Jared Carter writes of a childhood in the mid-twentieth century America
It was a white wooden building two stories tall — two long, high-ceilinged rooms, one on each floor, topped by a flat tarpaper roof that sloped toward the back of the property.
Where I grew up, such structures were called “storefront buildings.” Surrounded by elms and maples, it stood a block west of the courthouse, on the northwest corner, facing east. Originally it had been a lodge hall. During the Depression years, the members of the lodge had gradually died off, and the building stood empty until one of my relatives, an uncle who was an artist, acquired it, a few years before the war, and had it fixed up as a studio.
My parents drove us down to this place to visit the artist’s widow in the late 1940s. The town and the building were always the same. There were no sidewalks. My father parked at the edge of the lot. Out front, rising from its square of stone, was the cast-iron pump with the curved handle. Here we would drink cold water from our cupped hands, and refresh ourselves, each time we came to visit.
If the light slanting beneath the canopy of trees seems clear and steady now, it is not simply because I look back on that vanished building through a scrim of fifty years, so that all the wrinkles and irregularities have been smoothed out. We forget not only what certain trees mean to a landscape, to the profile they give to a town; we forget even the quality of light filtering down through their leaves and branches.
One kind of illumination reaches down when you are a small child playing beneath the limbs of a catalpa tree; another kind settles over you at the base of a willow, or a shagbark hickory. Later, it is almost as though hidden voices had been speaking to you, pointing out certain shadows and profiles — the outlines of small, undiscovered things, the shapes of beetles and lost marbles and blades of grass.
I say this because I know there were elms reaching over the summer studio, and I know they are gone now, all of them. But their handling of the light remains unchanged.
If you asked me to describe that light, I would say that it was notched, pieced together like the irregular swatches and squares of silk and satin and calico that interlock to form the pattern of an old quilt. The stitching along the edges of each of those pieces, even the smallest, would be minute and exact.
There was the light, and the stillness, and the simplicity. Inside, the rooms of the old building were always cool, even on the warmest days. Looking back, I sometimes think of it as an enormous block of ice cut from some snow-covered lake and mysteriously preserved until summer was at its height — a day in late July, with cicadas shimmering in the trees.
But it had been left in that grassy place, as though overlooked or forgotten, and it melted at a glacial rate. Ultimately it was doomed to disappear, but it was still so vast and impermeable that it would take years, or even decades, sitting there among the lilacs and the forsythia, to shrink away.
Most of that great sun-dappled cube of a building has dwindled and grown dim now, even in my memory, but here and there I can still see a milky patch, a section of white clapboard gleaming with opalescent light.
Or I will find myself peering into one of the windows, a square grown blank with sunlight, and gradually it will change, as though a cloud were passing over the sun, or as though tree limbs overhead had begun to stir in a cool wind, rearranging the shadows and reflections below.
At such moments each pane of the window turns clear, and I can see inside, and remember.
(First published in The Aurora Review)
Jared Carter is an American poet with seven books of poetry. He is the recipient of numerous awards, which include the Walt Whitman Award, the Poets’ Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.
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