The two of them are living together, arguing because she doesn’t like the way he sits for hours at her writing desk with his guitar resting on his knee, searching for chord sequences on her computer. She paces behind him, worried he’ll find her poems and read the way she writes these rooms. It’s as if he’s rummaging through drawers, disrupting the order of her lines, the arrangement of words she reads aloud, reassembles, deletes. She sits on the futon behind him, feeling as if she’s in the room alone.
He is focused, lost in lines he’s trying to learn, getting a few notes in, beginning again. He drops a chord, and the dissonance from a misplaced finger scratches her impatience, sharpens it.
It’s like the tray they have in the drawer by the stove, the one for cutlery, the way he puts forks in with the knives, leaves spoons turned upside down, the way she fishes paper clips and pencil stubs, a web of rubber bands from the section for serving pieces. She wants it all to remain intact, untouched.
So when he stands, sets the guitar against the wall in the corner, she tells him that she works with words, that the computer, and she points to it
is like his tool belt, something she’s never even touched, she doesn’t think, because it holds everything he uses to do the things she can’t begin to understand, like when she watches him reposition a fixture, unable to comprehend the intricacies of the wires inside the walls. There is too much hidden here, formulated constructions hidden behind the everyday: the phone book on the counter, the green apples in the crisper, the stack of folded laundry on the dresser. What is unsaid, what is unknown like a foundation that has settled unevenly.
He has been on the road for two months, working in the middle of the night in refineries alongside men whose words are rough, blunt, and for the first few days he comes back—his language holds no meaning for her.
He speaks in platitudes, handfuls of fucks, and her own words feel heavy, as if she bears two overstuffed grocery bags in each hand up the three flights of stairs to their apartment while he carries a single bottle of water.
See how she blends metaphors like a thick batter while he sits in silence, pressing one string at a time? After days of being back together, his language releases, hers tightens, they exchange sentences, whole conversations on the back porch or during a run on the trail at the base of the Foothills or as they moan and release on the futon. Until the two of them pick up the same rhythm.
The next morning, he sits at the kitchen table in his welding cap and overalls, she in her bathrobe and hot pink slippers. She tells him about the poem she’s working on, how their languages screech like boxcars pulling toward one another, her fingers interlacing over the steam of her coffee cup in explanation. She asks him what it’s called, when the cars come together, and he says he doesn’t know, but it’s like a locking of the metal, his hand presses down, palm flat. After he leaves for work, she goes to her desk, grateful to have it to herself, and types:
I work with words, stack images
against each other, break lines.
Years from now, she will be teaching in a department with a famous poet, and each time she passes the woman, a diminutive figure who often wears scratchy red skirts and keeps her black hair pulled back tight in low bun, she will pause without notice, not wanting to disrupt the ordinary—the passing of a colleague in the hallway—with the awe she feels in using the same stairs, standing in front of the same mailboxes, as this woman. Seeing her in the hallway instills a guilt for having abandoned her own poetry years ago for prose, but it’s all the same, the way secrets become art.
The poet dies. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. A call goes out for volunteers, students, faculty, to help the family move her things from the house on the corner. She calls her colleague, tells him she’ll be there in the morning. Before she hangs up, she tells him about the first time she read the poet’s lines. So the next morning, she steps into rooms she’s never seen, is told that her role is to help catalogue every book in the poet’s house, record every notation, every scribbled sentence. And so she sits on a wicker couch that she recognizes from a poem and picks up one book after another, transcribes notes and one-word responses in the margins. Such a revealing, she thinks. Beyond the living room, others call from rooms what they have found. As they wander through rooms, she goes searching through pages.
The poet lived alone, had a few cats, a small desk in the living room, bookcases, stacks of books on tables, stacks of books on the floor, some of them her own. She didn’t like to fly, didn’t have a car, never saw a doctor, kept to herself in that house, so when she went in to the hospital with pneumonia and the doctors found the cancer, she was gone in three days. Such isolation, such refusal, a stubbornness that bore itself out in the vice of her poetry.
For days, she sits on this poet’s couch, handles every book, every page with care, can’t shake the projection of someone sifting through her own books, her own markings, knowing what they would confess. One of the poet’s lines keeps coming to her, and she says it to herself like a litany:
Your own life
is a chain of words
that one day will snap.
On the last day, when most of the furniture has been hauled off and the cats have been adopted by graduate students and the books are in taped up boxes, she looks around at the bare walls, through a doorway to the light blue stove in the kitchen, the pressed together clothes crammed into an open closet in the bedroom and realizes that if she keeps living the way she is living, making the choices that perpetuate her solitude, that she will die a woman alone with her books. For months after, she turns down a street out of her way to drive by the poet’s house as if she’s trying to figure something out, but she can’t decide what, so she decides to stop doing it, to stop staring at a house of empty rooms.
When he comes home from work that afternoon, he leaves his work boots in the entryway, steps into the kitchen and gets out the bread, the peanut butter. She is still at the computer, resisting lines she wrote that morning. She turns around in her chair and asks him to tell her what he does when he works in the refineries. She asks for specifics, wants the words. He begins to describe his job as a pipefitter, some of the words flashing for her like welding sparks. “Bolt up.” “Shove a sleever.” “Search for what doesn’t break loose.” She types, not paying attention to him or what the words mean, but how they sound and how she can connect “breaking lines” to “break loose.” She reads him what she has so far, about their languages screeching like boxcars/pulling toward one another before/the lock down in the metal of their coupling. Then she looks up from the screen, tells him about a poem she read once about a man caught in between two boxcars, can’t remember who wrote it. He warns her that it’s a dangerous job, connecting, that if the worker gets caught in between, it’s not until they pry them apart that he dies. She writes the lines, even the details of her fingers interlacing over the coffee cup.
Years from now, she will not be able to recall if there ever was such a morning conversation over coffee or just lines. But he knows this now, the way she transforms their lives, his words, into meanings never intended, the way she wields words like weapons, hides between the lines.
She remembers her first poetry professor telling her that if she wanted to change her line, she had to change her life. Somehow, she came to believe that to change her life, all she had to do was switch out the rooms. Move. And she has done it again and again.
What changes if you move a line in a poem? Does the meaning change? Do we read it in a different way? Do our lives change, or do we just carry them with us to every room of every house?
She thinks of the poet’s house: a place where a woman locked herself in, locked herself down, lived in her work.
Every time she reads her own poem about their languages, the boxcars, she returns to the apartment where she wrote it, remembers it as a space of separate rooms, like the two of them, never connecting. An uncoupling.
Does where we live reveal how we live, or don’t? She thinks yes, so she keeps going back. To the house in Utah, a second story apartment in Lubbock, a corner duplex in Oklahoma, a motel room in Montana, to all the places she lived. And left.
She wanders rooms like pages, finds the hidden passages, the notes in the margin.
I work with words, stack images
against each other, break lines
while you bolt up, shove a sleever in,
wield a welding rod and search for what
doesn’t break loose. This morning,
we sit in the kitchen:
you in your welding cap and overalls,
me in my writing robe and hot pink house shoes.
I tell you about the one I’m working on,
how our languages screech like boxcars
pulling toward one another before the lock down
in the metal of their coupling, my fingers
interlacing over the steam
of my coffee cup. You warn me
it’s dangerous connecting, that the worker
gets caught in between, two cars latched
in his chest, and it’s not until
they pry them apart, that he dies.
Jill Talbot is the 2013-2015 Elma Stuckey Writer-in-Residence in Creative Nonfiction at Columbia College, so she's now writing rooms in Chicago.