Culling Keepsakes

By Mark Belair

“it is complete but never finished”
W.S. Merwin, The Same River




a photograph


A faded

magazine photograph


of an old man

in a torn coat


wrapped in a blanket

on a sheetless


rooming house bed

staring out


with Samuel Beckett eyes

was the first thing—


culling keepsakes at sixty-four—

I discarded.


Back when I cut it out,

I saw him


as an end-of-life



of my blank, solitary, start-of-life



I kept

that stark photograph



for forty-six years

as an icon


of the cost

of not changing, of not


writing my way out of blankness

or of


writing deeper into it

with bogus-Beckett eyes.


I had my own eyes.


And had to silver a page

with words


that would mirror them

to me.




I put down text—

personal essays, screenplays, a novel—


that functioned, in retrospect,

as the fired up


bricks of my meandering



Each brick, each time, in time,

extracted from exposure


and stored; bricks

now rattling around


a dump truck

on their way to be pulverized.


My path of text

set, finally, with small stone


poems I noticed

and dug up


from the hardscrabble





Not diaries, but notes

I kept as I came of age.


Not thoughts of the day, but

thoughts to metabolize.


I made no ceremony

of their dispossession.


Cut me

and I bleed them.






Of music, a supreme art, I made

a humble trade that required tools:


if you want to gig as a drummer,

you need gear.


But with my trade course run, the gear

now ties up scarce apartment space


and all I need to keep are a small set,

some cymbals, and a few pair of sticks.



And even the set, in time, will go,

though not the handful of sticks


that somehow rim-shot-survived; sticks

dented as my grandfather’s, whose sticks—


handed down to me by my dad—

formed me as a boy: I could


hold what my long-departed grandfather

held in the way only musicians playing


old instruments can, the past and present

collaborating in our hands.


The future

of my grandfather and me


to be entrusted

to a bag of our blended sticks


that will keep

what we kept


alone and together:

some time.


drum parts


With their performance use past, the need to

keep my annotated drum parts is past, too.


The printed parts are publicly available;

the markings in a code only I can use.


Unlike recordings, live performances—

the bulk of my career—soon become


history, polish up to the fading story

of one sonic movement through time;


one that leaves no evidence

but for relics


like the parts interred and decomposing

in my storage closet.


The hope I cling to—as I fill

bag after bag for recycling—


the wishful one

that when it counted, when


the demands

of each musical passage


were presented—

above all, the demand


to make its spirit



even when I knew

its body


(the night, the place, the players)

would be forgotten—


I did

my part.






I keep them for reference—

my old calendars and address books—


though I never open their storage box

but to place another one in.


So I keep them, I guess, for sentiment;

keep them because


all the gone days

of my adult life


have a little square

in the calendars


and all the gone people

have a number


I once used

to reach them.


Keep them to

free me


from keeping

within me


a vanishing



of growing



a log


It was a life log

I kept


of dates and facts,




the beginning


of promising



whose end







their promise





while middles

of things



without the context


of a start

and finish,


and some






but their starts

and middles






unremarkable at the time—



of hard dates


soft on truth,

a log


that failed

to tell my life stories


though telling the story

of how I lived.




It was summer, we were newlyweds, and

stoked by this plunge into adulthood (we


were both twenty-one) I stood painting

in the yard outside our first apartment.


My wife came out and stood behind me.

“What do you think?” I casually asked.


After a gracious pause, she chirped,

“Think of all the things you can do!”


I laughed, and that was that: easel, paints,

brushes—all donated or thrown away.


But the paintings—though inept—

I kept.


Not as art, but as symbols of the start of

what turned out to be a lifetime’s search


for the mode of rewarding work

most mine.


Now those paintings

are gone.


Because after an ever-embarking, faith-and-doubt-dancing,

curlicue quest


I finally

took my wife’s advice


and did—

as best I could—



I could.




As if having been

crunched, stretched, then twisted


beyond recognition—

therefore impenetrable


to others, and, after

twenty seconds or so,


to me—

my handwriting, creeping


into its later life,

seemed well past keeping.


But through trial and (mostly)



it ended up remediable

by assuming the look


of later life itself: smaller,

but more legible.





Dumped into a donation

bin: bags


of barely worn clothes

but for a stash of blandness—


t-shirts and jeans—

that makes me disappear.


These I keep.


Best not to be of note

if a poet


who wants to note

and make note.


the cardboard box


The cardboard box—its contents (if memory serves)

random as a memory bank—has been shut for years.


This box of keepsakes—from my childhood

and beyond—collected by my mother.


This inherited box whose flip top, since her death,

has been impossible for me to open.


I know it holds a red-checkered cowboy shirt and some

grammar school report cards; I don’t recall what else.


Mementos that, if self-chosen, I could edit with ease.

But these were my mother’s selections.


Yet with all my other keepsake culling done—a chore I don’t want,

some future day, to impose upon others—the time has clearly come.


So I take the box down from the high shelf

in the storage closet and open the top to see


memorabilia from my music career, artifacts closest to when she died:

concert programs, tour itineraries, posters, other random souvenirs.


Then come clippings from earlier years: yellowed newspaper or magazine

articles, photographs, advertisements, reviews.


Plus a newspaper with its banner headline reporting Richard Nixon’s

resignation, news right up there, at the time, with a man on the moon.


Next my youth and childhood appear: graduation diplomas, those unimpressive

report cards; then Confirmation, First Communion, and Baptismal certificates.


And a posting, in the local paper, announcing that I—and many others—

had been discharged from the hospital that day; I’d had my appendix out.


Small town life.

My mother even saved a hospital menu with my name penciled on it.


Then comes the list of boys, in her handwriting, who made up the two teams

that played baseball at my ninth birthday party—Yanks and Pirates—and


every name stops me: Dicky Sody, Freddy Machuga, Linny Carey, Bruce Echigary,

Eddie MacDonald, Joey Greco, Kevin Sullivan, David Keepin, Phil Nibeolo, James Hayes.


And each boy’s bright face returns; and even their taut bodies since we boxed, wrestled,

and played sports most every day.


Getting toward the bottom, another list appears, this of my kindergarten roster.

No name rings a bell.


But the first crayon drawing I brought home, so marked by my mother, is

here: a bold, colorful flower captioned in scrawling, childish letters with:



Then a shock.


I don’t remember dropping this in when I got the box, but slipped down

to beside my red-checkered cowboy shirt—indeed it is there—appears


my mother’s smiling face

above her obituary.


And my tears burst forth, tears boxed up for years,

tears for this woman whose overwhelming presence


dominated my early life and kept me

bonded to her up to this difficult day.


Then next to that, on the cowboy shirt, sits

something I had forgotten about, something


she placed, perhaps, as a way to reach out

on this inevitable day of keepsake culling:


the toy handcuffs—dulled from use—

I’d attach—after mock-arresting her—


to each

our wrist.


a continent


It feels as if I’ve landed, for the first time, in Paris—the sky cloudy,

the cafes inviting, the language not strange, but not one I’m fluent in.


The past

an ocean away.


Feels as if I’ve arrived to

find myself drawn to


cobblestone streets, old churches, weathered bridges, mossy monuments.

The newer brilliancies I hardly see; they hardly see me.


Feels as if I’ve alighted as a foreign tourist in this country

of my own later years, disoriented, yet pressed to use this


scant time with its wealth of hours

to learn the local ways


and to reflect upon—

so dream-keep—


my homeland continent,

one that seemed



even subtly—


to break off and—

with no passage


back to it—

drift away.


Mark Belair’s poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Alabama Literary Review, Atlanta Review, The Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Poetry East and The South Carolina Review. His latest collection is Watching Ourselves (Unsolicited Press, 2017). Previous collections include Breathing Room (Aldrich Press, 2015); Night Watch (Finishing Line Press, 2013); While We’re Waiting (Aldrich Press, 2013); and Walk With Me (Parallel Press of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, 2012). He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize multiple times. Please visit

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