Anne-Marie Levine

Upstairs, Downstairs

She lived in the cellar.
It was illegal.
There was a bathroom
but no kitchen,
but that’s not why it was illegal.
It was illegal because, technically,
it wasn’t a basement. It was a cellar,
so called because the ceiling was a certain height,
which, according to the law, was too low
for human occupancy. It wasn’t that low.
The son of the travelling saleswoman
who had owned the house before me
had lived there too. He was an actor
who received a lot of pornographic mail
at that address even after he moved.
And the houseman Peter, whom you met in my poem “Ghosts,”
he lived there. He was shot,
but that was after he left the premises.

So she lived in the cellar and it was illegal.
She had a bathroom but no kitchen.
She had a private entrance,
and she had a refrigerator and a hot plate.
It was a large space, but with a very low ceiling
and rent to match. So I charged her very little
and we became friends.

It was good space and she made the most of it.
Peter had intended to install a Hawaiian waterfall
in the corner so it’s a good thing he left when he did.
I mean before he installed the waterfall,
and before his death by accidental shooting.
He left because he and my husband couldn’t get along
after the baby was born.
Then my husband left.
That was because he and I didn’t get along
after our baby was born.
Maybe he couldn’t get along at all.
Then Dinah came.


We did get along.
I suppose if I had known
my husband was going to leave,
Peter could have stayed.
But they both left, as it were,
and Dinah came to live in the basement
apartment. She stayed a long time,
until she went to live with Arnie.

We lived like college roommates, actually.
I’d go down to see her
through the connecting door
from the house to the basement,
or she’d come up      We’d visit back and forth
at all hours, after dates and so on,
since we were both single then.
And when I came back up or she went back down
I’d slide the bolt on the cellar door,
because a burglar had come in that way
once, before she lived there,
and before Peter too      way back when
we were renovating the house,
bringing it back from the rooming-house
that the travelling saleswoman and her son
the actor had converted it into.

The burglar came in while my former husband
and I were dining with Adja Yunkers,
the painter, in the kitchen.
I heard noises and I said what’s that,
and neither of them heard it
so they said oh Anne-Marie
you’re always hearing things.
Which is true. I have a reputation.
But the next morning
all the portable appliances in the kitchen
were gone. The burglar had been waiting
on the cellar steps (the door having been left ajar)
for us to leave, and when we went upstairs to bed
he just came and took what he wanted.
After that I always kept the cellar door bolted.
And one day David, who was about six years old,
said Mommy, why do you always lock Dinah up
down there? He thought she was imprisoned.


She had a boyfriend named Kent,
and when he left he went with a girl
she called Miss Neatsy-Keen-New-And-Fresh.
When I think about Dinah in those days
I realize that she was, whenever possible,
naked. I remember many conversations
where she lay naked in the bath,
and I sat fully dressed on the toilet seat
talking to her in her bathroom.

If only I’d been Bonnard      Bonnard’s wife
you know, spent a lot of time in the tub,
and he painted her there over and over,
indolent, self-indulgent, sensual.
They were obsessed, the Bonnards, Mr.and Mrs. --
he with her, she with bathing.
If Kent had been more like Bonnard!
He might not have left.

We had three-way conversations as well,
Kent and Dinah and I. We would visit sometimes
in the bedroom area of her apartment,
one of us on the bed, the others in chairs.
She would be naked, we would be dressed.

That scene has a painterly quality too,
but not like Bonnard: a naked woman
in a bedroom with an older clothed woman,
and a man, also clothed.
Very precise and mysterious.
A sense of something about to happen.
What does it suggest?
Genre painting?
The Procuress.
What does that make me?
The landlady as Madam.
It seemed perfectly natural at the time,
she was just more comfortable naked.
Her next boyfriend didn’t like it though,
Arnie. And she left to go live with him.
No wonder it didn’t work out.
We should have known, nudity was key.
Kent left too, of course,
but I don’t think that was the reason.
I’ll bet Miss Neatsy-Keen kept her clothes on though.


Dinah also had what were known
as Platonic relationships.
We needed phrases like that in those days,
now we don’t.
She was a generous person and any man
or woman who needed a place to stay
could share her double bed.
People were always sleeping over,
and it was perfectly OK to share a bed with a guy
and not have sex.
But one day a guy named Jerry said “Dinah,
even friends get erections.”

She had nice friends.
Some of them became my friends, like Bella,
who says her son was conceived in that bed.
Dinah wanted to share Kent with me,
but he and I agreed
it would not be a good idea.
She did unwittingly share one of her friend’s
boyfriends with me, but that was a dark moment,
and she wasn’t nice about it.

But then she left
and went to live with Arnie in a loft.
And after his cat died
Bill came to use the place for a studio.
After his cat died?
Don’t ask.
Bill’s still here though, and that’s good,
because it’s not as though good things happened
to people after they left my house.
Rothko spent some nights here and he committed suicide.
Peter was shot.
My former husband died of cancer
and that was after he left
and after he remarried.
Dinah had a “crise de nerfs” (I prefer that phrase
to ours--a crisis has more imaginative
possibilities than a breakdown)
and that was after she left my house
to go live with Arnie.

So that’s why I wonder--
about all the people who’re gone, what it means,
and about the ones who’re left. Bill’s still here,
as I said, and Mo and David. And that’s good.
Because it’s not as though good happens
when people leave.