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This essay is after Homeplace: The Social Use and Meaning of the Folk Dwelling in Southwestern North Carolina, by Michael Ann Williams.

 

I

I-houses are houses that are only one room deep—and two stories high.

Once, when I was a child in the mountains of what we now call Western North Carolina, an I-house is what I thought I wanted to grow up and own. They were tall and slender, seemed high reaching yet austere.

 

I-houses, when they appeared in the region in the 1840s and 1850s, marked an architectural departure from the single-story cabins that preceded them. In addition to their second level, I’ve read, I-houses had the distinctive interior feature of an entry hall.

Upstairs, residents’ perhaps-strewn blankets or possible states of undress were kept at a discreet remove from those who might drop by. The hall blocked viewing too. A visitor had to wait, after gaining access through the front door, to be asked to come farther. Meanwhile, dishes and other messes could be tidied away.

 

I didn’t know any of this as a girl, though. I hadn’t been invited into such a home, hadn’t gotten far enough to encounter a hall yet. I began desiring I-houses from the outside, looking toward roof and sky.

The statements their historic shapes made must have appealed to me because my family had moved to the county after my birth. Unlike the truly local kids, I did not have a name carried on from the early white settlers, shared by schools and roads.

 

I can acquire, if not acreage, information, at least.

The B—— house is an I-house a few miles’ distance from and more than a century older than my family’s house (a construction completed when I had already begun talking). I saw the B—— house from the back seat of my parents’ car as they drove out where pastures were overgrown and we could trespass and pick blackberries in summer, cut cedars for Christmas trees. Saw it as I tried to prepare for my driver’s license test on back roads, my father covering his eyes. During college breaks when I could come home, I would slow down for the sight sometimes as I ran by, having turned a visitor there.

I moved farther away, pursued a career in poetry, and took Southern Appalachia and its culture as subject matter. Yet it would be years until I investigated I-houses and their origins, thought beyond their facades.

 

I

I thought myself unstoried—that was my virtue—as a young writer. I tried to use words to capture bowhunters who dreamed of bear, devoted pages to the husbandmen of cattle. Thought other figures’ significance and their narratives, like the mountains, towered over my own autobiography. And what critics of the time liked was for women poets to get the I out.

Lately, I’ve been returning to that hardscrabble pastoral by reading in the fields of history and architecture. I’ve been studying western North Carolina. I can acquire, if not acreage, information, at least.

 

From Michael Ann Williams’s book Homeplace: The Social Use and Meaning of the Folk Dwelling in Southwestern North Carolina, I learned that the standard I-house concept has a ground level with a center hall, a front door entering it, and a room opening from either side.

The B—— house’s floor plan varies from this. Instead, I have heard, it is a row of three individual rooms, each accessible only by its own exterior door.

 

Even I-houses that had initially adhered to convention were modified after they were occupied for a while. Residents discovered the spaces in the entries felt wasted and set up sewing machines and beds in the halls. And I-houses got passed on over time. Inheritors thought the barriers were uncomfortable and undertook renovations, tearing down walls.

This was just the beginning of the outdating and updating (the wood floors covered with linoleum, and then with carpet, and so on) that the houses document.

 

There never is just one version of a thing. What’s old is layered and testament to change.

But when you hear arguments for exceptions and for not being concerned by how things were, you can guess there was trouble with the usual preceding state. You might wonder what someone present needs redemption from.

 

I

The caller left unattended long enough in a house’s foyer gets curious about the reality of how the house is run, peeks behind and into this and that.

The chorus of a Greek tragedy, poet Dan Beachy-Quick writes in “The ‘I’ of Lyric” in the Boston Review, “stood aside from the narrated event, from those speakers of action, seeking some fact it knew must exist, but of which it could feel only the vestige, only its troubled absence.”

 

While I-houses concealed some elements of their tenants’ daily routines, they revealed larger truths.

Here’s more history I’ve learned: The appearance of I-houses in western North Carolina in the 1840s and 1850s coincided with the expansion of slavery into the region. Slavery had been legal in what would become the United States for over two hundred years before railroads extended into the remote Appalachian Mountains, introducing among the subsistence farmers profiteers of the plantation economy. And while I-houses concealed some elements of their tenants’ daily routines, they revealed larger truths. They were discriminating.

Most poets don’t want their work to be perceived as confessional—as baring the self, oversharing in some weepy, too-fleshy way. In an interview in the Fiddlehead, Lisa Lewis (speaking, strategically, in the second person) says that the label confessional can be like “a wasp in the room: you hope it stays near the ceiling where it can’t hurt anybody.”

 

At the time of the Civil War, people in older, lower cabins (with ceilings that would touch a contemporary person’s head), staying closer to the dirt they hoed, might be assumed pro-Union, some of their descendants today like to say. The owners of the loftier I-houses were more likely to be enslavers, and to support the Confederacy.

When I found that the name I-house derives from the states of Indiana, Iowa, and Illinois, I was just strangely glad for my own sake. Of what I’d once wanted to be mine, I then wished to say: Let them have those old white structures.

 

The B—— house was once a display of wealth larger than the family could have—with their own labor, without enslaving people—earned.

White as I am, may I be pleased to come from a family without title to much real estate (or chattel), of drifters too poor for record to have been made of their power?

 

I

I am no relation to the B—— family.

Still, I’ve been told about them and their home. I know the doors are all an external show. There are no internal doors on the first floor. So, to get from the bedroom to the kitchen meant going out one front door, across the porch, into another door. I know the first little girl to live there was carried by her parents between rooms, wrapped in a blanket when it was cold.

 

I

The tradition of the chorus did not end with ancient Greeks. The lyric I in contemporary poetry speaks as an individual, while providing a portal to collective experiences greater than just hers.

My mother knows a woman who knows the woman whose mother was a child when the B—— house was new. She was a friend of the girl who lived there. So the particulars, the human interest and touching details of the story, have been shared with me. Under the cover of patchwork and a dusting of snow I know, despite it being so many years ago, that Frances was the B—— girl’s given name.

 

I

While the chorus may have led the action, they followed along with the narrative, they too arrived at its heartbreaking end. The actor who cedes the lead is not relieved of playing the remaining undesirable roles.

If the eye is to observe, however outward the gaze is directed, it must be in a body that is part of the scene. In her essay “The Little Death of Self,” Marianne Boruch reminds us about poems, “Someone writes these things.” And “Who wants with such passion to do in that ‘I’? I do I do I do. . . .”

 

I

There is no letting the I get away. So here I am, back in my home county, at the B—— house again. As I stand in the public road, staring at the building, a storm blows over the Cowee Mountains and across the Little Tennessee River. If my ancestors’ shelters were too small and humble to last, the fact that the land was named by the Cherokee Nation remains. Cowee, Tennessee—they are not in a language I can speak, or that belongs to anybody in my line. So what can I come closer to calling mine, what must I claim?

The B—— house has been abandoned, and the heirs aren’t the kind with money for repairs. A former no trespassing sign, with all but the barest hints of the letters worn away, waves, catches my eye. Three rusty doorknobs hang from their three holes, a welcome, repeated and underscored (didn’t you wish for this, this, this?). But I know now they’re no shelter, these places open for me step into.

 

Coda

In closing, or to continue with what’s beyond the house, I turn the page over to Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, a poet who was raised partly in North Carolina and is of Native descent. This is an excerpt—with a refrain of I that speaks for a generous we—from “America, I Sing You Back,” from Hedge Coke’s book Streaming. The poem is dedicated to the poet’s own father, Robert Hedge Coke, in addition to Phil Young, Walt Whitman, and Langston Hughes.

 

                But here I am, here I am, here I remain
                      high on each and every peak,
                carefully rumbling her great underbelly,
                      prepared to pour forth singing—
                and sing again I will, as I have always done.
                Never silenced unless in the company of
                      strangers, singing
                the stoic face, polite repose, polite while
                      dancing deep inside, polite
                Mother of her world. Sister of myself.