In Alexandria, her ‘poetry fence’ creates a tranquil spot for neighbors and passersby


Renee Adams, in her back yard, has maintained a ‘poetry fence‘ for years outside of her home in Alexandria, Va. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
April 15

A weathered gray fence, about six feet tall, stands guard at the home on the corner of Windsor and Dewitt in Del Ray. On it hang two bulletin boards:

“Some winters, taking leave / Deal us a last, hard blow,” reads one post, a poem by Richard Wilbur titled “A Storm in April.”

“If sunlight fell like snowflakes, / gleaming yellow and so bright . . . .” begins another, the children’s poem “Sunflakes” by Frank Asch.

For the past five years, Renée Adams has tended to this “poetry fence,” much as she has her garden of zinnias and snapdragons. She changes the poems weekly, selecting them by holidays, seasons or other themes. There are poems for children and for adults year-round, not just during April, which is National Poetry Month.

Adams is in her early 60s, with long gray hair and crinkle lines around her eyes. She has the relaxed demeanor of someone who is retired, with nowhere to rush off to. She dresses comfortably, in jeans or yoga pants, but then adds a colorful vest or a favorite coat adorned with the sun, moon, and stars, an artistic twist.

The college English major, occasional poet and lifelong Alexandria resident worked 35 years at the Library of Congress, mostly in the copyright office. Now she lives alone in the Del Ray neighborhood, in a three-bedroom house filled with books. Poetry collections take up a two-shelf bookcase in a bedroom; a narrow wall rack in the downstairs bathroom holds tiny Penguin Classics. The two boys she raised as a single mother are now in their 30s, living in North Carolina and California.

“It’s just lonely when you’re retired and older, and you live in a neighborhood that’s predominantly young [families],” she says, speaking wistfully about friends who live at a distance or have passed away.

The fence’s creator began the project after a recipe hunt in her kitchen turned up poems she had added to her boys’ lunches years ago. She thought other parents might like to share them with their children, then decided to include adults. She types up her favorites to post, sometimes also drawing from the Writer’s Almanac.

Passersby can stop and meditate on a poem, standing in the shade of overhanging holly trees, within earshot of the trickle of her backyard pond. Along the fence hang other offerings: Comic strips poke fun at the digital age, and flowers grow year-round in photos. A window cut into the wood allows peeks at her garden.

Before the poetry fence, neighbors would just walk by as she worked in her garden, she says. Last spring, she and a friend whom she met through the fence added a “Little Free Library,” the popular front-yard book-share boxes, one of the first in Northern Virginia. The efforts have “made people be more friendly with me.”

Now, folks write their thanks on her note requesting feedback: “You are a special part of our neighborhood,” and “I love the little sweet and ongoing institution of this poetry board. Reading it is a small happiness in the middle of my day.”

Several years ago, Del Ray homeowner Nate Shue took his girlfriend and her cocker spaniel on a walk around the neighborhood. He made sure to stroll Mindy Ertz by the fence. She found it “spectacular” — suddenly, Del Ray became a place where she could put down roots.

Ertz and Shue now live together and are engaged. The couple planted an herb garden in front of their house with a sign welcoming neighbors to take their share of chives and dill. “Renée has done a wonderful thing for the community,” Shue says.

Adams plans to continue sharing poetry, maybe even after she moves to a retirement home one day. It’s almost a job, she says. “It’s like I don’t have a right to stop. I enjoy feeling like it gives people happiness.”

There have been acts of vandalism over the years — profanities written, one board stolen, another broken. Adams began removing the poetry in the afternoons, suspecting that middle-school children, just let out of school, may have been the culprits. One day, though, she decided to sit in the garden and observe. A kid rode up to the fence on his bike, then hopped off.

“Oh, boy,” she recalls him saying before he started reading.

Adams smiles. “Things like that,” she says, “make me keep doing it.”

Eva KL Miller is a freelance writer in Alexandria.

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