The Country House: Heaven or Hell?

Cornelius Eady isn’t a WASP. He’s an African American poet best known for Brutal Imagination, his book written in the voice of the imaginary black man whom Susan Smith blamed for drowning her two little boys in her car in a lake, until she fessed up to the crime herself. In a daring act of the poetic imagination, these poems humanize the shadow figure of the black man projected by whites’ fears. But not every Cornelius Eady poem engages with America at this level of Greek Tragedy. Like many city dwellers, he and his wife dreamed of buying a country house, a dream that didn’t quite prepare them for the realities of sump pumps, furnaces, or even hammers. “I still don’t know/What to do/With the hammer,” Eady writes in “The Hammer.” “In my hands,/It feels like/My tongue,/Looking for//The right way/To say please,/Or don’t shoot/In say, French, or Swahili.” So he may appreciate my WASP joke: How many WASPs to screw in a light bulb? Two. One to mix the martinis. One to call the electrician. (Actually, I don’t drink martinis, plus I have a landlady to relight the pilot lights, etc. But this joke is still 100% true.) “Lucky House,” the suite of poems that begins Eady’s Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems offers in twenty minutes of reading pleasure the most astute and affecting version of the upstate house saga that I’ve read in ages. To read the rest of the book is to appreciate not only Eady’s career but the harshnesses in a life that have included the death of a hard hearted father, the bond with a sister who sells cans and bottles to the supermarket to support herself, and the racist indignities thrown at him and his wife as a mixed raced couple. The upstate house, which to anyone else might look a little ramshackle, provides a refuge of quiet ordinariness, which to a poet of Eady’s gifts, is a surprising source of grace and sustenance. He writes short poems with enchanting twists and turns. The apparent simplicity of his work belies the fact that these are the hardest kinds of poems to write.

Here’s one that made me think of the plumber who kept me going for five years in my log cabin in Phoenicia. I’ll never forget the look on his face one winter day when the frozen toilet bowl he was carrying out my front door like a thirty pound dinosaur egg suddenly cracked in his arms to expose the frozen yolk as clear as ice inside the thick shell. More than once he’d tried to teach me how to drain my pipes. The frustration on his face might have been verbalized as, “Can’t these idiots learn anything?” The grin on mine would have replied, “No, it’s too much fun to see what I can break next.” So here’s to him and all the professionals who keep our houses from collapsing into the weeds and dirt.

Handymen

The furnace wheezes like a drenched lung.
You can’t fix it.
The toilet babbles like a speed freak.
You can’t fix it.
The fuse box is a nest of rattlers.
You can’t fix it.
The screens yawn bees through.
Your fingers are dumb against the hammer.
Your eyes can’t tell plumb from plums.
The frost heaves against the doorjambs,
The ice turns the power lines to brittle candy.
No one told you about how things pop and fizzle,
No one schooled you in spare parts.
That what the guy says but doesn’t say
As he tosses his lingo at your apartment-dweller ears,
A bit bemused, a touch impatient,
After the spring melt has wrecked something, stopped something,
After the hard wind has lifted something away,
After the mystery has plugged the pipes,
That rattle coughs up something sinister.
An easy fix, but not for you.
It’s different when you own it,
When it’s yours, he says as the meter runs,
Then smiles like an adult.

Cornelius Eady will appear at the Woodstock Writers Festival on Friday, April 8th.

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