friday feast: “mrs. caldera’s house of things,” by gregory djanikian

“Life imitates art more than art imitates life.”
                                            ~Oscar Wilde

The other day, after reading “Mrs. Caldera’s House of Things,” I looked around my house.

This is what I saw:

my Brownie beanie from when I was seven years old
at least 50 pairs of shoes, size 7-1/2
several dozen character wristwatches
hundreds of children’s books
stuffed camel from Algeria with its fur going in the wrong direction
Addams Family “thing” bank
at least one bear in every room
small ceramic heart with “jama” etched into it that had been broken, then repaired
English phone booth made out of teak
Alice in Wonderland tea set
lots of dishes with words on them, like “fairy cakes,” “verbena,” and “toast and marmalade”

I realized I could go on listing things for hours and hours, and still not list everything in this house.

I read the poem again, and thought about my relationship with things. Why I had mine, and why Mrs. Caldera had hers.

Mrs. Caldera:  frugal and resourceful (Depression era mentality)

Me:  spoiled and wasteful (materialistic society)

Either way, we both ended up with lots of stuff.

“Mrs. Caldera’s House of Things” prompted me to ponder my past, my values, and my place in the world. All that from a few moments visiting an old woman in a cluttered house. Gregory Djanikian is adept at making the everyday and ordinary pulse with meaning. His poems are always immediate and accessible.

Dana Gioia once said that one shouldn’t analyze a poem, but experience it. From the moment I entered “Mrs. Caldera’s House of Things,” I became totally immersed in the world of the poem. The ending caught me by surprise, and made me want to go back. Won’t you go in?

by Gregory Djanikian (from About Distance, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1995) 


You are sitting in Mrs. Caldera’s kitchen,
you are sipping a glass of lemonade
and trying not to be too curious about
the box of plastic hummingbirds behind you,
the tray of tineless forks at your elbow.

You have heard about the backroom
where no one else has ever gone
and whatever enters, remains,
refrigerator doors, fused coils,
mower blades, milk bottles, pistons, gears.

“You never know,” she says, rummaging
through a cedar chest of recipes,
“when something will come of use.”

(Read the rest here.)

Gregory Djanikian is Head of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania. He was born in Egypt and moved to America when he was eight. There is a good abstract of his background here, and some good audio of him reading his poetry aloud here.

Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at Two Writing Teachers.

If, after reading the poem, you find yourself channeling Mrs. Caldera (making cookies), please come to the alphabet soup Cookie Party and share your recipe!

~Coming to you live from Mrs. Rattigan’s House of Things

21 thoughts on “friday feast: “mrs. caldera’s house of things,” by gregory djanikian

  1. TadMack says:
    Mrs. Caldera terrifies me just a little bit. I know the gist of the poem is about finding a place for oneself in the midst of things, too, but I come from a long line of packrats, and the idea that there is a certain practicality in it scares me!
    But truly – you never know…


  2. I love this poem, even though I’m a—what’s the opposite of a packrat? a purger?—anyway, I love how funny it is, especially the headline from the Literalist Express.
    And jama: Dishes with words! A teak phone booth! Of course, if I had stuff like that, I wouldn’t get rid of a thing.


  3. Karen Edmisten said:
    Oh, I love that! Thanks — I’d not seen it before.
    I especially loved this part:
    “her arms are heavy and strong,
    they have held babies, a husband,
    tractor parts and gas tanks,
    what have they not found a place for?”
    Tad, my take on it was that the poet doesn’t necessarily approve of Mrs. Caldera’s obsessively hoarding ways as being truly practical, but that the person she is absolves her of the craziness of it. (Not that *your* stuff, Jama, makes *you* crazy. 🙂 Your stuff sounds tempting and delightful, whereas Mrs. Caldera’s pile of stuff is the remnant of fear.)
    — Karen …


  4. Oh, I just love this poem. It is so forgiving, which I think we all could use a lot of (says the girl who found an old egg in her living room yesterday :))
    And also, Jama, I cannot imagine that a plate with the words “toast and marmalade” could be anything resembling spoily or materialistic. It really just makes me want to come to tea!


  5. You do not sound spoiled and materialistic; rather, the things you mention seem more likely saved for nostalgiac reasons.
    (Well… maybe the shoes… but at least your feet are a compact 7 1/2 – mine are size 10, so they require more space!)
    I enjoyed the poem. Thank you!


  6. Re: TadMack says:
    Well, now I feel I must send you a big bear hug, because last time you were terrified of Humpty Dumpty, and now I’ve scared you with Mrs. Caldera!
    But I see your point. There is a desperation to hang onto the past that goes beyond all practicality.
    Anything obsessive, like hoarding, is scary. But I don’t see Mrs. C as a hoarder or as being particularly desperate. More like she came from a poor background, or lived through hard times, and “saving everything” became her mantra through many years of an uncertain life.


  7. Glad you liked the poem! I find that the older I get, the more of a purger I become. It’s a lot of work storing, cleaning, displaying all kinds of stuff. Now if I had a maid . . .


  8. The toast and marmalade dishes are definitely an indulgence. I’ve got more china in this house than I could ever eat off of. Someday I will have to blog about this sinful obsession. Glad you liked the poem!
    P.S. I totally forgive you for the Easter egg :).


  9. Thank you for being so kind. Where I come from, anything bigger than size 6 is considered clodhoppers. I was told I had skis for feet :)! I think 7-1/2 is big for someone only 5’2″.
    How tall are you?


  10. I am always fascinated with conversations about things and why we keep or get rid of them. I had a twenty year old son and a two year old, and the little guy still plays with toys given to my oldest one, and wears some of the same clothes. I kept a lot of stuff just in case LOL! But now I am finally giving stuff away or getting rid of it. Both behaviors feel good at times and are sometimes scary.
    The one thing I am not sure of in this poem is the last line. Surrounded by stacks of old magazines she couldn’t get rid of I am not sure I would feel that I had never been more highly valued. If her house is overflowing with stuff I think I would feel that people were not the most valuable things in her life… That last line confuses me.


  11. I do see your point. Does Mrs. C value things more than people? But she does invite the visitor to “stay awhile,” and she is making cookies, so it does sound as though she likes people.


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