like the one being broken down) that take us into a distinctly different place. Stanza one recounts the speaker’s recollection of what a friend said about closing her mother’s house, then stanza two moves into the speaker’s more personal space of understanding that she will someday soon have to do the same thing. Stanza three closes the poem, less with Auden’s click of the lid of a well-made box than with a portal into a much larger place. Here we enter the realm of ancient history (Egyptian funerary practices) and the realization that people have always been confronted with the problem of a life that for a time expands and accumulates, then begins to contract and pare itself down.

The poem’s tripartite structure reminds me of Aristotle’s three dramatic unities (action, place, and time) and his admonition that any dramatic telling must have a beginning, middle, and end:

A story that is whole has a beginning, middle, and an end. The beginning is the very thing which does not necessarily follow something else but after which something else naturally follows or happens. The end, in contrast, is the very thing that happens after something else either as a necessary result or, is most common companion, but after which nothing else occurs. A middle is that thing which comes after something else and has something follow it. It is necessary that a well-constructed tale does not begin or just end anywhere but will apply the conditions I have described. Aristotle’s Poetics, reprinted here.

In this case, the poem begins with a memory that opens into a realization that what the friend is describing is reflecting and presaging something in the speaker’s own life (middle, with exposition and conflict), and concludes with the understanding that what both speaker and friend have experienced is part of what it means to be human (resolution and end). People acquire things, and those things are reflections of or repositories for what has mattered to them. Part of life is acquiring new things left behind by people who came before, and part of it is having eventually to give up those things and others as our own lives draw to a close. Some people, like author Marie Kondō, who wrote the bestselling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, believe that less is more and that it might really be best simply to “burn it all” down. Others, like poet Troy Jollimore, who wrote a wonderful rejoinder to that thinking in his review of Kondō’s book (“In Defense of Clutter”),  suggests that our possessions acquire meaning and a kind of life of their own. Today’s poet seems to side with Jollimore:

But don’t we live on in what we’ve left behind?
In the fading twilight of Kodak? In our sterling
knives and spoons tarnishing on a grandchild’s
casual table? Don’t these become
a kind of museum of the afterlife?

Whether those spoons evoke the memory of the actual people who first bought them is of no consequence—what matters is that they were passed down and so confirm that we once existed. I love the idea of a “museum of the afterlife”—a place where these things no longer have utility for those who left them behind but where the living can go on to remind themselves that they are just a brief part of a much larger history.

In its conclusion, the poem returns to the idea of plunder by mentioning the longstanding practice of raiding Egyptian tombs, deciding that hanging on to stuff is not an entirely futile act; some tombs remained intact for many more lifetimes than the one enjoyed by their occupants, and some are to this day still intact. As such, this poem stands in dramatic counterpoint to other well-known poems about the futility of material acquisition, like Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Browning’s “The Bishop Orders His Tomb.” “Plunder” takes a decidedly anti-New Age stand for hanging onto stuff. Material things have value beyond mere utility for the living, the poem says; they are the embodiments of our thoughts and dreams and desires; they are emblematic of our culture. Perhaps in the end, this poem makes a case for curation and preservation of any material thing that matters in this age in which built-in obsolescence is the rule, where books are becoming rare artifacts, and where the letters we write to the people we love may—or may not—be lost forever in the Internet ether.

A few years ago, I visited a dollhouse store selling off inventory in anticipation of closing its doors and lingered over a tiny secretary, built to a standard of perfection I’d never be able to afford in full size. An exquisite Hepplewhite model, each drawer worked smoothly with dovetailed joinery. I was thinking about buying it for my daughter’s dollhouse, something we had built together. “Does she understand the idea of a keepsake?” the store owner asked, and that gave me pause. I was not sure she did understand the concept and wondered if I even understood myself anymore. We’ve moved houses so many times that not much remains from my early childhood. I began to think of what I would leave for my kids, and what it looked like then was just a huge, overwhelming junkpile. I did not buy the tiny secretary for my daughter, and that was when I began my own winnowing.

Like all good poems, this one set me thinking about my own life, and I’ve been considering what I’d take with me if I could and what I hope my children will keep: a few things made with my own hands—my books and poems; quilts, a knitted shawl, a three-piece suit sewn in baby-blue corduroy (what was I thinking?!) for my husband’s graduation from college, my mother’s Wedgwood and the picture of her I keep in its silver frame on my desk, and a few things worn by my children when they were young. The rest can go.


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  • ellens ue jacobson May 23, 2018 at 11:26 am

    Loved this poem. Reminds me of a story about a woman who’s cleaning out hermit’s attic after she died. She found a box labeled “String to small to save.” And yet the box was full of short strings! At 80 I am also downsizing: getting rid of books and clothes no longer needed, but still holding onto too much. IS that out way of holding onto life instead of letting go?

  • Jo Shafer May 20, 2018 at 1:20 pm

    So timely for me, this poem, as I’m going through the same plundering downsizing phase. Decluttering is the easy part. It’s the anxiety-ridden headache — note, not heartache — of getting the house ready for market before moving into a retirement condominium that’s smaller but just as lovely as our place. Thank you for shedding your insight through this piece.