Poetry / Joshua Weiner
:: Stay Put ::
Row houses sharing walls mice moving like noises stirring between them getting ready to do something on the corner lot old crone sweet once a really fine girl (neighbors say) living right in the same spot her claim to the street going back longer stronger than any of us how many decades before she felt that voice fire up for the first lick at kids just walking by witchy speech from a porch under her still paint chipping curling beneath gutters hanging off the roof-line disappearing faster than we were until she did intestate without heir subsequent squatters there for electricity running summer fans chased off by the ward rep at last sold off now reno hammers finish what memory left dust clouds billow pushing time out the door an open mouth from the sidewalk you hear axes killing drywall and crowbars for speed against wood old hurt piano alone out front for the first time feeling the sun penetrate to the spring steel waiting for the new blue dumpster I’m 54 rounding the corner too heavy by a stone I think I’ll make it feet lifting like tiny hovercrafts scanning the treetops.
The street is Cathedral Avenue, running east-west in Washington, DC, and named after the National Cathedral that crowns the intersection where the tar flows north and south along one of the capital’s main arteries. You can kind of see it from the sidewalk outside the house; well, no, you can’t, really, but you know it’s there, and you know that its towers and pinnacles are encased in scaffolding—part of the ongoing repair following an earthquake in 2011 that loosened the stone angels and sent a 350-pound finial on a 20-story drop where it speared the ground (someone somehow dug it out that very night and trucked it off, to do what with?). Maybe it’s the scaffolding on the front and back of the row house four doors up, erected recently by the crew hired to gut it for a complete re-do inside and out. Finally. After years of waiting in legal limbo created by a fraudulent inheritance claim, the dilapidated house, a house in despair, purchased in state auction, is now getting flipped for a quick penny. What’s brought you outside, though, is the music, the crew blasting today’s pop from speakers planted in the front foyer and fenced-in backyard. It is driving you insane. A sense of mild desperation pushes you to enter what is now a fully operational construction site full of young steel-toed men attending to a dozen different tasks at once—knocking out walls, ripping out wires, prying up floorboards—they’ll leave the treads and risers on the stairs for the time being (the time being?)—intent on stripping the main interior down to the studs and framing. Walking in, you feel the energy of restoration, of light and space and the death of rooms. A sonnet losing lines, dropping rhymes. Ghosts of dust are being released, mute memories, lost and homeless, (though thanks to some parent’s foresight she never was) of a childhood, adolescence, adulthood, the long slide into dementia, the crowding maze of disturbed thoughts and emotions unmoored from the objects of a life-story. And the Cathedral, when will those 40,000 pounds of stone return to their places on the turret, the buttresses strengthened and the transept façades, the slender pinnacles again make their points, ornate, gothic, rising to their tapered disappearance in the sky—I could be a grandfather!
From the writer
:: Account ::
The house on the corner, abandoned in death, sold in auction, and getting gutted for a quick flip, was clearly a poem—I walked past it many times on any given day and felt antenna tingle—but where to begin: it was the literal site of a social and familial and existential history, but not mine, with a new future in its renovation, also not mine. Or rather, only a very small part of it was. It felt big enough to claim me, but I needed the house to somehow speak up. When a crew came in to haul away its belongings, I found the piano standing on the sidewalk, in the sun for the first time maybe ever in its life, proud and vulnerable, a singer now silent; I had my object, the point and portal of an entry. Drafting followed quickly from there. Two years later, I started to write an “account” of the writing of this poem for Tyler Mills; but what I ended up writing instead turned out to be a second part to the poem, in prose. It also came quickly (maybe because I was in the middle of teaching a seminar on the prose poem). Time and mode altered my perception; I stood in a different place now, and saw it all anew. It was a personal felicity to go into the subject again and find a perspective on so much I had left out; it rarely happens that way after such a period of time since last pen to paper. I feel the luck of the first cast and the return of the second, a small gift. (As a teacher, one is always learning one’s own lessons …)
Joshua Weiner is the author of three books of poetry, most recently The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish (University of Chicago Press, 2013); he is also the editor of At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn (Chicago, 2009). His Berlin Notebook, reporting about the refugee crisis in Germany, was published by Los Angeles Review of Books in 2016 as a digital edition and supported with a Guggenheim Fellowship. A chapbook, Trumpoems, is a free digital edition from Dispatches from the Poetry Wars (2018). His translation (with Linda B. Parshall) of Nelly Sachs’ Flight & Metamorphosis will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2021.