Monday, February 19, 2018

Forgive my extended silence. I've been overwhelmed by various things, public and private, and a couple of days of quiet felt necessary.

I spent the weekend moving furniture, unpacking a few boxes, going for a long walk in a cemetery, reading a P. G. Wodehouse novel, watching televised young people jump off mountains, and otherwise not doing much worth recording. I'm preparing myself for an upcoming onslaught of busyness. Starting next week I'll be teaching twice a week: continuing my ongoing essay workshop and adding a high school poetry residency. I've got band gigs two weekends in a row. This Friday I'll begin volunteering in a seven-week community writing program that works with people who are dealing with homelessness. I'm still loaded with editing. I've got state Poetry Out Loud judging on the horizon. I need to start seriously prepping for the Frost Place. I have a garden to plan and execute. You get the idea.

Anyway, better to be busy than frozen. As Angela wrote in her comment on Friday's post, those Florida young people are an inspiration. I do love that adolescent fervor. O, to keep the fire alive--

Friday, February 16, 2018

Elegy for the Children

This week one of my former students lost her five-month-old son to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I tell you this so that you can add a specific, individual grief to your horror at yet another school massacre, yet another opportunity for our legislators to do nothing.

A thin rain is falling here in Portland. Pale fog crouches over the roofs and trees and fences. I yank my recycling bin out to the street and say good morning to my neighbor, who says good morning to me. He is lithe and brisk and forty-ish and starting to lose his hair. I've seen him shoveling out his driveway and parking his sensible car. I've seen him toss a football back and forth with his six-year-old son. My assumption is that he's a nice man who does not stockpile firearms in his basement and dream of bloodbaths. But who knows?

My former student woke up on Wednesday morning and found a dead baby.

Her stepfather used to be my plow guy in Harmony. He features in my poem "Valentine's Day." His children borrowed books from my children, and played on their sports teams, and quarreled together on the playground. When I was their music teacher, I taught them to sing Woody Guthrie songs and Johnny Cash songs and how to play three simple chords on the guitar. That was my job.

If a gunman had opened fire during music class, I would have had to die for his children. That would have been my job too.
Where wert thou, mighty Mother, when he lay,
When thy Son lay, pierc'd by the shaft which flies
In darkness?
Shelley wrote those lines in "Adonais," a poem dedicated to Keats, yet the metaphors remind me that he, like us, knew something about the death of children. One after another after another, his babies died. Shelley was an unreliable and feckless husband, but he did love those children. His love did not keep them alive.

When I was in Rome, I visited the grave of one of those lost infants. In order to stand in that place, I had to leave my own two small boys behind, far away, in America. I had to trust that they would be safe until I returned. I could easily have been mistaken.

Our legislators have made their opinions clear: It is acceptable to murder teachers as they try to protect their students. It is acceptable to murder children as they try to telephone their mothers to say, "I love you."

If a gunman had opened fire during music class, I would have had to die for my students. And then the gunman would have kept shooting, and my students would have died too.

Shelley famously declared, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." If so, we are just as useless as the acknowledged ones, at least when it comes to keeping our children alive.

Grief is both specific and formless. It tears at us, day upon day, as the eagle tore at Prometheus' liver. Imagine those mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and friends and teachers and grandparents and neighbors jolting awake, night after night--their memories poisoned, their dreams unhinged.

As Shelley knew, "The life can burn in blood, even while the heart may break."

Thursday, February 15, 2018

After the Shipwreck, 1903

Dawn Potter


Father and I walk down to the sea,
but it hides behind a thicket of fog.
“The sea defies us!” I cry, kicking kelp
and stones. Father laughs and tells me
I am too pompous to be a writer.

            Along the mussel-strewn tide-line,
a gull tears at a forgotten parcel.
            Hoot, hoot, wails a fog-horn
            that no one can see.

Father and I walk down to the sea,
but we cannot reach the shore.
A police-man lays a hand on Father’s arm
and wonders if I am too young
to imagine bodies washing up onto the rocks.

            Once there was a dead cat in the garden.
            Flies clustered in an eye socket.
            I try to remember.
I try to remember.

Father and I walk down to the sea.
The fog has lifted, and a sudden glare dazzles our eyes.
“Tell me about the bodies,” I beg.
Small hissing waves etch shadows on the sand.
Father sighs and says nothing.

            Back and forth, the ships sail.
            Some go to China, some to France.
            I have watched them
            vanish over the edge of the world.

I walk down to the sea alone.
Children splash in a tide-pool
as their mothers sing hymns into the wind.
I do not know them; everyone is strange to me
without Father.

            Somewhere, the dead sprawl
            like split rag-dolls.
Their hands soak up saltwater.
            Their veins leak tears.

“The sea defies us!” I cry before tea.
Father looks up from his journal. He nods,
and is silent. I am too pompous to be a writer.
In the twilight, a police-man trudges uphill,
his boots caked with sand. Already, the lamps are lit.

            China cups and saucers
            circle a silver tray, a cake is sliced,
pale butter melts, the shadows
darken, darken, darken.           

A sea wind rushes among the houses
that cling to the hill. I crane to hear
Father’s nib scratching paper,
his pipe rapping ashes onto the hearth.
His body displaces time like air.

            Father has never sailed in a ship.
            He never swims in the sea.
            I lean against his closed door.
            I write a word in the dust of the hall mirror.

Father walks down to the sea.
I wave from my window, but he does not see me.
In his tall hat and black coat and stout shoes,
he is strange to me; I pretend I do not know him.
Who is that man? I ask myself.

            I think of the women
wailing hymns into the wind,
            how their wet skirts blow back,
            how their icy hands clench against their breasts.

In the blackness beyond lamplight,
the tide rolls in, spilling over the jetty.
I am too young. I rush downstairs, appalled.
“Tell me about the bodies!” I beg.

But Father has not returned from the sea.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

from "Some Notes on Attunement" by Zadie Smith

I'd like to believe that I wouldn't have been one of those infamous British people who tried to boo Dylan offstage when he went electric, but on the evidence of past form I very much fear I would have. We want our artists to remain as they were when we first loved them. But our artists want to move. Sometimes the battle becomes so violent that a perversion in the artist can occur: these days, Joni Mitchell thinks of herself more as a painter than a singer. She is so allergic to the expectations of her audience that she would rather be a perfectly nice painter than a singer touched by the sublime. That kind of anxiety about audience is often read as contempt, but Mitchell's restlessness is only the natural side effect of her artmaking, as it is with Dylan, as it was with Joyce and Picasso. Joni Mitchell doesn't want to live in my dream, stuck as it is in an eternal 1971--her life has its own time. There is simply not enough time in her life for her to be the Joni of my memory forever. The worst possible thing for an artist is to exist as a feature of somebody else's epiphany.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Already the sun is shining. Over on the other side of the backyard fence, a male cardinal flutters onto a neighbor's feeder as a squirrel prowls in the snow below.

I feel worried about various people and situations--a worry that is ineffectual yet distressing: not only because I have no power to fix anything, but also because I know that the worry itself is an irritant to those I am worrying over. I have been worried over myself, and I know how annoying it is. And yet how does one stop actively fretting about another's suffering or unhappiness?

Ah well. Another conundrum of being human.

Anyway, the sun is shining! The squirrels are rascally and the cat demands breakfast. My room has two windows that look down onto snow and shadow. Our bed will have clean sheets tonight. Small things, small things. Let us try to love them.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Tom spent yesterday building shelves in the cellar, so that we can get things out of the upstairs attic space, so that we can fit more things into the attic space . . . you know, Ye Olde Cycle of Storage. But new shelving also means that the canning jars have a home, and now, when I go downstairs to do laundry, I can admire them in their glassy rows, sturdy and hopeful even when they're empty. Maybe next fall they'll be full of tomatoes.

Today will be all editing all of the time. Over the weekend I did crank out a few more paragraphs in my apron essay, though I'm dissatisfied with its trajectory. So far it's a fairly boring piece, and I've got to figure out how to spice it up--which means veering into unexpected territory, constructing a more interesting I, and juggling a few more balls in the air. It all sounds so easy when I describe the process to my class. . . .

I also took Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits out of the library. Have any of you read it? I've long been meaning to delve into her books, and now I might finally get around to it.

Sunday, February 11, 2018


It's true: we are now the sort of homeowners who have a bathroom door instead of an extra shower curtain looped over a few flooring nails hammered into the framing.

We found this door chopped off short, wedged into one of the dining-room doorways, and serving as the back of a temporary closet in a room that had been transformed into a bedroom in a house that had way too many people living in it. But Tom was pretty sure that it was the original bathroom door; and after much resurrection and rehabilitation, it now hangs in its proper place.

All of the doors in this house are fir, heavy and solid with simple panels, but this is the only one with pebbled glass. I love the way the wall paint shimmers through as watery light. The glass knob is also original. It's not one of those cut-glass-like Victorian openers but small and smooth--a modest implement, but a sweet one, like a lot of things around here.