The Voice of Things

By Sven Birkerts

My wife and I moved a short while back from our crowded and lair-like house outside Boston to an abruptly more open and airy place in Amherst. Over a month in, I’m still gaping at new space and different light. The move came after thirty years in the house that most of our lives had happened in, the house about which I said for close to thirty years to anyone who would listen, “You’re going to have to bury me out back by the hollowed-out apple tree trunk.” And I meant it.

How I (we) got from that primal allegiance to ordering boxes from Home Depot is a narrative I won’t try to unspool. Suffice it to say, the boxes arrived in bundles of ten, so many that we admitted we had over-bought, an admission we retracted a few weeks later when we had to repeat the order.

I found that going through my accumulations became an ongoing encounter with everyone I’ve been on the way to whoever I am now.

Books were obviously the most powerful triggers, and I could fill many pages just itemizing my hours of vetting. There was no way I could just stack them by the handful into the boxes. The process for me was akin to updating an old address book, a kind of time-travel. The Alexandria Quartet (keep, maybe…), The Sportswriter (am I really going to read about Frank Bascombe again?), The Wings of the Dove (there may yet come a day…) and so on. If one were to follow that stream-of-consciousness until all the books were packed, the diary of my inner life—which is to say—my reading life, would be on open display.

Then there were all those things, objects saved through the years. The “keep or take” dilemma for those was usually fairly straightforward. The decisions were made along the lines of usefulness and sentiment. Much calling across the room. “What about this?” “Are you kidding? My sister gave me that—I want it!” Between the two of us most of the “stuff” got sorted and was either saved or set aside for the big Goodwill truck parked out behind the Stop & Shop.

But now I ask, for I still wonder, what about everything else? What about all the things in between? Things not necessarily useful but also not saturated with association. The Latvian ornament someone gave my parents who then passed it to me; the watches and glasses I will never wear again; that small piece of the Berlin Wall, alongside with a chip of granite taken from Joyce’s Martello tower in Dublin; a small, glazed ceramic head my daughter made; that silver flask my wife gave my father for his birthday…

Asked, I will claim a love of spareness. I privately invoke Tolstoy’s story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” and affirm the answer: six feet. So then what are all those boxes doing there, Mr. Kane? If I never opened those boxes again, just left them piled up there through the seasons, I would probably forget them entirely. So why not the dumpster?

This, I guess, brings the real question. Why, if not out of nostalgia or utility, does one keep something? Why can’t I toss that old wooden knife sharpener shaped like a rooster? My album of Paul Butterfield’s East-West, which will never revolve on a turntable again?

The answer is, I think, shockingly simple. I keep these things because I have gone through time with them. They have been in my field of vision for decades, many of them. The Butterfield album was there with me in room after room of my growing up. The objects I keep are not necessarily connected to special occasions and mark no anecdotally special moments. They belong to the special class of nouns: they were the things that were with me, part of my surroundings as year after year I moved through my ordinary day.

These familiar things, no matter how useless, hold the mark of our nearness to them. An object seen daily for thirty years is one I have gradually irradiated with my idle glances, or, vice versa, that has molecule by molecule imprinted itself on me, staked its mysterious claim. All these recognitions belong to the profound retrospective that is packing-up. They determine for me letting go and also preview what might yet happen. I have little doubt that they also stand in for larger and deeper assessments still to come.  

Sven Birkerts is the author, most recently, of Speak, Memory, a meditation on Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir. He co-edits the journal AGNI.  This piece originally appeared in the literary magazine, Brevity. 

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