In Handbags, Purses, and Wallets


Last week I suggested that people write poems about the contents of their wallets, pocketbooks, purses, handbags, backpacks, and the like. The poems that came in were of a high quality. I felt that Angela Ball, in “Red Bag,” makes the most of the opportunity to turn a quick contemplation of her bag’s contents into a kind of self-portrait:


“I apologize for not sending your bag
right away. I am making it now,” said
the leather worker. Then it arrived—
soft, the color of sour
cherries, unlined. Red flecks
follow things out of it—unworn earplugs
from a transatlantic flight, the tortoiseshell
plastic arm of broken reading glasses, a checkbook
with writing on the back: “One quart
stain,” a word I read as “ecstasy” but it is
a painter’s name, “Easterling.” In a special
attached wallet, Euros, a passport
about to expire, stamped “Melville Hall”—
Dominica, exit on Michael’s birthday
2010. Jean Rhys alive in the form
of a conference we would have attended
had our rental car worked. Stamps careful
not to impinge, windows etched with days
sure of themselves, unlike us—disposed
in accordance with the unseen,
our bags giving up our hands.


Millicent Caliban tells us the prompt led her to attempt “to imitate Old English alliterative verse” in a poem dedicated to “Jack and Gwendolyn”:


In a Handbag

A handbag with handles, large, made of leather:
An infant inside, alone and abandoned,
by fate found at venerable Victoria.
Parted from parents, taken in by Sir Thomas,
the child was cherished; he grew up with graces,
learned how to love. But much was a mystery:
What blood was his birthright? What social standing
could he bring to a bride? Under intensive interrogation,
he faltered at first, but unexpected revelation rallied him:
a contrite confession of what had been concealed,
a manuscript misplaced perchance in a perambulator
left his pedigree perfect; his lady could love him in earnest.


Charise Hoge takes third place with “Vacation, Italy.” I admired the way “purse” in line one gets transformed into “peruse” in line two

Fancy a purse, find of a holiday.
Oh daily peruse of linings of gold,
of yellow silk. Well yolk is more my color,
sunny side up, dawn.

We wake to hike in the Dolomites.
By evening, learn “vives!” for cheers, unblinking.
It goes to my head, toes go tickling
effervescence of us. The contents of
many an anniversary carried light.


I have a soft spot for the jagged-edged versification in Paul Michelsen’s untitled poem that begins “Broken boat / urbane beret, a uke /seaborne sank /tenebrous as a statue / eastern son / rose.”

Knots torn
ears start to burn
true to taste
one take, in stone
nearest to nature, atone


I’d also single out Courtney Thrash, in whose charming entry we encounter excellent similes (“Past lipstick like a waxen rose,” “to dream like a daughter of Mnemosyne”). Ricky Ray’s “Heavy in the Hand” won plaudits for the internal rhymes that pull us along (“how could I or hell’s red sky contend / with the true bend of leather”). Jane Keats impresses with her rhymes and interesting conclusion. Finally, Michael Edgar’s limerick has absolutely nothing to do with the proffered prompt, but I am glad that the spirit of light verse lives on: “I think it decidedly premature / To blame man for earth’s rising temperature / It could be the ladies / Who send us to Hades / With energy use so intemperate.”

For next week, I hope that others will feel as I do about Emily Dickinson’s fragments. I particularly like “A woe of ecstasy” and suggest that we make it the first line of a brief but brilliant, mysterious, and memorable poem. You may want to use a dash—or two—in the Emily manner.

Deadline: Sunday, September 25 at midnight, any time zone.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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