Here's Don Share's contribution to the Split This Rock series. In "At Home," Share echoes Elizabeth Bishop's "A Visit to St. Elizabeth's"--in which the poet employs "The House that Jack Built" nursery rhyme structure to capture the surreal meeting of the poet Ezra Pound in the asylum--to provide us with a comic scene of the wreck of domestic life (Ortega y Gassett: life is shipwreck). The poem suggests both the tenuousness and fragility of modern American life, and the greater fragility that appears on the doorstep, in the news of wars abroad.
Greetings to the red-eyed clouds
from this, the house that sits
on the mound and faces the corner
that marriage built, where wine
was drunk and semen flooded
the egg which lodged in the uterus
that built the daughter who greeted
the man and the woman here
in the mound at the corner in the house
that education built, and you
know from home-schooling
that the woman can be the teacher
and the man can be the tender child
and ditto the actual infant, depending
on her sex, dependent on love and
income; oh our dear dependent
is ruining the new chair in the house
that nested ambition built, along
with naked sense, and the beak
of god, the job of love, the hurt
of older homes, the hang
of it generally, the hands of pain,
the haze of Zoloft and the pudge
of Prozac, the twins of failed
marriages that manage to live on
in the ardor of our redone arbor
here in the house that books built,
that Yiddish and the Book of Common
Prayer built, that Presbyterian pride
built, that pogroms built, that blue
and white collars built, that Bildungs-
romans built, that the Biltmores built,
that mad dogs bayed at, that the baby
was born in that the cat bit and mouse
whispered within, over which, mortgaged,
the thunder caught its tongue and brought
great downpours upon while the coffee boiled,
while the paper, delivered late again, said:
We fight the terrorists abroad
so we don't have to fight them at home.
Used by permission.
Originally published in Squandermania
(Salt Publishing, 2007)
Don Share is Senior Editor of Poetry. His books include Squandermania; Union; and Seneca in English. Forthcoming are a new book of poems, Wishbone; a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems; and Basil Bunting's Persia. His translations of Miguel Hernández, collected in I Have Lots of Heart, received the Times Literary Supplement Translation Prize and P.E.N./New England Discovery Award. With Christian Wiman, he has co-edited The Open Door: 100 Poems from 100 Years of Poetry.
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I was compelled from start to end in my first reading of "At Home" out of Sqandermania. The nursery-rhyme rhythm caught my ear, then betrayed it, turning the pinna over to the unraveling of dependable beat as the layered domestic tensions and ruptures are revealed. The poem clinches its task with the final jingoist slogan: a shallow chant exposed as inadequate by comparison to the child's sing-song, and all the more unacceptable because the slogan lacks even the defense of innocence. But I would resist pegging this superb piece simply as an anti-war poem, unless that interpretation embraces the complexity of psychological angst, marital conflict, and parental anxiety along with nationalistic barbarism. When Share points one finger with any hint of " j'accuse," he knows that three fingers retroflex to himself. He is no hypocrite.
a few seconds ago
Quinn, I agree with you, quote whole-heartedly, that the poem is not reducible to a sloganeering anti-war poem, precisely for the reasons you suggest. It seems to say: conflict is everywhere. hypocrisy everywhere. Because it resists the "domestic"-"love"/"abroad"-war dichotomy that's so typical of a lot of anti-war poems (and some great ones), it has a bracing quality about it. Thanks, Quinn, for elaborating on why this poem is worthy of reflection.
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