A House in the Country
In memory of Caro Armstrong
As a child I played at being invisible
to my elders, who had their own lives to live.
At times it seems unreal now, even to me.
They gave me the run of the place, from the kitchen
where hams hung in the rafters darkening
in the rising smoke, and an old woman
sat in a chair by the fire smoking a pipe
and basting venison as it turned on a spit —
to the attic where heat-struck porcelain
dolls stared vacantly, cheeks rouged, limbs missing.
The library was airless and gothic, bindings
crumbling in the wilderness miasma —
Urn Burial with otherworldly illustrations
and The Flowers of Evil by Baudelaire
with Aubrey Beardsley’s etchings, hardly suitable
reading for a child of my tender years.
Caro kept the accounts and ran the farm.
Penelope’s room was tiny. It was where
she painted her miniatures and brooded.
Linley and Trooper kept an office in town
where they played at practicing law.
I wonder if they had any clients at all.
I wandered the fields and woods with my .22
under scuppernong vines trailing from old cypresses.
Wild canaries sang up there in the forest roof
and cottonmouth moccasins swam in the creeks.
Nobody ever told me to be careful.
Around the dinner table with its outré
talk and wideness of permission, an itinerant
artist had painted Italian country scenes
with Roman ruins that somehow entered
the conversation without being mentioned.
Isolation, dipsomania, who knows
what else. The wreck on the highway, the Packard
gone over the bridge into the river that night.
The evangelists who visited on their rounds
after accepting the house’s hospitality,
eating their fill at that blasphemous merry table
and sleeping warm, shook the dust from their feet
before they moved on, as advised by Scripture.
Copyright © 2022 by Richard Tillinghast. Excerpted from Blue If Only I Could Tell You (White Pine Press). All rights reserved. A Memphis native, Richard Tillinghast is the author of 13 poetry collections and 5 books of creative nonfiction, including An Armchair Traveller’s History of Istanbul and Journeys into the Mind of the World. Blue If Only I Could Tell You won the 27th annual White Pine Press Poetry Prize. Tillinghast currently lives in Hawaii and spends his summers in Sewanee, Tennessee.