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The Poet's House
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Carla is stuck. In her twenties and working for a landscaper, she’s been told she’s on the wrong path by everyone—from her mom, who wants her to work at the hospital, to her boyfriend, who is dropping not-so-subtle hints that she should be doing something that matters.
Then she is hired for a job at the home of Viridian, a lauded and lovely aging poet who introduces Carla to an eccentric circle of writers. At first she is perplexed by their predilection for reciting lines in conversation, the stories of their many liaisons, their endless wine-soaked nights. Soon, though, she becomes enamored with this entire world: with Viridian, whose reputation has been defined by her infamous affair with a male poet, Mathias; with Viridian’s circle; and especially with the power of words, the “ache and hunger that can both be awakened and soothed by a poem,” a hunger that Carla feels sharply. When a fight emerges over a vital cache of poems that Mathias wrote about Viridian, Carla gets drawn in. But how much will she sacrifice for a group that may or may not see her as one of their own?
A delightfully funny look at the art world—sometimes petty, sometimes transactional, sometimes transformative— The Poet’s House is also a refreshingly candid story of finding one’s way, with words as our lantern in the dark.
Before I met Viridian, I didn’t know any poets, any real poets. “Real” meaning other people agreed that you were a poet, and published your poems in books and magazines, and made a fuss over you. Was she a famous poet? What did that even mean? What was a poet anyway? Was that a trick question? I didn’t even know what to ask.
Viridian hadn’t ever been on television, which is usually what famous means in America. Neither she nor any of her circle would have expected such a thing. Every so often a poet might be singled out and elevated by reading at a presidential inaugural, or the dedication of a monument, but that wasn’t exactly steady work. People said that books of all sorts were losing ground to videos and podcasts and blogs. The whole enterprise of poetry had been pushed into a kind of outer orbit, unseen but still capable of exerting a gravitational pull, a slow shaping of thought and language that people call culture.
Of course, the poets themselves kept track of their prizes and awards and who had the hot hand. They gossiped and nursed intricate grudges among themselves. They harbored secret hopes of literary immortality, of their poems bursting into bloom a hundred years or more from now, like fireweed. And who was to say it wouldn’t happen for them?
But these were all things I came to understand later. At the beginning, she was just Mrs. Boone, and I was there to put in some plantings she wanted.
What did I know about poets? Nothing, or maybe less. None of my schooling had exactly set my soul on fire when it came to literature. Poets wore berets and drank too much—this at least was often true—they lived in Paris or New York or they were already dead, they wrote about going down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky, or else they wrote in scrambled words and sentences that an ordinary person couldn’t follow, although they were no end impressed with themselves. I’d gotten along just fine so far without poetry.
I was so perfectly ignorant, an irresistible blank slate. No wonder everyone took it upon themselves to try and mold and educate me.
My boss, Rick, was going to meet me at Mrs. Boone’s house so he could introduce us, as Mrs. Boone did not want people just showing up. “Even girls,” Rick said, one more of his helpful remarks. He thought he deserved all kinds of credit for hiring me in the first place.
I had to be in San Rafael to drop off a part for an irrigation system, so it was no problem to head out west to Fairfax, where Mrs. Boone lived. It was May and the sky was already blue and hot, even early in the day. I hoped I could get the job knocked out before the air really started to cook. Northern California is supposed to have this perfect climate (in between mudslides, forest fires, and earthquakes), but a dry heat is still heat. It could get really hot in Fairfax, where the hills kept the cooler ocean air from piling in. Thirsty deer came down from the higher ground and munched the roses and vegetable gardens into stubs.
I reached the little downtown, with its yoga studio and coffee shops and ice-cream shop and brew pubs and natural food grocery. Fairfax used to have a doped-up, pleasure-seeking hippie vibe, and there was still an air of that left, even as the price of real estate had soared. More shiny new restaurants had opened, more of the old, haphazard houses had been torn down. The vibe was now more like expensive mindfulness. Green Party candidates won elections here; they actually ran things. Nationally owned chain stores were banned, as were pesticides, plastic bags, and Styrofoam. Fairfax was an official nuclear-free zone, for God’s sake. Like nukes were some pressing local threat.
I lived in Petaluma, which was less than an hour away but was all box stores and fast food. It was fine with me. It felt more like the real world.
I took a couple of wrong turns off Bolinas Avenue through the flat and sunny parts of town, before I got the GPS on my phone to stop squawking at me and I headed uphill. The road climbed and curved along a canyon, and on its outer edge people had built homes into the hillside below. They parked on pads built out along the roadway and walked down to their front
Mrs. Boone’s house was on the opposite side, on the hill itself, at the end of a steep lane. A gate in the board fence stood open. I nudged the truck through the gate and pulled over to one side of a wide, brick-paved courtyard. Rick wasn’t here yet, so I stayed behind the wheel to wait for him.
The house was brown-shingled and sprawling, two stories, and it looked like it had been here awhile without much updating. Parts of it seemed to have been built out as additions. One wing ran back to connect with a barnlike garage, while another made up a kind of breezeway with a screened porch at its end. For a hillside house, there was a good amount of sun. The courtyard had a center island planted with agapanthus, it looked like, along with poppies and succulents and lavender. Someone had made an effort at plantings around the house foundation. There were overgrown rosemary bushes, daylilies, Mexican sage, plumbago, and a section where trailing nasturtiums fought with foxtails.
Through the big windows of the breezeway, I saw a flat space of sunny lawn, with deer fencing all around. It enclosed a square of vegetable garden, a few fruit trees, and a great many weedy, terraced beds. Beyond that, redwoods and ferns and the green tangle of woods. The gardens had the look of the house itself, things thrown together and improvised over time.
Rick arrived ten minutes later. His big Ramcharger truck came close to knocking the gate off its hinges. I rolled my eyes at him to make sure he knew I’d noticed. He took off his baseball cap and ran a hand over his black hair to slick it in place. He was always convinced that his sweaty charms impressed the lady clients.
“Oh Ricky,” I said. “Hold me tight.”
“You’re weird, Sawyer.”
“Why thank you.”
He shook his head. “Nice attitude.” His real name was Ricardo, but he thought he’d get more business if he sounded white.
Rick rang the bell, which sounded somewhere deep inside the house. “Any special instructions?” I asked while we waited.
“Try not to screw up.”
I might have said something smartass back at him, but the door opened and Mrs. Boone, I guessed it was her, stepped out onto the front porch. She had long gray-and-silver hair brushed straight back from her forehead and standing out like a lion’s mane. She was barefoot. She wore loose white linen pants and a blue knee-length top with wide, drooping sleeves. I saw older women wearing clothes like these in Marin, equal parts yoga practice and Star Wars costuming. I wondered how old she was. Sixty? Seventy? Then I found myself asking another question: whether she had been, or was perhaps still, beautiful.
All this in a moment, only as long as it took Rick to say hello and tell her we had everything she’d ordered. “This is Carla, she’ll be doing your work today.”
I don’t remember Mrs. Boone saying much—hello, probably—
looking me over while I tried to appear obliging, capable, harmless. She had a wide forehead, and her blue eyes were wide-set also, and there was something about her eyebrows that made you think of birds, the wings of birds, although not until later when you tried to recall what in her face had struck you.
And what would anyone have seen in me? I was tall, a full head taller than Rick, which was why I got away with giving him shit. I wasn’t one bit big or muscled, but I could lift my share of loads. My hair was tied up in a knot under my canvas hat. I wore shorts and work boots and my skin was red-brown from sun and full of different half-healed scrapes and bites. At least before I started working this morning, I had been clean.
Mrs. Boone went back inside, and Rick and I unloaded the nursery stock from his truck. There were rhododendrons and hop bush and guara, some dwarf cypress, and salvia and shasta daisies. These were all meant to go in the back of the property, in the terraced beds. Rick went over the plan with me, gave me a little more grief, and drove off.
I’d been working for Rick for almost a year now. It wasn’t my dream job, though I couldn’t have said what was. After graduation I took some courses at Santa Rosa JC, but I have one of those brains that doesn’t process words on a page very well, and I hated composition classes and anything else that was reading-heavy. I was considered “intelligent” (which was something that seemed to be used against me), but also an underachiever. And although the brain wiring was beyond my control, everyone seemed exasperated with me. They believed I was not trying hard enough, not applying myself. My mom kept telling me to go into a medical field, like taking X-rays or working in a lab, but those jobs just screamed boredom. At least, working for Rick, I was outside every day, seeing actual results, things growing. I didn’t have to dress up or put anything on my face except sunscreen.
I lived with my boyfriend, Aaron. On weekends, we went out to listen to music, or maybe we’d take his dog, Batman, to the beaches or go camping. We were good together. I figured that one of these days we’d get married, and life would fall into place for us without a lot of special effort, the way it happened when you loved each other. We were lucky to have found each other and we knew it.
But from time to time, I was overcome by a sadness or strangeness, a feeling of too much feeling, if that makes sense, of standing just outside of something desirable and urgent and important. And then I had to get a grip and tell myself, as my mother surely would have, that I must not have enough real things to worry about.
I had a lot of nursery stock to get in the ground for Mrs. Boone. I started off well enough. I had a load of mulch in the bed of my truck, and I shoveled a wheelbarrow full of it and walked it out to the backyard. The edges of the bed with patchy shade, where the rhododendrons would go, were easy enough. The soil in the sunnier portions was hard and compacted. Some kind of deep-rooted shrubs had died there, and I had to dig them out. It was a chore and a half and slowed me way down.
And then came the heat, right on cue. Even in the shade, the air was breathless and unmoving. The house behind me was quiet. In the woods, a sudden bird squawked and then went silent. I had a big thermos of water and a jar of Gatorade. I kept pouring fluids into my mouth and it tells you something about heat and sweat that I only had to pee once in about six hours. I found a wooded part of the lot that was out of sight from the house and, also very important, didn’t have any poison oak.
The dwarf cypresses about killed me, as they had the biggest root balls. I watered them in right away, a slow soaking. I needed a break, not just for rest but from my own frustration. It was past three o’clock now, and although I’d saved some of the smaller and easier plants for last, by the time I got everything planted, watered, and mulched, it would be a longer day than I’d figured.
Behind me I heard the door to the screened porch open and I jumped. I heard Mrs. Boone say, “Here’s some iced tea for you,” but by the time I turned around the door had swung shut again. I saw her head of silver hair as she walked back to the house through the breezeway.
“Thank you,” I said, though I doubt if she heard me. I hadn’t planned on stopping, but I didn’t want to seem impolite.
I opened the door to the porch. The screens were covered over with trumpet vine and the dimness inside made me blink. A ceiling fan turned overhead, and a big electric box fan whirred cool air across the floor. The tea tasted good. I have to say, it all felt pretty good.
There was a wicker couch and chair with some upholstered cushions, and a little table where she’d set out the tea, a whole pitcher of it: hibiscus, which I liked, with a separate tall glass of ice cubes. There was also a plate of small sandwiches, cream cheese and brown bread. I hadn’t eaten any lunch. I sat in the path of the whispering electric fan and scarfed it all down.
I should have eaten standing up. Because of course between the food and the dimness and the cool breeze, I closed my eyes and fell asleep. I woke all of a sudden, knowing exactly what had happened and that I’d made trouble for myself. The light outside was sloping into late afternoon. The sweat had dried on me and I felt unwell.
Back outside, I calculated what I might get done before the light failed, which up here on a hill was likely to be early. I’d water and mulch everything I’d already put in the ground and clean up so that everything was tidy and looking good. There was no way I could avoid coming back tomorrow. Rick would have to be told something, but I hadn’t yet figured out what.
I texted Aaron to tell him to get home early enough to feed and walk Batman. Then I got to work watering, raking, sweeping up after myself. I spread the mulch around and dumped an extra wheelbarrow-load of it on a tarp to one side. I set the unplanted items together in a place where they’d be out of the morning sun.
When I was done, I carried the iced tea and the empty plate up to the back door of the house. It stood open. I knocked, then called. “Mrs. Boone?”
There was no answer. I took a step inside, to a pantry area with a kitchen beyond. I walked in just far enough to put the pitcher, glass, and plate next to the sink. I was nervous about being there and anxious to get back outside. I couldn’t tell much about the room; it was big and dark and there were layers of smells within it, of cooking but also of something dense and muddy, spices or incense, maybe.
“Mrs. Boone? I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get finished but I’ll be back first thing tomorrow if that’s all right. It won’t take me real long.”
I wasn’t quite awake yet, and I had a moment of true weirdness, as if everyone in the world had disappeared while I slept. Like Rip Van Winkle, but nuttier.
I backed out of there, got in my truck and headed out, stopping to close the gate after myself. I went down the canyon road, careful on the turns. When I reached downtown Fairfax there was still daylight in the sky, but I decided to go all the way to 101 rather than take the back roads to Petaluma and dodge the deer, who liked to practice jumping in front of headlights right
I texted Aaron that I was on my way, and he texted back, cool, no rush, be careful
Of course the traffic was a slog and slowed me down. It wasn’t entirely unwelcome to have a little time to myself, a chance to shake off the peculiarness—if that was a word—of waking up alone in a strange house and come back to myself again.
By the time I parked next to Aaron’s car and opened the front door, I was good and tired in a way I hadn’t been when I left. Batman thumped his tail from his bed in the corner. Aaron had heard me pull up and already had a Sierra Nevada in a holder
“You’re the best,” I said, reaching for it, but he held it above him until I kissed him. He was tall, like me, so we were always knocking our heads into the cupboards.
“I need a shower,” I said. “And then I want to eat a lot of whatever is in the oven.”
“Enchiladas. Chicken with green chiles. Hurry up, I’m hungry.”
Maybe this day was turning out well after all. I stooped to pet Batman. He was an eight-year-old German shepherd, getting gray around his muzzle. He was Aaron’s dog, at least to start with. I was still getting used to the idea of things that were his, things that might now be ours. We’d been living together almost a year now. A year seemed like an important marker.
The shower felt good, it melted the soreness right out of me. I knew I’d struggle to stay awake after dinner. It was hard to be good company during the week. Aaron had an office job, in the IT department of a banking headquarters in Santa Rosa. Computers. Smart guy, or at least, smarter than me.
“Hard day in the field?” Aaron asked me as we ate. He had a shaved head and a dark moustache and beard that he kept trimmed short, and people sometimes mistook him for a biker if he wasn’t cleaned up for work, and maybe even then. He was so not like a biker. He was a total sweetie.
“It shouldn’t have been that hard, but it stretched out longer than I wanted.” I wasn’t going to talk about falling asleep, literally, on the job. It was embarrassing. “I have to go back tomorrow and finish up. Ricky will be unhappy. How was work for you?”
“Good. Nothing broke down. Nobody threw anything.” We never spent much time talking about work. We didn’t really intersect there, and there were more interesting things to talk about, like what to do on the weekend, or the people we knew, or what movie we wanted to watch, or, though we didn’t say it in so many words, how lucky we were to have each other.
After we ate, I went out to water my fruit trees, apricot and plum, and the two olive trees I was nursing along. I checked the soil moisture in the rest of the plantings. The landlord had let me do over the yard with ornamental grasses and other low-water perennials. I was trying to make it into something people would notice, something that showed what I could do with my materials.
Before bedtime, which came pretty early, Aaron and I took Batman for a walk. The pavement was still hot under our feet, but the air had cooled way down. Our neighborhood was between 101 and another main road and was an unfancy mix of mobile homes and small bungalows like ours. It had ragged bits of open space along the roadways and in between developments so you didn’t feel closed in or on top of somebody else. I thought it was a fine place to live. I had just turned twenty-one and it was my first real place after moving out from my mom’s.
I was dragging as I walked. “Sorry,” I said, trying not to yawn so hard I fell over.
“You figure out what you’re going to tell Rick?”
“Yeah, my truck has an oil leak. It’s not so hard to believe.” Mrs. Boone was being charged by the job, not the hours. It wouldn’t make any difference to her.
“It’d be great if you could be your own boss,” Aaron said, in that casual way he had of sneaking up on a suggestion. He didn’t fool me for a minute.
“Then I’d have to work harder.”
“You wouldn’t have to. You’d be a better manager than him.”
“He’s not so bad at it.” I had a perverse urge to defend Rick.
“Or you could run a nursery. A greenhouse. You wouldn’t have to drive all over the Bay. I’m just saying, there are possibilities. If you want to stay in this line of work.”
“It’s okay for now,” I said. I appreciated that Aaron was looking out for me. But I didn’t want to feel like a problem everybody had to solve. You could get tired of all the encouragement.
The earliest we were supposed to show up at a client’s house was eight a.m., and I was going to push that a little with Mrs. Boone, so as to head off the wrath of Rick. I was out of the house way before seven, while Aaron was still sleeping. I took the back roads this time. They were prettier, you just had to not be in too much of a hurry, especially since there was still fog in the valleys and along the reservoir, and not much out here except cattle if, say, your truck sprang an actual oil leak and you needed help. Aaron had a point about all the driving I did for work.
I went over White’s Hill and on into Fairfax and found Mrs. Boone’s road without too much trouble. When I reached her gate it was shut, and I had one of those oh shit moments when I saw all my cleverness coming apart, and I’d have to call Rick and tell him how I screwed up so he could call Mrs. Boone to give me access. But the gate wasn’t latched from the inside, and so I opened it and pulled up in the same spot as yesterday and closed the gate behind me.
My plan was to sneak around to the back, ninja quiet, get the rest of the plantings in, water, etc., then ease my way out again. I was careful with the tools so as not to drop or bang anything together, even though from what I could tell of the house, I wasn’t close to any bedroom windows.
I started in and worked as fast as I could. In my mind I was already done and on my way to the job in Corte Madera where Rick was probably even now using my name as a swear word. Then a man walked around the edge of the house, the same way I’d come. He stopped short on seeing me, held up one finger of one hand, and I think the word I’m looking for is declaimed:
I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair
He stopped and gave me an expectant look. I mean, WTF. “My hair’s not yellow,” I said, just to be saying something. I’d left my hat in the truck. Mistake.
He shrugged this off. “It’s close enough.” He was about fifty, I guessed, with a fleshy, sagging face, a high forehead, and long, droopy hair. He had one of those big chests and big bellies supported on skinny legs. I’ve had to deal with obnoxious men before, who hasn’t? A couple of times on the job, and once I had to use the electric hedge clipper to get a guy to back off.
I had to make up my mind about this character in the spaces between words, since there were at least a couple of ways things could go wrong. Just to buy more time, I said, “Are you Mr. Boone?”
He seemed to think this was funny. “Ha! No such person!” He wore long, baggy shorts, a black T-shirt, and rope sandals. In Marin you could never tell if people were bums or billionaires.
“But you live here,” I said, since it was easiest to keep talking. “With Mrs. Boone.”
“Is that what she’s calling herself now. I’m in residence. Is Viridian up yet?”
“Viridian. Like the pigment.” I expect I had the same suspicious look on my face. “It’s a color,” he told me. “Green.”
We were back to colors now. “I just got here,” I said. “I haven’t seen anybody.” I started in digging again. I wasn’t afraid of him by then, but a planting spade is a good thing to have in your hands just in case.
“You’re the gardener, huh.”
“I work for a landscaping company.”
“That must be great. It’s the closest you could come to being a plant yourself.”
I looked up to see if he was making fun of me, but he had such a blissed-out, pleased expression on his face, and I remembered my mom saying you could never tell when somebody might be a little bit off, a little simple-minded, and you should treat them charitably.
“You mind if I do my exercises here? I won’t get in your way.”
“Go right ahead.” I was all right as long as it wasn’t naked yoga or something like that. I kept digging and didn’t look up.
Whatever kind of exercise it was, it involved a lot of loud breathing and grunting, a lot of bending himself double and reaching this way and that. This went on for a while. Then he stopped and clutched at his knees and puffed out his cheeks. His face was bright pink. He didn’t seem to be in very good shape. When he caught his breath again, he said, “So how do you like California?”
“Fine, I guess.”
“I find it takes some getting used to. I mean, it’s like walking around inside a giant piece of fruit, isn’t it?”
Yeah, whatever. “I wouldn’t know. I haven’t lived anywhere else.”
“A California native? Wow. I didn’t think there were any of those.”
“We were hunted almost to extinction for our pelts, but we’re making a comeback.”
I thought I’d stepped in it and was going to get myself run off the place, but after a moment he started laughing, or wheezing was more like it, anyway, he wasn’t mad, and if I could get these last few plants in the ground, watered up, and covered over, I could make a break for it.
Then I heard him say, “Virdie, look what I found in your garden!”
Mrs. Boone was standing in the breezeway, looking through an open window at us. She came out through the screened porch, holding a coffee mug. The man said, “Look at her, she’s perfect. She’s like something out of a Thomas Hart Benton mural.”
To me, Mrs. Boone said, “Is he distressing you?” I shook my head. I didn’t trust myself to give any other answer. “Oscar?” Mrs. Boone said to the man. “Would you go get something from the house for me?”
“Sure.” He braced himself again on his skinny knees and stood up straight. “What do you need?”
“Anything that’s going to take you a long time to find.”
He opened his mouth, closed it, then shrugged and went in through the screened porch. When he was out of sight, Mrs. Boone said, “I’m sorry. He shouldn’t be pestering you.”
- “A closely observed, droll, coming-of-age story . . . An absolute keeper.”—Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air
- “Wry, canny, and delectable . . . As a tribute to the soul-saving value of art, a cri de coeur for women striving to make authentic lives, and a pipeline of guidance from the elders to the emerging, The Poet’s House offers many rooms, infinitely worth the tour.”—The San Francisco Chronicle
- “The brilliantly rendered mise-en-scène of quarrelsome, ego-ridden yet touchingly fragile poets and the literary entrepreneurs who circle around them makes a vivid backdrop for this classic coming-of-age tale. More thoughtful, elegantly written fiction in the classic realist tradition by the gifted Thompson.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
- "Ever insightful, imaginative, compassionate, and funny, Thompson is a virtuoso of thorny interactions between wholly realized characters rife with contradictions. And she is so in her element, bringing this richly dimensional book-anchored mise-en-scène to life with lacerating wit and rueful tenderness while adeptly interleaving a poet's long, covert battle against sexism and regret with the verdant tale of a young woman taking root in an unexpectedly sustaining realm."—Booklist, starred review
- “A coming-of-age novel, a novel of manners (Jane Austen, make some room on that big bench, dear), a page-turning narrative with laugh-out-loud scenes, and ultimately a hopeful, affirming book about how words can stir the mystery in us, help us find ourselves, and maybe even make us, however reluctantly, bigger versions of ourselves. The Poet’s House is a book I’ll be recommending to my friends who are readers and even to those who are not, but who will, to be sure, fall in love with Carla, with her discoveries, and with that master storyteller, Jean Thompson.”—Julia Alvarez, author of Afterlife
- “Beautifully rendered with wry wit, unusual charm, and poignant insights.”—The Christian Science Monitor
- “A literary charmer . . . Amusing and true-to-life.”—Marion Winik, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
- "Jean Thompson is a national treasure. She's the kind of writer who can make you laugh and cry at the same time, a consummate prose stylist whose work is full of insight and wisdom and a deadly keen eye for the foibles and self-deceptions of her characters. The Poet's House is yet another indelible masterpiece in her oeuvre."—Dan Chaon, author of Sleepwalk
- “Charming . . . Part of the fun of The Poet's House is in its small details and memorable descriptions, but the biggest pleasures are Carla's evolution, the many well-drawn characters and subtle pokes at the competitiveness of the literary world.”—BookPage
- "Thompson’s talents for immersive storytelling and sharp characters are on brilliant display, particularly in her portrayal of Carla’s longing for something greater, and of Viridian’s conflicted feelings about Mathias’s work. The author’s fans will savor this."—Publishers Weekly
- “Jean Thompson makes hanging out with poets look like even more of a good time than one suspects, in real life, it might be. The Poet's House is terrific company: funny, poignant, and full of realistically quirky and original characters. A thoroughly enjoyable read.”—Julie Schumacher, author of The Shakespeare Requirement
- On Sale
- Jul 3, 2023
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Algonquin Books