The poetry board appeared early in the pandemic, coinciding with the large number of people who started hanging out on the well-maintained lawns of a six-block stretch of Albemarle Road in the Ditmas Park section of Brooklyn. It’s easily one of the toniest parts of the borough, quiet and lined with turn-of-the-century Victorian homes withe upstairs terraces, columns, and turrets (and six or more bedrooms). But there is one house that attracts more attention than all of the rest.
When I first moved to the neighborhood seven years ago it was just another haunted Victorian. The lawn was overgrown and there was a chain posted low to the ground blocking the front walk. When it was announced in 2015 that actress Michelle Williams bought the eight-bedroom, six-bath house for $2.5 million I perked up, not only that there would be a very famous person in the neighborhood, but because it was a savvy real estate move indicative of actual taste, and I was happy for her.
The house was under renovation for what seemed like eons but when it emerged it was no longer so unwelcoming. It was a lush palace with massive shiny windows and infinite nooks. Instead of a bad lawn, a landscape of flowering bushes flowed out into the sidewalk. But its crown jewel had to be an in-ground swimming pool, the only one I have ever seen attached to a private Brooklyn home.
What I did not know then, or chose to ignore, was that Michelle Williams was at the time dating a freshly divorced Jonathan Safran Foer. Although Michelle was hanging out with a mystery man in Rome by the summer of 2017, it seems that she and Jonathan ended things on good terms, maybe; he stayed in the house and she moved onto her next flip. It was only when my editor told me this recently that the poetry board finally made sense.
The poetry board sits in front of the house, even at night, when it takes on the air of a literary security guard (though I imagine someone would have stolen or vandalized the whole board by now if the street didn’t already have its own private security service). Usually poetry in public spaces feels like an anodyne insult to my intelligence, something inane that the transit authority considers uplifting while you’re standing in a packed car. But the poetry board in front of Jonathan Safran Foer’s house is worse. For one thing, the poem hasn’t changed in weeks. My dog and I have been walking past it every day since the end of June only to once again be confronted with Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Fresh”:
If you’re going to force poetry on your neighbors shouldn’t you change it up weekly, if not daily? Otherwise, what is the point? Is it decor? Does he want me to memorize it? I think poetry is hard and I usually avoid it. Even now, after looking at this poem every day for a month, I can barely tell you what “Fresh” is about. “Wanting nothing/from any store.” Ok. The only reason I’m reading it now is because my boss said I had to, and quite frankly it’s not sticking, but at least I can do it from the privacy of my desk and not while standing in front of Jonathan Safran Foer's probably haunted mansion.
I polled some neighbors on the board. A friend who grew up a few blocks away said “I don’t think I ever read a full one, not for me.” “I never read the poems,” said another. My former roommate Sam, an amateur poet himself, wondered “why doesn’t this freaky ass motherfucker get curtains?” Which is valid, but off topic. Thanks Sam.
You might remember some of Safran Foer’s previous work, like his poem “Two Minute Personality Test,” which was featured in a 2014 Chipotle collaboration curated by the writer himself. Apparently, Safran Foer enticed Chipotle’s CEO in an email that said "I bet a shitload of people go into your restaurants every day, and I bet some of them have very similar experiences, and even if they didn’t have that negative experience, they could have a positive experience if they had access to some kind of interesting text.”
If only someone had stopped him then. For now, the poetry board remains, haunting me every day.