The Poetry of Place

by Frank Beck

“I would I were at home.”

— Rosalind in As You Like It, Act IV, Scene 3
Sergey Vinogradov, Lady and Interior, courtesy of Atheneum.org Wikimedia Commons

When house and home appear in a poem, it’s often in passing.  Rosalind wishes she were home in Act IV of As You Like It, yet this is simply a sign that she’s overcome and longs for safety, after hearing of her lover’s  battle with a lion. Dylan Thomas’s “Poem on his birthday” is a grand, rhapsodic tribute to the Welsh seaside town where he lived, but he only mentions the home he shared with his wife and three children as a “house on stilts high among beaks/and palavers of birds.”

Why this absence of home? And why do some poets take this place for granted?

In many agrarian societies, a newly married couple would join the household of the husband’s father, planning to inherit his fields, vines and livestock, just as someone today inherits a bond portfolio.  Home was not a place  we, as individuals, invented, but something that lived on in us over time. Not just as a memory but as the stuff of life.  Of course, the modern age has put an end of that.  Ever since the industrial revolution, we’ve been rolling stones. Now every generation loses touch with home in its own way.

Like many people who came of age in the 1960s, I spent my youth in a series of furnished rooms, rented houses and apartments, never imagining that any of these places would be my home for long.  Still, I knew the kind of home I wanted. I was writing, and I believed writers needed the quiet of the country: I thought of Dylan Thomas, in his seaside home in Wales, and Robert Frost, high in the mountains of New Hampshire. Boris Pasternak in his dacha outside Moscow.  I indulged these bucolic fantasies while residing in New Brunswick, an easy commute to my job in Manhattan,  in the steamship business, booking cargo that sailed to Bremen, Oslo and Helsinki — places I wished that I were heading to for inspiration.

In those years, as I lived in different towns and traveled to many others in my imagination, I experienced the sense of rootlessness that Rainer Maria Rilke describes in his poem “Autumn Day” (Herbsttag). As a young man, Rilke left his native city of Prague and had eight addresses in Paris along with extended stays in Spain, Russia, Sweden and Egypt.  He didn’t have a fixed abode until he was 45.  In September 1902,  he left his wife and daughter in Germany and moved to Paris, to write a monograph about Rodin, staying in a student hotel near the Luxembourg Gardens. That’s where he wrote so movingly about homesickness. Here’s my translation:

Rilke, drawn by Leonid Pasternak

 

Lord, it is time. The summer was so great.
Now lay your shadow across the sundials,
And let the winds of the field run free.
Tell the last of the grapes to ripen:

give them two more days of southern warmth,
urge them to completion, and then chase
one final sweetness into the heavy vines.
He who has no house now will not build one.

He who is alone will be that way a long time.
He’ll lie awake and read and write long letters,
and, up and down along the avenues,
will wander anxiously, when brown leaves scatter.

In my youth, I  longed to find someone who would help me find contentment in a single place. But none of my relationships lasted long. I watched as my friends settled down. I sat on their lawns on summer evenings in the country, looking at the stars, and shared in their conversation, over late night dinners in their city apartments. Yet I was only an observer of homes and happiness, like the creature in Thomas Hardy’s “The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House.”

Diana Parkhouse at Unsplash

 

One without looks in tonight
Through the curtain-chink
From the sheet of glistening white;
One without looks in tonight

As we sit and think
By the fender-brink.
We do not discern those eyes
Watching in the snow;

Lit by lamps of rosy dyes
We do not discern those eyes
Wondering, aglow,
Four-footed, tiptoe.

While I was working in that busy steamship office and trying to write in my spare time, I also discovered Robert Lowell’s poem “The Old Flame” — a work that tantalized me with the specific pleasures of a happy home. Here Lowell revisits the house in Maine he shared with his wife Elizabeth Hardwick. Years later, it sits empty: “Everything has been swept bare,/furnished, garnished and aired.” The poet offers up a wistful memory:

Everything’s changed for the best —
how quivering and fierce we were,
there snowbound together,
simmering like wasps
in our tent of books!

Poor ghost, old love, speak
with your old voice
of flaming insight
that kept us awake all night.
In one bed and apart,

we heard the plow
groaning up hill—
a red light, then a blue,
as it tossed off the snow
to the side of the road.

This is what marriage must be, I thought. Listening to these simple sounds. Sharing the hush of the snow and , the noises that keep us awake in the dark of night.

Just when I had nearly given up on that kind of companionship, I started dating a friend who was also a writer. She urged me to get out of the steamship business and get a job in publishing —and to keep working on my poems. We married, and soon had a daughter. Home, for all three of us, has long been a two-bedroom apartment in upper Manhattan, in Morningside Heights. And I’ve learned that writers can also thrive in cities, as Thomas Hardy did in London, Federico García Lorca in Granada, Ingeborg Bachmann in Rome.

A few weeks after I met my wife-to-be, I imagined a place where I could still hear echoes of my childhood but that would also have a soul and personality of its own.

I remember these days when they come,
sometime on the edge of summer
and not so interested in its arduous work—
wheat labors up under hot sun somewhere else.

The whole sky’s now the warm white of a sink.
From a nearby window, the clink and clatter
of dishes being dried and stacked out of sight.
Each pot hung here’s delighted with its place.

Curtains rise gently as a sleeper’s chest.
The sweep of the clock’s second hand is smoother.
I saw an afternoon like this one first
from eyes at the level of a cupboard door.

The same even light borne like a brimming glass.
As the spoon stirred, it made the pitcher ring
and filled the room with smells of lemonade.
My mother made our lives above me with her hands.

Noon’s harsh bustle has receded like surf.
Things seen reach deeper in me, taking rest.
Each bone in my body had forgotten how it feels:
the ceaseless movement of unbroken calm.

Over the course of thirty years, my wife and I have made such a nest.  Looking around our apartment, I see an archaeological record of our lives.  The post-impressionist paintings and the 18th-century furniture we inherited from her family, the books we read and discussed, from Sophocles to Alice Oswald, the music by Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Elgar we listened to, the handmade baskets and ceramics we brought back from Europe, Mexico and North Africa. Yet each of us still carries the imprint of our childhood home — a memory that continues to shape us to the end of life. 

 I was reminded of this last year, when  I returned to my parents’ house to help care for my aging father. Hale and hearty at 94, he had one problem: his mind began unraveling. And last year, just before Christmas, his body failed, as well. He was in and out rehab facilities, and much of his last three months he spent in a hospital bed in the living room. My mother, my brother and I made him as comfortable as we could and settled in for the duration. Suddenly I was back in a pre-industrial, multi-generational household, with an ancient rhythm to our daily lives. I thought of Odysseus who spent so many years trying to get home not only to his wife and son, but to his father, Laertes, who was growing old.

Terracotta relief of Odysseus returning to his family, WikiMedia Commons

One of the foundational poems of Western culture is the story of a man’s struggle to return to his family after an absence of twenty years. The Greeks prized these reunions. As Homer points out, the lesser deities may rule the sun, wind and sea, but Zeus himself is the god of householders. At first, Odysseus has difficulty persuading Laertes of his true identity. He displays a scar from a childhood injury, but Laertes remains unmoved. Yet when the two walk together in the orchard, Odysseus calls up the proper memory. Here is that scene in Emily Wilson’s superb translation (Norton, 2017):

“When I was little, I would follow you
around the garden, asking all their names.
We walked beneath these trees: you named them all
and promised them to me. Ten apples trees,
and thirteen pear trees, forty figs, and fifty
grapevines, which ripen one by one—their clusters
change as the weather presses from the sky,
sent down by Zeus.” At that Laertes’ heart
and legs gave way; he recognized the signs
Odysseus had given as clear proof.
He threw both arms around his ruthless son,
who caught him as he fainted . . .
By Theodoor van Thulden – san Francisco museum, FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12095883

It was hard to see my own father too frail to walk more than a few steps, too weak to sit with us at the dining table. Yet he still had one wish, and it astonished us.  As he lay in bed in the house he’d shared with his wife since 1952, he insisted, again and again, that he wanted to “go home.”  Where? To the small apartment along the train tracks in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where, in his confusion, he thought he might still find his mother.

In “Intimations of Immortality,” Wordsworth refers to “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” If poetry speaks little about our love of home, perhaps it’s because that love is too deep for words—and as instinctive as an infant grasping at a mother’s breast.  The feeling of home persists, long after we have learned to thrive on our own, after a lifetime of trying one place after another, hoping to reinvent that moment of  primal and nearly perfect bliss.

Frank Beck is a New York-based writer and translator who has critiqued new poetry for The Manhattan Review for more than 30 years. His latest thoughts on the arts can be found at DieHoren.com.

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