The House by the Coke Ovens


I saw my childhood home only one time between the ages of 13 and last fall: I was 35 and was driven through Scottdale PA hastily and out into the country to find the house by the coke ovens. Here is a revision of the poem I wrote that summer, from a cycle that uses the Native American "God's Eye" and wild berries as recurring motifs.



I wanted to see my childhood home again,
the country house, the demon-haunted
rooms that gave my inner self their imprint.
We drove through Scottdale with its too
many churches, stores boarded up, cold
as an exhausted and empty mine.
         Looking for Carpentertown,
we drove back and forth in the hollow,
passing again and again the barren, black
lot by the edge of the fen. “Stop here,”
I said. “This is the place. The house
stood here. Back there, coke ovens blazed
all night, and there, the trucks
ground by with their tons of coal.”

Of the house that stood here — nothing.
Of the solemn poplars of Lombardy
     that wrote on my window panes — nothing.
Of the stately porch and its swing,
     the apple tree’s promise — nothing.
Of the locked, steep attic and its
     imagined relics  — nothing.
Of the deep, deep cellar with its
     warden rats – nothing.
Of the cool spring house and its poisoned well —
     nothing.
Of the very stone and shape of foundation,
     the lineament of property — nothing.

Am I seeing the future? Is carboned ground
a resonant prophecy of bomb-fall —
is this desolation my past – or a future
of our own time sewn with apocalypse?
(The God’s Eye blinks but cannot answer.)

A neighbor comes to tell us the house 
burned to the ground some fifteen years ago.
The timbers and bricks were trucked away.
Slag dumps drifted, quicksand consumed,
until the foundation itself was buried.
Trees tumbled to ruffian winds.
 
And as for the “quicksand”
I thought I remembered, the local said:
“Oh yes, out there in the middle,
there are bad places. Last spring it got
our grandma: she was in past her knees
when we heard her screaming and pulled her out.”

We walk where the house was,
where it seems dry and safe enough.
Breaking through black-crust earth
the stalks of lichens, brittle, rigid,
stand at attention with lurid caps
of crimson. (The field guide shows them,
and says they are called British Soldiers.)

They rise like the whiskers of a Chthonic god,
eyeless guardians of a plain of night,
a carpet for Gorgons and barefoot Maenads,
dry to the touch, coarse as sandstone.
Only their form suggests the organic.

Concealing the lichens, as forest hides shrubs,
I see a tangled maze of blackberries,
thorns guarding the fruit with jealous teeth.
Although they hang at arm’s length, ripe
for the taking, although the sickly birds
glare down from a chancred tree, no one
will pick this fruit. It too is black —
coal dust, charcoal, coke and obsidian,
a berry hued for the Stygian shores,
for the lips of the dead and the damned.
I played here as a child, amid the thorns
and poison ivy. The earth did not open
to swallow me. Perhaps I am immune,
the one, who remembering, belongs.

There is not much left of the great coke industry,
when the coal was eked from nearby Hecla
and the smouldering coke went to Pittsburgh.
A quarter mile back, the red rust scavenges
the twisted wheel of a coal crusher,
its chute and trestle and engine works gone;
it lays like the useless jaw of a dinosaur.
Open hearth ovens sprout vengeful trees,
vine roots split mortar, firebrick moults clay.

“I lived here many years ago,” I said —
not saying how many. It was thirty —
I was five when this house protected me,
when its terrors wrote themselves upon me.

And so the hungry past steals up behind me,
a lumbering truck full of fossils,
heating my poems to the red fury of ovens,
erasing my life as quickly as I write it.

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