Monday, April 30, 2012

I have been reading Charlotte Yonge's novel The Heir of Redclyffe, which, according to its scholarly introduction, was as popular as Dickens's novels in the 19th century. I find this difficult to believe. As you know, I have a strong stomach for 19th-century trash, but this novel may be too much even for me. The problem isn't that it's badly written because it isn't: its style is domestic and Trollopian and, though insipid, is perfectly palatable. Nor am I overly disturbed by the "angel in the house" depiction of the cute little feminine heroine (known to one and all as "Silly Little Amy"). I can deal with the romanticizing of the medieval Holy Grail theme and the chivalric ideal. (Tennyson, among other contemporaries, had the same tendencies.) I can put up with the Oxford Movement overtones and the high-church Anglicanism. What is driving me crazy is the ending.

This is a novel that ought to, as I said in my essay about my favorite 19th-century trash novel, Millbank, bear "a certain relationship to one of those tinkling baroque sonatas, the kind that rings its thematic changes with witless regularity and then, after a sweeping ritardando, grinds itself into tonic and satisfying silence. Yes, that was chord my ear expected. Yes, it arrived right on schedule. Thank God." Now believe me, I am all in favor of appropriately unhappy and/or ambiguous endings. For instance, Dickens's original sad ending for Great Expectations is far better than the happy one he substituted at the last minute. But in Redclyffe, after leading the reader through the priggish vicissitudes of courtship and moral self-control, Yonge decides, instead of slapping on the obligatory happy ending, to make her romantic hero die of fever in the wilds of pensionnat Europe, leaving Silly Little Amy to wring her hands and promise God that she will spend the rest of her life as a dutiful and pale-faced Silly Little Widow. It is the most aggravating ending ever.

P.S. I have a couple of poems here in the new Poetry Salzburg Review. It's my Austrian debut.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Gradually I am going to reconfigure the appearance of this blog. Because experimenting with design is time-consuming, I won't make very quick progress; but if you hate the way something looks, do tell me and I'll try to eliminate the blight.

And now for some good news: I am so pleased and proud to tell you that this fall J will be attending Hampshire College, one of the coolest schools in America. And cool is a word I always use with caution, so you know I must really mean it. I couldn't be happier.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

1. Thanks for all your remarks and suggestions about job prospects, here and by email. Thanks also for your conviction that I am in fact employable.

2. NewPages has a review of the most recent issue of Sewanee Review and mentions my essay, although I am not exactly clear about whether or not the reviewer believes in what I have to say.

3. Next Saturday, May 5, Harmony School's 8th-grade class is sponsoring a pig roast followed by the public debut of my band, String Field Theory. If you don't eat pork, there will be plenty of other food options, or you can just come for coffee and the show. The pigs were raised and donated by the families involved; an 8th-grade family is in charge of the cooking; Paul and I will be making enormous quantities of potato salad. All proceeds will go toward the 8th graders' trip to Boston . . . and for some of these kids, this will be the first time they've every been out of Maine, let alone to a big city. So if you live locally, please consider coming out to support them. Dinner starts at 5 p.m. in the Harmony School gym; musicians go on stage at 6 p.m.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

So here's the story. I am in the job market. I need to find a teaching or other job, but I don't have a teaching certificate or an MFA. Nonetheless, I am a teacher, and a competent one, even if I've spent a lot of time as an itinerant rather than a full-time employee. Therefore, I have gaps in my experience . . . such as administering tests and doing assessment.

It's the "woman out of the job force for 20 years because she's been raising children" syndrome. It looks bad on paper. It sounds bad in an interview. It's not bad in real life.

So if you have any good ideas, let me know. Thank you. You are sweet people out there.
Sometimes we take risks that end up making us feel like idiots. Sometimes we sleep in strange rooms smelling of turmeric. Sometimes we spend the entire night dreaming about the spelling of our husband's name. Sometimes we write in first-person plural to avoid admitting that we have anything private to mourn. Sometimes we disappoint one child but not the other. Sometimes we keep beginning sentences with the same word because our brains don't know any better. Sometimes we imagine we'll be snared in the same net for the rest of our lives.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

This afternoon I embark on my final voyage of National Poetry Month: a visit to Lisbon, New Hampshire, where I will stay overnight so that I can wake up at dawn all ready to spend a packed day consorting with 7th-12th graders at the Lisbon Regional School. I know these classes will be fun, not least because I'll be working with one of the many great teachers I met at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. Nonetheless, I'm not naturally adept at the itinerant lifestyle; so it's a lucky thing I never turned out to be a rock star because heading down two different roads in the space of a single week feels like craziness to me.

Not that home is peaceful. At the moment, Tom is downstairs dealing with our flooding basement, Crazy Larry Bird is still bashing his head against the window, the boys have used up all the hot water, nobody knows who's in charge of the baseball-practice carpool, and we're reduced to drinking cheap coffee until our food-coop order comes in this weekend.

Still I've actually written two pages of a new essay. So that's something. And my peas are up. That's something too.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Rain and rain and rain, and as I watch buds are bursting open on the maples, grass blades are vibrating, and Strange Larry Bird is poised on the deck railing, cocking his crazy robin eye before once again flying into a window and scratching at it with his feet. All of the storm windows on the south side of our house are covered with Larry's scratches. Some misconception has snaked its way into his small head, and he has become obsessed with our house. Meanwhile, all the other robins are mating and laying eggs and plucking worms from puddles.

Poor Larry. He's a sad case, but he's also alarming. Du Maurier knew what she was doing when she turned a flock of birds into horror--if anything, her story is scarier than Hitchcock's film version of The Birds because she explicates a recognizable human revulsion against things that fly into our faces. A mosquito is bad enough. A robin is dreadful. Now imagine a seagull.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Massachusetts Poetry Festival was a whirlwind in more than one way . . .  yes, what is it about those poetry-book fairs held in witch-themed mini-malls stocked with velour cloaks and refrigerating wind machines? However, it was a bonding experience, and now the CavanKerry Press staff and the Tupelo Press staff will always have something to chatter about a cocktail party.

It was a delight to meet people such as Marie Gauthier whom I'd only known through email correspondence, and to sit next to hilarious Renee Ashley, and to meet new CavanKerry author Kevin Carey (say "CavanKerry" and "Kevin Carey" out loud, and you'll learn all about the burden this poor man is carrying), and I also got to shake hands with the great Michael Casey. But best of all was spending time with my dear Teresa Carson and learning that, in fact, we really are tag-team teaching partners. Maybe 25 people attended our Browning workshop, and, you know, I think they actually got excited about Browning. Imagine!

So if you find yourself in need of a Browning workshop (and so many of you will, I'm sure), Teresa and I are always available. Have "My Last Duchess," will travel.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Heading south for the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. Possibly you won't hear from me for a few days; I have no idea what my computer access will be. However, the forecast is for rain rain rain, so at least you will have the chance to imagine hundreds of soggy versifiers wandering through the secret passageway in the House of Seven Gables or taking in the peculiarities of the Salem Wax Museum. The versifiers may or may not be disconsolate.

For the moment the sun continues to shine in Maine, I am wishing I were better at inventing fiddle leads, radishes and arugula are sprouting in the garden, Red Sox pitching really stinks, the barn dog ate all her breakfast, the dancing kitchen mouse was trapped, and the goat is in a bad mood. She threatened to bash me, but I gave her the evil eye so she thought better of it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Dawn Potter

You fall into your window seat like a stork
spearing an alewife, my little cabbage,

and you eat so much cabbage!  Chatter
harrows the fog-lit air.  I wad napkins with spilt milk,

socks explode from your rat-tail shoes,
you suck two straws and snicker Farty Mart,

but when you have nothing else to say,
you say, I love you, Mom,

more times an hour than I can bear.
Oh my sweetheart, my barometer,

my wet-nose calf, my chick—
I grimace at a sudden knife of sun, you kick my chair

and bellow, What’s wrong?
early-alert system, wired and ready,

grubby hackles spiked,
bitten fingernail held to the wind.

Moo a tune, you can’t fool me.
I hear you:

Look out, a big one’s brewing, batten the hatches,
I love you, Mom,

I’m ducking my head,
I love you, Mom, I’m ready to run.

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

Today the boy who was the main character in that poem is driving his junker an hour and a half down Route 95 to Augusta, where he has never driven before, to catch a bus into Boston, a city in which he has never been alone, to transfer to a commuter train line that he has never taken before to travel to a college that has accepted him into the class of 2016, where he will spend the night and the next day with people he has never seen before and then take a return trip back up to Maine, arriving home well after midnight after driving the junker along dark curvy roads spiced with moose and drunkards.

I am trying hard not to think about this too much.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My Last Duchess


            Robert Browning

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Frà Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’t was not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:” such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’r
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’t was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such a one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will ’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

This is the poem that Teresa Carson and I will be discussing at Sunday's workshop at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, and you can read some of Teresa's thoughts about the poem at the CavanKerry Press blog. Teresa is a playwright as well as a poet, so she has a great interest in sound. I am a musician as well as a poet, so I have a great interest in phrasing. Our plan is that the ambiguous overlap of those interests will chemically react and create a workshop.

Yesterday I was copying out John Berger's essay "The Hour of Poetry" and came across this remark: 

The boon of language is not tenderness. All that it holds, it holds with exactitude and without pity. Even a term of endearment: the term is impartial; the context is all. The boon of language is that potentially it is complete, it has the potentiality of holding with words the totality of human experience. Everything that has occurred and everything that may occur. It even allows space for the unspeakable.

Berger was talking about the relationship between poetry and the torture of political prisoners. But he might as well have been talking about "My Last Duchess."

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I may be the custodian of the only 14-year-old boy on the planet who adores the films of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Last night, he watched The Thief of Bagdad--a two-and-half-hour silent swashbuckler, first released in 1924--for the third time. Yes, it does feature "fabulous" special effects, such as a horrible dinosaur-monster and a flying carpet and enormous, elaborate, studio-set Arabian Nights scenes, and Fairbanks does leap around with abandon and grin like Rhett Butler; but like all silent movies, it's about five paces slower than the movies we've now become accustomed to: the subtitle frames pause for too long; the actors' descriptive melodramatic arm waving and terrified eye bulging go on for too long. The whole effect is vaguely like running under water . . . which of course I enjoy, but who would expect a youthful 21st-century lover of The Hunger Games movie to fall so hard for it?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Hayden Carruth, quoting 19th-century French writer Theophile Gautier: "To be of one's own time--nothing seems easier and nothing is more difficult. One can go straight through one's age without seeing it, and this is what has happened to many eminent minds."

Dawn Potter, quoting 20th-century American writer Hayden Carruth: "And I stand up high / on the wagon tongue in my whole bones to say // woe to you, watch out / you sons of bitches who would drive men and women / to the fields where they can only die."

Meanwhile, that phoebe in my yard will not stop singing, and all of a sudden I cannot remember the name of the Frost poem about the phoebes nesting on his porch, and all of a sudden I cannot decide whether or not the definition of revolutionary poetry also ought to concern the way in which one celestial object orbits around another . . . which would be a way of bringing a deity into the picture, wouldn't it?, and might also help explain why some revolutions are rather like asteroids crashing into volcanoes.

Oh, dear, oh, dear--I have so much to do, and none of it earns any money. I should go do it.

Dinner last night: Calzones filled with beef, tomatoes, dandelion greens, garlic, and my friend Amber's homemade ricotta. Orange spongecake topped with raspberry sauce.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

My brain is singing to itself, repeating over and over the single line "Out of the cradle endlessly rocking" from Whitman's poem of the same name. For some reason it's a line that often rises up to me, always at unexpected moments, when I am not thinking about poetry or Whitman but about breakfast or mowing grass or hanging up shirts in the closet. It is a line that sounds like what it says; speak it aloud, and I nearly believe I am the cradle.

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
out of the forest, the hayrick, the foils of winter,
pale cling-tight leaves on the poplars,
brief green of melting river ice, brief green
of curious eyes among the lilac twigs.
Sparrow flit in the shadows: trash cans,
bicycles thick with rust. A fierce cold rises
from the broken soil.

is what I have just written, on the strength of that one singing line. And now I will remind myself of what else Walt wrote:

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander'd alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower'd halo.
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Daffodils in a glass of water, a phoebe singing behind the woodshed, and sun and sun and sun; but instead of cleaning the barn or planting shallots, Szymborska and I are off to a poetry festival. According to Hayden Carruth, "Poets are never liberals or conservatives, they are always radicals or reactionaries." I wonder why he wanted that comma splice because you can bet it wasn't an accident. I wonder if I should wear the brown dress or the blue dress, and I  wonder why I care about which color to wear, but I don't find myself tempted to insert a comma splice into this sentence. Carruth, however, is a greater writer than I am, so he can force illegal commas to do his will.

Symborska says, "Why there's still all this space inside me / I don't know." Actually that's what her translators say. I don't know what she says.

If my grandmother had spoken Polish to my mother, my mother would have spoken Polish to me, and I would now know what Symborska is saying. But the nuns made my grandmother ashamed, so she gave up her language, and I have lost my inheritance.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Today my first desk task is to sort through the poems of Wislawa Szymborska and choose three or four to read tomorrow morning at the Plunkett Poetry Festival. The festival's theme this year is "Poetry of Revolution," which complicates matters; for even though Szymborska's poetry suits this categorization, it slides into it both modestly and slyly. She is not a thundering demagogue, not by any means, which is one of the reasons I love her work. Not many poets can manage clarity, simplicity, erudition, politics, humor, and terror simultaneously.

The rest of my day = driving a carload of boys to baseball practice, buying coffee and new laundry baskets, listening to the Red Sox lose to the Rays, planting shallots, feeding dogs, suggesting to Tom that he set a mousetrap and get the lawn mower fixed, writing an introduction for a Garcia Lorca essay, typing an essay by Hayden Carruth, writing three sentences that belong to me, jumping rope, watching robins mate on the lawn (they do a lot of flapping and hopping), weeding the asparagus bed, browsing among the helped-wanted pages, drinking lemon-ginger tea, staring at the sky, and reading the poems of Andrew Marvell.

Here's a bit from one of those poems by Andrew Marvell--"The Garden," which is not at all like my garden. Not at all.

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarene, and curious peach,
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons, as I pass,
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.
He seems to have been trapped in some sort of attack garden.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Already this spring feels elegiac--one son off to college in the fall, the other off to high school; their parents faced with "what shall we do next?" Change is in the air, but no one knows what it will entail.

I read about a job opening in England and thought, What if?

What if?

Yet I have taken a risk and planted peas.

I wonder who will eat them.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Yesterday, instead of writing an essay, I planted peas, radishes, spinach, and lettuce. In the large vernal pool at the edge of our clearing, the frogs are awake and croaking amid spats of rain and cold bursts of sun. The daffodil buds are beginning to slant and swell, garlic shoots are thrusting through the mulch, and Tom is spring-cleaning the basement.

Around the edges of all this I am reading Wuthering Heights and Federico Garcia Lorca's essay "Play and Theory of the Duende"--

Poets who have muses hear voices and do not know where they are coming from. They come from the muse that encourages them and sometimes snacks on them, as happened to Apollinaire, a great poet destroyed by a horrible muse who appears with him in a certain painting by the divine, angelic Rousseau. The muse awakens the intelligence, bringing a landscape of columns and a false taste of laurel. But intelligence is often the enemy of poetry, because it limits too much, and it elevates the poet to a sharp-edged throne where he forgets that ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head.

But the duende? "All that has black sounds has duende."

These "black sounds" are the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore, the fertile silt that gives us the very substance of art. . . It is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.

I conclude, then, that Wuthering Heights most certainly has duende, but whether or not Emily Bronte also had a muse I cannot tell.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Yesterday I received a letter from the editor of the Sewanee Review asking me to write an essay for the fall issue. It makes me very happy to hear that he likes what I have to say--whatever that will be. Lately I have been so snarled up in other people's work that I've almost forgotten how to write an essay, although I have had thoughts about a cooking piece. Whether or not that will be what I end up submitting to SR is an open question, but there's no doubt that producing an essay is easier when one knows that there is an audience ready to read it on the other side.

Today I plan to finish a copyediting project; and perhaps, once it is packaged and mailed, I will attempt to string together a few sentences. You blog readers possess all the prose I've been able to write for the past few months: which is not much, as you are well aware. I have managed to make a few poems, but mostly I have been all anthology all the time. This has been a massive undertaking, and, believe me, I won't be doing another one soon. Yet, like everything, it has taught me some big lessons, introduced me to new mysteries, forced me to re-regulate my thoughts. I've liked the project and of course I've liked the editorial control (so different from nursemaid copyediting), but I'll also be glad to clear it off my desk . . . which won't be happening any time soon.

In the meantime, if you have any essay topics to suggest, feel free. "Gosh, I have always wanted Dawn to write about [adjective] [noun] during [historical period]. Maybe she'll focus on the [plural noun] of [literary character]. And I hope she brings in [brutish household chore] and [typical behavior characteristic of teenage boy]. [Exclamation]!"

Monday, April 9, 2012

Cold rain fell in the clearing, a thick, slow rain, as if the drops were contemplating a metamorphosis to snow. Nonetheless, a doughty clutch of juncos fluttered and jumped among the barren grasses of the dooryard. The poet, who was in the mood for the past tense, had chosen to invent the clutch of juncos. They may have been there, scratching among the grass seeds, or they may not have been. The rain was a fact, however.

Lately the poet had been rereading Wuthering Heights, a novel so believable yet so far-fetched that it seemed to drive her toward experimental deceits of her own, though why she was suddenly choosing to tell lies about juncos was unclear. Everything about Bronte's novel was cruel, yet the poet's response to it had turned out to be watery and dull. It was disappointing to be such a boring liar.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Because my friend Jean likes this poem, because it's Easter and my parents are far away, because my seventeen-year-old reminded me that today might be his last Easter at home with us--


            Dawn Potter

It was darker then, in the nights when the cars
came sliding around the traffic circle, when the headlights
speckled with rain traveled the bedroom walls
and vanished; when the typewriter, the squeaking chair,
the slow voice of the radio stirred the night air like a fan.
Of course, the ones we loved were beautiful—
slim, dark-haired, intent on their books.
The rain came swishing against the lamp-lit windows.
The cat purred in his chair. A clock sang,
and we lay nearly asleep, almost dreaming,
almost alone, nearly gone—the days fly so;
and the nights, like sleep, disappear without memory.

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

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Easter breakfast menu: hot cross buns, eggs, pineapple, and kumquats, just because they're so odd.

Easter dinner menu: baked smoked pork hocks, focaccia with tomato and rosemary, spinach tian, asparagus salad, and lime meringue pie.

Greenhouse news: Baby kale leaves are sprouting from last fall's transplanted roots.

Bird news: The goldfinches are patchy-yellow and rapacious. The extent of mourning dove romance in this yard is getting embarrassing.

Fox news: Staring at the house as if he's hungry for baked smoked pork hocks.

Coyote news: So close I can hear them yip conversationally after each howl.

Garden soil news: Easy digging, not too many weeds, and I have a new landscaping plan.

Novel-reading news: Wuthering Heights. Ever heard of it?

Music news: The first movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony gives me the same frisson as the Rolling Stones's "Sister Morphine."

Middle school dance news: "Awesome." "Epic." "Time of my life."

Red Sox news: Lost.

Yankees news. Lost.

Poem-reading news: Bei Dao. Check him out on the New Directions website.

Quotation of the day: Clover Adams talking about her close friend Henry James: "[It's not that he] bites off more than he can chaw, but that he chaws more than he bites off."

Friday, April 6, 2012

What else to do with a day that announces itself through wind and streaks of cloud and lilac buds and finch arguments and drying mud and the sharp green tips of wood hyacinths but to dig garden soil? "Over your body the clouds go," remarks Sylvia Plath, and "The sap / Wells like tears." Trees pin the sky to the earth; the pterodactyls are hatching their eggs; a dandelion flexes its muscular root. Spring is the least nostalgiac of seasons. Everything is modern. Even the lovage shoots have no patience with I-told-you-so. Throw away the old, trample on it, mow it down: only the young matter in the new world.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

"I live my life for poetry, and I'm willing to die for it, therefore I deserve only to have good poems published. Them fucking traditionalists ain't going to die for poetry so let them publish bad poems."

--from Gregory Corso, letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, December 25, 1957

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Always there is that cloud that sifts over the sun: do I lead the life I should be leading? Such a trite question and always unanswerable. Are the details worth the sum? Does affection create damage? I suppose these questions are what drive me to write poems because poems don't require me to answer them, only to ask and re-ask them. Same old story, in other words. Same old story.

I'll spend today prepping for a high school visit, copyediting a manuscript, dealing with reprint permissions, washing clothes, driving a boy to piano lessons, cleaning out my herb garden, rehearsing with the band . . . doesn't my day sound worthwhile? And yet what good does it do? Don't answer that question. There isn't any answer.

Someone told me recently, "If nothing else, you're a coper." Coping how? I wondered. And with what? And then I didn't want to think any more about what my friend meant by that remark.

There's cowardice for you . . . though of course coping requires a blind eye. Or a blinded one.

What would Shakespeare say? Perhaps
Here the street is narrow;
The throng that follows Caesar at the heels,
Of senators, or praetors, or common suitors,
Will crowd a feeble man almost to death.
On the other hand, perhaps "There is no special providence in the fall of a sparrow" or "Patience herself would startle at this letter, / And play the swaggerer."

Monday, April 2, 2012

I have shared scraps of my long poem "The White Bear" on this blog, but I have never given you the entire piece. Like many fairy tales, it is long but not hard to read. Bits have already appeared in the Green Mountain Review, and the whole thing will be included in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014).

Today, as I reconsidered the piece, I wasn't sure if I still liked it. But I may change my mind tomorrow.

And pardon the bad line breaks: this is a long-line poem, and blog formatting is unkind to such things.

The White Bear

Dawn Potter


Late autumn, day nearly gone, and weather so wild
that bare tree limbs tore rents in the racing storm clouds,
and shreds of cloud trembled in the dank air like monstrous
phantasmagoric rags. Rain hammered the shutters;
the roof groaned; the fire spattered and smoked.
The sullen kettle muttered but refused to boil.
Father, mother, daughter, unspeaking, crowded into the hearth’s
fitful, flickering shadow, parents bent forward on their stools,
fingers stretched toward the guttering flame;
the girl kneeling on the uneven bricks, poker in hand,
stirring the half-charred logs into braver action.

At each strike of metal, the red sparks leaped up
like a swarm of maddened flies, gilding the swell of a cheek,
the bridge of a nose; casting copper over a dark sweep of hair.
“Stop,” said the mother, not snappish but tired, blank-eyed,
her complaint as rote as the kettle’s; and the girl,
crushing logs to sticks, sticks to coals, coals to cinders, barely listened,
as she barely listened to the storm beyond the door. For a moment,
the syllable spun in the draught. Then it vanished, instantly forgotten,
like a dropped matchstick. Rain hammered the roof; the fire spat;
a rogue twist of smoke sent the father into a spasm of coughing,
the girl dabbing soot and tears with the frayed edge of a sleeve.

Now the poker clattered onto the bricks, and the mother said,
“Is it the shutter that’s banging?” For something was beating,
beating against the cottage; or was it banging against the door?
The windows quivered in their frames, and something
was rapping the panes—first one and then another,
as if all the trees in the wood were begging to be let inside.
The girl rocked back on her heels, palms pressed to her hot cheeks.
The father, still coughing, rose from his stool and the mother,
without thought, lay a hand on her daughter’s shoulder,
which trembled, not with fear but with a tense anticipation,
as a pointer trembles at sight of her master’s gun.

Yet the knocking was only the white bear, come back again.
            “May I walk in?” he asked; and meanwhile, water
roiled from the roof-edge, plashing his dense fur, which glimmered
            like pear blossoms before dawn, even amid the gale
and the rain and the darkening autumn night; meanwhile,
            his two broad paws, caked with muck, and his stout forelegs,
sullied to the elbow with leaf-mold and fir needles,
            barred the doorway, as if the bear were wary of his welcome—
or too sure of it. “Walk in,” murmured the father, uneasy and shy,
            while the mother, rising from her stool, cried, “Oh, the mud!”
But already the daughter had run to fetch blankets, towels, a brush,

and the white bear had padded forward into the crescent of firelight.
            How can I explain his beauty? Even soiled with travel and storm
the bear shone in the half-dark room, glowing as a painting
glows in the dusty corner of a church, as if once, long ago,
the canvas had swallowed all the light of the world.
            Tall as an elk, burly as an ox, he stood quietly, watchfully,
his enormous paws staining the shabby rug, his strange blue eyes
dilating to black—though if he were beautiful,
he was also terrible. When the girl knelt before him on the rug,
            lifting a paw onto the towel in her lap, the mud-streaked claws,
falcon-sharp and heavy as cant hooks, flashed ominously.

In haste, the parents retreated to the fire, which on the bear’s entrance,
had roared to life. Now it burned briskly, diligent kettle
steaming on the hob, draughty room suddenly purring with heat.
            But not with comfort. The father turned toward the flame,
his eyes carefully avoiding the bear. Less resolute, his wife
rattled and shifted on her stool, peeping at her silent husband,
glancing at the girl kneeling on the rain-sodden rug,
toweling and brushing each huge white leg; then rising to her feet
to rub the massive shoulders, the muscled back, and finally the great head,
pale muzzle thick as a man’s arm, the tender ears rimmed with down,
and below them that terrible, unblinking, blue-black gaze.

Only after the girl had dried and brushed him, had spread a nest
of blankets beside the busy fire, had swept away the leaves
and fir needles and hung the dripping rug to dry, did the bear, reclining,
choose to speak. “Will you give me your daughter?” he asked.
On her stool, the mother looked nervously from beast to man
“I’m sorry,” she stammered, glancing at the black-haired girl,
once again crouched on the hearth, once again beating sparks from the logs.
“Last time you came,” whispered the woman, “she did say no.”
Shifting her stool closer to her husband’s, the wife touched his arm,
            but still the man was silent, eyes fixed on the flames.
 “And what does she say this time?” asked the white bear. His teeth glittered.

Swarms of sparks—violet, gold, red as witch blood—whirled in the draught.
            Blue shadows, copper shadows fingered the girl’s bowed head.
“I shall not ask again,” said the bear, stretching a forepaw to the fire,
flexing his hooked and heavy claws. “You will see me no more.”
And at this warning, the girl swiftly, quietly, lay the poker on the bricks,
            and rose. Now she was taller than the reclining bear,
who lifted his white muzzle and waited, his strange eyes watchful,
            self-contained. Dangerous eyes, thought the mother.
Again she turned toward her husband, now bent forward on his stool,
elbows on his knees, rough hands clasped. Waiting.
What will she say? thought the woman. But I know what she will say.

The white bear gazed up at the girl. The girl gazed down on the bear.
            When finally she spoke, her voice was hoarse, hurried,
almost brusque, her words pitched low. “I suppose I will go,” she said.
The father groaned and closed his eyes, and “Oh!” cried the mother,
hugging herself, suddenly cold in that overheated room.
The bear gazed up at the girl, and his white teeth glittered.
“Fetch your things,” he told her, “for we travel at moonrise.”
            And while the girl was bundling her comb and her locket,
two petticoats and her winter stockings, the white bear said to her parents,
            “When your money runs low, dip the brass ladle into the well.”
But the father only groaned, and the mother only hugged herself and wept.


The bear must have swallowed the storm; for now, tangled in the naked trees,
the risen moon rocked peaceably. The rain had dwindled to a frail
feathery mist, and fragments of cloud drifted in the idle air.
            Water dripped from every needle and stalk. The brook—roaring, boastful—
charged over sedge and stone like a newborn sea. Seated on the white bear’s back,
            swaying among unseen trees, down an unseen forest track,
the girl pushed back the hood of her cloak. One by one, giant raindrops, cold as fish,
fell from the boughs and trickled slowly down her scalp.
Tightening her grip on the bear’s pulsing shoulder, she stretched her free hand
            into the darkness and let her fingers brush the soft, sodden fir branches
sweeping the shadow margins of the path. All her life she had lived in this wood,

hunted its berries, trodden its tracks—but never at night, never so far, never
at mercy of the wild. Never so alone. For since leaving the cottage,
the white bear had not spoken. First, he rested silently in the clearing,
waiting for the girl to tuck up her skirts, to straddle his broad back,
to wedge her scanty bundle of goods beneath her cloak.
Then he rose to his feet and padded forward into the darkness.
Behind her, framed in the bright doorway, stood her parents,
frightened and grieving; but when she turned to call farewell,
her twisted hood smothered her words. “Good-bye,” she cried, too late.
            The white bear padded forward; the swollen brook drowned her cry.
Her father and mother might never hear their child’s voice again.

Tears blotched the girl’s cheeks and snaked beneath her collar.
Her feet, dangling along the bear’s flanks, ached with cold.
She was wet and afraid and lost in a lonely wood, yet somehow
she could not regret her resolve. Under her loose cloak
and crumpled skirts, the white bear’s fur—rabbit-soft, blood-warm—
rippled and flowed against her stockings . . .
but no, it was the sliver of bare thigh above her stockings
            that the fur seemed to kiss, to cradle.
Clinging to his pacing shoulder, she trailed a blind hand
            through the dripping boughs that lined the path,
licked the salt rain from her lips. She tightened her grip on the bear.


Time passed. The moon, freckled and calm, had floated away
from the clutching trees, and now her pale torch
shone down on the faint, beaten track beneath the bear’s silent feet
            while the bear himself seemed to reflect the moon’s light like a mirror
and cast his own watery beam into the vague and branchy wilderness.
            Presently he spoke. “Are you well?”
 “I am,” replied the girl on his back. But some change had come over the beast—
            a new, nervous excitement rippled from his stride;
and the terrain had shifted as well, become steeper and stonier,
            the underbrush dwindling to what might have been
clumps of lichen or moss, even heaps of pebbles.

Raindrops no longer pattered from the trees; but a dry, mild wind
            had sprung up, lifting the hem of the girl’s cloak,
toying with a strand of hair. “Where are we?” she wondered aloud,
            and the white bear answered, “Nearly home.”
Yet what could home mean? Not a cottage in the forest. Surely not a cave.
            And whose home would it be? This, the girl realized, with a clarity
that shocked her, was the question that mattered. For she had never,
            not even in anger or fantasy, been homeless. Now here she was—
foreign, adrift; and though she would not allow herself to believe
            that the bear meant to kill her, still, she had no key to any door,
and no escape, if the bear chose to bar his gates behind her.

When he reached the palace door, the white bear sank to his haunches,
            and the girl, clutching cloak and bundle, slid awkwardly to the ground,
her feet so numb that she circled and staggered like a sick horse.
Eyes bright, breath quick, the bear rested on the silver flagstones
till she found her footing. His silence was nothing but kind;
yet the girl, flushed with embarrassment, felt, for the first time,
a heartsick wave rise in her throat. “Oh,” she cried,
            “I am so thirsty!” And indeed her throat was dry, her tongue parched,
her lips sore and split, though she had not noticed them before—
            and though she wished, instantly, that she had not complained
so babyishly, or stumbled so clumsily, or worn such thick boots.

For even as she entered the hall, this cottage girl knew
she was at odds with the bear’s palace. She might learn
to love it or fear it, but she would never roam its galleries, its lavish
forgotten bedrooms, its roaring kitchens, its secret courtyards,
with a native’s homely, ignorant abandon. Always
she and the house would be divided. At first, she might rattle
among its stairs and winding corridors like a lentil in a sieve,
perch on brocade with a thief’s false valor.
After a dozen years, she might gain greed, custom, or disguise.
But the language of the house—its echoes, creaks, and sighs:
that was a tongue she would never learn to speak.

Here she stood, however:
inside a palace that was more than half mountain,
with great vaulted ceilings of granite; with winding stairways
            coiling down into the earth and up into the misty peak;
glowing with the glare of an enormous roaring fire.
            The white bear threw himself, with pleasure and abandonment,
onto a crimson carpet, stretching his paws to the flames;
            and after a few moments, the girl allowed herself to rest
on the edge of a satin ottoman. She folded her trembling hands
over the bundle in her lap. The grandness of the room
oppressed her, and, not for the first time, she was afraid of the bear.

He seemed, at once, too glad in his surroundings
and too indifferent to them. But what she feared,
the girl was quick to admit, for she strove to be honest with herself,
was that the bear did not care about her fear.
She had believed, during their long journey, and especially
at each secret, delicious touch of fur and skin,
that now and for always the white bear would understand her heart.
            But though all women make the same mistake about their lovers,
the truth is ever a shock, ever a terror.
We convince ourselves that love will banish our loneliness.
So why, asked the girl, do I feel so alone?


It is fortunate, for all the world, that dinner assuages
a multitude of griefs. Just as the girl felt
with a full heart that she would never be joyful again,
            a table appeared before her—one laden with scarlet linen
and white china; with spoons rubbed bright as new pennies;
            with crystal glasses and flasks; and on the plates curled
little fish fried in crumbs, alongside slivers of orange,
and new-made butter, and potatoes split and steaming
in their jackets, and beside them a bowl of wild greens and a hot rye loaf.
            Now the white bear rose from his bed on the hearth,
and, suddenly famished, the girl also stood, dropping her bundle,

ruefully rubbing her dusty hands on her muddy skirt,
            except that, when she looked down,
the skirt was a silken gown, clean and blue as a spring sky
            and on her finger was a ring with a blue stone.
She smiled at the white bear, and the bear said,
            “Perhaps you would lift my plate to the floor.”
So the girl set a plate of fish and potatoes before the bear,
            and then she sat herself down and ate.
And once the wonderful dinner was finished, a silver cake appeared.
            So the girl cut a slice for the bear and one for herself
and then, holding her slice in her hand, knelt beside him on the hearth.

Almost, now, she felt at home. The white bear licked first one paw,
then the other. The girl brushed the crumbs from her blue dress
and said shyly, “I forgot I was hungry.”
The bear paused in his licking and turned to look at her.
As her eyes met that strange, unblinking gaze, the girl shivered;
but this time she knew she was neither cold nor afraid.
Or perhaps she was afraid, but with a species of fear
she did not recognize as fear. For his gaze was a stream of light,
devouring and stern, yet also (and this was the marvel) a plea.
            “And are you tired?” asked the bear softly.
The girl looked down at her hands, then into his eyes. “I am,” she said.


She has forgotten the room, forgotten the firelight, forgotten
            the cool ironed sham beneath her cheek,
forgotten the shadows under the bed, forgotten the wind at the window,
            the stars burning, an owl snatching a wayward rabbit,
the rabbit’s shriek; she has forgotten her mother, her father,
            her cottage under moonlight; forgotten the rain,
forgotten the brook that wept like a river.
Only now only now only now.
For dreaming and the act of love are mirrors;
            and tonight the girl knows also; but where is her breath,
where is the tender shivering flesh below the ridge of her shoulder?

Where? For she has lost herself, she has lost the white bear,
            who is not a bear, but what has he become?
What has she become? Both have cast off their skins, both
            grown larger than giants, and each new and solitary cell
undergoes its ruthless joy. Who is the bear, who the woman;
who the air, who the fire; who the knife,
who the wound? How terrible they are;
how near to hate and dreaming is love,
its fury of nail and claw; and how time
narrows and slows, till now there is only
yes and no and yes.


But such interludes are finite.
            Though at night the beast cast off the form of a bear,
he reappeared as a beast in the morning,
            day after day, week after week,
and meanwhile winter came to the mountain palace.
            The fires roared high and the snow fell,
and when the girl breathed on the frosted mullions
            and rubbed away her breath, she saw only white stones
against white sky. Inside the palace she possessed all
            that an intelligent young woman is prone to desire—
galleries and libraries, hothouses and kitchens,

and a fierce and tireless lover. Yet the palace oppressed her,
as it had oppressed her from the first.
Perhaps, she thought, as she idled in the window seat,
scratching small patterns on the frost panes,
I am tired of having everything chosen for me.
Or perhaps I am merely a discontented woman.
And she thought of the tales she had read,
            of greedy sisters and unhappy queens
and meek, obedient goose-girls; and she sighed
            and leaned her cheek against the cold glass,
and let the heavy book on her lap slip to the floor.

That evening, as she knelt before the fire,
tilting the dregs of dark wine back and forth,
back and forth in her glass, she said to the white bear
            who lay stretched beside her,
“I wonder what my mother and father are doing now.”
            The white bear rolled over and lifted his head.
“What do you want?” he asked.
            The girl tilted her wineglass back and forth,
and the dregs flashed and darkened,
            flashed and darkened.
“Oh,” she said, and paused. And then:

“My hours in this palace trickle away so slowly.
            Perhaps I am dull; perhaps winter
is lonely. But at home, they needed me—
to carry firewood, to cook breakfast, to wash clothes.”
Quietly the bear replied, “This is your home, and I need you.”
Though his words were gentle, his pale eyes
sharpened. The girl dropped her gaze.
He was wrong: his home was not her home.
She knew she would always be a stranger in his vast, stony palace.
Nonetheless, she loved him, she loved him terribly;
and she needed him to love her.
This the bear understood. And after their months together,
the white bear was learning (or beginning to learn)
that he, too, must bend. “Dear one,” he said,
            and his voice was calm,
“I will send you to visit your parents,
            but you must make me a promise,
and you must keep your word.”
            The girl turned toward him and laid a hand
on his broad shoulder. Now she wrapped both arms
            around him and pressed her nose into his warm neck.
The bear repeated, more softly yet, “You must keep your word.”

The girl said quickly, her tumbled words muffled
against the bear’s heavy fur, “I will keep my word, of course.”
Only then did she remember that she did not know
            what she was promising.
She raised her head. “But why?” she said. “What must I do?”
            “It is what you must not do that matters,” replied the bear.
“You must not allow your mother to lead you away from your father
and talk to you alone. You must not,
or both you and I will suffer.” Cupping her two hands
            around the white bear’s muzzle, the girl bent
to kiss its bridge. “That will not happen,” she said.


And in less than a moment
            she stood before her parents’ forest cottage
at winter’s bare end. All around her
            heaved boot-riven mud. The snow, half-melted,
was soiled with blackened leaves and gnawed pinecones;
            chips and sawdust littered the dooryard. And yet
smoke threaded so joyously from the chimney; a chickadee
whistled his high-low spring song; sunlight
fingered the barren trees; and a small, soft wind tugged at her cloak.
The very window-glass seem to blink at her with pleasure.
The girl was so swiftly, so deeply happy that she hesitated to knock.

But she took a breath and, tears prickling her eyes, tapped at the door.
            Inside, a thump and a flurry: her mother
dropping the rolling pin and now scraping flour paste
from her hands, and now the thud of her clogs
as she bustled to the door, and now
            such crying and kissing and embracing;
and “oh, how beautiful she is, my lost child;
            how brightly her dress gleams under the velvet cloak;
how the little blue ring sparkles on her finger!”
            Now the father stamps his boots at the back door;
his daughter flies into his arms, spilling his bucket of twigs,
nearly cracking his head on the doorframe: more cries and kissing,
            and then, at long last, three heads round the kitchen table,
cups in hand, kettle steaming on the hob; and the mother saying,
            “Tell us everything, my love.”
So the girl set down her teacup and retold the tale of her travels—
            her long ride on the white bear’s back, her arrival at the palace
in the mountain, the kindness of the bear, the wonderful dinners
            and kitchens and libraries of her new home.
Her father listened in wide-eyed wonder, and when he brought himself
            to question his daughter, he spoke like the craftsman he was.
So she detailed the marble floors, the oaken shelves, the smooth slate counters.

But her mother had other curiosities. “My love,” she said,
            clasping her daughter’s hand between her own,
“tell us about your husband. Is he kind to you?”
            At mention of the white bear, the girl found herself
longing to speak of him. But she remembered his warning
            and turned the conversation into other routes—
speaking of the fine thick carpet on the cottage floor
            and the silver tankards twinkling on the shelf;
for the bear had been as good as his word. Whenever
            the parents were in need, they dipped the brass ladle
into the well and brought forth a dipper full of coins.

And since they were not extravagant, they lived snugly enough,
            lamenting their daughter but day by day regaining
a certain sweet content in themselves, as parents must do.
            Indeed, as the weeks of her visit passed,
the girl began to see herself as an imposition to their comfort—
            not that her parents promoted this view;
but three stools crowded the hearth,
            the coat pegs no longer held space for her cloak,
and the apple tart divided awkwardly for three.
            Once three had been the most natural of numbers.
Could she blame them for making the best of two,
especially now that she had become half of two herself?
            For oh, how she missed the white bear!
Each night, as she lay wrapped in her blanket by the fire,
            her thoughts returned to the palace fireside,
to the bear’s great paws curling on the flagstones,
to the heat of his breath on her breast;
and she turned and tossed, trapped in the peculiar despair
of unsubstantiated desire, angry at her ingratitude—
to her lover, whom she had willingly deserted;
to her parents, who fussed and fidgeted from morning till night.
If only she could speak of the bear to someone, anyone!

The girl took to wandering away of an afternoon, far down the forest track,
merely for the chance to lie among the broken remnants
of last year’s bracken ferns and whisper the bear’s name. Her parents,
puzzled and sad, watched her disappear into the woods;
yet they were not more puzzled than their daughter, nor more sad.
She did not think to ponder, “So what, after all, does home mean?”
as she lay in her damp cot and watched the finches, garbed in their winter drab,
flicker from bough to bough; but the question nonetheless
dangled before her in the listless air; and when finally she sat up, stiff with cold,
and gathered strength for her mother’s too-cheerful greeting,
her father’s anxious frown, she had advanced not a step toward contentment.


And it was in this low state that she made her error.
            The day had opened in wet fog, and as the morning passed,
rain began to fall steadily. With no hope of escape into the forest,
            the girl sat moodily at the table sorting sprouted onions for the pig—
a simple-enough task in itself yet wretchedly tedious
if one is the lovesick queen of an enchanted palace.
Her mother sat on a stool by the fire, mending a shirt; but her father,
braving the rain, had walked into the village, his pocket
stuffed with coins from the well, the vision of a little mare filling his thoughts.
            Surely a little mare would cheer his daughter, give her a new care.
Somehow he never allowed himself to consider that she might leave again.

Nor, it seems, had his wife. Early that morning, still abed,
he had broached the idea, and she, all smiles, had eagerly agreed.
“The blacksmith has a horse he would sell—a beautiful mare,
spotted, with a long black tail. Walk down to the forge, my dear;
offer him a good price; and meanwhile, I will speak to our daughter alone.
Perhaps I may discover what the bear has done to create such misery.”
The plan was kind, and the woman meant well indeed.
But it may be that every loving parent has made a similar mistake.
For we have been so long trained to defend our children’s joy
that we are too liable to hate the pains of that joy
and distrust the thieving lover who has coaxed them forth.

So as the daughter sorted onions, the mother spoke to her gently
            but with a mother’s expectation of obedience.
“You must tell me, now, about the white bear. You are so unhappy,
            yet how can I help you if I know nothing?”
Though a mother’s aid was no use in this matter, this was a fact
that neither mother nor daughter recognized.
And after all, the girl was so very tired of silence.
            She would say a few words, no more than a few,
just to satisfy her mother’s curiosity. There could be no harm.
            Surely the bear knew how much she loved him; surely
he had never meant her to relinquish all mention of his name.

The girl sighed, straightened her shoulders, shook the papery fragments
of onionskin from her skirts. Then she turned toward her mother
and, folding her dusty hands in her lap, opened her mouth to speak.
            But as soon as the word bear fell from her lips,
the whole tale of their love burst forth. Weeping, she told her mother
            that every night the bear came to her bed and that perhaps,
in truth, he was not a bear—she wasn’t sure, she couldn’t explain,
            he might have been a man, yet she never saw him in the darkness;
oh, but he was kind, very kind, and she loved him dearly;
            nothing was wrong, only she was lonely and out of sorts;
the bear had never hurt her, never really hurt her. He was very kind.

The mother listened to this tale of woe with a kind of open-eyed horror
            melding embarrassment with fear. But it was also
(though this she only vaguely admitted to herself) tinged with envy.
            A faithful husband is a lifetime’s comfort, but who among us
grows immune to dreams of a mysterious ardent lover?
            And yet her child, her child, in the grip of such confusion!
“My darling,” cried the mother, rising so violently from her seat
            that her basket of sewing toppled, and thimble and spools
clattered onto the floor and rolled away, forgotten, into the corners.
            “What if your husband is a troll?”
“Oh, mother,” wept the girl, “you’re wrong. It can’t be true.”

Yet once the words had been spoken, she could not forget them,
            especially after her father returned from the village
leading the spotted mare. Stroking the mare’s soft nose,
the girl discovered, tied to the bridle, a long red ribbon;
and on it, printed in gold, these instructions:
            “Ride into the forest, and I will meet you.”
“What shall I do?” she cried; but already, as her stricken parents
            begged her to stay, she had snatched up her cloak,
flung it over her shoulders, and mounted the dancing mare,
            who galloped headlong into the fog and vanished
before the father could gather strength or wits to hold her.


There was no sign of the white bear. Nonetheless,
            the little mare trotted briskly along the path,
her pace so confident and surefooted that the girl
soon dropped the reins and let them lie untended in her lap.
At first she had peered ahead anxiously into the fog,
            quick to spy any glimmer of white among the trees;
but as the hours passed and no bear appeared,
            she found her attention wavering, her eyes beginning to close;
felt herself falling forward, cheek pillowed against the mare’s
sweet-scented mane, as the horse, unchecked, trotted on
and the scent, rising and falling like breath, became a dream.

And this is what she dreamed—
            a door opening into a dark room,
one she had never seen before, a room cavernous with shadows
            yet here was the little bed she had slept in last night
before her parents’ fire. Why was it here, in this strange room,
            and who was sleeping in it? A guttering stub of candle
appeared in her hand; she lifted it high over the bed;
            and there lay a man, fair as snow,
fast asleep beneath a white bearskin. She leaned over him,
            thinking she must faint if she did not
brush her lips against his bare shoulder;

but as she bent over him, three drops of wax fell,
            searing three scars like tears into his pale skin.
Starting up suddenly from sleep, he cried out,
“What have you done? What have you done?”
“Oh, oh,” sobbed the girl, for she knew, now, who he was.
“You have spoken to your mother,” he replied, and the three scars
pulsed like starlight in the black room. “Let our misery begin.”
            At these words, the girl wailed and wept; she threw herself into his arms,
she kissed his wrists, his hands, begging for mercy . . .
            But at this moment she awoke and found herself clutching
the mare’s black mane and the mare galloping full tilt into the darkness.

“Stop!” shrieked the girl.
            Instantly the mare halted, with such force that girl
tumbled forward into the ferns. There she sat, dizzy and breathless,
            as the mare idly nibbled a dry leaf.
“Where are you running to, little mare?” stammered the girl,
            her voice choking in her throat;
for she knew now that the horse was no common village hack.
Perhaps, like her own white bear, the mare could speak;
perhaps she was the bear, in new form;
and at this thought, the girl leaped to her feet
and put her two arms round the horse’s slender neck.

“Dear mare,” she asked, “who are you?”
The mare only snorted and flicked her ears.
As she did so, an acorn fell into the girl’s lap,
            then split cleanly at the cap, as acorns will;
and inside the cap was printed the word East in fine gold script,
            but around the nut marched the word West in silver capitals.
“What does it mean?” wailed the girl, flinging cap and nut
            into the bracken. “I don’t believe it means anything at all.”
The white bear, hidden in the bracken and watching her,
            may have thought twice about his choice of wife—
this angry, tear-stained, red-faced girl, her cloak checkered with leaf-mold,

shouting fruitlessly at the spotted mare,
            though, in truth, the mare seemed indifferent to the clamor,
merely lifting a hind hoof to scratch the back of a front knee.
            The girl hid her face in her hands, tried to breathe deeply,
tried to think. East, west; east, west . . . with such instructions,
she might just as well dig her own barrow,
here, under these twigs, this bracken; leave the mare to find her way home,
            or wherever it was she might be heading.
And at this thought, the girl lifted her face from her hands.
            “Where were you going? Who were you running to?” she asked.
In response, the mare whinnied and pranced and flung her head,

from which actions the girl took a bit of comfort—
not happiness, to be sure, nor even confidence;
more as if the cloud on her heart had shifted its shape.
At least the horse claimed to know which road to travel.
Wearily, she clambered to her feet; wearily, she remounted.
            “Go where you are going,” she said,
and instantly the mare darted forward into the forest,
            the girl bobbing listlessly on her back.
Tears welled from her swollen eyes and spilled down her blotchy cheeks.
            She wiped her nose on the edge of her cloak.
What have I become? wondered the girl, but only briefly.

For she had entered that strange realm of selfishness
            that arises only in moments of great misery,
when despair becomes a kind of spell,
            and sorrow creates its own walled castle.
Everything outside the girl seemed vaporous and indistinct.
            No longer did she scan the forest for sight of the white bear.
He would not come. No one would come.
            Clinging to the back of this jogging beast,
she would ride through the night, and then through another night.
            One by one, the stars would flare and fade and flicker out,
and the moon would turn her face to the wall.


Here is where my tale becomes difficult to write,
            where it swells and dissipates and trails away to mist.
For not only do my characters refuse to behave admirably;
            they also—and this is the crux—
they refuse to behave with resolve.
            The bear, of course, was angry with his wife;
and for a time his anger overtopped his loneliness.
            He lay hidden in the brush as she tumbled into the ferns.
He watched her fling the acorn message into the dark,
            and he felt a certain satisfaction at sight of her harridan misery.
But don’t think that the white bear was, at heart, a cruel husband.

Words came hard to him. He was, after all, more beast than man;
            and though he loved his wife, and longed for her return,
her angers and fears were nothing to his own.
            In his eyes, they were petty, staged for display,
overrun with tears and fine speeches, while his own—
            ah, his animal flame ran wordless and deep, like molten stone.
Or so he believed. The bear’s wife, who loved him fiercely,
            might have chosen “chill” instead of “flame,”
“claw” instead of “stone,” “prideful” instead of “deep.”
            Who, if not a wife, sees a man more clearly than he sees himself?
Or so she believes.

The little mare, insouciant, trotted away into the dark.
            The bear, hidden and silent among the bracken,
lay glowering at the girl on the horse’s back.
            The girl rubbed a knuckle into her swollen eyes
and, with her other hand, tightened her grip on the horse.
She felt obliged, suddenly, to make a decision,
any decision, one would be as good as the next,
            she was exhausted by love, by anger,
she hated love, she would go home to her parents
            and tell them nothing, she would lie, day and night,
tearless on her bed. The white bear had betrayed her,

or she had betrayed him, and there was no use
            in trying to recover what they had lost.
“East, west,” she said the horse.
            And then suddenly she said, “Go north.”
At those words, the mare turned suddenly
            and plunged into the thicket.
The tree branches leaned forward, scratching and plucking at the girl,
            who screamed, covering her head with her arms
as the mare swerved among the terrible trees.
            And the white bear, who lay hidden among the bracken
and brush to the south of the path, silently got to his feet.

For a moment he stood motionless,
shimmering like the moon on this moonless night.
Then he turned his back to the trail, and he padded away.