I dust my mother’s shiny black Singer,
her foot on the pedal, the hum she’d
retreat to, the needle and bobbin.
—Elaine Sexton (excerpt from “Enclosures”)
This is a dirge encrypted in things,
porcelain thimbles, seams sewn over
myths, facts resting with fiction,
exposed with their fine contradictions.
—Elaine Sexton (excerpt from “Encryption”)
While out jogging in Long Island a while back, I spied my poet-friend Elaine Sexton lugging a fine old sewing machine into her house. “I don’t know where I’m going to put this,” she said, “but I couldn’t resist.” I knew, even then, she’d make good use of it. Among her bounty of talents, Sexton is the only person I know who sews. Beyond that, she has an unerring capacity to locate the soul in an everyday object and conjure it into art.
I forgot about that sewing machine until recently, when Sexton passed on a story recounting her purchase of it, accompanied by photographs of thimbles and spools of thread. I asked if I might share it and, to my delight, she agreed. “OF COURSE,” she wrote, “I now remember you walking/running by and stopping when I was in the midst of acquiring the sewing machine and contents.”
Friends, colleagues, as quilt and sewing stories go—
After my wonderful, elderly neighbor in Greenport, Mrs. Kalins, died last year, her family had a giant yard sale. I couldn’t resist buying her ’50s Singer sewing machine, one that still worked, and dropped into a discrete oak desktop, with a mid-century style chair that lifted up—that and six drawers filled with her sewing stuff, buttons, bobbins, etc.
Not having my own mother’s sewing things, I asked Mrs. Kalins’ daughter if she was sure she wanted to part with this, particularly the pincushions, tiny notes attached to a button, a scrap of fabric. She said, “Yes, yes, please take it,” and recruited her teenage son and daughter to help me get it into my house (or, really, out of her yard!). I told her it would be next door if she ever wanted it back.
Anyway, last weekend I was purging things, looking at all this thread in the drawers, and remembering reading that thread goes bad, and you can’t sew with old thread. For a moment I thought I should make myself dump it. THEN I took a careful look. Some of them are quite beautiful.
One thimble among a dozen or so had her last name taped to it, “Kalins,” so I’m thinking she must have been part of a quilting bee, or a sewing group, where she had to keep track of her stuff. Another was a give-away from a local realtor in the town of Southold, Long Island. Imagine a time when everyone looking for a house—presumably—sewed!
About Elaine Sexton
Elaine Sexton’s poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in numerous journals including American Poetry Review, Poetry, Pleiades, Art in America, O! the Oprah Magazine and the Women’s Review of Books. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Sleuth and Causeway, both with New Issues (WMU). She teaches writing workshops with an emphasis on text & image at Sarah Lawrence College, City College/CUNY, and this summer at New York University. Read Elaine Sexton’s poems “Public Transportation,” from Sleuth, here and “Lower Manhattan Pantoum,” from Causeway, here.
Credits and Copyright
All photographs and text, aside from the introductory text, are © Elaine Sexton and may not be used without Ms. Sexton’s express written permission. Her work is reproduced here by kind permission, with grateful thanks.