Poets Online Archive
The Guilt Shop

Mark Hillringhouse introduced his poem, "Guilt Shop," at the 2004 Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival by saying, "While driving with a friend, and without my glasses, I saw a sign on the side of the road that read "GUILT SHOP" in big white letters, and I thought, 'What a strange store. What could possibly be inside for sale?' It turns out it was a quilt shop, but fortunately I already had my notebook out and wrote down the misread name for use as the subject of a poem."

Of his poems, Mark Rudman has written: "His work is grounded in the mystery of the everyday, and manages, with concise language and attentiveness to rhythm, to give an audible sense of the world. There's a sense of his narrative lyrics prying meaning away from inertia."

The guilt shop is a great start to a poem. Use it. Stock your guilt shop, browse the aisles, throw away items, take inventory, close the door and walk away - even the title is up for sale, since titles can't be copyrighted - and we're all in the business.

Mark Hillringhouse is a poet, essayist, translator, photographer and teacher and has worked as Poetry Director for the William Carlos Williams Center for the Arts and as an editor for New York Arts Journal and American Book Review. His work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, American Poetry, Columbia, The New York Times Book Review and many others. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has won the Chester H. Jones National Poetry Competition, and recently won a Fellowship in Poetry from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts for 1998. He teaches creative writing at Passaic County Community College in New Jersey and is a member of the National Book Critics’ Circle.

Read 6 poems by Mark Hillringhouse and also hear him read them at http://www.literary.org/hillringhousepoems.htm



Looking for Opportunity?
Open a Guilt Shop.
Universal Merchandise,
items that absolve
the pains inflicted:
cruel remarks,
forgotten anniversaries,
invidious comparisons,
Holidays busy--
find reminders of mother, father,
child, friend.
No markdowns required.

Franchises available,
All markets:
Christian, Jewish, Freudian.
North, South, East, West.
Urban, rural, downtown, mall.
Home based business
actively pursued.
Concept Guaranteed.
Will outlast New Age, other trends.

Favored demographic:
Shoppers young, and middle aged,
female section highlighted.
Fewer seniors.
Some pains
are assuaged
by age.

Broeck Wahl


I put it in a rusting tin,
behind a jar of shame
and a box of humiliation.

As if I could hide it
from myself or
the house guests.

And when one of them
opened the cabinet,
I took extra air

and held it for three beats
till she instead lifted
a clear bottle of pride

and turned to me.
Is this all you have left?
I nodded and exhaled.

The tin bulged a bit more.
Enough to carry me
through two lives.

Charles Michaels


And yet, when you look closer,
it’s a Quilt Shop after all.
Blame your aging eyesight;
park your car, & come inside.

Everything is scraps and tatters
sutured, stitched; a bright bit
of this & that, never quite
enough of any fabric to affirm
a pattern, wrong or right, but
worn over time; discarded
like the slights of yesterday.

Generations of mothers
learned to puncture old cloth
with needles; knotted yarn
to quiet crying. Quilts
are comforters, they say.

And yet, with failing sight
you wonder if a quilt saves
what were best forgotten;
what we wanted to cast away.

Taylor Graham


on a autumn Sunday morning,
amongst the old record albums,
clothing, baby's toys -
a table full of guilt.
This is where I find my people.
Looking, touching, lifting for heft,
and, yes, wanting.
I know the signs of the addicted,
the haves who want more.
They are an easy touch for the owner.
Set your price and they will pay.
Some, still so young, hesitant.
Their greatest guilt in that
they believe they need more.
There are those people who have come
on their way home from church
looking like the mass hasn't quite ended.
The guilt glistens in the rising sun,
arranged like books on a shelf.
Friends lost, words said, words unsaid,
a whole row of self-guilt.
One, a slap of a hand etched
on Depression glass, is so much
like one I already own that I lift it
to look for the maker's seal on the bottom,
and get that small guilty pleasure
from knowing that I am not alone
in my dark, seductive art.

Ken Ronkowitz



For Mel

I am accused.
I dream of massacres.
Sylvia Plath - "Poem For Three Voices"

You said that you hope my writing poetry helps.
I told you that I don't know if my poetry helps,
but it's what I do ad nauseum. Guilt

is a promised thing - it clings.
I wear my guilt like an engagement ring.
I feel I am being punished.
They punish the guilty, don't they?
Cut out their tongues?
Beat them with nine-tails?
There is killing behind my eyes.
I must put him away.
Put him in a place where they covet old things,
very old things, antiques really, but there is a price to pay,

and no one is buying.
I must put him away.
He must be put away.
Old things that fall down must, must. Guilt

is a promised thing.
I wear my guilt like an engagement ring.
There is killing behind my eyes, but I promise you,

I am being punished.
They punish the guilty, don't they?
Cut out their tongues?
Does my poetry help?




Guilt! Guilt! Guilt!
It’s the name of the game
That controls behavior from cradle to grave.
As an innocent child who curiously
Explored herself and the world
I was threatened as an imp and a devil
By mock hurt feelings meant to socialize
My little monster into fearful conformity.
But the devil won against lockstep requirements,
Trickling then tumbling into musical themes known as poetry.

Ellen Kapla


bought in a guilt shop,
a poem
sealed in a bell jar,
rolled paper
held with pink bow,
not even an echo
on an ear,
the writing showing
when held to the light,
kept as a warning,
and some days
as hope captured
beyond its moment,
and today it is
a reminder to me,
that I must undo
the blue bow
of my own writing
that is rolled tightly
in a small pocket
at my breast.

Pamela Milne



I'm getting desperate here,
trying to find the perfect failure
in a shop so stocked with them,
a reason not to write or rise,
my lips pressed closed
in a silent barter that only offers that I am my own tortured victim.

And I would stay home,
but there are too many small voices
to tell me it's all fine, too much
average addiction to success
based on the needs of others.
No, I'd rather be here, shopping alone,
apologizing to the series of echoes,
to the girl I was,
the me I wished to know and sorry too
that the echoes are not great enough
to help me settle for the best verdict
my mental money can buy,
not even enough to stop the optimist in my mind that says:

you know, there's a poem in this.

Susan Culver


Tuesday afternoon, the Hollow Cause Museum
Neither teemed nor bustled,
Nearly as dead as its subjects--

Though a winsome smile from the gift shop clerk
Restored my interrupted aliveness.
What should I get Mom as a souvenir?

Almost went for the Middle Passage Chocolates,
Dark mini-humans embedded in a gold-foil ship-shaped box,
Side by side, head to foot.

Chuckled at the First Nations jigsaw puzzle
That came in several scattered boxes
And was missing 95% of its pieces.

The hunting print, with fresh white Marines
And their aristocratic hounds treeing
Naked, quaking Filipinos, was a tad or two pricey.

CIA highball glasses, a series of 24,
With frosted silhouettes of friendly dictators--
Collect 'em all!--beckoned my tourist bucks.

But no, something more to the moment won out:
A translucent desktop oil barrel, filled with a pint
Of real Iraqi blood.

Ms. Winsome beamed over the register,
" That'll be two hundred billion dollars, please."
" It's worth it," I replied.

David B. Collins


My dream house is in shambles
I move things with my mind
but the furniture still looms
the dust is alive, and cruel words
are graffitied everywhere.

They say we recycle well
acts we’d never dream to tell
I find shame around the corner
clinging to the banister
eating through the wood.

You are there, your back always
turned to me. You play
old phonographs at low volume
a song heard three rooms ago
Rust Never Sleeps

was playing in the car
you bowed your head when I said,
Go away and don’t ever come back.
Cigarette smoke curled up between us
and I curved my smile in the shape of smoke
a cruel spell to banish
your voice in my head.

Twenty-five years later
my head on a pillow miles away
my dream life won’t let you die
and those cruel words
become a foundation of shame
I wake from sleep in shadow
curved under the palm
held over your streaming eyes.

Patty Tomsky



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