Monday, April 27, 2015

"What distinguishes the novel from all other forms of prose literature is that it neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his more important concerns, is himself uncounselled, and cannot counsel others." Thus Walter Benjamin again, making sure that no one confuses a novelist with a storyteller. The question I want to investigate is how someone like myself, growing up in a place that had just been settled, and a place, moreover, in which nothing of cultural or historical consequence had ever happened, became a novelist instead of being content to worry over an old woman who had been traded for skunk hides, or a dairy farmer who had given way to despair. Does mere human memory, the soil that nourishes storytelling, still have any use at all? What, in this age when we are all so oversupplied with information, does a given human need to remember, other than, perhaps, the names of his or her spouse (if any) and children?

--Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen


Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man's beginnings.

--Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney


Things standing thus unknown, shall live  behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.

--William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Strips of sunlight are filtering through the white pines. Though the thermometer now stands at 28 degrees, I did pick a bouquet of budding daffodils yesterday. I also planted peas, cleaned out my herb garden, and hung a load of laundry on the outside lines. Mid-afternoon, a few peepers croaked plaintively, and I watched a pileated woodpecker sample the telephone pole beside the driveway. The weather was not warm at all, but the animals and I tried to pretend otherwise.

In other household news: because I accidentally followed a recipe for a double crust rather than a single one, I made two pies for dinner. One was a quiche with sauteed grated carrots, garlic, jarlsberg cheese, and freshly cut chives; the other was a galette with a heap of sauteed onions, sliced tomatoes, goat cheese, and the ubiquitous chives. Then I tossed baby kale with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, spread the salad out on the dinner plates, and served slices of pie on top. The texture variations were lovely, and now I am always going to make two pies for dinner.

Today, if it doesn't snow, I plan to dig up a batch of dandelion greens. I haven't yet decided how to serve them, but something will occur to me.
[Sylvia] did not sleep, thinking of the little goat, whose appearance out of the fog seemed to her more and more magical. She wondered if, possibly, Leon [her dead husband, a famous poet] could have had something to do with it. If she was a poet she would write a poem about something like this. But in her experience the subjects that she thought a poet could write about did not appeal to Leon. 
--from "Runaway" by Alice Munro

Friday, April 24, 2015

It's conceivable that I could plant something today. The garden is finally clear of snow and beginning to dry out. But the air is stiff and gray and raw . . . March air, not a hint of spring softness. There is nothing sweet in this air, nothing to make a seed want to grow.

I spent a bit of time with Beowulf yesterday. The Geats have "duly arrived [at the Danes' mead hall] / in their grim war-graith and gear"
and, weary from the sea, stacked wide shields
of the toughest hardwood against the wall,
then collapsed on the benches; battle-dress
and weapons clashed.
Yes, for many thousands of years, boys have been stomping into houses, and dropping all of their heavy stuff in a big noisy clatter, and clunking down onto chairs and benches. The next thing these Geats will do is fidget during the old-guy speeches and then eat a ridiculous amount of food.

Why would anyone suggest that this poem is too hard for teenagers? This poem is about teenagers.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Tom is out in the shop hysterically building picture frames for his upcoming photo show, Paul is pacing around the living room hysterically memorizing lines for his upcoming performance, but I am calmly sitting at the kitchen table thinking about fresh chive pesto, pileated woodpeckers, and what kinds of writers I'd hunt for if I ran a publishing company.

I made no progress on Beowulf yesterday because I spent all of my free hours being Rosencrantz to Paul's Guildenstern. However, nobody expects me to be helpful with picture frames.

It's still raining here in Harmony. According to Tom, the peepers were out last night, but I slept straight through them. I was too busy dreaming about chasing the cat through crowded city streets and forgetting to feed a baby for two or three days. Oy.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Yesterday I began copying out Heaney's translation of Beowulf. It is, of course, glorious but also exceedingly simple, a lesson in beauty and accuracy. For instance, writing of the moment when the Danes buried their king, Shield Sheafson, at sea, the anonymous poet tells us that "they shouldered him out to the sea's flood." The sentence is filled with images of pallbearers, strength, waves, the weight of the corpse, ritual, yet the poet (via Heaney) chose none of those specifics to describe the scene. I would like to think like the Beowulf poet, at least now and again.

Recently I read a poem written by the sixth-grade daughter of a friend. She, too, was eloquent in her simplicity--reaching for the plain verb, the plain noun, but putting them together in ways that were exciting and surprising. "String the stems of the flowers." "Push the clouds higher in the sky." "Sing with all the footsteps." Beowulf is a poem in this tradition--a plain story of men and monsters, yet it also presses us to see violence, terror, and retribution as versions of beauty. It's a very distressing poem, and perhaps, because I am a woman, I am also unable to avoid reading it as a closed door. My story is not in this poem.
[Beouw] was four times a father, this fighter prince:
one by one they entered the world,
Heorogar, Hrothgar, the good Halga
and a daughter, I have heard, who was Onela's queen,
a balm in bed to the battle-scarred Swede.
Has anyone written the tale of this daughter?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The rain is pouring down, falling in sheets from the eaves, transforming mudholes into ponds, swelling the buds on the lilacs. The air quivers.

On Sunday, when I was digging, I found a snake, tiny and cold, red-edged, curled into a tendril like a pea shoot. But today there will be no digging.

Yesterday I dusted my desk, shelved books, stacked papers. Today I begin a new project. I wonder if it might involve the Aeneid. That poem is calling to me, calling me back, calling me to look again. I wonder if I could copy out the entire epic or if I would die first?

In the meantime, here I sit, gazing at the rain dripping from the fir trees, watching the small songbirds cluster at the feeder, listening to the dog groan  and the woodstove sigh and the gutters leak and the clock tick.

I have the sensation of being no one in particular.

The rain is pouring down, and down.

Monday, April 20, 2015

My poem, "After Twenty Years," appeared in yesterday's Portland Press Herald. I wonder what people thought of it. The poem is sad, and perhaps people prefer not to feel sad on the most beautiful day of the spring. 

Yet sometimes the habits of care do become a way of not speaking. Familiar silence is both a comfort and a mask. There is so much we do not know about the ones we have known for so long.