Friday, August 31, 2012

As anyone who has read my work knows, I love American slang and traditional, rhetorical English in almost equal parts. I also love how tricky and elusive that slang can be, as British writers such as Dickens and Trollope discovered when they tried to imitate it in their novels. The dialogue in the American sections of Martin Chuzzlewit is clumsy and embarrassing, so much so that I usually skip those chapters when I reread the novel. Given Dickens's perfect ear for English vernacular speech, I'm intrigued by how tone deaf he was to the rhythm of American constructions, not to mention their metaphorical "logic."

When I came across the following passage about the development of the American idiom (it's from Paul Johnson's The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815-1830), I instantly began yearning for Twain.
Cocktail dates from 1806: in 1822 a Kentucky breakfast was defined as "three cocktails and a chaw of terbacker." Barroom came in 1807; mint julep, in 1809; and a long drink, in 1828. There were borrowings from the Dutch, such as boss, and many more from the French, both Canadian and in Louisiana: depot, rapids, prairie, shanty, chute, cache, crevasse. From the Spanish another large crop, including mustang (1808), ranch (1808), sombrero (1823), patio (1827), corral (1829), and lasso (1831). The Americans used obsolete English words like talented, as well as pure neologisms like obligate. The adopted the German word dumm, which became dumb, meaning stupid. They were beginning to adopt Negro words and to coin a good many terms springing from their own political customs--not only caucus but mass meeting, for instance. There were settler's words like lot and squatter. There was also the beginning of a dangerous talent for euphemism: help as the democratic term for servant.
The journals of the great expedition carried out by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1804-06, from Saint Louis across the Rockies to the Columbia River and the Pacific, published in 1814, introduced a wide range of terms never before heard in Britain: portage, raccoon, groundhog, grizzly bear, backtrack, medicine man, huckleberry, war party, running time, overnight, overall, rattlesnake, bowery, and moose, as well as adding new variant meanings to old English terms, such as snag, stone, suit, bar, brand, bluff, fix, hump, knob, creek, and settlement. Above all, there was the fertile American capacity to coin phrases and amalgams: It was the Americans, not the English, oddly enough, who invented keep a stiff upper lip (1815), plus fly off the handle (1825), get religion (1826), knock-down (1832), stay on the fence (1828), in cahoots (1829), horse sense (1832), and barking up the wrong tree (1833), plus a variety of less-datable expressions like hold on, let on, take on, cave in, flunk out, and stave off. As early as the 1820s Americans were trying to get the hang of a thing and insisting there's no two ways about it.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

I spent some of yesterday trying to dig up reasons to be happy about having one less person living in my house, and the bathroom cupboard was a big help to me. I felt no sentimental pangs about throwing away eight years' worth of orthodontic paraphernalia: wads of brace wax, a set of broken retainers, about a million little toothpicking devices, etc., etc. In a way I feel like I did when J first went to kindergarten: like I've opened a door into my foot. My foot hurts, yes, but the door is open. And I still have a boy at home to distract me from the ache. Four years from now will be a different tale altogether.

So now what will I do? I will go back to work. I've got a manuscript to edit, an anthology to finish printing out for the publisher, a box of tomatoes to can. I've got unmown grass and unwashed sheets and unpickled cucumbers. I've got a stack of western Pennsylvania books, a fat Roth novel I bought at a yard sale, a plethora of weeds, and Henry V downloaded onto my scary new phone in case I get stuck at soccer practice without a book. (This was one of J's last affectionate/ironic gestures before he left for college: "Here, Dawn, I got you something to read." He also decided I should own "Boyz in the Hood," but that's another story.)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

First day of school. All of a sudden I have returned to the empty hours of autumn. For the moment I'll sit here at the kitchen table; I'll drink the rest of the coffee in the pot; I'll listen to the washing machine trudge through its cycle. And then I will rise up and work.

People are still reading that post. More than a hundred of them visited this blog yesterday. I am nonplussed, but of course pleased, but of course slightly anxious. At the same time I don't understand how any writer could not comprehend the relationship between the work of the body and the work of the mind. What about those thirty-mile walks that Dickens routinely undertook? What about Plath's furious horseback riding?

But I should stop fretting about this and move on to another subject, such as thanking my handful of regular readers for sticking with me for all these years. Believe it or not, we've managed to pass our fourth anniversary together. You know best what this odd conversation has meant to you, why you keep coming back, whether regularly or intermittently. For me it has become a synthesis of duty, loneliness, chatter, need. It is writing practice, yes, but also a thread thrown into the sea. Who is out there? What will tug back? And will I even be able to feel your pull?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Two days ago I posted an essay that has been, by far, the most heavily read piece I've ever put up on this blog. Although it only garnered five comments here, I heard from many, many people on email and Facebook, people who were quoting it and sharing it with their own friends. Though I expected that at least a few of those responses would be rebuttals, I received nothing of the sort. Moreover, many of the people who responded live in the city, where they have office or teaching jobs. Several were men who place high value on the daily labor they do at home. Several were people who do not define themselves as artists of any kind.

I did not, however, receive any response from the women writers' organization whose Facebook page first led me to Mary Rechner's article. The link I posted there was automatically shunted to an obscure section of the page, where no one will be likely to notice it. This conversational discouragement may be accidental or purposeful; I can't say. Nonetheless, it seems typical of this particular organization's operational style and continues to give me that niggling suspicion that its leaders believe that some women's voices are more equal than others.

The responses I received from you, the people who did read my essay, reinforce that feeling. All of you--male or female, urban or rural, striving artist or not, parents or not--showed me that you take your home tasks very seriously, that these private duties within your private life have an almost ritual importance, that they feed both your inner and outer worlds. They also showed me that you feel defensive about these duties, that you suspect other people of ridiculing or dismissing or sentimentalizing them.

Today my older son leaves for college. A few days ago he was the first responder in a horrible car accident beside our driveway, in which an elderly man lost fingers. Meanwhile, a friend struggles as his thirteen-year-old daughter dies of brain cancer. Our small family swirls with emotion. But last night we sat down and ate dinner together, as we have done for eighteen years. We talked and laughed. Then we washed dishes. For every person around the table--the four of us, plus J's lifelong best friend--this was a sweet and bittersweet ceremony; a familiar, strange, sad happiness. We made no speeches and offered no toasts. All we did was to eat the somewhat ramshackle dinner that a father and a mother had cooked together for their son. But do not tell me that planning and preparing and consuming this dinner was a waste of our artistic time.

James's last supper at home, featuring a disorganized smorgasbord of his favorite summer foods: guacamole with lots of cilantro; London broil marinated in tamari and garlic and cooked over a wood fire; fire-roasted onions and hot peppers; salad of bow-tie macaroni with oven-roasted green beans, hard-boiled eggs, fresh dill, and parsley; salad of fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic, and mozzarella; strawberry-blackberry cobbler with whipped cream; and, I'm sorry to say, cans of Moxie. Ick.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Response to Mary Rechner

Yesterday I posted a link to Mary Rechner's article "Why I Hate Food: A Polemic," and today I give you my response.

First of all, I want to affirm that I am the last person to stand up for holier-than-thou, my-suburban-child-can't-touch-any-water-that-hasn't-been-triple-filtered, elitist food behaviors. To me, those attitudes are first cousins to "I can't eat that broccoli; it has a bug on it" and "I prefer to eat at McDonald's because the food looks so safe and predictable." Food anxieties take many illogical forms, and at least the McDonald's gull isn't a snob.

Nonetheless, Rechner's polemic does harm, though she has good intentions and does make points that should resonate with all of us who live in the comfortable purviews of take-it-for-granted America. For instance, "It is of the utmost importance to me," she writes, "to resist the earthy lure of urban homesteading. Why shouldn’t I, a writer, mother, and arts administrator living in 2012 who also does most of the shopping and cooking in my family, take advantage of the relative ease of obtaining healthy food at the supermarket? I refuse to accept the moral imperative of growing my own vegetables, butchering the animals I eat, and making my own jam." I agree: there's no reason why she should feel pressured to do these things, living as she does in Portland, Oregon; managing, as are all of you readers, as am I, our First World dilemmas, which have nothing to do with survival. I am not being ironic. Those of us with electricity and running water, who live in forests that are not overrun with guerrillas ready to casually rape and maim us, who live in cities without open sewers and frequent outbreaks of cholera--we can make these choices. That, perhaps, is one simple, if ugly, definition of civilization.

But Rechner goes on to write, "When I see women with their kids (they usually also have a dog or two) weeding their vegetable gardens and tending their flocks of chickens, I fear they have bought the idea that these many labors are the markers of what it means to be a good mother-wife-woman," and here she steps onto rocky ground. What is she saying? That tending a garden alongside one's children and dogs means that a woman has buckled under to the patriarchy? That agricultural labor is a lesser form of human engagement with the world? 

After reading Rechner's article, my friend Marie told me, "Women writers should stop defining which activities limit us, what we should or should not be doing. What personally limits me, for example, has roots much earlier, and more profound, than how I spend my days (which, frankly, I choose because it saves me from what limits me)." I think Marie is exactly right. Moreover, I think that if Rechner had been watching Robert Frost tend his chickens or Wendell Berry train his draft horses, she would not have jumped to the conclusion that they were using these labors to avoid real self-expression. For both these men, agricultural labor was and is their subject matter. Their artistic work is bound to their physical work.

Rechner writes, "If women are spending all of their time planting gardens, tending chickens, and canning (i.e. living our lives in the most laborious ways possible), how are we ever to catch up as writers, visual artists, composers, and directors?" The fact is that hard physical labor, whether rural or urban, has a long history in the making of art. The issue, as I see it, is not that women are wasting their time by canning tomatoes and scrubbing the tub but that the literature of canning tomatoes and scrubbing the tub does not garner the same respect as, say, Hayden Carruth's literature of the hay field. I daresay that farmer-poet Maxine Kumin might have something to say on this matter--and perhaps she, too, would note that, while I quickly listed the names of three very famous male rural writers, I listed the name of a single woman . . . and that's not because she's the only one in existence. The rest of us don't get much press from anyone, including organizations whose central purpose is to promote women writers.

I think it's also an error to conclude that every single thing an aspiring artist undertakes ought to be in direct service to her art. Says Rechner, "A jar of pickles, however beautiful it appears on the windowsill with the sun shining through it, however thoughtfully and sustainably it was made, however good the pickles taste, is still a jar of pickles." But that jar of pickles is also a link to the history of women's work, and why isn't that a good enough reason to treasure it, to replicate it, to teach the skill to our sons and daughters?

For a decade, I managed the exhibition hall at my town's annual Labor Day fair. Our primary exhibitors were women and children (including boys, I should point out), who had spent the summer together making jam, growing vegetables, and knitting sweaters and then excitedly brought them to the fair, where their goods were arranged on tables as items of beauty and importance. Over the course of the weekend I would have myriad conversations with women of all ages about biscuit recipes and quilting techniques. For many of them, it was the only moment in the year when the work they did privately in their homes was brought into public and venerated. So no, those biscuits weren't art. But yes, those biscuits did matter to our human story.

I could talk about economic reasons for gardening and raising chickens: about how committing herself to these tasks might allow a writer to stay home and write rather than spend all day in an office or a classroom and not write. I could talk about the gardeners I know who are artists: who have the ability to create a landscape that has the visual power of a painting yet also shifts with the seasons, the weather, the time of day. But even in its blunt utilitarian tedium, labor has great value. In my memoir Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton, I wrote:
Like a string of beads or a game of cards, a chore has a history. One task follows the next, follows the next. There's pattern and tedium and necessity and skill. You learn exactly how to balance six split logs on your left arm, how to shift your load and flatten your step when you cross a patch of ice, how to tip your armload smoothly into the woodbox. You learn how to talk yourself in and out of laziness. You learn there are some chores you'll never be much good at. You learn you have to do them anyway.
My point, in the memoir, was that writing and labor tap into the same source, require parallel skills and sacrifices and painful self-discoveries, lead us down difficult and unexpected paths. Rechner does me no service by arguing that I should free myself from the shackles of the chores that lie at the root of my vocation. 

And by the way, here's a jar of pickles that is also art. Thank goodness my mom decided to can these beets.

[Photograph by Thomas Birtwistle. For more of Tom's photographs of food, fairs, and rural life, visit]

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Last weekend I bought a large and unwieldy tome at a yard sale: Paul Johnson's 1,100-page history The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815-1830. This is a literary period that greatly interests me--both the work published during these years (say, Emma) and the work set in the era (say, War and Peace). However, the book itself is a burden, not at all pleasant to prop up on my stomach in bed, hogging all the space in my bag, etc. The situation is comic because, along with this tome, I have also acquired my first-ever real cell phone, onto which my son has downloaded the complete works of Shakespeare and the entire King James Bible. I am glad to know that I will have Othello with me at all times. Nonetheless, I continue to lug around the hardcover behemoth. For some reason, I still cannot be separated from print.

Johnson's prose is not gorgeous, but it is dense with particulars. As I've been reading, I've realized how much I love proper nouns--place names, people's names--not to mention meaty latinate adjectives. Even when I'm sleepy, not quite absorbing the political significance of Andrew Jackson or the Battle of New Orleans, I find myself contentedly repeating: "The young Daniel O'Connell, eight years Jackson's junior, was equally vituperative and bellicose" and "Sadly watching this debacle was Captain Edward Codrington R. N., captain of the fleet under the command of Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, on board HMS Tonnant. Codrington was an uxorious man, devoted to his wife, Jane." Meaty latinate adjectives may be unfashionable among the style-manual police, but they do feel good in the mouth.

And already there are signs that this book might matter to me: for instance: "[I]n 1815 a poet, a scientist and a painter spoke the same language . . . but by 1830 it was increasingly difficult for them to understand each other" and "I have something to say about animals, too, especially those noble creatures, the horse and the dog, and the exotic beasts that were now filling the new zoos." So I will continue lugging it around to soccer games and doctors' offices.

In other news: I read this article, and it put me in a bad mood. Tomorrow I may expatiate on it, but you can take a look at it first.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Our band practices and performances have been difficult lately. Craig's 13-year-old daughter has brain cancer and has been hospitalized for close to a month. He is, to say the least, distracted and in pain. Yet on the rare times we can manage to play together, we seem to have become a far more cohesive ensemble. I think that a winter's worth of drudgery practice has helped us, but just as important, we are all so full of feeling. Sid is Craig's uncle; Brian has been Craig's friend since they were teenagers; my children have grown up alongside his . . . we all feel a deep and helpless distress about the situation, and music is a way to say so. Talking about they feel is not something men tend to do all that easily, but all of these men can sing about how they feel.

The other complication is that no one knows if Craig will be able to show up at a gig, so we've had to get into the habit of creating two set lists: one with him, one without him. This means that I've had to relax and figure out how to just roll with what happens on stage. It's been a good lesson for me, the anxious, note-taking, unconfident improviser. I'm learning all the time: simplify, depend on triads, fill the gaps, let the 48 years I've spent absorbing sound flow through my fingers.

Muscle memory, ear memory, and a sad, sad heart. I can play the blues. I had no idea.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The CavanKerry Press blog is featuring a little essay I wrote about my poem "First Game," along with the poem itself. If you have any thoughts about the feature, do leave comments for the press; staff members would love to hear what readers have to say about the poets they publish.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Yesterday afternoon I emailed the manuscript of my anthology to the publisher. At well over 500 pages long, this is the largest book I have ever created. Its dates span 850 B.C.E. to the present; the writers included come from all over the world; it features essays, poems, songs, letters, journal entries, interviews, and scripts. Of course, like any anthology, it is as limited as it is expansive. I was unable to forge a rights trail to several works I would have liked to reprint or find reliable or affordable translations of others. Authors would not respond to my requests; publishers charged absurd fees. On the other hand, a famous poet told me that I could reprint his essay if I sent him a bottle of good Scotch, and several people wrote beautiful pieces especially for this volume. It was exciting to collect such a compendium, to be in charge of deciding what would and would not make sense in this context, though of course I was always aware that my own predilections could not help but narrow its scope.

So now I just need to sit back and hope that people will read it. I still don't know if the book will be useful to anyone. Truly, the word useful is beginning to haunt me. What does it mean to a writer, a reader, an apprentice to the art? If this were a craft anthology, I might be able to invent an answer. But this is an anthology of "where poetry comes from." Inspiration is both quotidian and unexpected, and I haven't read a thing over the past year that's changed my mind about that.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

from Rilke's letter to Lou Andreas-Salome, August 8, 1903

But I still lack discipline, the ability and the necessity to work for which I have longed for years. Do I lack the strength? Is my will sick? Is it the dream in me that inhibits all action? The days pass, and sometimes I hear the passing of life. And as yet nothing has happened, as yet nothing is real about me; I keep on dividing myself and flow apart,--I who want to run in one river-bed and become great. For it should be like that, shouldn't it, Lou: we should be like a river and not branch off into canals and bring water to the fields? We should, should we not, keep a grip on ourselves and storm ahead? Perhaps, when we get very old, once right at the end, we can let go, spread out and pour into a great delta.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Lately there have been a few articles floating around in the news about how to write an unfavorable book review, even whether or not one should write such a review. I haven't read any of these articles. But I did recently write a book review about a book I didn't like all that much, and I can verify how difficult it is to write fairly about a book that just doesn't appeal to the reviewer.

In my case, the book under review had been written by someone who seemed to be a perfectly amiable person, who was writing about an interesting subject, and who was in command of her prose. There was nothing wrong with this book . . . except that the author seemed to have missed the point. By the point, of course, I mean "my own special attraction to the subject"; and therein lies the difficulty. The author had not written the book that I wished she'd written. How, then, was I to frame the review? Should I merely write a good-tempered book report? Or should I note what was missing? Was it even fair to note what was missing? Why should her book have centered on a theme that apparently hadn't interested her?

I think back about the review I did write, and I fear that I wasn't fair. But I don't know what else I could have been. After all, a reader seeks for what speaks to her, and this book didn't speak to me.  However, I don't think I was unkind. I hope I wasn't.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

James leaves for college in 10 days, and yesterday I watched Paul score the first soccer goal of his high school career. Tomatoes and corn are ripening. Grasshoppers are scratching and leaping in the patchy grass. Sunflowers lift their faces toward the sun; hummingbirds rumble at the feeder. Today I will bake bread and make sauerkraut, and vacuum the rug and wash the poodle, and mow grass and pick cucumbers, and read a novel about the Great Lexicographer.

Summer wanes.

I have not really been writing, though I have done flashes of significant and useful revising. The first western Pennsylvania poems are beginning to appear in journals, which reminds me of what I will need to be turning toward this fall, once my writing season begins again. Writing poems, canning tomatoes, splitting wood, hunting for honey mushrooms, shivering on the edges of soccer fields. Time leaps past me; time beckons me ahead.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Today is my parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary, which they will celebrate by doing a little hiking and exploring around their new home in Vermont. They met half a century ago at a small Presbyterian college in western Pennsylvania. My father, who had had his eye on my mother for a while, finally decided to get her attention by putting an ashtray on her head during a school assembly. Against all odds, this approach worked beautifully.

So here's a little poem for them.


            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)]

Friday, August 17, 2012

Unity College and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art
cordially invite you to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Hawk & Handsaw.

Sunday, August 26, at 4:00 p.m.

Center for Maine Contemporary Art
162 Russell Avenue
Rockport, Maine 04856

With artist talks by

Meghan Brady
Avy Claire
Kenny Cole
Hannah Kreitzer
Freddy Lafage
Dawn Potter
Jeffrey Thomson

Following by a reception with light refreshments

RSVP to Kate Grenier
or (207) 948-9121

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Dawn Potter

All the long day, rain
pours quicksilver
down the blurred glass.
gardens succumb to forest,

half-ripe tomatoes cling
hopelessly to yellow vines,
cabbages crumple and split,
but who cares?

Let summer vanish,
let the tired year
shrink to the width
of a cow path,

soppy hens straggle
in their narrow yard,
and every last leaf
on the maples redden,

shrivel, and die.
Nothing needs me,
today, but you,
sweet hand,

cupping the bones
of my skull.  Alas,
poor Yorick, picked clean
as an egg.

How rich we grow,
bright sinew and blood,
my eyes open, yours

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

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

from John Keats's letter to George and Georgiana Keats, February 8, 1819

I am sitting with my  back to it [the fire] with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet—I am writing this on the Maid’s tragedy which I have read since tea with Great pleasure.  Besides this volume of Beaumont & Fletcher—there are on the tab[le] two volumes of chaucer and a new work of Tom Moores called “Tom Cribb’s memorial to Congress”—nothing in it.  These are trifles—but I require nothing so much of you as that you will give me a like description of yourselves, however it may be when you are writing to me—Could I see the same thing done of any great Man long since dead it would be a great delight: as to know in what position Shakespeare sat when he began “To be or not to be”—such thing[s] become interesting from distance of time or place.  I hope you are both now in that sweet sleep which no two beings deserve more tha[n] you do—I must fancy you so—and please myself in the fancy of speaking a prayer and a blessing over you and your lives—God bless you—I whisper good night in your ears and you will dream of me.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The complications of what's for dinner

Complication A. Son Number 2 has begun preseason soccer practice, meaning that he leaves home every day at 4:15 p.m. and returns at about 9 p.m., meaning that he must be fed before and after.

Complication B. Son Number 1 is getting his wisdom teeth out tomorrow, meaning that I must come up with many good ideas about soft foods that don't rely entirely on sugar.

Complication C. I am supposed to be eating dinner with my bandmates tonight, as I was informed by way of a casual phone call that included comments such as "we'll throw something on the grill" and "have a few beers." This is what ensues when everyone else in the band is a man. Who is providing all this meat and beer anyway?

Complication D. Tom will be working all day and will be hungry for a regular dinner at the regular time.

Complication E. My refrigerator is full of cabbage.

The solution

For complications A, D, and E. Soupe au pistou, prepared early in the afternoon. This is a fine Provencal vegetable soup, rather like a fresh minestrone, containing a variable mix of vegetables (such as cabbage), and enriched with a pesto-ish mixture of garlic, Parmesan, tomato, and olive oil. It reheats well and can even be eaten at room temperature, if the weather is sultry. Good thing I also have a freezer full of baguettes and plenty of arugula and cucumbers for a salad.

For complication B. Chocolate pudding will be my nod to sugar. Otherwise, scrambled eggs, mashed new potatoes, cold cucumber soup. Today, fortunately, I only have to make the pudding.

For complication C. If I bake a pan of brownies, no one will notice that I "forgot" to bring meat and beer. And I think I may almost be able to manage to cook soup, brownies, and chocolate pudding at the same time.

For complication E. Sauerkraut, perhaps tomorrow afternoon, after I make the scrambled eggs and refresh the sufferer's ice pack. Except that I'll be back to dealing with complications A and D again. Sigh.

Notice I haven't even mentioned complication F: driving boys home from soccer practice, driving myself to band practice, driving Son Number 1 to the oral surgeon's office, driving to the grocery store to repair Son Number 2's ravages on our fruit supply. This is a child who, at a sitting, can consume a dozen plums or a bag of cherries or 2 quarts of blueberries. I mean, I know fruit is good for a growing boy, but really.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Letter to Will

Dawn Potter

He is chainsawing
And has decided
To love me
Again, I think.
Last night he
Ran his hands
Through my hair,
Down the nape,
Of my neck,
Kissed me between
The shoulder blades,
And so on.
But I lay
On my side
In another world.
It was like
Having the flu,
Or wearing 3-D
Glasses. I was
Tired, not knowing
What he meant
By kissing me.
Maybe tonight he’ll
Still be happy
Enough, almost talking
To me, eating
Sour apple tart,
Watching a French
Movie with his
Head in my
Lap. We stumble
On and on.

[first published in the Unrorean (2012); forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Our band played in rainy Medway yesterday evening to a cheerful crowd that was happy to listen to us while they were waiting for the professional wrestling show to begin. In the front row sat a beaming white-haired man with broken teeth. Afterward, he came up to me and, with a courtly air, announced, "Stephane Grappelli is dead."

Half an hour later he returned. "Excuse me," he said, pressing one hand to his heart. "Do you happen to know where I could acquire a copy of Die Fledermaus for use with an eight-string banjo?"

Backwater Maine never ceases to surprise me.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Rain and finally rain. I walked out into the forest and found a handful of chanterelles. I walked out into the forest and thought about my friends, whose child is dying. I walked out into the forest in the muted morning light, and the green was the greenest of greens, but the browns were reds and greys. I thought about my friends, whose child is dying. Rain and finally rain. A handful of golden chanterelles. Rain.

Friday, August 10, 2012

from Another Country by James Baldwin
He felt tears spring to his eyes. "Richard, we talked about the book and I told you what I thought, I told you that it was a brilliant idea and wonderfully organized and beautifully written and--" He stopped. He had not liked the book. He could not take it seriously. It was an able, intelligent, mildly perceptive tour de force and it would never mean anything to anyone. In the place in Vivaldo's mind in which books lived, whether they were great, mangled, mutilated, or mad, Richard's book did not exist. There was nothing he could do about it.
And, yes, this is the great fear: that one will write a book that will not be "great, mangled, mutilated, or mad," that will simply be a "mildly perceptive tour de force." The idea of being content with such a book makes me ill. Yet, of course, very likely I have written nothing that will assume any place in the part of a reader's mind "in which books live." Nothing.

It's no wonder, as my friend David wrote to me yesterday, that so many great artists seek the numbness of drink as a respite from this anguish.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

During my twenties and early thirties, I read James Baldwin's 1962 novel Another Country several times. For some reason I kept going back and back to it, though it made me uncomfortable in ways that paralleled my discomfort/attraction to Malcolm X's Autobiography and the novels of Philip Roth. Like them, it seemed to affirm that young, well-educated, well-meaning, Protestant white women such as myself just had to take whatever these oppressed, angry men cared to dish out to us. That's a very limited reading of what's going on in the work of these authors, but it was also a lesson that I found myself needing to absorb, though I was also mystified and distressed by the way in which a literary generation was typecasting my kind as a way to reach its own necessary ends.

Coming back to Another Country now, in my mid-forties, as not only an older woman but a more experienced writer, I find myself absorbed by a very different concern. In many ways, the book's portrayals of gender, class, race, and sexual anxiety seem to cohere into an umbrella anxiety: how does one create the art that one needs to--that one ought to--that one must--create? Thus far, the two arts in question are jazz and the novel; and if you're interested in examples, you can read yesterday's post as well as this one, from earlier in the summer. When I was younger, I must have skimmed over those passages, perhaps chalking them up as generic "writing a book about writing" talk. But now they seem intensely important to me; they seem to reinforce my sense that we have no right to make art that isn't the art we ought to make. Yet they also insist that it is impossible to transmit the "dark, strange, dangerous, difficult" secrets of our inarticulate selves without putting those selves into mortal peril. To a forty-seven-year-old vaguely Protestant heterosexual white woman who lives in the ugly countryside where she writes and writes and writes, these assertions of a thirty-eight-year-old ex-Pentecostal homosexual black man living in Paris where he wrote and wrote and wrote feel deeply, excruciatingly, accurate.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

from Another Country by James Baldwin

Perhaps such secrets, the secrets of everyone, were only expressed when the person laboriously dragged them into the light of the world, imposed them on the world, and made them a part of the world's experience. Without this effort, the secret place was merely a dungeon in which the person perished; without this effort, indeed, the entire world would be an uninhabitable darkness; and she saw, with a dreadful reluctance, why this effort was so rare. Reluctantly, because she then realized that Richard had bitterly disappointed her by writing a book in which he did not believe. In that moment she knew, and she knew that Richard would never face it, that the book he had written to make money represented the absolute limit of his talent. It had not really been written to make money--if only it had! It had been written because he was afraid, afraid of things dark, strange, dangerous, difficult, and deep.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Tomorrow I'm reading in the Portland Public Library's Brown Bag Lecture Series, a lunchtime program that earlier this year featured novelist Richard Ford. I expect my audience to be much smaller than his was. But you could prove me wrong.

This morning's project is figuring out what to read, so if you have wishes, pass them along. It will cheer me to know you're thinking of me as I embark on this afternoon's project, which is taking a kid to the dentist, browsing among the flea-kill stock at Agway, and loading a cut-and-wrapped pig into the back of my car. A poet's life is so poetic.

But enough of this errand-moping; let's get back to the schedule. I'll be in NYC during the weekend of September 22 and 23, and if you are interested in setting up a reading, a workshop, or a Frost Place-related outreach program that might overlap those dates, let me know. I could read with you, for instance.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Somewhere, in the distance, a bittern is clanking. Last night's rain drips from the roof edge; the barn dog wuffs for breakfast; cicadas rattle among the maples. And now, to the barn dog's disgust, a pack of fox pups has begun yipping.

Early morning in early August in early 21st-century central Maine.

Now I am opening the copy of Rilke's selected letters, which I bought last Thursday for a dollar at a used-book sale outside a general store in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom." This is what Rilke has to say to me: "Looking into the interior of a house as into the flesh of a fruit is an experience I have had somewhere."

But I, too, have had that experience, mostly when walking through a city neighborhood in the winter dusk, when lamps are lit but blinds are still undrawn; when I, the wandering stranger, seem to step into the frame of these mysterious other lives. Reading Joyce's The Dead gives me the same sensation of detachment and participation.

Odd to be reading such a city-in-winter sentence when I am leading a country-in-summer life. And yet he does mention fruit. Perhaps that is the summer link.

Yesterday I picked a pail of blueberries and a pail of raspberries and a pail of blackberries, and I baked a fruit cobbler. Neither the picking nor the cooking nor the eating was at all like looking into the interior of a house. No doubt Rilke was thinking of peaches or apricots rather than berries. Who, after all, looks into the interior of a berry? Only someone with no interest in eating it, whereas the delights of a peach are enhanced by cutting, splitting, slicing, examination.

Therefore, I think I will go find a peach now and eat it. "Look, look, look all you can," says Rilke. The boys have eaten all the berries anyway.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

A few things that I will remember about this summer--

Hummingbirds, dozens of them, speeding up to the feeder, chasing each other away from dinner, bossing me into mixing up more snacks, dancing in place, swinging back and forth on their giant U-shaped raceways.

Fleas on the poodle. Even chemicals can't conquer them. This week I broke down and vacuumed her. I have no idea if that helped, but she enjoyed it.

Road trips with James. He drank a lot of coffee and made personal comments about other people's cars and told me to stop worrying that he was going to get into an accident and was doted upon by his grandparents and ate everything he was served and played Scrabble with good cheer, even though he doesn't like Scrabble.

Heat and dryness. My yard is like your yard.

The line breaks on the sign in downtown Milo, Maine:

Saturday, August 4, 2012

If you read yesterday's post, then you know that the Frost Place has just announced some changes in its educational programs. Baron Wormser, who founded the Conference on Poetry and Teaching and has directed it for the past 13 years, will step into a newly created position: director of educational outreach. I will be taking over as director of the Conference on Poetry and Teaching.

To say that I am excited is an understatement. For the past 5 years I have been associate director of the conference; and as I tell the participants every year, it's the best job I've ever had. Each summer I get to spend a week burrowing into poetry with a raft of brilliant, idealistic, pragmatic, eccentric people who are not know-it-alls jockeying for prestige but thinking, feeling, curious colleagues in search of intense conversation. Of course, Baron's leadership has been integral to the joy I've gained from this conference, and I will miss his presence. But in his new position he will still be closely involved in promoting the conference while being able to concentrate on extending the Frost Place influence into classrooms, libraries, and other venues around the United States. Thanks to the generosity of the Schafer Foundation, the Frost Place now has funding to support the kinds of educational outreach that Baron and I have been dreaming of for years.

In the coming weeks, as the summer frenzy winds down, I'll announce more details about the Frost Place's educational programs, staffing, scholarships, and partnerships. For now, I'll simply assure you that my goal as director of the Conference on Poetry and Teaching is to maintain its spirit and rigor while continuing to respond to the changing needs of its participants. I dearly love our week in the White Mountains, and I hope to be sitting beside you in Robert Frost's barn next June.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Here's some news that I'll talk more about tomorrow, after you have time to digest it.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Elegy for a One-Night Stand

Dawn Potter

What I remember about you
is that you were too good for me;
so it’s easy to recall, these decades since,
that I never believed that you would love me—

you, with your rich-boy clothes,
and the way you knew exactly what you were up to
when you let your palm slip down the small of my back.
But I think I’m right in recollecting we were happy

for the hour or two we borrowed that night,
and I want to claim that it was raining
and that the streetlight outside our grimy window
filtered a shimmer edge along your shoulders,

that your fingers read the bones of my face
as if they really did long to imagine what I longed for.
Now, after twenty years spent forgetting
anything we’d once learned about the other,

I begin to summon up the urgency that lured us there,
to someone else’s street-lit bed, a room,
you claim, that glowed a baby-aspirin pink,
a shade I can’t recall, though I think

I may have memorized your shadow-tilted head,
cocked as if to warn me: don’t believe a word he says.
Don’t fret. I didn’t.
You never broke my heart; I grant you that achievement,

not easy to accomplish with a china heart like mine,
so liable to be chipped. You tell me now,
You throw yourself too much into your men.
Well, yes.

But what’s the point of love that doesn’t shatter?
It’s the vice I’ve clung to; I never do get over anyone—
even you, my not-heartbreaker,
with the softest lips I’ve ever kissed, and then

that quickened breath against my throat,
those tender hands,
as weighted and exact as birds, and how my eyes
forgot their blue and, startled, turned to yours.

[forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]