Monday, May 30, 2011

The House That Was My Muse

The Story Behind the Poem

A house was once my muse. How can that be? Most houses are about keeping out the rain and the noonday sun.

From the outside the house was a shoe box—upended—with plain redwood siding. But from inside the house was all eyes: eyes on the western hills where the fog flowed in, eyes on the inner valley where blazes of trees announced the changing seasons, eyes on the long view out to a distant reservoir, eyes on the setting sun as it swung along the hills— north to summer, then west and south to winter. It was a poetry house, a muse house.

Most poetic of all was my poetry porch—a small glassed in deck off our bedroom—and the house gave me new eyes, or rather, it gave me back the eyes I had as a girl. Birds flew below us. Hawks were at eye level, making slow circles until their eyes caught motion and they dived. Once, I saw a golden eagle perched on the nearby power pole—watching me watching him. The poet I’d been as a child in the mountains of Vermont, in the ivy woods of Princeton, returned to me in that house. She had room to play in a structure that cultivated the contemplative, the imaginal, the wild.

Sometimes, at night, we’d wake to the uncanny “hoo hoo” of an owl, perched on a corner of roof, staring at us. Often, after work, Dan and I would stand on the living room deck, pour drops of red wine on the distant earth, say “Pacha Mama”—thanks to our mother—the earth.

Our houses shape us—they orient our senses, teach us what matters, give us our outlook on life. Before the muse house Dan and I lived in a strong warm maternal house in the city, with dark wood interiors. In those days we paid scant attention to what was happening outside. It was a house that sturdily embraced our complicated family: Dan’s three kids, my three kids, a dog, a cat, the custody dance of every other weekend vs. Dad’s week, Mom’s week. How many for dinner? When the kids grew up, we wanted a house just for us two.

The muse house on the ridge was a blessing of light, a lesson in the circles of life. It sang to me in the hot tub. It whispered fragments of poetry. I wrote and I wrote.

The house was also a headache, a money suck, a catastrophe waiting to happen. It leaked in the rain. We replaced the roof. It still leaked. We replaced the windows. It still leaked. The drip drip drip woke us in the night. It was water torture.

It needed to be painted frequently, for it stood three stories tall on that ridge and was beaten by weather. It cost a small fortune to paint because it required scaffolding. The house, Dan said, would keep him from ever retiring. It was making him crazy. Slowly, sadly I came around to Dan’s reality. We needed to sell the house. That was when I heard the lament of the house:

Lament of the House

How can you tear me apart, empty me out?
Haven’t I stroked you with fingers of light?
Haven’t I gentled your eyes? Filled you to brimming over
with the green world? How it goes
golden and brown? How it loses

its leaves and goes bare? Haven’t I given you
joy— shown you the setting sun
with streaks of purple and orange,
with white fog like sea foam
flowing over the western hills?

Haven’t you stood on my deck, you and Dan
poured red wine unto the earth
said praises, said blessings?
Haven’t I held your clay goddesses, your dancing
Ganesha, your gathering of Zuni frogs?
How can you tear me apart, empty me out,
get me staged to be god knows whose
fantasy house on a ridge? I who’ve been source
of your source, sanctuary, sacred seat
from which you’ve seen clouds form, hawks dive…

Haven’t you sat in me—on that old yellow chair—and been visited
by poetry? Haven’t you stood in me—naked,
moonstruck— in the gaze of the great horned one?
Will you send your gods into exile in cardboard boxes?
Will the soles of your feet forever be gone from my spiral stairs?

Where will your wild enthusiasms go, your wrestling
angels, your love cries? “Nasty,” you called me
when I thrust that long redwood splinter under your nail.
How else can I say it? You and I are inside one another.
How can you tear me apart, empty me out?
(This poem was first published in Poppyseed Kolache #2, Summer 2010)

Some time ago we learned that the young couple to whom we sold the house had to walk away from it. They were under water. The Great Recession had devoured their livelihood, their equity. And my magical house, my poetry porch, my glorious views hung desolate, abandoned, on the ridge— a foreclosure notice flapping on its front door, under the bare, late fall, wisteria which—I can see it in my mind’s eye—will make fervent purple blooms overarch the entrance, come summer.

The other morning Dan looked up from his newspaper. “It’s been sold” he said. “What has?” “Our old house.”

And indeed, we drove by to see trucks and cars parked in front of the house on the ridge, and work being done.

Thank you, whoever you are, who bought that magical house. Please take good care of it. May it bless your lives as it did ours.


  1. What a beautiful story. I thank the residential home builders who built our home every single day. Our house is more than a roof over our heads, too.