I wonder if the poet knew the term “dried-in”—meaning that stage of building a new home where the rain can’t get inside. The roof is on, the walls are up, doors and windows are installed. An appraiser would say it’s about forty percent finished at that point.
Les Murray (1938-2019) could’ve used that phrase in his one-line poem titled Creole Exam. Seems the great Australian poet traveled the Caribbean and was struck by the shoddy housing of the islanders of mixed European and black descent. The anthologized poem goes, How old were you when you first lived in a weatherproof house? That’s it.
I could not get away with calling that a poem, but Murray was talked about for the Nobel Prize and if he called it a poem, it’s a poem. If that’s not imprimatur enough, he’s New York-published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in hardcover for thirty bucks. (I’ll toss in a more convincing sample of his work at the end of this piece.)
If I’d known Les, like, hung out with him at a bar now and then, I would’ve suggested to him that dried-in is more poetical, less technical sounding, than weatherproof. And I think I could’ve convinced him.
Yesterday morning during the worst of the downpour, at about the time Hurricane Barry was sloshing ashore in Louisiana, the rain coming off my canvas porch roof looked like garden hoses had been left on somewhere overhead. Such flooding rain as I plan this week to remove the plywood roof decking of the boathouse on Waterhole Branch, then down with the siding and framing materials. I was really glad I was dry inside. Little blessings like (okay) a weatherproof cabin.
But it wasn’t always so for me. And I would’ve told Les about the last house I lived in that wasn’t dried-in.
It was back about sixty years ago. In Lamar County, Alabama, where I believed if I mounded some fresh plowed dirt over my foot, tamped it down with my palm, and sneaked my toes out, that I’d made a house for a toad. And I’d go back to the field now and again, looking to see had one moved in. No frog ever accepted my offer. Nor, for that matter did a doodlebug grab the twig I wobbled around in its dusty dimpled crater in the dirt of a barn floor. Though I sang, Doodlebug, doodlebug, latch yourself on, your house is afire and your kids are all gone. And never did I see a dragonfly doctor a snake, though snake doctor was the only name I knew for that silly-looking flying bug until I went to college.
The house I would tell Les about was called the Manuel Beard place. That’s because Manuel Beard was the last man to live there before my father and mother and brother and sister and I moved in. It was 1957, and I was 8. There was no indoor plumbing. The well was just a few steps outside the back door, which hung in a side wall of the kitchen. The barn and an outhouse were beyond the well, down a gentle hill.
Out the back door and onto the porch with a water bucket, down three wooden steps, and maybe thirty paces farther, was the wellbox made of broad pine planks enclosing the deep shaft in the ground. There was a hole in the top of the wellbox big enough for a bucket on a cotton rope to go through and down into the water. Two tall posts on opposite sides of the box held up a small gable roof covered with tin.
Between the top of the wellbox and the roof was a short hardwood log, mounted horizontally on an iron axle. At one end, the axle went all the way through the post and was fashioned into an L-shaped handle. The log was rubbed smooth by hands that braked the falling bucket.
Sometimes I’d go to the well for water. I’d set the pitcher on the wellbox and let down the bucket, one hand on the handle and my other on the log, until I heard the splash. Leaning over and looking through the dark hole down fifteen feet at the overturned bucket, I’d watch it fill with sweet cold water. Then, using both hands on the handle, I’d haul up the bucket and perch it on the wellbox. Right away I’d take a long drink from the bucket of fresh water using a dipper that hung on a nail driven into one of the roof posts. Then I’d pour the pitcher full and take it inside.
In the kitchen, some of the water I’d pour into a huge ceramic bowl on the oak washbasin stand. The rest would remain there in the pitcher for drinking or cooking. A wash cloth hung from a wooden dowel mounted between two uprights on the back of the washbasin, and, nearby, a towel draped from a nail in the wall. A couple of times a week we’d pile into Daddy’s two-door Ford and hie down the road about two miles to my grandfather’s house for a hot tub bath.
When the wind blew hard outside the Manuel Beard house, it moved curtains inside as it whistled in through gaps around the windows and underneath doors. In the winter, you could feel it on your neck if you weren’t standing with your backside toward the blazing fire in the fireplace. There was a family joke about which was better for holding down a wind-flopped blanket, a piece of brick or a big sandstone.
Rain found leaks in the tin roof and dripped water into buckets or kitchen pots and pans. In bad storms we were wary that the rain leaking in might make its way to the dangling twist of electrical cord suspended from the ceiling and holding a fat light bulb.
And one cold morning, maybe in December, or maybe January, the water in the wash basin had frozen over. Just a thin skim of ice that I broke with my fingers so I could slick down my hair and comb it for the bus ride to school in Millport five miles east on Highway 96. When I got on the school bus that morning, kids began pointing and laughing after I found a seat. Slivers of ice sparkled in my wet hair, I learned. I was glad that Linda Parker did not ride my bus. I was a quick learner. That was the first time and the last time I wore ice in my hair.
Before my third-grade school year was out, Daddy walked up to me in the backyard with a suitcase, followed by Tarzan, our Boxer Bulldog. “Son,” he said, kneeling between Tarzan and the brown suitcase, “you’re going to be the man of the house now.” And he told me that I’d have to take care of my mother and my brother and sister and Tarzan. He was leaving. They were getting a divorce.
When Daddy slicked his hair back, brushed up on his dance moves, and started courting my mama during the following year, we had moved twenty miles away to Reform, Alabama, where Mama worked at the Westinghouse Electric plant. We lived in a dried-in house. Daddy rolled up in a two-tone hardtop Oldsmobile, rose pink and ivory. He jingled the fist of change in his pants pocket. But I think the clincher that convinced my mama to marry my daddy the second time was he promised to never again let us live in a house that was not weatherproof. In fact, he ordered a new home from Jim Walter Corporation, a shell with the exterior complete, but leaving the interior to be finished by the new owners.
And I still cannot figure out how Mama put up with letting Daddy move us in before the bathroom fixtures were plumbed-up. Oh, well. At least the kitchen had running water, and it was on five acres across the highway from my maternal grandfather. And, so, for a few weeks, what’s a short hike down the hill and across the blacktop to a bathroom that was wetted-in? Sounds to me like material for writers and poets…
Here’s Les Murray’s poem called Shale Country. That’s the region of Australia where shale oil is produced by the millions of barrels, and where men and their families live in company housing and go to work in the oil fields.
Watermelon rinds around the house,
small gondolas of curling green
lined with sodden rosy plush;
concrete paths edged with kerosene,
tricycles and shovels in the yard
where the septic tank makes a fairy ring;
a wire gate leads into standing wheat,
cream weatherboard overlaps everything—
and on the wheatless side, storm blue
placques curl off the spotted gum trees
which, in new mayonnaise trunks, stand over
a wheelbarrow on its hands and knees.
And these few lines from his poem, The Instrument, about the reading and writing of poetry:
Why write poetry? For the weird unemployment.
For the painless headaches, that must be tapped to strike
down along your writing arm at the accumulated moment.
For the adjustments after, aligning facets in a verb
before the trance leaves you. For working always beyond
your own intelligence. For not needing to rise
and betray the poor to do it.
…the poor who live in houses that let the rain come inside.