Tuesday, July 29, 2014

After a day of thunder and torrent, the air is calm. Fingers of sunshine creep through the water-weighted fir branches. A cloud of green droplets blurs the asparagus bed. Roof drip splatters a hummingbird as she inspects the feeder.

I am reading A. S. Byatt's Elementals, a fairy-tale book, and remembering the sensation of writing my own fairy tales for Same Old Story, and feeling elegiac and a little melancholy. I am not writing much of anything at the moment, except for these blog posts. Mostly I have been patient about that gap. I have written so much over the past few years, and I am tired; I know I am tired. As always, I am still reading without cease. Suddenly, though, reading a fairy tale has reminded me of writing a fairy tale . . . picking my way through solidity and invention, following the expected track into unexpected glens. . . . Spinning a tale is real work; it is metaphor; it is memory and wish. Nouns summon their adjectives. Verbs slide, burrow, prevaricate; they march sturdily into the future. Summer is waning and I, without warning, feel the prickle of need. I imagine writing a fairy tale.


Yesterday, I received a 5-page letter in the mail, much of which the writer has also posted online. His response to Same Old Story is amazingly complex . . . though I am bewildered by the Auden referent. I never thought of Auden at all.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Today is my son James's twentieth birthday, and above is a detail from his birthday cake, which I decorated to look like Stonehenge. Notice the gummy bear druids wandering among the Jolly Rancher stones. The actual cake was orange-flavored, with a chocolate ricotta filling. It was much better than the decorations indicate. The Jolly Ranchers, under refrigeration, developed a luminous layer of slime, as if Stonehenge had begun dissolving into its radioactive essence. Nobody had any interest in eating them, though the gummy druids vanished quickly.

Twenty years I've known James! What luck! He's funny and sweet, and he sets mousetraps for me when I get squeamish. He reads Henry James on the bus, buys comical shirts at the Goodwill, goes camping in the rain, likes it when his hair sticks straight up, and invents things for the cat to say. He drinks more coffee than anyone else in the house. He asks, "What can I do to help?" and drives his brother to piano lessons and leaves Outkast in my car stereo turned up to 11. When his best friend buys a used 80s-era moped, they take it to the park, photograph it in various odd positions, and then compose captions pretending that it's a dog. Twenty years I've known James! And still the same light-up smile, same comedic mashup of brains and fiddly fix-it obsessions. Tom recently found a photo he'd taken of a "What I Want for Christmas" list James had composed when he was eight or nine: Nails! Wood glue! Rain gauge! Ship in a bottle! Next to it was Paul's kindergartner version, in carefully carved-out, mostly unreadable words--RODOT. TEVNO.--as if Klingon had been his first language.

Oh my dear boys, how funny you have been your whole lives . . . funny and charming; and angry, too, when anger is called for; and brokenhearted, when that is the only possible choice. I never imagined, when I was a new mother, that my child would become a friend for life. And now, twenty years I've known James! What would I be without him?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

I thought of writing about how angry I am at the National Football League

I thought of writing about how angry I am at the National Football League, which issued Baltimore Ravens's star Ray Rice a two-game suspension after he beat his girlfriend unconscious in an elevator. If he'd been caught with marijuana, he'd have been suspended for twice as long. But this case, as his coach said, "is not a big deal. It's just part of the process. We said from the beginning that the circumstances would determine the consequences. There are consequences when you make a mistake like that. I stand behind Ray. He's a heck of a guy. He's done everything right since. He makes a mistake. He's going to have to pay a consequence."

I thought of writing about how angry I am at the National Football League, but I've decided instead to write about how proud I am of my sixteen-year-old son, who burst out of his room to tell me about this story. He was irate. "Can you believe this, Mom? Can you believe this? What's wrong with these people? How can that guy [ex-football-coach-now-sports-analyst Tony Dungy] call Michael Sam a distraction in the locker room just for being gay? Why is that a distraction, but beating up someone you supposedly love is 'not a big deal'"?

I thought of writing about how angry I am at the National Football League,  but I guess my son and I just don't understand why repeatedly getting embroiled in accusations of sexual coercion (Ben Roethlisberger), or accidentally shooting yourself because you went clubbing with a loaded unholstered Glock in your waistband (Plaxico Burress), or being indicted for murdering a guy in a deserted industrial park (Aaron Hernandez) don't count as distractions.

I thought of writing about how angry I am at the National Football League, but what's the point? Football has become a training ground for bullies, and we live in a world in which people smoothly accept that a bully can be "a heck of a nice guy" . . . especially if he plays for a winning team.

I thought of writing about how angry I am at the National Football League, but I am the daughter of a man who was captain of his high school football team. He told me one time about a friend who was so good that he began playing semi-pro football after high school. But he quit because the game at that level was no longer fun. He told my dad that he was being trained to hurt people, and to hurt himself. The people who could do the best hurting were the people who went to the NFL. Of course this was in the 1950s and 60s. Players were only beginning to get interested in steroids.

I thought of writing about how angry I am at the National Football League, but now I am thinking about Michael Sam. Just because he's gay doesn't mean he's hasn't been trained to hurt. It's conceivable that he will be a distraction, in the same old football way.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

New comments are still appearing on this week's Rilke posts; so if you're taking part in the reading project, don't forget to check them out and add your own response.


I spent yesterday evening sitting alongside a soccer field in Corinna, Maine. In the interstices of play, I was reading The Great Gatsby, which seems to me to be almost perfectly constructed, not only structurally but in the balance of its sentences, in Nick's perceptions, in the interplay of setting and dialogue, in the shifts of comedy and tragedy, and so on, and so on.
As for Tom, the fact that he "had some woman in New York" was really less surprising than that he had been depressed by a book. Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart.
Oddly, even though I admire this novel enormously, I would never think to include it in my "favorite books of all time" list . . . not that I exactly know what I'd include there either, but I do think that most of my favorites are a lot messier than Gatsby is. (I'd make an exception for Austen, of course.) Even my modernist loves (Woolf, Bowen, Green) seem to bleed structurally in a way that Gatsby does not. Still, despite the fact that I have read it roughly one hundred times over the course of my life, I am always delighted by its cleanness and its clarity. Reading Gatsby is like eating an oyster.

Friday, July 25, 2014

A cool morning. Two days ago I tore out my exhausted peavines, and this morning I will replant the beds with a fall crop of kale and turnips. Finally, the garden is showing signs of richness: the potatoes are flowering, the corn is shoulder-high, and my beautiful bean plants are covered with long purple string beans. These are by far the loveliest bean plants I've ever grown: not only are the beans themselves a deep purple, but the flowers are lavender and the green leaves are veined with purple.

I've been reading Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, and thinking about how similar the central character Catherine is to Elizabeth Bowen's Portia in The Death of the Heart. Both girls are questioning innocents dropped into the world of adult machination. But Catherine is lucky enough to find friends who guide her through these confusions, whereas Portia drowns in a sea of double-entendre and spite.

An acquaintance posed a Facebook question yesterday: "How soon do you show your drafts to other readers?" Almost everyone who answered declared that they shared work very soon after beginning it. I was the only person who said that I rarely showed any poems to anyone until they had reached submission or publication stage. With essays I can be more forthcoming, but on the whole I feel very uneasy about sharing poetry in its infantile stage. And I was surprised, even a bit shocked, at how free and easy all these other writers are about showing their stuff to other people. I can name a handful of people who have ever seen my recent poems in embryo, and my family members are not any of those readers. (I am not counting poetry workshops, where one is required to bring along unfinished work. This may account for why I have taken relatively few poetry workshops.) Why would I burden my loved ones with such trouble? And infant art is trouble: unformed, awkward, ugly, self-satisfied, noisy. Better to let it grow up with me before I let it out into the world.

Of course this is a highly personal reaction. When I was studying with Baron (and he has seen more of my student work than anyone else has), I found the process tremendously painful. I trusted him and I wanted his help, but I also hated publicizing my struggles. As I've become a more self-confident reviser, I've also become far cagier about sharing first drafts. I wonder how other poets feel about this. So many people seem to thrive on the writing-group model. Does this imply that I am an anomaly?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

More Remarks on Rilke: Letters 5 and 6

Please feel free to keep commenting on yesterday's post, but I'm going wander off into my own response here.

First, I have to say: Carlene, you've been a working on a full-length essay over the past few weeks! You have responded so densely and cogently to these letters, and I am touched by not only your devotion to the project but the complexity of your responses. And second: Keith, bringing in Wordsworth was brilliant. Like both of you, I've been grappling with Rilke's thoughts about vocation versus soul-destroying jobs, and I've had similar reactions. On the one hand, how would he know anything at all about the real definition of soul-destroying job? On the other hand, why did everything he say feel right to me?

Interestingly, this brings me back to a conversation that Keith and I had at the Frost Place. At one point, Keith wistfully congratulated me, saying that Tom and I had made the right decision for ourselves as artists and human beings by sidestepping paychecks and careers and moving to the woods. My heart seized up in a knot at those words; and when I got home, I told Tom what Keith had said. He looked at me and sighed, and I looked at him and sighed, and that was that. But what I felt, and what I imagine that Tom also felt, was the weight of the money panic, of watching Tom substitute soul-sucking white-collar work for soul-sucking physical labor, of having no colleagues, of my perpetual perception of being a drag on my marital partnership because I don't earn my keep. Poetry doesn't fence out those wolves. And yet to someone who isn't writing or reading in the ways he longs to write and read, my life may seem ideal.

So despite Rilke's more comfortable financial circumstances, I have to believe, from the depth of his response, that he, too, dealt every day with the ugliness and drudgery of existence. It may not have been roofing a house or digging a ditch or milking fifty head of cattle or managing a classroom of 25 noisy, unimpressed students with no interest in schoolwork, but it was its own pressure and distraction. This brings me back to Wordsworth: "I could wish my days to be / Bound each to each by natural piety." Doesn't I could wish seem to be the twist in those lines?

A couple of weeks ago, I was teaching a workshop for a group of women at a local domestic-violence shelter. I'd dictated a poem, "Magic Words," a translation of an Inuit verse, and then we went through a "what's the most important word?" activity. One woman said, very hesitantly, "Could, maybe?--because something could happen, even if it doesn't really happen?" Yes. Sometimes could is the only lifeline available. "I could wish my days to be" what they will never, in actuality, ever be. Then again: sometimes, as for Melville, as for Rilke, that's where the art is hiding.

Re letters 7 and 8: Let's aim for next Wednesday.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet": Letters 5 and 6

I sit here alone, in my early-morning kitchen, reading Rilke writing to Kappus about solitude and dead-end jobs and the elusive beauty of Rome, and I am wondering about all of those questions he asked his young correspondent. The second half of letter 6 is filled with questions, but were they rhetorical or did he want an answer? He did truly seem to want to read more of Kappus's poetry, and now I am feeling, in these two letters, that Rilke had suddenly become more invested in this correspondence. He was not writing only because Kappus required an answer, but because he himself needed to share what he was experiencing.

The description, in letter 5, of his uneasiness in Rome, how "one learns slowly to recognize the very few things in which the eternal endures that one can love," felt extraordinarily close to my own relationship with certain poets--Milton, Donne. But it did not seem at all relevant to my own experience in Rome, which was far more like being swept into a mad love affair with a glorious stranger. Then again, I am a gawky provincial, and Rilke--emphatically--was not.

What were your reactions to these letters? I am curious, in particular, about letter 6, in which Rilke talks about solitude and our general entrapment in "paltry" jobs and preoccupations. Did that ring true to you?