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.
A Spotify playlist of compositions for solo piano by Benjamin Britten may be found here. Shura Cherkassky plays Britten’s Holiday Diary here.
What a delightful story. It is, of course, always of great interest to learn in what ways, or by what, a writer,or indeed any kind of artist, may be inspired in his or her work. Elaine Sexton’s fascination with the many different items connected with sewing as found amongst Mrs. Kalins’ things is understandable; that she should then create from them, as in ‘Enclosures’ and ‘Encryption’, is inspirational.
Jane & Lance: I am always amazed at Elaine’s ability to see the art in what to many of us would be merely ordinary. Those spools of thread, when helped to see them through her eyes, are lovely, aren’t they?
Finding poetry in everyday objects requires a mind which focuses on the area close to our eyes, an area so often overlooked. You are fortunate to have a sensitive friend like Ms Sexton who is happy to let you share her work.
Friko: Well said! I do feel lucky, indeed, that Elaine allowed me to share her work.
“she has an unerring capacity to locate the soul in an everyday object and conjure it into art.”
~That’s a great capacity for a poet, or any kind of artist, to have. I LOVED ‘Lower Manhattan Pantoum’.
Mark: or even for any human being to have, right? Lower Manhattan Pantoum is a beauty of a poem, isn’t it?
Material culture, my favorite! And in this case highly cultured indeed.
I agree, thimbles and bobbins as well as the machines themselves can be things of beauty. Elaine Sexton, like yourself, is clearly as fine a photographer as she is a writer.
David: It’s always a delight when I see in my inbox some photographs from Elaine. Not long after sending these, she sent some incredible photographs of razor clams. (And you’re absolutely right about the machines themselves. I saw a window display of them in Wales and couldn’t tear myself away from taking photographs of them for upwards of an hour. It was fun to be able to send some of those to Elaine.)
Leslie: love that phrase, material culture. I think, too, of your boxes of seed packets out on the table, ready to be sorted for spring!
I do love this post – how kind of the both of you to bring this to us. How well the cabinet was described – I can see it perfectly, and know beyond any doubt that what your friend has is a duplicate of the machine and cabinet my mother had. Those little drawers were treasures – full of such delightful bits as that Boilfast thread.
Most of Mom’s threads and bits are gone now, but the tools – the tracing wheel, the pincushion, the dressmaker’s 6″ metal rule – remain. They’re as comforting as the quilts and clothes she made for us. But the best, always, were the empty spools. They made fine fairy furniture, could be glued together to make trains, and in a pinch were perfectly suiting for throwing if we didn’t have crabapples or snowballs!
Ah, fairy furniture from empty spools! Those were the days, weren’t they, and Elaine is the wonderful kind of person who keeps all of that alive.
Hi Susan .. we used to have one of those .. my father converted it to electricity … simple and very efficient – and I loved threads … I eventually got my own machine – but not a Singer … I now have my aunt’s and really need to get it refurbished as it’s in a dire state of dust ..
So pleased Elaine rescued the machine – and obviously loves and uses it still …
But the old threads, bobbins and spools … great to see … cheers Hilary