Wednesday, June 29, 2011

First all-day revision workshop ever at the Teaching Conference. I think it went well; I think the teachers were happy. My brain, however, seems to have liquified. Presumably it will re-congeal before long, but I'm just warning you.

Sorry about these cryptic posts. The only time I can get to the library to write to you is after I've finished putting on the 8-hour show. You full-time teachers, who stomp these vaudeville boards every day, can start laughing now.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Another day of no rain . . . so far. Fresh strawberries are in season. I eat them every morning at Polly's Pancake Parlor, which is a real place, though the name makes it sound like a business establishment in Richard Scarry's Busytown, the sort run by rabbits and serving only pickles. This morning I drove around in the fog with Sam Cooke's rendition of "Find Yourself Another Fool" blasting from my inadequate stereo. Meanwhile, the boys are taking advantage of my absence to watch Quentin Tarantino movies every night.

I ought to talk about today's poem and prompt but I am so tired that I can't remember its title.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Gave my reading last night. According to Baron, it was more like an exorcism. I hope that's a good thing.

Today I saw a woodpecker forking insects into a hole full of screeching babies. All day long the sun shone on Frost's mountain. Believe it or not, people are warm and non-moldy. No mice have been sighted in the barn. My writing prompt poem was Rilke's "The Dwarf's Song." My prompt was "Write a poem about a body that isn't yours." I used the Stephen Mitchell translation, which might be somewhere on the Internet. You could look for it if you're interested, or I could email it to you.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

No Internet at the Frost Place yet, but we do have a large groundhog on the back stoop.

The teachers are all fabulous, as usual; and I can now reveal this year's featured poem: Robert Frost's, "Range-Finding." Read it and make yourself queasy.

Now I must go buy a bar of soap and decide what to read tonight. Perhaps the bear will attend. Let's hope he buys a book.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

I leave today for the Frost Place and will be home again on Thursday. In the meantime, the boys will bake my bread and feed my chickens and water my tomatoes. They will not, I am almost certain, sweep my kitchen floor or dig any clean dishtowels out of the drawers. Possibly they will empty the trash. Possibly not.

Last year I found a box in the middle of Frost's living room that contained a DSL modem. This leads me to believe that the house may now have Internet access. Or perhaps I will stumble over that same box-with-modem in the middle of the living room again. Change is slow at the Frost Place. I'm sure that Frost himself would scowl at the idea of DSL. He would vote for bad-smelling oil lamps and a mouse infestation, which of course are far more suitable to the grumpy old faux-farmer lifestyle. Nonetheless, he might be able to adapt to the Internet: it's not entirely impossible to imagine him leaving a snotty, highhanded comment on someone else's poetry blog.

Today's weather is damp, dark, and moldy--usual Teaching Conference fare. The forecast hints that we may have summer later in the week, but I am not convinced. Packing for the Frost Place is difficult, and I always bring the wrong clothes.

Anyway, as usual, I will do my best to write to you this week . . . and I do hope I'll finally catch a glimpse of the Frost Place bear.

Friday, June 24, 2011

I finished rereading Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, and all I can say is that if you ever find yourself in need of a book that (1) doesn't oblige you to overthink your connection to it or to anything else and (2) doesn't make you feel wicked for wasting your earthly hours on crap mystery novels, read this one.

Next on the recovery-literature docket: Trollope's Orley Farm . . . so long as all the pages don't start falling out, which is a definite possibility. Here's hoping that when I get back from the Frost Place I'll have rediscovered my ambitions and be able to return to the Pennsylvania project.

Now, as comic relief, I offer you the headline of an advertisement in the New York Review of Books:

"Discover How to Write about Anything"

Apparently, by way of these very expensive recorded lectures I can learn "how the unique styles and characteristics of fiction, essay, poetry, drama, and autobiography can inform [my] voice." Also, the professor assures me "that writing should always feel like an enjoyable process of self-discovery."

I tell you: there ought to be a law against perky defamations of the artistic endeavor. Maybe we could have warning labels, like on cigarette packages. Warning: Looking at this painting may make you feel worse than you did before you arrived the museum. Warning: Writing a good poem will in all likelihood leave you empty and slightly ill. Warning: Do not believe you will conquer the elusive, insurmountable aggravations of photographic printing. Warning: You'll never be as great a novelist as Dickens.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

I am hoping for a quiet spell of rain today. I need to do some transplanting, and the rain will help the little plants take root in their new homes. This has been a year of spotty germination: even after a second planting, none of my golden beets have sprouted, and the red beet leaves are frail. Carrots and parsley have also been reluctant germinators, and insects keep biting off the heads of the cucumber plants. But my grapevines are loaded with tiny grapes, something that has never happened before. Wild strawberries are gleaming among the iris, and roses--white, pale pink, magenta--are running riot. The heavy-headed peonies sag into the grass, and now mock-orange blossoms, with their sweet, dense scent, are beginning to open beneath my study window.

I thought of reprinting one of my poems here today, but suddenly I am tired of all my published work. I have a stack of new poems to send out to journals, yet I can't seem to garner the necessary business-like energy to sort through them, organize them into batches, choose recipients, pen self-confident cover notes. So here the poems sit. Perhaps the rainy day will soothe them.

Instead of giving you a poem, I'll give you this strange little prose piece, which appeared in South Loop Review, vol. 12 (2010). As you might notice, it bears no resemblance to my usual prose style. I'm not even quite sure what to call this genre.

Word Problem

Dawn Potter

Part 1

Friend A seduces Friend B.

Friend A moves into a house with Friend B and an Unknown, who turns out to be Roommate X plus Friend C.

Roommate X and Friend C undergo a rocky romance.

Meanwhile, Friend C attaches herself to Friend A. Now they are Best Friends; they spend all night talking to each other on the telephone.

Meanwhile, Friend A and Friend B undergo a rocky romance.

Friend A is demanding. Friend B is cold.

Friend B and Friend C aren’t really friends yet, until they stay up all night drinking pina coladas.

Now Friend C gives Friend B a Camus novel, and they are lovers, briefly.

Friend A cries. Roommate X cries.

Friend C cries, sleeps with Friend A, and returns to Roommate X.

Friend B cries, which no one has ever seen him do before.

The school year ends, and everyone disappears.

Part 2

Friend C rents an apartment with Roommate Y.

Roommate Y gets pregnant and crazy and moves out, leaving a large cat behind.

Friend B, at loose ends, moves in.

Friend B and Friend C assume joint custody of the cat. Eventually they get married.

Friend A is the best man. Friends A, B, and C pretend to think this is funny.

The large cat dies.

Twenty-five years go by, in their usual fast-slow way.

Part 3

Friend B is unsatisfied, bored, withdrawn, and drunk.

Friend C is unsatisfied, emotional, needy, and prone to exaggeration.

Otherwise, they are happy together, and so are Child 1 and Child 2.

Meanwhile, five hundred miles to the south, Friend A is drunk. Nonetheless, he snags new Friend D.

Friend D is a fine acquisition. Child 1 and Child 2 could not agree more.

Part 4

Friend B visits Friend A and Friend D, while Friend C stays home with Child 1 and Child 2 and deals with various household emergencies unrelated to this tale.

Friend D goes to the movies.

Friend A and Friend B go to a motel.

Friend D is philosophical. Friend C is not.

Part 5

Repeat Part 3, infinitely.


Will Friend A convince Friend C that any future sexual assignations with her husband would be like “going out with a fishing buddy”?

Will Friend B continue to envision Friend C as bossy and controlling?

Will Friend B continue to envision Friend A as bossy and controlling?

Will Friend A and Friend C continue to see Friend B as cool, silent, and impossible to fathom?

Will Friend A hold Friend C’s hand while they listen to Tammy Wynette records?

Will Friend D finally lose his temper and start screaming?

Will Friend B ever be forthright about what he really wants?

Will Friend C ever stop believing that sex equals love?

Will Friend A ever stop smoking?

Will Child 1 and Child 2 ever figure out what’s going on?


no yes yes yes yes maybe no no no yes

Extra Credit

If Friend C is the only chronicler, until Child 2 gets a clue;

and Friend C is the only female, until Child 1 gets a girlfriend;

and Friend A has the special power of making his lovers stay up all night;

and Friend D has the special power of not drinking at bars;

and Friend B is the princess;

Then who feels worst and/or best at the end of it all?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The week is winding down, and on Saturday I leave for the Frost Place. As regards my work for the conference, I am ready. As regards my reading, I am not. Before last week's murders, I had a long conversation with you about my plans for this reading; but since then, that plan has started to seem priggish and self-indulgent. Why explore the trajectory of my writing life when three friends have just been murdered? That's an illogical reaction, I know, but grief is not logical.

I spent a few hours with Linda yesterday afternoon, and we talked and talked about any old thing that came into our heads. I told her about Frost's farmhouse and the view of the mountains from the front porch, and she told me that, when her mother-in-law died, she left behind a stack of old schoolbook poetry anthologies. Nobody else wanted them, so Linda gathered them up and stored them in her attic. Last week, after her daughter and grandchildren were killed, she went upstairs and got down those poetry books and started choosing poems to reprint on the funeral program and to display in other places during the service. In other words, she lamented their deaths by way of the sentiments of 1918 schoolbook publishers. For whatever reason, this seemed exactly right to me, and it made me doubly grateful I had not attempted to read anything at the service.

Here's the poem that Linda chose for the back of the program:

I Know Not What the Future Holds

I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death
His mercy underlies.
And if my heart and flesh are weak
To bear an untried pain,
The bruised reed thou wilt not break,
But strengthen and sustain.
And so beside the silent sea
I wait the muffled oar;
No harm from him can come to me
On ocean or on shore.
I know not where His islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care.
And thou, O Lord, by who are seen
Thy creatures as they be,
Forgive me if too close I lean
My human heart on thee.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

from Resolution and Independence

William Wordsworth


All things that love the sun are out of doors;
The sky rejoices in the morning's birth;
The grass is bright with rain-drops;--on the moors
The hare is running races in her mirth;
And with her feet she from the plashy earth
Raises a mist; that, glittering in the sun,
Runs with her all the way, wherever she doth run.

Yesterday I read this stanza, and when I reached the last line, the Poetry Shiver overcame me: a physical reaction, analogous to raised hackles or vertigo or the way my inner ear crackles when I hear certain pitches of sound. I think the Shiver must be caused by some sudden intersection of visual image, sonic power, and emotion--in this case, perhaps the vision of the hare in the glittering mist, the positioned repetition of run, and my own tightrope awareness of love and tragedy, built up to a terrifying level this week by the Lake family murders.

I wonder what you think about this stanza: do you find it merely pretty, or is more than that? Every time I reread it, I get the Shiver again.

Monday, June 20, 2011

In order to reteach myself how to concentrate on a book, I got into bed with Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped last night. How I love this novel, but I'm not sure that I can explain why. For whatever reason, David Balfour's dogged, clumsy, kind-hearted heroism pleases my tired mind. The portraits of the Scottish landscape are vivid. Alan Breck is like a successful, athletic Toad of Toad Hall. There is no romance to distract me from the simple frissons of the quest. I own an old hardcover edition, with all pages intact, a solid-enough spine, and pleasantly large type. All these qualities cohere into a book that is ideal for the convalescent mind.

At 2 a.m. I woke to hear the coyotes wailing. Then, eventually, I fell asleep again and dreamed I was climbing up the side of a large Greek revival building. If anyone knows what "Greek revival building" signifies in the symbolism of dreams, I would be glad to learn.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Funeral is over. Sun is shining. Whoever went to bed last left all the windows open so now the house is freezing. The dog helped me bring coffee to Tom in bed.

This time next week I will be waking up in Robert Frost's house. I am hoping for five days of sunshine there, although perhaps it always rains in the White Mountains.

This whole terrible week has been like living in a Frost poem. Think "The Hired Man" or "Home Burial." Or the poem that Baron has chosen as our theme for the week. You'll hear about that one soon enough. Believe it or not, I think the house may now have an Internet connection, unless Frost's mouse has chewed through the wiring.

I still feel like the walking dead. Reading and writing have not been curative. The best solution has been to work in the garden; and as a result, I am covered with bloody insect bites. My arms look as if I have the pox.

Daytime is better than nighttime.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Here's a poem by Edward Thomas, and here, too, is his lovely photograph. Thomas's work is often anthologized in collections of World War I poetry, but his poems are far less specific about battle experiences than, say, Rupert Brooke's or Siegfried Sassoon's tend to be.

Thomas was killed in action in 1917.

Gone, Gone Again

Edward Thomas

Gone, gone again,
May, June, July,
And August gone,
Again gone by,

Not memorable
Save that I saw them go,
As past the empty quays
The rivers flow.

And now again,
In the harvest rain,
The Blenheim oranges
Fall grubby from the trees

As when I was young--
And when the lost one was here--
And when the war began
To turn young men to dung.

Look at the old house,
Outmoded, dignified,
Dark and untenanted,
With grass growing instead

Of the footsteps of life,
The friendliness, the strife;
In its beds have lain
Youth, love, age, and pain:

I am something like that;
Only I am not dead,
Still breathing and interested
In the house that is not dark:--

I am something like that:
Not one pane to reflect the sun,
For the schoolboys to throw at--
They have broken every one.

Tom has a photo opening tonight at Common Street Gallery in Waterville. I can't go because I'm going to visiting hours for Amy, Monica, and Coty, which means this may be the first of Tom's openings I've ever missed. But when Linda called yesterday morning, and I told her how disturbed I was about his not being able to come tonight, she told me that she knew how much he cared about her and that we shouldn't worry. This is exactly like Linda: always trying to soothe other people's anxieties.

We talked for a long time, and I told her about another one of my anxieties. Where were the children's pets? What had happened to them? The newspaper article said that the only thing left alive in the house was the puppy that Amy had recently brought home. Linda told me that the person who had given Amy the puppy had taken him back. For the moment, a neighbor is feeding the cats outside because no one is allowed into the house while it's still a crime scene. Afterwards, the family will have to decide what to do with the cats. I said I would take in at least one of them, if need be. My Paul is starry-eyed at the thought. We'll see what transpires.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Here is today's latest travesty: an interview with a father who claims, among other appalling things, that his son was just "horsing around" when he threatened to disembowel his wife. As far as I can tell, there is not a single word in that article about the grief of losing his own grandchildren, grief for a woman they'd known since babyhood, grief for the damage caused by a son they loved but who did irreparable wrong. I want to care about everyone in this tragedy, but statements like these make it nigh on impossible to avoid the assumption that Steven's troubles were at the very least exacerbated by the attitudes of his father.

I got a call yesterday from the pastor who will be leading the funeral service. I had already spoken to Linda and had offered to sing or play the violin or read a passage from the Bible or do whatever she might need. If she didn't need any of it, that was fine; that was good. All I want is to do is do anything she wants from me. And what she told the pastor is that I have free rein to speak or sing or play. She specifically said, "Maybe she'll read a poem."

Whether Linda knows it or not, that is a huge trust. This will be a conservative Baptist funeral, with hundreds of mourners as well as a large press presence. My friend gave me free rein to do anything in front of this group, anything at all. But every time I tried to choose something to read, all I could think of was Othello. Or Macbeth.

All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What! all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

In other words, I found that I could not read anything that would offer any comfort. So I'll be playing "Amazing Grace" on the violin.

Music, we can absorb as we will, wordless. Poetry is too cruel.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sorry. Not up to a great deal of commentary today. So far, thanks to the newspapers' rehashing of the Lakes' case file, I've learned that the man who used to repair my stove threatened to "do things to [his wife] that you wouldn't do to farm animals," had plans to kill most of Amy's family members because they had "wronged" him, and "last summer. . . told his 13-year-old son that a divorce from Amy would cost only 29 cents. 'Do you know what that means? That’s the price of a bullet,' Coty told his mother, according to the case file. 'That means he’s going to shoot you.'”

When Coty was very small, he had a doll named Baby. Baby was a handmade rag doll, and she used to be mine . . . a gift from my own babysitter, who had made it for me when I was a little girl. When I donated some of my old toys to the daycare that Coty's grandmother Linda ran, Coty fell in love with Baby. Initially this was hard on his father, who was not thrilled to see his son with a doll. But he came to terms with it. At least we thought he had.

Coty slept with Baby, hugged her, dragged her through the dust. Linda was constantly performing reconstructive surgery. All of Baby's clothes vanished, and her hair fell out.

I wonder where Baby is now.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

So yesterday, as I was maundering on about poems and prose, my friend Linda's daughter and two grandchildren were murdered by her son-in-law, who then killed himself. You can read about what happened here.

Tom and I have known Linda for nearly as long as we have lived in Harmony. She regularly baby-sat my boys, and often I used to just stay in the house with her and get baby-sat too. I was lonely, a new mother in a new town, and Linda became my support and my dear friend. Her daughter Amy and I got pregnant at about the same time: Paul was my second child, Coty was Amy's first and Linda's first grandchild. His sister Monica was born the following year. It was an exciting flurry: all those babies together. I was learning to be a citizen of this town, learning to be a mother; and meanwhile, Paul and Monica and James and Coty squirreled around on the kitchen floor together.

Coty would have graduated from 8th grade this week. But now he is dead; now Monica is dead; now Amy is dead; now Steven, who used to fix my kitchen stove when it was broken, is dead. Linda is bereft, unimaginably bereft. She has led the best, the purest life one could imagine, but it has not spared her from horror.

Yesterday I and hundreds of other friends and acquaintances and strangers hoped so hard, so hard, all day long, that Steven would find a way to walk away, to save their lives, to save his. He did not.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Poetry, prose, fate, junk, and how reading is like smoking

When a new acquaintance inquires about what kinds of things I like to write, I tend to hem and haw sheepishly about being a poet, which embarrasses us both. The new acquaintance is hoping to hear about mystery novels, and I am hoping to talk about anything other than poems. Yet despite my itchiness about publicly admitting that I'm a poet, I rarely even mention the fact that I write nearly as much prose as I do poetry. The word poetry at least connotes sensitive feelings, which most chatty strangers believe that they, too, possess. And when trapped at the Port Authority bus station with a matched set of voluble, gullible English retiree-tourists, "I'm a poet" feels like an easier answer to the "oh what do you write?" query than broaching the peculiar, old-fashioned, belle-lettrist genre of nonscholarly essay-memoir that has infiltrated my days.

When I was a child, I planned to grow up to be either violinist Isaac Stern or novelist Charles Dickens. By the time I was a sophomore in college, I'd relinquished the Isaac Stern plan, but Charles Dickens was harder to shed. I did not want to be a poet; I did not want to be a poet at all. I wanted to write dense, complicated prose packed with unforgettable characters and twisty-turny plots.

Fate saw fit to say no. She sat me down on a damp log in the forest, pointed out that I am a rotten novelist, and told me to give up all hope of being Dickens. I cried, but she was right: everything about my writing has improved since I faced up to the fact that all my fictions are verse.

Yet prose came sliding back into my work, filling an expressive gap that my poems, for the most part, have only danced into and out of and around. It's given me a way to talk about my self-driven reading life, a vast aspect of my autobiography, something I have done obsessively and without pause since I was six years old. It has had absolutely nothing to do with school, nothing to do with grades, nothing to do with outside encouragement.

I read books like other people smoke cigarettes. You've seen them: those girls slouched behind the high school dumpsters, lighting up when they're supposed to be in class taking a civics exam. Now substitute "cracking open a dog-eared non-assigned 19th-century novel" for "lighting up." It's an adolescent metaphor, but the story doesn't end in adolescence. Teenage smokers transform into black-lunged stoop sitters with a calming pastime and a coughing problem. Teenage novel addicts transform into clutter-brained stoop sitters with a quantity of colliding observations and no ability to compose them into dispassionate dissertations that would earn them doctoral degrees and honorable employment.

For me, writing these essay-memoirs--first, in Tracing Paradise and then in my manuscript The Vagabond's Bookshelf--has been a way of tapping into the clutter of my reading brain . . . sorting among the bits of rusty junk, the chipped glass lampshades, the ancient dog-food cans. At the same time, though I'm writing in prose, I'm still carving out sentences; and because I am a sentence-driven poet, this means that the two genres reinforce one another stylistically. The way in which I compose them is by no means identical, yet their sonic and grammatical compulsions are similar.

Following is an essay from The Vagabond's Bookshelf, one that I reprinted here last summer but that speaks specifically to the problems of clutter and inspiration in my prose. (A version of this piece first appeared in the spring 2010 issue of the Reader, a British journal.)

On Junk and the Common Reader

Dawn Potter

I submitted an essay to a journal that had previously published two of my essays. In response I received an affectionate rejection letter from the editor. The essay, she said regretfully, had “too much different stuff going on,” and the mess was “pulling it apart.”

In addition to valuing this editor’s opinion and acumen, I also serve as my own most dissatisfied critic, perpetually carping about my abilities and motivations and fussing over my intellectual instability. Thus, though I was melancholic, I saw no reason to disbelieve the editor. Yet as I lay in bed that night, rereading Henry James’s A Portrait of a Lady and wondering what I might do with my thirteen pages of unpublishable manuscript, I found myself returning again and again to the problem of “too much different stuff”—if problem it was: because the more I thought about the editor’s difficulty with the piece, the more I realized that the heart of the trouble lay in my avoidance of the stuff issue. Packrat behavior, I’m realizing, may reveal itself in unexpected ways; and though I’ve spent my adult life congratulating myself on having avoided what is unquestionably a family tendency, I begin to see now that I’ve merely fulfilled my genetic destiny in an oddball way.

My grandfather was a more traditional packrat, a careful saver of almost every item that passed through his hands, the kind of collector who conscientiously stacked fifty years’ worth of foam meat trays and Ken-L Ration cans in his back shed just in case they might come in handy. And every once in a while, they did come in handy. Nonetheless, after he died, my mother was left with an untenable mess on her hands—an accumulation not just of cans and meat trays but also of hundreds of neatly folded diocese newspapers that no one had ever dreamed of reading; twenty-five or thirty threadbare work jackets crowded onto five or ten coat hooks; four outbuildings and a two-story house overflowing with broken 1920s-era farm equipment, chipped enamel dishpans, three-legged chairs, and several generations of mouse nests; dresser drawers crammed with every Christmas shirt my mother had ever mailed, most still encased in their original plastic; a dozen Maxwell House cans filled with a remarkable number of nickels; and an accumulation of baling twine from several thousand hay bales—a mountainous headache in itself, which was exacerbated by the discovery that he had also secreted a considerable amount of cash in and among these various collections.

Like my dear inscrutable grandfather, I am also a packrat, though I am not tempted to hoard ancient supermarket trays or empty rusty cans. What I can’t throw out is my reading clutter. Take this week, for instance. Thanks to the disorganized and unpredictable Fate who weaves my book trajectory (her fabric bearing, I imagine, some resemblance to a lumpy kindergarten potholder), I happened to be bobbing between two story collections at the same time: James Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man, which compiles stories from the 1940s through the 1960s; and Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now, a new selection of stories that were originally published during the same era. I had received an open-ended invitation from the aforementioned affectionate editor to write about the du Maurier collection, but by chance I had recently acquired a remaindered copy of Baldwin’s stories at Marden’s, a strange Maine store that was also selling end tables in the shape of Sammy Davis, Jr. (I settled for the book.)

Being on assignment, I aspired to brisk, intelligent coherence; and before long, my double reading project was giving rise to visions of a tidy comparison-contrast essay. But as one might expect, the collections are very different from one another, so different that I briefly wondered if brevity and date of composition might be their only common traits. Meanwhile, I continued to read—slouched on the sofa with a large poodle wedged uncomfortably between my feet, or coiled over cheese and crackers at the kitchen table, or shivering in the car as I waited for my son’s very late bus to roar into the school parking lot—and soon I found myself alternating between the volumes with a growing curiosity about how and why writers seem to gravitate, almost against their will, to specific techniques and emphases and how those authorial susceptibilities influence the way in which a reader ends up classifying the work. In other words, I got distracted: a fissure opened in my attention; and, as generally happens, that crack began admitting scraps and dust and unidentifiable fluid impressions from the books that are stacked like foam meat trays and dog-food cans in the back shed of my brain.

* * *

In Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge is cranky about readers such as myself—

a comprehensive class characterized by reconciling the two contrary yet co-existing propensities of human nature, namely, indulgence of sloth, and hatred of vacancy. In addition to novels and tales of chivalry in prose or rhyme, (by which last I mean neither rhythm nor metre), the genus comprises as its species, gaming, swinging or swaying on a chair or gate; spitting over a bridge; smoking; snuff-taking; tête-à- tête quarrels after dinner between husband and wife; conning word by word all the advertisements of a daily newspaper in a public house on a rainy day, &c. &c. &c.

Yet as Virginia Woolf admitted in her essay “Pure English,” “an irrational element enters into [readers’] liking and disliking of books as certainly as it enters into their feelings for people.” So why can’t a committed reader also enjoy swaying on a gate and spitting over a bridge? I daresay Coleridge himself conned newspaper advertisements in more than one pub over the course of his life, not to mention played the leading part in a fair number of tête-à-tête quarrels after dinner. But for collectors, wrestling with irrationality is not our only trouble. Somehow, as one accumulates more and more items, the individual pieces begin to sort themselves into multiple and anomalous groupings. Everything influences everything else. No longer do we merely have two pink meat trays and one dirty Ken-L Ration can on our hands. The accumulation itself now takes precedence, conquering not only the details of the collection but also that unfortunate host, the back shed. So as I sat on the couch reading du Maurier’s and Baldwin’s stories, I was reading, in a way, not only the books I had open on my lap but all the crumpled, dog-eared stories piled in my head. Like the bent ploughshares and crushed peach baskets cluttering my grandfather’s chicken house, that literary scrap heap does come in handy now and again. But it can also create an untenable mess: which brings me back to the essay I submitted to my friendly, long-suffering editor.

I’d had hopes of composing an intelligent, well-balanced piece about du Maurier and Baldwin; but as I already knew, a book’s ranking within literature’s caste system—what one might call the lightweight-heavyweight scale—frequently influences how a reader thinks she ought to respond to a book. I came to both of these authors with a certain amount of baggage, enough to know that I should be respectful of Baldwin but was not necessarily required to be respectful of du Maurier. Yet I felt that it was my duty, as a writer on assignment, to be open-minded about her work, to consider it seriously as art.

In a way, the two writers could serve as symbols for the mixed-up role that reading plays in my life. I am Baldwinesque in that I take reading seriously. For example, I have no patience with people who tell me they read to relax. Relaxation is practically the furthest thing from my mind. I am a tense, ambitious, and greedy reader, and I don’t want to be lulled; I want to be swallowed up. On the other hand, I am du Maurien insofar as I am democratic about what I choose to read. In other words, if I have a taste for the classics, I also have a taste for trash. Coleridge would not be surprised to learn, for instance, about my louche affection for nineteenth-century women’s pulp fiction, such as the forgotten bestsellers of Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth (author of, among innumerable others, the alluringly titled A Beautiful Fiend), not to mention the novels of Mary J. Holmes, whose Millbank I found in my grandfather’s aforementioned house of junk when I was ten years old and which I have since reread at least once a year for more than thirty years.

Now, instead of focusing on James and Daphne, my attention, for reasons best known to itself, had begun to wander into the hazy realm of the trash novel, leaving me haplessly affixing pseudo-connectives between du Maurier and Southworth, who soon morphed unexpectedly into novelist and essayist John Fowles. “It was Fowles,” I scribbled (but what is the word for scribbling with a laptop?), “who wrote somewhere that bad novels are a key to their times. Like ‘real literature,’ these books fill some hole in me; they help me understand what it means to be alive. Even though they are not art, they manage, in spite of themselves, to occasionally achieve the goals of art.”

Downstairs, the parakeet squawked, and my husband’s radio emitted distracting and uncongenial tunes. I hunched over my desk and wrote: “I don’t for a moment believe that E.D.E.N. Southworth’s novels rival George Eliot’s or Emily Brontë’s.” (Damn. Where did Eliot and Brontë come from?) “Yet in her books I glimpse a particular portrait of the age—a focus, for instance, on the petty sexual distractions of its women—that I don’t necessarily see in Eliot’s or Brontë’s work but that gives me a new angle of vision and thus broadens my comprehensions and my sympathies.”

I blathered on about Southworth for a while longer, evoking her flabby plots, her stock characters, her stilted purple prose, comparing her along the way to both the Steve Miller Band and Velveeta. I dredged up a fake memory of kissing a boy under the bleachers and a real one of eating a grilled-cheese sandwich, then suddenly ended a paragraph with the Romantic realization that “Nobody else is me,” at which point the long-suffering editor must have said, “Thank God.” Finally, after much shuffling and stumbling, I found my way back to Daphne du Maurier, pointing out that her stories may be gothic, formulaic potboilers (my grasp at making Southworth relevant) but are also carefully, often exquisitely, crafted. Always she maintains a clean, efficient control of plot, and her settings are so vividly evoked that even familiar, rather dull places can seem feverishly surreal, as in this scene from the story “Split Second”:

She walked swiftly past the nurses pushing prams, two or three of them in groups chatting together, their charges running ahead. Dogs barked beside the ponds. Solitary men in mackintoshes stared into vacancy. An old woman on a seat threw crumbs to chirping sparrows. The sky took on a darker, olive tone. Mrs. Ellis quickened her steps. The fairground by the Vale of Health looked sombre, the merry-go-round shrouded in its winter wrappings of canvas, and two lean cats stalked each other in and out of the palings. A milkman, whistling, clanked his tray of bottles and, lifting them to his cart, urged the pony to a trot.

There is something altogether beautiful about that passage—a combined effect, I think, of its rhythmic sentence construction and the author’s swift, subtle control of her reader’s eye, which so effectively moves my attention from earth to sky, from near to far, from human to animal. Yes, certainly, du Maurier is not in Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth’s class, where beauty is reduced to striking “at first sight with an electric thrill.” But as I suddenly verified in the course of my scuffling writing project, she is just as certainly not in James Baldwin’s class. I may not like all of the stories in Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man, but my discomfort is primarily a personal reaction to his protagonists’ cursory cruelty. It has nothing to do with the intensely character-driven energy of his writing, as in “The Outing,” in which even the minor players cohere into furious, vibrating personalities:

Last year Sister McCandless had held an impromptu service in the unbelieving subway car she played the tambourine and sang and exhorted sinners and passed through the train distributing tracts. Not everyone [in the church] had found this admirable, to some it seemed that Sister McCandless was being a little ostentatious. “I praise my Redeemer wherever I go,” she retorted defiantly. “Holy Ghost don’t leave me when I leave the church. I got a every day religion.”

Baldwin is a ferocious writer, very nearly eviscerating himself in his relentless imaginative quest to link vision and word. His pages are stained with blood, though he may speak only of a church picnic or a slow evening in a nightclub. Du Maurier, on the other hand, composes plot after horror-packed plot; yet her authorial voice remains detached, almost indifferent. Reading “The Birds” (which Alfred Hitchcock transformed into a movie I’m too scared to watch but that du Maurier is said to have disliked), I find her dry, ruthless narration far more unnerving than the situation she describes:

As [Nat] jumped the stile he heard the whirr of wings. A black-backed gull dived down at him from the sky, missed, swerved in flight, and rose to dive again. In a moment it was joined by others, six, seven, a dozen, black-backed and herring mixed. Nat dropped his hoe. The hoe was useless. Covering his head with his arms he ran towards the cottage. They kept coming at him from the air, silent save for the beating wings. The terrible, fluttering wings. He could feel the blood on his hands, his wrists, his neck. Each stab of a swooping beak tore his flesh. If only he could keep them from his eyes. Nothing else mattered. He must keep them from his eyes.

It’s so difficult, in that passage, to care about what happens to Nat. Like the rest of the humans in the story, he functions simply as an obstacle to bird domination, although he is a larger obstacle than most. Clearly the author herself was far more interested in the gulls than in Nat’s survival; yet even as she describes their actions, I sense her dispassion. She is not whirling among the birds, beating them out of her hair, but sitting on a remote hillside, studying the flock through her binoculars and taking tidy, careful notes.

Baldwin, in contrast, has no compunction in “The Outing” about hurling himself into the fray:

“Well, glory!” cried Father James. The Holy Ghost touched him and he cried again, “Well, bless Him! Bless his holy name!”

[The congregation] laughed and shouted after him, their joy so great that they laughed as children and some of them cried as children do; in the fullness and assurance of salvation, in the knowledge that the Lord was in their midst and that each heart, swollen to anguish, yearned only to be filled with His glory. Then, in that moment, each of them might have mounted with wings like eagles far past the sordid persistence of the flesh, the depthless iniquity of the heart, the doom of hours and days and weeks; to be received by the Bridegroom where He waited on high in glory; where all tears were wiped away and death had no power; where the wicked ceased from troubling and the weary soul found rest.

Somehow I think I would not have made this particular differentiation between Baldwin and du Maurier if I had not first dug my way through the various side-issues and interfering tangents that so clotted my original essay. Apparently, for whatever reason, my intellectual growth seems to require a certain amount of haphazard meandering through my mental library. But I realize as I write these words that I have absolutely no inkling about how other people figure out what they think. Does anyone else require such a galaxy of literary advisers? I’m not talking about matters of research but something more akin to grasping wildly at straws. For instance, as I worked on the essay, switching back and forth from du Maurier story to Baldwin story to du Maurier story, I became increasingly convinced that some qualitative difference existed in the writers’ approach to character. Searching for advice, I began clanking among the Ken-L Ration cans in my brain and out popped Virginia Woolf, who takes up this very topic in her long essay “Character in Fiction.” “Novelists,” she asserts, “differ from the rest of the world because they do not cease to be interested in character when they have learnt enough about it for practical purposes.”

When all the practical business of life has been discharged, there is something about people which continues to seem to them of overwhelming importance, in spite of the fact that it has no bearing whatever upon their happiness, comfort, or income. The study of character becomes to them an absorbing pursuit; to impart character an obsession. And this I find very difficult to explain: what novelists mean when they talk about character, what the impulse is that urges them so powerfully every now and then to embody their view in writing.

I was delighted when Woolf leaped so cogently into my essay, but the journal editor took pointed exception to the intrusion: “Woolf turns out to be too heavily woven into the fabric . . . and she is a mistake. She is not always a mistake, but here she is pulling you to far astray, into her thoughts, when what you want to be doing is having your own.” This was rather crushing, for I’d assumed I’d been having my own thoughts. Yet if these unexpected, illuminating collisions weren’t thinking, then what could thinking be? Woolf’s comments about character had reminded me that she certainly would have been aware of du Maurier’s popular novel Rebecca, first published in 1938, which had then led me to wonder how she would have classified a writer whose approach seems to be entirely antithetical to her “belief that men and women write novels because they are lured on to create some character which has thus imposed itself upon them.” Baldwin, yes: unquestionably, he was in thrall to the sorrows and ecstasies of his characters. But du Maurier? What a cool fishy she eye had, even as she described horrors. In the story “Don’t Look Now,” for instance, her character John believes he is rescuing a child in distress. But he’s wrong, of course.

“It’s all right,” he panted, “it’s all right,” and held out his hand, trying to smile.

The child struggled to her feet and stood before him, the pixie-hood falling from her head on to the floor. He stared at her, incredulity turning to horror, to fear. It was not a child at all but a little thick-set woman dwarf, about three feet high, with a great square adult head too big for her body, grey locks hanging shoulder-length, and she wasn’t sobbing any more, she was grinning at him, nodding her head up and down.

Then he heard the footsteps on the landing outside and the hammering on the door, and a barking dog, and not one voice but several voices, shouting, “Open up! Police!” The creature fumbled in her sleeve, drawing a knife, and as she threw it at him with hideous strength, piercing his throat, he stumbled and fell, the sticky mess covering his protecting hands.

. . . The hammering and the voices and the barking dog grew fainter, and, “Oh God,” he thought, “what a bloody silly way to die. . . . ”

And there the story ends, trailing off into ellipses.

At this juncture Charles Dickens muscled into the fray: I suddenly remembered the dwarf Miss Mowcher, who plays a bit part in David Copperfield. Miss Mowcher is a somewhat unsavory character, yet her errors and obnoxious behaviors are clarified by her sufferings. But the dwarf in du Maurier’s tale is merely a nasty dénouement personified, while John is nothing more than her accidental victim. The situation is meaningless, trivial, terrible. Moreover, there’s a tinny quality to the shock ending. John’s death is unpleasant, very unpleasant; but to be honest I find it difficult to care. Since I am the sort of squeamish moviegoer who is too afraid to watch Yul Brynner play an out-of-control robot cowboy in Westworld, let alone sit through Hitchcock’s The Birds, I’m startled by my indifference to this gruesome scene. But I think John’s murder would have resonated with me more profoundly if, throughout the rest of the tale, du Maurier had developed him into a character who mattered, one who was mutable and engaging in all his flaws and talents. She chose not to, however . . . and I say chose because clearly du Maurier was a skilled-enough writer to have pressed her characters beyond two-dimensionality. “Don’t Look Now” is fast-moving, plot-driven, and atmospheric; yet its characters are ciphers: we have “the grieving mother,” “the concerned husband,” “the eerie old twins,” “the malignant dwarf,” but no one amazes us character-wise. Only the plot is amazing. So why didn’t this fluent, talented writer push herself to delve further into her characters? Or perhaps I should ask why I, her reader, think she ought to have delved further?

Despite the journal editor’s distaste for her interference, VW’s presence in my essay gave me some clue as to why an ought can be so influential. Toward the end of “Character in Fiction,” Woolf points her exculpatory finger at readers who “allow the writers to palm off upon you a version of [character], which has no likeness to that surprising apparition whatsoever.”

In your modesty you seem to consider that writers are of different blood and bone from yourselves. . . . Never was there a more fatal mistake. It is this division between reader and writer, this humility on your part, these professional airs and graces on ours, that corrupt and emasculate the books which should be the healthy offspring of a close and equal alliance between us. Hence spring those sleek, smooth novels, those portentous and ridiculous biographies, that milk and watery criticism, those poems melodiously celebrating the innocence of roses and sheep which pass so plausibly for literature at the present time.

Woolf is such a good writer, and such a literary patrician, that I almost always humbly go along with whatever she says. But as she herself points out, a reader’s humility gives a writer too much leeway for laziness or error; and in Woolf’s case, my humility makes it too easy for her get away with deriding entire genres and styles that don’t happen to suit her taste. Presumably du Maurier’s fiction would fall into Woolf’s “sleek, smooth” category, a generalization that does, in fact, have some justification. Du Maurier’s dialogues, for instance, feel strangely prefabricated. No matter what plot torments enmesh her characters, they manage to maintain a strange, clipped, artificial style of speaking that barely rises above the clumsy conversations of Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth’s novels. For instance, the working-class men in the story “Kiss Me Again, Stranger” speak like no working-class men who have ever lived, although their types have appeared in many a second-rate novel:

“I blame the war for all that’s gone wrong with the women,” said the coffee-stall bloke. . . .

“’Tisn’t that, it’s sport that’s the trouble,” said the conductor.

Similarly, the classier married couple of “Don’t Look Now” woodenly emote to the point of absurdity:

“Laura, darling, of course I believe you,” he said, “only it’s a sort of a shock, and I’m upset because you’re upset. . . . ”

“But I’m not upset,” she interrupted. “I’m happy, so happy that I can’t put the feeling into words.”

But when Woolf summarily dismisses the pantheon of writers who rely on such canned techniques of characterization, she also avoids consideration of why a particular skilled and careful writer might continue to depend on them. And in du Maurier’s case, the choice seems to illustrate how easily we readers and writers learn to discount individual suffering in our pursuit of narrative thrill. Did du Maurier find herself, as a writer, trapped by that pursuit? Did she take a certain malicious or ironic pleasure in proving she could entrap her readers? Did she see her stories as efforts to prove the existence of a terrible immorality? Although such questions may be unanswerable, I think there is no doubt that she was conscious of her methods, if not her motives.

The journal editor saw my excursion into Woolf as a distraction, as indeed it was. Yet if VW had not made her unexpected appearance, I would not have had a chance to puzzle over her assertions and, to my surprise, find myself defending du Maurier, whose books I don’t particularly admire. This process may not be thought per se, but it is a shift in perspective, a way to look at a piece of art more carefully, with a more perplexed vision.

* * *

In a recent article in the Guardian, Ian Sample notes that several evolutionary psychologists claim that nineteenth-century novels “helped to uphold social order and encouraged altruistic genes to spread through Victorian society.” While I find it difficult to believe that such influence is measurable, I do see that the opposite claim may also be true: that a writer can subvert social order and discourage altruistic genes . . . or perhaps choose to reveal how easy they are to subvert and discourage. Certainly, as my own literary clutter has shown, information en masse can have a will of its own.

Not long ago, I rented Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will, which lovingly documents the Third Reich’s 1934 party rally at Nuremberg. As I sat on my couch, drinking tea and watching platoon after platoon of young Germans, old Germans, soldiers, working people, farmers, and flower-decked maidens march past Riefenstahl’s lens, I realized suddenly and viscerally that evil is everywhere, crouching and invisible, infiltrating the air I was breathing, like a spore or a virus. No one is immune. Everyone is vulnerable. And I realized also that the books I was reading were contemporaneous with these horrors. Du Maurier composed her stories alongside them; and in their chill tone and meaningless cruelty, her stories parallel their times. Woolf, too, lived in that era, as did Baldwin. Yet each artist, despite an overlapping history, dealt with characterization personally and idiosyncratically; each struggled with habits and predilections and avoidances and fears. In other words, art, like history, like love, like the back shed of my brain, is confused and complicated.

At the end of “Sonny’s Blues,” probably James Baldwin’s most famous short story, the narrator recalls the night when he went to a jazz club and, for the first time, heard his younger brother Sonny play the piano. “All I know about music,” he muses, “is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air.”

My essay on du Maurier and Baldwin has now melted away into thin air. But if nothing else, my back-shed bits and scraps of cultural memory cohere as a “personal, private, vanishing evocation.” The jumble is clutter, but it speaks to me, teaches me, comforts me. It defines my individuality as a common reader, to borrow yet again from Woolf. Yet as I glance at her brief essay “The Common Reader,” I remember that she herself has borrowed the phrase from Samuel Johnson:

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. . . . Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole. . . . He never ceases as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of laughter, affection, and argument.

And so I think, Well, all right, Virginia. We’re in the same boat then, aren’t we? Which is, on some days, accomplishment enough.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Control and intention

Yesterday Kathleen asked me what part control and intention play in the trajectory of my writing as I "move from piece to piece or book to book." The short annoying answer is nothing and everything.

The title of my upcoming collection is Same Old Story, and its theme is that I can't seem to stop writing about or worrying about the same handful of subjects: books, place, lovers, children. In Boy Land, I was, as often as not, in the child's mind; in Crimes I allowed myself to invent other characters and lying versions of myself who worried over these things; in Same Old Story I loosely borrow the plan of Shakespeare's sonnets: to ring changes on these preoccupations that I can't relinquish.

When I spent a season copying out all of Shakespeare's sonnets, I realized that, in many ways, poets are the dumbest people on earth. We fret and fret and fret; we write down the fret and it sounds ridiculous; we retry the fret in another pattern; then we choose a word from the new fret and use it as the first word in yet another fret; then before long we have a hundred poems about the same damn thing. That's exactly what Shakespeare does, and isn't it both a comfort and a shock to think of him fretting right alongside the rest of us?

To tell the truth, however, last fall I didn't even know I had a third collection of poems that was unified enough to submit to a publisher. What I thought I had was a sheaf of disconnected pieces that someday might fit into something. It was a shock to lay them all out onto a table and realize that the individual pieces were talking to one another. And here's where the writer's task changes: instead of writing and revising poems, one now must pull together disparate pieces into a collection. In a way, the manuscript becomes analogous to a poem, and each poem becomes analogous to a line. The job is to frame and refine with a broader hand and eye. Weaker poems suddenly become stronger; strong poems suddenly become ridiculous overstatements; sonnets intersperse with vers libre; narrative speaks to lyric.

In the case of this most recent manuscript, the poems fell into five sections, each of which centered around a theme that I decided to introduce in an epigraph. (I love epigraphs because they are a way to pay homage to the writers I find myself accidentally reading when I find myself accidentally writing: I've never been able to do one without the other.) Here are the five epigraphs for the five sections of Same Old Story:

"It is sometimes curiously difficult to name the emotion from which one suffers." (Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince)

"But half the sorrows of women would be averted if they could repress the speech they know to be useless; nay, the speech they have resolved not to utter." (George Eliot, Felix Holt, the Radical)

"I know, of course, that she once had a half-baked affair with a poet--but, Heaven deliver us, what's a poet? Something that can't go to bed without a making a song about it." (Dorothy Sayers, Busman's Honeymoon)

"'Tis strange that they should so depart from home, and not send back my messenger." (William Shakespeare, King Lear)

"Hell, everyone keeps a light on in the front hall until they go to bed." (Eugene O'Neill, A Long Day's Journey into Night)

These five sections are themselves framed by a prologue and an epilogue: two poems that retell scenes from Ovid's "The Story of Phaeton"--a classic tale of parent-child heartbreak that I have always, both as child and adult, found very difficult to read . . . but have read anyway.

So now let's go back to the question of control and intention. I think when I'm writing poems, I have to shape them to follow their own dramatic needs; I need to stay in the present-tense of making the poem; I need to forget that in the big picture I'm repeating myself. That's true even in regards to this new project I'm working on: these historical persona poems about western Pennsylvania. I'm reading lots of history, and I'm aware that I need to account for chronology; but when I fall into a voice, I have to stay with that narrowed vision, that emotional expansion or reduction, that diction. Otherwise, I risk a false sympathy.

Tomorrow I'll try to talk about how the prose writing fits into this. But possibly this is already more than you wanted to know. . . .

Saturday, June 11, 2011

I have to spend most of today hauling around a poodle and a boy in my car, but I want to say that, yes, Kathleen and other commenters on Thursday's post, I have something to say about repeating themes and, yes, I want to write about that here, either later today or tomorrow, so let me know if you have any related questions about the trajectory of an oeuvre (which is a pompous Gallicism and it always makes me think of oeuf, which is more suitable anyway, don't you think?).

Friday, June 10, 2011

You might like to read the most recent post on Jacques Rancourt's blog. Jacques is a fine poet whom I met when he was an intern at the Beloit Poetry Review. He now edits Devil's Lake and has published new work in Guernica, among many other journals. Warning: If you are struggling to write good poems, you will immediately recognize Jacques's situation. And if you already hate the Wisconsin governor and/or Wal-Mart, this post will make you hate them even more.

Last night I made ceviche with sea scallops, fresh tuna, couscous, tomatoes, basil, parsley, green garlic, and roasted onion. It was extraordinarily delicious, and now I want to eat it every day.

Here is a mocking little summer-innuendo poem written in 1595. It was written by George Peele, and it's from his play The Old Wives' Tale, and it made me laugh this morning. According to Wikipedia, Peele also wrote "two treatises on bookkeeping."

"Whenas the Rye . . . "

George Peele

Whenas the rye reach to the chin,
And chopcherry, chopcherry ripe within,
Strawberries swimming in the cream,
And schoolboys playing in the stream;
Then, O then, O then, O my true love said,
'Till that time come again
She could not live a maid.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

I'm starting to get ready for the Frost Place Teaching Conference, which will be organized somewhat differently from the way it's been arranged in the past. Instead of three visiting writers, we'll have only two; and Baron and I will reascend the platform on Wednesday and spend the session focusing specifically on writing and revision in the classroom. This change has one other implication: previously Baron and I had split the first night's reading, but this year I read alone on June 26. The change means that I have an extraordinary 45 minutes or so to stand at the front of Robert Frost's barn, before an excited and affectionate audience, and do whatever in the world I want to do. Given that most readings are 10-20 minutes long in front of who-knows-what sort of distracted people, a reading like this is a unique opportunity to try something different.

So this is what I've been thinking, and I'd like to hear your response to it: I'm mulling over ways to tour the history of my writing trajectory . . . how one piece has led to the next, led to the next; how my concerns have cycled back to the beginning in surprising (to me) ways or branched out unexpectedly into places I had no intention of going. I'm not interested in reverting to juvenilia--which one of last year's visiting poets, Leslea Newman, did so beautifully--but I am imagining a way to move from the concerns of Boy Land, into Tracing Paradise and How the Crimes Happened (which I worked on and published concurrently), into the essays of The Vagabond's Bookshelf and the poems of Same Old Story (both of which are finished but still in manuscript), into a few of the prose musings on this blog (which is publishing its own version of some kind of tale), into the new poems I'm accruing in my historical fiction project (which appears to be turning back to at least one of the themes of Boy Land).

If you have thoughts or responses, I'd be happy to hear them. Meanwhile, I've got to go outside and argue with some blackflies.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tom and I had one of our rare outings alone yesterday. In the morning we drove to the coast, where Tom had to meet with the owner of one of the galleries that represents his work. Meanwhile, I walked around town and bought a new hat. Then we reconnoitered, ate a picnic lunch by the sea, had a cherry-pit spitting contest that Tom won handily, and climbed Mount Megunticook in the Camden Hills. From the top we could look far away into the coastal sea, out to the islands of North Haven and Vinalhaven, and then down the coast as far as Rockland. The sky was clear, clear; the blackflies were sullen; we sat on a big rock and watched bumblebees pollinating the wild blueberry flowers. Later I said to Tom: this is what our life could be like once our children leave home. Which is a comfort. I will miss them terribly, of course, but then again, as I wrote in Tracing Paradise,

I didn’t fall in love with Tom because I thought he’d make an excellent father of sons. I fell in love with the way the backs of his knees looked as he walked away from me down a dormitory corridor, the way his hair stuck straight up from his forehead in the mornings, the way he never bossed me around or made me play softball, the way he entered into the private lives of housepets, the way he stared up at the sky.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

I am so happy to say that, finally, poet Meg Kearney and I will be reading together again. We first laid eyes on each other when we shared a reading but have never read together since. And now, once again, we'll get to share a bill. Meg is a fine and emotionally driven poet, also comic, also heartbreaking; and we are almost exactly the same age, and we will have so much fun. We'll be part of next winter's Bates College visiting writers' series, and there better not be a blizzard that night.

In other cheerful news, today Tom and I are going on a date to the sea. Take that, you overgrown lawn. Go ahead: grow some more; see what I care.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Two poems about the same old story.

Adam Lay Ibounden

Anonymous (15th century)

Adam lay ibounden,
Bounden in a bond,
Foure thousand winter
Thoght he not too long;
And al was for an appil,
An appil that he tok,
As clerkes finden
Wreten in here bok.

Ne hadded the appil take ben,
The appil taken ben,
Ne hadde never our lady
A ben hevene quene;
Blessed be the time
That appil take was!
Therfore we moun singen
"Deo gracias."

Eve’s Dream

Dawn Potter

Not of your sweet wandering hands, nor even

of yesterday’s seed or tomorrow’s green pear,

but of crime and trouble, yes, offenses that never

crossed my fancy before this wretched night:

for in my dreams a quiet voice at my ear

coaxed me awake; and I thought it was you

cajoling me into the pleasant shadows,

cool and silent, save when silence yields

to cricket scratch or throaty owl,

white moon-face waxing gibbous

and all the Heavens awake in their glory

though none else to revel in them but ourselves;

and I rose and walked out into the night,

but where were you? I called your name,

then ventured, restive, into the lunar

garden I knew so well by day, yet here

I lost myself in white light and black hole,

I staggered through puddles, over stones;

and I heard, in my heartbeat,

an invisible horror, I heard it tease me,

chase me, catch me; and I ran, I ran,

weeping I ran; until, under moonglow,

I saw my own pale hands stretch before me

toward the Tree that blocked my way;

I saw my hands embrace it, caress its satin skin.

And in return, the Tree kissed my captive lips

with its feathery leaves, as if a twist of wind

had leagued us suddenly together;

for it gleamed strange and terrible,

this great rooted flower,

plying me so gently with Knowledge:

though my lips, parched and ravenous,

begged, now, for a rougher, a crueler dram.

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

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Statistical update: Yesterday this blog had 50 visitors. The day before it had 100. Usually it has about 30. Sometimes it has 8.

Garden update: An invisible hungry something is eating holes in my scarlet runner beans. This is unfortunate because each plant has only 2 leaves.

Boy update: Sleeping.

Book update: I am taking a weekend break from western Pennsylvania history and am reading Ford Madox Ford's Fifth Queen trilogy for the twentieth time. Note to my friends who are infatuated by stories with excellent language control and characterization (Mr. Hill, I'm speaking to you in particular): you'll want to take a look at this one and get back to me. This a spoiler, but I suppose you ought to know that the heroine gets her head chopped off. Still, if a woman agrees to marry Henry VIII, she can't really be all that surprised about such a turn of events.

Cooking update: I have baby rhubarb. I have new-laid eggs. Soon I will have a rhubarb custard pie.

Writing update: I finished a poem in the voice of old George Washington on a landlord tour of his Pennsylvania properties. That was an odd exercise. You should try it sometime. Or maybe try something even harder . . . like, say, impersonating Millard Fillmore. Go on: I dare you.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Yesterday's post was cranky. Today's is less cranky.

Friday was Spring Fling at my son's high school and, among other amusements, the students got to watch a teacher-made video of the faculty and staff wearing silly hats and dancing among the tools of their trade, all to the tune of Taio Cruz's "Dynamite." (If you live with a 13-year-old, you know all about this song, and you take every opportunity to annoy him by saying that it features on Top of the Pops as if you hadn't grown up with American Top 40 your very own self.)

One of my son's friends posted the video on his Facebook page, which is how I happened to see it. There's no reason for me to attach a link here: if you can't identify these particular teachers and the school, it will mean nothing to you. What interested me more than the video itself were the comments that appeared under it. Clearly, the students were completely charmed by the sight of their chunky, balding, middle-aged teachers having so much fun. One girl said, "This is proof that our school is awesome." Other students agreed.

So, all you tired teachers, here's a little something to hold on to during your summer vacation and to keep as a magical tonic for next year's bad moments: your students love watching you love your job. You are the proof that your school is awesome.

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Small Response to V. S. Naipaul

First, read this article.

Now, read this:

V. S. Naipaul's novel A House for Mr. Biswas has always been important to me. At times in my life I have admired it extravagantly . . . despite the fact that, from the first few words, I could tell that it had been written by a non-Anglo-Saxon man raised in a hot-weather British colony.

I am determined to continue caring about A House for Mr. Biswas. After all, I am interested in characters and settings that require me to look outside myself. This is one of the gifts of literature. Or so I have always thought.

Being a writer and a reader who "is not a complete master of a house," I have endeavored to spend some time in those mysterious rooms and passageways beyond my ken: John Milton's, for instance. I find them instructive. I think Milton might have found my rooms and passageways instructive as well. Also surprising. Also alarming.

Sentimentality is a handy generalization, useful to call upon when one wants to label a woman as an inferior life form because (1) she finds it interesting to love babies, horses, handsome young men, her mother, an aging baldster, or anyone else she happens to care about in affectionate and tragicomic detail or (2) she finds it painful to lose that baby, horse, handsome young man, mother, or aging baldster, whether by death or indifference. Surprisingly enough, however, some people feel that close attention to such reactions and emotions is integral to the experience of being human.

If, in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen could create a character as memorable as Mr. Collins, imagine what she could do with a character such as V. S. Naipaul.

Aphorisms: Paradise Lost was written down by women. Kitchen drawers hide sharp knives. Virginia Woolf's novels are better than V. S. Naipaul's. Scrub your own fucking floor, you asshole.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Violent thunderstorms, hail, tornado warnings and watches into the night . . . why was I the only member of my family who was petrified? Everyone else idled by the windows and commented genially on the whipping forest and the strange antifreeze-green of the sky.

Now the sky is cloudy blue, the jays are squawking, and the vigorous peonies are still standing tall. So maybe those cool-headed boys were right, or maybe they were just lucky not to be living in Springfield, Massachusetts. Who knows? It is true that fear is not a reliable narrator.