The Home of the Bewildered

The birches guard the straw lawn, a chorus of singers
stripped of their finery.
The old clapboard house, as if touching memory, harbours
a corniced roof and gabled windows.
Its age is revealed in the peeling paints, layers of effort
and the strength of summer suns.
A wheel from an ancient farm machine gathers moss; by the well,
a china doll robbed of her silk curls stares exposed at the sky.

On the veranda a rocker, stock-still for many a year, cradles
nothing but dust.
The oak darkened to a motley black, like wet leaves fallen
and trampled.
Cracks from the high straight back to the wide armrests seam
a tale of neglect.
These are only objects.

Enter the home of the bewildered.
Austin lives here.
Martin lives here.
Marilyn as well as others are housed in these rooms, walk over
the oak floors, up the balustraded stairs, seek faces in carved mirrors,
seasons through the panes.
Silently they eat in the kitchen by the wood stove, later they gather
at the hoarse piano.
They are not demented.
Their only sin is muddlement, the inability to reconcile what is
happening here to what happens there.
They have forgotten how to place truth along with dread on
the horror shelf and walk past gingerly to the travel section beyond.
They reside in a state of nonplusation more aware than reason,
more trying than insanity.

Austin with pipe and worn red sweater has not for years been able
to fathom why we die and is lately uncertain how we live.
He came to the home of the bewildered from a crossroads without
even a main street.
A wide place in the road without locks or mailboxes.
In that place a young girl, hired to babysit imaginary children,
ended up three weeks later at the bottom of a body of water
with lead weights on her arms.
Austin laments a private hell so public.
Unable to bear the intense horror of premeditation, he renounced
his former home to come here, to make bewilderment his dwelling.

Martin cannot grasp radiation.
To the side of the warm fire in the front room, he reads
scientific articles, blueprints of the ultimate device,
political statements, sagas of one disaster after another war.
Martin ponders fate as mutation, his perpetual thoughts work
like termites against wood.
In solitude he transmits only small sounds, communications
strangled in fear.

Marilyn reads newspapers, clicking her tongue on the back of false
She is caught up, poor dear, in details.
Is it possible to survive ten years of torture in a political prison?
Can it be that twenty children were murdered by one man within
five days?
Will a woman raped seven times in that manner survive forgiveness?
Marilyn makes extensive charts with a complex code of comparisons.
She does not ask why, only how.
Why is a word not uttered lightly in the home of the bewildered.
A word which creates so intense a purgatory is not to be taken in

The inhabitants of the home of the bewildered do not often connect.
Slippered feet shuffle through the dim halls, heads nodding in
tune to a shared grief too common to mention.
They look neither to the right or left; they have
discovered a tunnel vision that contains its own peripheral field.
“How are you?” becomes a question too complex to answer without
dishonesty or guilt.
James once announced that it was raining in the right side of
his brain, and it was understood how intense was the shine in
the left hemisphere.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “The Home of the Bewildered”?

The poem was inspired by the title. As often with my work, the idea came to me through reading. I was reading the news . People were doing terrible things to other people. Men were returning from Vietnam shattered by what they did and saw. I wondered how to define sanity. If the world is insane- or at least our actions often seem that way—then what is a sane reaction? Aldous Huxley asked “Which is better—to be born stupid into an intelligent society or intelligent into an insane one?” I began to imagine very intelligent people trying to cope with the world’s inhumanity and insanity. I wondered about soldiers returning from war with post traumatic stress disorder. I decided that was the sane reaction to their experiences. I realized that the people we call normal and well adjusted might well be in trouble. They seem to be able to deny the horrors around them and just go about their business as if everything were fine.

I agree with Ernest Hemingway who said, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” If unhappiness and bewilderment with the status quo can be signs of intelligence, then certainly we shouldn’t lock up those who can’t cope. They are unhappy and bewildered by inhumanity, but they are certainly not insane. So I created a place for Austin, Mary Marilyn, James and others. I put them in the home for the bewildered. A place where those who struggle with our purpose and our flaws can survive—even if thriving isn?t possible. And I didn’t want them to have to reside in a sterile institution, so I created a home for them. I added elements that create a timeless quality. There are large birch trees and rocking chairs. I’m implying that the concerns of the residents are timeless. We’ve always struggled answering the question “why?” and we always will.

What poetic techniques did you use in “The Home of the Bewildered”?

“The Home Of The Bewildered” is a narrative poem and thus I had to create a setting and characters. In order for the reader to enter the story, there had to be a very realistic setting and characters with individual characteristics. That’s the challenge of narrative poetry. It’s like a very compact short story.

This poem “The Home of the Bewildered” originally appeared in Wilson, Laurence, Gallant, Glasco. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 93 (Summer 1982): 23-25.

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