Monday, October 24, 2016

Family Matters

Dawn Potter
[This essay was first published in the Sewanee Review (winter 2016).]

Long after Sylvia Plath extinguished herself in a whirlpool of despair, illness, theater, and vengeance, her husband, Ted Hughes, tried to describe the ecstatic, suffering anxiety that was a central element of her personality:

Searching for yourself, in the dark, as you danced,
Floundering a little, crying softly,
Like somebody searching for somebody drowning
In dark water,
Listening for them—in panic at losing
Those listening seconds from your searching—
Then dancing wilder in the silence.

I think about him, battered relic of Plath, composing those lines so many years after the fact; still struggling against her terrible allure, against his own rash and fumbling failures as her dance partner. The powers-that-be, it seems, saw fit to inflict him with a lifetime spent facing the music—though he hobbled onward, grievously damaged yet wielding his vocation to the end. If not sustenance, poetry was at least a few scant drops of water in the wasteland.
Nonetheless, “the living, writers especially, are terrible projectionists,” wrote Adrienne Rich. “I hate the way they use the dead.” She, widow of a man “who drove to Vermont in a rented car at dawn and shot himself,” had cause to know. But despite numerous exemplars, drama is no prerequisite for household sorrow. Mere tedium will do. In an 1855 diary entry, Jane Welsh Carlyle lamented, “The evening devoted to mending; Mr C’s trousers, among other things! ‘Being an only child’ I never ‘wished’ to sew mens trousers.” Her emphases are inscrutable. “My Man-of-Genius-Husband,” she called Thomas Carlyle. And yet “we aggravate one another’s tendencies to despair.”
Standing outside, watching, is not necessarily what these writers did, for they, too, had the run of the house. Yet some inner door was always locked. Speaking of Anne Sexton, her daughter Linda said, “I always lived on that brink of fear that she was going to fall apart and really kill herself.” Meanwhile, “talking to Linda was like talking to her own soul, Sexton remarked.” On either side of a cracked window, the glass shimmered, distorting the moonlight. The mother lit another cigarette and wrote,

Oh, little girl,
my stringbean,
how do you grow?
You grow this way.
You are too many to eat.

Children and parents, parents and children. Listening to the radio, I hear a woman ready herself to climb sixteen flights of stairs to carry supplies to her elderly parents, who refuse to move down to her fourth-floor apartment, even though a storm has devastated the city’s power grid. “It is what it is,” she says, resigned. I turn off the radio and open a biography. “I hope,” writes Charles Dickens to his youngest disappointing son, “you will always be able to say in after life, that you had a kind father.” I close the book and scroll through the day’s news. Colm Tóibín points out, “You have to be a terrible monster to write. . . . Someone might have told you something they shouldn’t have told you, and you have to be prepared to use it because it will make a great story. You have to use it even though the person is identifiable. If you can’t do it then writing isn’t for you. You’ve no right to be here.”
            I often tell middle and high school students that art is power. At their age, they are usually still surprised by this idea. “Artists can possess,” I tell them. “They can manipulate; they can lie; they can extract vengeance; they can kill.” I pause. “Once, in a poem, I killed my children.” These words are half a joke. In the poem, it was more as if one son had never been born.
            “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique,” wrote James Baldwin. “All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.” And it is terrible, terrible, when what we love is also the anguish we vomit up. For how many slow hours did Rainer Maria Rilke linger in the Jardin des Plantes, suffering alongside the suffering beasts, before he began to understand how to invent “The Panther”?

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

“Writing is not therapy,” I tell my puzzled students. “Often, you feel worse after you finish a poem.” On the whole, this is not what they are expecting from art.
            Nor are they expecting the ruthlessness of creation: the melodrama, the exaggerations, the false fronts and manufactured views. Robert Lowell tried to explain its workings.

Caged in fiction’s iron bars,
I give this voice to you
with tragic diction to rebuke the stars—
it isn’t you, and yet it’s you.

Listen to the shame and hubris in his words, the helplessness, the gasping clutch at glory. But the you of the poem, sitting alone in her twilit room, no doubt heard something quite different, and perhaps it drove her to close the windows and turn up the television volume to drown out the sound.
Even when the you flits outside the margins of the work, her shadow staggers under its weight. Robert Frost imagined his wife, Elinor, as the “ideal reader” of nearly all of his poems. “Each book was written . . . ‘for love of her,’” and her death staggered him. “I’m afraid I dragged her through pretty much of a life for one as frail as she. Too many children, too many habitations, too many vicissitudes. And a faith required that would have exhausted most women. God damn me when he gets around to it.”
Yet had she stayed alive, Frost would not have thought twice about adding more stones to his wife’s load. “You have to be a terrible monster to write,” said Tóibín, for selfishness walks in monstrous tandem with guilt and invention. Infuriated by her philandering husband, exhausted and grieving, Plath nonetheless furthered her own ends, making specific, deliberate use of the crisis, ruthlessly dramatizing its characters and events.

And I, love, am a pathological liar,
And my child—look at her, face down on the floor,
Little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappear———

Forty years later that child recalled, “She used every emotional experience as if it were a scrap of material that could be pieced together to make a wonderful dress.”
Jealousy, scorn, defensiveness, bravado, indifference: all and more may drag a family of obsessives to their doom.  “There are many families in which nobody writes poems,” said Wislawa Szymborska, “but once it starts up it’s hard to quarantine.”

Sometimes poetry cascades down through the generations,
creating fatal whirlpools where family love may founder.

As Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s estranged son Hartley wrote after his father’s death,

I have been cherish’d and forgiven
    By many tender-hearted,
’Twas for the sake of one in Heaven
    Of him that is departed.

Because I bear my Father’s name
    I am not quite despised,
My little legacy of fame
    I’ve not yet realized.

And yet if you should praise myself
    I’ll tell you, I had rather
You’d give your love to me, poor elf,
    Your praise to my great father.

Despite their honor and modesty, the words do not quite hide the fatal whirlpool. But even well-loved, well-matched partners, friends, parents, children carry the burden of one another’s art. Writing to Jane Kenyon, Hayden Carruth mused, “Meanwhile, the rain falls beautifully. The murmur on the roof is musical and variable.  I am in the bedroom so I can hear it, and Joe-Anne has finally stumbled out of bed and gone to work. She’ll be back in a couple of hours. We—all of us—are burdened by history, no doubt of that, but the burden is not so great that we can’t respond to the same events when they recur in the present, the rain, the sunset, the opening of the day lilies. And I suppose that’s a boon.”
            Kenyon’s husband, Donald Hall, who watched her die of leukemia, later spoke of how he and his wife had learned to exist together. “Each member of a couple is separate,” he said; “the two come together in double attention. Lovemaking is not a third thing but two-in-one. John Keats can be a third thing, or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Dutch interiors, or Monopoly. For many couples, children are a third thing.” For these two poets, poetry was naturally a third thing, but of necessity it could not be the only one.
For years we played [ping-pong] every afternoon. Jane was assiduous, determined, vicious, and her reach was not so wide as mine. When she couldn’t reach a shot I called her “Stubbsy,” and her next slam would smash me in the groin, rage combined with harmlessness. We rallied half an hour without keeping score. Another trait we shared was hating to lose. Through bouts of ping-pong and Henry James and the church, we kept to one innovation: with rare exceptions, we remained aware of each other’s feelings. It took me half my life, more than half, to discover with Jane’s guidance that two people could live together and remain kind.
. . . though kindness is no savior.
“Dearest,” wrote Virginia Woolf, in the suicide note she left for her husband Leonard, “I want to tell you that you have given me complete happiness. No one could have done more than you have done.” But “complete happiness” is not enough to save a life. Watchers are left to evoke the ghosts. Recalling her sister Olga, Denise Levertov said, “Now as if smoke or sweetness were blown my way / I inhale a sense of her livingness in that instant.” There’s a fragrance of a pleasure in such heartbreak: “poetry,” as Frost mused, “has a vested interest in sorrow.” The will to display those sorrows, as if they “could be pieced together to make a wonderful dress”—this is what drives the sentences down the page, what drove Levertov to patch and burnish her grief. “I had flung open my arms in longing, once, by your side, stumbling over the furrows—”

Oh, in your torn stockings, with unwaved hair,
you were trudging after your anguish
over the bare fields, soberly, soberly.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Last night's dinner was casserole-roasted chicken with sage, mushroom gravy, farro, roasted brussels sprouts, and sliced tomatoes with dill and olive oil, followed by cribbage and a Cubs game. Meanwhile, the rain poured, the cat purred, the wood fire snapped. We were like a cognac advertisement without the cognac.

Today, more rain. I have finished the mediocre David Lodge novel I was reading, so here I am, on an aimless wet Sunday, with all of my books packed into boxes. I shall be driven to reading magazine articles and the telephone directory.

Or I could copy out more Rilke and try to find the missing word in my poem draft. That would be more sensible.

Don't you think using the word sensible in this context is a little bit funny?

By the way, I heard the worst--the worst-- interview question on NPR yesterday. As Tom and I were driving to the apple orchard, he turned on the radio, and one of those guys whose voice sounds like all the other guys' voices was asking the poet Anne Carson, "Do poets really find hope in hopelessness?" I immediately started making choking noises, and Tom immediately started laughing but also, thank God, turned off the radio so I didn't have to listen to poor Anne hang on to her good manners. Argh. That's the sort of question that drives a poet to laudanum.

Geoffrey Hill readers: Comments are coming in on the "Merlin" post, so join the conversation. I'll be adding my thoughts later today.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Last night I felt like I dropped ten pounds over the course of my band's three-hour show. No wonder Mick Jagger is still so skinny. By the end of the gig the fingers of my bow hand had gone numb, and the callouses on my left fingertips had blackened and split. Stringed instruments are cruel taskmasters. But the crowd was laughing and cheering and dancing and calling for encores, so the hand damage was all worthwhile. There's nothing like playing fast music for a happy crowd.

I drove home through thick fog, split by occasional flashes of lightning. And when I got here, Tom and Ruckus were asleep together on the couch. It was a good feeling to know that the house had a heartbeat.

Now, in this late October darkness, I am sitting in my kitchen with the window wide open. The air pours in, heavy and sweet with rain. Another gift.

Friday, October 21, 2016

To Brigit Pegeen Kelly, with Thanks

In "The Rain's Consort," the poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly wrote:
So, the lion, so his stiff wings, so the black moss that stains
Both his mouth and his wings, moss the color of fruit blood,
Or of pity, pity for the self that labors and labors
And spins only the wind, bride of the wind, oh foolish one.
Yesterday I learned that she has died, and her loss is enormous. I do not know another contemporary poet who was so driven by imagination. Her poems are rich and patient and dense; they handle words like jewels; and always, they move narratively and emotionally in ways that only Kelly would have seen as inevitable. The same poem, reread, surprises me again and again and again. How did she get from one place to another? It was a kind of sleight of hand; it was a kind of magic.

"We love what we love for what they are," wrote Robert Frost in "Hyla Brook." And this morning, as I listen to rain tap at the windowpanes, I am feeling the melancholy of her loss. I never met Kelly, but her poems opened a secret garden, and that in itself was an experiment in grace. It hurts to know she's gone.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Well, the realtor contacted me yesterday and said she's scheduled a house showing for Saturday morning, so that's good news. And my band is performing tomorrow night at Pastimes in Dover-Foxcroft, so that's also good news . . . at least for me, since I love playing with those guys. And Trump is still torching himself in public, so I guess that's another sort of good news, though also terrifying.

I have been picking honey mushrooms in the woods, editing a book about the LA slam and spoken word poetry scene, trying to memorize the lyrics to the Pretenders' "Don't Get Me Wrong," listening to a podcast about Jean Harlow while doing sit-ups on the living room rug, reading a mediocre David Lodge novel, eating leftover stir-fry for breakfast, waking up at 2 in the morning, yanking frost-bitten dahlias out of the flowerbeds, trying to finish a poem, hand-washing wool sweaters, not watching the presidential debates, and driving down empty country roads in the dark. I have also been meaning to remind you Geoffrey Hill readers: Don't forget to respond to Carlene's post about "Merlin."

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

I worked on a new poem last night, and copied out Rilke's "Seventh Elegy," and listened to a baseball game, and stir-fried cabbage, and thought about my friend Donna, who had swept in mid-morning for a cup of tea and thus cheered me up hugely.

Then I went to bed and slept and slept and slept. I dreamed that the actor Parker Posy had bought a farmhouse down the road and was painting strange patterns on the floors. I dreamed that I told a mean old lady that I was a Democrat so she sneered at me and refused to eat any of the brownies I'd baked.

I woke up at 4 to let the cat out, and then I went back to bed and slept and slept and slept some more. Now I am groggy and mystified. Why did I need so much unconsciousness?

Leftover rain is dripping from the tree limbs, and the grass is covered with wet red leaves. I am drinking black coffee and trying to re-enter the world of the living.

The little poem I began is not too bad, but a word is evading me. I have the sensation that there's a hole in my brain where that word should be.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The new issue of the Beloit Poetry Journal includes my long commissioned review of Christina Hutchins's recent collection Tender the Maker. As I say in the review, I had never heard of this book before; I chose it because I liked the title. The book turned out to be wonderful--filled with rich, patient language and considerable historical and emotional depth; a pleasure to discover.

* * *

Last night, as I was making dinner for myself, I started leaking tears again, in the same sudden yet slow-faucet way I was crying during the spring and early summer. Nothing in particular is wrong . . . I'm think it's just a case of too many feelings. Work will probably dry them up.

* * *

I hear no one like him. All at once I am pierced
by his darkening voice, carried on the streaming air.

--Rainer Maria Rilke, "The Sixth Elegy"