Carla, who narrates the novel, just turned 21, lives with her boyfriend Aaron, a computer scientist (and “total sweetie”) in the San Francisco Bay Area, and works for a landscaping service, delivering nursery stock, when she first enters the magical realm of the titular poet’s house. She even accepts a drink from the poet – an older woman called Viridian with long silver and gray hair that stands out like a lion’s mane, bare feet and an outfit “equal parts yoga practice and Star Wars costumes – and falls asleep, waking to find the day waning, his work unfinished.
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Before meeting Viridian, Carla tells us that she didn’t know any real poets. But through her yard work at Viridian’s dilapidated house in the wooded hills, and then chance encounters with the characters who congregate there, she soon finds herself in a world of poets. This world is a wonderland where Carla is Alice and, as Viridian suggests, after Lewis Carroll was playfully quoted and debated, “Well, the white queen has messy hair, so I guess that’s is me.”
The other members of his magic circle agree. “Viridian is the one they’ll be talking about in a hundred years. . . . She’s the queen. Which is funny, because it’s hard to imagine, even if you want to, that there is a practicing poet who will be talked about a lot in a hundred years. Unfortunately, Aaron probably speaks for the whole world when he says of Carla’s new friends: “I don’t understand why you want to hang around with some of these characters who make jokes that no one else understands and who have the looks like it belongs in the hippie museum.”
“I think I might have a calling for that,” Carla told her. “Not to write poems, but to enter into them. Understand how they are put together and how someone’s mind works and how every once in a while they make you feel like you’re hanging on a live electric wire.
Carla is, you might say, a quick study. In her youth, the fiery interest and inclination (and even her appearance: “Look at her, she is perfect,” says one of the poets. “She looks like something out of a mural by Thomas Hart Benton .”), she proves irresistible to Viridian. and her people as they are to her. And within weeks, in addition to taking care of the garden around the poet’s house, she was attending their parties, doing an internship at a leading literary magazine (“Everyone wants to be in Cardinal points. ”) and written to work at a historical writing conference in a rustic California hills outpost, which unfolds with all the lofty aspirations, literary jockey and boyish intrigue that will be entertaining and familiar to anyone who has already attended a writing workshop.
Meanwhile, Viridian’s half-estranged son begins to pressure Carla to use her influence over his mother, who is believed to hold a mythical missing batch of poems from her former lover, who burned what the believed to be the only copy at a reading shortly before his suicide.
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That lover of long ago, Mathias, was “nothing but the most famous and brilliant poet of his time”, as someone must explain to Carla, who, having been in the real world until ’till recently ‘hadn’t heard of him’. And those missing poems, we’re supposed to believe, would be a literary and financial blow to anyone who could get their hands on them.
What happened between Viridian and Mathias is a mystery at the heart of “The Poet’s House,” which is as much about the power of women in the world, poetic or not, as it is about the power of poetry. And in the novel, the power of poetry speaks for itself, in casual and formal quotations from Shakespeare, the Bible, Byron and Yeats, among others, and in the reading and recitation of a few poems wonderful fact with which Thompson provides him with “pew-ets”. as Aaron affectionately calls them.
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“The body is a house. Who lives inside? as one poem says, echoing 2 Corinthians 5: “Our body is the house in which our spirit dwells here on earth. There is no doubt and no escape from the joyful and hopeful spirit that inhabits “The Poet’s House” – the spirit of poetry that at the end of this charming novel Carla embodies so clearly – and the irrepressible Jean Thompson conveys so cleverly.
Ellen Akins is the author of four novels and a collection of stories, “World Like a Knife”.
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