As children, my brother and I were given tasks around the house. No doubt part of the reason for this was to train us to keep house as adults. A good strategy, but one that wasn’t equally effective. My father liked the house immaculate and my brother has come to emulate this. After finishing a meal, he immediately puts things away and clears the table of every last crumb. I like to rest for an hour or so after I’ve eaten before tackling clean-up.

My brother and I had some of the same chores such as washing dishes, but also different ones based on our gender. While my brother mowed the lawn, I was given the job of dusting, a tedious chore. Mostly I hated the work, but there was one part I liked. My mother had a shelf on the living room wall of figurines and I would spend some time playing with those instead of dusting.

Most of them were of women in various fancy costumes — stiff dresses with multiple layers of frills, parasols, flamboyant hats. I would twirl them around on the floor, make up words for them to say, and stories about their lives. They were rigid figures, though, limited in the way they could move.

Amongst those beauties I also remember a wooden figure of a stagecoach with horses and a wooden man on the driver’s box. The wheels actually turned and it was fun to have them travel across the rug, leaving the fancy women in the dust. It’s not lost on me now that it was the male figure who got to go exploring while the females were too fragile and rigid to seek adventure.

Claire Millikin’s Grandmother Lou also had porcelain figurines — delicate, pretty objects that enchanted Claire and that she played with like dolls. She says, “When I was little I broke one and was so upset, then grandmother gave me a big hug and said you are more valuable than a figurine, and she gave me — as a gift — the figurine of my choice, to keep. The one I chose was styled like a ballerina.”

That ballerina figurine inspired Claire to write an ode in fourth grade that won a poetry prize. In that poem, Claire kills off the ballerina at the end of the poem.

This poem is quite different. Claire grew up in Georgia and she notes, “The poem is about the fact that the figurine’s still on the shelf, still fragile. I don’t mean the poem as a critique of anyone in particular, just highlighted the violence of the ideal of Southern womanhood, to stay fragile, doll-like, at perpetual risk of being broken. I guess I want to declare my formal rejection of being a figurine, or trying to be like a figurine.”

This poem is from Claire Millikin’s book, “Dolls,” published by 2leafpress, 2021. Claire is the author of eight other poetry collections, most recently, “Transitional Objects” (Unicorn Press, 2022). She is an award-winning poet, scholar and teacher. She also co-edited with Agnes Bushnell the anthology “Enough! Poems of Resistance and Protest” (Littoral Books, 2020).

Please remember to stop by the “Locally Grown Books” display at the Art Mart at Waterfall Arts on Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. where you’ll find books by 14 talented local authors.

Figurine

From the abandoned orchard at the back of the road,

apple trees cast shadows along glass cabinetry

wherein rest porcelain figurines.

I can’t do it anymore, hold that porcelain silence

of the figurine —

ankles, wrists

figurine forms have no life, of course, but they have plenty

of history. These days of early summer

the light looks fragile

as if someone opened the door

into a room where I’m changing clothes

suddenly exposed,

this thin a shelf on which I’m set, a direct descendant

of figurines. Apple blossoms blown

inside through open windows,

look like fragments of the broken world.

Judy Kaber is Belfast’s poet laureate.