Friday, October 31, 2014

Last night, as I sat fuming in the high school parking lot, waiting for student actors whose rehearsal was running an hour late, I was fully aware that my irritation was fueled not only by the fact that I have a son whose phone is never charged, turned on, or in the pocket of the pants he is wearing but also because I have been ignoring my own desperate need to write something, anything, that doesn't belong to someone else.

I think, sometimes, about what John Fowles said when he was writing about his trajectory as a novelist: “I had been deliberately living in the wilderness; that is, doing work I could never really love, precisely because I was afraid I might fall in love with my work and then forever afterwards be one of those sad, faded myriads among the intelligentsia who have always had vague literary ambitions but have never quite made it.” Compared to most of my peers, I have had considerable time and space to do my real work. I've written a number of books and composed thousands of poems and essays. Since the age of six, I have been reading and reading and reading. At the same time, I like teaching, and I like editing, and I think I'm good at both of these jobs. To a certain extent, I disagree with Fowles: I think that my day jobs do feed my private work. For a writer, editing other people's work is like playing scales and etudes: technical practice, a way of staying sharp, but also an education in coming to terms with the necessities  and confusions of another writer's individual style.

Still, it is service work, tending to another person's manuscript. Like teaching, the task is give, give, give; and as Fowles pointed out, it is easy to borrow that absorption as an excuse for giving up on one's own ambitions as an artist. Creation requires a deep selfishness--not at every moment of the day, not even at most moments. Nonetheless, the selfishness is imperative. Finding balance is a thin phrase for this ruthless juggling of time and attention, obligation and desperation, mine and yours, come here and go away.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

It's another one of those mornings: Boy misses the bus, Dog and Cat are tumbling up and down and up and down the stairs, "Ziggy Stardust" is stuck in my head.

Tom is frying eggs. When I complain, "Why 'Ziggy Stardust'?" he asks, "Are you from Mars?"

Dog and Cat, in a frenzy of happiness, crash among the table and chair legs. Boy, who is supposed to be folding his laundry, sits on the edge of his bed sniggering at his iPad. Fog peers through the windows.

"Just because I'm from Earth," I tell Tom, "doesn't mean I've always got Earth, Wind, and Fire songs stuck in my head."

All of which explains why, 20 minutes later, I'm wasting time watching a video of "Boogie Wonderland," which, by the way, features outfits that out-glitter Ziggy's and serve as a reminder that Mars and Earth have much in common.

And now enough of this silliness. Go back to work.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Soccer season is over. The boys suffered a big loss last night, Paul cried, his girlfriend held his hand in the car, I drove into the dark. I thought of correcting the comma splices in that sentence, but semicolons are too heavy, periods too final. It is autumn, and perhaps autumn is the season of splices--fallen leaves underfoot, high school boys weeping, a World Series game sputtering on the radio, the eyes of cats glinting on the roadside. This is the season of Blakean sunsets, jagged clouds splashed with lemon, salmon, plum. Startled sparrows fly up from the grass as the cars pass, and threads of smoke rise from the chimneys of window-lit farmhouses, tidy ranch houses, collapsing trailers. A month from now, at the strike of a shovel, the earth will ring like a tamped bell--muffled, ironbound. Branches will crack and sigh in the cold. Today, the long grass glistens, it peeps through a blanket of gold, it shines in the rain, but the air is dark, I cannot see the grass, I only know it is there, I only imagine the shine. On a late autumn morning, morning comes late. Paul has gone back to bed, unable to face school today, exhausted by his tears. Oh, the small tragedies of our lives. They feel, as we live them, as large as the large ones.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Paul, 2nd from left, with big hair and black sweats

Today is my younger son Paul's 17th birthday. He was a shy boy who struggled with social interactions, especially with adults--a child who very often chose to stay in his room organizing his baseball cards by nationality of last name, or dressing up as Weasel Man, or listening to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I look at him today, and I see all of those early activities reflected in his motivations, interests, and obsessions. He loves music and theater and growing his hair into a stylish mop; he thinks hard about literature and politics; he is a dedicated teammate and a sweet and romantic boyfriend. He has struggled hard to manage his shyness but has learned to channel it into performance and conversation. He has learned to read other people's needs and reactions. This past weekend, when we went to Hampshire to visit his brother during parents' weekend, Paul turned to me, without provocation, and said, "Mom, you look much younger than 50," as if he thought I might be anxious about my age, surrounded as I was by bastions of hippie parents. It was a silly moment, and we laughed, but it was a tender moment too--a child working to take care of a parent.

I think most parents of small children imagine that their tiny dependents will grow up and away from them. They envision a looming emptiness. And, yes, children do necessarily leave home and develop independent lives. But they also become your best friends. There's no one you know better, who knows you better. They are teasing chatterers who raid your cupboards for coffee; they are peaceable companions on the living room couch; they are idealists and satirists, sharers of worry and excitement. I am so proud to know them.

Spring on the Ripley Road

Dawn Potter

Knick knack, paddywhack,
Ordering the sun,
Learning planets sure is fun.
                        —Paul’s backseat song

Five o’clock, first week of daylight savings.
Sunshine doggedly pursues night.
Pencil-thin, the naked maples cling to winter.

             James complains,
             “It’s orbiting, not ordering.

Everything is an argument.
The salt-scarred car rockets through potholes,
hurtles over frostbitten swells of asphalt.

             James explains, “The planets orbit the sun.
             Everything lives in the universe.”

Sky blunders into trees.
A fox, back-lit, slips across the road
and vanishes into an ice-clogged culvert.

              Paul shouts, “Even Jupiter? Even foxes?
              Even grass? Even underwear?”

Trailers squat by rusted plow trucks;
horses bow their searching, heavy heads.
The car dips and spins over the angry tar.

               James complains, “I’m giving you facts.
              Why are you so annoying?”

The town rises from its petty valley.
Crows, jeering, sail into the pines,
and the river tears at the dam.

               Paul shouts, “Dirt lives in the universe!
               I want to be annoying!”

Everywhere, mud.
Last autumn’s Marlboro packs,
faded and derelict, shimmer in the ditch.

               James says,
               “When you get an F in life,
               it’ll be your own fault.”

[From Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014). P.S. The final line should align with the rest of the stanza, but Blog says no.]

Monday, October 27, 2014

Sometimes, in my grumpiest editorial moods, I think the primary difference between a poet and a scholar of poetry is that poets learn to be better writers by reading poetry, and scholars don't.

Why devote a dissertation, even a career, to the work of a particular poet--a person you consider to be a great artist worthy of intense, obsessive study--while simultaneously cranking out reams of undigested prose flecked with faddish pomposities hideous to ear, eye, and intellect? In the midst of that clot, your quotations from the poet shine like eyes in the dark. There she is, ready to teach you clarity of word choice, cadence of phrase, originality of thought; but you pay no attention. You are wrapped up in your so-called thesis, which devolves into some version of "Watch me show you what the poet meant! You will be impressed!"

I am not.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Yesterday began at 5 a.m.; took an 8 a.m. break for a victorious playoff soccer game in Waterville; stopped at noon for lunch at a noodle house in Portland; sat in stalled traffic at 2 p.m. behind a drawbridge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; sped through 3:30 shopping traffic in Lowell, Massachusetts; squinted into the 4:30 sun on the switchbacks in Shutesbury; pulled into an illegal parking space at Hampshire College at 5; kicked rocks on the euphonious stone plaza of the Yiddish Book Center at 6; rumbled over potholes to grandmother's house at 7; ate seafood risotto at the Monkey Bar till 9:30; and fell asleep over a Netflixed episode of Star Trek before 10:30.

Today will entail driving Son #1 to Home Depot to buy supplies for his sculpture project, driving Son #2 to a college tour, and driving back to Maine so that Son #2 can finish the homework he forgot to bring along.

In other words, my life is a Reader's Digest Condensed Books version of "Six Days on the Road."

Friday, October 24, 2014

On Tamka Street a girl's heels click.
She calls in a half whisper. They go together
To an empty lot overgrown with weeds.
A watchman on duty, hidden in the shadows,
Hears their soft voices in the bedding dark.
I do not know how to bear my pity.

Or how to find words for our common plight.
A little whore and a worker from Tamka.
Before them, the terror of the rising sun.
Later I would ask myself more than once
What became of them in the coming years and ages.

--from Czeslaw Milosz, A Treatise on Poetry


Yesterday, as I was doing Frost Place paperwork, I had occasion to answer a question that I myself had posed to the other faculty members of the Conference on Poetry and Teaching: "What poets/books have you been reading lately, and why?" Here was my answer.
Presently I am rereading Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Short Stories, Denise Levertov’s Selected Poems, and Robert Hass’s translation of Czeslaw Milosz’s book-length poem A Treatise on Poetry. All of these writers focus on civilian life during World War II: Bowen and Levertov in England, Milosz in Poland. For each, the damaged homeland, in terms of both landscape and civic integrity, becomes intensely important, narratively as well as lyrically. People are their place, for better or worse; and while the change that physical damage necessitates may sometimes be salutary, it also creates moral chasms within individuals and the nation.
Beyond their common themes, these three writers share an intense patience with both the tools of language and their own imaginative visions. I’m trying to absorb as many lessons from them as I can.
That public response is far more patient and measured than my inner response is.
I want to write like them, I want to see like them, I want to channel suffering into necessity, I want to speak what must be spoken, I want