Hunting the house through


I spent five years working construction as a union painter many years ago (IBPAT, Local 246, should anyone care to know).  Even so, it was my milkman grandfather who had the greatest insight about the chore of painting a house.  He remarked once that it was important to paint your house with a good brush every so often (and never to spray it).  The extra work involved allows you to get to know your house more intimately and it lets the house know how much you love it.

I've been painting our house this week, a couple of bedrooms.  They were the last rooms I had yet to get personal with after a decade and a half of living here.  Learned a few things, too.  The walls in this place (built in 1926) are still wonderfully straight and in good shape.  I also ran across some curious choices that were made when someone before my time remodeled and enlarged the closets.  Inspecting empty closets will tell you a lot about a house because people don't worry too much about the quality of their work in them.  As with judging old furniture, the story of how well something was made is often in the parts people don't see.

After I finished painting this morning, I went out on the porch to have a cup of coffee and read for a few minutes before cleaning up.  Grabbed some Robert Browning, a poet whom I've long meant to give some serious attention.  I serendipitously happened across this lovely piece:

Room after room,
I hunt the house through
We inhabit together.
Heart, fear nothing, for heart, though shalt find her--
Next time, herself!--not the trouble behind her
Left in the curtain, the couch's perfume!
As she brushed it, the cornice wreath blossomed anew:
Yon looking-glass at the wave of her feather.

Yet the day wears,
And door succeeds door;
I try the fresh fortune--
Range the wide house from the wing to the centre.
Still the same chance! she goes out as I enter. 
Spend my whole day in the quest,--who cares?
But is twilight, you see,--with such suites to explore,
Such closets to search, such alcoves to importune!

It's worth paying attention to simple techniques in poetry.  Like an empty closet or the wood at the back of a drawer, it too betokens quality.  Browning's alliteration here is wonderful: the dreamy "Rs" and "Hs" that ease us into the poem, the nice balance of alliteration in individual lines (Range the wide house from the wing to the centre).  This is to say nothing of his well-thought out use of dashes and line endings.  Alliteration is easy to botch, but done right it can really evoke a scene or state of mind. 

A house, of course, is just an association of a place with memory or the memories of the people you know who have inhabited it.  Take everything from a room and all that's left is memory.  Strangely that emptiness makes the memory more sharply felt.  It's not in the room, but where it's always been, in you alone.  Yet still you search for it in the room. 

I also need to paint the outside of the house this summer.  Figured I should brush one more coat on the place before I eventually succumb to siding.  I had planned to do this next week, but I noticed this morning that there are still two little wrens nesting in the eave.  I think I'll wait for them move on before I disturb their home.

Comments

Anti-Dada said…
I want to really like this entry, but I got so stuck on "importune" that I had trouble concentrating on the rest. Why such an odd three-syllable word to end the poem? Surely there are 10-cent words that would do the trick. To each their own and all that, but I felt like Browning shoved a fork in my ear at the poem. Why? Why would you run your fingernails on the chalkboard like that in an otherwise lovely poem. Here I was, falling in love with an old house, and then a serial killer rushed me while I was observing a closet. Rather rude, really. Importune. Why not "implore"? Two syllables, fits with the rest. Maybe the closets really were that bad, though.
Professor Quest said…
I agree. I had reservations about that "importune" too. All I can say is that it gives the poem an unsettled feel that echoes the situation. Romantic organic form perhaps? But that strikes me as special pleading. Still I like the poem.

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