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On Housesitting

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August 1, 2013

Passing keys, leaving notes.

http://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Toy-House-in-Yellow-and-Blue_575px.jpg
Image from Flickr via Thomas Hawk

In the early spring of 2002, when I housesat for my friend Rodney, I arrived at his studio apartment in Provincetown just after Eileen Myles had left, apparently. I found and would later return the keys where she had left them, by house rules, on a hook under the sandy back stairs. I hadn’t yet become friends with Eileen, but I learned from her that week that a nice thing to do is to leave a little gift with a poem or a note for the permanent resident to find on his return. Beside Eileen’s envelope, I too left Rodney some ephemeron or other I had found, a scrap of map or something, as well as a poem I set my sights on writing that icy week, a poem set there where “back street runs along front street, flaring.” I found a book I liked on the narrow shelf of art books in the apartment, called The Boston School, a monograph on a group of contemporaries a generation older than me: Jack Pierson, Nan Goldin, David Armstrong, and the artist I saw in a show with David Wojnarowicz once, who died, like him, of AIDS. The book opened onto an underworld of elective affinities, image after image in a denuding share of splendid light, the fabric of the mattress ticking fraying against the floor, junk in the blood. Where were they all; some place, not Boston, united them, a scene, a life. A concluding essay by Eileen herself was effortlessly brilliant. That thin, heavy paperback fed me; I jerked off imagining myself into situations in the Armstrong photographs, on Rodney’s bed, or more likely at the little desk at the window; and I carried it with me on walks to the diner and the fireside bear bar—showing myself hiding behind it—and read it in my knit gloves under the flagpole at the town square. Maybe there was a plant to water, or mail to set aside; but I don’t think so. Still, to be there when Rodney couldn’t be was vaguely understood to be as much favor to him as to me. I had housesat his 17th Street place in the city, too; I could care like family for his things. Eileen at Rodney’s, then myself.

Because, as you move through the days, the eventual goal is to cover all traces of yourself and leave things as they were, housesitting is situationally criminal, or adolescent at best, surreptitious in any case.

Commensalism or mutual benefit is a constitutive premise of housesitting, or maybe an enabling fiction. The housesitter is apt to recognize the opportunity as a private windfall, and the pleasure is tandem: first in his own dis-habituation, and then in the adoption of a new readymade home, a vacated life to try on. With the extra keys on his chain, the housesitter leaves work on a different train or by a new road, becomes a local in the café or dogpark, creates or stars in fantasies grown out of his new neighbors’ notice. In the new routines, a film has been removed from his self-understanding; he is available to experience. Initially, everything about housesitting is citational, as though in each activity in the house one carries quotation marks above his shoulder blades, like campy angel wings. Here I am “drawing the blinds”; now I think I’ll “separate” these “twist ties”; who am I exactly “taking” a “bath”? There’s a Japanese word, auxiliary verb I think, that Tom Spanbauer introduces in a novel, I can’t remember which, and I can only vaguely recall the babyish sound of the word; I think it translates loosely to “play at,” and is used to signal a sense of low-stakes doing: I’m playing at making toast. (It’s not really going to be good, and I’m not toasting it seriously.) It’s perhaps akin to the American millennial “all” or “all like”: she was all like, “keep your eyes on your own page.” (The realism of her manner was unsuited to my unfazed penchant for detachment.)

In housesitting, you have an established normalcy to play at, an established normalcy to play against. Largesse and obligation alternate and conspire in your transitory identity, which wanders the premises with you: minder, keeper, prowler, visitor, charlatan, surrogate, subordinate, beneficiary, help. Because, as you move through the days, the eventual goal is to cover all traces of yourself and leave things as they were, housesitting is situationally criminal, or adolescent at best, surreptitious in any case. The construct is a tidy, socioeconomic parallel of queer desire in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

I remember I exited the poem by “stepping out of the halo down around my ankles.”

I’ve lost at least one friendship, albeit not a long or close one, because of unmet housesitting expectations. An older student, Lyn, in a poetry master class I taught a few years ago had generously offered me use of her Tucson home so that I could in effect extend my arts residency a week longer. She and her husband lived in the foothills but had this beautiful second home near the university, with lots of large vivid art on the walls, hardwood floors, air conditioning, wi-fi, a modern kitchen, and a nice side patio. When her husband let himself in in the middle of the day, a day before Lyn signaled they would return—I stirred out of their bed, sotto voce telling Jeremy to stay put, dressing myself hurriedly—he was already assessing the state of things in his house: a rug had been rolled up (for more yoga and dance space), a dining table had been appropriated as a desk, the stereo was looping an unfamiliar playlist, outside the patio chairs were helter skelter, a dish was refashioned as an ashtray, and the leavings of breakfast were everywhere. Lyn’s husband and I had never met, and we startled one another; and as I explained barefoot that I was given the clear impression that my stay was meant to last another day, and requested time to pack and properly tidy and replenish the groceries I had used, and (gesturing behind me) to finish visiting with a friend, he was very put out and said the misunderstanding was mine and asserted his plans to return in an hour, dialing his wife at once, audibly irate by the time he reached the driveway. I remember feeling reprimanded when Lyn told me later she was deeply disappointed. I had the uneasy sense that the apology elicited and that I gave was for sleeping with a man in their bed. In fact, Jeremy had been a lover of mine, from a trip to Tucson for a wedding years before, and the stay that Lyn had helped me extend a week was spent helping him through the disgrace and confusion he felt reckoning with a very new, days-old diagnosis as HIV positive. I was the first person he had told, breaking down as he was removing our clothes the night we reunited. I held him all that night, through a terrible sleep, washed his tower of dishes in the morning, and promised to stay a while, until he was set up with help at the local Ryan White center and had learned a bit about his options from his new counselor. It was an education for me too, and helped me confront a deep, formative fear. We fell into the habit of napping together, just being affectionate and warm, after a joint. I retrieved him from beyond the security gate at Lyn’s in the afternoons. By day I wrote a poem, for him, which I printed at the Kinko’s and delivered to Jeremy’s porch before leaving town. I remember I exited the poem by “stepping out of the halo down around my ankles.”

I think you could tell a rather comprehensive queer literary history through the lens of housesitting.

I think you could tell a rather comprehensive queer literary history through the lens of housesitting. Hart Crane on Columbia Heights wrote most of “Voyages” in his borrowed rooms, in the building belonging to the parents of Emil Opffer, his beloved who would come and go, the building formerly occupied by the architect of the Brooklyn Bridge, and then out on Long Island, cranking Ravel’s Bolero on his Victrola and experimenting with enemas, until his friends the Gorham Munsons or the Malcolm Cowleys prohibited his return. Jack Spicer wrote off, two by two, his friends who left Berkeley for the suburbs to start families, rejecting, inveighing against their offers to relax for a stay in their homes when they traveled. “My tongue is sharpened on the iron edge. / Canaries need no trees. They have their cage.” James Schuyler might have been committed or might have starved had his artist friends not offered their homes, again on Long Island, eventually establishing the Fund, which consolidated monies to keep him finally in his own apartment in the Chelsea, to pay his rent and the wages of an assistant who made D’Agostino runs for him and made sure he had his meds and smokes and other basics. That assistant was Eileen Myles, and that daily care in 1979-80 was doubly important for poetry and queer literature. Thirty years later, Eileen detailed in the “career narrative” part of her novel Inferno a rather infamous housesitting stint, when her patrons felt she was not sufficiently grateful for the opportunity to caretake their Pennsylvania country home, however much she filled the front matter of her subsequent books with acknowledgement of the gift. For her, the gift of access was to the natural world, which she includes like Schuyler in her poem—poem as score of poet’s doing, in candid flat field notation. “I always put my pussy in the middle of trees.” It’s my guess the couple didn’t really understand Eileen’s aesthetic and ethos; maybe they took insult from it.

There is apt to be, in the mix of other feelings, resentment if anyone involved is insensitive to what it might mean to borrow the stance and posture of cultural privilege, when a queer person or couple housesits for a straight couple or a heteronormative household. I remember my boyfriend at the time—Douglas—and I visited our friend Anna Grace who was staying in Poughkeepsie in the home of poet Eamon Grennan and his wife, both of whom taught at Vassar. Their address—One Wing Road—was already a poem, and a too droll joke it seemed to me, where everything about the place seemed so complete and tranquil. Their sunroom doubled as a remarkable library, every chair a reading chair, and each step through the house a wide plank creak of communication: a family is home. One day the cat got out, and with our help Anna worked up the courage to call Ireland and explain, as their daughter wailed in the background, that we’d found the feline corpse on the road. Hottest day of the year, and she’d been dead for hours. They instructed Anna where to bury her, under a favorite shrub, and with which toys; I made the cardboard coffin and worked up something to say graveside; and that night as summer’s odors wafted through the windows we worried we’d have to disinter and dig deeper, and redo the ceremony perhaps we hadn’t taken seriously enough. Same thing happened visiting my friend Jason housesitting for his teacher Alison Deming. The cat had licked a puddle of antifreeze. It was awful.

Another time I visited him in The James Merrill House, now established by some kind of trust as a gay poet’s residency, in coastal Connecticut. Merrill’s last doctor’s appointment was still scrawled on the kitchen whiteboard. He had moved to Tucson, a brief, final home.

Housesitting, like playing house, is identity rehearsal—practice, of course. For what? You’re writing a future into a present, you’re writing an other there onto the self here, and quote yourself back to yourself. Maybe there’s a little prophesy in it. Years after my Provincetown encounter with The Boston School I began dating a photographer, Brett, whose day job was as David Armstrong’s assistant, light meter reading and preparing the shoot at David’s as one after another waifish, long-lashed, wounded-seeming, bothered, sleepless boy all neck and lip, rib and nipple, posed languidly in that wash of light I never would have thought streamed through Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. David trusted us with the keys to the brownstone all summer one summer. We called, “where are you,” to each other across all four floors. We played like models answering, upstairs “listening to the ice cream truck,” in the bedroom “toweling off.” Like David, Brett also makes portraits, mostly of young men on the margins, that attain a fictive dimension: I’m looking now at one on my wall in Tucson, taken in his Park Slope SRO apartment that once was mine, of a small-framed young man, probably a lover of Brett’s, twenty maybe, with moist, accepting eyes wide on his simple face, his collar open to the divot top of the sternum, and falling behind him behind his black hair and left shoulder is a tendril of my old spider plant, slender jointed and green. Brett’s portraits, like David’s, belong together, appreciably (they share a life, a scene—you gather these people all know and love another—though, we don’t): it’s not a word David would have used for the franchise of subjects united by his characteristic look, but I remember Brett calls us a family.

The young help the old, and the old help the young, likewise the vagrant and the situated, passing keys, leaving notes.

The poems in my second book, A Several World, which I wrote in my thirties, default to first person plural; repeatedly I find I work myself into a we, and the we I mean is not usually “John and me”—us domestic life partners—but more like this queer kind of family that might connect Brett’s photo subjects. Imagine an us conjoined in our respective appeal to this lover, this looker for signs he is not alone and need not be. It reminds me of medieval thought, when likeness (in appearance, in disposition, in leanings) was understood to be the effect of some kind of contact, metonymic not metaphoric in relation, something that passes via touch in a realm subtending this one, a contagion. A family attuned alike, who find each other eventually and dovetail their several courses far from families of origin: the we I mean in my poems, connected preternaturally, manifested similarly, recognizable to one another, is active in our trade of relations and interdependences, a guild, or troupe or battalion of us thrown together by like circumstances, managing a perforce solidarity. The young help the old, and the old help the young, likewise the vagrant and the situated, passing keys, leaving notes. “Here we are all by day. By night we’re hurl’d / by dreams each one…” “Into a several world” Robert Herrick gave us bed as a place to be distinct; Whitman cited that same nightly tendency to separate as what we most share. Welcome back.

Correction.

*

This piece is part of a series excerpted from Onesheets. You can read the rest of the series below.

On Tumbleweed.

On Containment.

G

Brian Blanchfield is the author of two full-length books of poetry: Not Even Then: Poems (New California Poetry), published in 2004 by University of California Press, and A Several World, to be published this coming March from Nightboat Books, as well as a chapbook, The History of Ideas, 1973-2012, forthcoming imminently. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.

The above work is from a collection of short, unresearched, disinhibited, single-subject essays called Onesheets. (The full working title is Onesheets: Brief Studies, Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.) Central to the go-it-alone, internet-off nature of the writing project is a suppression of the impulse to consult secondary sources, print or electronic, and on his own authority he gets a few things wrong. The collection has a rolling corrective endnote therefore. Relevant portions are offered here.

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