Sunday, April 4, 2010

At Back Stair

Lead you to the empty room, paste
             grim ace upon the rack,
talk of fish spoon in the pantry sack.

Like you, I just want l'oven,
            c'est les autres, and
slump loose from the pomple noose.

That back stair is string and winds
            piltdown from the amberbach,
dribbled from the honeycove and built

to resin with hard visage
            intact. You’ve a hand
in my larder. I’m plagued

by such scenes and heights, tread worn
            smooth to the tipple edge,
riser hide a black and tan.

Drawn. In bas de l'escalier sans
            Suess soul, nevertheless
absolute and elsewhere. The blinder

bite abate in lined slicker, hat brimmed
            in narrow and frizzed
in drizzle. It seems that

mayhap doppelgänger be my me
            knew by.
Now I wrap in mac at the corner lamp.

I’ve poison the child, turn
                        and key.

*           *           *           *
The title "At Back Stair" refers to several things for me. For a short while in my childhood I lived in a house on Baxter Avenue in Superior, WI. In this poem, I'm letting my mind wander around at Baxter. I was pretty young when we stayed there, and my memories are vague, so when I was working on this poem, I talked to family members who helped to fill in some gaps. There was a back stairway down into the basement. I remember the stairs, but didn't until I was reminded. In an even more convoluted way, my brain is accessing distant memories, sensations and fears from a far off time, like opening the back door to a place one hasn't visited in a long while, but which still seems intimately familiar. What I seem to be visiting in this poem is my childhood, and those things that helped make me who I am as an adult.

Off the kitchen at Baxter was an old pantry with unusually high ceiling and shelves. Like you I just want l'oven. This is meant to imply both wanting loving as all people do, and also wanting the oven, a la Sylvia Plath. Also, in the Sartre play No Exit, the protagonist comes to realize that "Hell is other people," or rather, "L'enfer, c'est les autres." The remainder of the stanza sounds like a mishmash image: suicide by hanging, but slumping loose suggests being released, but is it too late, and where the hell does the indie band Pomplamoose come from? Is that a grapefruit?

The next image seems complex, but what it feels like to me is an acknowledgement that the memories and experiences from Baxter and childhood in general really exist only as a relic of the past, or a treasure encased in amber, an opportunity for wealth of discovery. I realize that's a stretch, but I had very little overall purpose in mind while writing this poem. For me, the joy comes from discovering what is happening here, why it's happening, and what it tells me about myself. The surface is about language play and layering images. The "you" in my larder in that stanza could be directed toward family, self, childhood memory, or the amber nugget.

In the next stanza we're back to the physical: the back stairs at Baxter, the treads of which were worn and old even back in the 1970s when I lived there. My mom reminded me that there were a lot of bugs in the basement, and here at least, the bugs are black and tan beetles, and represent the dangers and fears of either childhood itself, or revisiting childhood from a later perspective.

The next French suggests to me being drawn back down the old stairs, despite the potential dangers and lacking the purity of the child's soul (yes indeed, Dr. Suess). As we transition to the next stanza with hat, slicker, and drizzle, I'm once again an adult. Maybe there's a double of me out there somewhere. Maybe my childhood experiences are another James independent of the adult me. Whatever. I'm back outside the house and down at the corner, standing in the drizzle. I pull my coat up around me, giving myself a hug as I turn to go. The child may now be poisoned, or maybe I have poison for the child, it's unclear though either way it doesn't sound like a positive. 

Key? I have a key in hand? A car key? Or I'm returning to the house? Is the key a key to understanding something? In which case, does the poem end on a positive note? Key seems to be a verb as used here. What could it mean? I'm not sure, though again, I absolutely love the richness of exploration that undergirds this sort of poem. Good or bad, at least I key.

First published in:
ditch, the poetry that matters 

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