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Portrait of My Sister About to Shoplift

by Chelsea Wagenaar

She’s not the glossy tubes of mascara,
their hidden wands bristled & blacked.

She’s not the crate of pomegranates: this is
no still life. Everyone already knows

what the inside of a woman’s body looks like.

She’s not the mugshot that will run in tomorrow’s paper,
her shaded eyes inscrutable with the after.

She’s not the aisle of bulbs, boxed like eggshell nimbuses.
Would they suffice to light the distance

between us, a constellation of years? She’s turning
down the fishing aisle. She’s touching the flies & lures,

stringing their names like garlands (Sepia Nymph,
Mallard & Claret) around her evergreen silence

(Breathalyzer. Black Ghost). The poles assemble before her
like grand rosined horsehair bows

and she is Alice down the rabbit hole, undersized.
Willing to drink anything if it means she’ll change.

She chooses one. In her mind, a clear brook passes
over stones older than her oldest memory.

Minnows school & shimmer between cloud shadow.
She walks down the aisle the way women

always have, quietly, slowly, as everything
before & after disappears into fluorescence.

With “Portrait of My Sister About to Shoplift,” I started out feeling some loyalty to a person, to an experiential truth, but I needed to write my way into loyalty to the poem itself. After many drafts, I decided on portraiture as my avenue, in part because I wanted to write against the permanence of a mugshot (that most damning portrait), of shoplifting on a person’s criminal record, and instead freeze the moment just before, the moment of the decision as it’s forming. I didn’t want to craft backstory or context, which are more customary ways of humanizing the wrongdoer. I’m interested in “that moment when the bird sings very close / to the music of what happens” (from Seamus Heaney’s poem “Song”). Portraiture as the act of description itself—the rigorous, painstaking, attentive kind—can lead to revelation. For me, the last three lines were revelatory, with the double resonance of walking “down the aisle” as the girl carries her chosen, shoplifted object—the fishing pole—away from everything before but not quite to everything yet to come. For a moment, she’s preserved in the transitory.

Chelsea Wagenaar is the author of two collections of poetry, most recently The Spinning Place, winner of the 2018 Michael Waters Poetry Prize. Her first collection, Mercy Spurs the Bone, was selected by Philip Levine to win the 2013 Philip Levine Prize. She holds degrees from the University of Virginia and the University of North Texas, and currently teaches in North Carolina. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in The Cincinnati Review and The Massachusetts Review.