‘Sorting Through’ by Liz Lochead is a twenty-two line promo that is contained within one block of text. The lines are written in free verse, this means that there is no pattern of rhyme or rhythm. That doesn’t mean that the poem lacks unity, or that there is no rhyme in the text at all. Or example, Lochead makes use of half or slant rhyme a few times in the text.
This is a kind of rhyme in which only part of the word, usually a consonant or a vowel sound, rhymes. For example, the endings of lines one, four, and five, “dresses,” “shoes” and “swaggers” are half-rhymes due to the “s” sound at the end (and at the beginning in the case of “shoes” and “swaggers).
The poem begins with the speaker stating that her mother is dead and that she is going through her mom’s dresses. These are old items of clothing, ones she would’ve worn when she was much younger. The speaker’s mental image of the items her mother owned is now her own. Her perspective is shifting since her mother is gone.
The speaker imagines the days her mother wore these items, and looks through the makeup, shoes, and stockings left behind. Eventually, she bags everything up to donate. The final lines muse of the messy nature of life and death and how no one dies “neatly.”
You can read the full poem here.
There are a number of other poetic techniques that help to give ‘Sorting Through’ its own unique rhythm. These include alliteration, consonance, assonance, and enjambment. There are examples of alliteration scattered throughout the text. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least close together, and begin with the same letter. A reader can see it in the last words of the first line with “dance dresses” and later on in line seventeen with “dispossessed dresses”
Line seventeen also presents the reader with a good example of consonance. This is the repetition of a consonant sound within a line, or lines, or text. In line seventeen the “s” sound is used numerous times. There is an example of consonance and assonance, or the repetition of vowel sounds, in line twelve with “lipsticks. Liquid.”
Another common technique in ‘Sorting Through’ is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One is forced to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are a number of transitions between lines that make use of enjambment but a couple of good examples are between lines eight, nine, and ten.
Analysis of Sorting Through
The moment she died, my mother’s dance dresses
turned from the colours they really were
up the path towards her dad, light-headed
from airman’s kisses. Here, at what I’ll have to learn
In the first lines of ‘Sorting Through’ the speaker begins by letting the reader know that someone has died. This person is the speaker’s mother. By starting the poem with this fact, Lochead is able to draw the reader in and make them want to learn more about who this person was and why they died.
She goes on to explain the different changes that came over her world after the death of her mother. The first thing she noticed is that what she imagined about her mother’s life, became the truth. For example, when she was looking at her mother’s “dance dresses” she saw that they had
turned from the colours they really were
to the colours [she] imagine[s] them to be.
It is not just the dresses she is “sorting through” though, she also takes an interest in the “bumptoed silver shoes.” (Here is another good example of alliteration.) These were old, as were the dresses. The speaker imagines her mother as a child “swagger[ing]” up to her father and being spun in the air for “airman’s kisses.”
These are memories that she connects to personally. Perhaps they resemble something of her own childhood and this is why she’s able to project them onto her mother’s life. In the transition to the next line, she considers the fact that she’s going to have to relearn how she considers the house.
to call my father’s house, yes every
Labels like Harella, Gor-ray, Berketex.
Rather than calling the home her “mother and father’s house” she’s now going to have to call it her “father’s house.” This seemingly simple change is going to be hard to remember. The speaker continues searching through these old possessions and considers them to be the most important image of her mother, clearer than any printer could print.
The leftover clothes, specifically a “duster,” or long coat, are “vivid” prints of her mother’s life. They are better than any “Ilford snapshot,” a reference to a kind of camera film. Her example is more expansive than just a “snapshot” though. She imagines one in which her mothers is,
in a white cardigan and that exact frock.
The clothes, as they really belonged to her mother, are more important to the speaker. They say something about her that one snapshot of a moment in the past cannot. There are also a few other items the speaker finds. These include makeup and stockings. They have labels particular to the time they were bought on them. This tells the speaker and the reader more about the deceased woman.
As I manhandle whole outfits into binbags for Oxfam
every mote in my eye is a utility mark
the invisible danders of skin fizzing off from them
like all that life that will not neatly end.
In the final lines of ‘Sorting Through’ the speaker puts aside her emotional connection to the clothes and shoves them in bags to bring to “Oxfam.” Her eyes are filled with “mote[s]” or specks of dust, and they mark her. She goes on to catalogue the items she’s gathering. There are the sad, lost dresses and the decent “roundshouldered” coats.
These items were all found in the “darkness” of a wardrobe, robed of the previous importance they once had. They now mean something different. They now represent the image the speaker has of her own mother.
The poem concludes with the speaker using a simile to compare the “danders of skin” on the clothing to the way that life does not end “neatly.” This speaks to a messy shedding of one’s life that is not tied up cleanly by the end.