Saturday, July 31, 2010

Drove for miles and miles, past les vaches et les four-wheelers et Monsieur Muffler et Le Future Store, and finally crossed the mighty Fleuve St.-Laurent, and now here we lie, in a beige room on Rue Guy, a mere block away from the Bar Barn. Last night, as the Farine Five Roses sign flashed outside the window and James attempted to watch "South Park" in French and Tom attempted to watch "Carrie" in French, I lay on my side of the beige bed and read Rumer Godden's The Greengage Summer. We had just returned from the Italian restaurant where we had accidentally eaten dinner, and which had accidentally had turned out to be charming and more like Rome than anywhere I'd been since Rome. We'd ordered a bottle of wine; and when the waiter returned with it, he just naturally filled James's glass . . . and so that was very exciting as a birthday present, let me tell you: to be 16 years old in Montreal lifting your first glass of wine to the amused "Saluts!" of your parents. He ended up drinking hardly any of it, but the small caveat of not-really-liking-wine-yet did not take the shine off the occasion, not at all.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

"No one is quite the same after a loud bang as before it."

That quotation is from L. P. Hartley's 1953 novel The Go-Between, which I bought on impulse a few weeks ago at a bookstore in Massachusetts. The novel fits into the "loss of childhood innocence/discovery of adult passion" genre and is set, like many such novels, at the turn of the twentieth century, in an English country house populated by beautiful young people whose lives will shortly be destroyed by the Great War. In fact, The Children's Book (the A. S. Byatt novel I've simultaneously been reading) is set at almost precisely the same time, a happenstance that would be more peculiar if such coincidences didn't seem to occur constantly in my reading life.

In these two books the adult/child theme is particularly specific: that familiar genre of "children's lives running parallel to adults' lives but never intersecting, except in the case of the lovely fraught teenagers whom everyone on both sides adores in one way or another." And as I read Hartley's novel, recognition of this theme took me immediately back to a book that I must have devoured a hundred times when I was young: Rumer Godden's 1957 short novel The Greengage Summer. In fact, I read it so often that my father asked if he could read it too, so that he could "get to know me better." As I recall, he wasn't delighted with it. This was no surprise.

I wonder if anyone else in the world was as infatuated with Godden's novel as I was. Not only did it suit my own fraught-teenager preoccupations with desire and the child-adult divide, but the primary male character was a compelling lover/murderer, an irresistibly melodramatic combination. Yet there was another element to this novel that was almost as important as sex: a family of English children accidentally ends up spending a summer at a small French hotel, without parental supervision, and they learn about French food.

When I first read this book, I knew nothing about French food. After I read it, I borrowed Julia Child's cookbook from the town library. That was a depressing day. For as soon as I examined that cookbook, I realized I could do nothing with those recipes. Clearly, my family did not possess a French larder. Yet in a way, both the novel and the cookbook presaged an adult future, a new way of thinking about the world, both thematically and viscerally. I grew up to care about desire, and to care about food.

So, with apologies to L. P. Hartley, I don't have too much to say about his novel The Go-Between, except that it's reminded me to reread The Greengage Summer. I'll keep you posted.

P.S. Tomorrow we leave for Montreal. Home on Monday. Must share hotel room with boy. May have no chance to write to you till our return. Try to be patient, and I will try also.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sixteen years ago today I spent several unpleasant hours in the hospital and returned home the following morning with a very small boy who looked like Edward G. Robinson. Shortly thereafter, our well went dry, and the dog got sprayed by a skunk. A few months later we moved across town to our present house, and the boy became attached to a stuffed pig. Before long he learned to talk. Some of his first words were "Birdfinch," "Birdhatch," "Bucket loader," and "Right, Mom?"At age 2 he met his best friend, and they spent many happy hours together riding a wooden giraffe on wheels. (Mine was the bossy blond kid on the left.) Soon he began to construct forts from baling twine, pine boughs, and duct tape; and by second grade he had attempted to glue an annoying kid to a desk chair.

The years passed by, both swiftly and at a turtle's pace. The boy took up canoeing and socializing and became popular with his grandparents. He spent the day before his 16th birthday mowing grass, helping his mother drag two dogs to the vet, eating a large grilled-cheese-and-tomato sandwich, talking on the phone to his best friend (the very same ex-giraffe rider), prodding the wrapped birthday presents he'd arranged on top of the piano, twisting his mother's arm behind her back in a friendly way, chortling sarcastically about the gophers in Caddyshack, not writing a paper about Fast-Food Nation (his summer-reading assignment), trying on his new soccer cleats and jumping up and down in them on the linoleum until ordered to stop, eating whipped cream and berries with a serving spoon, stuffing the serving spoon into his mouth and bugging out his eyes ironically, proposing that we should let him consume our whipped cream as well as his own, watching stupid YouTube videos, watching an elegant Peter Gunn episode, and going to bed after midnight.

He also requested the following birthday dinner: homemade ravioli stuffed with ricotta and chard leaves, chard stems baked with butter and parmesan, homemade French bread, pineapple bavarian cream. This meant that Tom, who is our resident ravioli maker, had to labor all day yesterday on a roof and then come home and spend all evening making pasta. He was cheerful, however. The boy is good at making his parents cheerful. And since the French bread is already in the freezer, all I have to manage today are the chard stems and the pineapple bavarian. I'm a little disappointed that the boy changed his mind about the ice cream and meringue confection known as Mount Vesuvius, but he decided to save that for a graduation party.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I've made mention here before of the Mountain Eagle, the eastern Kentucky newspaper run by the Gish family. I've been reading this newspaper every week for 25 years, since the moment I first met publisher Tom Gish's son, Ray, when I was in college. Over time, I've absorbed numbers of dreadful Eagle headlines about local murders, mining accidents, corruption, and Oxycontin; but this week's may be the most distressing statement yet. To me, it seems to encapsulate the desperate misery that is poverty, and also loneliness, and also love; and I can't stop thinking about it.

"Woman who left kids in hot car while shoplifting is still in jail"

The article goes on to mention that she was stealing "baby formula, diapers, shaving cream, razor, and two eight-ounce soft drink bottles."

But even as I had barely come to grips with the sadness of that complicated story, I read another headline, this one in my own local paper, the Waterville Morning Sentinel:

"Police: Man forces ex-wife to swallow wedding ring"

Meanwhile, here I sit at my writing table, listening to chickens complain and the dog bark; listening to the cicadas rattle in the trees; listening to robins chortle in the maples. "The world is too much with us; late and soon." Tragedy is not too large a word.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Bright sun and clean wind.

I will be editing this morning, and then I will be making blueberry jam. Every summer, writing gets to be the last chore I check off the list. But on the bright side, I do a lot of living. I try to think of living as a bright side.

Yesterday I picked blueberries raspberries beans sage lemon balm peppermint baby leeks parsley basil tore out the poppies cut down the marjoram made bread made pizza made tomato sauce. This morning I put all that work into a sentence and thought about punctuation. I suppose this is not an inspirational story, but still it's writing.

Just a moment ago I wrote down "but it's still writing." Then I swapped the word order. This is revision. I revise to match the music in my head, and by music I mean word stress, pacing, rising or falling pitch, etc. I have no idea if this is how Frank Zappa did it. I do have a fairly clear idea that this is how Hayden Carruth did it.

Funny, how one hears the sound of someone else's verse and can say, This is a brother in arms. Though "brother in arms" is a cliche, I'm guessing that it must derive from either a companion in war or a cuddled little brother. Therefore, I feel perfectly justified in using it for poets whose rhythms echo in my head.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

I am tired of driving, but today I have to drive 40 miles to go grocery shopping. I also ought to go blueberry picking, but fortunately or unfortunately it appears to be raining.

Mostly I am tired of driving because I spent too many tense hours yesterday in the seat next to New Driver Boy. Nonetheless, early in the day, the boy did say to me, "Listen. I'm nervous and you're nervous. Let's agree not to make each other more nervous." So naturally I admire him.

I would like to be reading poems, and I wonder if I will today. Among other things I ought to be reading is my friend Jeannie Beaumont's new book, which I want to finish and promise to write about here when I do. As a teaser, I will tell you that one of her poems involves the word confusions of "umbrella" and "imbroglio." I do wish I that had been my idea.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Today I am driving Paul to camp, a 6-hour round trip into the wilds of Washington County. He'll be spending 2 grubby weeks canoeing down the St. Croix River and thus will miss James's 16th birthday on Wednesday.

For his birthday dinner James has requested Mount Vesuvius, a French ice-cream-and-meringue confection in the shape of an exploding volcano. I ought to be up to this, and I am trying to imagine that I am.

But for his real non-lava-related birthday present, Tom and I are taking James on a whirlwind trip to Montreal. It will be the first time that the 3 of us have gone anywhere alone since Paul was born, and this time we are going to a rock festival: Sonic Youth, Arcade Fire, Pavement, and (can you believe it?) Devo, among many other features. Moreover, I will get to spend a weekend talking bad French, and my family will respectfully believe everything I tell them since they don't speak French at all.

I wonder which poet would be most suitable as a companion for a whirlwind trip to a Montreal rock show. For some reason I am thinking about Shelley. But speaking of Shelley, earlier this week I drove past a mailbox with the name "Shelley" painted on it, quotation marks and all. Now I am wishing that I had a mailbox labeled "Shelley." It would be like having an official pseudonym: "please forward all mail marked 'Shelley' to this address." Imagine what great mail I would get! (Actually I suppose most of it would be bills, wouldn't it?)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Chapter 3. Soundtrack for the Middle of Nowhere

After a flurry of college, I embarked on a life of farm chores. In the meantime, having limited myself to one boyfriend, I also limited myself to one record collection. This mostly worked out okay. Once, I admit, I did run over his new REM album, but that's only because he left it on the roof of my car. We made mix tapes together and lay in bed listening to Yo La Tengo and Big Star while hoping the cat wouldn't claw up our heads. When my boyfriend ran out of hardcore options and moved on to Thelonious Monk, it was like pretending to be grownups. We even got married. After listening to the Billie Holiday selections on our hospital compilation, the obstetrical nurses remarked that our parents must be very proud.

Nonetheless, as an infant, said jazz-welcomed son refused to sleep to anything except Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, played loud and at midnight. As he grew older, his tastes shifted exuberantly to the Ramones, the world's best play-group band. All his friends liked to drive Tonkas around the living room and dance to "Beat Up the Brat." Things got stickier a few years later, when Son Number 2 arrived and fell in love with a song titled "Who's Got the Crack?" This was a good chance to explain what can and cannot be brought to school for show-and-tell.

I will quickly gloss over the Harmony Music Teacher years. Suffice it to say we performed a K-8 rendition of the Village People's "In the Navy" to great acclaim. And now here we are in teen land, which naturally requires angst and sarcasm. This can be accomplished by cranking up the radio every time the Eagles come on, just because you know your mother despises them. Let us hope the angsty one continues to remember that this very same mother is also the only person he knows who is willing both to drive him to band practice and to belt out the vocals that the band boys are too shy to sing. After all, it was his idea to cover "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Chapter 2. The Boyfriend Years

Freshman year of high school I kissed a boy whose favorite band was Air Supply. Meanwhile, I was rehearsing Schoenberg with the Brown University Orchestra and negotiating a private crush on the college senior who played clarinet. But this was 1979. My life was waiting to happen: Frank Zappa's husky song echoed throughout the school bus, and I had never heard of the Ramones.

Attending a Quaker college turned out to be the perfect way to meet boys who preferred not to go to class. I knew I should stop calling them boys and think of them as men, but this was impossible. I was trained in classical melody. I had no idea what constituted a blues progression or why Chuck Berry had any relevance to the Rolling Stones. This amused the boys, who decided to make me listen to the Sex Pistols. I followed them around in record stores, hating the way they leafed through every single bin. If they hadn't been so beautiful, I would have died of boredom.

Meanwhile, my ear training advanced, and I discovered that the Replacements understood all my deepest hopes and fears. Michael Jackson's Thriller faded into strange obscurity as the Talking Heads assumed the philosophical proportions of Kant. And while there is nothing like a late-night session with Tammy Wynette for reminding a 19-year-old girl that her grandfather might have a point about Charlie Rich, the Clash's Sandinista makes a better Christmas present. In short, I was born again. I changed my major from music to English, read all the novels of Dickens, fell in love, fell in love, fell in love, went to a Pretenders concert in Philly, purchased a Velvet Underground record, smoked other people's pot, and don't actually remember how I managed to graduate.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

So. Musical influences on my work. Frank Zappa? Randy Newman? Joni Mitchell? These are the names that arise in the comments on Nicelle's review of Crimes.

I feel, then, honor-bound to expand.

Chapter 1. The Early Years.

When I was a toddler, I sang the Music Man song "You Are My Lucky Star" into a tape-recorder. I'm told I had perfect pitch and pronounced all the words correctly and it was the cutest thing ever. The tape was then sent to my uncle in Vietnam. He was killed in 1968 when his barracks were bombed. Presumably the tape was bombed as well, unless he'd already shed it. Do jungle soldiers like to carry around tapes of baby nieces singing love songs? I will never know for sure.

I started playing classical violin at age 6. Early influences were Tchaikovsky and the jukebox at the Lake Forest swimming pool in Scottdale, Pennsylvania. For a dime my sister and I could listen to both "Afternoon Delight" and that crappy Wings song "I Love You." One of our favorite activities was to ride in the back of a pickup over bumpy mountain roads and scream K.C. and the Sunshine Band's "That's the Way, Uh-Huh, Uh-Huh" at the top of our lungs while the wind blew our hair into knots. We also listened to 8-tracks of Charlie Rich. (My grandfather thought "Behind Closed Doors" was the most beautiful song he'd ever heard.) Back home in Rhode Island, I went for Beethoven at top volume; also, the soundtrack to "Fiddler on the Roof" and the Carpenters' greatest hits. For a long time I thought the Carpenters had written "Ticket to Ride." I'm sorry to have to reveal that kind of information, but I'm trying to be honest, even if you think less of me now.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's installment, "Chapter 2. The Boyfriend Years," which reveals why I stopped practicing the violin and began falling in love with men who listened to Black Flag.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

First things first: we caught a mouse! (Note "a" rather than "the." I don't want my dizzy hopes to float too high.)

Second things second: a publisher wrote me a lovely typewritten letter in which he asked to see the complete Vagabond's Bookshelf manuscript.

Now third: I dreamed a poem and then I woke up and forgot it. I hate that.

And fourth: Let me sing the praises of raspberries, raspberries, raspberries and their glorious helpmeet, a bowl of cream whipped by a twelve-year-old boy.

Finally, my new favorite quotation, which is from King Lear but which I bumped up against in A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book yesterday, while I was lying on my bed after lunch, listening to the rooster crow and waiting for the power company to make the electricity work:

"O me! my heart, my rising heart! but down!"

Monday, July 19, 2010

Good Lord. Who would have guessed? I feel like I should go back to bed even though I've only been up for 10 minutes.

And on another note, who knew that Wordsworth could sound like Whitman (albeit in a prim Wordsworthian kind of way)?

from The Prelude

William Wordsworth

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows

Like harmony in music; there is a dark

Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles

Discordant elements, makes them cling together

In one society. How strange that all

The terrors, pains, and early miseries,

Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused

Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part,

And that a needful part, in making up

The calm existence that is mine when I

Am worthy of myself!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Last day of poem-sorting. Already, the day is hot, and I have woken with a headache that shows no signs of dying. Despite all efforts, the mouse still lives in my kitchen.

On the good side, however, I am still wearing my summer nightgown, and I love my summer nightgown, which makes me feel like a cream puff, especially when I walk down stairs, because it tends to hold air and balloons up around me. I suspect this is not flattering to my physique, but the sensation is pleasant.

Also, there's much to be said for a second cup of excellent strong French roast coffee, made in a French press and served with Maine whole milk. The milk could be better--say, if it were from a Jersey cow who was a personal friend--but the coffee could hardly be improved upon.

And I think, in fact, that the coffee is doing is good work on the headache, so happiness may be imminent. Which reminds me: how can I forget last night's middle-aged charms, when I spent 2 hours lying on the couch with my head in Tom's lap, and we listened to the Red Sox on the radio as the dark crept through the open window and our children obediently played together in the next room? Yes, the Rangers' starting pitcher was "masterful" while the Sox pitcher was merely "showing some good stuff." But though our team lost for most of the game, it did manage to pull out an accidental victory in extra innings. And meanwhile, Tom and I enjoyed ourselves so peaceably that our sons, when they did eventually burst through the door, shouted incredulously, "What? You're still here?" We were pleased to say yes.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Here I am after Day 1 of my last Beloit editorial meeting, and I am barely able to speak. To be honest, this is not the journal's fault but can be blamed on the fact that I stayed up till almost 2 a.m. watching a movie at the Maine International Film Festival and then driving home . . . or not driving home, because after I ended up in the wrong lane in Waterville, it became apparent to both Tom and me that I really should not be driving, despite the fact that I had merely spent 3 innocent hours watching a 1958 western starring Gregory Peck and Gene Simmons and, of all people, Burl Ives (best known as the singing background guy in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) as patriarch of the sleazy family in the water-rights feud. It was a very good movie, however, and was introduced by screenwriter Jay Cocks as one impetus for his screenplay for The Gangs of New York, which I haven't seen and don't know anything about, but I can tell you that Cocks was dressed kind of like Ray Romano in Everyone Loves Raymond, which is a show I have only ever watched by accident but seems to involve a guy in a T-shirt and an unbuttoned lightly plaided cotton shirt.

Anyway, I'm tired. And I know there are too many "which" clauses in this post. Sorry, but I'm not going to correct any of them. Pretend that I'm Allen Ginsburg who doesn't believe in revision, if that makes you feel better.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Tomorrow I begin my final Beloit editorial session, which means that I may or may not dredge up the wherewithal to write to you during the weekend. And on Monday I go back to work: even as we speak, a giant editing project squats, peevish and unopened, in the cardboard box by my feet. So I feel, as I always do, hungry and melancholy about the surrender of my unstructured time--though, to be honest, I've mostly filled the 2 weeks since I returned from the Frost Place by weeding my gardens and reaming out my younger son's horrible bedroom and driving my older son around to buy soccer supplies. Still, I have written a page and a half of the Middlemarch essay. I have read a bit of Shakespeare. And today I will copy out at least a few more lines of Wordsworth's Prelude. It's something to cling to, this memory of reading and writing, as I sink into the dark days of editing an education textbook. That sentence sounds like melodrama-for-comic-effect, but it isn't. It isn't at all. For though I can, when pressed, work hard and efficiently at tasks I don't love, my writing and reading mind won't relinquish its cravings and desires; and a whirlpool sense of doom starts to develop, like a slow-moving tropical depression, as if something may go very wrong if I don't immediately stop marking up footnotes and format codes and start copying out Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" word for word. So I always do stop for Whitman. And that is why I can't hold down a full-time job.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I haven't copied out a Milly Jourdain poem for you since May, mostly because I've been getting tired of poor Milly. She somehow hasn't seemed to suit my impatience and my worked-up energies; and even when I'm gloomy, I don't seem to get gloomy in the way she does. Altogether, for the past few months, I've been been anything but Milly's alter ego . . . which, I do understand, is hardly fair to her. One thing about literature: I'm always looking for myself in it--explanation number 1 for why I never became a scholar.

So, with an attempt at a fresh start with Milly, I offer you, forthwith, today's poem:


Milly Jourdain

Along the winding lane I often walk
Touching the trees--letting the grasses slip
Between my fingers. Seeing bluebells shine
Among the fading primroses. Beyond
The open fields sweet with the smell of spring
Look thro' the gate. And further far away
The fields and hedges lose themselves in mist
And yet it's all a dream. Each long day brings
The perfect images of vanished things.

There are many, many deft and lovely words, rhythms, and images in this brief poem, but the ending is terrible, so altogether it just adds to my confusion--not only about Milly's qualities as a poet but about the definition of poetry, the meaning of poetry--by which I don't mean "What's this poem about?" but "What does it mean to have expressed these feelings?" I don't, at all, want to write poems like this; but at the same time I want the eye that sees this world. Judging the value of a poem is so very confusing, and I am glad, once again, that I have resigned from the Beloit Poetry Journal's editorial board.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Things to stem gloominess or otherwise make anyone feel as if she's made at least a few good decisions in her life

1. I've never been romantically involved with this man: "A drunk driver was forcibly removed from a vehicle and arrested Sunday night after he led police on a high-speed car chase for more than 22 miles and nearly plowed into a police car while swerving around a roadblock, officials said Monday. Police said they overheard [the suspect] tell his female passenger upon his arrest: 'It was a good first date'" (from today's Waterville Morning Sentinel).

2. Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz won the All-Star Home Run Derby last night. Yet apparently, in the final round, he was also giving his chief rival, Hanley Ramirez, friendly and encouraging advice about how to win. This seems so sweet to me, and it reaffirms Papi's place as my favorite Red Sock (though, to tell the truth, I have always had a weakness for chunky, cheerful designated hitters).

3. My raspberry patch, which until this summer has consistently been a poor producer, has transformed itself into the raspberry miracle.

4. I thought I had forgotten how to write until I started writing my Middlemarch essay.

Dinner tonight (if the fish counter cooperates): scallop ceviche, new potatoes, kohlrabi and arugula, raspberries and cream.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Here's a link to Holly Zadra's article about me in the Waterville Morning Sentinel. Though I very much enjoyed talking to Holly at my kitchen table, I am, as always, queasy about results, which has nothing to do with her approach and everything to do with my angsty-ness about publicity. I mean, I know I need to publicize the book, so I squinch my eyes shut and take the plunge and send press releases to media contacts. Thus, when they in fact get back to me about the matter, I have no one to blame but myself. Yet I have a thousand worries and frets--in this case, mostly about how local people will feel about seeing themselves mentioned by name in the paper. Of course, ten-to-one they won't read an article titled "'Tracing Paradise': Local author wins literary award for examination of Milton poem," so very likely my anxieties are pointless.

On another sort-of-related note, if you've read Tracing Paradise, you may also remember my friend Steve, who features prominently in chapter 11. In real life he is Steve Cayard, a master builder of Wabanaki-style canoes; and his new website features photographs of his stunning work.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Winter's Tale, Act 5, Scene 1, Lines 1-131

Earlier this week, on a sweltering afternoon by the fan, Paul and I read the opening of act 5 of A Winter's Tale. It had been weeks, possibly months, since we'd last managed to sit down with the play. Act 4 had been an endless rustic farce/secret identity hi-jink; so I, at least, was relieved that act 5 was instantly reimmersing me in Leontes' single-minded selfishness. Paul was in some kind of mood, however, and his read-aloud style was less than inspiring. For reasons best known to himself, he decided to emote all the courtiers' lines in the same high nasal drone, as if they were poorly acted robot characters. This left me to act out Leontes and Paulina.

Which was not a bad fate. For that Paulina is something else. She will not let the king off the hook for his familial misdeeds. She insists on kicking him when he's down, rubbing salt in his wounds, nailing his tattered scalp to the fence. Leontes wails,

She I kill'd? I did so, but thou strik'st me
Sorely, to say I did. It is as bitter
Upon thy tongue as in my thought. Now, good, now,
Say so but seldom.

But she won't "say so but seldom," though Cleomines, the king's courtier, remarks:

You might have spoken a thousand things that would
Have done the time more benefit, and grac'd
Your kindness better.

But is kindness always better than bitterness? Once again, Shakespeare starts confusing my sympathies. Leontes can't be pitiable, can he? He willfully destroyed his marriage and lost his children. Paulina, by his agency, lost her husband and her friend. Does that make her acerbity right? Or is cruelty still cruelty, no matter who wields it?

William "No Easy Answers" Shakespeare is at work again. It's interesting how young I feel when I read his plays, how innocent of life. Everything is so complicated. The shades of motivation are so subtle, yet the actions are so decisive. Life is a terror of remorse and display.

Outside my kitchen window, a crow is screeching. Inside my kitchen, yesterday's mouse (curse his bones) is still insouciantly ignoring the trap. No matter how hot it is today, I'll have to bake bread. Suddenly, all of this sounds Shakespearean, though none of it is . . . though, perhaps, everything is.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

This morning, I got up early, took my dog, and visited the sea. Wait, no: that what's Emily Dickinson did. What I did was get up early, let out the dog, try to catch the mouse that's roaming around my kitchen, and read my email. If there were mermaids in the basement, I didn't notice them. But my email was exciting: Jeannie Beaumont, who directs the Advanced Poetry Seminar at the Frost Place, invited me to be next summer's guest lecturer. On Milton. Hah! So apparently I will be going another round with the old man as I attempt to compose an hour-long speech about him.

It's exciting for me to be offered this gig. I attended the seminar as a student twice, probably about a decade ago. So to be offered a faculty-level gig is a great, great pleasure.

P.S. If you're wondering about this dog-and-mermaid maundering, see Dickinson's Poem 520.

Friday, July 9, 2010

I wasn't sure what to write about this morning, so I scanned the shelves and took down the first book I came across that included poems not under copyright. It happened to be The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. So I opened the book to a random page and thus discovered Em's Mysterious Instruction for Today:

Poem 1196

Emily Dickinson

To make Routine a Stimulus
Remember it can cease--
Capacity to Terminate
Is a Specific Grace--
Of Retrospect the Arrow
That power to repair
Departed with the Torment
Become, alas, more fair--

Oh, Em. Here you go again, starting out with a tidy little aphorism and ending up in what-the-hell craziness, all within the frame of 8 short lines. And of all the words not to capitalize!--look at power in line 6, coyly perched there in lowercase disguise. . . . You make me laugh and long to shake you till your teeth rattle. I know you invent this stuff on purpose to drive me nuts, yet I love you for it, yet I'm incredibly relieved that we merely correspond by poem and that you don't actually live in my upstairs bedroom.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

I have never lived in a house with air conditioning. But that's been fine, for in Maine A/C is mostly beside the point. This week, however, the north country feels rather like Washington, D.C., except with fewer politicians and more deerflies. So I have been learning to live the lifestyle of heat. This means getting up early and immediately doing animal chores and whatever gardening is necessary. Then, as the day begins to scorch, I move on to laundry and dinner preparation. Making a cold dinner takes a great deal of time, especially since I am going out of my way to invent good ones, as some recompense to poor Tom, who has been doing a renovation job in this weather and thus needs whatever comfort I can offer.

By the afternoon, no matter what steps I take to avoid it, our house is sweltering. The boys and I sit in the darkish kitchen with our books and our ice tea, in point-blank range of the fan. Eventually, finally, Tom makes his way home, black with sweat. He showers, he collapses on the couch, and I wait till he composes himself into consciousness. Then we have dinner by the fan, then we watch (last night) Barbarella by the fan; and then we spend a restless night in a hot bed, the two of us rolled to far edges of the double mattress to avoid any possible skin contact.

I've been thinking a lot this week about the literature of empire--particularly those novels (such as Forster's A Passage to India and Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur) that show how hard the English tried to maintain their English habits in the stultifying heat of India. At least, I say to myself, I am not wearing a corset. At least, a naked, poverty-stricken old man is not constantly operating a half-hearted room fan. But I've also been thinking about Lampedusa's The Leopard, which is set in nineteenth-century Sicily and is one of my favorite, favorite novels. I know of no other book that tells the beautiful cruel tale of a landscape so well. Here, for instance, is the opening of chapter 2.


August, 1860

[from The Leopard by Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (translated by Archibald Colquhoun)]

"The trees! The trees!"

This shout from the leading carriage eddied back along the following four, almost invisible in clouds of white dust; and at every window perspiring faces expressed tired gratification.

The trees were only three, in truth, and eucalyptus at that, scruffiest of Mother Nature's children. But they were also the first seen by the Salina family since leaving Bisacquino at six that morning. It was now eleven, and for the last five hours all they had set eyes on were bare hillsides flaming yellow under the sun. Trots over level ground had alternated briefly with long slow trudges uphill and then careful shuffles down; both trudge and trot merging, anyway, into the constant jingle of harness bells, imperceptible now to the dazed senses except as sound equivalent of the blazing landscape. They had passed through crazed-looking villages washed in palest blue; crossed dry beds of torrents over fantastic bridges; skirted sheer precipices which no sage and broom could temper. Never a tree, never a drop of water; just sun and dust. Inside the carriages, tight shut against that sun and dust, the temperature must have been well over 120 degrees. Those desiccated trees yearning away under bleached sky bore many a message; that they were now within a couple of hours from their journey's end; that they were entering the family estates; that they could lunch, and perhaps even wash their faces in the verminous water of the well.

But here in Harmony, Maine, we have trees galore and gloriously cold non-verminous well water. Clearly I have nothing to complain about; nothing at all.

Dinner tonight: gazpacho (from M.F.K. Fisher's delightful yet peculiar recipe, which measures everything in "glasses" without ever mentioning how large a "glass" might be), deviled eggs with garlic mayonnaise, arugula and shiitake salad, homemade tortilla chips, cold Portugese white wine, root beer floats.

P.S. Paul and I read the opening of act 5 of A Winter's Tale yesterday. It didn't make us feel any cooler, but it did make us happy to be Shakespearean once again. I'll be posting about it later this week, to give you time to catch up too, if you're reading it.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Besides marriage, another theme I've been noticing in Middlemarch is the ambiguity of moral activism. Mr. Bulstrode uses his bankerly evangelism as a way to forget the lies of his youth. Dorothea determines to negate herself in service to a man she believes is a great thinker. Lydgate is convinced that he can revolutionize medicine while ignoring everyday human pettiness. As a result, they all find themselves ensnared in misery.

And personal connection is the key. For despite Dorothea's warm and earnest good will, she cannot help Mr. Casaubon because he will not allow himself to be helped. He holds himself apart from her, thus transforming his wife's loving interest into mere arid anxiety. As Eliot writes, "There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men."

I've got a familiar vibrating sensation about this book, as if I might be working myself up to begin the missing chapter of my rereading memoir, even though I wasn't planning to write about either marriage-and-morality or Middlemarch. But apparently this book has its own agenda for me.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

I'm working my way through Middlemarch for the [insert a large but unrecorded number here]th time in my life, and this is what's leaping out at me--

George Eliot is, of course, chronicling a variety of marriages, but in particular she seems to be examining male weakness versus female strength. And here's the problem with the marriages that go bad: in all cases, the husband enters the partnership convinced that he is stronger than his wife. Lydgate and Rosamund, Mr. and Mrs. Bulstrode, Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon. Unhappiness ensues. But in the good marriages, the man enters the partnership with full cognizance of his own weakness: Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, Will Ladislaw and Dorothea, Mr. and Mrs. Garth, Celia and Sir James. Thus, both sides are attuned to failure, and modesty, and need. They know how to adjust for one another.

The women, on the other hand, are always aware that they are both powerful and weak. Sometimes they use that awareness poisonously: Rosamund, for instance. Sometimes they are deluded about what exactly constitutes their strengths: Dorothea, for all her glory, is an idiot. But all know they are composites of power and submission and that their lives will require them to ride that riff.

Anyway, if you have your own thoughts on this matter, let me know. For now I'm off to bake bread, which for the record is an incredibly stupid thing to have to do when it's 90 degrees on the 45th parallel (which runs through my living room, by the way). But sandwiches require bread, and men who spend all day fixing other people's houses require sandwiches, and there's a power and submission riff playing itself out in my own home, just as there should be, and maybe we will just have to eat chicken salad and fresh bread in the basement tonight.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A 2010 participant in the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching reflects on the experience. . . .

And a video of my D.C. reading that I'm afraid to look at. . . .
Publication gossip

The inaugural issue of the Village Pariah, a literary journal sponsored by the Mark Twain Museum, is now available and includes my brief essay about introducing my then-9-year-old son to Huck Finn.

My book-length memoir about obsessive rereading has been rejected yet again, this time by a publisher who liked it so much that he has offered to try to convince another publisher to publish it. Work out the confusing implications of this if you can. Or avoid a headache and just don't bother.
I'm rushing off to pick strawberries before it gets too hot. But before I go, I want to discourse briefly on manners camp. Around our house, this has been a long-standing joke threat: "Stop eating salad with your hands, or I'll send you to manners camp." Yesterday, however, James decided to Google "manners camp" and instantly discovered the Charleston School of Protocol and Etiquette. And as you'll see when you click on the link, "additional programs include ballroom dancing and introduction to the great poets of the world."

This is a puzzle because poets are naturally rude.

Manners camp. What would Shakespeare think? Oy.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Last night was one of those rare-ish central Maine events when it stays hot enough to leave the windows open all night. Paul and Tom and I spent the evening watching clips of the 1975 Red Sox, which were enough to break anyone's heart, though ours managed to remain melancholy yet intact. And then I went to bed and dreamed of shopping, of all things.

Now the Fourth of July has dawned, and I am thinking about stuffing grape leaves and making cold carrot soup. I am also thinking about my secret garden, and about the poem I wrote on the morning I woke up to discover that George W. Bush had been reelected. I know I've posted it here before, but I'll post it again, because it's the Fourth of July and I love my country; and by country, I mean country.


Dawn Potter

On the morning I left

my country, sunlight

thrust through the clouds

the way it does after a raw

autumn rain, sky stippled

with blue like a young mackerel,

leaf puddles blinking silver,

sweet western wind gusting

fresh as paint, and a flock

of giddy hens rushing pell-mell

into the mud; and I knelt

in the sodden grass and gathered

my acres close, like starched

skirts; I shook out the golden

tamaracks, and a scuffle of jays

tumbled into my spread apron;

I tucked a weary child into each coat

pocket, wrapped the quiet

garden neat as a shroud

round 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.

[from How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry Press, 2010)]

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Two nights in a row in my own bed, and now I'm beginning to feel as if I've retrieved myself from the lost-luggage pile. Yesterday I washed the kitchen floor, bossed a kid around about practicing the piano, sat on the rug, and held paws with the dog--not a poetic task among them, except that I was rediscovering my life.

That sense of rediscovery is always part of the Frost Place aura. Don Sheehan, first executive director of the program, died this past spring; and thus he has been on the minds of many of the people who knew him. He was a holy man, and he saw poetry as an essential element of holiness. But he also knew that immersion in such work could change lives, and not always in the wisest ways. He used to tell people to be careful when they left the Frost Place: not to make any sudden decisions about husbands or jobs, for instance. That sounds amusing, but in fact I know more than one person who left Franconia, went home, and immediately started divorce proceedings.

Myself, I did not decide to leave my family after spending a week away from them at the Frost Place. What I did decide to do was to resign from the editorial board of the Beloit Poetry Journal. As much as I care about the human beings involved in that endeavor, I cannot keep torturing myself with contemporary poetry. There are many wonderful things about the modern world, but someone else has to discover what they are. That's just not my vocation. Being a writer means being selfish. It's an ugly truth, but it's a truth. I am an old-fashioned writer and reader; I find my newness in the old. It's a dinosaur position, but oh well. Perhaps Don would have warned me against taking this sudden step, yet better a journal than a husband, wouldn't you say?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Driving home from the Frost Place yesterday, I worked hard to stay awake and finally had to pull over in Dixfield and buy a paper cup of horrendous day-old coffee. The teaching conference is exhausting, for reasons that have nothing to do with sleeping, drinking, or anxiety. It's the intensity of listening and thinking and feeling . . . all of which make the experience sound like a New Age self-help manual but which in truth tell the old, old story of poetry.

Anyway, I was tired. So when I was driving through Athens and a wild turkey ambled across the road in front of me, it was mere good fortune that I automatically slowed down to scan the hedgerows for other signs of life. Many things are hard to see. Including poems. Including the ten tiny, grey-brown turkey poults scuttling after their mother like a flock of ellipses. I didn't crush them under my tires. As you can see, there's a lot to be said for patience and bad coffee.