The American Living Room: A Tract


I

Ideally, you should be in your own
when you read this. Think of it as an oddity–
the one indoor space where living
is deliberately pursued, as in others
we transact dining, sleeping, bathing,
perhaps TV or children. Wherever there are two,
one should be kitchen. For the rich,
rooms can be spun out indefinitely:
drawing-, dressing-, morning-, and special
chambers called library, pantry, nursery.
Many still house their cars.

II

Most people inhabit shelters too small
to partition off with words, and always
some people have none. Is it better
to feel at fault for this, or not
to feel at fault? The meagerest American house
is a gross Hilton compared to where most people
take shelter on the inclement world.
To start with, feel fortunate.

III

You have made the effort to dress yourself
in character, probably well beyond the requirement
of mere covering–you have already risked
that much misunderstanding. Then comes
this second habiliment, no matter how
reluctant or minimal a statement,
a room which gives you away: with the things
you've acquired at cost, the things you've been given
and kept, the things you choose to exhibit.
The accumulation seems to have been only partly voluntary.
Yet no one you'd want to know could stay
for a month, in a rented room in Asia, without
this telltale silt beginning to settle.
When people die, their children have to come dig
for them like Winckelmanns, among many false Troys.

IV

Prisons recognize the need to arrest
this form of identity. Cells
are deliberately ill-fitted uniforms
which you are issued to wear over
the deliberately ill-fitted cloth ones. You
are put there to forgo living.

Military quarters may appear more permissive,
yet the space for personal effects is limited
and subject to unscheduled inspection. Nobody
is encouraged to bring along a two-volume dictionary,
a Hopi mask, a valuable paperweight, to a war
or to the interminable rehearsals of camp and shipboard.

V

The room we're in now is like something you've said,
whether offhand or considered. It's in a dialect
that marks you for a twentieth-century person
(enthusiastic about this? dragging your feet?),
rich or poor or–more commonly–a little of both;
belonging to a nation and an eclectic culture.
The room risks absurdity, as you risked that again
when you put your clothes on this morning,
but because it is capable of being judged
apart from you, in your absence, the risk is greater.
Why has he got and kept this, and only this?
anyone can ask. Why so much? To others
this room is what your scent is to a dog.
You can't know it or help it.

VI

With us in America, a person who has a printed poem
is likely to have a living room (though not always–
there will always be some to whom poetry is not an amenity).
For reasons of its own, poetry has come to this,
with us. It has somehow gone along
with the privileges of the nation
it intends to change, to dispossess of material demons.
Admittedly, this is part of its present difficulty.

For the moment, though, you are holding this poem.
Its aim is that of any artifact: to ingratiate.
It would like nothing better
than to be added to the dear clutter here.


William Meredith, Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems, Northwestern University Press, 1997.