“No one kneads us again out of earth and clay,/ no one incants our dust./ No one.”
I started “In the Low Houses” in Bennington, Vermont. I had just visited Robert Frost’s grave, and when I added my penny, I made sure it touched another penny. It seemed right, as Frost’s headstone is not his alone. This is why I wrote this poem in couplets, to provide an instant “us,” to allow for contradictions and the slips
between meaning, context, and time. I
had also just met with Major Jackson, who told me I should write a long poem with
a conceit to bind my manuscript together. One of Major’s gifts is to push poets
toward what they resist.
“In the Low Houses” is my reckoning with closeness: how close I can get to answers from the dead, lovers, and language; it demonstrates a pervading sense that even though I try, I can’t get it “right,” get the seconds or beats back—all that cannot be held. What I can hold is a poem in my hands, a rhyme in my mouth. A low house is a term for a literal grave, but it represents the domestic sphere, too, where everything seems to be carried: bodies, boxes, houses, language itself. I hope the poem’s antiphonies show how we try to talk to each other, how interiority, with its over-thinking and over-feeling, is so often louder than speech.
I read over a hundred books of elegies in the year before I wrote “In the Low Houses.” Going back to the ancient Greeks, the professional mourners have been poets. My use of repetition refers to formal elements of ritual, ceremony, and refrain dating back to Theocritus. I included so many questions because I had in mind Demeter speaking to Persephone, the muses at Achilles’ funeral, Sacks’s The English Elegy, Vendler’s Last Looks, Last Books, and Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, but also contemporary poetry: Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s “It never ends, this dire need to know, / This need to see a diagram unfold / In silent angles,” Katie Ford’s “Who sees us plead? I can’t stop looking at the two houses // lit off shore,” Mary Jo Bang’s “The outside comes in / The window, or I go out the door,” and Kevin Young’s The Art of Losing. I find solace in knowing that my questions are the ones that have always been asked, that I keep company with fellow poets in this reckoning.
I have spent years tracking common metaphors across the English elegiac tradition: earth, clocks, seasons (especially winter), light, sand, shore, boats, oars, water, farewells, and the act of watching. I love that we share our metaphors as well as our mourning. Architectural terms are especially important in the poem: I had the pictures I had taken of Frost’s grave, which made me think of framing images, hanging a painting, the house itself as a frame, the frame of the body, the coffin. I included these, as well as flowers—remember Shelley’s broken lily, Whitman’s lilacs, Celan’s rose, Hall’s peonies. I chose irises, Tennessee’s state flower (I’m from Memphis), because when they are spent they look like dead skin.
Spenser writes in 1595: “To you alone I sing this mournful Verse.” What if he was writing to future poets, to say we are never alone? What if Paul Celan got it wrong in his “Psalm”? Other poets incant our dust. Writing poetry is a way to love like Rilke wanted us to love: “For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”