Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The other night Paul started pacing around the house excitedly, talking, as usual, about whatever information was presently cluttering up his brain. Frequently that means baseball stats or facts about Genghis Khan, but on this particular night he was talking about writing.

"Do you know what I mean, Mom, when I say I write by rhythm?" he asked me.

I did fall off my chair. (This is not a metaphor. Embarrassing but true.) But of course I knew what he meant because that's how I write too.

"Do you mean," I asked, "that you hear the sound of what should come next but that you don't necessarily know what word it should be?"

"Yes, yes, yes!" he shouted.

This was an epiphany for both of us, a glorious moment of writerly parent-child bonding that was appropriately squelched when James remarked,

"You want to know how I write? I write by sarcasm."

Monday, January 30, 2012

This morning I accidentally dropped the alarm clock down the stairs, an action that does not seem to have been good for it. However, earlier in the morning this very same clock had declined to alarm at the preset time, setting off a flurry of lateness reminiscent of every stereotypical Monday you ever saw reenacted on a television sitcom. In sum, I'm a little bit sorry the clock died a violent death, but not a lot sorry.

Today's weather is grey with yellow streaks. The outdoor temperature is 8 and the indoor temperature is variable, depending on contiguity to the wood stove.  Goethe is the anthology topic du jour. Our featured boring chore is going to the dentist, and our most delicious refrigerated leftover is tapenade. The old-dog breakfast menu includes kibble and chicken scraps, while the human dinner menu features chicken broth and orzo. (You see how intimately we synchronize all forms of dependent life here.) The time waster's novel is John Cheever's The Wapshot Chronicle, and the poem she composed in her head at 3 a.m. is as yet untitled. Bird of the day: hairy woodpecker. Drink of the day: oversized cup of lemon-ginger-headcold-killing tea (no sugar). Lucky number: one-fourth. Snowshoe conditions: crunchy. Featured sentence: interrogative.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Awake too early: feeling heartsick, melancholy, pulled in a thousand different directions, and then I read this review of my Friday night reading. It was a comfort. Thank you, Anne.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Two mourning doves swing on an empty feeder as my sentence wanders on and on. Somewhere a dog barks, but no one listens. Tires whistle through slush, coffee cools in the glass pot, and nightmares retreat into their damp caverns. From his snowy bough, a superannuated squirrel, bony and moth-eaten, eyes the doves on the feeder. Hunger glitters. Meanwhile, a middle-aged book splays on the table. Loneliness tots up its accounts.

Friday, January 27, 2012

I seem to have been slammed with a head cold, just in time for tonight's reading. Ah well. Nothing could be as bad as helplessly coughing through an entire half-hour phone interview, can it? And at last night's band practice I did manage to sing, which is harder than reading, especially since my singing range tends to drop down an entire register when I'm sick. From being an alto with a usable soprano falsetto I become a contralto with a career-smoker rasp. So perhaps tonight I should only read poems about the seedy back rooms of speakeasies, or bleak Gatsby-esque roadscapes, or the desk chairs of washed-up private investigators. Unfortunately I haven't written any of those poems yet.

But, as a bright spot, we're having a sleetstorm, and school has been canceled for the first time this year. The boys are celebrating by being unconscious, and I am celebrating by not engaging in any of my early morning pitchfork-the-boys-out-of-the-house chores. Instead I am sitting at my desk in the snowy half-light, thinking vaguely about Shelley and Middle English lyrics and shoveling out barnyard gates.

All these thoughts seem to be culminating in my sudden need to copy out this fifteenth-century double-entendre chicken poem:

I Have a Gentil Cok
Anonymous 
I have a gentil cok
Croweth me day;
He me risen erly
My matines for to say. 
I have a gentil cok;
Comen he is of grete;
His comb is of red corel,
His tail is of get. 
I have a gentil cok;
Comen he is of kinde;
His comb is of red corel,
His tail of inde. 
His legges ben of asour,
So gentil and so smale;
His spores arn of silver white
Into the wortewale. 
His eyen are of cristal,
Loken all in aumber;
And every night he percheth him
In mine ladyes chaumber.

[Translation key: get = jet; inde = indigo; spores = spurs; wortewale = skin of the claws. Not that you need to understand every word to love a poem. Sometimes sound in the mouth or shape on the page is as good as meaning in the head.]

Thursday, January 26, 2012

In A Defence of Poetry, Shelley writes:

It is difficult to define pleasure in its highest sense; the definition involving a number of apparent paradoxes. For, from an inexplicable defect of harmony in the constitution of human nature, the pain of the inferior is frequently connected with the pleasures of the superior portions of our being. Sorrow, terror, anguish, despair itself, are often the chosen expressions of an approximation to the highest good. Our sympathy in tragic fiction depends on this principle; tragedy delights by affording a shadow of that pleasure which exists in pain. This is the source also of the melancholy which is inseparable from the sweetest melody. The pleasure that is in sorrow is sweeter than the pleasure of pleasure itself.

"An inexplicable defect of harmony in the constitution of human nature" . . . this is the phrase that will linger with me today. What is this inexplicable defect? And why do we all, every one of us, suffer from it? I think of the poetry of Keats and Shelley, but also of Joe Bolton, but also of Shakespeare--of Hamlet, Othello, even The Winter's Tale--the pain, that is also pleasure, in reading of these sorrows; the pain, that is also pleasure, of writing about tragedy or even simple sadness.

Last week I told someone that I think the best lines I've ever written, thus far, appear in one of the eclogues in How the Crimes Happened:
. . . It's not that being here
is misery; it's more like marriage is too much
and not enough at the same time: the trees crowd us
like children, our bodies betray a fatal longing.
Every time I say those lines aloud at a reading, I feel the weight of being alive. If I never write anything else again, I should remember to be grateful that, somehow, the patterns of pleasure and pain aligned themselves in those words that, one day, fell from my fingers.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Stuff Going On

1. A few months ago, when I had a terrible cold, I unexpectedly got a call from a radio-show host in St. Louis, who wanted to interview me about Tracing Paradise. After coughing my way through the interview, I was sure I'd never hear from him again. But apparently the show ran on Monday night, and you can listen to it here, in the January 23 archives. The interviewer says he cut out the coughing, although, as usual, I probably won't bring myself to listen to it.

2. This Friday I'll be reading at the Common Street Gallery in Waterville, along with poets Patrick Donnelly and Rachel Contreni Flynn. We start at 7 p.m., and there will be free food and drink. (We hope there will be no snow.) I don't get very many chances to read so close to home; and if you care to venture out on a winter's night,  I would love to see you.

3. Apparently someone has reviewed Tracing Paradise for the Milton Quarterly. This makes me nervous, so it may be just as well that the article is available online only to subscribers. But if you or your library has access, you could tell me if it's bad. Alternatively, you could not tell me.

4. James got his first college acceptance yesterday, which means we managed to get him to fill out the forms correctly. Hurray!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sometimes the submissions process is inscrutable. Today I withdrew an essay that a journal had commissioned two years ago but had never gotten around to publishing. Despite many sweet-tempered queries, I received no explanation of what was going on. Maybe the editors didn't like the piece as much as they used to? Maybe the journal was having a financial or an editorial crisis? I don't know the backstory, but this morning I finally got tired of being in limbo, and I reclaimed my essay.

A similar thing happened a few years ago, when a journal accepted both an essay and a poem and then published neither. In that case, I did become aware that the journal was foundering, although I never directly heard from the editor. And in yet another case, I submitted poems to a journal and never heard back about them, until the print journal arrived with my poems featured in it. I'd never signed a contract, let alone received an acceptance letter.

I understand that, for many editors, running a literary journal involves neither pay nor adequate staffing. Still, it seems to me that if you decide to be a journal editor, you also ought to commit yourself to corresponding with your contributors. It's not like we won't sympathize with your problems, but no one wants to feed her work into a black hole.

Okay, now I'm done complaining. In other news, the Harmony Huskies boys' basketball team still stinks; and according to his friend, who was spending the night, my older son sleep-asked, "Do you have any Monopoly tips?"

Monday, January 23, 2012

Today, after I write a letter and edit someone else's poetry manuscript and shove bath towels into the dryer, but before I start peeling carrots and potatoes for minestrone, I will be reading Shelley's A Defence of Poetry, which may be my favorite document about poetry. Yes, it's overexcited and sometimes overblown; and, yes, it's too long; and, yes, he probably wrote it while his wife was hundreds of miles away dealing with their dying child. Nonetheless, it's a remarkable essay, and I love it all over again every time I read it. If you are feeling dragged out and disheartened by terrible student work or a trash heap of rejection letters or collegial grumpiness or the inanities of prize-winning versifiers or your own wretched revisions, try reading its final lines. I'm sure you'll feel better.

It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

[P.S. If you want a cheap fried-fish dinner you can't do better than smelts, which cost $4.50 a pound at the grocery. Roll each little fish in seasoned flour, then in egg thinned with a teaspoon of cold water, then in cornmeal. Pour about a quarter cup of peanut oil into a skillet, and heat thoroughly. Fry the fish in batches, 2 or 3 minutes on each side, until they are crispy. Serve with lemon and lots of freshly ground pepper, a green salad, a scoop of cranberry-orange-apple relish, and a warm sliced baguette. You will be happy.]

Sunday, January 22, 2012

I left Connecticut at 3, and I drove and drove and drove, through snow and darkness, through slush and salt spray. On the roadsides, the rear ends of SUVs poked out out of ditches like hungry ducks upside down in a pond. Police cars prowled in the shadowy margins as teams of snowplows sparked and scraped in military formation. On and on I drove, praying incessantly to the muse of windshield-washer fluid. Finally, after crawling north for seven hours, I arrived at the Saigon Restaurant in Portland, Maine, where a comical wedding dinner was in progress, one that involved much posing with gift envelopes before an avid camera hobbyist while old grandmas tossed their heads contemptuously at the bread. For a moment I worried that I would be sent back into the salty cold. But thank goodness: there was a table for me; and when my bowl of pho arrived, and I tasted the first spoonful of that divine broth, tears came to my eyes.

Have you ever had moments when you meet the food that solves everything, the dish that arrives at exactly the right moment, the spoon laden with broth and meat and vegetables that pours a pristine Colorado River into your digestive system's existential ravine? I'm not talking about craving Oreos; I'm talking about sustenance. This bowl of pho was a bowl from the gods. And all it cost me was $7.45.

At the end of this one-dish feast, my fortune cookie remarked, "Go for it. You never know what happen next." Which was true. I had no idea that two hours later, when I finally arrived home, Tom and James would be watching an episode from Saturday Night Live's season 2, one that featured guest host Ralph Nader in a skit in which he was performing consumer-protection tests on inflatable sex dolls. And you thought Newt Gingrich was carrying some hard-to-explain baggage? Jeez.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Stuck inside of Middlebury, Connecticut, with those Harmony blues again. However, things could be worse. After drinking plenty of coffee, I am sitting in a soft chair in a deserted library, where I have nothing to do but read Sir Walter Scott and watch the snow fall. Maybe I'll be able to leave by lunchtime.

A hundred people came to my reading. Can you believe it? The last time I read at a school, about 5 people showed up. But at Westover School they treat poets like queens.

Later I went to a faculty party and listened to gossip about Auden. And after that, just to reinsert myself into the real world, I got into bed and watched an episode of The A-Team on Netflix. (Note: "Real world" doesn't equal "reality." Otherwise, I'd have to explain why nobody is ever injured in any of those exploding cars. Rather, "real world" indicates "silly stuff I do with boys when we're sitting on the couch in the middle of nowhere on a snowy Friday night and the power hasn't cut out yet and we're drinking tea and fighting with the dog for possession of the couch blanket and we decide to invite Mr. T in for a glass of milk.")

Friday, January 20, 2012

Temporarily I am living in a building run by those furnace dwarves who live in the basement and emerge periodically during the night to whack their shovels and picks against the steam pipes. I like it.

This school is chock-full of girls who always do their homework. In fact, they like doing their homework. Also, you can get good coffee here. For a school, this is very unusual.

Moreover, it appears that staff members and students really have read some of my poems, always an otherworldly sensation. So it was fortunate that I also accidentally got the chance to overhear the maintenance guys complain about having to move library furniture "for some poetry spiel." This was a homey touch, and I appreciated it.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Snow in the forecast, so I am heading to Connecticut today while the sun still shines. Talk to you later, I hope.

And if you live in Connecticut, you could come to my reading. . . .

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Difficult as this may be to believe, given my 19th-century-novel-reading propensities, I've never consumed many of Sir Walter Scott's books--to this point maybe just Waverly and Ivanhoe, and neither of those very recently. But now I am reading Old Mortality, which, as I've discovered, is crammed to the gills with page-turner plot devices: handsome young men on the lam, the vicissitudes of a rocky landscape, noble gentlemanly principles, beautiful fainting ladies who live in towers, sword play, the comic dialect of yokels, etc., etc. Yet it's also a serious treatise on 17th-century Scottish politics, economy, culture, and especially religious extremism; and as I read I'm seeing why Scott's work mattered so much to the social-conscience novelists who came after him--for instance, Charlotte Bronte, whose Shirley deals with similar religious/economic/cultural/political themes but in a Yorkshire weavers-versus-millowners setting.

It would be tough, however, to convince you that Old Mortality is a brisk, action-packed read if you were to start the novel at the beginning. For some reason, so many early novels have the most hideously boring opening chapters; and even though I have learned to expect verbiage, windy prefaces, and the coy asides of faux-narrators, I still cannot manage to make my way through Sterne's Tristram Shandy, no matter how funny Dickens found it. Even by Trollope's era, when the genre was in full swing, a novel's first chapter was likely to be dull. But the opening of OM goes beyond dull into excruciating. It begins with an introduction written in the voice of a pedantic schoolmaster, who is telling us that his assistant schoolmaster has recently died and left a poorly written manuscript in his care, which we are about to read. This is followed by a second intro, from the not-dead-yet assistant schoolmaster, discussing his composition habits (walks along the babbling brook in the gloaming, visiting the mossy churchyard as the little birds sing their evening lullabies, blah blah blah). Then, finally, Scott disentangles himself from all this maundering and hurls himself full steam into drama, suspense, plot twists, denouements, and come-uppances. There was absolutely no need for 30 pages of blathering backdrop, yet there they stood, blocking my way, so I obediently plowed through them. But I was sorry afterward.

[P.S. As I was taking a shower, I thought, You know which of Scott's contemporaries never began a novel with a boring chapter? Jane Austen, that's who. Queen of the Snappy Opening we might call her.]

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

As you might have expected, when I actually sat down to create a workshop plan for Friday's Westover School visit, the result had nothing at all to do with sonnets. After reading a few batches of student work, I decided to revisit two poems that I have often taught in other contexts but to focus on them somewhat differently:


* I'll start off by dictating Jeanne Marie Beaumont’s “Afraid So.” Afterward, we'll quickly discuss the punctuation-line relationship.

*Then line by line students will take turns reading Kim Addonizio’s “Garbage” (which I can't find online but appears in her collection Tell Me)At this point we'll expand our discussion of the relationship between punctuation-line and emotional-moral intensity in both poems.

* Now I'll ask the students to choose a question from the Beaumont poem and to draft a poem that spirals from it. They don't necessarily need to answer the question; rather, I want them to follow the question down whatever path it leads them.

* If technology is on our side, we'll share drafts on a projector so that students can discuss the punctuation-line strategies they found themselves taking. We'll talk about ways to ask ourselves and others some basic questions about revision: For instance, "point out two places in which those strategies worked well in the poem." "Point out one place that makes you ask a 'what if [you made a specific line-punctuation adjustment]' question."

*With whatever time is left, I'll put myself on the hot seat and talk about some of the punctuation-line challenges I've been dealing with in my western Pennsylvania project. I'll share a few of those poems and some of the primary sources that inspired them, and talk a bit about how I moved from what was often prose diary text into dramatic monologues in verse, often written in specific (if invented) forms.

Monday, January 16, 2012


Here's a clip from our show in snowy and blowy Monson.

And here's a clip from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria. I'm not sure I've ever read a better description of what is happening when a poet is writing well:

[A poet's] power, first put in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed controul . . . [,] reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgement ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Minus 6 this morning. Brilliant sun, tree branches shifting and cracking in the cold, chickadees jostling with mourning doves at the feeder, a disgusted poodle, a greedy goat, and a giant old barn dog who refused to eat her breakfast. So I spent 20 minutes with my gloves off spoon-feeding the elderly Great Pyrenees, who eventually decided that maybe she could eat if I dipped a tiny amount of food out of the dish onto the ground so that she could slowly lick it up. This dog has always had unfathomable eating issues: "don't look at me while I'm eating," "I can't eat because you fed me ten and a half minutes earlier than you did yesterday," and so on. Today's old-lady snit was particularly irritating; but we persevered, breakfast was consumed, and I did not get frostbite.

And now I am sitting at my delightfully clean desk, ready to copy out the rest of chapter 14 of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria (in which he complains about Wordworth's Preface to the "Lyrical Ballads"). Downstairs a pack of boys has emerged from James's room, no doubt preparing to reoccupy the living room while consuming five hundred or so pancakes. You wouldn't think this teeny-tiny house could hold so many boys, but we manage to pack them in somehow.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

I played a fiddle gig last night in Monson, Maine, reachable only by means of egregious, semi-plowed, hilly, slushy, slidey, dark roads negotiated at a top of speed of 25 miles per hour. For some reason a hundred other people also came to this show. Perhaps they walked.

I forget: did I mention that I'm in a band now? Our name is String Field Theory, which strikes me as hilarious since the band members include (1) a farmer, (2) a speech therapist, (3) a contractor, and (4) a poet. Nary a physicist to be seen, but we do like strings and fields.

Anyway, it feels good to be back in the music saddle. I like these guys, and I like ensemble work, and I like musicians who are happy to play together rather than concentrating on outdoing one another (a poisonous characteristic of young, ambitious classical musicians who are vying for orchestra seats). The downside is that I spent much of last night fingering fiddle licks in my sleep, which, while not exactly analogous to those nights I spend dream-proofing academic texts, is neither restful nor interesting, especially when the automaton reactions of muscle memory prove that my ganglia already know the fingering by heart (and isn't that a comical mixed metaphor?).

Here's a poem from my first book: an attempt to explain what it feels like to be a skilled sixteen-year-old violinist who is beginning to hate playing the violin but doesn't want to admit that to anyone, least of all herself. It is hard to be so young yet so responsible for the desires, ambitions, and pride of the adults who manage one's life. I found the pressure of that pride almost unbearable, and it has taken me all the rest of my life to find a comfortable resting place for this uncomfortable talent.


Violin Lesson

When you are eighteen,
Mr. Kowalski straddles the piano bench
you will marry my son
            in this shrouded house under rain.
and we will drink cognac together
Cars hiss by on the street.
and you will win the competitions,
I did not practice the SevĨik, Hrimaly, or Dont,
so you must forget this laziness.
but fingered silent thirds like nightmares.
Your work is terrible.
            The violins on the piano tremble. The room
You shame yourself.
            smells of sad people, counting the minutes till freedom,
How can we continue
            wasting our talent on sleep and tears.
if you do not love your work?

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

Friday, January 13, 2012

Five or six inches of snow on the ground and another morning of grumpy children clomping off to uncanceled school: coffee and sentence fragments and applesauce cake for breakfast: a poodle who takes the lyrics of Professor Longhair to heart ("she walks right in, she walks right out, she walks right in, she walks right out," etc., etc.): working (me, not the poodle) to figure out an expanded punctuational role for the colon: a pink flowered bathrobe and slippers that make my feet hot: the world's most beautiful rosemary plant glowing spikily before my eyes: a freshly dusted desk with a charming tiny edition of Thomas Carlyle's Essay on Burns open on my copy stand: a window view of fir trees loaded with new snow: all of my western Pennsylvania reference books arranged in a tidy row beside my grandfather's ancient cabinet radio: the thought of composing a thought:

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Yes, I am getting rid of books today. And yes, some of those books are about poetry. Some are even written by famous poets and critics. But you know what?--I need more space for the stuff that matters to me, such as the complete letters of Virginia Woolf, an eight-volume facsimile of the 1912 edition of the diaries of Lewis and Clark, and a giant Herodotus' Histories that I didn't know I owned but found stuffed behind Winston Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples.

Therefore, if you or your friends would like a perky explanation of how to fall in love with poetry, by all means let me know. I've decided to fall in love with poetry without aid from the manual. Similarly, I can offer you instructional tomes that explain everything you need to know about Shakespeare's sonnets as well as several other classic works of verse that are too complex for regular people to negotiate on their own.

Or perhaps you, too, have an antipathy to tour guides.

Just looking at these books makes me crabby. Why were they on my shelf for so many years? Because the authors were Experts, and if you want to know what I mean by Expert, go read Mark Twain's "Taming the Bicycle." You'll see how hard they are to ignore.

[I'm not as grumpy as I sound. I'm really not grumpy at all. My children, on the other hand, are very grumpy. They wanted a snow day and didn't get one, whereas I wanted a day to get rid of books and I did get one. Now, if that snowstorm would hurry up and arrive, I could also get out of driving to the dentist.]

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Today is the day that I will finally get a chance to plot my teaching strategy for next week's visit to Westover School. Unlike most of my recent teaching gigs, which have involved rural public schools and students without much poetry experience, this one will feature ambitious, well-read students who are accustomed to taking poetry seriously.

These advantages don't guarantee that the workshop will be a breeze. To begin with, all of the students will be girls, a challenge in itself, since the Fates have seen fit to make me a boy specialist. There's also the huge task of circumventing the analytical mind, always an issue with top-flight students. They know a lot, and they know how to talk about what they know, but they are so used to standing outside themselves and looking back in at the work that, when they find themselves forced to be creators rather than analyzers, they often struggle with voice, diction, and solidity of language in ways that so-called lower-level students do not.

In such cases, many of these young writers turn to form and facile word manipulation as substitutes for self. So I'm thinking of doing a sonnet workshop, one that focuses on line rather than end rhyme. I'm sure that every one of these girls can rhyme in her sleep, but a rhyme scheme does not a sonnet make.

Then again, maybe I'll do something else. I'll let you know.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Again, the trees are gray with sleep. A handful of tiny brown birds flutters around a dark tube of seed, but the sky is heavy, weary. Clouds press on the tips of the firs. Downstairs, in the kitchen, the radio chatters over a hot griddle. Something is burning--toast or firewood or temper. I wish my feet were warm and the sun would shine and the radio would play Joe Strummer instead of Rick Santorum. Instead, I am looking at a catalog cover that features a dress I can't afford to buy. This is hardly better than Rick Santorum. Perhaps Samuel Pepys can help me today. A glance into volume 7 of the Diary brings me this news from April 1666:

To Sir George Carteret's and dined there, and many good stories at dinner, among others about discoveries of murder, and Sir J. Minnes did tell of the discovery of his own great-grandfather's murder, fifteen years after he was murdered. Mrs. Turner came to my office, and did walk an hour with me in the garden, telling me stories how Sir Edward Spragge hath lately made love to our neighbour, a widow, Mrs. Hollworthy, who is a woman of estate, and wit and spirit, and do contemn him the most, and sent him away with the greatest scorn in the world; also odd stories how the parish talks of Sir W. Pen's family, how poorly they clothe their daughter so soon after marriage, and do say that Mr. Lowther was married once before, and some such thing there hath been, whatever the bottom of it is. But to think of the clatter they make with his coach, and his owne fine cloathes, and yet how meanly they live within doors, and nastily, and borrowing everything of neighbours.
Well, it is difficult to argue that this gossip is better than idle catalog desire or bluster about Rick Santorum, but it is certainly funnier. And can Pepys's Sir W. Pen be our Sir William Penn? The Big Quaker as skinflint father-in-law? Yes, a random dollop of unreliable Diary is always a good idea.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Today's post must perforce be brief as I have too much to do and too little time to do it. Oh, these distracting eighth-grade meetings, reprint-permissions requests, birthday dinners, basketball practices, and editorial cleanups. When will I ever get the chance to work (i.e., to wander aimlessly around the house drinking tea, staring out the window at crows, inserting one word and then deleting it, reading six lines of the The Prelude and half a page of Walter Scott, inserting five words, staring out the window at woodpeckers, etc., etc., etc.)? Well, it won't be today. The best I can do is to share the menu for Tom's birthday dinner tomorrow:

Cream of tomato and garlic soup
Sourdough baguettes
Carbonnade a la flamande (Belgian beef stew)
Spatzle
Spinach and pear salad
Homemade vanilla ice cream with home-canned purple grapes in syrup (which taste remarkably like canned sweet cherries)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Following is a poem forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014) and that is also the subject of an essay, "For the Eye altering alters all," which I will be including in the anthology The Poets' Sourcebook (Autumn House Press, 2013). As the essay explains, I wrote this poem after reading Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star, an unbelievably compelling narrative about how Custer ended up at Little Big Horn. It includes many, many extracts from contemporaneous journals, transcriptions of talk, and other primary sources; and this poem arose from my reading of an enlisted man's description of the aftermath of what was known as the Fetterman massacre. The Sioux retelling is the hero story.

Fear is so variant and situational. I think about this a lot. No matter who is right or wrong in the broad view--and no one could possibly defend the U.S. government's treatment of the plains tribes after the Civil War--the minutiae of evil infiltrate everyone involved in conflict. Blake says exactly this in America: a Prophecy, which is the other primary subject of my essay.

The Fate of Captain Fetterman’s Command
Dawn Potter
            1866
At first light we saw our enemies
on the bluff
silver flashing in their hair

a glory of sun as they rode away laden
with tunics saddles boots arrows
still piercing the cracked boots

piercing our silent comrades
and just visible in the dawn
we saw wolves and coyotes

skulking along the verge
crows buzzards eagles circling
the sun-spattered meadow

but not one white body was disturbed
for we hear that salt permeates
the whole system of our race

which protects us from the wild
to some degree but it was strange
that nothing had eaten the horses either

except for flies which swarmed in thick
like the stench
all day we waited

till the doctor finished his report then
they told us to pack our friends
into the ammunition wagons

this was our job they said to retch
to stumble into the field to grasp
at wrists at ankles dissolving to pulp

under our grip to vomit to weep
to stare at masks pounded bloody with stones
bloated crawling with flies who were they

this was our job but we could not sort
cavalry from infantry all stripped
naked slashed skulls crushed

with war clubs ears noses legs
hacked off and some had
crosses cut on their breasts

faces to the sky
we walked on their hearts
but did not know it in the high grass

Saturday, January 7, 2012

I like to imagine that I was the only person wandering the streets of Portland, Maine, last night with a copy of Sir Walter Scott's novel Old Mortality in my bag.

The first things I saw this morning from my hotel window were a seagull sitting on the ridge of a steep roof and a golden retriever in a red jacket rolling around upside down on the snowy cobblestones.

When we returned to our home, we discovered that it had been taken over by teenage boys. "We're occupying the living room," said James. "Now that the 1 percent has returned," said Tom, "you have to move." Needless to say, the occupation persists.

I'm playing fiddle at the East Sangerville Grange tonight, in a new band that's opening for D. W. Gill, a wonderful blues harmonica player. You should come hear him.

In the meantime, I'd better do some laundry and see if the occupation wants any lunch.

Friday, January 6, 2012


What's making me happy today

1. Thinking I was going to get paid $250 for a teaching job. Finding out that I'm going to get paid $800.
2. Anticipating tonight's celebration of Tom's birthday, here.
3. Holding paws with a large black ridiculous poodle.
4. Getting permission to reprint a really fine translation of Verlaine in my anthology.
5. Listening to Wordsworth complain about the way things have gone downhill in these modern times (i.e., 1800):
For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. To this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves. The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakspeare and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse.—When I think upon this degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation, I am almost ashamed to have spoken of the feeble endeavour made in these volumes [the first and second editions of Lyrical Ballads] to counteract it; and, reflecting upon the magnitude of the general evil, I should be oppressed with no dishonourable melancholy, had I not a deep impression of certain inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind, and likewise of certain powers in the great and permanent objects that act upon it, which are equally inherent and indestructible; and were there not added to this impression a belief, that the time is approaching when the evil will be systematically opposed, by men of greater powers, and with far more distinguished success.


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Here's a link to Tom's show, which opens tomorrow night at the Portland Public Library. I thought you might like to see the photo of my grandfather's chair, which Tom took on his only visit to the farm in Scottdale, Pennsylvania, right after we got engaged in 1990. My grandfather died the next year, and the farm was sold and the farmhouse razed.

This is the picture in my head as I write those western Pennsylvania poems.
If you were to look at the reading list in the righthand column of this blog, you'd no doubt wonder why someone who calls herself a poet only seems to read novels. Well, in truth that list doesn't tell the whole story. To begin with, as I've been researching material for my forthcoming anthology (and by the way the publisher has okayed my table of contents; hurray!), I've been reading an enormous number of poems and writings about poetry. However, because the embryo book is under contract, it has seemed impolitic to list those works publicly without the publisher's sanction, so I haven't.

Setting aside the anthology situation, I do read many poems on my own volition, yet for some reason I rarely think of that interaction as actual reading. For instance, take that Raleigh poem I've been talking about for the last couple of days. Did I add "Raleigh" to the reading list? No. Why? I have no idea, except that what I did with that poem felt more like breathing than reading.

I don't know if my reaction is flightiness, or misplaced modesty, or something else altogether. I do imagine that it may have something to do with my scholarly anxieties: my worry that I don't know how to study a poem but only how to react to it. Still, you'd think I could manage to write the name on a list. But mostly I don't.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A comment on yesterday's post asked me to explain glorious. First, my remark was hyperbole, though I don't apologize for it because that's what happens when a poem smacks me in the head: I immediately shift into a present-tense delirium, all my nerves and brainwaves exulting, "This is it! This is it!" Recollecting in tranquility, I'll attempt to explain why Elizabethan poetry so often has the ability to drive me temporarily mad with joy. I have never had any abiding interest in metaphysics or the armchair detection of secret identities. I don't care who Shakespeare's Dark Lady really was or which lovely Unas and Astraeas were invented to flatter an aging queen. What I love are the simple yet surprising, vigorous yet archaic, clever yet innocent manipulations of figurative language.

To whit: nearly every word of Raleigh's 30-line poem is devoted to comparing the idea of false love to something else. By the end of the third stanza, my mind is reeling, but is he done yet? Why, no--wait! There's more!

I think this is my favorite stanza. Whatever false love may be, if this is what it feels like, it's no wonder that it breaks our hearts.


A fortress foiled, which reason did defend,
A siren song, a fever of the mind,
A maze wherein affection finds no end,
A raging cloud that runs before the wind,
A substance like the shadow of the sun,
A goal of grief for which the wisest run.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

I began reading a new book today, one that I found in a used bookstore over the Christmas holidays. It's called The Shadow of the Sun, and it's a 1991 reprint of A. S. Byatt's first novel, originally published in 1964. I have a slightly superstitious feeling about both of these dates because I was born in 1964 and married in 1991. I also have a perpetually fraying, queasy, affectionate, disappointed, overwhelmed, delighted, questing, and jealous relationship with Byatt's work; and since I had never even heard of this debut novel before I found it wedged in a stack of used paperbacks, I bought it instantly.

The reprint includes an introduction in which Byatt revisits her young self, "a very desperate faculty wife in Durham," 25 years old, with two small children, "surrounded by young men who debated in an all-male Union from which the women students were excluded, though there was nowhere else for them to meet." Nonetheless, "I had a cleaning-lady, and ran across the Palace Green to the University Library for the hour she was there to write, fiercely, with a new desperation. The children were human and beautiful and I loved them."

This is exactly the sort of description that makes me crazy: first, because of course I recognize that desperation, the suffocating embrace of very small children, the way in which they suck away a woman's private life, how in those years nothing, nothing, seems more precious that a single hour alone. Nonetheless, "I had a cleaning-lady," she tells me, without comment or explanation. "Oh, how nice for you," I imagine myself replying, my voice sodden with ironically understated cattiness. You can see that we don't always bring out the best in each other. On the other hand, she is constantly making my brain work, making me look again at the books I love or the poems I have forgotten . . . such as this one. How could I have forgotten it? Today it feels like the most glorious poem I have ever read.

A Farewell to False Love 
Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) 
Farewell, false love, the oracle of lies,
A mortal foe and enemy to rest,
An envious boy, from whom all cares arise,
A bastard vile, a beast with rage possessed,
A way of error, a temple full of treason,
In all effects contrary unto reason. 
A poisoned serpent covered all with flowers,
Mother of sighs, and murderer of repose,
A sea of sorrows whence are drawn such showers
As moisture lend to every grief that grows;
A school of guile, a net of deep deceit,
A gilded hook that holds a poisoned bait. 
A fortress foiled, which reason did defend,
A siren song, a fever of the mind,
A maze wherein affection finds no end,
A raging cloud that runs before the wind,
A substance like the shadow of the sun,
A goal of grief for which the wisest run. 
A quenchless fire, a nurse of trembling fear,
A path that leads to peril and mishap,
A true retreat of sorrow and despair,
An idle boy that sleeps in pleasure's lap,
A deep mistrust of that which certain seems,
A hope of that which reason doubtful deems. 
Sith then thy trains my younger years betrayed,
And for my faith ingratitude I find;
And sith repentance hath my wrongs bewrayed,
Whose course was ever contrary to kind:
False love, desire, and beauty frail, adieu!
Dead is the root whence all these fancies grew.

Monday, January 2, 2012

I've been thinking a good deal about my friend Baron's comment "a poet has the right to her rage," a sentence that I can't seem to relinquish. What I think he's telling me is that, first, even though a poet has the right to her rage, her rage may not have a right to the poem. For instance, the murders of Amy, Coty, and Monica continue to fire my rage, which in turn both hounds me and taunts me. In other words, rage dares me to write and then forces me to see that what I've written is not a poem but a mouthful of nails.

A mouthful of nails is not a poem, although a poem can be a mouthful of nails, which leads me to a second thought about Baron's sentence: a poet has the right to her rage. Am I raging about these murders as a poet or as a friend? Can I do both simultaneously? Or am I not pressing the poet to take precedence? Here's where poetry becomes cruel: not because it undertakes horrendous subjects but because the poet must step into the role of manipulator . . . in this case, while excoriating the terrible manipulations of "the real story." I wrote about this dilemma in Tracing Paradise, in the chapter titled "Killing Ruthie," and I continue to ponder and worry over it.

But here's a third thought: a poet has the right to her rage, yet the frame of that rage can be reimagined. And this is why I'm on the cusp of introducing the story into the western Pennsylvania poems. Something very different will happen when I shift these present-tense angers into an entirely new time and environment. At the very least I will be a poet first rather than a griever first.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year to all of you. It is a glittering morning in Harmony. The driveway may be a rink, but the crunchy icy grass makes jumping rope fun. I counted up to 35 before I lost my rhythm and wrapped the rope around my boot.

The red squirrels are awake and busy for the New Year. One has already invented a brand-new curse, which she practiced while dropping a pinecone on the poodle, who became flustered and thus found herself helplessly careening around the crunchy yard like a wind-up maniac.

James made the January 1 deadline for his first round of college applications and is celebrating by sleeping. Likewise, Paul is sleeping, for no particular celebratory reason. Tom is sitting on the couch in his bathrobe reading Helter Skelter. I am considering our incipient New Year's breakfast/lunch: fresh pineapple, bacon, and waffles or pancakes, waffles or pancakes, waffles or pancakes. Someone needs to decide for me.

Last night, on the final evening of 2011, I was invited to submit "provocative prose" to a new literary magazine. Do I write provocative prose? Anyway, I was pleased to think that somebody believes I do. Mostly I'm used to people telling me that I write evocative prose, which sounds prettier but also drearier.

I have a few provokingly embryonic ideas for essays; also a few provoking essays in existence that are presently floating hither and yon in the journal aether. I have my western Pennsylvania collection in progress; my CavanKerry collection forthcoming in 2014; my ill-starred rereading ms (the one that editors keep losing, misplacing, forgetting, and occasionally rejecting, etc.); a sheaf of uncollected, mixed-subject prose pieces; and my anthology of writings about poetry, due for release in 2013. I am fortunate and puzzled and grateful.

Yesterday James asked me if I'd ever made any New Year's resolutions. I told him that, as far as I can recall, any resolutions always involved (1) boys [keep my head, quit crying about them, stop being tempted by their charms, and so on, and so on] and (2) writing [learn to do it better, learn not to give up, learn to do it better, learn not to give up, learn to do it better, learn not to give up]. The boy resolutions, thank goodness, were a complete failure. But the writing resolutions: ah, they go on and on. And they've even sort of begun to kind of in a way come true. Although, of course, I have infinite room for improvement. . . . and why would I want to commit myself to a vocation that didn't have these endless stairs and passageways and stony plains and foggy forest paths and confusing streets?