Saturday, April 30, 2011

1. I'm reading tomorrow at DelRossi's on Route 137N in Dublin, New Hampshire, which, according to the map, is in the middle of the southern part of the state, not far from the Massachusetts border. I'm not exactly sure what time I'll start reading, but I need to be there by 3 p.m., so presumably I'll be on shortly thereafter. The afternoon includes an open mic and a second reader, Gary Lenhart, whom I've never met but whom the Internet tells me teaches at Darmouth. Here's a link to one of his poems.

2. Poets and teachers: the Frost Place still has scholarships available for all three of its summer conferences. Applications are due by May 10, so, as H. E. Rey remarked in regards to Curious George and fire emergencies, hurry, hurry, hurry.

3. It is a generally acknowledged truth that, when the princesses on a float are smoking and texting while waiting for the parade to start, they are not real princesses. Also, when you can see their tattoos through their dresses, you should start getting suspicious.

4. One week from today, I will not be waking up early and driving to the high school gym to take the SAT. I'm so happy about this.

5. One week from tomorrow, I will be waking up early and driving to Boston, where for the first time in 25 years or so, I will be in the stands at a Red Sox game. So what if they lose? So what if one of our seats is "obstructed"? All I'm worried about is sunburn, windy rain, getting hit by a baseball, and the prospect of having to run the bases because it's Mother's Day. Here's hoping the Fenway execs have given up on that idea.

Friday, April 29, 2011

One moving result of my western Pennsylvania research has been the notes I've received from friends and acquaintances who also have family links to the region or to coal mining. My friend Jean has kindly allowed me to share what she has learned about her own ancestry.

The two places we can trace my grandmother's family to in southeastern Pennsylvania are Homer City and Lucernemines. By the time my grandmother was there (in the mid-1910s), her mother had left her father back in the Wilkes-Barre area and was living with the man she would marry next.

My grandmother came to the U.S. on a boat through Ellis Island with her parents when she was 6 months old. I think it was January 1906. They settled in the Sugar Notch/Warrior Run area, and her father became a coal miner. Seems he became an alcoholic as well. Apparently he would recite and sometimes sing poetry. It's unclear how much of the poetry was original (or lucid). She knows that much of it was Dante since both her parents were from the region of Italy where Dante had achieved virtual sainthood.

My grandmother was young when her mother took her and the two younger children (both boys) and left the father. It appears they left with the future step-father, but I know that more from census records than from family stories. Her dad died in 1926, three weeks after my grandmother gave birth to her second child. She was in Cleveland and didn't travel at that time to the funeral. Her mother had a child with the stepfather, but didn't formally marry him until her first husband died. Clearly, they never divorced.

At some time in the 1950s, my grandmother, her brother, and her sister-in-law (who designed tombstones) traveled to Pennsylvania to put a stone on the father's grave. It had been about 30 years since his death. By the time I was 19, all of these people were dead. I'd taken enough interest in family history to be able to piece together some of their locations. I wanted to find my grandfather's grave, but still didn't know where in the great state of Pennsylvania he was buried. I did as much as I could in the early 1990s by letters and phone but found no record of his burial anywhere. Finally got in a car and drove to Wilkes-Barre and started looking around. Went 3-4 times in the next couple years and walked up and down rows and rows of cemeteries without finding him at all.

Took my mother with me in the late 1990s. We walked a few of the same cemeteries--including one that I always considered the most likely location. When I was with my mom, I discovered that the cemetery extended well beyond a wrought-iron fence that seemed to cut it off from a wooded area. Just beyond, we found many more graves. Mom and I split up and began walking and reading names. We met in the middle having found nothing--only to discover that his grave was right between us. Compared to the graves of the same age around him, his gravestone was in remarkable condition because of its relative youth.

Picked up some coal (anthracite) from the hill just a few yards from where he was buried. The largest piece is in my herb garden. Only after finding his grave did we discover his death certificate, which listed the cause of death as "black lung." Always knew he died at 42. My grandmother cited his young age often.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

This morning, after paging through my father-in-law's New Yorker, I found myself, without much foreknowledge of the subject, puttering through Claudia Roth Pierpont's essay about British explorer and travel writer Freya Stark, whose books about the Middle East were popular in the 1930s and 40s. I haven't read very far into this essay, but I may have gotten as far as I'm going to get--not because it's uninteresting but because I ran across a remark so deeply dismaying yet true that I may not have the heart to venture beyond it. Here's the paragraph in which Pierpont leads up to Stark's comment:

Stark could talk her way into any situation and, most of the time, out again, in a remarkable number of languages. [In April 1941] she had just talked her way back to Baghdad from Tehran, when . . . she was stopped by Iraqi police at the frontier. All British citizens were barred from proceeding further, and she was officially in custody; others, she learned, had been put in prison camps. Yet she cajoled the station attendant into bringing her tea and her police guard into sharing it, and informed the guard of the sheer impossibility of staying on without a ladies' maid. Surely he could see her problem and wished to be civilized? . . . And the policeman--no longer guarding a prisoner but protecting a lady--put her on the next train to Baghdad. "The great and almost only comfort about being a woman," Stark reflected, in a maxim that encompasses many such events in her illustrious career, "is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no one is surprised."

Perhaps the link is merely coincidental, but in my mind Stark's management of her situation, which I'm sorry to say is still a useful mechanism for dealing with both car trouble and the police, is somehow segueing into the ridiculous and embarrassing birth-certificate accusations that are dogging President Obama as well as a parallel incident here in Maine involving clueless public racism and classism. The situation centers on Philip Congdon, the governor's top economic development advisor, who, according to the Bangor Daily News, resigned after "reportedly offend[ing] multiple groups of people on separate occasions during events in Aroostook County earlier this month. According to multiple sources, Congdon made racially insensitive or inflammatory remarks about [black] college students and dismissive comments about the prospects for economic development in The County," which is sparsely populated and dependent on potato farming.

I would like to say something pithy here, but I find myself unable to compose an intelligent summary to this post, one that would neatly tie up all these frayed edges and demonstrate my sociological acumen. All I can do is put my head into my hands. Why is the American president forced to waste his time dealing with what the New York Times calls "such poisonous fire"? Why did Maine's governor hire an economic development advisor who despises the people he is supposed to help? Why do women still automatically feign stupidity, and why, as Stark notes, is "no one surprised"? Humiliation, it seems, is timeless.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Guess which famous person visited western Pennsylvania in 1842?

The Celebrity did most of his or her traveling by canal. As this period map shows, railroads accounted for only a fraction of the route between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, and that bit of track went over the Alleghenies. The Celebrity explained how the railway worked:

There are ten inclined planes; five ascending, and five descending; the carriages are dragged up the former, and let slowly down the latter, by means of stationary engines; the comparatively level spaces between, being traversed, sometimes by horse, and sometimes by engine power, as the case demands. Occasionally the rails are laid upon the extreme verge of a giddy precipice; and looking from the carriage window, the traveller gazes sheer down, without a stone or scrap of fence between, into the mountain depths below.

As I learned from Daniel Rottenberg's The Kingdom of Coal, the same method was being used in the anthracite region of eastern Pennsylvania to move coal down to barges on the Lehigh River.

The Celebrity was impressed by the Alleghenies--those "frowning hills, sullen with dark trees, and sometimes angry in one red burning spot high up, where unseen men lay crouching round a fire." But as his or her subsequent writings about the continent made clear, pioneer poverty was new to this observer:

There were . . . lodgings for the pigs, nearly as good as many of the human quarters; broken windows, patched with worn-out hats, old clothes, old boards, fragments of blankets and paper; and home-made dressers standing in the open air without the door, whereon was ranged the household store, not hard to count, of earthen jars and pots.

He or she was particularly appalled by the locals' rampant timber cutting. A native of a long-cultivated land, the Celebrity perhaps did not realize that his or her own country had once undergone similar devastation:

The eye was pained to see the stumps of great trees thickly strewn in every field of wheat. . . . It was quite sad and oppressive, to come upon great tracts where settlers had been burning down the trees and where their wounded bodies lay about, like those of murdered creatures, while here and there some charred and blackened giant reared aloft two withered arms, and seemed to call down curses on his foes.

These comments from 1842 are intriguing, not least because they feel so contemporary (except for the inclined planes). As a child visiting the Alleghenies in the 1970s, I was well aware that Appalachian living styles were not the same as those in suburban New England. My grandfather would not have hesitated to patch a window with worn-out hats. "Home-made dressers" did stand "in the open air." Moreover, much as he loved his farm, my grandfather was oblivious to its health. For instance, he either burnt his garbage in the kitchen stove or loaded it onto a tractor sled, hauled it out to a quarry in the middle of his hayfield, and dumped it. This was fun. Sometimes I was allowed to drive the tractor on these expeditions, and my sister and I looked forward to flinging soda bottles into the rocks and listening to them shatter. Everything went into that quarry: plastic, paint cans, car batteries. Years passed before I realized what a dreadful legacy this good man had inflicted on his own home.

I'm sure the region's long industrial history influenced that attitude. People get used to poison. A few days ago I was listening to novelist Denise Giardina speak on NPR about the West Virginia coalfields. She compared her community's relationship to coal to an addict's relationship to a drug: a terrible dependence on what is killing it, a terrible indifference to the future. Yet as the Celebrity's 1842 account makes clear, coal was not the first regional devastation. The creation of the farmland pastoral required a similar ruthless indifference. The pattern of dominance is longer than industry, longer than pioneering, longer than Indian-settler conflicts, longer than human-animal competition. It seems to be a primary urge of life.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

I wonder if I will ever get my garden dug up and planted. It is either covered with snow, or rain, or chickens. At the moment it is covered with all three.

Yesterday I bought tires. Today I will buy an oil change and an inspection and possibly a registration. It is that kind of week. Sometimes I dream of how wonderful it would be to not own a car. My older son, who just received his picture license in the mail, dreams of how wonderful it would be to not have to drive his parents' ugly old Suburu. My younger son dreams of how wonderful it would be to drive a chariot while wearing Roman armor.

At the moment, I would merely like to dream. I appear to have crossed into the land of insomnia, and here's a poem about sleep and cars that seems strangely appropriate to this disconnected post.

Sleep

Dawn Potter

I flaunt my silk underwear,
one more slit-eyed bitch
clogging your cracked headlights.
Any old hag is the girl of your dreams,

and I
am only halfway down the road to rot,
thumb-bone flagging your sleek
Cadillac.

Dust blunders at loose ends,
tornado blue, thick as brains.
I slouch ditch-side,
time's cynic.

Driver, don't make me wait.
Just hit,
hit, and run.

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


Monday, April 25, 2011

Following is the sort of information that makes me feel that writing a poem cycle about the history of western Pennsylvania might just be possible.

"An elephant was exhibited in . . . Greensburg in 1808."

This small fact appears in Scott C. Martin's Killing Time: Leisure and Culture in Southwestern Pennsylvania, 1800-1850, a cultural study that I would like to enjoy reading more than I really am. So far, the book has too much Martin and not enough elephant anecdotes. I'm still hoping, but already my brain has started inventing its own 1808 elephant pictorial, so perhaps the author is actually doing me a service.

Miraculously, I managed to whip up a fine Easter dinner, even though I hadn't been to the grocery store for a week: sirloin soaked in lime marinade and then grilled over wood; mashed potatoes, spring onions, and asiago; a pan of fresh dandelion greens, first of the season, with balsamic vinegar and lots of fried garlic; and a fudge pie. Plus, Tom is going to build me a new chicken yard. I'm so happy. There is practically nothing more infuriating than watching a flock of chickens scratch up a bed of newly planted peas.

Ambiguous hints of chickens in literature, contorted to suit the critic's preconceived notions: Wordsworth writes, "Behold her, single in the field, / Yon solitary Highland Lass! / Reaping and singing by herself; / Stop here, or gently pass!" If one assumes (as one must) that the aforementioned "Highland Lass!" is a hen, one must also admit that the narrator rather enjoys watching her "Reaping" "in the field." Yet the reader should note that even he, this non-farming passerby, limits his enjoyment to a single "Lass!"

Sunday, April 24, 2011

We drove back to Harmony in the pouring rain, to a 40-degree house that took some time to become habitable. Then I discovered that mice had been stockpiling sunflower seeds in my bed. Welcome home. Sigh.

But I removed the seeds, Tom cranked the woodstove, the boys shared their candy, and we sat on the couch under blankets and watched Airplane. So in fact we had a pleasant evening after all.

What we'll have for Easter dinner is anyone's guess. Unless the grocery store is magically open for the holiday, our vegetable side dish will be pickles and carrot sticks. For the first time in years, I did not make hot cross buns, and the boys received no Easter baskets. But outside the fog is lifting, and a glimmer of sun is limning the remnants of snow. It is even possible that a daffodil might bloom today.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Because I am in Amherst, I believe I will share some commentary about Sir Jeffrey Amherst, who does not seem to be the sort of man who should have donated his name to a town that builds salamander crosswalks and declares itself a nuclear-free zone.

In The War That Made America, Fred Anderson writes about the dying General Forbes's plea to Commander in Chief Amherst.

Relations with native people were critical, [Forbes] wrote: Amherst must not think triflingly of the Indians or their friendship, for Britain's hold in the Ohio depended upon having Indian relations "settled on some solid footing." Indian affairs had almost always been misunderstood, "or if understood, perverted to purposes serving particular ends." . . . Amherst, Forbes stressed, must take a strong hand in dealing with all these potential sources of disorder. If Amherst neglected to protect the Indians' interest, and particularly if uncontrolled white settlement occurred west of the Alleghenies, chaos could easily engulf the region, and the interior of North America would be lost to the crown.

There is nothing to indicate that the commander in chief paid any attention to the concerns that the dying Forbes voiced with such clarity and fervor.

No, instead Amherst okayed the projects of handing out smallpox-infested blankets to the native people and alienating the colonists whom Britain had taxed and requisitioned for the war. Eventually he returned to England "to deal with pressing personal concerns (among others, his estate had fallen into disrepair and his wife had gone mad)." Expecting a hero's welcome, he instead was greeted with "serious questioning about what had gone wrong in America." The king declined to offer him a peerage, "merely remark[ing] that while Sir Jeffrey's accomplishments were no doubt impressive, they 'would not be lessened if he left the appreciating [of] them to others.'"

Kings can get away with breathtaking rudeness, don't you think? Not that Amherst deserved anything better. I do wonder what happened to his wife, and why.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Yesterday was a beautiful, blustery day, and I spent it in Providence, walking up and down steep College Hill and admiring the loveliness of the city. While Tom and James toured the Rhode Island School of Design, I spent the morning with my mother at the RISD museum, where we saw many desirable cocktail dresses, an overdressed 18th-century infant with an expression on its face that convinced us that he was soaking wet, plenty of faithful representations of faithful dogs, a comic film about a regular living room that, over the course of 25 minutes, is gradually invaded by housepets and livestock, and, our favorite, a beautiful wooden statue of St. George on a tiny horse. According to the card on the wall, the statue was carved and painted in medieval Spain and was probably dragged or carried during a religious procession as a symbol of military valor. Yet George looks very young and very tired, as does his little horse, and the worn paint and simple, uneven carving style are strangely and beautifully expressive. It really was a lovely piece, and I'm sorry I can't find any links to it so that you can see it too.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

For the past couple of days, I've had a hard time finding time or space to post anything here. And today, as soon as I sat down with an empty hour, I discovered that Jeanne Leiby, editor of the Southern Review, who just published my Millbank essay and who was also the same age as I am, was killed yesterday in a car accident. I didn't know Jeanne personally, but she wrote me a lovely letter, which sometimes feels like knowing someone. So I feel very sad, and now everything I was going to say about the Basketball Hall of Fame seems liable to be trite.

Anyway, I was supposed to go to Boston today, but travel connections became snarled, Tom became high-strung, and Paul and I would rather not walk around aimlessly in the rain anyhow. Instead, we are doing a crossword puzzle and later plan to watch baseball and eat popcorn. Yesterday's Hall of Fame outing was more fun than I might have expected. My father-in-law and I had a fine time together. We discovered that early team uniforms make a very entertaining exhibit, and we also were introduced to some excellent team names, including the Tulsa Business College Stenos. But probably my favorite was the Brooklyn Visitations. Here's a link that will show you their very nicely designed team logo. You also might like to see a picture of the Renaissance. Scroll down the page to get a good look at the socks.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Today is the first day of school vacation, and last night it snowed--not a great deal of snow but enough to make the yard even more un-springlike than it already was. Since we are leaving this land of ice and snow for Massachusetts today, I do have hopes of glimpsing spring at some point in the day. So I am not entirely cast down.

This week, for the first time ever, Tom and I will be donning the robes of Parents Taking Their Teenage Son on College Tours. Actually, only Tom will be wearing the full regalia. I will merely be wearing the lapel pin. Most of my time will be spent entertaining the 13-year-old who is not going on college tours. This is what he wants to do this week: (1) Go to the Basketball Hall of Fame. (2) Go to Harvard Square and buy history books about the Mongol Empire and medieval Japan. (3) Visit a driving range with his grandfather and learn how to smack golf balls. (4) Eat in as many restaurants as possible. I will keep you posted about how it all goes.

Meanwhile, the overwhelmed 16-year-old and his father will traipse through southern New England learning about the available varieties of collegiate experience. Fortunately they enjoy each other's company. That's about the best one can say about their "vacation."

P.S. It's the 18th of April. That means it's Patriot's Day in Maine and Massachusetts. And Patriot's Day means the Boston Marathon and a Red Sox game that starts at 11 a.m. It also means you have to read Longfellow's poem "Paul Revere's Ride." Or better yet, find an old man who can recite it from memory.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Pouring rain this morning, and I overslept--half the time dreaming fitfully about buying a new toothbrush, half the time listening to rain clattering on the porch roof and to white-breasted nuthatches conversing in the maple tree outside the window. According to Roger Tory Peterson, the song of the white-breasted nuthatch is "a rapid series of low, nasal, whistled notes on one pitch: whi, whi, whi, whi, whi, whi." Their note is "a nasal yank."

The ones outside my window mostly said, "Yank."

Usually we have more red-breasted than white-breasted nuthatches. Birdman Roger describes their note as "ank or enk, sounding like a baby nuthatch or a tiny tin horn." You'd think these sounds would be easy to confuse, but they're not. Even when mostly asleep during a loud rainstorm, I can tell a yank from an ank.

One bird I've been hoping to hear is the American woodcock. Tom likes to sing songs about the American woodcock to the tune of "American Woman." Perhaps that is why it avoids our yard. We saw one once, about a decade ago. It sat in the same pile of dried leaves for three days straight, and it looked a great deal like dried leaves, except for its pointy beak and dimwitted eye. American woodcocks do not exude intelligence. Birdman Roger tells me that, "at dusk in spring, [the male woodcock] utters a nasal beezp." I don't recall the woodcock in the leaf pile ever saying a thing. Perhaps it was a female, or perhaps it just forgot. Woodcocks look like the sort of animal that would forget how to say, "Beezp." They remind me of this really dumb cat I once had. If she went out into the yard and turned her back on the house, she'd forget where she was and start crying because she was lost. Dinah had no talents whatsoever, except for shedding. She was very, very good at shedding. Poor thing. Despite her developmental delays, she was extremely sweet, but she was entirely cowed by her roommate, Sebastian the ogre cat, the devil incarnate, the monster from the deep. Everyone was cowed by him. He was like Napoleon in cat form, except that he was bigger than Napoleon.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

from The War That Made America by Fred Anderson

The frontiers of the central colonies collapsed when the first parties of Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo warriors left their Ohio village in the company of troupes de la marine and French-allied Indians from the Great Lakes who had gathered at Fort Duquesne. Their descent on the frontiers of Pennsylvania and Virginia reflected a cold calculus of terror, for the goal was the bring anarchy to the backwoods communities that even in time of peace were were fragile, unstable, and intensely localist in orientation. The fifteen hundred frontier farmers whom the raiders killed and the additional thousand whom they took captive during the last months of 1755 served the strategic purpose of terrorizing hundreds of thousands of settlers and creating a massive refugee crisis to which colonial governments were utterly unprepared to respond. . . .

According to careful modern estimates, the frontier counties of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania lost between one-third to one-half of their populations between 1755 and 1758. During that time approximately 4 percent of the area's prewar inhabitants were either killed or taken captive.

There is no doubt that the native people were driven to fury and desperation. Nonetheless, imagine the terror of these lonely settlers. Imagine your own county losing "between one-third to one-half" of its population within a span of three years. Imagine being afraid to let your child go outside, ever. Imagine having no choice but to let him go outside.

More and more I am feeling that this history-reading project may end up taking the form of some kind of historical poem cycle centering on place: perhaps with invented characters, perhaps with actual historical figures. My thoughts keep turning to Ford Madox Ford's The Fifth Queen, a trilogy of novels focusing on Henry VIII's doomed wife Katherine Howard. Everything in the novels is invented, yet none of it is. But of course I don't write novels. I have to work with the materials I (sometimes) know how to use.

Off to Augusta today, to talk about this unfashionable blog. I'll tell everyone you said hello.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Recently I was informed that blogs are an outdated communication strategy and that I am accomplishing very little by posting here every day. What cheering news! Before, I'd been worrying that this blog was one of those famous distractions a la Twitter and texting; but now that I know I'm unfashionable, I can relax again.

My patter on this subject is only partly sarcastic. It's disturbing how such silly pronouncements can make me feel bad about being behind the times, even though I like being behind the times. Being behind the times has even been a career strategy of sorts. For instance, it's why the Sewanee Review publishes my essays: because most of the people who read like I read have been dead for a while.

Anyway, now you, too, have learned that this blog is un-hip; so if you're still reading it, you will have to start facing the news of your own complicit Luddite-ness.

How ridiculous all this is. Why do people even make those kinds of pronouncements?

What would Virgil say? Let's find out. A cursory glance at the Aeneid reminds me that "the champion / never slowed by a fall, unshaken, goes back to fight / and all the fiercer, anger fueling his power now." In regards to our current topic of conversation, this seems like an overreaction, but certainly it's encouraging (so long as we're not Dido).


Thursday, April 14, 2011

from The Journal of Uriah Brown [1816]

The Aleghany as well as its Surrounding Mountains are ruined and kept poore by the raskally practice of seting fire to the same every 2 or 3 years; the persons that do it ought to be confined to the Mountains within the walls of a penitentiary built of the Materials they produce and fed on the beef of Rattle snakes & bears foot soop until the Great Masterly forests should Assume their natural & official Magnificence again.

Mr. Brown seems to have been an early sort of Greenpeace activist, at least in the confines of his own mind. The excerpt I read shows no signs of actual physical involvement in punishing the raskals. It is rather orthographically rambunctious, however, which has led me to ponder the curious non-errors in his spelling. Why does he write "penitentiary" correctly but misspell "soop"? I find this puzzling.

It rained and rained and sleeted and rained yesterday. This morning, the bare trees are black with wet, but the robins are chortling. More of the snow has melted, but broad patches and plow piles still linger, crusted with last fall's dirty leaves and this spring's dirty chicken footprints. Perhaps by this time next weekend I will be able to see my garden plot again.

Now I have to go choose poems for tonight's reading. I hope you're coming.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tomorrow evening I'm reading at the Rockland Library with Dave Morrison, and then on Saturday I'm doing a panel thing at the Plunkett Festival in Augusta. If you're able to attend either event, I'd love to see you. But possibly you're giving your own reading. At least in Maine, National Poetry Month tends to get ridiculously overscheduled: for instance, I have two friends who are reading in two other midcoast libraries tomorrow night. This seems to suggest the likelihood of three very small audiences.

I'm still working away at my gargantuan reading project, which has presently devolved into an examination of the French and Indian War. Though my intention has been to stay focused on western Pennsylvania, the war itself did no such thing. So I have been spiraling though upstate New York, Nova Scotia, and northern New England, which in my mind have now compressed themselves into a confused wilderness punctuated by inadequate forts, large bodies of water, and self-interested marauders. These include figures such as Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who believed that infecting Indians with smallpox was a fine diplomatic strategy, and whose name today connotes not genocide but liberal college town. They also include the Ojibwa and Ottawa warriors, under French leadership, who attacked an Ohio fort, killed an English trader and a Miami chief, and then ritually ate them. And don't forget the Quakers, whose Pennsylvania province, founded in 1681, "could safely dispense with a militia because it effectively outsourced defense to Indian allies whom no one expected to live according to pacifist principles." (I'm quoting Fred Anderson's The War That Made America, a brief but intense survey of the conflict.) Add to the mix an incompetent, baby-faced George Washington, a few crazy European monarchs, swarms of blackflies, horrible mountain passes, and the fact that the names of everything keep changing from French to English to French to English. What a mess.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Yesterday, as we were eating dinner, the phone rang. Tom answered, and the rest of us listened in. At first we assumed it was a junk call, but then he started making remarks such as "Yes, she lives here." "Yes, she does write books." The boys and I looked at each other, mystified. Finally, Tom said, "Would you like to talk to her?" So he handed over the phone, and I said hello.

It turns out that, on the other end of the line, was a very old woman, who had read an article in the paper about a poet who lived in Harmony. She had never heard of such a thing and decided to find out for herself. So she looked up my number in the phone book and called to see if this poet rumor was true.

After I'd verified that I did in fact write poems, she mentioned that she'd always liked to read poems, though I didn't ever find out what kinds of poems she liked to read. The whole thing was rather embarrassing, and I got flustered and forgot to ask the right questions. But anyway she seemed pleased to have had a conversation with a poet, though all we did was talk about what road I lived on and who had owned the land previously. Unlike poetry, land history is regular rural small talk. What I should have done is to ask her if she knew any poems by heart. Then maybe I would have gotten to hear some Longfellow or Tennyson or something. That would have been sweet.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Last night was our first above-freezing night since early last fall, and this morning I can see that the snow is, finally, receding for good. My garden is still entirely enveloped, but along the edges, among the tree roots, patches of bare ground have slipped into view. Crocuses are blooming beneath the apple tree. Daylily leaves have thrust through the last year's pine duff, the peonies shoots have reddened. Surely, the dandelions are gathering their strength for an onslaught.

It is Monday morning of a new week, and I am hoping that my recent spate of disorganization and error is behind me and that I can stop making stupid mistakes involving calendars and checkbooks and once again assume the mantle of competent adult. As a reader of literary biographies, I know that writers are prone to idiotic behavior, all of which can seem rather charming in print. But it's not charming in real life. It is distressing to feel that one does not have full control of basic management skills. My family is kind and long-suffering, but I wish they didn't have to be.

In between making mistakes, I learned quite a lot about the impetus behind the French and Indian War. I composed a poem from scraps of information about the leading citizens of Scottdale, Pennsylvania, circa 1918. I listened to Otis Redding and baseball on the radio. I washed sheets and hung them in the spring air. I admired my onion seedlings. I read this line from "The Travels of David Thomas" [1816], which struck me as not only beautiful but also an apt metaphor for how we experience our lives:

"[We] ought not to forget, that the track of a traveller is but a line drawn through a country."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

How the Crimes Happened, my most recent collection, includes a set of four poems written during my Paradise Lost odyssey. This is the first of that set. In it, I tried to deal with the very peculiar concept of geography that is a large part of Milton's poem.

The Fall

Dawn Potter


The Fiend thought of the Stairs as a sort of emergency ladder

descending from the firmament like Rapunzel’s braid,

mysterious and glittering, and only occasionally useful

(since God yanked them up as the spirit moved him),

though when operational they worked more or less

like an escalator, sweeping swarms of pintucked angels

grandly into the celestial ballroom, for who would expect

angels to climb hand over hand up a hairy ladder,

panting and sweating like ordinary princes?

At the marge of the Stairs lapped an opalescent sea,

a gulf of liquid pearl, each wave as sluggish as polenta

on the boil, and over it sailed alabaster barges weighed down

with seraphim on tour, though, as he might have expected,

no one waved when he coasted by. For some reason

God had let down the Stairs that day, whether to dare

his enemy to easy ascent or to aggravate his sad exclusion

from the party, who could tell? But as it happened,

the Fiend had other fish to fry.


For the Stairs descended, through a film of sea,

to that playhouse of angels, Earth, toy paradise of trees

and fruit and docile tigers, patient as sleep beneath the slow

ocean ripple; and the Fiend, folding his wings and halting

at the fulcrum of the golden Stairs scaling both Heaven and Earth,

looked with wonder at the sudden view of all this world,

like a climber who bursts from a gnarled, branchy darkness

to find, at one instant, the map of the forest spread before him—

a feast of lakes, rivers, sun-struck glades—and above him

the sky, the sky, the sky! And at sight of such beauty,

the Fiend was seized by joy and discontent, heartrending

in near equal portion, and was stymied for a moment

from his purpose, despite his malice, lingering to scrutinize

the canopy of shade and light, until, with some reluctance,

he shook out his heavy wings and leaped down

through the slow-running sea, down the broad Stairs

toward Earth, falling like Alice through the pure air, past star

after star, bright island worlds, though he never paused

to ask who dwelt there in such happy ignorance.


Saturday, April 9, 2011

Mysteries

Three male family members decide to watch a James Bond movie. The lone female family member is slightly indifferent but doesn't argue. The four gather together around the television. The male family members all promptly fall asleep, leaving the female family member awake to watch their movie.

Once upon a time, there was a dog who licked earwax, a broken bottle, a mouse dead for 6 months, elderly tire water, chicken manure, and a snowed-over hambone. Yet she not only survived; she thrived.

A household owns two paring knives but one disappears. Meanwhile, a Twister game resurfaces.

Crocus flowers. How do they do it?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Instead of books about western Pennsylvania, yesterday's mail brought me literary journals, although one, the Southern Review, includes my essay "The Mysteries of Millbank," which is itself kind of about western Pennsylvania, at least by way of a nineteenth-century women's dime-store novel. This is yet another of the pieces in my manuscript of essays about books I obsessively reread. Journals seem to like them, and book publishers seem to lose them. The case is puzzling.

The other journal contains nothing by me. It's the latest issue of New Walk, a new British journal, and on the cover is an excerpt from J. S. Coetzee's essay on the work of Zbigniew Herbert: "Poetry may tell a higher truth, but that does not mean it is exempted from having to tell the elementary truths too, the truths that stare us in the face." It is a remark that, for some reason, is giving me the early-morning shudders. Not that I'm denying its truth.

At 1 p.m. I might go outside and begin cutting the detritus out of the single thawed flowerbed in my yard. At 2 p.m. I might make a pie and listen to the Red Sox lose to the Yankees. So far this season, they have lost every single game. Given that they've been predicted to be this year's World Series winners, the situation is beginning to move beyond cranky fist shaking into existential confusion.

This leads me to wonder what Edmund Spenser would say. A quick glance at Canto X of The Faerie Queen reveals:

What man is he that boasts of fleshly might
And vain assurance of mortality,
Which all so soon as it doth come to fight
Against spiritual foes, yields by and by,
Or from the field most cowardly doth fly?

Hmm. I highly doubt this would help a struggling second baseman feel better about himself.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

I have these dreams of dropping a large fellowship check on Tom's desk and saying, "Look! I earned this!" and then watching him pay all the bills. But that never seems to happen. Nonetheless, even if expected, the receipt of two giant rejection letters within 24 hours is requiring me to readjust my rhinoceros cloak. The problem with applying for anything is that I have to get my hopes up. Then, when they are dashed, I'm never quite sure about which response angle to take: (1) to accept that my work isn't good enough to pay any bills or (2) to presume that the rejecting institution doesn't know squat. Neither response affects the actual growth of my writing. (1) merely makes me gloomy, while (2) merely makes me shrill. So I suppose I'll do what I always do, which is to feel sad plus resigned plus falsely cheery plus busy plus distracted into forgetting about the situation until the next time I have to apply for something. If I weren't, at heart, an ostrich with my head in the sand, I would never write a word.


from Sally Hastings's letter [October 23, 1800]
When we arrived at the Inn, and found it full of Men of a Savage appearance, in an outlandish dress, our short interval of Joy was succeeded by Perplexity and Terror.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Words and Dust:

Rereading Elizabeth Bowen

Dawn Potter

[A version of this essay appeared in the Threepenny Review (spring 2010). As usual, please pardon the bloggish formatting inconsistencies.]

This morning, between eight and nine o’clock, on what may well be Maine’s last warm day of the year, I sat in my doctor’s cramped waiting room. The radio was ratcheting out “Hits of the 80s,” and so, to the accompaniment of Madonna and the J. Geils Band, I spent a dead hour glancing down at the page of my book and then up at the faces of the fellow seekers arrayed against the pale walls of our little jail: the husband and wife with his-and-her crutches who spoke to one another only in the language of illness: “Dear, write down the time of the flu clinic,” “Dear, that’s when you’ll be in the hospital”; the youngish mother and her oldish son, first laughing together about her tendency to drive the minivan at high speed, then abruptly veering into a squabble about curfews.

Nothing in that room seemed to speak the same language. Occasionally the woman with the crutch would gaze in disbelief at the radio speaker, and when I dropped my eyes to the words on my page, they seemed to stare back at me with the same disbelief. “No Narcotics on Premises,” said the walls. The son and his mother kept interrupting one another’s explanations of strict: “No, what I mean is . . . ,” “No, what you think is. . . . ” Here we all sat in grubby Canaan, Maine, in a prefab office sprouting from a foggy field, all of us, in some way, cowed by the specter of illness. But nobody understood anything about anyone else in the room. Nobody understood anything. Quite possibly, there was nothing to understand.

The book in my lap was Elizabeth Bowen’s 1949 war novel The Heat of the Day; and as seems to happen at one time or another with most of my favorite books, the novel was eerily attuned to the moment. For Bowen’s subjects are language and isolation, her manner of revelation both uncomfortable and alienating, both beautiful and haunting. And though I love this novel, it is an anomaly among my favorites because it works as a kind of linguistic ├ętude, an aesthetic exercise, relying on a specialized technique of construction rather than the creation of an intimate and emotional bond between characters and reader. Mostly I passionately avoid such books. So every time I reread The Heat of the Day, I wonder again why this is the volume I choose so often to carry into waiting rooms and unearth from my bag during ten-hour bus trips. Why do I love a novel that so patently does not ask for my love?

When I mention Elizabeth Bowen’s name to other readers, I rarely get much of a response. No doubt, she is well known among literary academics, who as a class tend to specialize in obscurity; but as far as I can tell, she is not otherwise much read. Critic and biographer Hermione Lee backs me up on this point, while also noting that the situation was once quite different:

[Bowen] began publishing young, in her twenties, and by her thirties she was well known, much praised and much in demand. In 1942, it was said of her that “since Virginia Woolf’s death, she is coming more and more to be regarded as the outstanding woman novelist of her generation.” . . .

Yet when I wrote this book [in 1981], she had become (certainly in England) a marginalised and undervalued figure. She was certainly not part of any academic canon. . . . She was never placed alongside Virginia Woolf or Katherine Mansfield . . . as one of the “important” writers of the century. She tended to be seen as an interesting secondary figure, sidelined in the space reserved for small, likeable talents like . . . her contemporary misfits and eccentrics, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Henry Green.

In the revised 1999 edition of her original study, Lee speaks optimistically about a Bowen revival, yet her hopes coincide mostly with her perception of rising interest among feminist scholars and specialists in Anglo-Irish studies. As far as I can tell, few general readers have regained interest in Bowen’s work. And yet, as Lee says, “Elizabeth Bowen is one of the greatest writers of fiction in this language and in this century. She wrote ten novels, at least five of which are masterpieces: strange, original, vivid, exciting and intelligent. She is . . . a brilliant technician . . . , a dazzling evoker of mood and place.”

Among her other strengths, Bowen is adept at plunging herself and her readers into the intense world of children at the brink of adulthood; and when I was in my twenties, her novels The Death of the Heart (1938) and The Little Girls (1963) were mainstays of my reading life. Perhaps I was still young enough, still close enough to her protagonists, to crave that clarity of eye, that blunt yet stylized acknowledgment of the cruelty, wildness, and bewilderment of girls, even as they mold themselves obediently to the strictures of class and fate. But as I grew older, especially as my fascinations with language became more transparent, I found myself returning more often to a volume that I had once idly plucked from a used-book rack merely on the strength of its beautiful cover: The Heat of the Day.

Set primarily in London in 1942, it focuses on a triangle of characters: Stella Rodney, a beautiful and isolated widow living temporarily in a borrowed flat; her lover Robert Kelway, charming and devoted, who, like Stella, is employed “in secret, exacting, not unimportant work”; and Harrison, who as we eventually learn is also named Robert, is also an intelligence agent, is also in love with Stella, and who arrives on her doorstep with the claim that her own Robert is betraying Britain to the Germans. Around these characters swirl other attachments—Stella’s soldier son and his Irish inheritance, her lover’s parasitic mother and braying sister—as well as the accidental Louie Lewis, an embarrassing innocent who has been left to her own strangely adhesive devices while her husband is away in the war.

Writing about another Bowen novel, The House in Paris, critic and novelist A. S. Byatt notes that it is “both a very elegant and a very melodramatic novel.” The same can also be said of The Heat of the Day, with its secret agents and baleful old mother and tragic love affair. As characters, they sound as if they could appear in any suspense novel. Yet The Heat of the Day is like no other book I’ve ever read, even others by Elizabeth Bowen, for the suspense arises not so much from character development or plot twist per se but from Bowen’s charged and mysterious manipulation of language.

Here, for instance, is how the novel opens: “That Sunday, from six o’clock in the evening, it was a Viennese orchestra that played. The season was late for an outdoor concert; already leaves were drifting on to the grass stage—here and there one turned over, crepitating as though in the act of dying, and during the music some more fell.” No matter how often I read that first sentence, the strange delicacy of its construction continues to haunt me—the way in which the grammar pivots on “it,” thus crystallizing the passivity of all involved in this scene: the orchestra, the reader, even the hour. So by the time we reach those falling leaves, “crepitating as though in the act of dying,” we are immersed in the patient, customary foreboding of wartime London, though the writer has spoken not a single word about the war.

When I first read The Heat of the Day, I was in my late twenties or early thirties. I had not yet consciously identified myself as a poet. I still clung, albeit despairingly, to my novel-writing dreams, fooled in large part because I was continuing to read and reread so many novels so intensely. Yet The Heat of the Day brought me up short. In order to comprehend it, even on the simplest chronological level, I had to wade deliberately into Bowen’s opaque and stylized language. And to my own surprise and perturbation, I was lured under by that language even as it mystified me. I did not immediately comprehend that I was now in the hands of grammar, for in the past I had expected prose to efface itself before the delights of character or plot. Indeed, when confronted by a book like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, with its interchangeable, disembodied voices, I had run away as fast as possible. But now, for the first time, I found myself bewitched by the prose on the page—and what’s more, I didn’t necessarily have to understand Bowen’s ulterior implications. Merely I needed to read.

Nonetheless, the perturbation remained, mostly because I distrusted my manner of absorbing the novel. The way in which my attention tended to skim the syntactical river of Bowen’s sentences rather than dive into them seemed more like laziness than a newfound awareness of diction. A bit of dialogue such as “‘Absolutely,’ he said with fervour, ‘not!’” was apt jolt me away from the characters’ conversational exchange into a parallel syntactic quandary, where the peculiar, ominous placement of a single word might seem to have the implications of an atom bomb.

Despite my longstanding attraction to the elegance and ambiguous precision of this novel, I can easily believe that plenty of people would dislike it—as, for instance, Hermione Lee does. Although she admits that The Heat of the Day is “in some ways the culmination of [Bowen’s] work,” she finds it “a strained and strange performance.” Strained is certainly true, and evidenced in sentences such as this one, which seems to writhe painfully down the page like a snake trapped in a narrow box: “Constrained to touch things, to make certain that they were not their own reflections, [Stella] explored veneers and mouldings, corded edges, taut fluted silk, with the nerves of her fingers; she made a lustre tinkle, breathed on the dome over a spray of birds, opened the piano and struck a note, knowing all the time she was doing nothing more than amuse herself, if she could amuse herself, and was outside the society of ghosts.”

Yet strained is the point of this novel, though it cannot have been an easy or comfortable style to inhabit. Indeed, Bowen apparently found the novel extraordinarily difficult to write. “It presents,” she wrote to her lover Charles Ritchie, “every possible problem in the world.” Surely many of those problems must have been linked to her notably odd language, and this is exactly what Lee dislikes:

The sense of strain makes it a very mannered book. Bowen’s idiosyncratic style is always very carefully controlled. But in The Heat of the Day, for the first time, it begins to look like affectation. . . . To get the feeling of tension and pressure, The Heat of the Day uses double negatives, inversions, broken-up sentences, and passive constructions: “Up his sleeve he had something”; “Soon now however should come King’s Cross”; “To a fault not unfeeling, she was not wholly admirable.” This can make not just for an evasive surface but for an impenetrable one.

To my mind, however, impenetrable is not an accurate choice of words. Much of the strain inherent in this novel arises from the stress within the sentences, hysterics barely repressed below the author’s lacquered diction. I know of no other novelist whose syntax assumes the primary task of both concealing and revealing the cracks that fissure our emotional composure. And I say our because the syntax extends its power over not only the characters but also the reader and, I am quite sure, the writer. When Stella asks Robert if he has been “passing information to the enemy,” Bowen’s delineation of his response convinces me that the author, her heroine, and I are all clinging to the gunwales of the same lurching linguistic boat. For “he spoke, when he began to speak, as a man who, in an emergency more fantastic, more beyond the possibilities of experience, than any man should be asked to meet, casts round him for words at random, realises their futility before uttering them, but does all the same utter them, as the only means of casting them from him again, rejected.” As I push myself to imagine the strain of inventing such a sentence, a sentence whose grammar so precisely enacts Robert’s reaction, I begin to think that Bowen may have been speaking no more than the truth when she averred that writing this book “presented every possible problem in the world.”

In “Notes on Writing a Novel,” Bowen declared, “plot might seem to be a matter of choice. It is not. The particular plot is something the novelist is driven to: it is what is left after the whittling-away of alternatives.” Perhaps diction, too, imposes its directives. Certainly it does in poetry. So when I read Bowen’s claim that novels are “the non-poetic statement of a poetic truth,” I think she’s being disingenuous. She may not be writing in lines and stanzas, but undoubtedly she is allowing word choice, syntax, and punctuation to unreel the complexities of her characters and control her dramatic arc. Here, for instance, is a passage that appears early in chapter 1—our first encounter with the spy Harrison:

New, only he knew how new, to emotional thought, he saw now at the first of his lapses, the whole of its danger—it made you act the thinker. He could, now, do not better than travesty, repeat in order to judge exactly how much it showed, his originally unconscious trick of the hands; he recalled this trick in his father, not before in himself—but it must have been waiting for him. Yes, he had recourse to it, fallen to it, this evening out of some unprecedented need for emphasis in the body. Yes, he had been forced to it by the course of what in the strict sense had not been thought at all. The futility of the heated inner speed, the alternate racing to nowhere and coming to dead stops, made him guy himself. Never had he not got somewhere. By casting about—but then hitherto this had always been done calmly—he had never yet not come on a policy which both satisfied him and in the end worked. There never had yet not been a way through, a way round or, in default of all else, a way out. But in this case he was thinking about a woman.

Immediately, in this passage, Bowen tosses her reader to the language lions. “New, only he knew how new”? With a sentence opener like that, how does she expect me to concentrate on Harrison? The repetitions are so harsh, the comma so precisely placed, that the diction feels almost comic—except that, somehow, it isn’t funny at all. And this disconnect itself segues the reader into another compelling peculiarity of The Heat of the Day. Not only do the linguistic mannerisms override any tendency toward silliness, but their syntactical distractions and surface glitter are not framing devices so much as the actual cloth from which the novelist shapes her character. A line such as “There never had yet not been a way through, a way round or, in default of all else, a way out,” with its hairpin double negative skewering the extended, subjectless, guarded predicate, gives me the eerie sensation that grammar itself is plumbing the essence of the repressed watcher Harrison. And when Bowen snaps the paragraph shut with her terse, flat-toned, conventionally constructed explanation “But in this case he was thinking about a woman,” I feel almost as if she’s kicked me in the teeth.

I have never been overly intrigued by the modernist poets—Eliot and Pound and their ilk. Yet their novelist contemporaries are a different story: I return again and again to James Joyce’s “The Dead,” to Virginia Woolf’s The Years, to Henry Green’s Loving. Their questing syntax and curious dramatic visions have insinuated themselves into my poems as Wallace Stevens’s and William Carlos Williams’s verse innovations have not. So when I read The Heat of Day, I cannot help wondering if these novelists represent a missing poetic link. After all, who in the twentieth century was the inheritor of the narrative tradition? Who picked up where Tennyson and Coleridge and Shelley and Milton and the Beowulf bard left off? Like their poet forebears, the modern novelists both loved a story and were seduced, overwhelmed, by the shifting power of the words that fell from their lips.

In her letter to Charles Ritchie, Bowen referred to the tensions of inventing both a spoken vocabulary and a “moral vocabulary” for her characters. In a way, she had to invent a language in order to invent a language—a poetic task if there ever was one. Bowen’s diction compels both the characters and the readers of The Heat of the Day to exist in a state of stress and pressure and helplessness. As Virginia Woolf said about poet John Donne, “With the first words a shock passes through us; perceptions, previously numb and torpid, quiver into being; the nerves of sight and hearing are quickened. . . . More remarkably, we do not merely become aware of beautiful remembered lines; we feel ourselves compelled to a particular attitude of mind.”

But language is nonetheless an impossible burden to bear. This morning, when I sat trapped on my chair in the doctor’s waiting room, I had reached the point in the novel when Robert, in Stella’s bedroom, in the ghoulish, “half-red dark” of a fading electric fire, tries to explain why he has betrayed his country. Meanwhile, “Freeze frame!” shouted the J. Geils Band, and the woman with the crutch turned to her husband and murmured, “Diabetes.” I looked down at my book. Robert said,

What is repulsing you is the idea of “betrayal,” I suppose, isn’t it? In you the hangover from the word? Don’t you understand that all that language is dead currency? How they keep on playing shop with it all the same: even you do. Words, words like that, yes—what a terrific dust they can still raise in a mind, yours even: I see that. Myself, even, I have needed to immunise myself against them; I tell you I have only at last done that by saying them to myself over and over again till it became absolutely certain that they mean nothing. What they once met is gone.

I’d like to say I experienced an epiphany, an “oh, this is what the novel is really about” moment. But what I really had was immunise in my lap with a “Freeze Frame” soundtrack and a “No Narcotics on Premises” punch line. I read the sentences, I tasted their bitterness, even though the words, at that moment, meant nothing. Yet they clung to me, like a seed in a tooth. I drove home and sat down at my kitchen table. I opened the book, and I read them again.

Perhaps the act of rereading is itself the only true explication of the power of literature; for after all this chatter and speculation about The Heat of the Day, I still cannot exactly explain why I return to it, why I cling to it. I never feel better when I finish the novel, never feel that I have clarified anything new about myself or the world. I have never once found myself imitating Bowen’s style. All I can pinpoint is the seriousness of her language, and serious is not really what I mean. Rather, her words are formal and somber, like an arcane dance. They bow and turn, step forward and back. They exist, like the portrait of an age exists—remote and harsh, elegant and harrowing.

“What a terrific dust they can still raise in a mind,” in mine, at least, as they do also in the mind of poor ignorant Louie Lewis, that stray soul wandering through Bowen’s novel, bumping up against the world. “Often you say the advantage I should be at if I could speak grammar,” she laments; “but it’s not only that. Look the trouble there is when I have to only say what I can say, and so cannot ever say what it is really. Inside me it’s like being crowded to death—more and more of it all getting into me. I could more bear it if I could only say.”

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What George Washington brought along when he went camping in western Pennsylvania in 1784:
* two leather and one linnen Valeses with my Marquee and horseman's Tent Poles and Pins

* bedding and Sheets

* equipage Trunk

* Silver Cups and Spoons--Canteens--two Kegs of Spirits--Horse Shoes &ca.

* Note.--in [his] equipage Trunk and the Canteens--were Madeira and Port Wine--Cherry bounce--Oyl, Mustard--Vinegar--and Spices of all sorts--Tea, and Sugar in the Camp Kettles (a whole loaf of white sugar broke up about 7 lbs. weight)

* fishing lines are in the Canteens

How girls behaved along Jacobs Creek [future home of Scottdale] in 1775, according to a cranky young Tory minister named Nicholas Cresswell:
Went with Miss Crawford and Miss Grimes to John Minton's. When we came to a small Creek we had to cross the girls tucked up their petticoats above their knees and forded it with the greatest indifference.

What happened when Quaker shopkeeper James Kenny tried to plant a garden near Fort Pitt in June 1762:
Having Planted out abot four Hundr of Cabbage Plants, there is not I think fourty left but what ye Grasshoppers has Eatten.

What Arthur Lee, sent west to negotiate a treaty with the Indians in 1784, predicted about Pittsburgh:
The place, I believe, will never be very considerable.

All excerpts are from various entries in Crossroads: Descriptions of Western Pennsylvania, 1720-1829, edited by John W. Harpster and first published in 1938. A blurb on the back of this book says, "Reading [Crossroads] is like meeting a score of travelers returned from strange lands and listening while each tells his own story of his adventures. It is a kind of American Canterbury Tales, and the tales are true." This is, in fact, an accurate description of the book.

Monday, April 4, 2011


from"The Journal of James Kenny, 1759," reprinted in Crossroads: Descriptions of Western Pennsylvania, 1720-1829, ed. John W. Harpster

"[James Kenny was a Chester County Quaker {i.e., from the Philadelphia area} who in 1759 went to Pittsburgh in charge of some trade goods intended as a present for the Indians. To avoid hostile Indians who beset the Forbes Road, Kenny made the journey via the Braddock Road. {shown above, with a larger, easier-to-read link here. The mouth of Redstone Creek, mentioned in the following excerpt, is in Brownsville, so Kenny was probably somewhere between there and Mount Braddock, due south of Scottdale.}]"


[April] 25th.--Proceeded today to a Bottom upon Redstone Creek, about 9 miles from Guest's Place. . . . In this Bottom grows plenty of Clover, & I found some pieces of Stone Coal that burns well.



--Advance a century--


from The Kingdom of Coal by Dan Rottenberg

"Connellsville coal didn't need to be washed to remove impurities. 'There is no other sea that can compete with it in cheapness of production,' remarked an observer in the late 1870s. 'There is no other coal so regular in form; so uniform in quality; of so convenient a thickness; or so easily mined.' . . . By 1880 the seven thousand beehive ovens in and around Connellsville were producing two-thirds of the nation's coke. What Mauch Chunk [in the Lehigh Valley's anthracite region of eastern Pennsylvania] had been in the 1830s--the energy capital of the nation--Connellsville had now become."


--Advance a century--
Scottdale Joint High School, class of 1957. My mother, the Gridiron Queen.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Once I managed to escape from my driveway, I had a lovely day yesterday. My friend Angela and the boys and I drove to Portland under sunny, breezy skies. The boys spent the day at the mall with a million other teenagers. Angela and I went to the Maine Festival of the Book, where I spent a pleasant couple of hours in the poetry ghetto with Wes McNair, talking to poets I haven't seen in six or seven years. I even sold a few books.

Among other people I spoke to was Josh Bodwell, new director of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, who is reconfiguring the alliance's publication, Maine in Print (it will eventually have a new name), thanks in part to support from both the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation and the Davis Family Foundation. Anyway, I suggested to Josh the possibility of including a regular column that would feature teachers of writing--perhaps in a consistent interview format. This way the alliance could continue to reach beyond already-published writers toward the people who are in the trenches, teaching and learning. He's excited by the idea, and I, too, am very excited to think that I soon might have a chance to feature you and your brilliance in that column.

What I need to do first is to start collecting suggestions for pithy, consistent interview questions. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking of questions that would deal with "what work of literature are you teaching right now?" "what are you doing to develop written student responses to that work?" "how do you assess their writing responses?" etc. All you teachers know that we have to include an assessment component, boring as that sounds to the rest of the world. But what other questions are you dying to ask or answer about the specifics of teaching literature? Please do let me know, here or by email, so that I can start compiling ideas.

P.S. I am seriously thinking of going down into a coal mine. I can hardly believe that I would be so brave, but thus far I'm feeling nary a qualm about it. And now Tom has also become quite excited by the idea and wants to come along. Last night we sat over our red wine and thought about turning my reading project into a combined coal-steel-writing-photographing project, and we became progressively more entranced. Maybe we could really do this.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


"I lived under the regime of the Henry Clay Frick clan in a little town called Trotter, Pa., near Connellsville and my Dad and brothers worked in the coal mines and coke ovens of the H. C. Frick Coal Co. . . . That little town was under the control of the Coal and Iron Police, hired by the company. They were like the Gestapo. As a youngster I had to be in the house by 9 p.m., no more than five boys were allowed to gather in one place." [quoted in Dan Rottenberg's The Kingdom of Coal]



Walker Evans, "Mining town, Frick Mining Co., Pennsylvania, Westmoreland County," July 1935. Made for the U.S. Farm Security Administration.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Happy April. It is snowing hard, and will keep snowing hard for all of the day and all of the night. The boys are in bed, wallowing in the cloying pleasure of yet another school cancellation. These days even they are mad about missing school. My doughty crocus and daffodil shoots have vanished once again. The bird feeder is crowded with a dozen squawky, crabby redpolls. Last year at this time I was digging in the garden. This year at this time I am not. How I will get out of my squashy, muddy, puddly, snow-drowned driveway to get to tomorrow's book signing is anyone's guess.

Because you are probably tired of coal and steel and labor and their ilk, I am not going to talk about them at all today. Instead I am going to talk about squirrels.

So imagine, if you will, a 16-year-old French boy known only as J.C.B. (which are, weirdly, also the initials of my own 16-year-old American boy) who travels to Quebec and decides to join the army. The year is 1753, and the boy becomes one of a detachment of volunteers whom General Duquesne sends south in an expedition to solidify French claims to what was then known as the Ohio country. Unfold those French and Indian War maps that have been resting comfortably in your long-term memory, and you will get a better of picture of where he's headed.

The boy keeps a journal, which more than a century later is published as Voyage au Canada dans le nord de l'Amerique septentrionale fait depuis l'an 1751 a 1761. ("Septentrionale" implies "northern unexplored regions," which doesn't exactly seem like future Pittsburgh to me, but maybe the boy was from the Riviera or something.) Anyway, here's what he sees on a hot summer day in the virgin forests of western Pennsylvania:

We were still however only in the month of August; it is in this month that one ordinarily sees many squirrels swimming. . . . those that are in the north . . . are not nearly as beautiful as on the Ohio and in the environs of Fort Duquesne, where they are big as rats and of four kinds, the black, the silver, the ground, and the flying; these last two do not differ at all from those of the north, it is unnecessary to mention them further. In regard to the first two, which are the black and the silvery, their pelt makes very beautiful furs [and] they are excellent eating; but they are subject to an itchiness in the head especially in the months of July and August that obliges them to leap into the water to refresh themselves, and this two and sometimes three times a day, to the number of seven or eight hundred and sometimes more.

Get your kids to draw a picture of those squirrels. It will be funny.

I have no idea what to make for dinner, but whatever it is may be elaborate. After all, it's opening day for the Red Sox, it's blizzarding in Maine, I'm up to my hips in alligators disguised as tomes about the coke and steel industry, and my bathroom sink drain is clogged. What better excuse do I need to cook steak, risotto, and a big cake?