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The Lapsed Archivist Attends a Housecleaning
In memory of the voices we have lost
--motto of the Lesbian Herstory Archives
You are outside painting furniture, I
am working in the bathroom, sanding through
three colors of cracking paint. We
are getting ready for your summer tenant.
The diamond window frames are splintered,
gouged with previous efforts; "Sappho's Coming!"
exults a sticker on the mirror, perhaps
announcing me, you said, a lesbian poet
making poems today with brush and scraper.
Inside you sort through piles and boxes,
deciding what to keep and where to put it,
calling me to see the glossy pictures
of your high school yearbook. You tell
me of sitting by a fire, burning letters
one by one, the letters of your mentor.
Thirty years of letters to and from
her woman lover. You honored her request.
And what if you, or someone else,
willed me to burn her letters?
I once spent hours haunted by
the voices we have lost, unfolding
brittle papers not a decade old,
cataloguing, laying each one flat
in acid-free gray boxes. Could I
consign your letters to the flame,
or would I think of living widows
dying on their husbands' pyres?
Would I close my eyes and cast in
unread bundles, or try to take
the ones in my own writing back?
Would I hear crackling in the fire
the voices we have lost?
As I complete the second coat, golden
flames are dancing in the diamond panes:
daffodils, from bulbs your mother
planted nineteen years ago. "Sappho's
Coming!" sings the mirror, Sappho
whose tenacious legacy of fragments
survives two thousand years of burning.
Still some say she pined for some man's
love. This Sappho shreds all drafts
of each completed poem; each jewel forgets
being chiseled from the vein.
Purged of dross, your mentor's life
is found in theatre files. I
would not have known had you not told me.
Published in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, volume 10, no. 3 (1989).