Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Art of Losing

Yesterday I drove past a house I loved and lost a few years ago, and I was put in mind of Elizabeth Bishop, the American poet (The Complete Poems 1927-1979). There are two of her poems that I have always found parts of replaying in my head at appropriate moments.

One of those moments occurred yesterday, driving past this house and knowing that its fate in demolition prone Houston is certain, perhaps even as soon as this fall. I lived in this house longer than in any other. It’s where I raised my son, and frankly I thought I’d live there for the rest of my life. (Never mind why we sold it. There are many reasons why one sells something one ought to keep.)

Passing by, I felt that sense of floating that seems so natural now in this city. Floating as in untethered to landmarks, as in moving through a space where one has expectations of surroundings that have vanished so completely they might never have existed. (And what is left in their place? For the most part, generic exurbia; or, in the case of houses, gigantic boxes, built on spec, that fill their lots, that endanger and usually kill the trees that give this city what charm it has, the trees that are the principal reason anyone would want to live here, given a choice.)

When you float in this manner it is because you suddenly don’t know where you are—you might be anywhere in this city, state, country. And when you are anywhere, as Walker Percy chronicles, you are nowhere.

I have to be honest, here: part of the floating sensation probably derived from the adrenaline surge that accompanies anger at how powerless we are against the forces of development, and yes, greed. With global warming a fact that can be experienced each day of summer in Texas, why does anyone with fewer than eleven children need a 5000+ square foot house? With tall ceilings that gobble up airconditioning? When is peer pressure going to well up and sneer at the unbridled ego evidenced by such a house?

But I digress.

I’ve had occasion lately to visit a second loved house, no longer mine, in another city. In the case of both houses, the principal measure of loss has to do with the shock of nothing where a tree should be. The amputation from one’s expectation of familiarity when a tree has been removed registers as nothing less than a small piece of one’s self, torn away. Granted, a tiny piece, not like an arm or leg or anything, but the sting is felt. Most of the time, driving down a street, we experience these absences as merely disconcerting: something’s missing here, right? But unless we know the place very well, we don’t know what precisely it is that has disappeared.

In Santa Fe, it was a Russian olive that had been removed, along with the rose bush (white, fragrant) that bloomed under the guest room window; in Houston, it is a grand, ancient water oak, not gone yet, but clearly sick. For countless years, I watched from the windows of my bedroom while its long-limbed branches divided the sky into slices of geometry; I watched squirrels flirt upon them; and in a hurricane I watched them twirl in the wind like the arms of an orchestra conductor, building to a crescendo in a much calmer place. It is a substantial tree even now, gnarled and worn, its trunk so broad it would take the armspan of at least three men to reach around it.

The only good thing I can think of about not owning that house any more is that I won’t be the one who will have to call the tree surgeon to take it down.

The poem lost houses puts me in mind of is Bishop’s One Art:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! My last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

What’s the other and truly great poem poem of hers that I love? Hint: it’s about a fish.


  1. This is incredibly sad. And a good post.

    Being untethered can be a scary feeling, but it is, in fact, what we are.

    We are all Ronin. And all we have to hold onto...in the sea change...is each other

  2. Places can ground a person, though. Think of places that have endured change, in Italy, France or Great Britain...change occurs, just not in unbridled freedom to lay waste, as it does in Houston.

    For others: a ronin is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronin#.22Ronin.22_.28in_metaphoric_senses.29_in_fiction_and_pop_culture