American Yard: Poems
New England Poetry Club, Sheila Motton Award, Best Book, Runner-up
Dolores Hayden’s American Yard includes lyrical views of courtship, marriage, and motherhood as well as narrative poems revealing a wide-ranging historical imagination. Widely recognized for her distinctive non-fiction books about landscapes, Hayden has crafted a rich, sophisticated collection of poems rooted in diverse American places.
Praise for the book:
Dolores Hayden infuses formalism with spiky wit and colloquial charm in poems that show us America from Maine to California, from Teddy Roosevelt’s childhood to that of her own delightful, ever-so-modern daughter. She gives us a land of motorcycles, flea markets, old houses in new siding, and gardens that still speak the old Victorian “language of flowers”--but most of all she gives us the America within ourselves, a place of violence and drift but also--still!--sweetness and beauty.
— Katha Pollitt
The dense verbal texture of Dolores Hayden’s poems pulls against their geographical and historical sweep. Lush with sensuous detail, American Yard is also ambitious and expansive; Hayden maps matters large and small with elegance and authority.
— Rachel Hadas
Dolores Hayden writes beautifully-made poems that are both erudite and wise. American Yard is an auspicious, full-throated debut.
— Elizabeth Alexander
Poems from American Yard:
Sheathed in weathered boards, false front
on all four sides, the red house rides
a saddle of eroded ground
and looks as if it might wash down
in winter rains. But reader, this
is the very oldest house around.
It's much too high for neighborhood.
From worn-out steps long views expand,
command wide axes everywhere,
entice your kind of hairpin vision,
a swaying wide and cambering in.
The city sounds don't reach us here.
Hummingbirds sip hibiscus cups.
A red-tailed hawk circles, plummets
into the canyon, reappears.
The mailbox sags. Century plants
split broken, almost impassable steps—
they flower every hundred years.
Reader, you know the place needs work,
ungrudging cultivation, a poet
like you to weed in noonday heat,
count pairs of small blue butterflies,
repair the broken hearth, stoke fires
with eucalyptus or mesquite.
Due north lie wooded peaks too steep
for cut and fill. Packs of coyotes
scavange their slopes, noise through the nights.
Eastward sits gated Mount Olympus,
muscle-bound mansions, turquoise pools,
an acre Omega, party lights.
If you stare south across the grid
where cowboy towns crowd French chateaux,
terrazzo stars spell H O L L Y W O O D.
Look west, above a beach you'll glimpse
Palisades Park, where hungry men
cut whirligig toys they trade for food.
The old red house rents month-to-month.
No boiler plate, security,
some Septembers, the well goes dry.
You think you might be interested?
Skywriting pilots buzz this house,
roaring cloud vowels a half-mile high.
Dusk swims with wispy backlit cirrus,
three-mile nouns stretch out your eye,
wild verbs advance, alacrify,
moonrise carves commas in your sky.
Reader, you're sure you want to sign?
Hooked on the place? So am I.
from two Greek roots, arrangement / of skin
The art of preparing and preserving the skins of
animals, and stuffing and mounting them so as to
present the appearance, attitude, etc., of the
living animal — OED
This young man can't get a second date.
His fingers reek of formaldehyde and ammonia,
he's been stuffing birds he snared in Harvard Yard.
Young women find him eccentric, obsessed
with feathers, beaks, beady eyes.
A few years later, he's hunting grizzlies
on his ranch. He prefers the Dakota Territory
to the old family brownstone on 20th Street,
the summer place at Oyster Bay,
the new house on 57th Street.
He needs to rebuild his political career,
he's made too many enemies in New York.
But forget self-preservation,
this is about preservation, taxidermy,
and his boyhood home. The family brownstone,
sold, becomes a shop. Neighborhoods are changing.
Then the brownstone-with-shop is demolished,
another store is built on the spot,
although his uncle's brownstone still stands next door.
Our main character doesn't notice—he's busy,
he's an assistant secretary of the Navy,
he's governor, he's nominated for vice-president,
he wins, he succeeds an assassinated president.
He busts trusts, wins the Nobel Prize for peace,
writes half a dozen books, explores Brazil,
gets the River of Doubt renamed for himself,
Rio Teodoro, river of Theodore Roosevelt.
"The only person who makes no mistakes," he says,
"is the person who never does anything."
Now the real story, about the mistake.
After he dies in 1919, the women of his family
raze the shop to rebuild his boyhood home—
boyhood being about motherhood, preservation
being women's work. Rich women's work, mostly.
And for these rich women, it's a religion.
With wood and stone they recreate the nursery, the gym,
his mother's bedroom with its heavy satinwood bed,
the parlor with its horsehair chairs and sofas.
They cram the house with old taxidermy projects,
hunting trophies—lions, zebra, antelope, deer.
They frame two smiling wives and six children,
mount old campaign ribbons, dangle pendants
shaped like elephants, new brooms sweeping clean,
and—a Bull Moose.
"The women did it all," my guide said proudly.
"But," I said to her, "they broke the rules.
An old building has to be preserved. This is a fake.
The architect not only copied a demolished building,
she gutted his uncle's house which was standing,
to design a museum for Teddy's stuff."
I was complaining to an employee
of the Department of the Interior.
If the taxidermist and big game hunter
hadn't been such a supporter of the Interior,
all this might not have happened.
Pay them a visit at 28 East 20th Street.
You'll imagine young Teddy, upstairs
in his bedroom, stuffing a sparrow,
and cook, down in the basement kitchen,
making a meat-and-potatoes dinner
to run up the dumbwaiter to the family
assembled in the dark dining room
around the mahogany table. They sit uneasily
on straight chairs with scratchy horsehair seats.
Pretty soon you, too, will feel impatient
to chase bright-feathered birds in Harvard Yard
or ride out to the Dakota Territory, or paddle
down the River of Doubt, which will one day bear your name.
First published in Michigan Quarterly Review.