Christian Wiman | Poetry

"Five Houses Down"

Five Little Houses Photo: n.elle

I loved his ten demented chickens
and the hell-eyed dog, the mailbox
shaped like a huge green gun.
I loved the eyesore opulence
of his five partial cars, the wonder-cluttered porch
with its oilspill plumage, tools
cauled in oil, the dark
clockwork of disassembled engines
christened Sweet Baby and benedicted Old Bitch;
and down the steps into the yard the explosion
of mismatched parts and black scraps
amid which, like a bad sapper cloaked
in luck, he would look up stunned,
patting the gut that slopped out of his undershirt
and saying, Son,
you lookin’ to make some scratch?

All afternoon we’d pile the flatbed high
with stacks of Exxon floormats
mysteriously stenciled with his name,
rain-rotted sheetrock or miles
of misfitted pipes, coil after coil
of rusted fencewire that stained for days
every crease of me, rollicking it all
to the dump where, while he called
every ragman and ravened junkdog by name,
he catpicked the avalanche of trash
and fished some always fixable thing
up from the depths. His endless aimless work
was not work, my father said.
His barklike earthquake curses
were not curses, for he could goddamn
a slipped wrench and shitfuck a stuck latch,
but one bad word from me
made his whole being
twang like a nail mis-struck. Aint no call for that,
Son, no call at all.
Slip-knot, what-knot,
knot from which no man escapes — 
prestoed back to plain old rope;
whipsnake, blacksnake, deep in the wormdirt
worms like the clutch of mud:
I wanted to live forever
five houses down
in the womanless rooms a woman
sometimes seemed to move through, leaving him
twisting a hand-stitched dishtowel
or idly wiping the volcanic dust.
It was heaven to me:
beans and weenies from paper plates,
black-fingered tinkerings on the back stoop
as the sun set, on an upturned fruitcrate
a little jamjar of rye like ancient light,
from which, once, I took a single, secret sip,
my eyes tearing and my throat on fire.

This poem first appeared in the June 29, 2009 issue of The New Yorker and is reprinted here with the author's kind permission.

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Posted in: Arts + Culture

Comments [5]

Good Stuff!!!

Joe Moran

twenty years from now, i will still be able to remember these images. i will see the yard, and the hands. i will know what the dishtowel feels like, and i will be able to smell the whiskey.
i won't remember the words, but i will remember what they meant. thank you.

Beautifully written.

good! "Son, no call at all. Slip-knot, what-knot,
knot from which no man escapes — " o/

Tarcisio Bispo de Araujo

" christened Sweet Baby and benedicted Old Bitch"

Like it a lot, subtle : )

aditya pawar

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