Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Yesterday, after a cool evening spent beside a high school soccer field, Tom broke down and lit the first fire of the season. I was frying chicken, cutting ripe tomatoes and corn and cucumbers for a salad, mixing eggs and cheese and scallions for the non-chicken-eating soccer player. We were listening to the Red Sox lose to the Pirates, listening to the soccer player chatter about his team's big win, listening to the kindling crackle in the stove. A splayed paperback copy of Dombey & Son, taped and worn, lay on the table, beside a bottle of beer. Night was drawing in; the lights shone against the reflecting windows. On the radio, Joe Castiglione, Voice of the Boston Red Sox, remarked drily, "You see strange things when the pitcher's hitting." We laughed. "You need to write that down," said Tom. All of us were a little drunk on the sweetness of early autumn.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

I really appreciate the comments on yesterday's post. It helps to read other people's examples and reactions. As the mother of sons, I am constantly in that Penelope-Telemachus position, even with my sweet-tempered, good-hearted boys. The repetition of "don't leave your breakfast dishes on the table put them into the dishwasher yourself" morning after morning after morning is both comic and disturbing. As a young daughter, I was constantly aware of tasks, present and future; constantly aware that childhood was somehow practice for womanhood. My sons, though they have complex inner lives as well a strong awareness of the politics of equality, have never had this shadowy female backstory of apprenticeship to a life of duty. Paul does't leave his dishes on the table because he expects me to clean up after him. He leaves them on the table because he doesn't care if the table is covered with dirty dishes. I'm the one who cares, the one who is trying to train him up to pay attention to my needs, which have been molded by my learned expectations about good housekeeping and tidy homemakers.

That's a complication, yes. And then, as Carol pointed out in her comment, there's this other frustration: the blanket urge to condemn, to sweep away the masculine referents of our language, even of our affections--as if mentioning a male chickadee in a poem makes the poet complicit in feminine subjugation.

I have no answer to the conundrums. But I am watching as we live them.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Response to "The Troll Slayer"

Perhaps you've read Rebecca Mead's long article in The New Yorker about British classics professor Mary Beard, who has been dealing with Internet trolls as well as diatribes from mainstream male journalists because she is not afraid to maintain a vivid public presence as an academic expert, even though she is a woman in her sixties who wears no makeup and doesn't dye her hair. The article is both distressing and highly entertaining: Beard's ability to embarrass these men is superseded only by her ability to make them see what idiots they have been. They apologize; they take her out to lunch; they send her supportive emails and ask for job references . . . which she writes for them. (About a university student who sent her a message saying, "You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting," she notes, "Although he was a very silly, injudicious, and at that moment not very pleasant young guy, I don't actually think one tweet should ruin your job prospects.")

It is uplifting to watch a woman blithely and powerfully negotiate such barbs. At the same time, all I can think about is how exhausting this must be, how much energy she must expend overcoming one onslaught after another. I recall my own dealings with male cruelty (none of them as purely nasty as what Beard has dealt with) and I recognize how often--maybe always?--I have just taken what the man has thrown at me. When a very well known publisher telephoned me about a manuscript, and told me that he liked it a great deal and that it was beautifully written and full of fascinating insights about literature, but "Don't you think you could write something that interested people instead of just homemakers?". . . well, I think I murmured and stumbled and perhaps even apologized instead of saying what I should have said, which was "EXCUSE ME, SIR, ARE YOU DIFFERENTIATING BETWEEN HOMEMAKERS AND PEOPLE?"

Still, I'm not sure I hate that interchange more than I hate the one I had with a reasonably well known feminist poet who was directing an MFA program. I had just published Tracing Paradise, my memoir about copying out Paradise Lost, and she was interested in hiring me to offer a guest workshop for her poetry students. However, in response to my class proposal, she asked if I could send her a revised version: there were just too many male pronouns in my description of Milton and his poem. In this case, I was in fact able to say, "No, I don't think I can delete any male pronouns in my description of a book written by a man." And when she canceled my workshop because, as she told me forthrightly, she had the chance to hire a famous person instead of me, I was able to be both sardonic and relieved.

The sheer stupidity of such so-called feminism does a disservice to everyone. It undercuts what I have said again and again on this blog and in essays published elsewhere: striving female writers--like striving male writers--discover power within themselves when they find a way to engage in collegial conversation with the greatest writers who have ever lived. I can talk to Shakespeare. I can talk to Homer. I need to talk to them. Mary Beard seems to have parallel expectations and curiosities: "as a scholar she does not specialize in writing about women, or about gender in the classical period." This leads me to suspect that she doesn't have a problem with using male pronouns when she discusses Cicero.

Still, in her mission to instruct misguided trolls and journalists, she may also seem to be playing a very familiar role, one that women have taken on again and again throughout history: the instructive mother who lovingly dope-slaps the idiot son--"a Penelope who chastises Telemachus for being rude, then patiently teaches him the error of his ways. 'There is something deeply conservative about that reappropriation of errant teen-ager and long-suffering female parent--it is rewriting the relationship in acceptable form,' she says. 'If I said to my students, "What is going on here?" and they just came out with a happy-ending story, I would be very critical. I would say, "Haven't you thought about how the same sorts of gender hierarchies are written in different forms?"'"

Nonetheless, she recognizes and capitalizes on configurations of kindness and forgiveness. "Some of these adjectives we use, like 'maternal'--try putting 'human' in there instead. . . . If being a decent soul is being maternal, then fine. I'll call it human." I agree with this wholeheartedly, but I cannot forget that she is still, in this situation, negotiating from a position of power and prestige. She is fending attacks because she is a confident public expert. When I sit on my own much smaller and more rickety throne--as a teacher, a conference director, a mentor--I find it much easier to speak firmly but patiently to the people who say dumb shit to me. But in the situation I mentioned earlier--the publisher's telephone call--I was the weaker party. I felt I had no recourse, except to scream or to cave into silence. Because I have good manners, I caved in. I guess what I am saying is that Beard's Internet trolls might be wrestling with the same impulse, which comes down to a homely, debilitating lament: "Why are you someone? Why am I no one?" This doesn't excuse their behavior. But we have all sung that lament, in our own small, cracked voices.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

John Keats, letter to George and Georgiana Keats, March 12, 1819

I am sitting with my  back to [the fire] with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet—I am writing this on [a copy of] the Maid’s tragedy which I have read since tea with Great pleasure.  Besides this volume of Beaumont & Fletcher—there are on the tab[le] two volumes of chaucer and a new work of Tom Moores called “Tom Cribb’s memorial to Congress”—nothing in it.  These are trifles—but I require nothing so much of you as that you will give me a like description of yourselves, however it may be when you are writing to me—Could I see the same thing done of any great Man long since dead it would be a great delight: as to know in what position Shakespeare sat when he began “To be or not to be”—such thing[s] become interesting from distance of time or place.  I hope you are both now in that sweet sleep which no two beings deserve more tha[n] you do—I must fancy you so—and please myself in the fancy of speaking a prayer and a blessing over you and your lives—God bless you—I whisper good night in your ears and you will dream of me.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Thanks to the exigencies of house pets, I am out of bed too early on a Saturday morning. So I am sitting here at the kitchen table, with my white cup and saucer, and my stoneware jar of yellow marigolds, and my A. S. Byatt novel with the beautiful deep-blue jacket cover, trying to pretend that I'd rather be here than there. And I am glancing over at the seven glowing jars of tomatoes on the counter, and the dish of unripe green pears next to the pale plate of golden drying chanterelles; and as I am sure you have noticed, I am attempting to convince myself that colors are worth the loss of a warm featherbed.

And while I'm thinking about worth, I want to tell you about the poem I accidentally came across the other day, a poem by my dear friend Meg Kearney, a poem that rocked me back on my heels. It's in the new issue of the Bellevue Literary Review, and it's titled "Oriole Report," and I wish I could publish it here for you, but of course I can't because of copyright reasons. So find it, or write to me privately and I will share it with you.

Words have overwhelmed me, again.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Apparently my canning predictions were wrong. Yesterday, during band practice, I acquired 15 pounds of glorious San Marzano tomatoes, along with a giant bag of Hungarian wax peppers; and this morning, after shunting the schoolboy out the door, I started boiling quart jars. I'll process the tomatoes today and leave the peppers for the weekend because they'll keep better.

Tomorrow night my reconfigured band, now known as Doughty Hill, will be playing at Pat's in Dover-Foxcroft, 7 to 10 p.m., and I'll be singing Neil Young songs, and Elvis Costello songs, and Gillian Welch songs, and spontaneously inventing fiddle leads that may or may not work, and hoping I remember all the words and all the changes. You could come keep me company.

In the meantime, as the canner boils and the tunes flutter through my head, I will be editing the uranium book, picking cucumbers, mowing grass, laundering soccer uniforms, trimming stew meat for a Greek stifado, pondering the poems of Denise Levertov, scraping cat fur off my sweater, imagining a line a syllable a sound, listening to the wind whistle through my corn patch, copying this passage from Muriel Rukeyer's The Life of Poetry--
I see the truths of conflict and power over the land, and the truths of possibility. I think of the concrete landscapes of airfields, where every line prolongs itself straight to the horizon, and the small cabin in the Appalachians under the steep trail streaming its water down; of the dam at Shasta, that deep cleft in the hills filled with white concrete, an inverted white peak with the blue lake of held water over it, and, over that, Shasta the holy mountain with its snows; New York at night when the city seems asleep and even asleep full of its storm and its songs; the house in the desert and the pool wooden-lidded against the sand, where poems are being read to the gold miners by the woman who came there to die of tuberculosis twenty-three years ago. . . . Everywhere one learns forever that the most real is the most subtle, and that every moment may be the most real.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

It's a dark morning, cool and humid. The clouds oppress the trees; the house smells of simmering tomato sauce; an NPR reporter murmurs in the kitchen. My mind is chattering to itself . . . about apples, and phoning the dog groomer, and German fairy tales, and that book about uranium I'm editing, and those songs I need to memorize for band practice tonight. Outside my window, a small bird is chattering in exactly the same rhythm as my brain--a curious duet; also an unnerving one.

"Too late in the wrong rain," wrote Dylan Thomas, "They come together whom their love parted:"
The windows pour into their heart
And the doors burn in their brain.
. . . and though on the surface those lines have nothing to do with me this morning, they ring, and evoke a disturbance within me; they make me frown--half in puzzlement, half acknowledging their accuracy. Perhaps the morning's broader horrors and ambiguities--the beheadings, the air strikes, the politicians, what to do--perhaps they, too, have infiltrated those lines, my reading of them, my perplexed response.

Poetry is both sufferance and suffering, I suppose.