Poets Online Archive
Residual Memory of Place
October 2006

The poem by Andrew Motion that we used as a model ("Anne Frank Huis") was written immediately after his visit to the Anne Frank house (huis) in Amsterdam. I am convinced that houses are haunted by those who lived in them. I don't really mean ghosts or poltergeists, but I suppose I do mean something supernatural in the dictionary sense of  "relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe."  The homes of our childhood, those of relatives, probably even the one we live in now, have things not observable that dwell there. Historic homes, museums, train stations and many other public buildings have residual memories.

This month's prompt asks you to write about a house or building that affected you in the way that Anne's hiding place did for Andrew Motion. Your poem should include details of the place itself and you should avoid haunted house tales as the point of this writing prompt.

More about this prompt and previous ones, as well as your comments and things ars poetica at the Poets Online blog.

Andrew Motion (b. 1952) attended Oxford and taught English at Hull University where he got to know the poet Philip Larkin, whose official biographer he later became. He edited the Poetry Review, and was Poetry Editor at Chatto and Windus. He was appointed UK Poet Laureate in 1999.

He lives in London where he is currently Professor of Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is also a Director of The Poetry Archive, an website that provides poems and readings by poets.  

His poetry books include First World War Poemsbook and The Price of Everythingbook. He has also written biographies of the poets John Keats ( Keats) book and Phillip Larkin ( Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life).

He has said "I want my writing to be as clear as water" and his poetry is clear on the page and calm when he reads it. He has also said: "I want readers to see all the way through its surfaces into the swamp."

There is the playroom window through which I saw the sparrows mating,
A nature lesson from my biology teacher, Dad.
From that same window some years later
I heard crowds roaring, drums beating, and trumpets blaring—
Victory Day. World War II was over.

Inside the playroom there are three cartons of often-used wooden blacks.
I see my electric train set rattling around its track.
My one and only doll, Raggedy Anne, sits beneath a window
Its head resting its on its knees.

Outside again. Looking through the cellar window
I see my mother and her sister standing in front of giant washtubs
Scrubbing sheets, panties and everything else.
I opened the window, sat on the window frame to get a better look
And fell in. It wasn’t dangerous, just a nuisance to clean me up.
Nostalgia. Fond memories held by my childhood house.

Ellen Kaplan


In the end she comes home
to the prairie church
where she decorated for banquets
arranged the pulpit flowers
taught Sunday School
made quilts and packed parcels
brought potato salad, New Year's cookies
and squares to Thanksgiving dinners,
Watchnight services and funerals.

The locals don't seem to hold it against her
that for twenty years she forsook them
and their icy winters and dusty summers.
Old friends and neighbors
gaze pensive, loving
at her still form
in the brocade box
near where she parked her overshoes,
hung her coat and walked her fussy babies.

Later when she's wheeled
into the sanctuary
with its muted pink light
all feels so right -
the hard oak pews
the organ and piano
still in their places
the song leader waving his hand
as we sing, "When We All Get to Heaven."

Violet Nesdoly


They called it El Cordoba
A six story fancy apartment house in Brooklyn
With a roof garden and Spanish tiles
Where one could watch pigeons.
It had a great hall of a lobby
With stucco walls and a fake fireplace
The entrance lobby had casement windows
With panes of painted stained glass
And heraldic coats of arms.

The floors were dark tiles and the ceiling stenciled
Like a twenties movie palace.
A stage set that made you think of Errol Flynn
Coming as a ghost from the walls
Swinging on a loose rope
Ready to rescue Yvonne de Carlo
Before she entered one brass elevator door
To go down to an unknown destiny.

Whatever nasty things we said about our apartment
They were bitter times,
One just, "carried on," as the English say.

This was part of the Crown Height's Experience
A rock band that faded thirty years ago
While only thirty days ago
There was a shooting in the house's back yard
Making the Metro section of the Times

It was a drab and cold labor day
And we went to see the Caribbean parade
Three blocks away.
I took my son, to one thing
The paper always say, you should do with kids.
But the beautiful floats were all stalled
On the Center of Eastern Parkway,
A half hour of the ladies waving their feathers
Was not too much of anything.
So we walked to my house
Delighted that Ben and Jerry handed out free pops on the way

"This is the street and that's our apartment
And now for the lobby
The best thing, the most we can see."

At the shabby heavy iron door
The sheltered glass panels were replaced by plastic.
A man asked with impatience
"Who are you visiting?"
"Myself for my self. I want to show my son the lobby,
I grew up here".
With reluctance, "OK,"
My son has seen too much
And what was there did not impress.

But I kept thinking how in my youth
From the roof I saw the pigeons
With their fast circling flight
How flipping their silver wings was special,
Something only over my home.

Edward N. Halperin


In early years, the floors creaked at me,
nagging about neglect,
dust and bits of Kleenex and the belt
from last week’s skirt.
Now, the stairs ache into sound
as we bump the suitcases down
or drag our knees up.
The floors have become more grateful,
caressed by geometric red rugs
that whisper of Turkish sweets and tea.
The walls, silent and deferential,
guffaw behind our backs at our solemnity.
Still, they do their duty,
forgetting all our words---the good,
those we wish we had not said.
The windows, while still dirty, admit
copious amounts of light
and the shouts of robins
dancing in their bath.

Broeck Wahl


Along with other homes of wealthy families
it was built sometime during the 1850s
at an intersection near Grant Park to impress others
But Atlanta's role in the Civil War dictated
that its three full floors and full basement
serve as a hospital for Confederate troops
injured up in Virginia serving under General Lee

At war's end the huge house of 20 or more rooms
became a war veterans' convalescent home
and eventually the city's first apartment building
But in the harsh Depression years of the Thirties
after the stock market crash of 1929 it reverted
to low income housing units of one to three rooms
A family known to me occupied a portion
of the second floor and it is their stories
which enthrall me still about Hospital House

Its first owner was a cunning and purposeful man
who designed and had built private secret passages
allowing him to slip out while his family
believed him to be secluded in a bedroom
One narrow hallway led to a fancy bedroom closet
believed to be that of his ensconced concubine
another to the lower floor and his stables
Still another offered a ladder against an inside wall
and trap door at a small flat roof portion
where he could have entered the house next door
and to another waiting female assignation

Aunts and uncles told of childhood romping
through this intriguing and mysterious home
where they found unrevealed hideaways which
they used for girl and boy meetings of undisclosed
purposes while between twelve and sixteen
After World War II, the structure was demolished
and with it secrets of generations who enjoyed
privileges not available to other youths of the era
in Old Atlanta before it became a modern metropolis

F William Broome


Over a red-walled exit ramp,
past the cement city park
turn left at the corner, by the monkey shop.
Take a left again.
Park at the house with the white fence around the small garden.
See the white metal rake,
reaching up to the sky,
like a child grasping for a balloon blown by the cold autumn wind.
Walk up the stone steps,
the ones you learned to play stoop ball on.
The ones where you held the pizza,
waiting to eat the cheesy, burning mess of it, only to burn your tongue.
Take off your shoes and feel the carpet crunching beneath you.
Open the door
with the key,
on the ring, with too many things.
Sit down at the table,
the plastic sticky with memories of
card games
and holiday dinners on the china with the cobblestone street.
Look at the picture
of the girl and the geese
across from the cabinet,
crammed with papers and junk.
Walk into the living room with the old TV
and the plastic covered couch,
look under the cushions for an endless collection of coins,
sleepless ninja turtle filled nights, and ginger ale breakfasts.
Walk into the kitchen,
with the refrigerator covered in hundred dollar magnets.
The dark paneling,
making the room even smaller.
Put the kettle on for tea, take out three cups.
Four Equals and one tea bag, milk poured after water.
Lemon juice and a tea bag.
Lemon juice, sugar, and a tea bag.
Walk into the jungle.
A flat rectangle of a room,
with too little room,
for too much stuff.
Go to the bathroom
to look at the butterflies,
silver and refracted pink swirls,
trying to escape their dimensions.
Go to the cemetery,
up to the hill,
around the corner,
find yourself at the grave no one can find but you.
Remember the orange hair,
that everyone but you said wasn't orange.
Remember the little ceramic seal,
going to the aquarium.
The Christmas dinners,
with creamed spinach just for you.
And the Stella Dora cookies that still don't taste the same,
without ginger ale from a green bottle.
Hear the song,
written just for you.
How you hated it when it was there,
but missed it like home when it wasn't.
Miss the part of you that is dead,
but keep it alive as much as you can.
Remember how she fixed you,
but left you broken in the end.

Patricia Schwerdtman


The legacy of the return from exile
From Korsou to Hulanda, from the parched
Unwavering island to the desperate streets
Where one learned medicine or existentialism
Before returning to reclaim these pastel facades

Is gone now, in the wake the uprising,
The one that tore apart the fictive tissue
Of separation. Back then though black was not
Black, and white was white in blackness

Nursed at the teats of silent black women
Whose children babbled the same language
They taught to those white, proper women’s children
And which now everybody speaks, Papiamentu

Over the dinner table, in the bars
And over all the dining tables, still it was
Less like the universal radio broadcasts
Clanking American Hip Hop in the shacks.

They still are made of tin. The Shell Oil Company
Still sets all terms, controls all real estate.
What happened back in 1969
While it was obvious enough and needed

Did not acknowledge the incestuous past,
The tropic guilt and infinite sadness
Of all these strangers on the earth.

The Dutch were never sensible,
Building plantations where nothing will grow
But the diwi diwi tree that always leans
Toward a Europe that is not its home.

Joe Aimone

The Matriarch

I wasn’t there to offer obeisance to the imposing figure of the rotund queen.
On the day my grandmother died, I was holding court in an off campus
apartment, smoking primo dope with a few friends and watching an episode
of Star Trek on TV. My roommate, a huge fan, refused to take calls during
the show, took the phone off the hook and would not return it to the cradle
until the ending credits scrolled across the screen. I would have ignored
the summons even if I had received the call to watch my grandmother expire
under white sheets, surrounded by her devoted retinue of aging daughters.

I could picture the scene well enough in my mind: my aunts clustered
around the hospital bed, vainly petitioning my grandmother not to depart,
weeping inconsolably, my mother attempting to reestablish order, to restore
a proper measure of decorum while dabbing her eyes with a lace hanky.

“I tried to call, but the line was busy,” my mother said, “to let you know,
so you could pay your last respects while momma was still alive.”

The details were filled in afterwards: the fact that she was still breathing
when paramedics arrived to lift her slumped body where it had fallen
onto a litter, ferry it through the living room, maneuver it out the front door
and down the steps to the barge that waited to carry her bulk across town,
my aunts fluttering behind like streaming pennants in her wake.

On the day she died, my grandmother raised her arm for the final time,
the one that had to be carefully shifted from her lap to the padded armrest
of the throne in which she presided over Lawrence Welk and Ed Sullivan
on Sunday nights, her daughters rubbing her swollen legs with ointments,
and carrying laden trays back and forth from the kitchen.

The weight of that arm, its elbow encrusted with eczema, frayed a hole
in the upholstery that was covered with a heating pad. I remember lifting
her bloated ankles onto a hassock, and fetching the Sunday paper
from the porch for her to read when I was obligated once a week to pay
homage at her residence on Hollywood Street.

“Look!” she said, swinging the arm like a pitcher limbering up at the ballpark.
My mother stopped stirring the tomato soup on the stove and stared in awe
as my grandmother rose from her seat at the table. “Look,” she said, pushing
the aluminum walker triumphantly out of her way, “at how good I can walk!”

Her elephantine feet encased in purple slippers shuffled magisterially across
the linoleum into the antiquated parlor, my aunts trailing the print housedress
through the dining room, past the knickknacks on the shelves, as she led
the small procession down the hall and back into the kitchen where she took
her place at the head of the table, satisfied that her downstairs domain
remained intact, her daughters afraid she might fall, afraid they could not lift
her immense body if she did.

“It’s a miracle,” one of my aunts shouted jubilantly, stroking the regal fingers
of her plumped hands. My mother dutifully ladled out the soup that had bubbled
over in the pot while they had been out parading. My grandmother raised
the silver teaspoon to her mouth and warned them not to burn their tongues.
She pursed her lips to show them the way to blow the soup cool as though they
were still children in need of schooling before her back straightened and
she toppled.

Two spinster aunts, who had sacrificed their lives catering to her royal whims,
inherited the crumbling castle, the clogged pipes, the leaky roof, the broken
toilet, the wild thorns that enclosed a vast realm of weeds. They would spend
the remainder of their days compelled to maintain the house that had become
a shrine to their dead mother’s memory, grieving for the stern matriarch
that had imprisoned them in the decrepit home her imperious ghost still ruled.

Steve Smith


Where do the memories go
When smoke dissolves their origin?
Of the single-lane stairway to the bedrooms,
Where we’d torn out one wall
To make a studio for Mom –
Nothing remains but a tiny saddle-shoe
( and that found in the shell of the cellar
Beside the smoldering living room couch).
Did the fire carry the memories aloft,
Recoiling at soft tears and angers?
And thrilling at the birth of new babies?
Where in the air can we rescue
The songs and the throngs of laughter
That made up for the ‘lacks’
Of what others thought as essential ?
The smoke and the flames have dwindled;
But up in the air somewhere
Is –still enkindled – the opposite of despair!

Catherine M. LeGault


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