Saturday, August 29, 2015

I haven't talked much about cooking lately, but of course late-summer food is the best there is. Yesterday I mixed up an enormous macaroni salad: whole-wheat orecchiette, diced red tomatoes, halved yellow cherry tomatoes, diced fresh mozzarella, tiny boiled green beans, fried scallions and garlic, ribbons of basil, olive oil, red-wine vinegar, salt and pepper. As a side dish, I made a turnip, carrot, and radish slaw, tossed with rice vinegar and salt and pepper. Musical accompaniment: The Basement Tapes. Conversation: why we can't stop looking at the glorious color photograph of Ingrid Bergman in the New Yorker.

I've started reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Northern New England Women, 1650-1750, which is just as mesmerizing as I'd hoped. Part 1 opens with a long epigraph from Proverbs 31--the King James Bible version of the "Who can find a virtuous woman" passage, a blueprint for Puritan women. Here's an excerpt:
Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.
The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.
She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.
She is like the merchants' ships; she bringeth her food from afar.
She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.
She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.
She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.
She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.
She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.
She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed in scarlet.
In other words, to quote Virginia Lee Burton's Katie and the Big Snow, "Katie was big and strong, and she could do a lot of things."

In other words, to quote my poem "The Skillet Toss,"  "Men are proud to have a wife who can / fracture skulls, if she thinks it's worth her while."

As Ulrich writes, "The Puritans called this paragon 'Bathsheba,' assuming rather logically that Solomon [the supposed author of Proverbs] could only have learned such an appreciation for huswifery from his mother."

Friday, August 28, 2015

Tu Fu readers: You have, as far as I know, been reading poems XIII-XXIII. Many of you tell me that  you don't consider yourselves to be poets, and I know that some of you who do think of yourselves as writers work more often in prose than in poetry. Yet as a novelist friend was reminding me last week, reading poems can spark other forms of writing, just as (for me) reading prose often sparks poetry.

So I'd like you to choose a line from one of these poems, a line that speaks to you, and let it become the trigger for a few paragraphs of prose. Your prose can be fiction or nonfiction, memoir or criticism, journalism or scholarship, whatever you like. But let your relationship with the line drive your exploration. Let your emotional and visceral reactions lead you into your sentences.

As you did with your poem drafts, post your results here or email them to me privately.

Thursday, August 27, 2015


Today is the first day of my younger son's last year of high school. Next week my older son leaves to begin the first day of his last year of college. For twenty-one years, they have been my first thought. Of course I am elegiac, but elated also--as if I have brought the horses to the gate, and now I am waiting to open it, waiting to let them run.

Someone recently told me, "You're only as happy as your saddest child." That's true, terribly true, but there's also the sense, in raising children, of teaching oneself out of a job. If I do it right, if the stars align, if the fates decree, they won't need my worry any more. The gate will be open. They will be running.

Worry is a shorthand for all the fear: of accidents, of heartbreak, of self-destruction. Worry is a shorthand for the care: the food, the clean clothes, the conversation, the books, the music, the laughter. Worry is a shorthand for the hungry, rusty partnership of parents, starved for time and space and love, fenced by schedules and labor and weariness. Worry is a shorthand for my own life, my private life, my selfish self: pigeon-holed into scant hours, hidden like a talisman . . . the life I share with no one, no one at all, the place where the small voices scratch their rough tunes.

What I write here is a splinter of slate, a narrow outcrop.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Last night's storm was a disco extravaganza: strobe-light flashes, thunderous applause, and in the middle of the excitement an old poodle mildly pottering into the raindance as I stood at the door wondering whether our aged dog was going to die of a lightning strike while taking care of business at 2 a.m.

The end result of all this excitement was that I slept through the alarm and woke up to a dark-green morning that might as well be nine o'clock at night.

It's the last gasp of summer vacation, which means a day crammed with dentist appointments, piano lessons, soccer practices, summer term-paper revisions, emergency laundry, and rain rain rain. I have started reading Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, a novel I loved in college, but now I am maddened by the anti-Semitism and not sure I can keep plowing through it. My desk is heaped with books and papers, and the ficus tree is shedding leaves all over the floor, and the cat is leaving muddy paw marks on my time sheets, and all of the bath towels smell like the Wrestlers Spend a Week at the Beach, even though I put out clean ones yesterday morning.

I dreamed about spending the night in a small-town bus station that was also an indoor campground, and everyone there knew all about the latest Frost Place gossip, but refused to tell me what it was.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tu Fu readers: I know that several of you are heading back to school this week, so let me know if you want to put this project on hiatus. If I don't hear otherwise, I'll assume that you've found time to read the next ten poems, XIII through XXIII.

***

The weather continues to be moldy and sticky and lowering and dank. I am driving back and forth, back and forth, back and forth to Dover-Foxcroft; picking wet vegetables between the downpours; editing manuscripts; cooking for insatiable appetites; trying to read books but spending too much time on crossword puzzles; tossing and turning between hot sheets in a hot bedroom with a loud fan.

***

"Malibu tends to astonish and disappoint those who have never before seen it, and yet its very name remains, in the imagination of people all over the world, a kind of shorthand for the easy life. I had not before 1971 and will probably not again live in a place with a Chevrolet named after it." --Joan Didion, "Quiet Days in Malibu"

***

I wonder why my sons aren't bored out of their skulls in this town, and they probably are, in fact I know they are, because they tell me they are; yet their smiles are cheerful, and they are always busy-- ferreting away among their toils and devices, bouncing into the kitchen to cook eggs, yodeling up the stairs at me, poking the cat. They undertake annoying tasks without prompting--for instance, picking Japanese beetles off the grapevines. They listen to Pet Sounds three times in a row because they're thinking of writing a play about Dennis Wilson. They take lavish interest in each other's jokes.

***

My son brings me my straw hat
And I go out and gather
A handful of fresh vegetables.
It isn't much to offer,
But it is given in friendship.

--Tu Fu, "Visitors," translated by Kenneth Rexroth


Monday, August 24, 2015

For the past six months or so, one of my daily activities has been to check the Somerset County Sheriff's booking log. Every arrest is listed by name, birthday, height, weight, body type, and crime and includes a mug shot: for example, Harli Davidson Jones, 11/2/92, 5' 2", 280 lbs., obese, burglary. (She's fictional.) I've been trying to figure out why I find this booking log so compelling, though I do know it goes beyond a prurient gossipy interest in looking at people I know in a bad situation. The mug shots in particular are fascinating. There are the sad, worn, drug-addled faces, and the mean wife-beater faces. There are the young girls who pose for the camera like they'd pose for a selfie. There are the confused, humiliated faces and the resigned faces and the impassive faces. But I've slowly discovered that a key element of my interest, and a key opening into figuring out how to write about this log, involves the t-shirts that people are wearing.

Every day I write down the words on the t-shirts. I include only the words I can see, even if I can guess what the rest of the shirt might say. I now have a longish running list, maybe a fifty different t-shirt quotations. Here's a sample, in the order in which I wrote them . . . which is to say: not purposefully composed into any narrative arc.
Out of the darkness
Chronicle
It’s tricky
Save the drama for your
This guy
Jagermeister
 Now do you see why I can't stop looking?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sorry I didn't write yesterday, but I had to get a boy to school for a soccer tournament, and then I had to come home and tie up all of the sunflowers that the rain had bashed to the ground, and then I had to help load some nasty old mouse-smelling items into the back of Tom's truck for a dump run, and then I had to stand around and marvel at the goat barn that Tom is turning back into a garage. If all goes well, this winter I will be parking my car under a roof behind a door that closes. I feel so suburban. Of course, on the plus side there will be no electricity, no automatic door opener, and a long dark slippery downhill walk to the house. At least I will be able to feel like I live in the 1940s.

Little by little, my editing life is becoming more manageable; and it's possible I may be able to begin writing again. Those 1970s Didion essays I've been reading, combined with the Kenyon poems, are leading my mind in various, possibly productive directions; and once I get Beowulf back from my son (he's borrowed it for a school paper), I can return to that project as well. School starts for one boy later this week, for the other the following week. Our household crush 'n' fun will diminish, and the days will get shorter, and the grass will stop growing, and at some point I will be able to open my eyes and look outside the circle again.

In the meantime, I've been thinking about an email I received about the way in which I write about poetry: "You . . . talk about how poetry is baked but never seem to get it out of the oven." The note was from an acquaintance with whom I've had a long and difficult correspondence. It's not a random trolling remark; nonetheless, it was certainly intended as criticism--in particular, of my inability to expound on poetry as philosophy, ideas, concepts, whatever term you prefer. He dislikes my focus on concrete details of language as a centerpiece for discussion; he thinks that true poetic conversation should be more exalted.

I cannot talk that way because I cannot think that way. My mind shuts down, just as it shuts down when anyone starts discussing calculus or Kant. Do I believe those topics are stupid and useless? No. Please, talk about them all you like. Please, discover something wonderful in the process. Please, use your discoveries to enhance your creative and moral life. Please.

But I think there's something terrible in presuming that different thinking is lesser thinking. I spent so many of my early writing years, in my teens and 20s and 30s, weighed down by my non-scholarly "female" mind. I did not want to be a Muse, I did not want to be a Philosopher, I did not want to be an Academic, I did not want to be a Poet. I wanted to make something . . . something rough and round and small and mine.

So what I want to say here is: Please. There is grace in saying, "I don't understand why this matters to you, but I am happy that you are excited."

I promise that I will try to do this for you as well.