Tuesday, March 3, 2015

I was so surprised and happy yesterday to discover Maureen Doallas's review of my anthology, A Poet's Sourcebook. Reviews make me nervous, always--not only because I fear that someone will hate my book but also because I can't help perceiving glitches between what I did in the book and how someone else absorbed it. My Milton memoir has been particularly prone to such readings. This is normal, and is often even enlightening, but I worry anyway ("I'm so stupid, why didn't I see that before, people will think I'm an idiot," and other such pointless flagellations).

But Maureen seemed to take in the anthology in a way that paralleled my intentions. This may be easier in an edited work as opposed to an entirely original construction; but as I discovered while I was working on A Poet's Sourcebook, compiling an anthology is subjective. There are no obvious selections to include. For instance, is Shelley's "Defense of Poetry" necessary and exciting or the tedious emotings of Nineteenth-Century Important White Guy? I fall into the "necessary and exciting" category, but plenty of other people don't. All the syntheses that I perceive between Shelley's treatise and the writings of subsequent poets and critics (John Berger, Audre Lorde, etc., etc.) may not register with other imaginary editors.

In any case, I'm grateful to Maureen for sharing my fascination with "the kinds of serendipitous discoveries that accompany re-familiarizing oneself with the texts of Plato, Aristotle, and Ovid; re-engaging with the likes of Shakespeare, Bradstreet, Milton, and Blake; re-considering Shelley and Keats, Bronte and Whitman, Dickinson and Rilke, Woolf and Pound; and recalling the depth of inspiration and breadth of influence of Rich and Levertov, Snyder and Milosz." I have spent a lifetime fluttering here and there among my books, and one of the gifts of this project was the way in which it forced me to annotate, and thus justify, my desultory reading patterns.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Last night, a dust of snow. This morning, a clean opaque dawn and 15 degrees above zero.

Small birds barrage the empty feeder. I feel the pressure of words--unformed, unthought--behind my skull.

I have been reading a small Harold Pinter play, "Night," which opens like this:
Man. I'm talking about that time by the river.
Woman. What time?
Man. The first time. On the bridge. Starting on the bridge. 
Woman. I don't remember.
The pressure of words behind my skull resembles their interchange.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The radio guy announced, "Saturday will be a great day for winter sports!" So despite the cold, we decided to go on a long snowshoe trek with our friends Sue and Dave.

Below you see can the stream bed, with Tom and Dave far ahead of Sue and me. We were slow because we kept looking at animal tracks. I know very little about tracking but Sue knows quite a bit, and I love to be instructed in such things.

Here is one of many crevasses on the stream. Despite the subzero temperatures, the water continues to bubble and run. 

The sky was a miraculous blue. But the birds were silent.

The stream opens into this bog. The small scrubby trees are alders, and on a few of them the buds are beginning to swell. Think of this as a photograph of spring.

According to Sue, these are mink tracks. After she showed me the tracks, she told a story from her childhood: one day the kids came to the school and found an ermine inside.

See this print that looks like a lobster's snow angel? This is the track of the snowshoe hare.

Here's another crevasse, this time on the bog. Because the water is quieter than the stream's, it has formed these ice flowers.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Ten below zero this morning, on this last day of February, yet a spring sun is shining. The days are longer, and the tree shadows fall at new angles on the snow. Owls, the earliest nesters, are beginning to shift and fidget in the forest.

I am still rereading the Bronte biography, still slowly absorbing John Luther Adams's Winter Music, and now also feeling mournful about the death of Leonard Nimoy, now also feeling the pleasures of this sunshine and this cup of black coffee, now reminding myself to wake up my son for theater practice, to empty the recycling bin, to fill the birdfeeder, and now I am wondering what I should read next, wondering whether, when I go outside to fetch firewood, I will hear the pileated woodpecker again.

The brain is a busy collation of time. Its shifts of attention are so swift in the moment, so slow on the page.

Grammar is a cracked and struggling mimic of the mind.

Friday, February 27, 2015


Yesterday afternoon Tom and I went on a snowshoe hike across our yard into the woods and then down onto the snow-laden stream bed. Breaking trail is hard work, but our eventual goal is to get to the bog at the end of the stream, a mile or so down the waterway. For the past several days we've been chipping away at the trail, on each outing stomping down a few more meters of untouched snow.

The stream bed is gloriously beautiful--overhung with cedars, punctuated by rifts of still-running water. The sound of the water bubbles up into the silence, into the trudge and squeak of our snowshoes, into the sudden squawk of a woodpecker. Animal tracks--squirrel, rabbit, deer--circle the open drinking holes, and now our tracks wind among them as well.

Compared to skiing, snowshoeing is an unglamorous activity. Instead of gliding elegantly, we stump along like dwarves heading home from the mine. In order to avoid stepping on our own shoes, stopping short, and immediately pitching headfirst into a drift (which for numerous reasons involving terrain and dogs does happen pretty often anyway), we have to walk like bow-legged cowboys. This awkward trudge turns out to be surprisingly healthful for my hip joints, which have a tendency to seize up after too much sitting and driving and standing around at my writing desk.

I have written only one poem about snowshoeing--"Dog in Winter," the sonnet that was reprinted in the Portland Press-Herald last weekend. As I was trudging along yesterday, I was wondering if the stolid heavy rhythm of the activity--chunk chunk chunk chunk chunk chunk--makes it difficult for me to relax into any sense of poetic line, for certainly the visual patterns (cedars, snowdrifts, ice etchings, current flow) and the sounds/silences beyond myself are immensely evocative.

I don't think of myself as a nature poet, yet this place I live in--the clumsy trudge of my snowshoes, the trickle of thawed ice, the scream of the woodpecker, the quiet--this is my keystone. I hear it, I see it, I don't always understand how to absorb it into myself, into my work, into the decisions I must make about how to grow old.

In Winter Music, composer John Luther Adams writes,
Maybe art is the house we're always building for ourselves, somewhere between the stark truths of the world as it is and our longing for the world as we dream it.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Lately I've been rereading a biography of Emily Bronte. They were difficult people, those Brontes--deeply unlikable in so many ways, and often indifferent even to the idea of being liked.

Is this a terrible way to live a life? Or a could it be a relief?

A few days ago, a twenty-something FaceBook poet-acquaintance posted this status: "WUTHERING HEIGHTS why does it even exist ugh???"

I wonder which she thinks would be worse: writing Wuthering Heights or reading it?

I first read it as a middle schooler. I have since read it dozens of times, but I have no memory of how I felt when I first read this passage about the final meeting between Heathcliff and the dying Catherine:
She retained in her closed fingers a portion of [Heathcliff’s] locks she had been grasping. As to her companion, while raising himself with one hand, he had taken her arm with the other; and so inadequate was his stock of gentleness to the requirements of her condition, that on letting go I saw four distinct impressions left blue in the colourless skin.
Is this love? Or a terrible way to die?

There is no answer to any of these questions.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The current issue of the New Yorker includes an article by Mary Norris, a long-time copyeditor for the magazine. Although she doesn't answer most of my questions about the publication's curious style choices (why nineteen-seventies instead of 1970s? why focussed instead of focused?), she does write beautifully, and often comically, about the way in which the job "draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, Midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey. And in turn it feeds you more experience."

This is true. In the course of my job I have absorbed a great deal of fascinating information about uranium mining, foie gras, asbestos, Audre Lorde in Germany, in vitro fertilization, physics in the nineteenth century, and hair-removal practices during the Middle Ages. I have also drawn on my own expertise in goat farming, Victorian pulp fiction, pie baking, youth-sports anxiety, pit-orchestra performance, being a Quaker, and driving in snow.

A copyeditor wallows in details of style, information, spelling. Yet as Norris points out, "so much of [the job] is about not going beyond your province. . . . Writers might think we're applying rules and sticking it to their prose in order to make it fit some standard, but just as often we're backing off, making exceptions, or at least trying to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little." Copyediting "is interpretive, not mechanical--though the answer often boils down to an implicit understanding of commas."

That remark about the commas is also true. While my own comma predilections are less rigid than the New Yorker's, I do feel that, as a copyeditor, I expend considerable thought on the implications of comma placement. As a poet, I also concentrate on this issue . . . although my poet answers are not identical to my copyeditor answers.