A Girl Gets Sick of a Rose

“Freight Cars Under a Bridge,” Charles Burchfield (Detroit Institute of Arts)

Recently on the radio I listened to a piece about the planned phaseout of nuclear power in Germany. Wind-based energy will call for “an expanded power grid” and “new high-capacity overhead lines.” Eric Westervelt, NPR’s man in Berlin, said, “The rise of the ‘Not in My Backyard,’ or Nimby, movement was perhaps inevitable.”

The acronym began to appear in print in the U.S. in the 1980s. In my relatively brief career on the railroad, we talked about the Nimby movement. The prevailing sentiment was that Nimbys—as the vocal  members were known—thought that their earthly goods arrived from heaven. The apparatus for such? Well, they certainly didn’t care for a train creeping through the cut behind suburban houses, even if their children waved to us.

(I’ve lived in Rust Belt towns and have taken the train, many times, across upstate New York. Coming through Buffalo, I’d recall its nickname—“City of No Illusions.” The poet Robert Creeley, a longtime Buffalo man, once told me that in Buffalo people will actually speak to one another on the street.)

I’m interested in backyards—in the suburbs I think they’re still marketed as social gathering places. Recall how in Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer,” Neddy Merrill swims towards his boarded-up home through his neighbors’ backyard pools. He is ruined, but when he comes to the pool of his old mistress, “It seemed in a way to be his pool, as the lover, particularly the illicit lover, enjoys the possessions of his mistress with an authority unknown to holy matrimony.” She sends him on his way.

Actually I’m interested in yards (OED: “… within the precincts of a house, castle, inn, etc.”) and recall the taunting speech Kipling penned for the tiger Shere Khan to deliver to the wolves who took in and defended Mowgli—“Each dog barks in his own yard!”—and am awed by the multiple meanings of “yardbird.” And I’m interested in backs—OED again: “often … ‘inferior, mean, obscure,’ as in back alley, back lane, back road, back slum, back street” or “the hinder side.”

Americans have referred to both Mexico and Cuba as “our backyard” (Canada, by contrast, is “our northern neighbor”), and ownership—possession—is more than implicit in the claim. In Randall Kennedy’s useful history of “the n-word” is the account of a South Carolina governor’s damning those white men who would vote for his opponent, accusing them of having “[an African-American wife] in your backyard.” Howlin’ Wolf sang, “I am a back-door man.” (“Every sensible woman got a back-door man,” sang sweet-voiced Sara Martin.) Clarence Major’s dictionary notes, “The back door as an entrance/exit for blacks working in white homes during and after slavery perhaps gave the idea of the back door a great presence in the psyches of African-Americans.”

During my years as an editor, we sent our journal to the Back of the Yards Branch of the Chicago Public Library. It’s the tough neighborhood near the old Union Stock Yards, the place that made Chicago “Hog butcher for the world.” (The branch is closed now.)

In the backyard you might find a lover or a secret spouse, a train, an interesting kind of authority, a literary journal. Access to danger, the clandestine, the sensual. Nothing’s too pretty in the back yard. No illusions.

Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “A Song in the Front Yard” speaks to this:

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.

I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.

They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).

But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.

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