Wednesday, February 17, 2010

`Everything Should Be Where It's Supposed to Be'

After our father’s death almost five years ago my brother inherited the house on the West Side of Cleveland in which we had lived as children. Family lore, always murky, says my Polish-born grandfather and his three sons built the house after World War II, expanding the one-story, cottage-like structure they already occupied into a sturdy, two-story, red-brick fire plug of a house. We moved in when I was almost three years old, in 1955, the year my brother was born, and I lived there until I went to college 15 years later.

I was relieved my brother got the house and chooses to live there with his family. I know its moods and geography, and the geography of the neighborhood, more indelibly than any other place I've lived, and that includes dozens of addresses in five states. I couldn’t swallow the idea of strangers living there. I have no reason to feel nostalgic about my childhood, so my loyalty to turf surprises even me.

A reader in New York City writes, “Like you, I prefer the prose of August Kleinzahler to his poetry. In the London Review of Books, he writes about selling the old family home.” Kleinzahler’s poems read like jazzed-up, post-LSD William Carlos Williams, but he’s a good storyteller and I recommend Cutty, One Rock, the prose collection he published in 2004. The essay in the LRB recounts the sale of his family’s house in Fort Lee, N.J., after his father died and his mother entered a nursing home. It could have prompted another precious wallow in Baby-Boomer self-regard but Kleinzahler’s eyes, ears and sense of humor redeem it:

“I dislike change, at least as it relates to childhood memory … Everything should be where it’s supposed to be, which is where it was; if you remove one significant element, everything collapses. Much as a body would, if you removed a thigh bone or major organ. It all goes kittywumpus. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men … The house, in some queer way, has become part of my body, or an extension of it. And as the rooms are laid out and furnished, with the mirror above the dresser there, and the desk with the Chinese lamp by the living-room window over there, so is my imagination and my way of taking in the world ordered, a cockamamie variant of Matteo Ricci’s Memory Palace.”

Kleinzahler walks the tightrope between sentiment earned and unearned without embarrassing himself or his readers. He even reminds me of a passage in William Maxwell’s novel Time Will Darken It documenting the mundane ravages of time’s passage:

“To arrive at some idea of the culture of a certain street in a Middle Western town shortly before the First World War, is a much more delicate undertaking. For one thing, there are no ruins to guide you. Though the houses are not as well kept up as they once were, they are still standing. Of certain barns and outbuildings that are gone (and with them trellises and trumpet vines) you will find no trace whatever. In every yard a dozen landmarks (here a lilac bush, there a sweet syringa) are missing. There is no telling what became of the hanging fern baskets with American flags in them or of all those red geraniums. The people who live on Elm Street now belong to a different civilization. They can tell you nothing. You will not need mosquito netting or emergency rations, and the only specimens you will find, possibly the only thing that will prove helpful to you, will be a glass marble or a locust shell split up the back and empty.”

The novel is set in fictional Draperville, Ill., in 1912. Maxwell, born in Lincoln, Ill., in 1908, published Time Will Darken It in 1948, when he was 40. My archeology, 40 years after leaving the dig, is conducted solely in memory.

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