From Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness (© 2001 Don McKay, Gaspereau), and excerpted in Gaspereau Gloriatur: Book of the Blessed Tenth Year, vol. 2: Prose, edited by Michael deBeyer, et al. Reproduced with the permission of Gaspereau Press, Printers & Publishers. Don McKay’s most recent book of poetry is Strike/Slip (McClelland & Stewart) and his most recent prose work is Deactivated West 100 (Gaspereau).
Recently I held a yard sale because I wanted to convert clutter into money. I advertised in the paper, emphasizing the range of articles for sale— furniture, books, clothing, appliances, household items. I put up posters at the university which hinted that Real Finds swam like pike among the weeds, that this was a place where, not only might a useful pre-owned chair be acquired, but an objet might be trouvé. On Friday I began lugging stuff from the basement and contriving its artful display on planks laid between boxes and that old set of speakers (themselves on sale) in the yard and garage, enjoying the twin pleasures of spring cleaning and junior capitalism, spiced with a dash of gypsy élan. But these mainstream yard sale feelings were followed by a mood that surprised me. Once out of storage and onto the lawn, the clutter looked different: each thing emerged from the general mess into its own identity. It was as though the monetary concern (how much can I ask for a dysfunctional Lawnboy?) triggered a wider sense of value, one that had to do with our connection and shared experience (lotta grass through the old blade, eh?) over the years. Walter Benjamin claims that ownership is the most intimate relation we can have with things; but I wonder if that intimacy is not, like marriage, shadowed by familiarity’s dead hand. Of course Benjamin is thinking of connoisseurship, but I have it on good report that a painting or a first edition can become as invisible as a kettle.
But besides the defamiliarizing effect of lawn and garage—which were taking on, so I hoped, something of a carnival air—there was the fact of my gesture in putting these possessions up for sale. Now that they were on waivers, the portable typewriter and the fifties floorlamp, the royal wedding souvenir plate and the lacrosse sticks, stood firmly etched, separate from my motives and needs. Almost all of them were, using the term broadly, tools; but tools whose usefulness to me was finished. And the very lack which had condemned them to the yard sale now nudged them a few degrees in the direction of art, that class of objects which are eloquent and useless. Normally this phase of Yard Sale Mind would be confined to the brief period between assembly and first sale. But in my case it had lots of time to swell to a major theme, since Saturday afternoon brought first rain, which dampened the serendipitous, gossipy curiosity which yard sales satisfy, then snow, which froze it. Springtime in New Brunswick. I had plenty of time to sit in the garage, door shut tight against the wind, wearing the jacket I had been willing to let go for five dollars. Declarations made during the lugging phase hung in the air—declarations to the effect that this was a one-way street and unsold items would be moving to the Salvation Army, not back to the expletive deleted basement. Only a few grim yard salers appeared. I hoped no one wanted to buy the old electric heater, whose usefulness, after all, was not quite dead.