by Giavanna Munafo

 

Doll, labeled “Rose Jean”
Date unknown

It’s teatime and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It’s that simple.

— Anne Lamott

Hens cluck and peck in the dirt.
Ma clucks too, out back
dead-heading pansies.
Last night she cried.
Little Sister snuggled in, hiding
her worn face in my gown
blackness came and I sang
Hush, hush time to be sleeping,
so low no one else could hear.
We wriggled into the downy bed,
sweating and tossing.

This morning, Ma laughed
chattering to herself and plaiting
Sister’s hair, two braids
like snakes down her back.
The kitchen smells of oats, dank
and milky. Sister whines, damp
and sticky. I tickle and lift
her up. We gather the dolls
button-eyed rag babies, my one
big-faced child Dolly.
Pa brought her home,
corned and lurching.

Dolly’s hard lips blossom pink
parted mid-breath. Her broken
eyes are closed forever, brown
beneath shuttered lids.
But it’s her eyelashes, stiff,
like straw and clipped
straight across like bangs,
that stop me. We have no tea
to pour but pretend, arranging
their cold hands beside each cup,
our heads bent and
listening.

ARTIST STATEMENT

Doll, date unknown

Giavanna Munafo

I came across this doll in one of the many boxes of clothing, household items, and children’s toys stored in the NHS holdings one day when my friend, Ivy Schweitzer, and I visited to peruse objects we might want to write about. I was startled by the way she is nestled in amongst the clothing, how peaceful yet forgotten she seemed.

My first attempt at drafting an ekphrastic poem in response to the doll centered on my experience, as I put it, “ransacking the attic” in search of an object and, after much rummaging about, discovering this long lost face.

For me, the ghosts of the child or children who had played with her, and her being so long unloved and forgotten generated melancholy. But the poem just didn’t work. It was imagistic, opaque, moody, but not moving. Then I read Ivy’s draft and those of Woon-Ping Chin and Lisa Furmanski, both of which bring to life imagined characters. I returned to the image determined to write a persona poem, and the voice that emerged was that of an older sister, someone both wise and innocent. I did a small bit of research, learning that “lipstick” wasn’t a term used commonly in the 1800s, and that the eyelashes on the doll, which had struck me as so odd and a bit creepy, were likely made of human hair or mohair. Also, I found out that “corned” was a common term for “drunk,” and I liked this word because I thought it softened the idea of a drunken father. Plus I liked the sound of the word in the line where it appears. I learned a good bit more about dolls of the time period I had decided to use as the setting, the late 1890s, but in the end, not much of that stayed in the poem. The process of sharing drafts among other poets who were similarly imagining the lives of long gone women and girls — a theme that emerged among us — inspired me, and now I hope to do some more writing about the objects NHS has collected.