Friday, October 21, 2011

Mid-Century Midwest

A House
B.H. Fairchild

I am thirty-two, thirty-two times have I passed before the day and hour of my death, as one passes by the door of a house that one will someday live in, without even a thought of glancing at it. – Julian Green, Diary: 1928-1957

It could be empty, windowless, or simply occupied
by ghosts, a kind of spiritual eminent domain.
But it's just a house. And standing on the sagging porch,
peering from the screen door through the cramped, unlit rooms
to the sunstruck kitchen in back, I can finally make out
odd hunks of darkness drifting up – a dining table,
four chairs that weirdly look at first like monks at prayer –
flecks of some reflected distant glow or fire
scattered from a couch's plastic cover, the white keys
of an upright piano in its thick Victorian silence.
A small house, postwar, working people surely,
their lives of work buried in the vague odor of oil and sweat
rising from the carpet, whose green swirls twist into view.
A strange light begins to fill the front room's lace curtains,
falls like a fine dust, like mortality itself,
upon the Blue Willow dishware and the family photos
arranged around the Motorola's wire antenna.
And now so faintly, so terribly, voices float
from the kitchen, women's voices flutelike and sudden,
then little bursts of laughter, a flurry of whispers,
a sharp No!, and there he is, there he is, a small boy
standing in the kitchen doorway, surprised and smiling
the purest form of happiness, then walking quickly
toward me in his white T-shirt, jeans, and blue
Brooklyn Dodgers cap, those bright hazel eyes looking up
and hands spread wide and raised against the screen
of the door, pushing, pushing hard until it opens,
its rusted spring creaking in that long cry that sounds
like a question without words, and I walk through.

From the Fall 2011 issue of Ploughshares. Photo of B.H. Fairchild (born 1942) is by Matt Valentine. Photo at top by Gjon Mili, Children of Artist Willard Cummings, 1948.

Each time I read this poem it rises in my estimation, "wow," I say, "here is a current-days American writer both ready and able (when either one would be almost a miracle) to brush aside all that enormous baggage of received cultural sentimentality about death
and simply to represent its bottomless, dimensionless mysteriousness." I mean, if we lived in 17th-century England or 10th-century China or Homer's Greece, then this kind of confrontation with the closed loop of one's own life would be mainstream (and less astonishing) but here and now (in the land of happy-think and avoidance) it reads as rare and strange.