Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Eve. Traditionally we have celebrated the new year at Greenwich mean time, which means 7 p.m. EST so that everyone can go to bed. But my 14-year-old is scoffing at that plan this year, which he takes as a sign of weakness. I hope this doesn't mean I have to stay up till midnight playing Monopoly and eating candy.

I watched Laurence Olivier in a very Technicolor Richard III last night and enjoyed it a great deal. This is a play with many good lines, which Sir Laurence, capering around in his red stockings and black page-boy wig and fake hunchback, made the most of.

Best Richard III line as spoken by Sir Laurence:

"I am not in the giving vein today" [meanwhile crouching hunchily on a throne and poking Lord Buckingham in the stomach with a scepter].

Monday, December 29, 2008

Writing about David Copperfield makes me feel so delirious I can hardly concentrate on anything else. And yet I need to make supper for nine people tonight, most of that number consisting of five loud boys between the ages of 2 and 14, with the remaining eaters being hapless parent chaperons. Ham, potatoes, cole slaw, and cake; ham, potatoes, cole slaw, and cake; ham, potatoes, cole slaw, and cake. Perhaps if I chant the menu over and over to myself, I won't forget to cook it.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The boys are outside having a snowball fight. Bread is rising. Needles are falling off the Christmas tree. For today's entry, I seem to be able to write only short sentences. But since yesterday I've written 5 pages of an essay on Dickens. And many of the sentences are long.

I will quote only one sentence from my draft, but it is an important sentence . . . not necessarily in this essay per se but certainly as regards my personal grammatical belligerence:

"Do not get me started on the ignorant adverb-hating tendencies proselytized by contemporary self-help writing manuals."
Perhaps someday I will write an autobiography of grammar.

Just yesterday I got a phone call from an author whose book I edited last year, in which she thanked me profusely for bringing gerund clarity into her life. Just imagine. Gerund clarity for everyone. It could be a movement.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Writing again, thankfully.

And making minestrone and doing laundry and carrying firewood.

Ice storm today, but we haven't lost power yet. That's only a matter of time, however. If there's power to be lost, we will lose it.

Quotation for the day, from the preface to the Leavises' Dickens the Novelist:

"The ineptness of scholars as literary critics is a notorious fact."

Friday, December 26, 2008

Another recent Goodwill find has been the Leavises' collection of critical essays on Dickens, in a volume they title Dickens the Novelist--the Leavises being (though you might already know this) the irascible, influential husband-and-wife team who taught English literature at Cambridge University in the mid-twentieth century to students of Sylvia Plath's and A. S. Byatt's generation: pre-French-deconstructionist critics, who actually offered personal comments about books and didn't use any parenthetical spelling tricks to make criticism look more special: e.g., "I am a (m)other; are you (an)other?" and suchlike crap. (Can you tell that just the sound of Foucault's name makes my eyes roll back into my head? Can you tell I've edited way too many Lacan-quoting, ass-kissing, tenure-questing ex-dissertations? Can you tell that my husband and I have wasted a fair amount of time inventing "Derrida walked into a bar . . . " jokes without any punch lines and have also considered a line of T-shirts printed with "I'm with That Poststructuralist Scum [add thick black arrow here]"?)

But back to the Leavises. I knew about them but hadn't read any of their writings until George Core, editor of the Sewanee Review, sent me a photocopy of Mrs. L's excoriation of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, which I ended up quoting in my Fanny Price essay. I always appreciate a crank; and it turns out that this particular crank may have hated Fanny but she adores Dickens. Well, so do I. We will be cranks on the same side of the fence this time.

Plus, the book opens with this fine if somewhat oddly worded epigraph, quoted from Henry James's The Figure in the Carpet:

Isn't there for every writer a particular thing of that sort, the thing that most makes him apply himself, the thing without the effort to achieve which he wouldn't write at all, the very passion of his passion, the part of the business in which, for him, the flame of art burns most intensely?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

I got up late, but the barn animals got up even later. Apparently they also had a party last night. So far this morning I have drunk a lot of coffee, made bread dough, and made cookie dough that will eventually be the base for chocolate tarts. Next on my list of things to do is to make lemon squares, except that I might take a nap first.

While reading today's Waterville Morning Sentinel obituaries, I came across this mournful sentence. Make of it what you will.

"She will be sorely missed by her cat, Teeney Bah-ba, and his partner, Joe."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

6:30 a.m. I'm waiting for coffee, waiting for the woodstove to start emitting heat, waiting to be in the mood to keep reading Pamuk's Snow. I can only seem to read this novel in tiny bursts, so it's taking me forever to finish it. There's no particular reason to be up this early: the boys don't need to be forked out of bed and sent to school, and I have no hysterical urge to start cooking for my dinner party.

Outside the sky is very dark but the snow on the trees is beginning to glow. The big poodle on the hearthrug is still asleep. The kitchen clock ticks, and I have a small pain, a vague sensation, as if I may be getting ready to start writing something again; but what or when that might be remains mysterious. 

from Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. 

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Time to snap out of this not-writing-yet melancholy and revert, as promised, to the topic of dinner preparation. This morning, after I feed the barn animals and haul in firewood, fresh orange gelatin is first on my list of things to make. And if you've never eaten homemade Jello, now is the time. It's a lovely delicate way to end a big meal, it's easy to prepare, and, better yet, it's not the color of Legos.


Monday, December 22, 2008

Spent much of the day dealing with the nearly 2 feet of snow we received last night . . . shoveling out barn gates, cars, mailboxes, etc., along with everyone else in northern New England. The boys and I did manage to fit in an inaugural snowshoe trek into our woods, however, while Tom fishtailed off to Bangor to solve his nail-gun problem.

So far Tuesday night's menu is staying the same. I've made a second batch of sourdough bread and will rub the pork roast with marinade seche tonight. I'm planning to wear this great Italian wool dress I bought at the Goodwill for $5.99 that, according to Tom, makes me look like a guest love-interest on Star Trek. I think he's full of shit. I like to pretend it makes me look more like Catherine Deneuve.

Accidental quote for the day:

I have seen the garbagemen parade
when it was snowing.
I have eaten hotdogs in ballparks.
I have heard the Gettysburg Address
and the Ginsberg Address.
I like it here
and I won't go back
where I came from.

--Lawrence Ferlinghetti, "Autobiography," from A Coney Island of the Mind

Sunday, December 21, 2008

So, okay, now it's time to stop pretending that I'm a writer and to reveal that what I am is actually a cook. Unusually, we are home for Christmas this year, which means that I, rather than my mother or my mother-in-law, get to run the show. And since I love a big bash, this is very fun for me, although our house is small, which complicates logistics considerably.

I know that there are numerous people who read this blog who don't care squat about poetry and 19th-century British novels but are very interested in cooking and eating. So this week's posts are for you. Here's the schedule: on Tuesday, I'll be serving a several-course meal to 8 people; on Wednesday, I'll be serving dessert and drinks to 8 people; on Thursday I'll be making Christmas dinner just for the 4 of us.

I'll start with a preview of Tuesday's menu (of course, subject to change).

appetizers: mixed Greek olives; pickled green beans (home-canned); sliced white, purple, orange, and red carrots (these gorgeous vegetables were grown by a local woman with a root cellar, who will be supplying me all winter)

1st course: garlic and chicken broth (from one of our late chickens), sourdough bread

2d course: risotto, using the same broth as a base

3d course: roti de porc poele (with Harmony-grown pig, using a recipe from the 1st Julia Child cookbook; and it's not my fault that the accents don't show up on the French words; stupid blog program), caramelized vegetables that my guests are making, diced apples and radish sprouts for garnish

dessert: fresh orange gelatin layered with whipped cream, shortbread cookies drizzled with chocolate

drinks: Cotes du Rhone, some kind of fruit and ginger ale punch concocted by my children, and whatever booze the guests bring

Today's project is the first batch of sourdough bread, which is currently rising, and the shortbread cookies. I may also make some other kinds of cookies, if I can convince my sons to vacuum and clean the bathroom and wash the dog-nose prints off the windows. Probably I can, if cookies are involved.

Friday, December 19, 2008

I've just returned from the post office, where I off-loaded the last parcels of cookies and black cake (see my previous post about black cake, in case you are confused about what this might be) as well as the manuscript I've been editing. (No doubt, the author believes that he is on vacation and will be disappointed to receive it.)

So now it is officially the Holiday Season. And to open the Season, I today received a friendly Christmas card from someone I don't know who lives in a faraway state and says that her library will buy the Milton memoir when it comes out. This is so amazing to me . . . a miracle, really, as I told her in my return card. To think that people read what I write! I know I sound disingenuous; but really, if you saw how I live, you might understand what I mean.

Here's a bit from chapter 2 of the memoir, as a sort of explanation. And thank you, thank you so much, whichever "you" you might be, for reading what I've written and for talking to me about it. It's good to be alone; it's good to be not alone too.

Stumbling into Harmony 

Thus was this place,

A happy rural seat of various view.

Perhaps one definition of paradise is that it’s a place that doesn’t dash your hopes. I arrived in Harmony when I was twenty-eight, newly married, newly unemployed, eager to find my place on earth. I came to the north country prepared to be happy, and I was happy.

            In this era of aimless migration and faceless commercial landscape, finding a real home on earth is a miracle. Yet any attempt to explain its succor risks transforming the homebody into a mouthpiece for provincial nostalgics or back-to-the-land politicos. For it’s very hard to explain a marriage, human or otherwise; and loving a place is like loving a husband or a cow or a baby or a grandfather: you make the best of it, you lose your temper, you throw up your hands in despair, you spin foolishly in circles, you take what’s been served, and you shut up.

            There’s nothing charming about Harmony. It squats in the middle of the state, far away from the ocean, far away from the ski lodges. It has no scenic New England charm: its school is ugly, its town office uglier. It has a rundown yarn factory that once appeared in a Stephen King movie. It also has plenty of gas pumps and three places to buy beer. During hunting season you can tag your buck here very easily. Any time of the year you can buy bar-and-chain oil for your chainsaw. If you drive a half-hour south, you can shop at Wal-Mart. If you drive an hour east, you can go to the mall.

            Clearly Harmony is not Brigadoon. Time has not forgotten us. This is a town that takes diesel seriously. Almost everyone watches a lot of TV and votes Republican. Junked pickups rust in the weeds, little children are horrifyingly fat, and men beat their wives. Mobile homes burn down. Trash piles up in the ditches. In my son’s seventh-grade class, one very nice Christian boy recently suggested it might be a good idea to shoot all Mexicans who cross the U.S. border.

I realize that, at this point in my description, Harmony sounds like the town a Harper's writer might conjure up as an emblem of backcountry rot, a dying hamlet cretinously sponging up the poisons of our time. Hell, in fact. But hell is not always hell. As Satan notes,

What when we fled amain, pursu’d and strook

With Heav’n’s afflicting Thunder, and besought

The Deep to shelter us? this Hell then seem’d

A refuge from those wounds.

Thomas Hardy once wrote that “melancholy among the rural poor arises primarily from a sense of incertitude and precariousness of the position.” And for the maimed, the scared, the defeated, the angry, the vengeful, a bleak backcountry can indeed be a place to lick your wounds, to ponder, to squirrel away the canned goods and the ammo. By a long shot, this doesn’t make it Eden; but Milton’s image of hell as refuge does offer some hint about the mutability of place in the human psyche. Like most overquoted lines, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n” resonates because it strikes a familiar knell: because we are alone and changeable in all our colors and seasons; because we and our refuge are one and the same.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Today is one of those days when I have a thousand things to do at once. I'm trying to get a copyediting project out of my hair before Christmas while also hopelessly vacuuming sawdust out of the living room rug and making stacks of orange butter cookies to mail to my relatives and meet school Christmas-party quotas. Last night was the elementary school concert, which is always hard for me since I used to be the school music teacher and now I'm not. However, it's over now, and my son played Pachelbel's Canon beautifully on the piano (though he had "dressed up" by plastering his curly hair flat with copious amounts of gel so that he looked very odd, like he'd fallen headfirst into grape jelly), and one girl sang "Away in a Manger" like a very small, very breathless angel; so those performances made up somewhat for "Deck the Halls" played weakly on plastic recorders by a dozen disaffected 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, accompanied by a badly recorded dance-mix backbeat and reaching, as my husband noted, a whole new level of un-cool.

For more than a week, I have not written a thing that belongs to me except for this blog, which, as my son used to shout when he was an overbearing 3-year-old in quest of world domination, IS NOT MAKING ME HAPPIER. But I exaggerate: I've written letters, too, and received them, and they count on the good side.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

This week in Harmony:
Elementary school basketball game, elementary school Christmas concert, elementary school Christmas party, elementary school bunny transported to my house for the duration of the holiday. I have never bunny-sat before, but my dog will no doubt do most of the work.

Otherwise, we are settling in for a standard miserable winter. Currently my yard is slathered with a thick layer of lumpy dirty ice (ideal for breaking a hip), with the good news being that expensive snow tires really do keep a non-four-wheel-drive car from sliding into a culvert. The sky is permanently glowering and overcast, and there is nothing in the world to do about it except to eat hot soup and go to bed early. Reading novels has become difficult because all the characters are bound to be disappointed in life. I've just received a magazine clipping in the mail assuring me that Jane Austen would have understood our banking crisis, but I am unclear as to whether or not the magazine clipper is deriding this point of view. As a welcome distraction, however, a correspondent in Edmonton tells me that it's -25 degrees Celsius in Alberta. Maine, thank heavens, has not yet dropped to such depths. But just wait a month. 

This week in Iowa in 1885:
"Wednesday [December] 16

"James wash and do other chores. Henry went to Manchester to see Harry as he intends to go away this evening     he gave a "General Grant book to Henry." James had a regular splurge talking against educations being of use to people, advocating that those who were not educated were the best off etc. I proved to him that education done no harm to any one & that it helped they who were inteligent & ambitious, while those that were lazy &c received benefit by it for it was all they ever were that was worthy of notice. I was very tired and nervous all day. wish I knew how Sarah is. Harry went to bid her his adieu yesterday. pleasant."

--from "A Secret to Be Burried": The Diary and Life of Emily Hawley Gillespie, 1858-1888

Monday, December 15, 2008

Over the weekend I received my copy of UMass Press's spring-summer 09 catalog, which lists my forthcoming Milton memoir. The book itself is not ready (though I have started seeing samples of page design). But I do have this catalog description, in case you happen to know any librarians or booksellers who like to buy books, because I sure don't. The description is accompanied by a lovely 17th-century woodcut of a woman picking apples, and the amount of cleavage she reveals is certain to encourage sales. Unfortunately, I can't figure out how to drag the illustration out of the PDF file, so you'll just have to use your imagination.

Tracing Paradise

Two Years in Harmony with

John Milton

Dawn Potter

University of Massachusetts Press

The story of a writer’s intense

engagement with a masterwork of

Western literature

One winter morning, poet Dawn Potter

sat down at her desk in Harmony, Maine,

and began copying out the opening lines

of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Her intent

was to spend half an hour with a poem

she had never liked, her goal to transcribe

a page or two. Maybe she would begin to

appreciate the poet’s art, though she had

no real expectations that the exercise

would change her mind about the poem.

Yet what began as a whim turned rapidly

into an obsession, and soon Potter was

immersed in a strange and unexpected

project: she found herself copying out

every single word of Milton’s immense,

convoluted epic.

     Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony

with John Milton is her memoir of that

long task. Over the course of twelve

chapters, Potter explores her very personal

response to Milton and Paradise Lost,

tracing the surprising intersections

between a seventeenth-century biblical

epic and the routine joys and tragedies of

domestic life in contemporary rural

Maine. Curious, opinionated, and eager,

she engages with the canon on mutable,

individual terms. Though she writes

perceptively about the details and

techniques of Milton’s art, always her

reactions are linked to her present-tense

experiences as a poet, small-time farmer,

family member, and citizen of a poor and

beleaguered north-country town.

    A skilled and entertaining writer,

Potter is also a wide-ranging and sophisticated

reader. Yet her memoir is not a

scholarly treatise: her enthusiasms and

misgivings about both Milton and Paradise

Lost ebb and flow with the days. Tracing

Paradise reminds us that close engagement

with another artist’s task may itself be a

form of creation. Above all, Potter’s

memoir celebrates one reader’s difficult

yet transformative love affair with

Milton’s glorious, irritating, inscrutable


“Potter writes beautifully. Her prose is as

clear as the song of a bell bird. She knows

how to use detail, quotations from Milton

but also domestic detail, for this is a book

about living sensibly more than about

Milton. It made me ponder my life as well

as literature, as a good book should do but

few books do. . . . Reading this memoir

was an intellectual joy. I know a little

about country things, a lot about children,

and some, maybe, about the way husbands

and wives tumble through life. The book

is the real thing.”

—Samuel Pickering, author of Edinburgh

Days, or Doing What I Want to Do

Dawn Potter is the author of two

poetry collections, most recently How

the Crimes Happened. She is associate

director of the Frost Place Conference

on Poetry and Teaching and lives in

Harmony, Maine, with her husband

and two sons.


144 pp., 14 illus.

$22.95t paper, ISBN 978-1-55849-701-6

May 2009

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Yesterday my older son went into the woods, sawed down a Christmas tree, dragged it back to the house, and announced that he was now ready to decorate. This is an exciting new development in child-rearing: kids who are old enough to run Christmas. I can't wait to abdicate.

I am in a mixed-up kind of half-lonely mood--a hard day to get words down, a hard day to read. Perhaps it's good that I have to go play the violin at the firehouse tonight. Maybe a dose of Christmas carols and Chex party mix among the fire engines will straighten me out.

Here's a little poem. I wrote it a while ago and just discovered that I still like it. Of course it's not as good as Alice Munro's "Turkey Season," which is the best slaughterhouse story I know. But to be fair to myself, I didn't even know that story existed till after I wrote the poem.

Don't be afraid to

lug a fat kid into rain, laugh when his mouth
flaps open like a chick's, stumble south
through weary dumps and truck-torn
roads, past autumn gnats who mourn
at Greaney's turkey farm, where redcoats
sling up roosters heel by heel, slit throats,

drain hearts, while maples twist an eye-
blue sky, a rush of wild geese wings by:
good enough day to kill or die,
perch shivering on a tailgate, fly.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

I just accidentally discovered that Bangor Metro, which is a glossy what's-going-on-in-the-region monthly magazine, has announced that a poem of mine, published last May, won its Best Poem of 2008 award. I wonder if I will receive a plaque, like, you know, those businesses that win "Best Mint Chocolate Chip Diet Shake" or "Friendliest Snowplow Sales Staff" awards.

If I do get a plaque, maybe I can post it beside my driveway; and then when people need a poem, they will know where to go.

This is the Best Poem, in case you're interested. It's a memento for my friend Jilline Ringle, who died of cancer in 2005, and will be in my CavanKerry collection that's supposed to come out in April 2010.

Litany for J

We planned to be old ladies together,

smirking for the camera, cuddled

side by side on a squeaky porch swing,

Alice-and-Gertrude style, modeling


our garden-party housedresses, our pin-

curled hairdos, our rhinestone scuffs.

We planned to marry handsome, good,

educated men capable of fixing broken


lawnmowers and discussing the emotional

weight of syntax, men who would grant us

children, freedom, respect, plus

grope us under tables at fancy parties.


We planned to be artists, driven and holy,

greatness flickering in our gut; we meant

to write, speak, sing like angels on moonshine—

like fire, like sin. We planned to prop


and admire, bitch and complain, exaggerate,

gush, tease, and fast-talk, drop literary allusions

like hot tamales, split a bottle of red wine

every night, and whisper rude personal


comments about strangers. We planned

to drink tea at the Plaza, stroll arm in arm

through Central Park, and be accosted

by elderly Armenians in shorts.


We planned to cure cancer through prayer,

dip our irreligious fingers in every holy-water

font in Rome, wear flowered skirts and picture-

frame hats, dissect heartbreak and age, worship


Caravaggio, lose weight, eat fresh tomatoes,

sprawl in the grass, compose sonnets, sing

novelty songs, and wear stiletto heels,

and it took us twenty years, but we crossed


almost everything off our list, yes, we did,

even if our attainments were admittedly half-

assed and fraught with unexpected chickens

flapping home to roost. So who’s to say

we won’t be sipping a couple of tall g-and-ts

on that swing—you and me, two blue-haired

old ladies, clinking ice cubes, spouting Chaucer,

craving another sack of ripple chips,


whistling Dixie at the fat white moon?

Can’t you picture us, large as life

and twice as big? Freshen that lipstick,

darling, brush those chip crumbs off your lap.


Cheek to cheek, now; and blow a kiss to the lens.

This snapshot, it’s bound to last forever.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

So I just got an exasperated email from a friend who asked me, "Does anyone really read poetry?" I'm inferring that by "anyone" she means "anyone who isn't also writing poetry, composing a scholarly treatise about poetry, or doing homework." I'm sorry to say that my answer has to be "hardly a soul." However, I'm hoping that you might have a wider circle of literate acquaintances. If so, do leave a comment so that my friend and I can feel more hopeful. Though if you feel obliged to leave a negative comment, we would at least be able to invite you to become a founding member of our Cozy Iconoclasts Club.

Still, people keep writing poems. And the following paragraphs from Orhan Pamuk's Snow seem, to me, to be a remarkably accurate description of the about-to-write-a-poem sensation. (Novel weather update: it's still snowing, of course. Quotation punctuation update: the ellipses in the passage are the author's, not mine).

What am I doing in this world? Ka asked himself. How miserable these snowflakes look from this perspective, how miserable my life is. A man lives his life, and then he falls apart and soon there is nothing left. Ka felt as if half his soul had just abandoned him but still the other half remained; he still had love in him. Like a snowflake, he would fall as he was meant to fall; he would devote himself to the melancholy course on which he was set. His father had a certain smell after shaving, and now this smell came back to him. He thought of his mother making breakfast, her feet aching inside her slippers on the cold kitchen floor; he had a vision of a hairbrush; he remembered his mother giving him sugary pink syrup when he woke up coughing in the night, he felt the spoon in his mouth, and as he gave his mind over to all the other little things that make up a life and realized how they all added up to a unified whole, he saw a snowflake. . . .

So it was that Ka heard the call from deep inside him: the call he heard only at moments of inspiration, the only sound that could ever make him happy, the sound of his muse. For the first time in four years, a poem was coming to him; although he had yet to hear the words, he knew it was already written; even as it waited in its hiding place, it radiated the power and beauty of destiny.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A lovely cold and sunny Friday morning, and I'm off in an hour to teach my fourth and fifth graders, though "teach" is an inaccurate word, seeing as they do 90 percent of the talking. These kids love to talk about writing--not just their own, in that self-obsessed way of many adults at open-mic readings--but everybody else's too. They are nosy. "Why wasn't there a bigger mess when you made Nico blow up the Museum of Modern Art?" they ask. "And what makes you think elephants like to run candy shops?"

These aren't you've-done-it-the-wrong-way-and-I'm-a-better-writer complaints. They are honest questions about characters or events that seemed ambiguous to the listener when the writer read aloud his or her story. It seems to me that this ability to zero in on ambiguity, and to deal with it forthrightly, without cattiness, is extraordinarily important to productive group discussion. There's a danger, in writing workshops, of being too mean. There's also the danger of being too nice. A balance between civility and honesty can be tricky to find in a classroom, so it makes me very happy to see these kids in action. And I know their question style is working because the writer's response to such remarks is always to break into a grin. "Hey, you were listening to me!" that smile says. And how often does that happen in this life?

Pamuk novel weather update: Yes, it's still snowing. And now all the roads into the city are closed, although the city streets themselves remain mysteriously passable. My husband has suggested that I write a novel titled Drizzle. We considered Partly Sunny as well, though for obvious reasons we had to reject Hail.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

My ninth-grade son had a test on Great Expectations yesterday and came home in a good mood, saying, of all things, "I liked that test." Naturally I was all ears. It turns out that this was his first experience with the short-essay style of assessment, in which the teacher asks four questions and the student chooses two to answer in a paragraph or two.

As anyone does, my son liked having a choice about what questions to answer. But he said that he also liked the short essays because they gave him time to think out his answer. I pass on this information because this particular son is a reasonably good student but not an English whiz by any means. So I'm especially interested in his reaction to the test style. It occurs to me that maybe even regular kids actually appreciate an opportunity to think through writing. Of course, conversely, my son could be a wacko.

Pamuk novel weather update: Still snowing.

Quote of the day, by Anatole France: "I do not know any reading more easy, more fascinating, more delightful, than a catalogue."

Autobiographical note: My family yells at me because I throw out all the catalogs as soon as they arrive.

Dinner tonight (tentative early-morning plan): chicken curry, couscous, kale from the greenhouse, mixed salad greens from the greenhouse, blueberry cake. (Have you noticed the repetition of "greenhouse" in this menu? Have you noticed that it's December in central Maine and that I have yet to buy lettuce from the grocery store? Can you tell that this is my first year with a greenhouse? What a novelty! I can even grow weeds off season!) 

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

I finished my Bronte essay, and now, once again, I have nothing to write. This state of affairs will be fine for a day or two, and then I will start to fret and pace and badger myself to write something, anything, two words, a comma.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a poet friend about the urge to write--how it's not always, not even usually, an urge to say something about a particular subject but a need to mess around with language and see what happens. I find that this is true for me whether I end up writing a poem or an essay: I don't really have to know what I want to write about, but I have a desperate desire to shuffle words and punctuation together on a page. And editing other people's writing doesn't count. Those three adjectives and a semicolon have to belong to me.

Believe or not, I have just started to read a book I have never read before--Orhan Pamuk's Snow. Thus far the novel is very snowy. I am wondering if it will snow all the way through to the end. If this were Dickens, he would have the sun come out at a crucial "the scales fall from the hero's eyes" moment, but who knows what sneaky weather-symbolism techniques these modern novelists will spring on me?

Dinner tonight: smelts.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A friend sent me this link to a review of Paradise Lost: A Prose Translation.

Call me old-fashioned, but I had the idea that MILTON HAD WRITTEN A POEM.

2009 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching

The 10th annual Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching will be June 28 to July 2, 2009, at the Frost Place in Franconia, NH, and will feature workshops, lectures, and readings, with a special emphasis on techniques for engaging students in the excitement of poetry, creative writing, and literature. 2009 faculty poets will include conference director Baron Wormser along with Charlotte Gordon, Geof Hewitt, Dawn Potter, and Elizabeth Powell. Tuition is $625 plus $95.00 for on-site meals. There is no application fee or deadline; send a letter describing interests and experience with poetry in the classroom to Baron Wormser, 834 Thistle Hill Road, Marshfield VT 05658; queries to 802 426-2109 or Complete information at:


Friday, November 28, 2008

Notable discoveries, Thanksgiving 2008--

1. A tip for long car trips: three hours into the drive, insert Barry White's greatest hits into the CD player. Instantly your sensible family car assumes the ambiance of an early-seventies, two-tone Oldsmobile with a landau roof, which is very refreshing.

2. To occupy boys of all ages (our focus group was ages 4 through 70), provide a large basket of blocks and watch how many days they can spend trying to win the "who can build the tallest tower?" contest. Loud crashes are an essential side-effect of this entertainment.

3. Daughter-in-law = sous-chef.

4. According to the carver, a turkey's bones and joints are not in the same place every year.

5. Black Friday is best spent at the bowling alley.

6. Large holiday gatherings are better if everyone is silly.  Says John Donne, "Every man hath a Politick life, as well as a naturall life; and he may no more take himself away from the world, then he may make himself away out of the world. For he that does so, by withdrawing himself from his calling, from the labours of mutual society in this life, that man kills himself."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

I'm supposed to be packing for Thanksgiving travel but instead I'm mooning over my Bronte essay and listening to the Dream Syndicate, which I haven't listened to for a hundred years and makes me feel exactly like I'm nineteen and half and lying flat on my back on the living room floor of a very grubby boy-run rental house; and now I'm wishing for a bowl of butter pecan ice cream (there's none in the house, of course) and trying to decide what books to pack in my suitcase, and meanwhile rain is banging impetuously at the windows like it's Inspector Clouseau and my sons are standing at the bottom of the stairs trying to choke each other (in a friendly manner, of course).

Helpful words of wisdom: I can't think of any. Maybe you can.
A link to NPR's story about journalist Tom Gish's career. His son Ray is my husband's best friend from college. We grew up thinking about Ray's dad just as Ray's dad. Turns out he was a hero.

Monday, November 24, 2008

In memoriam: for my dear friend Ray's dad, Tom Gish, one of the great journalists of our time. Take a look at the NYTimes obit to get an idea of what he accomplished.

Such a season for sadness this has been.

The Woodspurge

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,
Shaken out dead from tree and hill:
I had walked on at the wind's will,--
I sat now, for the wind was still.

Between my knees my forehead was,--
My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!
My hair was over in the grass,
My naked ears heard the day pass,

My eyes, wide open, had the run
Of some ten weeds to fix upon;
Among those few, out of the sun,
The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one.

From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom or even memory:
One thing then learnt remains to me,--
The woodspurge has a cup of three.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Emily Dickinson's Black Cake

The time has come, once again, to bake Emily Dickinson's black cake. This is a brandy-fortified currant cake, similar to more typical fruit cakes except that it doesn't have any red and green maraschino cherries. It's beautiful, moist, and delicious and is good for mailing to relatives as well as for quenching unruly children who refuse to go to bed on Christmas Eve.

My mother-in-law used to be the curator of Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst (and someday I can chat about what it was like to sleep in the room next to the white dress and to eat Christmas breakfast while tourists pressed their noses against the kitchen window to see us in our pajamas), and she reworked Em's recipe for giants into one that is more manageable for modern stoves and appetites. In turn, I've also made some changes to the fruit types and quantities. But that's the story of poetry and cookery: somebody always comes along and messes with tradition.

If you want a copy of this recipe, let me know. I'll be glad to share it. 

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Working on my Bronte essay today. It goes slowly.

The wind is cold; the sky is grey; the fire spits and groans in the stove. One of my sons has spent all morning trying to electrify a ukelele. The other is wiggling a loose tooth and singing, "This old man, he played one . . . " over and over. That's just the kind of day this is.

I should be vacuuming. But I'm working on my essay and thinking about poor Charlotte, who wasn't always "poor Charlotte." That's more or less what the essay's about: self-mythology . . . a problem my husband declares that I also have. Maybe I caught it from her.

Lines for a drear Saturday in November:


Henry Vaughan (1621?-1695)

My soul, there is a country
     Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a winged sentry
    All skillful in the wars;
There, above noise and danger,
     Sweet peace sits crowned with smiles,
And one born in a manger
     Commands the beauteous files.
He is thy gracious friend
     And (O my soul, awake!)
Did in pure love descend
     To die here for thy sake.
If thou canst get but thither,
     There grows the flower of peace,
The rose that cannot wither,
     Thy fortress, and thy ease,
 Leave then thy foolish ranges;
     For none can thee secure,
But one that never changes,
     Thy God, thy life, thy cure.

Even though it's overheavy on the sentimental Christianity, I like this poem, but line 5 seems to be missing syllables. Every time I say it aloud, the rhythm feels wrong. However, the first 4 lines are so excessively beautiful that sometimes they wake me up in the night.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Today I did a lot of editing, made a plum tart, washed some clothes, jumped rope, wrote about half a sentence in the essay I'm working on, ate peanut butter crackers, and read some more of Bronte's novel Shirley, which is a challenge because all the pages are falling out.

I'm feeling the need for some moral support, however, so I'm going to randomly open Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough and see what it has to tell me.

Okay, here's what I've found:

"Old men may eat tortoises freely, because having already lost the power of running they can take no harm from the flesh of the slow-footed creature."

I'm really not sure how this information will help me out, but one can never tell what the future holds. Just to be on the safe side, however, I'll randomly open a volume of Samuel Pepys's diary and see if that illuminates the tortoise quotation at all.

"My wife having dressed herself in a silly dress of a blue petticoat uppermost, and a white satin waistcoat and white hood, though I think she did it because her gown is gone to the tailor's, did, together with my being hungry, which always makes me peevish, make me angry, but after dinner friends again."

Possibly she served him tortoise?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

from The Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857)

Elizabeth Gaskell

When a man becomes an author, it is probably merely a change of employment to him. He takes a portion of that time which has hitherto been devoted to some other study or pursuit; he gives up something of the legal or medical profession . . . or relinquishes part of the trade or business by which he has been striving to gain a livelihood; and another merchant or lawyer, or doctor, steps into his vacant place, and probably does as well as he. But no other can take up the quiet, regular duties of of the daughter, the wife, or the mother . . . : a woman's principal work in life is hardly left to her own choice; nor can she drop the domestic charges devolving on her as an individual, for the exercise of the most splendid talents that were ever bestowed. And yet she must not shrink from the extra responsibility implied by the very fact of her possessing such talents. She must not hide her gift in a napkin.

This may or may not be true, but it's not necessarily making me feel calmer about the possibility of taking a full-time job.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

After many long years in the making, my husband Thomas Birtwistle's photography website finally exists. Once you look at it, maybe you'll understand why this blog never has any pictures on it. I mean, there are clearly some things, like taking photographs and figuring out why the coffee grinder doesn't work, that only one family member needs to learn. My own specialties are spelling and paper snowflakes.

Dinner tonight: who knows? At the moment I am chock-full of woodchuck stew and teriyaki moose tongue, just two of the many meaty items spooned onto plastic lunchroom trays at this year's Wild Game Dinner in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine. 

Friday, November 14, 2008

I went into the Harmony School this afternoon for the first of my now-to-be-weekly revision workshops with the combined fourth- and fifth-grade class. This age group is among my favorite to teach: most of the students have a fair amount of writing fluency, but they still retain their wacky little-kid imagination, and they absolutely love visitors. I am always fervently embraced, which is an unfailing charm.

So after we hugged and kissed, we sat around in our little groups and carefully listened to the reader's journal entry or story or whatever that person had chosen to read: "Mr. Bobcat Talks to Me" or "I Met an Elephant in a Candy Shop in the Forest" or "Sarah's Goosebumps Adventure." And it took about thirty seconds' worth of modeling before these kids caught on to the "what if?" strategy of civil critical discourse. That phrase is magical. By the end of forty-five minutes they were asking each other questions such as "What if the writer tries to think more carefully about the personality differences between the 'I' she's inventing and the 'I' she really is herself?"

I mean, these are nine- and ten-year-olds! In their first revision workshop ever! I came home in such a good mood that I immediately had to make brownies. Plus, I've found a hook for a new essay, which so far is jumping quite enthusiastically onto the page. 

Dinner tonight: tomato and bread soup (much better than the name might indicate), cheese wafers, some kind of salad-green mixture I'll have to slog out into the rain to pick. Blah.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

So why is it that poets continue to flourish in a world that sees "the poetic imagination [as] . . . a most superfluous quality"? In 1849, Charlotte Bronte had a few pungent, one might even say ass-kicking, thoughts on the subject.

from Shirley

It is well that the true poet, quiet externally though he may be, has often a truculent spirit under his placidity, and is full of shrewdness in his meekness, and can measure the whole stature of those who look down on him, and correctly ascertain the weight and value of the pursuits they disdain him for not having followed. It is happy that he can have his own bliss, his own society with his great friend and goddess, Nature, quite independent of those who find little pleasure in him, and in whom he finds no pleasure at all. It is just, that while the world and circumstances often turn a dark, cold side to him--and properly, too, because he first turns a dark, cold, careless side to them--he should be able to maintain a festal brightness and cherishing glow in his bosom, which makes all bright and genial for him; while strangers, perhaps, deem his existence a Polar winter never gladdened by a sun. The true poet is not one whit to be pitied; and he is apt to laugh in his sleeve, when any misguided sympathizer whines over his wrongs. Even when utilitarians sit in judgment on him, and pronounce him and his art useless, he hears the sentence with such a hard derision, such a broad, deep, comprehensive, and merciless contempt of the unhappy Pharisees who pronounce it, that he is rather to be chidden than condoled with.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

My brain feels all clogged up with academic editing. I am having a hard time paying attention to the real books I'm reading in between these nursemaid editing jobs, a situation that always scares me . . . like maybe it's an early symptom of pop-eyed CSI-watching dementia or a sign that I may soon be reduced to a diet of holiday needlepoint kits and Christian talk radio. I'm hoping that some combination of Bronte and Rilke will cure me, perhaps fed by the teaspoon at first. One hopeful indicator is that I've found myself craving The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but I can't seem to find it anywhere in the house. I'd like to think that the couch delivery man stole it, but I suspect what really happened is that all the pages fell out while I was reading it in the bathtub twenty years ago and I just forgot to replace it.

I'm thinking of writing an essay about what happens when a well-behaved twelve-year-old white girl first reads The Autobiography of Malcolm X while sitting in a tree in the backyard of a 1970s Providence suburb, but I'm not exactly sure what did happen. I do remember really wanting to take a good look at a conk and a zoot suit. I do remember thinking that being a well-behaved white girl wasn't a very interesting prospect for anyone who wanted to lead a brave life. I do remember thinking that "X" was an excellent choice for a last name and that Malcolm would have scared the shit out of my mother if he had shown up at the front door trying to sell her some Fuller Brushes. (I didn't actually think the words "scared the shit out of"; my thoughts were too well behaved.)

Dinner tonight: corn and bacon chowder, greenhouse salad, cheese biscuits.

Encouraging thought for the day, by Yves Bonnefoy (trans. Stanley Appelbaum):

from "Aube, fille des larmes, retablis"
Dawn, daughter of tears, reestablish
The room in its gray thing's peace
And the heart in its order.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

My essay on Jane Austen's Mansfield Park is just out in the current issue of the Sewanee Review, so I've been thumbing over what I wrote and wondering, once again, what other readers think of this novel. Do people even read it? Judging from the glut of Austen knockoffs in the Borders' fiction section, somebody is still reading Emma and Pride and Prejudice. But what about poor Fanny? It makes me sad to think that both she her novel might be so perpetually disliked and neglected.

from In Defense of Dullness, or Why Fanny Price Is My Favorite Austen Heroine

Yes, it’s true: I do love Fanny, “the quiet and in some ways uninteresting” protagonist of Mansfield Park, more than any of Jane Austen’s other heroines. But though I rush now to explain that the “uninteresting” tag is not Austen’s reduction but one lifted from my 1983 edition of The Cambridge Guide to English Literature (which does not appear to be especially fond of either Fanny or this novel), I can’t help but acknowledge a certain truth to the label. Fanny’s character is a study of the English Protestant good-girl ideal: sweet-tempered and duty-driven, morally and socially obedient; also shy, stammering, self-effacing; also doubtful, tender, awkward, and embarrassed—and anyone who has herself been marked as a good girl recognizes at least those last two descriptors as painfully accurate. Doesn’t every good girl suffer over the vision of herself as good? Just the recollection of myself in high school—earnestly long-haired and studious, boringly voted “Most Musical Girl,” and prone to having my English papers held up as models to classmates with better things to do than write essays on Puritan sermons—makes me wince. I wish I could run away from the memory of my good-girl self, even though every one of those embarrassing characteristics (except possibly for the hair) has been crucial to my life as a busy, engaged, and wondering adult.

     But my future at forty made no dent in my present at seventeen. I was horribly conscious of my unfashionable clothes, my wretched volleyball skills, my prissy reputation. And this is also Fanny’s torment, time after time. She is “ashamed of herself,” perennially impaled on the thorn of her imperfections. . . .

Monday, November 10, 2008

A small in memoriam for Mr. Brown, English department head at my son's high school, who drowned in a boating accident on Saturday, while I was kissing my husband in Quebec.

And for Mr. Stewart down the road, who was killed in a logging accident the day before the election.

And for my rude cat Frankie, who disappeared without a trace before Halloween.

And for Daniel, who made the cops kill him up on the South Road last spring.

from The Fourth Duino Elegy

Rainer Maria Rilke,
trans. Stephen Mitchell

Who shows a child as he really is? Who sets him
in his constellation and puts the measuring-rod
of distance in his hand? Who makes his death
out of gray bread, which hardens--or leaves it there
inside his round mouth, jagged as the core
of a sweet apple? . . . . . . Murderers are easy
to understand. But this: that one can contain
death, the whole of death, even before
life has begun, can hold it to one's heart
gently, and not refuse to go on living,
is inexpressible.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Need I say more about le week-end?

The Sun Rising

John Donne

          Busy old fool, unruly sun,
          Why dost thou thus
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?
          Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
          Late school boys, and sour prentices,
     Go tell court-huntsmen that the King will ride,
     Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

          Thy beams, so reverend and strong
          Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long:
          If her eyes have not blinded thine,
          Look, and tomorrow late, tell me
     Whether both the Indias of spice and mine
     Be where thou left'st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those Kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear: all here in one bed lay.

          She's all states, and all princes, I,
          Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor's mimic; all wealth alchemy.
          Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
          In that the world's contracted thus;
     Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
     To warm the world, that's done in warming us,
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Tomorrow, as a belated birthday present, Tom is taking me to Quebec City. We will stay in a beautiful hotel with an enormous, many-pillowed bed, and we will Frenchly say, "Merci," to the concierge. We will eat a prix-fixe dinner composed of jewel-like and mysterious ingredients that requires for its consumption a battery of forks and at least five different wineglasses, and we will become romantically inebriated in a plushy hushed restaurant that contains too many waiters and not enough eaters, although the few in attendance will all be older and richer and less giggly than we are. I am so excited. It will be nothing like Harmony.

So I am imagining now, but probably it will be more like Harmony than I expect. I mean, already I have been reading some Canadian poetry, just to get in the Canadian mood, you know, and this is what I'm discovering:

from the wundrfulness uv th mountees our secret police

Bill Bissett

they opn our mail     petulantly
they burn down barns they cant
bug     they listn to our politikul
ledrs phone conversashuns     what
cud b less inspiring to ovrheer

they had me down on th floor til
i turnd purpul thn my frends
pulld them off me     they think
brest feeding is disgusting     evry
time we cum heer to raid ths place
yu always have that kid on yr tit


I'm thinking we would be wise to observe the speed limit.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

My children have grown up under the Bush plutocracy. So they're used to thinking of Election Day as an exercise in dread that is then followed up by Election Hangover Day, which their parents celebrate by way of gloomy discussions on the feasibility of moving to Canada. But last night my boys were starry-eyed. They pored over the New York Times website map of state returns; they groaned and cheered as Virginia wavered between red and blue. We all excitedly wondered what kind of puppy the Obama girls would choose and how often it would pee on the Oval Office rug.

Election night was wonderful: it really was. And today, when I was sitting in Dexter Discount Tire's waiting room being afflicted by CNN News, I saw, for the first time, that video everybody else has seen of Jesse Jackson weeping in Grant Park, and I thought, thank God that at least a few of these civil rights soldiers didn't miss out on this moment. And thank God that the people of Gary, Indiana--the U.S. city, according to my fact-filled son, where you're statistically most likely to be knifed in the back--learned they had the power to start changing the color of an entire state. It's about time. It truly is about time.

On Hangover Day 2004, the day after Bush's reelection, I wrote a poem called "Exile," which in snail-like fashion, is only now forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, so I won't quote the whole thing here. But this is how the poem ends. I'm glad to see, these four years later, that I hadn't quite lost all hope.
I tucked a weary child into each coat
pocket, wrapped the quiet

garden neat as a shroud
around my lover's warm heart,

cut the sun from its moorings
and hung it, burnished and fierce,

over my shield arm--a ponderous
weight to ferry so far across the waste--

though long nights ahead, I'll bless
its brave and crazy fire.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I am, in general, allergic to politicians, so I've been surprised by my growing anxiety about this election. Last night I could hardly sleep, and today I was all of a flutter until 10 a.m., when the polls opened at the school.

Usually when I show up to vote, the library contains 0-2 potential voters and 6-8 yik-yakking elderly poll workers. As a mere formality, they look up my name on the list of registered voters. Then one of the ladies says, "Democrat," in a loud voice, and another lady has lately taken to chiming in with "Poet" to complete my requisite public humiliation. Then she hands me a paper ballot, and I go stand in my allotted booth and pencil-X my choices like a kindergarten illiterate. The last step, and possibly the most enjoyable, is to drop my ballot into a shiny square wooden ballot box that's clearly been in use forever. Probably it came over on the Mayflower, padlocked into a secret compartment in the hold. Probably those old poll ladies have to recite a complicated, fearsome oath before they're allowed to open that box; there might even be a secret handshake or special hats.

When I first started voting in Harmony, the town used to hold elections in the fire station, so we had the fun of snaking our killing-time-while-waiting-to-vote line among the fire engines. Those were the days when the voting booths themselves were a linked row of three rickety shelves on buckling legs, with the whole contraption sloppily painted in Depression-era puce. The row leaned precariously to the right; and whenever anyone pressed too hard during their pencil-Xing, the entire structure tottered dramatically. This was exciting for everyone, especially my babies, who also enjoyed the social-crawl aspects of illegal voting-booth invasion and looked forward to the final treat of the day: pasting two or three "I Voted Today" stickers into their hair.

But times have changed: now we vote in the school library and have sturdy prefab voting booths hung with patriotic curtains. And today: what a line!

Harmony has roughly 800 citizens, many of whom would never consider voting for anyone--though of course, as we all do, they enjoy complaining and inventing conspiracy theories. It seems, however, that an unprecedented number of non-voters decided this morning to be voters. Our line trailed into the parking lot. Would-be voters pressed their noses against the double-door windows. The town clerk had her hands full, what with all the aid she was needing to offer to the various stout, heavily mustached men in orange knit hats who were wrestling with their voter-registration cards.

The retired diner owner in front of me murmured to the Baptist minister's wife behind me, "Doesn't anyone in this town have a job?" Apparently none of us did this morning. "Bored? Aimless? Why not vote?" It could be a slogan. I must say, however, that people seemed pretty jittery. As if, like me, they were mysteriously affected with nerves.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Another Halloween behind us, and the haunted house in Harmony's old grange hall was a great success. My older son was one of the players and got to spend the entire evening with his head on a platter while eighth-grade girls tousled his hair and spilled fake blood on him. By the time he got home, he looked like he'd been ravaged by pit bulls. My younger son was dressed as a Skeleton Priest, whatever that might be, and spent the evening running around and shrieking with various other nine- through eleven-year-old boys. As the assigned player of scary piano music, I needed to dress for the part; so I came up with an outfit consisting of a late-50s A-line wool coat with a fur collar, baggy stockings and chunky shoes, a headscarf, badly applied lipstick, and glasses sliding down my nose. I looked surprisingly like Ethel Rosenberg; and because it's politics season, I should have topped off the costume with a Communist party sign pinned to my coat. But of course that wouldn't fly in Harmony, land of the free and home of the brave, so I substituted some Roosevelt New Deal propaganda and then peacefully banged out my repertoire of goblin songs, etc., while sorties of very small children in cow costumes (why were cows so popular this year among the under-two set?) haplessly pursued black and orange balloons and teenage girls displayed their ripped fishnet stockings and the Skeleton Priest hallooed and our staid elementary school secretary wandered by wearing a truly remarkable flowing curly white wig that made her a dead ringer for Montaigne.

Friday, October 31, 2008

from the Aeneid
Virgil, trans. Robert Fagles

[describing a boat race]

Mnestheus riding high, the higher for his success--
oars at a racing stroke, wind at his beck and call--
shoots into open water, homing down the coast.
Swift as a dove, flushed in fear from a cave
where it nests its darling chicks in crannies,
a sudden burst of wings and out its home it flies,
terrified, off into open fields and next it skims
through the bright, quiet air and never beats a wing.
So Mnestheus, so his Dragon speeds ahead, cleaving
on her own forward drive.

I think the sudden shift from the boat race to the dove comparison is breathtaking. Virgil makes these same exquisite shifts in his Eclogues as well, although they are very different poems--pastorals rather than epic narratives. The Aeneid is a remarkable poem, however; and what particularly strikes me at this reading is the poet's skill at relaying the timeless emotions and behaviors of men and women caught in faltering love affairs. When it comes to histrionic agony, Anne Sexton has nothing on Dido, queen of Carthage . . . and this emotional continuity makes me stop and think about what "confessional poetry" really is. Certainly it is not merely a late-twentieth-century self-absorption: the mere existence of Dido shows us that poets have long been consumed by the drama of self-absorption. What Virgil does is remove himself from the scene rather than make himself the centerpiece. Nonetheless, he clearly had deep knowledge of those feelings, an issue I have already taken up with Milton in one of the chapters of my memoir about reading Paradise Lost. Third-person omniscience doesn't necessarily equal detachment. Otherwise, how would a writer be able to imagine a particular emotion so intensely?

And Aeneas that jerk: so focused on his mission to found a new nation that, with only a passing twinge, he single-mindedly leaves his lover in the lurch. Dido throws herself at his feet, begging for love, in the way of passionate, infatuated young women since the beginning of time (you have Dido in one of your classes; I know you do), and what does Aeneas say?

He ventured a few words: "I . . . you have done me
so many kindnesses, and you could count them all.
I shall never deny what you deserve, my queen,
never regret my memories of Dido. . . .
[But not] once did I extend a bridegroom's torch
or enter into a marriage pact with you."

It's the old "Honey, it was fun, but I never said I loved you" line, written somewhere around 19 B.C.

Ugh. You have Aeneas in one of your classes too. He probably plays basketball.

Dinner tonight: grilled-cheese sandwiches and candy.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dinner tonight (my son's annual birthday choice--it's the same every year): lobster, artichokes, lime ice, sugar cookies. Apparently he likes prickly food.

As an extra-special birthday treat, my friend Linda (the boys' ex-babysitter) just showed up with twelve homemade whoopie pies. Are these a local Maine phenomenon? I never had homemade whoopie pies when I was a kid. My western Pennsylvania great-aunts were devotees of Chex party mix and jello-and-cream-cheese-and-canned-pineapple-and-little-colorful-marshmallow desserts. It was the follow-up to heavy Polish food served from slow cookers and the precursor of penny-ante poker and cans of Miller or Cherokee Red cherry soda, depending on your age and sex. (I never saw a lady with a can of Miller. Ladies drank a lot of weak coffee and talked about their bunions and their ancestors and what they wore to get married in. Only tough-minded ladies like my great-aunt Esther took part in the poker games. But then she had, as a middle-aged, heavy-smoking, gravel-voiced divorcee, taken the brave step of marrying my great-uncle John, who used a lot of Brylcreem and showed up with a big new car every six months and wanted to teach me me how to bet at the dog races: unfortunately my mother put her foot down. . . .)

My son has spent much of his pre-lobster-eating evening wearing his Cardinal de Medici costume and singing along with the Ramones' Rocket to Russia while reading a biography of Jackie Robinson. What could be more festive?

Eleven years ago this very night I was home from the hospital thinking, Oh my God, what made me think that two boys was a good idea?

Monday, October 27, 2008

I have just finished copying out the last of Shakespeare's sonnets; and while I of course learned a great deal from this project--for instance, about the poet's subtle and complex use of repetition--I also learned that some of his sonnets aren't really all that good. It's natural, I suppose, for a reader such as myself, steeped in legends of past literary glory, to assume that everything Shakespeare wrote must possess a special quality of greatness; but after all, he was just a man, and sometimes he, too, wrote a dull poem.

Does that make me feel better or worse about my own work?

I need to quit poking that metaphorical stick into my eye and go wrap birthday presents and finish making bread. Don't tell my son, but I bought him this great Cardinal de Medici costume at the Goodwill. It even came with a mitre.

Dinner tonight: moros y cristianos (otherwise known as Cuban black beans and rice), sourdough bread, spinach and arugula salad, apple flan.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

from Tao of the Weightlifter
Joe Bolton

Musculature as a way of life.
Breaking it down to build it.
Up. A burning in my shoulders.

Low-level professional wrestlers don't have much to do with Bolton's weightlifter aesthestic. My theory is that they specially train in order to maintain excess stomach flab. Last night's show in the Harmony Elementary School was comic, embarrassing, depressing, riveting, and boring in the style of most third-rate circus acts, birthday-party magicians, and Maine humorists who specialize in "Ayuh" as a punch line.

My younger son, however, thought it was great. After spending five dollars on a signed Doink the Wrestling Clown poster, he enthusiastically cheered and catcalled, with his favorite enemy being the Skunk, a remarkably revolting man in his fifties with a mohawk and a skunk-like cape, and a really big naked beer belly, who stage-whispered to the crowd that he was having a secret affair with Sarah Palin. Since he was the prepackaged bad guy of the match, he possibly thought that such a revelation would rile the crowd; but interestingly most spectators seemed to be indifferent to this news . . . possibly because ten-year-old boys were the only ones who cared about the "fight," and probably none of them were exactly sure who Sarah Palin was or what an affair with the Skunk might entail.

Bad wrestling does offer the crowd an opportunity to see how all the fake beatings really work: those tricky foot stompings that simulate loud punching and how one fat man can jump on top of another fat man without actually touching him and exactly where you can slap belly fat to make a big noise without causing damage.

The next big Harmony event is the haunted house at the grange. People are trying to talk me into dressing up as a witch and playing scary music on a very out-of-tune piano. So today I'm going to try to learn the chords to "I Put a Spell on You." I'll keep you posted on my progress. The piano is not my natural metier; perhaps they'll go for witchy fiddle instead. (I suppose that means "The Devil Went down to Georgia," doesn't it?)