The Poetry of Roof Repair
A while back—let’s say 2013, when these two books came out—I was struck by the coincidence of finding two poems about roof repair with children involved in the labor. One is “Child’s Play,” by Jannett Highfill, in her chapbook A Constitution of Silence. The other is “Autobiography as Muscle Memory,” by Sandy Longhorn, in her book, The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths. In both poems, a child not quite ready for the task—of removing or replacing shingles—is doing the job as a family chore, suggesting frugal and disciplined upbringings, hardworking kids who will be able to do-it-yourself in the grown-up world.
Here is Sandy Longhorn’s poem:
Autobiography as Muscle Memory
Traveling to the house of born and raised,
I dredge a map from muscle memory.
If I said the bones called me home, I’d be taking
the easy way out; instead, it was the scent
of blood I bled when pounding shingles into the roof,
the sweat of July making the hammer slip and crush
my thumbnail. Instead, the flavor of salt rubbed
into floorboards after the tears of my first lost lover.
Instead, the memory of words I scrawled on walls
about to be covered in paper and paint. My mother’s
lessons about the way a life can be rearranged
with a strong back and a willingness to change.
The poem makes explicit the lesson that what it takes to make a good life is plenty of “blood, sweat, and tears” together “with a strong back and a willingness to change.” The speaker has learned this from experience, the requisite bodily fluids, and her mother. Her interior life has been as crucial to her as the exterior—the muscles contained by the body’s skeleton, the held secrets and felt emotions attached to all the happenstance of life just as necessary as the practical repair. What life takes is maintenance, physical and metaphysical, with occasional do-overs.
Siblings learn the value of home maintenance in Highfill’s “Child’s Play” from their father, who has a dry sense of humor:
The windowless, sometimes roofless, wall-less
houses we saw along the river road
on Sunday afternoons were, my Dad said,
Their dad is a remarkable fellow, appreciated by a neighbor boy who once “rang the doorbell to see whether my Dad / could come out and play.” His own kids don’t know him that way. They don’t so much play with their dad as work with him.
All afternoon we’d been at the shingles,
me pushing the black junk to the bitter
edge of the chicken house roof and over,
Dad prying them up and pulling out nails.
Almost warm for Pearl Harbor Day is still
incredibly cold; even so we were
grateful there was so much bluster
we couldn’t talk. I knew how to be careful.
Never exactly a contest of wills—
it was the kind of follow-the-leader
I knew how to play. My hands got colder
and the sun grew red and huge and feeble.
On the crown of the roof, I longed for dark
when my Dad’s handclap would summon the stars.
Dad, capitalized throughout, is definitely godlike at the end of this poem, bringing nightfall and rest after a long, hard day of the “forced” child labor that is simply a natural part of these kids’ growing up.
In both poems, parents instill strong work ethic in their kids. Longhorn’s speaker learns from a crushed thumb; Highfill’s speaker “knew how to be careful” on the precarious “edge of the chicken house roof.” Neither child seems to hold the tough lesson of hard work against the instructive parent who has prepared her for the real world. Both grown speakers have a perspective on their experience—yes, as if they’ve stood on a roof and seen the wider expanse, how they fit into the landscape and the human community, how “child’s play” was always vocational education for adulthood, and how lucky they were in their parents in this chancy life.
I remember when my mother told me that the expression “falling off the roof” was a euphemism for getting pregnant, back when you couldn’t say the word “pregnant” out loud—how embarrassed I was for using the phrase if that’s what it meant! Who even knows that expression now? This past fall, many roofs were damaged and torn off in wild weather at the end of tornado season. All spring and summer, I’ve heard the pounding of roof repair, witnessed roofing crews on their risky perches, answered the door to roofers looking for work, bolstered by the knowledge that insurance adjusters will support them. Aware of our own home maintenance needs, I’ve let the doorbell ringers tend to those who need them more. We’ll get around to it, maybe in 2015. Frugal, artists-on-a-tight-budget, we’ll probably do some of it ourselves.
Meanwhile, the kids in these two poems stepped up—a ladder!—to the task of growing up capable and independent. Looking back, they know they made it.
As Emily Dickinson has said:
We never know how high we are
Till we are asked to rise
And then if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies—
Ah, poets! They exhort us to rise to the occasion of being human.
—Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor