Another Inscrutable House





Dig into the hill
Dig into the hill’s northside
Call your own name until
You have one

You have one 
You have one


—from “How to Build A Root Cellar” by Rebecca Gayle Howell



If none of this will be remembered, then let us keep speaking
with tongues light as screen doors clapping shut
on a child’s finger. For this is love. To press

one frame against another

                        
—from “Someday I’ll Love Roger Reeves” by Roger Reeves




1.

No language is available for the houses built in my lifetime, and that, of late, I have spent my days among. They are not part of any one tradition, not true to a style through and through, cannot be understood, referred to with vocabulary such as Victorian or Colonial or even Revival of some kind.

I published a book of poems set in old houses, pure in their plainness and constant in their white paint, run round by farm fences, sited in the tight coves of the Southern Appalachian mountains where I’d lived my whole life. Then did what I thought a poet ought to do, and began following teaching jobs across the country, away from home and between the towns tacked up around universities (their populations always graduating to the next class, taking down whatever posters they’d stuck up with putty). My poetry did not progress. I would have liked to be a poet with the range of C.D. Wright who, renowned for her Southern voice as she was, declared, “I can only yammer and yam my way through so many hundreds of lines, living as I do between the Wisconsin Street Housing Project and the San Jose Freeway.” I would have liked to go on road trips and research projects in the manner of her wild books, which escape definition as either long poems or essays. But to get my bearings in the complexity of her work I have to cling to the homey phrases such as, “Peaches and fireworks and red ants. Now do you know where you are.” And though I have never been skilled with form or meter, after a couple of years adrift, I had begun confining my drafts to poor gestures towards such traditions, hammering sounds in, walling off the view of intended meaning for the sake of some stanzaic convention. Wandering through anonymous subdivisions, wordless, I thought of how, too freely, to contract and title and deed I’d signed my name.








2.

Nameless as new constructions may be, in House Without Names, architectural historian Thomas Hubka argues we should still study, and thus acknowledge, the significance of the houses in which the majority of Americans now reside. And I must admit that even the historic architecture, the rustic relics, for which I get homesick—built without plans, by laymen, each of whom incorporated their own idiosyncrasies—didn’t unvaryingly meet the criteria for saddlebag, or dogtrot, or shotgun houses. But there is language for those specimens, which evolved, as distinctly as their builders’ accents, in remote Appalachia: vernacular. “When we isolate from the world a neglected architectural variety and name it vernacular, we have prepared it for analysis,” writes Henry Glassie, scholar of folklore. “The term marks the transition from the unknown to the known.”

Rather than identifying facades and assigning buildings to categories as professionals have typically done to assess architecture, Hubka suggests any citizen can stand in the sidewalks gazing up and considering how a neighbor’s or a stranger’s house, by those who possess its keys, is used. Even from outside, one can deduce that a chimney leads to an interior wall, the largest window signals the living room beyond, the smallest window the bath, and a window placed higher than the rest suggests a sink below—the kitchen. This isn’t an admonition to be a peeping Tom of the kind Ellen Bryant Voigt suspects of disturbing the sense of safety in her rural abode in Headwaters:

we heard it from our house where soon the shutters would go up
we sat in the kitchen the summer air soft as a damp rag we knew
this was a moment of consequence but we couldn’t tell
whether the world had grown larger or smaller

But I did take Hubka’s suggestion as a means of enlarging my perceptions, in the way Voigt, a poet famous for her “formal exactitude,” as she neared age 70, abandoned punctuation and symmetry to “write a book of fresh beginnings.”  And a spec house, if not distinguished much by appearance from the rest of the vinyl and laminate kits popped up in a row with it, became more interesting if I could guess that the explanation for the imbalanced number of doors is side access to the kitchen. That’s where the lady of the house unloads groceries. Yes, there’s the electric meter for confirmation—it runs to the room that appliances, as well as family and the most familiar friends, are fed in.








3.

Inscrutable is what I call my present house, which is little older than me. It looks like a basic child’s drawing, a triangle topping a square. A brown homogenization of some Cape Cod, cabin, and modern gestures. An inarticulate rendering, I might say of it, as I have of my own writing, when none of it seemed worth fixing on the page.

The nickname is a reference to a poem: Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina,” her phrase, “the child draws another inscrutable house.” And vernacular houses, more venerated than mine, are hard to read too. They are houses for which no one has quite pinned down the qualities. Except that they are shaped by what the environment provides (the temperature and precipitation to be countered, the selection of wood or stone with which this may be done) plus what the builder can improvise. James Agee, in his 1941 classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, elucidates the beauty of houses constructed by the poor, with poor materials:

Most naïve, most massive symmetry and simpleness. Enough lines, enough off-true, that this symmetry is strongly yet most subtly sprained against its centers, into something more powerful than either full symmetry or deliberate breaking and balancing of ‘monotonies’ can hope to be. A look of being most earnestly hand-made, as a child’s drawing, a thing created out of need, love patience, and strained skill…

I suppose it is modernly vernacular that I have bought the house I have not because it is my or a designer’s dream, but because this is what I could find and could afford where I have work. But it’s not just that I couldn’t pay the mortgage for the few historic houses available in the vicinity of the university where I now teach. I did not want to occupy the legacy of the plantation mansions or turreted confections commissioned by the town-founding rich, subscribe to their aesthetics, not of shelter, but of pure show of wealth. There must be some virtue in my house looking like a universal symbol, like it could belong to anyone.








4.

One structure with two front doors, two street numbers: these are the obvious exterior markers of a duplex. A house in which the interior wall is shared. The duplex is an architectural model that did originate—and was given a name—in this century.

The duplex is also a poetic form. It consists of seven couplets, with the last line of each stanza repeating in the first line of the next, and the first word of the piece reappearing as the last, but with a different resonance by the end. There is such timeless appeal to formal poems that reserve seats for envois and voltas, meet expectations of when the writer’s name will be uttered, or deliver a reliable beat and the rhymes of one sound to answer another’s call. It is from the legacies of sonnets, ghazals, and blues poems that the duplex is derived.








5.

Derived from, inspired by, an adaption of, a variation on a theme, with a similar ring: Do you hear such things? Do the influences show? Perhaps there are readers who will have already noted that this piece is in seven couplets of prose, and that each section’s last word is the first word of the next (or almost). I doubt it though. My motif is not rendered with enough consistency or clarity (not like classical running patterns carved around Roman entrances, exits, and roofs). Nevertheless, there are elements that bear repeating. I made my own pattern with a “shuffling of erratism,” “strictness yet subtle dishevelment,” to lift phrases about roughhewn shingles composed by Agee, who considered himself a “thief” of the images of his subjects’ houses. Or I borrowed some scaffolding permissive enough let me raise my own “off-true” hybrid. There is also appeal to the “mutt of a form as so many of us in this nation are only now empowered to live fully in all of our identities”—how Jericho Brown describes the duplex. There is the inspiration of something invented in this decade, by the young and living.

Wright, “part of a line of mavericks and contrarians who struggled to keep the language particular in times of ever-encroaching standardization,” the most “formally restless and ambitious writers of American English” to publish during my lifetime, is dead. But so freshly, it is a fact I am inclined deny. Reading her inquiries, “What are you going to do when our lamps are out. / What are you going to do,” it seems she remains in active conversation with Agee, who preferred oil lamps to electrification and noted them all throughout Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. She carried on his torch as a Southern documentarian who was aware she was an outsider spying on her subjects, and as a genre-bender too. In Agee’s book (written late into many nights), he ends the section devoted to the tenant farmers’ kitchens he’d been studying with a depiction of a lamp out, and casts it as lovely in that condition, like a young nude, in the dawning light of day. And he chose to devote a whole page to just two sentences, “The house had now descended / All over Alabama the lamps are out,” using white space for emphasis as in poetry. Though poetic is also the effect of the densest parts of his rambling volume, because he took a path counter to the convention of moving the narrative ahead. It is as if there is room and time for everything and we never have to leave. The text feels innovative even as it keeps readers hovering over the same curl of wood grain and the angle of each nail driven in the shack’s frame, dwelling.








6.

Dwelling at my present address, over time, even if it is measured in contemporary hours, I am discovering layers. Beneath the understated brown paint, there are cedar boards, more expensive and more durable than the standard lumber, a little flourish the original owners allowed themselves in the 1980s. It must have been more recent still when they inserted the steel stove. I remind myself of how proud they must have been of its gleam when it strikes me as anything but stainless and quite ostentatious in the small, beige kitchen. I will not venture, like Bishop, Northerner though she was, even farther than the American South to the tropical setting of “Jeronimo’s House.” Will not take with me, through further relocations, the sights of his clapboard walls with “writing-paper lines of light” shining through the cracks and develop these into staggered little stanzas as she did. I have been granted tenure at the university where I work now; I will stay in this house. (Tenure, when referring to an academic job, unlike real estate with its monthly rents and evictions, means permanence, no longer being subject to seasonal rehiring, a job at which I am permitted to keep laboring.) I will stay in this house and see it through its changes. I think of how I will add my own touch of beadboard over the popcorn ceiling someday, and tell myself to stop trying to clean the fingerprints off appliances for the moment.

I’ve been filling my hours with reading in the front room. The previous occupants had furnished it as if it were a parlor from a bygone era in which nobody would ever be comfortable sitting. I’ve unpacked my books here and set up a library. They’re alphabetized by name, as is usual—with exceptions for the volumes I need to keep closest at hand. (Among these is Voigt’s earlier volume, Kyrie, too, a collection of sonnets about the 1918 influenza pandemic. In it, not worn out by summer as in the later poem I’ve already quoted, she writes about anticipating a spring that has yet to bring its warmth and hope, and curtains open to receive them, “But it was true: at the window, / every afternoon, toward the horizon / a little more light before the darkness fell.”) I’ve gotten back to revising and writing. My terse, early poems relied so on the voices of old timers and locals already wise to whatever I wondered, on implying meaning in brief lines’ omissions. Now, I’m doing research, discovering much information I want to include on the page. The lines grow longer each time I work on them again.








7.

Again and again, “Sestina” mentions its stove. It’s defined by the dated detail of being Marvel brand. But then it undergoes transformation, and becomes marvelous before the end. Maybe the sketching child grows up into a man who nails additions onto the house, and maybe these alter its historic character. Maybe that’s okay, because it means he’s still following the winding path to and from that residence’s door. Maybe he will renovate it with modern conveniences and replace the wood burning stove. And it doesn’t really matter because that is not the kind of change the aging woman cries over. Though the specific reason for her tears isn’t clear. What is almost certain is that readers of the poem share in the same resulting feeling.

Also shared is the surety that the kitchen is where people will congregate. Whether in the canonical past of the scene of “Sestina.” Or a future studio apartment with only an electric fry pan. In a farmhouse that kin go around back to enter, so as not to be a bother with their knocking. Or a McMansion (though given only a pejorative name) in which the open floorplan offers any visitor a line of vision to the cook’s mess, if not take-out cartons. And in a house where you were reared. Or where I can only suppose what it is like to be welcomed over the threshold. Meals’ ingredients may be stirred and seasoned by various members of a family or party as they lean on the counters and chat. And poems are social creations formed in response to others as well. When Wright wrote in “The Next to the Last Draft,” “[t]he author wanted / this book to be friendly, to say, Come up on the porch with / me, I’ve got peaches; I don’t mind if you smoke,” I felt invited into the process. Now that I have chased writing so far, I hear Wright’s echo in remote streets, “She will still be up when we come in. Our floating host. She will be at the door in her pleated nightgown. Admit us into her air-conditioned nightgown. Her glory cloud.” The kitchen’s lights are first to turn on in the morning and last illuminated in the dark.  The kitchen’s glow can help a walker, pausing to gather herself so she can keep moving, as she imagines her way to the heart of the home, that place we all do know.






Notes

This essay quotes Ben Lerner’s “Postscript: C. D. Wright” inThe New Yorker and Mark Nowak’s review, Deepstep Come Shining, in Rain Taxi, and is informed by other writings such as “Lyric Essentials: Bradley Trumpfheller Reads C.D. Wright” from Sundress Publications. The poems by C. D. Wright I reference are “hills: an autobiographical preface” from Further Adventures with You, “The Next to the Last Draft” from Steal Away, and Deepstep Come Shining.

The essay also quotes Jericho Brown’s piece “Invention” from the Poetry Foundation website, Ellen Bryant Voigt’s “Noble Dog” from Headwaters and “Who said the worst was past, who knew”  from Kyrie, Elizabeth Bishop’s “Jeronimo’s House” from North & South and “Sestina” from Questions of Travel, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans, Houses without Names: Architectural Nomenclature and the Classification of America's Common Houses by Thomas C. Hubka, and Vernacular Architecture by Henry Glassie.






Rose McLarney’s collections of poems are Forage and Its Day Being Gone, winner of the National Poetry Series, both from Penguin Books, as well as The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, published by Four Way Books. She is co-editor of A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia, from University of Georgia Press, and Southern Humanities Review. Rose has been awarded fellowships by the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, among other awards. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Kenyon Review, New England Review, American Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Review, Orion, and The Oxford American. Currently, she is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Auburn University.