Thursday, December 18, 2014

Okay, it's time to turn your attention to food. This is what I'm serving at tomorrow's holiday party:

  • Chili con carne (kidney beans, onions, garlic, fried cumin, ancho peppers, red peppers, canned tomatoes, ground beef, stew beef, parsley, salt, pepper)
  • Vegetarian chili (kidney beans, onions, garlic, fried cumin, ancho peppers, red peppers, canned tomatoes, corn kernels, parsley, salt, pepper)
  • Cornbread with cheddar and black pepper
  • Vegetable tray
  • Homemade dills, mixed olives, almonds, chips

  • Homemade eggnog
  • Mulled cider
  • Other assorted beverages in bottles and cans

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Though I'm still struggling with a hair-raising poem draft, I've had a productive writing week business-wise (though I am reluctant to use the word business in the context of my un-business-like career). As I told you earlier this week, the Solstice MFA program has contracted me to teach a lyric-essay class. In addition, I've been checking proofs and filling out paperwork for the first of several Same Old Story poems that will appear in state poet laureate Wesley McNair's Take Heart newspaper column. Autumn House Press has just announced the release of the third edition of The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, which includes several of my poems. I've also agreed to join the book-review staff at Green Mountains Review, and next week Vox Populi will be publishing my cranky literary-political essay "The Marketing of American Individualism."

And I am standing here at my desk, on this dim morning in the waning of the year, drinking black coffee, listening to the dryer rumble, writing to you, and thinking that nothing that I have done, either publicly or privately, has made even the slightest bit of difference in a world in which schoolchildren are slaughtered in the name of God.

I suspect that you, too, are looking at your own life, your own accomplishments and struggles, in light of this continuing barrage of evil. We are are, essentially, helpless.

I don't know what to do with this feeling. Do you?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Last night Tom drove south to the bus station to pick up the returning college boy while I drove north to the gymnasium to attend the high school boy's holiday concert. This morning the high school boy has already stalked off to class while the college boy still wallows among his pillows. But as soon as I start editing or writing, the college boy will be calling, "Do you want any coffee?" up the stairs, and my working day will end. He is the most distracting child--a chatterbox, funny and sociable, and I have no idea how his college housemates get any schoolwork done when he's around . . . though mysteriously he seems to finish all of his own, and finish it well.

Believe me: I am not complaining.

Monday, December 15, 2014

What the Photographer Saw (1956)

Dawn Potter

Nijinksy in gauntlets, silhouetted
against a cancerous fog,

or Sandburg unchained. Flares,
prodded, leap up like angry dogs—

dance of the flaming coke
under a Van Gogh sky.

There’s an art to a man’s sweat.
I meant to ask his name.


I haven't got permission to reprint the photograph that triggered this poem, but you can see it here.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

I am a person who hates clutter. Christmas is a holiday that promotes clutter. Thus, decorating for the holiday always feels like an out-of-body experience, a sensation encouraged by the stuff that passes for family nostalgia in this house. To wit:
  • Six early-1960s styrofoam gingerbread men, prominently labeled "Made in Japan," which my mother bought at Woolworth's in the early days of her marriage and later sloughed off on me in the early days of mine 

  • A rubber figurine of King Kong, which Tom romantically purchased for me at the top of the Empire State Building
  • A headshot of old fat Elvis, cut out of a circa-1988 newspaper, with a pasted-on Santa hat and beard
The Elvis photo always goes on top of the tree. As four-year-old James once reverently explained to a confused grandparent, "It goes on top because Elvis is a star."

Saturday, December 13, 2014

I just got word that I'll be teaching a lyric-essay class for the Solstice MFA program! This makes me very happy, as does the conversation accruing around the poem in yesterday's post. I also made some progress with that sucking-drain-of-badness poem I was complaining about a couple of days ago. So despite the ongoing wretched condition of our driveway, things seem to be looking up around here.

To celebrate, I've started reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina again. I daresay I will have to skip the train scene and the scene when she leaves her son. I can't reread George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss or John Updike's Rabbit, Run without skipping the drowning scenes; and if anything, Anna Karenina is worse because Anna's tortured decision making is woven so thoroughly into the plot. I wince about Shakespeare's Othello too. Oh, poor Desdemona: everything goes wrong for her. As much as I love rereading, it has a serious down side that cannot be avoided. I always know what's coming.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Land of Spices

Dawn Potter

These days, what seeker has ever laid
eyes on a nutmeg grater? Something called
nutmeg leaps fully formed
from red-white-and-black Durkee boxes,
a harmless grist, innocently beige,

dry as the moon, sandy as kibble,
which mothers tap by scant
teaspoons into One-Pie pumpkin and scatter
thriftily onto box-milk Junket.
“Makes food look pretty!”

vows the label, but nutmeg
isn’t meant to be anything;
and if a child falls asleep on the sofa
with the library’s black-leather
Dickens flung open on her chest

and dreams of Peggotty’s
red forefinger, rough as a nutmeg
grater, smelling of lye and ancient
floors, she dreams in similes
as vague as chivalry.

Then how is it that this child,
born to inherit our Age of Convenience,
feels so exactly the pine-cone
scrape of that phantom finger
against her sunburnt cheek?

Has callow Shelley turned out to be right
after all, blabbing his shrill claptrap
at Godwin’s high-toned soirĂ©e—
“My opinion of love is that it
acts upon the human

heart precisely as a nutmeg
grater acts upon a nutmeg”—
and is the dog-eared, grade-school
social studies book just as true,
chanting its ode of immortality for those

glory-hunters—da Gama,
Magellan—who bartered
their souls for cumin and cardamom,
vanilla and myrrh, for rattling
casks of seed more precious than prayer?

Because if the Land of Spices
is something understood,
a dream well dressed,
a paraphrase,
a kind of tune, brown and sweet,

round as earth,
ragged as our laboring flesh,
then even now, in the empire’s
rustiest outpost, in a kitchen
as dull as Saran Wrap, the slow palms sway

and the milky scent of paradise
lingers on the clean south wind:
our ordinary heaven,
this seven-day world,
transposing in an hour, as a child

snaps her sandals against a chair,
gobbles saltines and cherry Nehi,
and grates away at her own
hungry heart . . . word, after word,
after sounding, star-bent word.

[first published in the Maine Poetry Review (fall 2005)]


As you can see from the credit line, this poem has been around for a long time, but somehow I could never find a place for it in a collection. The tone of the piece is eager and naive--a characteristic that I treasure--but this has also made it difficult to place within a group. The poem is like a cowlick that can't be combed down.

A couple of years ago, I thought of revising the piece to make it part of my western Pennsylvania history-poem project. So I tried out a few experiments: burnishing regional and 1950s-era details, re-imagining the "I" as a young woman of my mother's generation. Interestingly, however, none of these revisions had much effect on the original tone. The poem insists on being itself.

This fall, as I was grappling with the unwieldy organization of my Pennsylvania project, I found myself unexpectedly constructing Vocation, a poetry manuscript that combined a handful of those western Pennsylvania poems with a number of regionally unrelated poems about music, writing, practice, inspiration, and frustration. Suddenly, after a decade in limbo, "The Land of Spices" had found a context and a home. I never would have expected I'd be adding a ten-year-old poem to a new collection, but the development of this book has been a surprising lesson in patience.