Devon, PA. In Four Verse Letters, I send off missives to each member of my immediate family on a handful of subjects: to my father, on the relation of art and nature in an age of unlimited making and remaking; to my middle brother, Jason, on the relation of lyric and story, memory and moment; to my mother, on the meaningfulness of things, the perceptions we call interpretation, and the meaning of motherhood; and, finally, I write my oldest brother, John, on the one finding and cultivating of family and home, a definitive turn from the making of art to the receiving-as-gift of life. Each letter is divided into four sections (each section varies in length, but each letter is almost precisely the same length). And so, below, I reprint the first section of my “Verse Letter to John,” one that as a whole describes the first four months of my family’s life in Greenville, North Carolina, where we had moved suddenly at the prospect of a tenure-track position, as I consented to play my part in the typical exodus of the mobile academic meritocracy. Those interested in acquiring a copy of the limited edition printing of this little chapbook may be in touch by means noted after the poem below.
Verse Letter to John
Some artists, and I am one of them, wish to live and work within a community, or within the hope of community, in a given place. Others wish to live and work outside the claims of community, and these now appear to be an overwhelming majority.
One of the first symptoms they discover of a selfish and mischievous ambition, is a profligate disregard of a dignity which they partake with others. To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.
It’s August 1st in Greenville, nearly Midnight,
And we have sacrificed to the hearth gods—
Of whom we took possession earlier
Today, with the uneasy smile and nod
Young couples signing mortgages display
To accept without quite grasping the strict words
Of lawyers, and to endure our being bound
To banks that will outlive us. We have poured
A bottle of our Michigan Riesling, drunk
It quickly to bear up amid the sense
That ownership of house, a plot of land,
The mice and leaking faucet, broken vents,
All walls in need of spackle and fresh paint,
May turn out to own us instead. We thought
To celebrate, propitiate, but now
Half beg forgetfulness of what we’ve wrought.
What’s more, the tastes of mineral in the wine
Conjured for Hilary the land and loved
Whom we have left behind for this burnt South.
We’ve traded them for fire ants, work gloves
To clean dead roaches and mouse droppings, and
Stacked photos of the old owners—all their junk
Left moldering in an humid attic crawl space
Ours by deed alone. I hauled a trunk
Out to the curb this afternoon, packed dense
With Christmas baubles, school work, a salt map
Textured to show the Carolina terrain.
To someone this was home; to us it’s crap,
Or perhaps worse: crude omens it takes years
To fit a place for lasting happiness,
But even given proper time the task miscarries
Often enough and leaves a hoarded mess
Littered or pawned-off rather than forgotten.
But drink we did, and watched The Quiet Man:
The TV on the hearthstone; us reclined
On an inflated mattress. The show began,
Kindling in blue our hollowed living room
With neither couch nor lamp, nor pictures hung,
And it beat back a bit the alien dark,
This talisman and ritual our Erhebung.
Soon Hilary and Livia were asleep,
The latter pressed into her mother’s side,
And I am left to think, within this place
John Wayne and another steady pour provide,
Of outlets, stairs, and days of child-proofing;
Of fire ant hills that have us under siege;
Of hunger for the places we called home;
To wish the walls were painted white or beige;
To wonder if this house to which we’re tied
Will prove a hearth- or millstone; and to write
You, John, the oldest, first of all to marry,
The one most given to think and do what’s right
In the eyes of parents, customers, and State.
It’s you I think of now, I want to know
Not merely how to jimmy painted windows
But what goes in the making of a home.
Just over one hundred copies of Four Verse Letters (Franciscan University at Steubenville Press) are available for sale. Please write me at fourverseletters[at]gmail.com, if you are interested in acquiring a copy for $10 plus $1.40 postage.