The carpenter was the one who found the “Lovers Poem.” He was a big man who was fifty-six years old, shaved every morning and wore overalls and a light-blue work shirt. His thoughts were generally of levels, plumb bobs and squares and how he could best restore someone’s old house to its original beauty and purpose.
The carpenter had been hired to replace some rotted floorboards in the attic of the house where the poet had lived. He brought his tools and the replacement planks up to the attic, then set to work removing the first rotted plank. He worked quietly; the only sound was the agonizing squeal as each old nail was torn loose.
When the nails were all pulled and clunked into a tin can, the carpenter lifted the freed plank and looked underneath. There was, of course, the dust of a hundred plus years and the inevitable mouse droppings, but in one of the gaps between the ceiling joists, there was something else: two pieces of paper that appeared to be stuck together.
Many carpenters do good reliable work but work to finish a job as quickly as possible with no pauses for irrelevancies. This carpenter was not of that ilk. He worked hard and efficiently, but he knew an important part of any work was what you learned, and learning could come in many ways. So, when he saw the papers, he didn’t bury them under a replacement plank for another hundred years. Instead, he picked them up and gently tilted and tapped them so the dust and droppings slid back into the hole with a minimum of dust in the air. He stood up and took the papers to the end of the attic and the light from a little smudged window that rattled in the wind. He held the papers up to the light. The top piece appeared to be blank, perhaps the back of something more interesting. The bottom piece of paper stuck out just beyond the lower edge of the top piece. On it were two neat handwritten lines.
My house sits lonely in the night,
But it is home.
The carpenter knew little of poetry. True, his mother had read him nursery rhymes in his youth. He probably could recite the second line of any of these rhymes if given the first. But his interest had lapsed with age, and he had dozed off whenever Mrs. Stephenson, his high school English teacher, had read poems to the class.
He read the two lines again, half aloud to himself, then a third time. Suddenly, in his mind he saw the house. It sat by itself on a hill. It was winter and a cold wind was blowing. There was only light in a couple of windows in the house, the faint flickering of a candle.
He knew lonely meant there was only one person in the house, probably a woman. Men can be plenty lonely, but they don’t write poems about it. The woman was probably in bed because the house was unheated, but she was truly warm because she was home.
Unwilling, he dragged himself out of his dreaming and back to the attic and the boards and the papers he knew must hold within them the rest of some poem.
He tried gently to pry apart the two pieces of paper. They were firmly stuck together. Somewhere he had read about the restoration of old manuscripts. He remembered that separating stuck-together papers required the skill of an expert if vital words were to be saved. He tried holding the papers against the dusty windowpane but could see nothing through the paper.
By the time he had carried his tools up through the house, the carpenter had heard enough to know the words he had found had probably been written by the poet. The director of the museum would want to see them. He placed the papers carefully by the edge of the stair opening.
# # #
The house where the carpenter was working is a big old house on Elm Street in a small New England town. The poet had lived there all her life, first with her parents, then, after their death, by herself. She wrote her poems on scraps of paper and left them lying helter-skelter around the house. The poet died many years ago, but her poems have lived on, spread around the world in collections, anthologies and translations.
During her lifetime, the poet only published one poem which was printed in the newspaper in the town where she lived. The few words in that poem stuck permanently in the newspaper editor’s mind. When the poet died, he purchased the right to publish her poems from the poet’s relatives. He carefully collected the scattered scraps of paper in her house and selected those poems where the poet’s voice spoke to him most clearly in anguish or delight. He printed these verses in a small hardcover book. That book burst into the world like a rare orchid suddenly blooming in a muddy vacant lot. The editor’s life became richer; the lives of poetry lovers of the world richer still.
Several years ago, the now empty house on Elm Street was scheduled to be torn down to make space for a more modern residence. When the town Garden Club heard what was going to happen, they knew it was a sacrilege that had to be stopped. They wrote to everyone around the world who they thought loved the poet. Her devotees responded with so much generosity that the Garden Club could buy the property from the scattered relatives of the poet.
The friends of the poet from around the world formed a society dedicated to her memory. They restored her house and turned it into her museum. Everything was made to be as it was when the poet had lived there except perhaps for the clutter. However, there was one room with a velvet rope across the doorway where one could look in at carefully restored piles of old magazines, dusty books, age-worn furniture and, of course, poems on scraps of paper scattered about. These scraps were replicas. The original hand-written poems had long ago been placed in the safety of the humidity and temperature-controlled archives of a large university library.
Much of this clutter came from the end of the poet’s life. After her parents had died, she lived on alone, rattling around in an empty house and getting a little more spacey each year. Her poems became more and more obtuse and, as some of her fans ardently believe, more and more insightful.
Various people came to the museum. Some popped in the door just long enough to check the house off their bucket lists. Others saw the house on Elm Street as more of a shrine than a museum. They listened carefully when the thin docent in her out-of-style dress told them about the poet’s ordinary daily life. They leaned over her old oak desk to read the words of a favorite poem, a reproduction of the original as written on a sales receipt for a gallon of cider.
These visitors were the ones who took preciously remembered days to walk slowly about the house absorbing its true meaning and whispering snatches of her poems to each other. They even asked to see the attic to which, according to one of her poems, she often retired. There, surrounded by nothing but raw wood and summer heat or winter chill, she could reach for those words that had eluded her in the more domesticated surroundings below. Possibly, oh so possibly, if one of her fans could stand there just alone in the bare dusty attic, she too might find some hidden words within herself. “When will the attic be open for us?” the poet’s devotees asked the museum director.
The director was a tall woman, a bit overweight with slightly greying hair. She kept her glasses on a band that hung around her neck, giving her the appearance of a stern librarian. She could indeed be stern, particularly if she saw the sacred memory of her poet threatened, but mostly she was wisely good-natured, perhaps having absorbed the aura that lives within a house that was once a poet’s home.
When asked about the attic, she would shake her head sadly and explain it was closed because it was unsafe. Some of the rough unfinished floorboards were rotten and needed to be replaced. The fifth time someone asked about the attic, the director thought for a moment and said, “We are going to fix that right away.”
The first man she spoke to about the attic called himself a builder. He could put up a house in no time flat, a sturdy utilitarian place to live in. He spent only ten minutes in the attic, then clumped quickly down the narrow stairs to the waiting director. “We’ll rip the whole floor out and replace it with new two-by-tens. It’ll be twelve hundred for the whole job. Got a contract right here. I’m between jobs, so I can give you a good price, but I have to start this week.”
The director declined his offer. The attic had to be kept the way it had been when the poet lived there if devotees were to truly carry themselves back to the early, simple moments of her life. A friend of a friend knew about the carpenter who came the next day. He climbed the stairs to the attic with a flashlight, a tape measure, a pad and pencil and his pocketknife. He plumbed the rot, plotted out where the joists ran and placed his rough hands on the splintery surface of the attic floor, absorbing the flavor of the old house. He saw in his mind the way the original carpenters had worked, those long-dead craftsmen climbing the ladders through the stairless house, shoulders heavy with the planks to be laid across the upper ceiling joists. These may have been simple planks, but they were part of the whole house, and the whole was only as good as the least of its parts, the carpenter believed.
He came down the narrow stairs a half hour later and smiled confidently when he spoke to the director. “There are forty running feet of plank that need to be replaced. When they took down the mill over in Plainville, they saved some of the floorboards. I think they’ll be a good match. I’ll rip them down to size and lay them rough side up. I’ll do one thing different from the original. No spikes. Hammering would loosen the plaster on the top floor ceiling. I’ll use deck screws and set them in a bit. Nobody will notice.”
The director knew instantly he was the man to do the job. She barely listened when he named the price, just nodded her head and signed the half-rumpled contract he pulled from the back pocket of his overalls.
# # #
When the carpenter went back to the work of replacing the floor planks, an idea struck him. If there had been those two pieces of paper under the floor, could there be more? He took down his work light from the rafter and placed it so it shone under the planks next to the space open from the removed plank. Putting his head down close to the opening, he looked under the floorboards. There appeared to be something there, perhaps the end of a cardboard box. He leaned over and put his arm under the planking as far as he could reach, but he could not touch the box. To reach it, he would need to go to his truck to get the grabber device he had made for fishing things out of difficult places.
Then he had another thought. If there was an interesting box between this pair of ceiling joists, could there be more boxes between other pairs of joists? There was a simple way to find out. He could pull up two adjacent boards in the center of the attic from one end to the other. He could then shine his light under every board in the attic, both sides, end to end. That complete a search would take time, he knew, probably an extra hour.
He did not hesitate. A half hour later, the planks were freed. There, just under the first remaining plank, was what looked like a small shoebox complete with a lid. He eased it out and tipped it, so when he tapped it, the years of dust slid away. Carefully he opened the lid. The box was three-quarters full of papers of all sizes and colors, but each appeared to have writing on it.
He knew what he had found. He had heard snatches of the docent’s words as he came in and out of the building. He had peeked in the room with the velvet rope. The box he held must contain new poems never seen by anyone. He was holding something important. If the two lines he had read from that one piece of paper had so changed things inside his head, what would a box full of complete poems do to the whole world?
He put the lid back on the box carefully and placed it next to the two pieces of paper near the stairway opening. He had one more task to do. He took his work light and methodically peered beneath the floorboards. He saw nothing but dust and mouse droppings.
He pulled himself up from the end of the floor and brushed off the front of his shirt and overalls. Picking up the two pieces of paper and the box, he made his way downstairs to the first-floor room that served as entryway and gift shop.
# # #
The director sat at her desk just by the front door of the museum. When only she and the docent were on duty, she collected the small admission fee, described to visitors the layout of the building and sold copies of the poet’s works to visitors.
She looked up and saw the carpenter coming down the staircase carefully balancing something in his hands. “You through already?” she asked.
The carpenter placed the two pieces of paper on her desk with the side showing the two lines of poetry uppermost. “I found this under the floor in the attic,” he said.
He knew she would have a reaction, but he was not at all prepared for the one he saw.
The director read the two visible lines of poetry and started to cry. “I think it’s the ‘Lovers Poem,’” she said. The docent, who had been across the room talking to two Asian women, turned and almost ran to the front desk. She looked over the director’s shoulder at the two lines and began to cry herself. “Oh, my God,” she said.
The carpenter was embarrassed by the effect his two pieces of paper had caused. He stood holding the shoebox in both hands, waiting for the two women to notice he was still there.
The two Asian women now came over to the desk. “You say you find ‘Lovers Poem’?” one of them said. She pointed at the pieces of paper on the desk and said something in a foreign language to the other woman. The other woman looked at the two pieces of paper and said, “Ah, lovers,” speaking the strange foreign word carefully and with great respect.
Any true devotee of the poet knows about the “Lovers Poem.” Many years before, an enterprising journalist had interviewed several women who had known the poet during her life. One of them, in her late eighties, told him that the poet had once told her she was worried about a poem she had written. In the poem, a woman leaves her lover’s warm bed in the middle of the night to return to her cold and dark house because it was the only place where she found true comfort. The poet was worried the poem was too salacious. She told her friend that she had never destroyed a poem she had written, but she thought she might have to destroy this one. Her friend had told the poet she could not help her unless she could read the poem. The poet never gave her the poem to read.
Such a story, the journalist realized, was fodder for the hungry eyes of anyone who had ever heard of the poet. He published an article on the subject that was full of conjecture. Had the poet actually had a lover? Had she destroyed the poem? Through the years, controversy about the poem continued to mutter through the world, fueled by the speculations of the poet’s half-dozen biographers. Now, lying in front of the women was most likely the actual “Lovers Poem.”
The director opened a drawer in her desk and extracted a brand-new translucent, acid-free envelope. With a pair of tweezers, she carefully lifted the two pieces of paper and inserted them in the envelope. She placed the envelope in the top drawer of her desk and locked it.
“I did not try to pull apart those two pieces of paper,” the carpenter said.
The four women looked at him. They had forgotten he was there.
The director smiled up at him. “That was the right thing to do. We’ll have a professional separate the papers. And thank you. That is a wonderful artifact you have found.”
The carpenter almost blushed. He was used to being thanked for the quality of his work with wood but had never been thanked for picking up two pieces of paper. Then he remembered what he was holding. “I also found this,” he said. He set the shoebox on the director’s desk.
The director took a cloth from a desk drawer and softly wiped the remainder of the dust from the box. The other women all leaned forward as she lifted the box lid.
When they saw what was inside, a vast, communal sigh rose from the four women. But it was a sigh that seemed to come from everywhere in the room, as if the ghost of the poet had at last given up to the world the final chapter of her work.
The carpenter watched the women bending over the box as if it were a sacred object only those anointed with wisdom should touch. “Why did she do it?” he suddenly said.
“Why did who do what?” asked the director.
“The poet. Why did she write all these poems you think are so wonderful and just throw them around like so much trash?”
The director thought for a moment before she answered. Finally she said, “I think she didn’t care what anyone else thought about her poems because after she wrote one, she knew how perfect it was. The knowledge that her words had captured beauty, or fear, or love gave her all the pleasure she wanted.”
“That’s awfully selfish, isn’t it?” said the carpenter.
“Of course,” said the director. “Great poets, like all great artists, are selfish. They get caught up in the business of turning mere words into golden verse. Everything else gets left behind. Their families starve, their children dress in rags, but all that is irrelevant compared with the pursuit of the perfect poem.”
“If I were a poet,” the carpenter said, “it wouldn’t be that way for me.”
The director smiled at the carpenter. “I wouldn’t say that until you tried,” she said. She reached over to the pile of brand-new books that sat by the credit card machine, took the top book from the pile and gave it to the carpenter. “This is a book with all her known poems in it,” she said. “Of course, you’ve made it obsolete with that shoebox. But please take it as a small way of our saying thank you.”
The carpenter went back up to the attic to finish his work. He first took his shop vacuum and cleaned out all the spaces between the joists. Although he knew no one would ever see what was beneath the floorboards, he and the mice would know the space was clean.
At lunchtime, he sat on the floor with his back against the outside wall by the dusty rattling window and ate his sandwich and drank from the thermos of coffee his wife always made for him. He opened the book the director had given him and read several of the poems. He understood some of them, such as the one that talked about how the house you lived in shaped your life, but most of them left him puzzled.
# # #
“What was that book you brought home?” the carpenter’s wife asked him when they sat down to dinner.
“Just a book of the poet’s poems the director gave to me.”
“Why did she do that?”
“It was a reward for some poems I found.”
“I found a new box of poems under the attic floorboards.”
“What do you mean, new?”
“Not new like they were written yesterday, but ones the poet who lived in that old house wrote maybe a hundred years ago.”
“Why would she put them under the floor? Were they poems she didn’t think were any good?”
“No. She never showed any of her poems to anyone. When she died, they found them all over the place in the house. They thought they had found them all, but these were new.”
“Well, if her poems were all that good, why didn’t she get them published?”
“The director said she got her pleasure in just writing the poems. After that, she didn’t care about them.”
“Sounds pretty stupid to me. If I wrote a good poem, I’d want everyone to see it. Well, eat your chop before it gets cold.”
After dinner, the carpenter found the spiral notebook in which he kept notes on his carpentry, what he learned, what he observed and sometimes what he needed to remember. When they tear down the Barker place, try to get the two mantles. Or perhaps, he might make a neat sketch of a mortise and tenon joint he had seen in an old barn.
He took the notebook and a pencil onto the back screen porch where he could look out at the vegetable garden just touched with the last of the day’s sunshine and where he could hear his wife humming to herself as she did the dinner dishes. He sat down on the old, squeaky porch swing, turned the notebook to a clean fresh page and shut his eyes.
Instantly, the vision of the lonely house came before him. He would later discover the house was with him forever. Years down the road, at the oddest of times, the two lines of poetry would appear in his mind together with a vision of the cold lonely house with the flickering candle in the window. With a shiver he would return to his moment of discovery in that hot attic of a poet’s house beside a window that rattled in the wind.
He opened his eyes, took the pencil and wrote.
What lives within an aged house?
Faint echoes there of laughter, tears,
Of footsteps quick with youth and slow with age.
He looked at the first line, erased “an aged” and replaced it with “a timeworn.”
He stopped and thought. Putting those words on paper had given him a strange warm feeling. But what next? Were the next lines somewhere in his head? How could he dig them out?
His wife came out to the porch and sat down on the swing beside him. “What’s that you’re writing?’ she asked.
“Just some notes on the work I did today,” he said, placing the notebook face down on the table next to the swing. He wondered if he would ever show the spiral-bound notebook to anyone, even his wife.