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The Poet’s House by Jean Thompson book review

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It might well be a writer’s dream that a bright young woman with a learning disability (a learning difference, as her mother insists) would possess the soul of a poet — that, upon hearing the music of poetry, the largely unlettered innocent would naturally know its song. That’s the premise underlying Jean Thompson’s novel “The Poet’s House,” which partakes of the charm, if not the sting, of the fairy tales the author updated in her 2014 book of stories,”The Witch: And Other Tales Re-Told.”

Carla, who narrates the novel, has just turned 21, lives with her boyfriend Aaron, an IT guy (and “total sweetie”) in the San Francisco Bay area, and is working for a landscaping service, delivering nursery stock, when she first enters the magical realm of the titular poet’s house. She even accepts a drink from the poet — an older woman called Viridian with long silver-and-gray hair that stands out like a lion’s mane, bare feet and an outfit “equal parts yoga practice and Star Wars costuming” — and falls asleep, waking to find the day waning, her work unfinished.

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Before she met Viridian, Carla tells us, she didn’t know any real poets. But through her yardwork at Viridian’s ramshackle house in the wooded hills, and then serendipitous encounters with the characters who cluster there, she soon finds herself in a world of poets. This world is a Wonderland where Carla is Alice and, as Viridian suggests, after Lewis Carroll is cited and playfully debated, “Well, the White Queen has untidy hair, so I guess that’s me.”

The others in her magical circle concur. “Viridian’s the one they’ll be talking about a hundred years from now. . . . She’s the queen.” Which is amusing, because it’s hard to imagine, however much one might like to, that there’s a practicing poet who’ll be much talked about a hundred years hence. Sadly enough, Aaron probably speaks for the world at large when he says of Carla’s new friends, “I don’t understand why you want to hang around with some of these characters who crack jokes nobody else gets and look like they belong in the hippie museum.”

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“I think I might have a calling for it,” Carla tells him. “Not writing poems but getting inside them. Understanding how they’re put together and how somebody’s mind works and how once in a while they make you feel like you grabbed onto a live electric wire.”

Carla is, you might say, a quick study. In her youth, spirited interest and inclination (and even her appearance: “Look at her, she’s perfect,” one of the poets says. “She’s like something out of a Thomas Hart Benton mural.”), she proves as irresistible to Viridian and her people as they are to her. And within weeks, along with tending the garden around the poet’s house, she is attending their parties, interning at a premier literary magazine (“Everybody wants to be in Compass Points.”) and drafted to work at a storied writing conference at a rustic outpost in the California hills, which unfolds with all the lofty aspirations, literary jockeying and juvenile intrigue that will be entertainingly to anyone who’s ever attended a writing workshop.

Meanwhile Viridian’s semi-estranged son begins pressing Carla to use her influence on his mother, who’s supposedly holding a missing, mythical batch of poems by her former lover, who burned what he believed to be the only copy at a reading shortly before his suicide.

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That long-ago lover, Mathias, was “only the most famous, brilliant poet of his era,” as someone has to explain to Carla, who, having been in the real world till recently, “hadn’t heard of him.” And those missing poems of his, we’re meant to believe, would be a literary and financial coup for anyone who might get his hands on them.

What happened between Viridian and Mathias is a mystery at the heart of “The Poet’s House,” which is as much about women’s power in the world, poetic or otherwise, as it is about the power of poetry. And in the novel the power of poetry speaks for itself, in offhand and formal quotes from Shakespeare, the Bible, Byron and Yeats, among others, and in the reading and reciting of some quite wonderful poems with which Thompson supplies her “pew-ets” ,” as Aaron affectionately refers to them.

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“The body is a house. Who lives within?” As one poem has it, echoing 2 Corinthians 5: “Our body is the house in which our spirit lives here on earth.” There’s no doubting and no escaping the joyful, hopeful spirit that inhabits “The Poet’s House” — the spirit of poetry that by the end of this charming novel Carla so clearly embodies — and the irrepressible Jean Thompson so smartly imparts.

Ellen Akins is the author of four novels and a collection of stories, “World Like a Knife.”

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