Stay Put

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 
               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 
without heir 
subsequent squatters 
there for electricity 
running summer fans 
chased off by the ward rep 
at last sold off 
now reno hammers 
               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 
for the new blue 
I’m 54 
rounding the corner 
too heavy by a stone 
I think I’ll make it 
feet lifting like tiny 
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.