Up in Greenwood, there's a house with a hand-painted mailbox out front that reads "POETRY Look inside for free poems." During a lit crawl this summer, I reached inside the mailbox and rooted blindly around the small squares of paper inside until I pulled out "In a Dark Time," by Theodore Roethke. It felt like an especially good poem to pull at random out of a mailbox in front of a house, with its exuberant line "A steady storm of correspondences!" The poem felt powerful, like a horoscope that turns out to be exactly right, or a prediction from inside a fortune cookie that you desperately want to be true.
This week, while walking down Aloha Street on Capitol Hill, I found a box in front of a house that encouraged passers by to reach inside and pull out the poem for September, 2012. Inside were sheets of hot pink paper, with "At Dusk," by Natasha Trethewey, who is the newest Poet Laureate of the United States, printed on them. Again, the relevance seemed eerie:
At first I think she is calling a child, my neighbor, leaning through her doorway at dusk, street lamps just starting to hum the backdrop of evening. Then I hear the high-pitched wheedling we send out to animals who know only sound, not the meanings of our words—here here— nor how they sometimes fall short.
I was walking through the neighborhood at dusk, and though nobody was calling into the darkening sky, they may as well have been. It seemed like there were beacons everywhere, looking for a response, not the least of which was this box full of free poems facing out to the sidewalk, offering guidance and insight, or at least a moment's diversion.
It occurred to me that a house is a perfect delivery system for poetry. Houses seem wise; they've been there for a while, and they'll probably continue to be there, soaking up our lives. The signals houses send to us are usually subtle—a worn floor between rooms, a bleached strip on a wall where the sun passes through—but the poems feel more overt. With the poems, the stories that the houses try to tell us have suddenly been amplified and given a clearer meaning. It's the best sort of surprise to encounter on an evening's walk, a voice given to the voiceless. If you read one poem offered up freely by one house, you start to imagine the poems all the other houses are keeping locked up inside.