There is a House
by Lamont B. Steptoe
There is a house
with all the rooms filled with Momma
but there is a river
that separates me from this house
it is a wide river
a river so wide that
it must be called a sea
yes, a sea
a sea so wide
that it must be called time
a time so wide
that it must be called death
After reading Lamont Steptoe’s “There is a House” a couple times over, a song from my schooldays came to mind, a much-hated song, even though I like Steptoe’s poem very much. It’s a song my daughter sings when she’s describing any protracted situation that irritates to the bone. Maybe you too have horrible memories of singing this in music class—
There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza, there’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, a hole.
I’m connecting that song to this poem (sorry, poem) in part because both “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” and “There is a House” build on repetition and a stream of modifications to an opening statement. But it’s more subliminal than that. Steptoe’s poem has the evocative simplicity and mystery of a childhood story, like the beginning of a fairy tale. You can imagine this poem being read out loud to a sleepy child. Until the end, that is. The final modification, in which the river, which has become a sea which has become time, becomes death, gives me the shivers. Certain fairy tales, the good ones, are just as brutal. And just as true. The passage of time will always bring, eventually, death.
I left the poem at the beach (at the sea/yes, a sea/a sea so wide) over an annual weekend with my high school pals. It’s a jolly weekend but death is always part of it. Most of us have lost both parents, some have lost siblings, and as a group we’ve lost a member, our dear ebullient Christine. A part of our yearly gathering is always recounting stories of the dead, especially the most recently dead. It’s a way of bringing people back to life. It’s a way of crossing that river of time and stepping back into the houses of our youth, back to an age when death was as far away as the sea is wide.
Lamont B. Steptoe was born in 1949 in Pittsburgh, one of four children raised by a single mother. His mother worked cleaning houses, and the family was poor. Steptoe went to Temple University and served in the Vietnam War. He founded Whirlwind Press and has published eight books of poetry. In addition to his literary work, Steptoe is an activist and photographer.