(Syracuse, NY) We’re visiting my parents in the house where I grew up. It’s a cottage on the top of a steep hill. The back yard leads into a large urban park: nicely landscaped with meadows and stands of cypress trees, but always somewhat dangerous. Inside, as I’ve noted before, there are almost 30,000 books. Wherever there are spaces over bookcases or on the stairwells, my parents have hung prints. These are mostly rather sedate works–but on the steps to the attic hangs a Kathe Kollwitz engraving of Death or the Devil dragging a mother away from her baby. The furniture in the living room was once upholstered in white leather.
All this is background to a poem that Stephen Dunn wrote when his family rented the house from us. I think this must have been 1973-4, when Dunn was a visiting professor at Syracuse University and we were in London. The poem, typed on a real typewriter that bit into the paper, reads:
Letter to a Distant Landlord
This is the 20th century and you
are invisible, across the Atlantic,
beyond reach. We sleep in your bed,
we make love where
you made love and it’s strange
we’ve not met.
This house, though, does speak
of you; all the books, the good
junk in the attic, that
startling print in the upstairs hall.
You’ve brought the past forward
to mingle like a fine, old grandfather
with the appliances and dust.
And we approve.
Even the ghosts here are intelligent.
They wait til the children are asleep
then sit in the white chairs
in the livingroom. Some nights
it’s Nietzsche, last night it was
Marx. They are all timbre
and smoke, all they want is
for me to get off my ass, to break
my spririt’s sleep.
But they don’t insist. They’ve seen
so much their rancor has turned
to sighs. We do not learn
is what they’ve learned.
Yet we are comfortable in your house.
It is what we wanted.
The park nearby is beautiful
and dangerous, a 20th century park,
the kind we must walk through. Our small
belligerent dog picks fights there
with Shepherds. They pick fights with him.
Sometimes though they’re all tails and tongues,
like us, and the air smells good
and the grass is freshly cut.
And so we send our checks
and try to imagine your hands,
your face, the way you discuss
the things you must discuss.
Some day after you’re back,
smelling our smells and rearranging
your lives, maybe we’ll appear
at your door disguised as ourselves.
We’ll say we’re looking for a house
(that’ll be our only hint), sneak
the glimpses we want, and move on
like strangers who brushed by
on their way somewhere else
and don’t know why, in this century,
they cannot stop.
I love this poem as an evocation of my home, Dunn’s private life, and the 20th century. I’d only quarrel with one aspect (and even on this point I grant Dunn his license). I doubt that the ghosts in our house talk about Nieztsche and Marx very often. There are shelves of books by those authors that might conjure their spirits once in a while, but I’m sure they don’t reign over the house. The local spirits are English, bewigged, dusty, and interested in facts rather than theories.