Sunday, July 31, 2011

Summer is such an overwhelming season, and this year seems more overwhelming than usual. I have so much editorial work that I wake in the night unromantically asking myself, "Did you really remember to renumber Figure 13.1 as Box 13.2?" or "Braille: capped or lowercase?" During my short trip to North Haven, I intended at the very least to wake up early in the morning and deal with a poetry editing project I'm involved in. It wouldn't have been like real writing, but at least the subject matter would have been congenial. But no. I woke up early and read a Canadian page-turner. Then I ate an overlarge breakfast and looked at the sea for a number of hours. Occasionally I picked up a rock. Before long I was in need of a nap, and the pattern repeated. Just substitute "dinner" for "breakfast." Laziness overcame me like the flu.

Now here I am at home again, back in the land of weeds and lawn mowing and a shockingly dusty bedroom and incipient grocery shopping and bean picking and chicken-house cleaning, etc., etc., not to mention the editorial volcano belching its summaries and reference lists. Occasionally I reminisce about being a writer. "Once, long, long ago, I wrote a poem." Oh well. I'm writing this letter to you now. And someday it will be January, and I will be alone and lonely, and the poems will creep out of their corners to gnaw at my ankles.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hilly roads at midnight, overexcited teenager chattering in the backseat, a not-squashed skunk, fog and fog and fog: and now stale bread and old milk and a sticky slow rainstorm. Welcome back to Harmony.

We watched the student film screenings last night, with the best piece of the night being a teenager filmmaker's "how to ask a girl on a date" flick co-starring my own son as "Lloyd," a stupid, nerdy, self-confident blowhard who (1) thinks Samuel L. Jackson is a member of the Jackson 5, (2) wears a hideous polar bear shirt, (3) appears in a dream sequence in which the girl really does fall in love with him because he says something along the lines of "What's happenin', babe?," much to the chagrin of the more charming yet also nerdy main character. Yes, in the moment when, to the shrieking roar of the girl-filmmaker crowd, James appeared on the large screen in that hideous shirt, Tom and I stepped out onto a whole new level of "proud parents." I mean, who knew that our kid had a future in stupid bro' movies?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Today is my son James's seventeenth birthday, and and I am in a sunny room on an island thinking about how strange it is to have known him for so long. He is the sweetest teenage boy that any parent could wish to love, and I hope he is getting plenty of cake and affection at filmmakers' camp.

Tomorrow, when we pick him up, we will discuss his home birthday celebration. Already he has requested an enormous guacamole feast. This is a boy who likes avocados.

In the meantime, here I am in this sunny room on an island thinking about him.

Boy Land

Dawn Potter

Shoving together

a snowman from slush

and mud and grass,

the boys dance around him

in the sleet, shrieking;

then knock him down

and eat his carrot.

They rip the sails

off a birthday-present

pirate ship that took

all afternoon to assemble.

On sunny days, they pound

shiny Matchbox cars

with rocks to make

demolition derby junkers.

They choke trees with duct

tape, hold up peaceniks

with cap guns,

inform their teachers,

“Well, shit, you know

I hate math.”

On report cards,

a teacher writes: “Work

does not show best effort,”

and sends home a science

paper with one casual

slash of red crayon up the front.

Instead of cleaning their messy

rooms, new cell-phone Ken

and punk-rock Barbie

with no clothes

argue behind closed doors.

Barbie: “Hey! I don’t like you!”

Ken: “Well, I’m going to live alone!”


Aliens drag Barbie away.

[from Boy Land & Other Poems (Deerbrook Editions, 2004)]

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Yesterday Maureen left a comment in which she asked if I'd ever thought of writing a combined food-and-poetry book. The answer is "not exactly but sort of."

The food writing I do on this blog is really the only food writing I have ever done. For some unexamined reason, I do not incorporate much about food into my poetry, and to this point my prose has referred to it only in passing. On the other hand, food is a major part of my life. Almost every day I cook a well-planned meal. I grow as much food as I can (which by no means implies self-sufficiency) and use as many local sources as possible. I've gone through periods of being interested in food writers--of the M. F. K. Fisher, Alice B. Toklas, Richard Olney ilk. I am not a collector of cookbooks and at this point do not depend on them; but as source material I still rely on the standbys of Marcella Hazan, Richard Olney, Julia Child, and Irma Rombauer. I like non-European food but am not schooled in producing it myself.

My favorite way to cook is to wander out into my garden at 3 p.m. and see what I can find. Then I combine those pickings with whatever else I have. At this time of year that includes new-laid eggs and the less flashy cuts of meat still left in the freezer. Winter cooking is far more store- and canning-shelf dependent, but the meat options tend to be broader.

None of this information is likely to be new to any of you readers who cook or garden, which is perhaps why I have not found myself writing too much about it. I suppose, in a way, my thoughts about cooking feel both obvious and improvisational. My approach to cooking is also highly social, as writing is not. Meals are a centerpiece of our family life . . . whether family means just the two of us at home, or all four of us, or a holiday party. I arrange the food on our plates. I light candles or pick flowers. Every dinner has its little ceremonies: even emergency grilled-cheese-sandwich night requires tidy cloth napkins. All of this sounds, on the page, like fussiness; but in practice dinner just happens to matter in our lives. And I am fortunate in the fact that I cook for people, both husband and children, who pay attention to what they eat and are interested in flavors, colors, and textures.

P.S. Tomorrow, very, very early, Tom and I will leave home to catch the ferry to North Haven. We'll be there for a couple of days before we fetch Film School Boy and bring him home. So you won't hear from me in the morning; maybe I'll snatch a moment to write later in the day. In the meantime, imagine buffleheads floating on the waves and oysters floating on my plate.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Last night for dinner we ate chard fried in olive oil; chard stems baked with butter and Parmesan; new potatoes with parsley, dill, and butter; and a salad of roasted tiny green beans, tiny cucumbers, and tiny yellow tomatoes on regular sized arugula. For dessert we ate a handful of raspberries macerated in maple syrup and spooned over plain thick yogurt. ("All the produce came from my garden," she announced pridefully, but the gods quickly nipped that hubris in the bud by pointing out that her grapes were beginning to rot on the vines and that Japanese beetles were fornicating all over the hops.)

The season of overflow has begun, and today is baby-pea-picking day. I'm imagining them alongside oven-fried chicken, possibly with a few split and roasted green onions. But enough of this food talk. I've started reading a biography of baseball player Stan Musial as well as a novel by Robertson Davies. Stan is from Donora, Pennsylvania, and thus a point of reference for my western Pennsylvania project. Robertson Davies is more of an "I'm in need of a story" choice. Meanwhile, I edit and edit and mow grass and mow grass, weekends be damned. This is an extraordinarily work-filled summer, which I suppose is good since Tom is presently not working on anything except renovating Paul's bedroom. He's renovating it beautifully, though. This is a man who can build a gorgeous writing table out of leftover oak flooring, some pine scraps, and the careful mixing of two kinds of leftover paint. It's far too nice a table for a 13-year-old ne'er-do-well, and perhaps someone should steal it from him.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sunday Morning Chicken Story

I can't remember why Paul decided to name our bantam hen Minstrel; I think he must have been reading something chivalric at the time. He also decided to name the rooster Long John Silver, although the rooster does not have a peg leg. Paul's chicken-naming decisions are famously opaque. He once named five hens Butter and the sixth Butterscotch. But Butterscotch looked exactly like the Butters, so the variation wasn't at all enlightening.

Minstrel is a peculiar little hen. She is three years old and hasn't laid an egg since she was two. Nonetheless, she is very fond of eggs. Her hobby is to wait until the big hens have filled up the nest with the day's eggs and then to climb on top of the pile and pretend that they're hers. Because she is tiny and the eggs are not, this looks extremely odd.

When the egg collector arrives in the afternoon, he or she is forced to poke around under Minstrel to find all the eggs. Minstrel, as you might expect, does not take kindly to this poking. Yes, she does peck, as an ordinary hen would; but she also squeals. If you have never heard a chicken squeal, you're not alone. I never had, until Minstrel began honing her complaint. It's a very bratty noise.

One could make the argument that Minstrel is merely following her maternal instincts. But once, when she was still laying her own eggs, she managed to sneak out of the chicken house and make a nest under the hosta. Every day for thirteen days she laid an egg in that nest and sat diligently on the heap for an hour or so. Then she deserted it for snacks. As a result, I was saddled with a clutch of thirteen rotten bantam eggs to hide from the Questing Poodle. So I no longer pay any mind to Minstrel's maternal squeals.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

This is what Robert Frost said to a reporter in an interview that I'm assuming from the context must have taken place in 1915 or 1916 and that is quoted in Jay Parini's Robert Frost: A Life--

I always go to farming when I can. I always make a failure of it, and then I have to go to teaching. I'm a good teacher but it doesn't allow me time to write. I must either teach or write: can't do both together. But I have to live.

This just about sums up my situation, except that I've never been a committed-enough farmer to get to the point of failing at it. Unexpectedly I had a job interview the other day, for a full-time teaching job that I didn't get. The committee was perfectly right not to offer me this job, and I was so incredibly relieved that I didn't find myself in the position of having to accept it. Nonetheless I spent most of yesterday castigating myself. Why can't I be the sort of person who is perfect for this job? I am, after all, a good teacher, in love with my subject, fond of kids and patient with them, competent at discipline, a quick learner, energetic, idealistic, yet also pragmatic. Why, despite these advantages, is it clear to all the world, including myself, that I am entirely unsuited for real work? Argh.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A poem for summer and my friend Jilline, who loved it. It's forthcoming in the new CavanKerry collection Same Old Story and has already appeared in the journal U.S. 1 Worksheets. It is highly appropriate that Jilline, the press, and the journal are (or were) 100 percent Jersey. Because so is this weather.

Bargain Shopper

Dawn Potter

I miss you, Jilline, though stuck in this frozen so-called spring

I don’t picture you regretting my grim haunts; you, the girl

Who adored high summer, sporting your cheap slinky cling-

Tight blouses, those cat-eye shades propped in your dyed curls,

Your pink-flowered skirts, and a pair of flapping tacky lamé slides

On your big sore feet. Your beau-idée of taste was a dollar sale

At Marshall’s, the two of us name-dropping Ruskin and Gide,

Stage-whispering, “There’s your boyfriend,” across the gaudy aisles

At first sight of every funny-looker we met: those goat-

Faced circus clowns, those clad-entirely-in-blue albinos—

What freaks wandered this earth! . . . and you, decked out

Like a discount drag queen, lovingly deriding my beige vinyl

Sandals half-mended with bread ties. Only your puff of frail hair

Mentioned you were dying. The freaks pretended not to stare.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

I woke up in the middle of the night and was seized by despair. My brain was announcing: Your Milton talk for the Frost Place seminar is entirely stupid. There's not one smart idea in it. The seminar will be filled with participants and teachers who know far more than you do about everything concerning poetry. Don't keep pretending you have anything interesting to say.

What I want to know is, Why do brains pull this shit? Why? Don't they have anything better to do?

Now that I'm awake, and my brain has shut up, I've returned to being nervous about the Milton talk in an entirely reasonable way, as in: Let the thing sit on the shelf for a week; then reread it and decide if it's clear, includes enough supporting detail, makes relevant assertions, allows enough time for the participants to discuss the poem, but doesn't permit distracted patter to kidnap the topic and carry it off onto a deserted island to be eaten by snakes.

I'm so irritated with that night brain of mine. You'd think it would have my best interests at heart. But no.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

So today is my actual spot-on twentieth wedding anniversary, and I will be spending the evening listening to Tom do a presentation at PechaKucha Waterville. No, I didn't know what it was either, until I read this. But what he will be doing is presenting twenty slides of recent work and then talking about each one for twenty seconds. Other people will be talking for twenty-second stints about other stuff. One, apparently, will be a kid talking about Dr. Who. So maybe you should come find out what this kid has to say.

So far this week, we have broken the toaster. The bathroom fan began shrieking, and the lawnmower briefly made a strange whimper until Tom removed the stick. In the middle of the night, hooves pounding through the yard woke us both up. A loud baby something-or-other is shouting ravenously in the trees. My guess is blue jay, but crow is also a possibility.

This is what we had for dinner last night: sauteed chicken legs with tomato-garlic reduction, jasmine rice, tiny tiny tiny tiny green peas warmed in scallion butter and sprinkled over the rice, baby mixed greens. But tonight we eat chez Waterville, which I expect means pizza.

P.S. And now one of the pipes on our hot-water heater is emitting a light mist into the basement. Hm.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

from The White Bear

Dawn Potter

She has forgotten the room, forgotten the firelight, forgotten

the cool ironed sham beneath her cheek,

forgotten the shadows under the bed, forgotten the wind at the window,

the stars burning, an owl snatching a wayward rabbit,

the rabbit’s shriek; she has forgotten her mother, her father,

her cottage under moonlight; forgotten the rain,

forgotten the brook that wept like a river.

Only now only now only now.

For dreaming and the act of love are mirrors;

and tonight the girl knows also; but where is her breath,

where is the tender shivering flesh below the ridge of her shoulder?

Where? For she has lost herself, she has lost the white bear,

who is not a bear, but what has he become?

What has she become? Both have cast off their skins, both

grown larger than giants, and each new and solitary cell

undergoes its ruthless joy. Who is the bear, who the woman;

who the air, who the fire; who the knife,

who the wound? How terrible they are;

how near to hate and dreaming is love,

its fury of nail and claw; and how time

narrows and slows, till now there is only

yes and no and yes.

[forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2013 or thereabouts)]

Monday, July 18, 2011

My cabbage plants sprawl over the garden paths like oversized boys on a couch. The sweetpeas are starting to bloom in every shade of Necco wafer (except that dusty gray-black one); a patch of deep-pink sweet Williams has appeared in the hedgerow; scarlet runners are climbing all over the sagging front deck (sagging from where the moose ran into it a few years ago); and unfortunately, Japanese beetles continue to find all other Japanese beetles irresistibly sexy.

It is high summer in Maine. Both boys are gainfully employed at camp, and Tom and I are beginning a fourteen-day twentieth-anniversary celebration of our honeymoon. Today, for instance, I will celebrate by washing only one load of laundry instead of three. I spent a few wandering hours yesterday afternoon writing about Milton . . . "wandering" in that I would compose a sentence, wander off to eat a popsicle, come back, erase the sentence, wander off to pick some sweetpeas, come back, write a paragraph, wander off to drink ice tea. . . . You get the idea. This is my favorite way to write, but it requires an empty house. Otherwise, I get self-conscious about how lazy and unconcentrated I look.

Today, however, I have to edit. I also have to mow grass again at 8 a.m. This lawn of mine has entirely too much grass.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

. . . and today James goes off to spend two weeks by the sea, and Tom and I are home alone for two weeks. And on Wednesday we will have been married for twenty years. And actually it is surprising that I mentioned that milestone because every year we forget our wedding anniversary until my sister calls to remind us. And I will be mowing the grass at 8 a.m. because of the incipient heat. And at the moment I'm sitting here in my thin nightgown shivering because Maine doesn't believe in hot weather at 7 a.m. And it's entirely possible that Tom will bring home lobsters for dinner. And here's a series of car-ride thoughts from my 13-year-old about how life could always be worse:

Mom, imagine having poison ivy and a sunburn.

Mom, imagine having poison ivy and a sunburn and acne.

Mom, imagine having poison ivy and a sunburn and acne, and then you had to shave.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Today is the day of what has become my annual six-hour round-trip drive to Grand Lake Stream, the drop-off point for the wilderness canoe camp that both my sons have attended. This year only Paul is going; James is leaving for two weeks of film school tomorrow.

So Paul and I will drive and drive and drive, meandering north and east over roads that will become progressively emptier. Sometimes the power lines will disappear from the roadsides; then suddenly we'll find ourselves in a papermill town bustling with strip malls and gas stations. Then it, too, will vanish and we will be back to empty roads lined with empty lakes, a crooked trailer, a log skidder idling in a woodyard, an ancient roof-caved house. We'll drive through Indian Township, part of the Passamaquoddy reservation, dilapidated like all else but with a strange momentary aura of housing project. And then, at long last, we'll arrive at Grand Lake Stream, a tidy, poky, thriving, little fishing resort, which seems to have been dropped by cyclone into the midst of loneliness. It sits on the edge of the Grand Lake system, and far out into this system is the base-camp island where my boy will begin his three weeks of Allagash fun. But first he and I will buy sandwiches at the store and then sit on the dock in the hot sunshine and eat them. This year I will not accidentally drop half of my sandwich into the lake. Meanwhile, tourists who don't really know how to operate power boats will come and go, and a few chunky fifth graders will plop off the dock into the water. I will worry about sunburn. Eventually other laden campers will begin arriving; eventually the camp boat will appear far out in the lake; and the kids will huddle into their life jackets and off they will go, down the lake, around the bend of the cove, gone. And then I will get back into my car and drive away.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Thank you all for your good wishes about the Maine Literary Award in Poetry, which I did not win last night. The winner was Richard Foerster, for his collection Penetralia, and you should check it out. Here's the opening of one of the poems in that book, "Despite":

A downsized heart keeps its daily pulse
amid the accumulated clutter, the bric-a-brac
of pack-rat years:

I'm very pleased for Richard. A decade ago, I took a weekend workshop with him . . . in the days when I was petrified about venturing any public steps toward being a writer, when I was still just beginning to formulate the poems that led to Boy Land. So it was an honor, and also very strange, to be a finalist with Richard; and it seems right to me that he should have won.

Last night I did get to visit with numerous people I rarely see, and that was certainly worth four hours in the car. I talked to a copyeditor whose work I admire, which is always a bracing pick-me-up for a fellow copyeditor. And I saw a remarkable moon shining through a window blind.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

I wrote a chunk of my Milton lecture yesterday. It looks like it's shaping up to be all about sentences . . . specifically how, in one passage, JM's sentences began with a dependence on the rhetorical style of Genesis, King James version, and then, by their own propulsion, brought him to made a pure imaginative leap into his own vision of the fifth day of creation.

Here's the passage. See if you can track what's going on: short sentence, slightly longer sentence, two enormous messy sentences, short sentence. Guess which sentences aren't paraphrasing the Bible.

Don't you love seeing Milton get all sloppy and high-strung and vivid and carried away? This, exactly this, is why I learned to love such a grumpy old man. And don't forget he invented these sentences when he was blind.

from Paradise Lost, Book VII

John Milton

And God said, let the Waters generate

Reptile with Spawn abundant, living Soul:

And let Fowl fly above the Earth, with wings

Display’d on the op’n Firmament of Heav’n.

And God created the great Whales, and each

Soul living, each that crept, which plenteously

The waters generated by thir kinds,

And every Bird of wing after his kind;

And saw that it was good, and bless’d them, saying,

Be fruitful, multiply, and in the Seas

And Lakes and running Streams the waters fill;

And let the Fowl be multipli’d on the Earth.

Forthwith the Sounds and Seas, each Creek and Bay

With Fry innumerable swarm, and Shoals

Of Fish that with thir Fins and shining Scales

Glide under the green Wave, in Sculls that oft

Bank the mid Sea: part single or with mate

Graze the Seaweed thir pasture, and through Groves

Of Coral stray, or sporting with quick glance

Show to the Sun thir wav’d coats dropt with Gold,

Or in thir Pearly shells at ease, attend

Moist nutriment, or under Rocks thir food

In jointed Armor watch: on smooth the Seal,

And bended Dolphins play: part huge of bulk

Wallowing unwieldy, enormous in thir Gait

Tempest the Ocean: there Leviathan

Hugest of living Creatures, on the Deep

Stretcht like a Promontory sleeps or swims,

And seems a moving Land, and at his Gills

Draws in, and at his Trunk spouts out a Sea.

Meanwhile the tepid Caves, and Fens and shores

Thir Brood as numerous hatch, from th’ Egg that soon

Bursting with kindly rupture forth disclos’d

Thir callow young, but feather’d soon and fledge

They summ’d thir Pens, and soaring th’ air sublime

With clang despis’d the ground, under a cloud

In prospect; there the Eagle and the Stork

On Cliffs and Cedar tops their Eyries build:

Part loosely wing the Region, part more wise

In common, rang’d in figure wedge thir way,

Intelligent of seasons, and set forth

Thir Aery Caravan high over Seas

Flying, and over Lands with mutual wing

Easing thir flight; so steers the prudent Crane

Her annual Voyage, borne on Winds; the Air

Floats, as they pass, fann’d with unnumber’d plumes:

From Branch to Branch the smaller Birds with song

Solac’d the Woods, and spread thir painted wings

Till Ev’n, nor then the solemn Nightingale

Ceas’d warbling, but all night tun’d her soft lays:

Others on Silver Lakes and Rivers Bath’d

Thir downy Breast; the Swan with Arched neck

Between her white wings mantling proudly, Rows

Her state with Oary feet: yet oft they quit

The Dank, and rising on stiff Pennons, tow’r

The mid Aereal Sky: Others on ground

Walk’d firm; the crested Cock whose clarion sounds

The silent hours, and th’ other whose gay Train

Adorns him, color’d with the Florid hue

Of Rainbows and Starry Eyes. The Waters thus

With Fish replenisht, and the Air with Fowl,

Ev’ning and Morn solemniz’d the Fift day.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Today I need to make bread, get a tire fixed, take a boy out for a haircut, edit a special-ed textbook, and continue writing a lecture about Paradise Lost. At the moment I am, as usual for this time of day, sitting at the kitchen table, drinking strong coffee, and watching bird fights at the feeder. Blue jays versus morning doves is the 7 a.m. feature.

Maine is presently enjoying its ten minutes of summer. The air is heavy with the scent of roses.

Tomorrow evening I will drive to Portland on my new tire and attend the Maine Literary Awards, which this year seems to be set up to mimic the Academy Awards. We don't know who will win but we have to make sure that our acceptance speeches are ready anyway. I think I won't win, which is fine. But it will be a long drive to Portland and back with no baseball on the radio to keep me awake.

This is a dull post, I know. I blame its dullness on the tire.

A few people wrote to me about yesterday's post, which they said made sense to them. I was relieved. Sometimes I get carried away.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The comments on yesterday's post, while lovely in their own right, are making me realize that I wasn't clear enough about explaining my sudden connection to the sentence I quoted from Frost's letter. Subject matter is only a single element of that connection. Yes, there's the "minor poet" bit and there's the "village" bit and there's the "millstone around the neck" bit; and yes, any of you who've read anything I've written are aware that, as topics, they all rise and fall among my themes and anxieties. But as much as anything, it is the sentence itself that feels so familiar, that feels as if it's spent its entire existence stretching and preening among the coils of my mind. The shock is not the subject matter but the saying of the subject matter.

Let's look at the sentence again, and I will try to show you what I mean.

"Perhaps it will help you understand my state of mind if I tell you that I have lived for the most part in villages where it were better that a millstone were hanged about your neck than that you should own yourself a minor poet."

This is a working-itself-out sentence. It begins with a long clause of consideration. The sentence is preparing to allow itself to speak. It has an audience--"you"--but it is shy of speaking to this audience, though at the same time it is eager to reveal itself. "Perhaps," says the sentence, "a sentence beginning with the unclear antecedent it will help me lure you, you, you into caring about my state of mind, and, yes, now that I'm here at the end of this clause, I find myself ready to illustrate an entirely different state of mind that until this moment in my sentence I had not quite realized I needed to show you."

Now the sentence begins its storytelling--"I have lived for the most part in villages"--an exaggeration, certainly, given Frost's experiences in San Francisco and Lawrence, Massachusetts, neither one of which is a village, but an important exaggeration because a sentence is the delicate purveyor of myth . . . the deprecation of "for the most part," the choice of "villages" rather than "small towns": the word choice casts a gleam of innocence, of modesty; and then, immediately, we have have violence: "where it were better that a millstone were hanged about your neck than that you should own yourself a minor poet." Oh, this subjunctive! . . . "were better," "were hanged"! . . . and the archaic reserve of "that you should own yourself." The tensions, the knots, of these verb forms are notable. Yet notice, too, how the "you," at first so distant from the sentence, has become an actor in this imagined drama, how "you" and "I" have fused into a single character. That is a violence, as much of a violence as the melodramatic millstone--which is a lie, of course. People in villages don't care if you write poems. They do care if you're a sloppy farmer and behave strangely about money and pull your kids in and out of school and keep quitting your job and milk the cows at midnight. But "you" doesn't need to know all that. "You" is now too busy being "I."

This sentence is just the sort of sentence I write. It's filled with lies and myth, and bursts of candor, and peculiar verb tenses, and clauses of consideration, and prepositional manipulation. It listens to itself talk; it carves out a rhetorical space on the page; it follows its own stream bed; it is an accident that is hugely purposeful. It also happens to deal with my own subject matter.

Do you see what I am trying to say? Do you understand at all why this sentence disturbs me so much? Or am I still being unclear?

Monday, July 11, 2011

One of the books I have been pecking at lately is Jay Parini's biography of Robert Frost. Although I feel as if I'm reading it at earthworm speed, I somehow have managed to reach page 135. I daresay I've missed most of the details, but I didn't miss this one--a sentence from a letter to a new friend:

"Perhaps it will help you understand my state of mind if I tell you that I have lived for the most part in villages where it were better that a millstone were hanged about your neck than that you should own yourself a minor poet."

After reading that sentence, I knew I had already thought those words myself. The sentence feels like reverse plagiarism, as if Frost had to steal it from my 2011 head in order to say it in a 1913 letter.

I suppose you could see my remark as arrogant, but to me it seems to indicate a more insidious link. I've never read this biography before, nor have I read any collection of Frost's letters. So why is the man speaking what I already know by heart?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

I haven't been reading many books lately; and because, since the age of six, I've been a book drunkard, not reading is an odd predicament for me to be in. I do feel calm about it, despite the strangeness, which is not what I feel when I haven't been writing for a while, when I become all jangled and pessimistic and melodramatically self-hating. But I am puzzled about this reading drought. I might blame it on summer: everyone's home, the house is small, the boys are large and sociable. I might blame it on my editing schedule, which is overwhelming and eye-exhausting. But, truly, when I need to read, nothing can stop me--neither rackety children, nor the pressures of lawn mowing, nor other people's deadlines. And for whatever reason, right now I do not need to read.

After the murders, when I was grasping for comfort, I fell headfirst into Stevenson's Kidnapped and that felt exactly right. But since then, books have not desired me. I pick one up, read a few lines, and then set it down again on the kitchen table. My mind wanders away from the story instead of burrowing into it. The tale and I are well mannered but estranged.

In my essay about rereading War and Peace (which I believe I reprinted in its entirety somewhere on this blog--the essay, not W&P), I wrote:
On its simplest level, rereading books is a childish habit, like biting my nails or agreeing to play Monopoly only if I can be the dog. But children understand there’s satisfaction in familiarity. When I reread a book, I’m already prepared for all sudden deaths and thwarted romances. The shock of the new is not, to me, a literary recommendation. It’s not that I dislike discovering unknown books. I just like reading them again better. Sometimes my desire to reread a well-loved book erupts twice in one year, sometimes once in a decade. Often I reread books I only sort of enjoyed the first time through, and fairly often I reread books that actively annoy me but that I hope will have a medicinal effect on my character or my brain. I’ve been known to reread books that have no good qualities whatsoever, just for old times’ sake.

Now I'm seeing not reading as its own childish reaction--a refusal to concentrate, a stubborn resistance to imagination. At the same time I know this separation won't last. And I'm wondering which book will be the one that recasts the spell.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Saturday morning, a pale sun and faint raindrops. A robin trilling and, farther into the forest, a thrush singing its wistful liquid tune. I have never heard a nightingale's song, but how could it be more beautiful than the song of the hermit thrush?

Yesterday at Paul's baseball game, I saw the eagle again, and then I saw two eagles, and then I saw the eagles' nest and heard the baby eagles squealing for dinner. Behind the backstop cows were grazing. Next to me sat one of my former music students, who had just graduated from high school. He bounced into the bushes looking for foul balls and shouted, "It's a Harmony kid!" when our boys came up to bat. A rising seventh-grader, about three feet tall, made the most beautiful bunt I have ever seen. My own son was parked on the bench for two-thirds of the game and did nothing spectacular whatsoever, but later he told me that this is the most fun he's ever had on a baseball team. All the players have black butts from sitting on whatever's stuck to that very dirty bench, and a team full of black butts is comic in the field.

I carried a biography of Robert Frost in my bag but didn't read it. Further down the line of parent lawn chairs, someone was talking about "bad ambulance incidents I have seen," which I avoided listening to. Later he changed his chat to "bad apples I have bought at the grocery store," which I also didn't listen to. I wished this field had a bathroom, and so did everyone else. Occasionally we reminisced about Farm League, as in "Remember when the little boys kept leaving the field one by one to visit the bushes and didn't realize that what they were doing was completely visible to everyone watching the game?"

One of the eagles went for a low soar over the field, and a tiny bird--maybe a robin or a red-winged blackbird--got tough and tried to chase it. The eagle was supercilious and ignored the pest. Dusk came on, and the parents got cold. One of them walked back to his car for a smoke and returned with the news that the Red Sox were beating the Orioles 8 to 1 in the first inning. This was cheering, but we were still cold. Eventually, to our great relief, our sons struck out in the ninth, and Paul and I drove home through a purple and orange sunset, where we were greeted by spaghetti carbonara, spinach salad, Portuguese white wine (for one of us), and a benches-clearing-brawl on Red Sox radio.

No cows behind the backstop at Fenway.

Friday, July 8, 2011

I am having a hard time thinking of anything to write to you this morning. Two cups of French roast have not helped, nor has the angsty teenage bluejay shrieking in the thicket behind the house. I did wake up suddenly at four o'clock with the impression that the rooster had been crowing the first few bars of Bach's "Toccata and Fugue." And I did spend far too much dreamtime castigating myself for now-forgotten sins of daily incompetence. Mostly they involved money, but some may have also involved bad hair, bad poems, and murder. The anxiety-mind is a shameless composer of medleys.


George Herbert (1593-1633)

Lord, with what care hast Thou begirt us round!

Parents first season us; then schoolmasters

Deliver us to laws; they send us bound

To rules of reason, holy messengers,

Pulpits and Sundayes, sorrow dogging sinne,

Afflictions sorted, anguish of all sizes,

Fine nets and stratagems to catch us in.

Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,

Blessings beforehand, tyes of gratefulnesse,

The sound of glorie ringing in our eares:

Without, our shame; within, our consciences;

Angels and grace, eternall hopes and fears.

Yet all these fences and their whole array

One cunning bosome-sin blows quite away.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Because Carlene asked for the couscous and chicken salad recipe, here it is. I remind you all, in the words of Lewis Carroll's White Knight, that "It's my own invention," and is thus subject to continuous change. This, however, is what we ate last night.

Bring to a boil a large pot of water with a handful of thyme, a few dried hot peppers, and a bay leaf. Drop in two whole chicken legs, reduce the boil to a simmer, and cook the legs for 45 minutes. Then remove the legs and let them sit at room temperature until they don't burn your hands. In the meantime, pour the leftover boiling water over the patch of poison ivy you're trying to kill.

In a large salad bowl, measure out 1 cup of couscous. Sprinkle it thriftily with saffron threads, and pour on 2 cups of boiling water. Stir, and let the mixture sit until the couscous has absorbed all the water.

Pick the chicken meat off the bones, and tear the chunks into bite-sized pieces. Add them to the salad bowl, along with whatever stuff you can find in your garden. For instance, after hiding the bones from the dog, you might add sliced radishes, sliced green onions, chopped garlic scapes (those pointy white flowers that curl up from garlic plants), half a jar of capers (not from the garden, but salty-sour is good with chicken), and a whole lot of chopped parsley.

Judiciously add kosher salt. Recklessly grind on the black peppercorns. Pour in some extra-virgin olive oil and a splash of white-wine vinegar. Mix with enthusiasm, and serve the salad over fresh arugula and spinach leaves (from which all caterpillars have been removed), alongside hot sourdough bread and watermelon balls.

Candlelight is important because the power is bound to go out during the massive thunderstorm. Later you can eat strawberry tart and listen to the Red Sox on the crank radio.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Only a brief post this morning: I woke up at 3:45 a.m., convinced that I'd never fall asleep again, but promptly did, and dreamed that I was moving into an apartment in which visitors stored their iPads in the fireplace grates. Then I got up late, had to scramble to help Construction Worker Boy pack his lunch, feed the screeching hens, mix up sourdough for bread, and then suddenly Linda called to ask me to go for a walk with her to the cemetery.

In the meantime, the Poison Ivy Kid is still sleeping soundly in his tent. In the meantime, I'm not editing. In the meantime, the day is heating up, the pumpkin plant grew a foot overnight, and I'm imagining chicken and couscous salad for dinner, along with strawberry tart.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

S0mewhere outside my kitchen window, an unseen bird is making seagull noises. Because I live in the middle of a forest, the possibility of an actual seagull squawking among my trees does not seem likely. But who knows? A few days ago, while I was sitting in a lawn chair at a Babe Ruth baseball game, an eagle glided over the field--very low, so close to the ground that I could easily see his talons--followed by a cranky screaming gull in hot pursuit. The eagle was considerably larger than the gull but seemed to be abashed, having been caught in some embarrassment involving the gull's nest, I presume. The triumphant bad-tempered gull chased him into a fir tree, where he sat for some time, hunched up, with his feathers all awry. He did not look much like a nation's symbol of power and prosperity. What he did look like was a formerly successful hedge fund manager with a cocaine habit and a new divorce.

Today is the day that I have to go back to work, like many of the rest of you. I am not eager, and neither are you, I daresay. Truckloads of copyediting await me, which on the one hand is good since Tom is temporarily unemployed yet on the other hand is not good since Tom is temporarily unemployed. I tell you: there's always some pressing reason not to want to work for a living.

Monday, July 4, 2011

I have nothing at all planned for the Fourth of July. This is fine with me. On the one hand, I wouldn't mind catching up with garden weeding and lawn mowing. On the other, I also wouldn't mind if it rained all day and forced me to stay inside and make a rhubarb pie while listening to the Red Sox beat the Blue Jays.

Today's menu is likely to be lime-marinated cube steaks alongside a giant salad and the aforementioned rhubarb pie, unless someone girds up his or her loins to go strawberry picking.

In the course of reading Parini's bio of Frost, I came across this poem, which reminds me of how often I have had to spend the Fourth of July making hay. My memory of haying isn't silent, however: it has a drone--regular, regular, hour after hour--the trancelike chorus of tractor, power-takeoff, bailer, and clockwork sunburnt men. I used to sing to that drone as a child, and dream of it, and I still hear it in my head.


from A Boy's Will (1913)

Robert Frost

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound--
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Finally I've begun to allow myself to step back and look at this past week's Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. Our group was somewhat smaller than we've had in past years, yet it retained its usual breadth and variety of experience: teachers from private schools and public schools, urban schools and rural schools; teachers from South Carolina, Detroit, Minneapolis, DC, New England. We had a young participant who'd never taught a class and a few who had been in the classroom for decades. We had teachers who thought of themselves as poets and teachers who were petrified of poetry.

Baron and I began the first day with our usual dictation project: that is, I read a poem out loud--in this case, Robert Frost's "Range-Finding"--and the participants copied it down, word for word, comma for comma, line for line. Then Baron asked, "What's the most important word in this poem?" And here's when the floodgates opened: not one person in that barn could tear him or herself away from this task or the adoration of this task, for the rest of the week. Every single year, the moment is a miracle.

We had two visiting poets. On Monday, Martha Carlson-Bradley spoke at length about grammar and syntax in poetry, with a particular focus on Emily Dickinson. On Tuesday, Teresa Carson spoke about drama in poetry, with readings from Browning, Keats, and Jack Wiler. Each morning the teachers shared their own classroom poetry projects, and each afternoon I gave the teachers a poem and a writing prompt, which they took back to their tents or rooms and used as inspiration for their own first-draft poems.

On Wednesday, for the first time ever, Baron and I reascended the dais and ran an all-day revision workshop, using the poems the teachers had generated from my writing prompts. Our goal was to guide them into productive classroom discussion of student work and to lead them toward simple, straightforward options for revision. My feeling is that this day went very well, but the participant evaluations will set me straight if I'm wrong. In any case, it was a good experience for me, as a coordinator of this conversation, to be able to help the participants collect their responses into a coherent conversation and also to step back and talk to them about how it feels to be the "teacher" who is orchestrating this conversation. It was a schizophrenic experience, in a useful way.

Every morning, before the other activities started, I read a passage or two from The Notebooks of Robert Frost; and in the spirit of those moments, I offer you this comment, originally from a talk that Frost gave at Wesleyan University in 1927, and quoted in Jay Parini's Robert Frost: A Life:

The freedom I'd like to give is the freedom I'd like to have. It's the freedom of my material. You might define a schoolboy as one who could recite to you everything he read last night, in the order in which he read it. That's just the opposite of what I mean by a free person. The person who has freedom of his material is the person who puts two and two together, and the two and two are anywhere out of space and time, and brought together.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Well, the Poison-Ivy Kid managed to get his swollen feet into his cleats and did, after all, take part in his first-ever Babe Ruth game. And even though Dexter lost to Howland, the boys played well. This kind of team is a new thing for Paul: everyone is a decent player, which is to say, right field is not reserved for the kid who's so bad you can't put him anywhere else. Paul has always played center field, and has always hated it because he's seen it as demeaning. No matter how often his mother tells him, "You're in center field because you can cover the entire outfield because you're fast and because you can catch the ball," he sulks. Last night, he was the kid playing right field, and he was the kid who was busy busy busy because everyone was hitting to right. He said afterwards, "Outfield's more interesting than I thought." His mother did refrain from "I told you so."

In other news, you might have gathered from Julia's comments on yesterday's post that How the Crimes Happened is a finalist for the 2011 Maine Literary Award in Poetry. Winners will be announced on July 14, but as far as I'm concerned, I wish that everyone could win. I know many people on this list, and I'm so happy for all of them.

Today's schedule: (1) Drop the Poison-Ivy Kid off for a doubleheader with Millinocket. (2) Pick strawberries. (3) Whip an extravagant amount of cream.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A couple of weirdnesses. I did my exorcism reading at the Frost Place and then opened my email, from which I learned that Guernica wants to publish "Son-in-Law" and that an NPR affiliate in Santa Cruz has recorded "Ugly Town." Two hard-to-take Harmony poems in one fell swoop. If you happen to have been in the Frost barn during my reading, you'll know why this all seems so strange and, yes, unnerving. If you weren't there, I'll explain that I wrote "Son-in-Law" at about this time last year and that its characters are based on my friend Linda and her son-in-law Steven Lake, who murdered Linda's daughter and grandchildren a couple of weeks ago. And "Ugly Town" appeared in the British journal New Walk last year. It's the poem J. E. Coetzee is rumored to like, which adds yet another layer of je-ne-sais-quoi to the situation. I haven't listened to the recording, but Ruth tells me the reader is sweeter-tempered about the poem than I tend to be.
Here I am at home, after a week at what my son James calls Poet Camp, a title that is probably more or less accurate, except that we toasted no marshmallows and no one fell into the lake. I feel like doing nothing at all, but my house says otherwise. Thus, I am washing dirty towels and sweeping a week's worth of grit off the kitchen floor and cooking what James calls "a healthy breakfast" to tide him over during today's handy-boy gig as a carpenter's assistant/coordinator of destruction. "A healthy breakfast" is a code phrase for "bacon," which according to James is a great way to improve SAT scores. It also buoys the spirits of those who are about to spend the day ripping rotten cedar shingles off the side of a house alongside their best friend's dad, whose own teenage son is away at a how-to-get-yourself-ready-to-go-to-college-someday-because-we're-worrying-you-won't program and who is thus forced to hire a teenage-son substitute to help him out with this crappy job. Ah, summer and its minimum-wage mementos.

Son #2, he of the "athlete's foot is destroying my life" phone weeping, has proven not to be suffering from athlete's foot but a serious case of poison ivy ("I didn't know that was poison ivy when I ran into the patch barefoot to look for a baseball" even though his parents have been pointing it out to him for his entire life). The result is swollen feet and legs and howling misery. I'm thinking that he won't be playing in that Babe Ruth game today.

As you can see, Poet Camp is quickly fading into a quaint memory of quiet.