Tuesday 28 October 2014

A Hole in the Floor

It's high time we had a poem here - and this one is oddly apposite, as our house is currently in the grip of two simultaneous flooring crises, with floorboards up and strange, alarming sights on view. Of course Richard Wilbur's poem is not about flooring. The subject is the hole, the hidden darkness and mystery - the 'buried strangeness' - that sustain the life we think we're living, here in the light. The poem has a characteristically controlled and orderly surface, but there's a strong undertow, something threatening to break through. Looking into a hole is not far from staring into the abyss. 'For God's sake, what am I after?'
The poem is dedicated to Rene Magritte.

A Hole in the Floor

The carpenter's made a hole
In the parlor floor, and I'm standing
Staring down into it now
At four o'clock in the evening,
As Schliemann stood when his shovel
Knocked on the crowns of Troy.

A clean-cut sawdust sparkles
On the grey, shaggy laths,
And here is a cluster of shavings
From the time when the floor was laid.
They are silvery-gold, the color
Of Hesperian apple-parings.

Kneeling, I look in under
Where the joists go into hiding.
A pure street, faintly littered
With bits and strokes of light,
Enters the long darkness
Where its parallels will meet.

The radiator-pipe
Rises in middle distance
Like a shuttered kiosk, standing
Where the only news is night.
Here it's not painted green,
As it is in the visible world.

For God's sake, what am I after?
Some treasure, or tiny garden?
Or that untrodden place,
The house's very soul,
Where time has stored our footbeats
And the long skein of our voices?

Not these, but the buried strangeness
Which nourishes the known:
That spring from which the floor-lamp
Drinks now a wilder bloom,
Inflaming the damask love-seat
And the whole dangerous room.


  1. Mmmm interesting how he brings in a rhyme only at the very end à la Kay Ryan although I'm sure he preceded her. Wilbur makes the underfloor an image of the Jungian mystery of the 'dangerous' and exciting source of human consciousness - the one that confounds the scientists, psychologists etc who seek to define, explain and limit us. He also seems to imply that love is somehow 'dangerous'. It ends like a flare of accelerating fire. Many thanks Nige.

  2. Yes it's a terrific ending isn't it - it usually is with Wilbur.