Going Back: A Lyric Poem

I walked past your house
but there was no one there.
The blinds on the windows, the curtains in the hall,
those things, and things like that,
they looked the same,
but there was no one there.
The trees have grown,
but the one behind the house,
the hickory tree, it’s gone,
and the limbs of the elms along the curb
reach over to make a ceiling: a crown of green
suppressing sound.

Those things, and things like that,
they look the same,
but there was no one there.

Those years were golden, and I remember
them, those other days, a summer breeze
within the leaves, the sound of cicadas
in the afternoon. I hear them still,
the call of the birds, the barking of a dog,
and the cheers and shouts
from a baseball game in the park nearby.
I hear them, and I remember,
those lemonade afternoons,
the swing on the porch,
the lyrical squeak of the old screen door,
and the smells from the bakery
that filled the humid air.

Those things, and things like that,
they were the same,
but there was no one there.

l walked past your house, and in the receding light
the glow of fireflies played in the grass,
and with those scents and sounds and thoughts of you,
I saw the swallows and I heard an owl.
A bus at the corner stopped and opened its doors,
but no one got off.

The perfumes of honeysuckle and mint
roiled in the air, and I heard the tolling of a far-off bell.
In the fading light, I smelled tarts in the oven
and coffee being made at the stove. I smelled
closets scented with moth balls and cedar,
and I thought there should have been fallen leaves
burning in piles at the curb.
But there was no glow anywhere, and no light within,
for the house was empty
and there was no one there.

Turning away, I walked across town
and found you there. The gates were still open,
and in the failing light I searched for the stone
that had your name. And there,
in the shadows that hid you,
a single rose beckoned:
a rose from your garden,
a yellow rose in a vase of glass.

But oh, how does it contain you, that space in the grass?
It’s surely too narrow, surely too short,
surely too small for someone
who once lived in that house.

Fireflies begin to knit a path in the darkness over your head,
and my heart cries. I walked past your house,
but you weren’t there.
I want to take you home,

but I can’t.

John Bell Smithback About John Bell Smithback

John Bell Smithback is a former teacher and newspaper columnist living in Bellingham, Washington. He has published more than 50 books defining English idioms and proverbs for an international audience, as well as The Lonely Dark, a novel about America in the age of the atomic bomb, and Silent in the Dawn, a collection of poems. In his early years he lived in the Monterey, California house where John Steinbeck once wrote and where he met friends from Steinbeck’s time.


  1. Eric M. Martin says:

    “What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
    ― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

    I like how Mr. Smithback’s poem emphasizes the notion that our sense of nostalgia is only possible when the object of our affection is no longer present.

    He nicely captures here also the insistent feeling that animates nostalgia – the sense that what was loved and is now gone is still, somehow, almost present. The reality of the past persists just behind the physical world almost as if the past has been painted over by the present. A little scraping at the surface and the past might emerge again.

    It seems to me, this sense of nearness (of not-completely-gone-ness) of that lost past is what makes nostalgia such a powerful potion.

    My favorite line: “But oh, how does it contain you, that space in the grass?” This line gets at the troubling fact that even the most visceral memories remain intangible, the most vivid imaginings can’t quite break through and cross the line into the physical world. Yet there is something of the Real in that space in the grass and it speaks.

    I wonder if Mr. Smithback would say that this poem is addressed to a single figure or to a larger sense of a place. Is this nostalgia built around a person so that it infuses a place or vice versa?

  2. Eric, I truly appreciate your thoughtful comments, and what an interesting word nostalgia is, We usually think of it as meaning a sentimental remembering for something or someone in the past, often in a happy, sometimes in a sad, context. In actual fact, its Greek roots nostos + algos mean ‘a painful homecoming’, and in the poem I’ve tried to link the sentimental with the painful. Maybe I shouldn’t say tried, because that would indicate consciously working to project a bittersweet feeling. The truth is that the words flowed from my experience of returning to Madison, Wisconsin after being away for fifty years, going to see my grandmother’s house, then to view her grave. I lived in that house as a child, returned to live there when I was at the university, and was living abroad when she died. If I had complete control over the creative process I might be able to train it to be at my beck and call but, alas, the words on the page of the poem are the words that flowed, nearly verbatim, from my head to my fingers. As you so rightly point out, the reality of the past persists. The home that provided me with so many wonderful experiences is still there, and so are the trees and the sounds and the smells. They seemed virtually unchanged, and if time and distance had indeed painted over the past, the paint stood no chance whatsoever of holding back the memories. Or the tears. They flowed in equal proportion, and the person who facilitated those memories…surely that place in the grass is too narrow, too short, too small…

Speak Your Mind