A.E. Watkins on “Allerton in Winter IV”

Allerton in Winter IV

Down the hallway, the branches creaked in the wind like old men  looking for   some lost thing.  The white sheets just tried to let it rest.  A thousand leaves were there and could barely work up a whisper.            

But the tree-line reminded me of some distance – each snow- flake a small page that fell from a balcony.  Like  some forgotten fury haunting the absence it left inside us. It was something someone had said we will understand when we grow older.

And I knew us just like this: like our childhood homes had been torn apart, were scattered across a world that was ever expanding.

The memories all under the white sheets. Each lonely tree from  a  forest  ripped  to  pieces.   Each  farmhouse  alone on the horizon like a story we assume will someday make sense.

Now that I'm older, I have only come to know my features as worn furniture awaiting the guests. Elsewhere your eyes, I  imagine, are being turned down.

Elsewhere a tree-line  that  meant  something  once,  but  now I can't quite remember. Can't even imagine.   And I just want to take it all back into myself. Like a forest of empty armchairs all pulled together.  



On "Allerton in Winter IV"

I started the "Allerton in Winter" poems during the first semester of my MFA program and continued tinkering with them while taking Brenda Hillman's class on the Arcades Project. Walter Benjamin's unfinished work – an assemblage of aphoristic observations and quotations – would irrevocably shape my writing and thought. For Benjamin, the arcade was a temple of the modern world, a phantasmagoria articulating the mental processes of internalization and projection.  Under gas lamps and a windowed sky, the psyche could recognize its own handiwork, uncanny and exposed.

* * * * * * * * *

Robert Allerton was an eccentric in the age and model of Gatsby, transforming his family's farm into an elaborate pleasure ground.  The central-Illinois estate remains to this day, an amalgamation of dream fragments from a life long since extinguished: the Fu Dog garden and house of the Golden Buddha; a reflection pond beyond the terrace with the Egyptian sphinxes. Passed the avenue of Chinese musicians and the sunken garden, surrounded now by forest, one finds a large statue depicting the death of the last centaur. The centaur's face is a threshold between life and death, a doorway held open in the middle of the woods.

* * * * * * * * *

"Rites de passage," Benjamin asserts, "is the designation in folklore for the ceremonies that attach to death and birth, to marriage, puberty, and so forth. In modern life, these transitions are becoming ever more unrecognizable and impossible to experience. We have grown very poor in threshold experiences. Falling asleep is perhaps the only such experience that remains to us."

* * * * * * * * *

In the sunken garden, one finds large, stone statues of koi. Nearby, two copper sea-maidens stand atop two concrete columns, which frame the entrance to the brick-wall garden. In winter, I would gaze up at the two maidens – covered in seaweed and falling snow – who held out bowls in a gesture of offering that could never be fulfilled. Whatever sadness was in this, I thought the beauty outshined.

* * * * * * * * *

I met my wife the first fall of my MFA program. I would bring her to Allerton a few springs later, after we had moved to the Midwest and experienced our own cold spell. In the winter before that visit, I had discovered a loneliness I had never known before, the kind you only experience in the presence of another who is discovering it too. To this day, my wife has never seen the Allerton Estate covered in snow, its forests stripped clean of leaves. Still, in my memory I see her there with me, as though we are two copper statues facing outward and extending an offering – not to each other, but to winter.

* * * * * * * * *

I remembering asking my mother – I was about twenty-six at the time – when I would finally feel like an adult. I must have thought there was a second puberty where one simply sheds their general feelings of immaturity and inadequacy.  She affirmed this was not the case. Even in her middle age, she, at times, felt like a child. I felt beguiled, baited. This was not the story I had been told. Now, some other story was taking place, and my understanding of it was not guaranteed.

* * * * * * * * *

Rather than write or read poems, we live inside their lines, which entangle with our autobiography.  In this way, they mimic our deepest thoughts and complex feelings, which, according to Thomas De Quincey, "pass to us through perplexed combinations of concrete objects, pass to us as involutes . . . in compound experiences incapable of being disentangled."

* * * * * * * * *

During the winter months, the interior of the Allerton mansion looks much like the world outside, or so I imagine. The busts, surrounded by button-tufted armchairs dressed in white sheets, peer outside at cold statues and drifts of snow. Everywhere, the glow that a white surround makes of the moonlight. The glow that means the inside is dreaming itself outside, or vice versa.  The large glass panes – now framed with frost – are not windows but mirrors.

* * * * * * * * *

On a drive home from Allerton, one scuttles along as though in a diving bell, as though at the bottom of an immense ocean. In the high beams, each decaying barn is a shipwreck, a tangled story coming undone in the darkness. My wife and I still take these drives on occasion, noting a forgotten silo, an abandoned farmhouse filling with trees.  I've always wondered how many stories have been lost to the depths of the Midwest. I have always found in this desolation a wondrous kind of knot. 




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