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The House on Moscow Street

It’s  the ragged source of memory,
a tarpaper-shingled bungalow
whose floors tilt toward the porch,
whose back yard ends abruptly
in a weedy ravine. Nothing special:
a chain of three bedrooms
and a long side porch turned parlor
where my great-grandfather, Pomp, smoked
every evening over the news,
a long sunny kitchen
where Annie, his wife,
measured cornmeal,
dreaming through the window
across the ravine and up to Shelby Hill
where she had borne their spirited,
high-yellow  brood.

In the middle bedroom’s hard,
high antique double bed,
the ghost of Aunt Jane,
the laundress
who bought the house in 1872,
though I call with all my voices,
does not appear.
Nor does Pomp’s ghost,
with whom one of my cousins believes
she once had a long and intimate
unspoken midnight talk.
He told her, though they’d never met,
that he loved her; promised
her raw widowhood would heal
without leaving a scar.

The conveniences in an enclosed corner
of the slant-floored back side porch
were the first indoor plumbing in town.
Aunt Jane put them in,
incurring the wrath of the woman
who lived in the big house next door.
Aunt Jane left the house
to Annie, whose mother she had known
as a slave on the plantation,
so Annie and Pomp could move their children
into town, down off Shelby Hill.
My grandmother, her brother, and five sisters
watched their faces change slowly
in the oval mirror on the wall outside the door
into teachers’ faces, golden with respect.
Here Geneva, the  randy sister,
damned their colleges,
daubing her quicksilver breasts
with gifts of perfume.

As much as love,
as much as a visit
to the grave of a known ancestor,
the homeplace moves me not to silence
but the righteous, praise Jesus song:

Oh catfish and turnip greens,
hot-water cornbread and grits.
Oh, musty, much-underlined Bibles;
generations lost to be found,
to be found.

—Marilyn Nelson

“The House on Moscow Street” by Marilyn Nelson from The Homeplace.

Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

By permission of the author.

Marilyn Nelson

Marilyn Nelson

Marilyn Nelson (1946- ) was born in Cleveland, Ohio and educated at the University of California, Davis, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Minnesota. She is the author of sixteen poetry collections as well as a translator and author of children’s literature. The recipient of the 2012 Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, she has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Nelson is a professor emerita at the University of Connecticut at Storrs and was Connecticut’s poet laureate from 2001 to 2006. She serves as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Photo credit: courtesy of Blue Flower Arts.

Learn more about Marilyn Nelson at The Poetry Foundation