“Lost Things” by Emily Zogbi is the winning poem for the 2021 Sappho Prize, selected by guest judge Maggie Smith. We’re honored to share this stunning poem as well as an interview with Emily about her work.
“On one hand, this poem is grounded by conversational diction and the stuff of a life: keys, statues, portraits, furniture. On the other hand, it’s deliciously elliptical, dreamlike, and fragmented. The tension is electric, especially in the poet’s masterful play with syntax, repetition, and questions that are not questions at all, but framed as statement. This poem will stick with me for a good, long time.” —Maggie Smith
She gingerly adjusts the statue of Jesus
playing football, a stuffed jackalope,
a model of Apollo 11. A portrait of her
grandfather rests against the wall. His
name is on the moon, you know. We
collect the Christmas dishes & haul
them upstairs. This house is fit to burst.
What a lonely cloud I am she thinks. Her
children plead—there are too many things
here. Too many stairs, dollhouses, & piles
of ash. Everyone recalls the smell of the
electrical fire, rabbit & cat huddled under
the kitchen table. Okay everyone, let’s
play Find the Percocet. Saint Anthony
laughs at the top of the stairs. It’s always a
game with him. I turn over a vase & find
my name. I round a corner & the table has
vanished. I shake a teapot & the missing
rings appear in my mouth. Where’d you
find this. Someone is weeping by the
mailbox. I am cleaning in a manic frenzy
& now the keys are gone. We’ve all
misplaced the boiling water. It’s melting
the polyester in an eldest daughter’s shirt.
I forget how to peel a tomato. I forget how
to clean chicken. I don’t know when
I turned the oven on. Who is that man
in the portrait. What’s that smell. What
do you mean he’s dead. Do you see that
cardinal in the window. Do you see the
cloud in the den. I think I know its name.
There’s a hole in the fence. You wished
yourself to the moon & that’s where
you slipped through.
Interview with Emily Zogbi
by AT Hincapie
AH: Whether after the loss of a loved one or even to move into a new home, cleaning out a house is often done, as your poem describes, “in a manic frenzy…” Yet in the middle of this chaos, there is time to peel a tomato and clean chicken. How might the rituals of food provide the time and space for meditative reflection that the speaker needs?
EZ: Well, my first thought is that there’s always time for dinner. The house that inspired this poem, my grandparents’ house, was always full of people and often the epicenter of large family gatherings. A lot of my memories take place in that house, with people crowded in the kitchen or around a table full of food, which at times could be chaotic, but comforting at the same time. And, amidst the chaos, there is always something to eat. The lines “I forget how to peel a tomato / I forget how to clean chicken” are a way to indicate that the speaker has forgotten something that should be second nature; the speaker has forgotten a ritual. Food is something that’s supposed to be meditative and grounding, especially in a bustling, active space—so when those rituals are forgotten, the speaker becomes untethered. Ultimately, this is a poem about a house and the people inside of it, but it’s also about memory. I wasn’t trying to capture the specific type of chaos that comes with death or moving, but the frenzy of losing things in general. Both the everyday chaos of this specific house and the general chaos that comes with someone slowly losing their memory.
AH: Formally, the shape of the poem reinforces a feeling of claustrophobia that is reflected throughout each room of this house. Why is it important for you to show the collections of a person’s life in this way, rather than beginning the poem perhaps outside “weeping by the mailbox” where there might be more open space?
EZ: I think claustrophobic is a good word to describe what’s happening here. This poem had many different forms before I settled on this one; I fiddled around with the shape for a long time, but it always came back to a box. As someone who collects things, I have boxes full of sentimental papers, jars full of shells, tchotchkes galore, etc. I figured for a poem like this, with all the items listed, it made sense to have it all collected in one place. And, I guess, because the poem can become “frenzied” at times, I wanted a form that could contain it. I tried a lot of different shapes—at one point, the poem was like 10 or so box-like stanzas scattered about the page, but that got confusing very quickly. This singular box structure was the only shape that really made sense to me.
Everything begins and ends with the house, and a house is a collection of a person’s life. The poem is in part about a house, the people inside of it, and what we collect over the course of a lifetime; but ultimately, it’s about the fragile nature of memory, and how maybe we attach memory/meaning to objects so they have a tangible place to live in the world. Without meaning, it’s just stuff. My response to that, after having to think about it, is that you can attach meaning to objects, yes, but you cannot keep memory in a box. Once you lose it, it’s gone. And sometimes a house can be too full. Sometimes a house that, for decades, was the keeper of so many treasures can begin to betray the people it once protected. And I think the house in the poem became so crowded because the people living in it were afraid of what they would forget.
My grandparents are right now in the process of moving out of a place they’ve called home for nearly 60 years. They raised six children in that house. It’s seen and held a lot of love, drama, fights, and laughter. Over the course of their life, my grandparents have collected a lot of stuff. Like, a lot of stuff. Like ten dumpsters worth of stuff. It was definitely easy to get lost inside of it. The house served all of us well for the time that we had it—I know it as well as my childhood home—and I know it broke their hearts to have to leave. I remember telling my grandmother at one point that a house is just a house. It’s a box that holds our shirts and pants, not our memories. We do that. But I know that sentiment must scare her as her memory becomes more and more unreliable.
So, to answer your question, finally—this is an interior poem. There might be open space by the mailbox, but the speaker eventually must walk back up the driveway and go inside. After all, it’s not the speaker that slips through the fence at the end, but someone else.
AH: Religious imagery remains a constant presence throughout the house, from the statue of Jesus playing football to the patron saint of lost things laughing at the top of the stairs. Given the unusual appearance of these figures and their juxtaposition with images of space travel, is it possible that the family’s faith has been shaken by their experience?
EZ: That is entirely possible. I think faith can be easily shaken, but not so easily toppled. All the items that appear in the poem were actual things in my grandparents’ house, including the statue of Saint Anthony at the top of the stairs. It’s big too—comes right up to my knee if I remember correctly. It’s common in some Catholic families to pray to saints, and in my family, since we’re always losing stuff, be it wedding rings or sunglasses, we pray to Saint Anthony. We are a forgetful people! And sometimes after you’ve spent an hour tearing the house apart looking for your car keys only to find them in a place you looked a million times—or in a place that you never would have thought to look, like an old teapot—it does start to feel like someone is playing a sick game with you. It’s not completely about “belief” or “faith,” either; at some point it just becomes part of a family’s vocabulary. I dunno, it just made sense to include him in this poem. An experience like this is frustrating for both the family and the person that it’s happening too, and frustration can lead to doubt. But, yeah, maybe the family’s faith has been shaken, but the speaker’s faith hasn’t.
AH: In a similar light, this poem often emphasizes shared trauma and collective memory, whether gathering family heirlooms or recalling the smell of an electrical fire. How might the presence of family and friends help to comfort or encourage where perhaps faith and science might fall short for the speaker?
EZ: So, the poem starts in the third person, right—there’s a “she” that by the end of the poem becomes an “I.” I wanted the “who” of the speaker to be sort of blurry, because as you lose your memory, you’re also not sure who is speaking, or who said what. I like that you point out the moon stuff as scientific vs. the religious imagery. I didn’t even think about that. For me the moon is a sort of mythical figure—not like, “the moon landing was fake” mythical, but in the sense that, it’s part of our family mythos. My grandfather actually worked on Apollo 11—he wrote the flight manuals—and everyone who worked on it signed their name somewhere on the spacecraft—I think it was the bottom panel, but I can’t remember—so his name is, in fact, on the moon. So, in the house, the religious iconography and these more “scientific” items are sitting on the same shelf, literally and figuratively. I think, even without the memory theme, family and friends, faith and science, all of that blends together anyway. It’s complicated—the speaker feels misunderstood by her family (she is a “lonely cloud”) and her children worry that there are too many things in the house, which there are, but how can she part with them? Especially if they are the only things keeping her tethered to the Earth.