Thursday, October 31, 2013

from "Pitching Forever: Space, Time, and Baseball"

Donald Hall

For those who love baseball, its nothings are something. Baseball's great single continuous day occupies the moment before the ball is pitched. While nothing happens at all, in the static hush between pitches, outfielders stare at the sun's position (truest baseball happens in daytime) and commit it to memory; they arch their necks like horses, pull at their underwear like kindergartners, carefully count men on base, note the number of outs and the ball-strike count. Then these statisticians of vacancy lean forward, hands on their slightly bent knees. The first baseman, if he holds a runner on, leans over with his mitt poised in front of the bat--mitt as gross as a saxophone, mitt as distended as an amaryllis. The second baseman and the shortstop have exchanged confidences (about bases to cover) like middle-school girlfriends planning a telephone call. The third baseman, heroic and solitary, tells his options as a monk tells his beads; or his manager decides for him, and he creeps closer to the bag, preventing an extra-base hit late in the game. At the plate the enemy swings his weapon, Ajax immortal with a club the size of a mammoth tusk: Arms and the man I sing, arms the size of beef-quarters. The catcher flashes finger-by-numbers with his ungloved hand, dark in the shadows of his crotch, like a mad Calabrian playing Odds-or-Evens solitaire. He points his finger in, out, up, down . . . Meanwhile--this narrative which takes two minutes to read describes 1.5 seconds of clock-time--the pitcher glares in the direction of batter and catcher. Soon, very soon, when the pitcher unwinds himself and lets go, something will happen.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

At this juncture, I wish to defend the wordless--the mute act, which proves itself without speech, which declares and insinuates in silence, and is stamped on memory. Even in concern for poetry, we realize the life of the unspoken. It appears today as a look from one; the slow turning of the body of another, filled with recognition; the stroke of the club, brought down on the head of the man in the subway; the uninterrupted fall of the boy, leaping to safety before a height of fire; the announcement of this body in the stiffness and discolor of death; the bend of the child's head, seeing for the first time roses.

--Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A reminder: I'm leading a two-day workshop on November 9 and 10 at the Barred Owl Retreat in central Massachusetts. The focus will be on reading and writing both poetry and prose. I would love to see you there.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A Birthday

Today is my younger son's sixteenth birthday. As I chronicle in my essay "Self-Portrait, with War and Peace," he was born very early in the morning, after I'd spent a night reading Tolstoy.
I arrived at the hospital around nine in the evening, and Paul was born at four in the morning. The intervening hours were intense but dull, rather like being up all night with stomach flu. My husband fell asleep in a chair. Nurses whispered down the hall. The contractions became progressively more wrenching, but in the intervals I continued to read. There was a kind of clock-ticking inevitability to my alternation between worlds—one composed only of dazzling pain, the other merely my everyday self reading War and Peace in the middle of the night. It didn’t seem necessary to call a nurse or wake up my husband. The pain arrived. I squeezed my eyes shut, held my breath, gritted my teeth. The pain vanished. I opened my eyes, took a breath, and turned a page. 
An hour or so into my routine, I encountered this passage: 
The little princess was lying on the pillows in her white nightcap (the agony had only a moment left her). Her black hair lay in curls about her swollen and perspiring cheeks; her rosy, charming little mouth, with the downy lip, was open and she was smiling joyfully. Prince Andrey went into the room, and stood facing her at the foot of the bed on which she lay. The glittering eyes, staring in childish terror and excitement, rested on him with no change in their expression. “I love you all, I have done no one any harm; why am I suffering? help me,” her face seemed to say. She saw her husband, but she did not take in the meaning of his appearance now before her. . . . 
His coming had nothing to do with her agony and its alleviation. The pains began again, and Marya Bogdanovna [the midwife] advised Prince Andrey to go out of the room. 
When I recall this scene—myself in the throes of childbirth reading about Tolstoy’s little princess in the throes of childbirth—the memory has a play-within-a-play quality, a staginess. It feels, in truth, like something I’ve read about in a novel. What remains tangible is a sensation of profound mutual sympathy. I was, at that instant, enduring with this familiar yet imaginary woman the dance of torment and reprieve, torment and reprieve. We were, at each paroxysm, in the talons of death; at each release seized again by life. It was an accident and a strange miracle to read it and to suffer it simultaneously. 
The twist was that I had read the book before. So I knew she would die.
I think about this scene--the death-and-life struggle that childbirth repeats again and again--and I think about where my son is now in his life. Despite love, comfort, books, art, music, animals, the natural world--all of those amenities of civilized affection--he has struggled mightily with tragedies, none of which his parents could have foreseen or prevented. Since the age of twelve, he has endured the deaths of four of his peers--two by murder, one by cancer, one by drowning. Of course he is not alone: all of the people around him have also endured those deaths. Nonetheless, they have weighed him down; their violence has damaged him.

One knows, as a parent, that grief is inevitable. The best we can do is hope that we have prepared our children to weather it. In all of these cases, there was no time for preparation. The suddenness of these four deaths hurled a generation of local teenagers to the lions, and they fought as they could. My son fought less well than many others did. He was not able to throw himself into good works: he was not able to detach himself: he was not able to talk his way through his feelings. When he first learned that Coty and Monica had been murdered, he ran away into the woods. That could be a metaphor for how he has coped, or not coped, since.

But the years pass, and today he is sixteen. Last week, my friend Craig, father of Paul's classmate who died last winter of brain cancer, handed me a scrap of paper that he'd found in his daughter's Bible. It was a torn bit of notebook paper, with a spelling or vocabulary word scribbled on it and then, below, a goofy little joke message to "Pauly." The scrap was a tiny, blithe epistle from the past--a love note to her father, who found it; a love note to my son, who, when I handed it to him over the breakfast table, accepted it gravely.

He sat in silence for a few seconds before he said, "I know where I'll keep this." Disappearing into his room, he returned with his favorite novel, John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, which he has read and reread many times. He tucked the scrap of paper into the pages and looked at me. There were no more words, yet we breathed an air that had freshened. I nodded at him. Then he shouldered his pack and went to school.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Thanks to the exigencies of soccer tournaments, I've been up since 4:45 and have already driven back and forth to Dover-Foxcroft for the first time today. Later I go back again to play a gig at a sports bar's Halloween party, which is one of the last places I would ever have expected to find myself in this world. I have never been all that good at Halloween, the physical demands of playing the violin constrains what kind of costume I could manage anyway (i.e., no banana suits or Nixon masks), so I've decided to limit myself to rhinestone cat ears. Let the rest of the band go as hippies. I will impersonate their pet.

[Isn't there a better word than impersonate to describe dressing up like an animal? Incatenate sounds like a cross between indoctrinate and potentate (which, come to think of it, more or less sums up regular cat behavior).]

Despite my own costume-wearing anxiety, I admire people who are actually good at dressing up, and I like to aid and abet them. For next weekend's high school masquerade ball, Paul and his girlfriend plan to go as Big Bang Theory's Sheldon and Amy. I think this is very funny, especially since Paul kind of looks like Sheldon anyway. And shopping for Amy's sweater-and-skirt set at the Goodwill would be very entertaining. That would be a pleasant outing to take with a daughter, if I had one. As it is, I will be limited to helping Paul part his hair correctly, don the appropriate T-shirt/long-sleeve shirt combination, and bone up on his Star Trek trivia knowledge.

Friday, October 25, 2013

I bought one book at the Bangor Goodwill yesterday: a battered, ex-waterlogged, paperback copy of Muriel Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry, originally published in 1949 and reprinted in 1996--with (and how odd is this?) an index compiled by the mother of my college friend Lucy, who was also one of our Winter's Tale readers.

I open the book, and this is what Rukeyser says to me:
The truth of the poem is the truth both of the poet and the reader. It has been given and taken. 
Whitman is a "bad influence"; that is, he cannot be imitated. He can, in hilarious or very dull burlesques, be parodied; but anyone who has come under his rhythms to the extent of trying to use them knows how great a folly is there. He cannot be extended; it is as if his own curse on "poems distill'd from poems" were still effective (as it forever is); but what is possible is to go deeper into one's own sources, the body and the ancient religious poetry, and go on with the work he began. 
The poet stands in relation to Nature; this does not mean landscape, as Robert Frost points out, but the "whole Goddamn machinery."
Anyone dealing with poetry and the love of poetry must also deal, then, with the hatred of poetry, and perhaps even more with the indifference which is driven toward the center.
Re the Frost comment: I think I may have found the epigraph for my Chestnut Ridge collection. That sentence shoots me right through the heart.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Ugly Town


Dawn Potter

The sun is under no obligation to shed its optimistic beams
on the ugliest town in Maine—not now, not in March
when I’ve steeled myself for gravel-picked mud and despair,
for broken branches and a plow-scarred dooryard
rimmed with a winter’s worth of dog turds, pale and crumbled
among the pale remaindered weeds.

But it does shine, that fool’s orb, for reasons best known to itself;
            and I slouch here in my yellow chair, both cold feet
parked under the woodstove, squinting into this cheerful, bossy glare,
            attempting to convince myself that unbridled nature
has, for once, chosen to be a genial master instead of the flogging brute
we expect here in the ugly town, where we don’t think

ski but shovel, don’t think flowers but floods.
Maybe I’ve been reading too many books—
too much Roth and Munro, too much Blake and Carruth,
all of them driven to detail bleak empty roads
and unmown lawns; evil alleys and poisonous rivers;
the fathers, dyspeptic, misunderstood; the mothers,

wiping schmaltz and ketchup from the shabby oilcloth; and meanwhile
            those thirteen angels on their magic seats, frowning and perturbed.
Of course there’s happiness too. No one denies the happiness,
but don’t count on it to carry you through. Keep your eye
steady, your irony sharp. Stay wary; it’s best to stay wary—
though not one of these writers, I can tell you right now,

has ever stayed wary enough, and they’ve paid for it in spades—
            a phrase that might, for dwellers of another clime,
connote cognac and midnight whist parties
but that here, in the ugly town, where most everyone
gambles by scratch ticket and goes to bed early,
means plain old digging:

in snow, in thankless stony soil, with a bent shovel,
with a belching backhoe; tearing up asphalt,
forking out a winter’s worth of choking black shit.
You can kill yourself when you pay in spades
for a neat square cellar hole—say, when you’re fifty years married
to a woman who’s dreamed for all those heavy decades

of trading her wind-licked trailer for a house with a furnace.
No, you haven’t had time, you haven’t had money,
all you’ve had is a middle-aged kid who won’t get out of the recliner
except to grab a beer from the icebox, all you’ve had
are those cars, one after the other, falling into seizures and dismay;
and if you can’t stop eating what you shouldn’t be eating,

at least there’s salt, there’s sugar, those reliable offerings
that remind you you’re still alive, that you haven’t yet
paid out every single spade. Yet it’s a lie, and you know it,
and I know it too because I tell my own brand of lies,
such as it’s okay to be easy on myself,
such as I mean well, such as it’s good enough

to chronicle the sweetness of this sunlight,
not to force myself to keep struggling to speak
when I don’t know how to think, when I don’t know how
to find the word, the only word, trembling, naked as a rat,
when I don’t know how to lay it down, wet and mewling,
among the schmaltz and the ketchup stains.

Someone might argue that here’s where a little wariness
would do me good, and not just me but all these writers
whose books I’ve been reading too often,
and even they might agree with you, on a bad morning.
But today, according to this obstinate sun, is not a bad morning.
Brilliance leaks and flows through window smears,

patches the dour carpet. The light refuses to let up.
It insists on itself, like a mean cat does,
gliding from nowhere to bite me on the ankle.
            The world is too much with us; late and soon
is what Wordsworth wrote, but it’s not what he meant.
            He was trying to say we were too distracted by our lives

to notice this sunshine, and here I am borrowing his words
            to explain that I am too distracted by this sunshine
to notice my life.  The world overtakes me,
            I’m not wary enough, and something bad will happen
if I don’t watch out. That’s the point to remember about writing.
           It doesn’t solve anything.

[Forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014). This poem first appeared in the British journal New Walk. I'm told J. M. Coetzee liked it a lot. As I spend my day shopping at the Bangor Mall, I will attempt to keep saying to myself, "I wrote a poem that J. M. Coetzee liked, I wrote a poem that J. M. Coetzee liked." Any port in a storm, eh?]

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Vagabond's Bookshelf: A Reader's Memoir

Several weeks ago I shared the letter I received from the publisher who held my essay manuscript for three years and then sent me a praise-filled yet definitive rejection letter about the impossibility of marketing the book. Certainly one could make a valid argument both for and against the letter's tone and rationale. However, in the more subjective world of Getting an Unexpected Rejection Letter after Three Years, it was not only a shock but also crushing to hear, once again, that most publishers don't allow themselves to make decisions based solely on how much they like a manuscript.

But Fate is a quirky old lady. On the very same day I showed you that letter, I got a note from Jeffrey Haste, publisher of Boy Land, my first collection of poems. He mentioned that he'd just read and admired my essay about the Autobiography of Malcolm X, which is one of the pieces I'd included in the Unpublishable Manuscript. "Well, Jeff, . . . " I replied despondently. But he asked to see the manuscript, and then he said he'd been thinking about publishing a book of prose, and then he said, "I trust your work."

In short, the man who, in 2003, took the risk of accepting a manuscript of poems written by a completely unknown writer, has now taken the risk of accepting a collection of essays that publisher after publisher has informed me is "simply too difficult to sell."

Saying that I am grateful doesn't begin to cover how I feel about this. Jeff is a stellar book designer who loves poetry and has worked selflessly to bring under-recognized poets into the light. I am so honored and relieved that he has also chosen to champion The Vagabond's Bookshelf. 

That said, he and I both know that this book will be a marketing challenge. Its estimated release date will be fall 2014, so we have a year to think about strategy. Because many of you have read uncollected versions of these essays, I welcome any ideas about who might be interested in reviewing the book, adopting it as a classroom text, even interviewing me about the project or bringing me in as a reader or workshop leader. I want to do all I can to make sure that Jeff doesn't live to regret his decision.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Thirty years ago, I was reading To Kill a Mockingbird for school. Today, my son is reading To Kill a Mockingbird for school. "Why?" asked my husband. So over the weekend I reread the novel, and these are my observations.

1. Harper Lee is excellent at characterization. Even her minor characters are clearly delineated (i.e., every lady who lives on the street is a separate being), and her control of dialogue is scintillating. At the same time the characters have an archetypal quality, a sort of classical predictability. Atticus will always behave like Atticus; Scout will always behave like Scout; a Ewell will always behave like a Ewell.

2. These characters revolve around each other within a particular time and place that, like the characters, is both vividly present and symbolically remote.

3. The author does not shy away from using polemic as her theme: "As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it--whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash."

4. All of these characteristics mean that the novel is easy fodder for creating tests on plot elements, character elements, theme, tone, symbolism, etc., etc. This is not a bad thing, but it's noticeable; and if I were Harper Lee, I might, after all these years, have a sinking feeling every time I glimpsed yet another stack of Popular Library paperbacks on the back shelf of a schoolroom. No wonder she never wrote another novel.

5. In contrast, I imagine Shakespeare would be entertained by his schoolroom eminence.

6. Which reminds me: I love the word farthingale. And when I looked for a poem that uses the word, I found this one, by Linda Gregerson. "A young Welsh actor may play a reluctant //
laborer playing Thisby botching / similes / and stop our hearts with wonder." That, I suppose, is more or less why teachers teach and parents cry and teenage boys sing.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

For the past few days I've been working on a poem about the 1946 World Series, which featured the Cardinals and the Red Sox, and now it seems that the 2013 World Series will also feature the Cardinals and the Red Sox. When I began the poem, the series could just as easily have showcased the Dodgers and the Tigers, so this morning I'm feeling a little déjà vu all over again.

In the 1946 series, the Red Sox starters included Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, and Bobby Doerr. On the Cardinals side were Stan Musial, Joe Garagiola, Enos Slaughter, and a backup catcher with the fine name of Clyde Kluttz. The series was tight, but the Cardinals won it, and afterwards Ted Williams sat in his train car and cried. Meanwhile, across the sea, eleven Nazi war criminals had been sentenced to hang. Only ten went to the scaffold because Göring had poisoned himself the night before.

Despite my lifelong attachment to the Red Sox, I've been writing this poem from the point of view of a Cardinals fan. That's because the piece is part of my western Pennsylvania series, and Musial is from Donora, an infamous industrial hellhole that nonetheless spawned some remarkable athletes. (Ken Griffey Junior and Senior were also from the town.)

Donora went crazy over the Cardinals' October 1946 victory. Musial was a local Polish kid; his father, Lukasz, had been a laborer in the zinc mill; now here was their boy, triumphing over the great Ted Williams. But two years later, in October 1948, the mood in Donora was very different. An air inversion, caused by an interaction between a weather pattern and pollution from the zinc and steel mills, sickened 7,000 people, killing 20 of them as well as 800 animals. In the days after the inversion dispersed, 50 more people died, including Lukasz Musial.

The 1948 inversion does not appear in this poem, but that cloud hung over me as I wrote. Sometimes, as I work on the poems in this project, I feel as if I'm choking on history.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Things I am grateful for

A young poet who reads one of my poems and suggests a stanza break

A teacher who sends me a student comment about how much copying out poems by hand means to her

Cooking steak and mushrooms with my husband while listening to Stereolab

Sleeping till 7:30 a.m. despite Ruckus's best efforts

Not caring that Ruckus is presently eating a whisk broom

The satisfactions of a Cardinals victory

Streaks of sunlight through the yellow leaves of an apple tree

Apple pie in the refrigerator

Discovering that To Kill a Mockingbird is still a fine book

Two big, funny, smart, affectionate, busy, hungry sons

Still picking tomatoes in mid-October

You


Friday, October 18, 2013

It has been pointed out to me that I am not as good a poet as I wish I were, which is not news, but still: is it necessary to smack someone when she's already moody and tired? Despite this setback, I take the risk of mentioning that I finished revising a poem today, and I am pleased with it. I will not publish it here because I want to reserve the possibility of submitting it to a journal. But if you are interested in any of the following topics--the 1946 World Series, air pollution, punctuational experiment, the Nuremberg trials, or men's hats--I would be glad to show it to you.

In other news: rain, Red Sox, Republicans, Ruckus, revision, reliquaries, ruefulness, Rilke, Rastafarians, and reverb.

Also, Ozymandias and obstinacy.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

I realized as I was talking to a friend last night that there must be some chemical shift in the brain when a writer finishes writing a book. How else to account for the sudden, uncontrollable deflation of spirits? I am working as hard as I can to replenish that chemical. I'm running every morning, splitting firewood, starting to revise older writings, reading and reading, keeping up with my mothering schedules, playing band gigs, buying a few new items of clothing. . . . It all helps; it all helps. But at the same time I just feel stupid. I should be relieved and triumphant; but when it comes to this manuscript, all I can do is wince and expect the worst.

This happens every single time I finish a book. At least I'm not surprised any more. At least I've talked to enough other writers to know that I'm not a freak. It's the usual thing. Probably even people who make money go through it. Probably Stephen King stares gloomily at the ceiling and bites his nails. The situation would be comic if it weren't real.

Anyway, here's hoping your day is cheerful and productive.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Words and Dust

Dawn Potter
[I have begun rereading the essays that appear in my manuscript The Vagabond's Bookshelf; and for some reason, I decided to start at the end and move backwards toward the beginning. This one, which appears near the close of the book, felt exactly like my present state of mind, which is not something that often happens to me when I read a piece I first wrote several years ago. (A shortened version of this piece appeared in the Threepenny Review [spring 2010].)]
This morning, between eight and nine o’clock, on what may well be Maine’s last warm day of the year, I sat in my doctor’s cramped waiting room. The radio was ratcheting out “Hits of the 80s,” and so, to the accompaniment of Madonna and the J. Geils Band, I spent a dead hour glancing down at the page of my book and then up at the faces of the fellow seekers arrayed against the pale walls of our little jail: the husband and wife with his-and-her crutches who spoke to one another only in the vocabulary of illness: “Dear, write down the time of the flu clinic,” “Dear, that’s when you’ll be in the hospital”; the youngish mother and her oldish son, first laughing together about her tendency to drive the minivan at high speed, then abruptly veering into a squabble about curfews.
            Nothing in that room seemed to speak the same language. Occasionally the woman with the crutch would gaze in disbelief at the radio speaker, and when I dropped my eyes to the words on my page, they seemed to stare back at me with the same disbelief. “No Narcotics on Premises,” said the walls. The son and his mother kept interrupting one another’s explanations of strict: “No, what I mean is . . . ,” “No, what you think is. . . . ” Here we all sat in grubby Canaan, Maine, in a prefab office sprouting from a foggy field, all of us, in some way, cowed by the specter of illness. But nobody understood anything about anyone else in the room. Nobody understood anything. Quite possibly, there was nothing to understand.
The book in my lap was Elizabeth Bowen’s 1949 war novel The Heat of the Day; and as seems to happen at one time or another with most of my favorite books, the novel was eerily attuned to the moment. For Bowen’s subjects are language and isolation, her manner of revelation both uncomfortable and alienating, both beautiful and haunting. And though I love this novel, it is an anomaly among my favorites because it works as a kind of linguistic étude, an aesthetic exercise, relying on a specialized technique of construction rather than the creation of an intimate and emotional bond between characters and reader. Mostly I passionately avoid such books. So every time I reread The Heat of the Day, I wonder again why this is the volume I choose so often to carry into waiting rooms and unearth from my bag during ten-hour bus trips. Why do I love a novel that so patently does not ask for my love?

When I mention Elizabeth Bowen’s name to other readers, I rarely get much of a response. No doubt, she is well known among literary academics, who as a class tend to specialize in obscurity; but as far as I can tell, she is not otherwise much read. Critic and biographer Hermione Lee backs me up on this point, while also noting that the situation was once quite different:
[Bowen] began publishing young, in her twenties, and by her thirties she was well known, much praised and much in demand. In 1942, it was said of her that “since Virginia Woolf’s death, she is coming more and more to be regarded as the outstanding woman novelist of her generation.” . . .
            Yet when I wrote this book [in 1981], she had become (certainly in England) a marginalised and undervalued figure. She was certainly not part of any academic canon. . . . She was never placed alongside Virginia Woolf or Katherine Mansfield . . . as one of the “important” writers of the century. She tended to be seen as an interesting secondary figure, sidelined in the space reserved for small, likeable talents like . . . her contemporary misfits and eccentrics, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Henry Green.
In the revised 1999 edition of her original study, Lee speaks optimistically about a Bowen revival, yet her hopes coincide mostly with her perception of rising interest among feminist scholars and specialists in Anglo-Irish studies. As far as I can tell, few general readers have regained interest in Bowen’s work. And yet, as Lee says, “Elizabeth Bowen is one of the greatest writers of fiction in this language and in this century. She wrote ten novels, at least five of which are masterpieces: strange, original, vivid, exciting and intelligent. She is . . . a brilliant technician . . . , a dazzling evoker of mood and place.”
Among her other strengths, Bowen is adept at plunging herself and her readers into the intense world of children at the brink of adulthood; and when I was in my twenties, her novels The Death of the Heart (1938) and The Little Girls (1963) were mainstays of my reading life. Perhaps I was still young enough, still close enough to her protagonists, to crave that clarity of eye, that blunt yet stylized acknowledgment of the cruelty, wildness, and bewilderment of girls, even as they mold themselves obediently to the strictures of class and fate. But as I grew older, especially as my fascinations with language became more transparent, I found myself returning more often to a volume that I had once idly plucked from a used-book rack merely on the strength of its beautiful cover: The Heat of the Day.
Set primarily in London in 1942, it focuses on a triangle of characters: Stella Rodney, a beautiful and isolated widow living temporarily in a borrowed flat; her lover Robert Kelway, charming and devoted, who, like Stella, is employed “in secret, exacting, not unimportant work”; and Harrison, who as we eventually learn is also named Robert, is also an intelligence agent, is also in love with Stella, and who arrives on her doorstep with the claim that her own Robert is betraying Britain to the Germans. Around these characters swirl other attachments—Stella’s soldier son and his Irish inheritance, her lover’s parasitic mother and braying sister—as well as the accidental Louie Lewis, an embarrassing innocent who has been left to her own strangely adhesive devices while her husband is away in the war.
Writing about another Bowen novel, The House in Paris, critic and novelist A. S. Byatt notes that it is “both a very elegant and a very melodramatic novel.” The same can be said of The Heat of the Day, with its secret agents and baleful old mother and tragic love affair. As characters, they sound as if they could appear in any suspense novel. Yet The Heat of the Day is like no other book I’ve ever read, even others by Elizabeth Bowen, for the suspense arises not so much from character development or plot twist per se but from Bowen’s charged and mysterious manipulation of language.
Here, for instance, is how the novel opens: “That Sunday, from six o’clock in the evening, it was a Viennese orchestra that played. The season was late for an outdoor concert; already leaves were drifting on to the grass stage—here and there one turned over, crepitating as though in the act of dying, and during the music some more fell.” No matter how often I read that first sentence, the strange delicacy of its construction continues to haunt me—the way in which the grammar pivots on “it,” thus crystallizing the passivity of all involved in this scene: the orchestra, the reader, even the hour. So by the time we reach those falling leaves, “crepitating as though in the act of dying,” we are immersed in the patient, customary foreboding of wartime London, though the writer has spoken not a single word about the war.
            When I first read The Heat of the Day, I was in my late twenties or early thirties. I had not yet consciously identified myself as a poet. I still clung, albeit despairingly, to my novel-writing dreams, fooled in large part because I was continuing to read and reread so many novels so intensely. Yet The Heat of the Day brought me up short. In order to comprehend it, even on the simplest chronological level, I had to wade deliberately into Bowen’s opaque and stylized language. And to my own surprise and perturbation, I was lured under by that language even as it mystified me. I did not immediately comprehend that I was now in the hands of grammar, for in the past I had expected prose to efface itself before the delights of character or plot. Indeed, when confronted by a book like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, with its interchangeable, disembodied voices, I had run away as fast as possible. But now, for the first time, I found myself bewitched by the prose on the page—and what’s more, I didn’t necessarily have to understand Bowen’s ulterior implications. Merely I needed to read.
            Nonetheless, the perturbation remained, mostly because I distrusted my manner of absorbing the novel. The way in which my attention tended to skim the syntactical river of Bowen’s sentences rather than dive into them seemed more like laziness than a newfound awareness of diction. A bit of dialogue such as “‘Absolutely,’ he said with fervour, ‘not!’” was apt to jolt me away from the characters’ conversational exchange into a parallel syntactic quandary, where the peculiar, ominous placement of a single word might seem to have the implications of an atom bomb.
Despite my longstanding attraction to the elegance and ambiguous precision of this novel, I can easily believe that plenty of people would dislike it—as, for instance, Hermione Lee does. Although she admits that The Heat of the Day is “in some ways the culmination of [Bowen’s] work,” she finds it “a strained and strange performance.” Strained is certainly true, as evidenced in sentences such as this one, which writhes painfully down the page like a snake trapped in a narrow box: “Constrained to touch things, to make certain that they were not their own reflections, [Stella] explored veneers and mouldings, corded edges, taut fluted silk, with the nerves of her fingers; she made a lustre tinkle, breathed on the dome over a spray of birds, opened the piano and struck a note, knowing all the time she was doing nothing more than amuse herself, if she could amuse herself, and was outside the society of ghosts.”
Yet strained is the point of this novel, though it cannot have been an easy or comfortable style to inhabit. Indeed, Bowen apparently found the novel extraordinarily difficult to write. “It presents,” she wrote to her lover Charles Ritchie, “every possible problem in the world.” Surely many of those problems must have been linked to her notably odd language, and this is exactly what Lee dislikes:
The sense of strain makes it a very mannered book. Bowen’s idiosyncratic style is always very carefully controlled. But in The Heat of the Day, for the first time, it begins to look like affectation. . . . To get the feeling of tension and pressure, The Heat of the Day uses double negatives, inversions, broken-up sentences, and passive constructions: “Up his sleeve he had something”; “Soon now however should come King’s Cross”; “To a fault not unfeeling, she was not wholly admirable.” This can make not just for an evasive surface but for an impenetrable one.
            To my mind, however, impenetrable is not an accurate choice of words. Much of the strain inherent in this novel arises from the stress within the sentences, hysterics barely repressed below the author’s lacquered diction. I know of no other novelist whose syntax assumes the primary task of both concealing and revealing the cracks that fissure our emotional composure. And I say our because the syntax extends its power over not only the characters but also the reader and, I am quite sure, the writer. When Stella asks Robert if he has been “passing information to the enemy,” Bowen’s delineation of his response convinces me that the author, her heroine, and I are all clinging to the gunwales of the same lurching linguistic boat. For “he spoke, when he began to speak, as a man who, in an emergency more fantastic, more beyond the possibilities of experience, than any man should be asked to meet, casts round him for words at random, realises their futility before uttering them, but does all the same utter them, as the only means of casting them from him again, rejected.” As I push myself to imagine the strain of inventing such a sentence, a sentence whose grammar so precisely enacts Robert’s reaction, I begin to think that Bowen may have been speaking no more than the truth when she averred that writing this book “presented every possible problem in the world.”
In “Notes on Writing a Novel,” Bowen declared, “plot might seem to be a matter of choice. It is not. The particular plot is something the novelist is driven to: it is what is left after the whittling-away of alternatives.” Perhaps diction, too, imposes its directives. Certainly it does in poetry. So when I read Bowen’s claim that novels are “the non-poetic statement of a poetic truth,” I think she’s being disingenuous. She may not be writing in lines and stanzas, but undoubtedly she is allowing word choice, syntax, and punctuation to unreel the complexities of her characters and control her dramatic arc. Here, for instance, is a passage that appears early in chapter 1—our first encounter with the spy Harrison:
New, only he knew how new, to emotional thought, he saw now at the first of his lapses, the whole of its danger—it made you act the thinker. He could, now, do not better than travesty, repeat in order to judge exactly how much it showed, his originally unconscious trick of the hands; he recalled this trick in his father, not before in himself—but it must have been waiting for him. Yes, he had recourse to it, fallen to it, this evening out of some unprecedented need for emphasis in the body. Yes, he had been forced to it by the course of what in the strict sense had not been thought at all. The futility of the heated inner speed, the alternate racing to nowhere and coming to dead stops, made him guy himself. Never had he not got somewhere. By casting about—but then hitherto this had always been done calmly—he had never yet not come on a policy which both satisfied him and in the end worked. There never had yet not been a way through, a way round or, in default of all else, a way out. But in this case he was thinking about a woman.
            Immediately, in this passage, Bowen tosses her reader to the language lions. “New, only he knew how new”? With a sentence opener like that, how does she expect me to concentrate on Harrison? The repetitions are so harsh, the comma so precisely placed, that the diction feels almost comic—except that, somehow, it isn’t funny at all. And this disconnect itself segues the reader into another compelling peculiarity of The Heat of the Day. Not only do the linguistic mannerisms override any tendency toward silliness, but their syntactical distractions and surface glitter are not framing devices so much as the actual cloth from which the novelist shapes her character. A line such as “There never had yet not been a way through, a way round or, in default of all else, a way out,” with its hairpin double negative skewering the extended, subjectless, guarded predicate, gives me the eerie sensation that grammar itself is plumbing the essence of the repressed watcher Harrison. And when Bowen snaps the paragraph shut with her terse, flat-toned, conventionally constructed explanation “But in this case he was thinking about a woman,” I feel almost as if she’s kicked me in the teeth.
I have never been overly intrigued by the modernist poets—Eliot and Pound and their ilk. Yet their novelist contemporaries are a different story: I return again and again to James Joyce’s “The Dead,” to Virginia Woolf’s The Years, to Henry Green’s Loving. Their questing syntax and curious dramatic visions have insinuated themselves into my poems as Wallace Stevens’s and William Carlos Williams’s verse innovations have not. So when I read The Heat of the Day, I cannot help but wonder if these novelists represent a missing poetic link. After all, who in the twentieth century was the inheritor of the narrative tradition? Who picked up where Tennyson and Coleridge and Shelley and Milton and the Beowulf bard left off? Like their poet forebears, the modern novelists both loved a story and were seduced, overwhelmed, by the shifting power of the words that fell from their lips.
In her letter to Charles Ritchie, Bowen referred to the tensions of inventing both a spoken vocabulary and a “moral vocabulary” for her characters. In a way, she had to invent a language in order to invent a language—a poetic task if there ever was one. Bowen’s diction compels both the characters and the readers of The Heat of the Day to exist in a state of stress and pressure and helplessness. As Virginia Woolf said about poet John Donne, “With the first words a shock passes through us; perceptions, previously numb and torpid, quiver into being; the nerves of sight and hearing are quickened. . . . More remarkably, we do not merely become aware of beautiful remembered lines; we feel ourselves compelled to a particular attitude of mind.”

But language is nonetheless an impossible burden to bear. This morning, when I sat trapped on my chair in the doctor’s waiting room, I had reached the point in the novel when Robert, in Stella’s bedroom, in the ghoulish, “half-red dark” of a fading electric fire, tries to explain why he has betrayed his country. Meanwhile, “Freeze frame!” shouted the J. Geils Band, and the woman with the crutch turned to her husband and murmured, “Diabetes.” I looked down at my book. Robert said,
What is repulsing you is the idea of “betrayal,” I suppose, isn’t it? In you the hangover from the word? Don’t you understand that all that language is dead currency? How they keep on playing shop with it all the same: even you do. Words, words like that, yes—what a terrific dust they can still raise in a mind, yours even: I see that. Myself, even, I have needed to immunise myself against them; I tell you I have only at last done that by saying them to myself over and over again till it became absolutely certain that they mean nothing. What they once meant is gone.
            I’d like to say I experienced an epiphany, an “oh, this is what the novel is really about” moment. But what I really had was immunise in my lap with a “Freeze Frame” soundtrack and a “No Narcotics on Premises” punch line. I read the sentences, I tasted their bitterness, even though the words, at that moment, meant nothing. Yet they clung to me, like a seed in a tooth. I drove home and sat down at my kitchen table. I opened the book, and I read them again.
Perhaps the act of rereading is itself the only true explication of the power of literature; for after all this chatter and speculation about The Heat of the Day, I still cannot exactly explain why I return to it, why I cling to it. I never feel better when I finish the novel, never feel that I have clarified anything new about myself or the world. I have never once found myself imitating Bowen’s style. All I can pinpoint is the seriousness of her language, and serious is not really what I mean. Rather, her words are formal and somber, like an arcane dance. They bow and turn, step forward and back. They exist, like the portrait of an age exists—remote and harsh, elegant and harrowing.

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

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A few days ago I almost left you a note reading, "THIS BLOG IS ON HIATUS WHILE DAWN PRACTICES NOT WRITING ANYTHING AT ALL," and I'm not even kidding. However, I persevered, despite gloominess and anxiety, because not writing anything at all was not the answer to anything at all. Thus, you received quotations and flippancy. Thank you for your patience with that.

Yesterday I split some firewood, and dug in the dirt, and planted some garlic, and packed up some dried mushrooms, and packed up some dried dill, and in short tried to find a physical space in this autumn world that might compensate for the intellectual limp I've acquired. Little Ruckus lifted my spirits by enthusiastically jumping into a bathtub full of water, and then jumping out again and immediately staring into space as if it had been no big deal, and now he had something important on his mind, and he had planned to wash his paws anyway.

Otherwise, this is what I am doing: rereading Colm Toibin's melancholy story collection Mothers and Sons, running in the woods, listening to a woodpecker, picking the last few cherry tomatoes, stacking firewood, letting the cat in, letting the dog out, letting the cat out, letting the cat and dog in, mulching my garlic bed, driving high schoolers back and forth, listening to baseball on the radio, watching a JV soccer game, not writing any poems, not writing anything other than writing this.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Brief Historical Tour through the Mind of the Male Writer

He who reads Shakespeare looks round alarmed, and starts to find himself alone.

--Samuel Johnson, Observations on Macbeth



But there are a great many ways of outwitting oblivion, and to ask whether or not homosexuality is natural is really like asking whether or not it was natural for Socrates to swallow hemlock, whether or not it was natural for St. Paul to suffer for the Gospel, whether or not it was natural for the Germans to send upwards of six million people to an extremely twentieth-century death.

--James Baldwin, "The Male Prison"



When I am writing something, I try not to understand it. I do not think intelligence has much to do with the work of the writer.

                            --Jorge Luis Borges, "A Poet's Creed"



There are hundreds of millions of guys who would kill to take Raquel Welch out, and who is the lucky dude? Sonny Bono. Think about it, man.

--Sonny Bono, And the Beat Goes On



Argh, I hate autocorrect! I tried to type in "Shylock became a Christian" and it came out "Shylock became a crustacean"!

--my son, writing his essay about The Merchant of Venice

Sunday, October 13, 2013

from Letters to Jane by Hayden Carruth

It's a brisk morning in New York, high clouds with patches of blue. I've been watching the sea gulls flying among the buildings between Bleecker Street and the Hudson River. From this height it's a little like being at sea, distances are deceiving, and sometimes distance becomes lost altogether so that one has no sense of perspective, and the gulls look like ghosts of gulls or eidolons of some kind, wheeling on a flat mysterious screen. Reality turns into a painting, a work of art. Is this an effect of life in the city, all these rectangular shapes jumbled together? I don't remember anything similar in the country.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Yesterday morning I emailed the files of the The Conversation to the publisher; and as soon as I pushed "send," I realized how exhausted I was. I feel like I have spent nine months running in a brain marathon, plus doing all the regular stuff I'm supposed to do, like try to earn money and apply hopelessly for jobs and can tomatoes and be a decent citizen and nag the kid about his homework and mow acres of grass and work on a new publicity campaign for the Frost Place conference and shepherd other people's books and "duty, duty, duty!" or whatever it is that Esther Summerson says in Bleak House as she jingles her housekeeping keys. So I spent the rest of the day wandering forlornly around the house forgetting everything and doing almost nothing useful. I actually watched TV in the middle of the day. This never happens unless I have the flu.

I did manage to pick at a little periodical literature, though I cravenly skipped the articles about Chinese prison tortures and new Dante translations and why-was-Kafka-so-wacky? and instead floated in the melancholy twilight of Enlightenment-era feminine ignorance and lonely little George Balanchine, waif of the Revolution. Here are couple of things I mused over in Susan Dunn's New York Review of Books article about Jane Lepore's biography of Ben Franklin's sister Jane. They seem pertinent to what used to be my present interests, though at the moment my brain is telling me it would rather go on vacation than ponder the sad history of loneliness.
A rudimentary education had indeed imprisoned Jane Franklin in that domestic sphere. Her brother had taught her how to write, but when he left home, those lessons ended. And although the times Jane lived in were intellectually electrifying and politically transformational, her scant education and the burden of her personal hardships overwhelmed what most historians regard as the most consequential landscape in American history. It is striking how little understanding she showed of those revolutionary events and how poorly she grasped the groundbreaking Enlightenment ideas that shaped them. The Stamp Act in 1765 was eclipsed by her husband's death that year. Did she know about Thomas Paine's passionate call for independence ten years later? "She likely read Common Sense," Lepore surmises. "Everyone read it." Perhaps. But as late as 1781 Jane felt unqualified to pronounce an opinion "about publick Affairs," and she admitted knowing "but little about how the world goes Except seeing a Newspaper some times which contains Enough to give Pain but little Satisfaction while we are in Armes against Each other." War and revolution drowned in Jane's sea of desolation. "Something constantly Passes that keeps alive my sorrow," she wrote in 1782.
In the same article Dunn quotes a letter from George Washington to his step-granddaughter Nellie Custis. Apparently it was supposed to be cautionary.
The passions of your sex are easier raised than allayed. In the composition of the human frame there is a good deal of inflammable matter . . . [and] when the torch is put to it, that which is within you may burst into a blaze.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Playing music in dive bars in central Maine is forcing me to refresh many of the young-woman skills I thought I'd never have to use again. For instance, I have to relearn how to pretend not to see the icky guy who spends a good portion of the night slitting his eyes at me and making come-hither gestures with his hands and his chin. At the same time I've got to negotiate a situation with two other guys who make a point of sitting way too close to me but just out out of eye range so that in order to keep track of what they're up to, I have to occasionally glance over my shoulder to discover that there they are, waiting to force me to make eye contact with them. I'm a 49-year-old woman in non-sexy clothes, and these days my man armor is mostly down, so this purposeful and aggressive manipulation of my comfort level is weird and unnerving. At the same time, however, I'm putting on a show, which requires me to be personable and engaged with my audience--a delightful task when, say, that audience includes a 25-year-old happy kid with a Budweiser who clearly loves the blues, thinks the violin is a cool addition to a Leadbelly song, and rushes over after the song to high-five me.

I feel that now's the moment I ought to launch into a jeremiad about rampant sexual aggression-- the nastiness of men who clearly enjoy making women nervous and uncomfortable while also labeling them as a bitch when they try to ignore that aggression. Maybe I would if I'd gotten more sleep. But the night was not all bad, not even mostly bad. Our band played well together. The sound in that room is stellar, for some mysterious reason. The happy blues-loving kid with the Budweiser was an antidote for the neanderthals. I enjoy the jitters of performance and the lovely improvisational accidents of ensemble playing. I enjoy getting paid for playing music.

But a black man cannot walk down a street and ever believe he is safe. And a woman cannot walk into a dive bar in central Maine and ever believe she is safe.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

535 manuscript pages. Oy. That is all I have to say about The Conversation today.

I must rein in my obsession for mushroom hunting. So far I've crammed four quart bags of cooked mushrooms into the freezer and filled a quart jar with dried mushrooms, and now I've got three giant trays of newly picked mushrooms drying out in my living room. This doesn't take into account the quart of stir-fried mushrooms we ate last night, the quart that Tom roasted over the fire a few nights ago, and so on and so on. No one needs this many mushrooms.

Today's activities include vacuuming the living-room rug, working with young people on their writing, watching a JV soccer game, enduring parent-teacher conferences, and playing the fiddle licks for "Wagon Wheel" at a bar in Guilford, Maine. And probably mushroom hunting.

Anybody want any mushrooms?

Facts about mushroom hunting

1. As Tolstoy points out in Anna Karenina, mushroom hunting can be very romantic.
In the Levins' house, so long deserted, there were now so many people that almost all the rooms were occupied, and almost every day it happened that the old princess, sitting down to table, counted them all over, and put the thirteenth grandson or granddaughter at a separate table. And Kitty, with her careful housekeeping, had no little trouble to get all the chickens, turkeys, and geese, of which so many were needed to satisfy the summer appetites of the visitors and children. 
The whole family were sitting at dinner. Dolly's children, with their governess and Varenka, were making plans for going to look for mushrooms. Sergey Ivanovitch, who was looked up to by all the party for his intellect and learning, with a respect that almost amounted to awe, surprised everyone by joining in the conversation about mushrooms. 
"Take me with you. I am very fond of picking mushrooms," he said, looking at Varenka; "I think it's a very nice occupation."
"Oh, we shall be delighted," answered Varenka, coloring a little. Kitty exchanged meaningful glances with Dolly. The proposal of the learned and intellectual Sergey Ivanovitch to go looking for mushrooms with Varenka confirmed certain theories of Kitty's with which her mind had been very busy of late. She made haste to address some remark to her mother, so that her look should not be noticed.

 2. When it comes to mushroom hunting, Nabokov's mother was just like me, except that she has a cloak and I've never said, "Pouf":
One of her greatest pleasures in summer was the very Russian sport of hodit' po gribi (looking for mushrooms). Fried in butter and thickened with sour cream, her delicious finds appeared regularly on the dinner table. Not that the gustatory moment mattered much. Her main delight was in the quest. . . .

On overcast afternoons, all alone in the drizzle, my mother, carrying a basket (stained blue on the inside by somebody's whortleberries), would set out on a long collecting tour. Toward dinnertime, she could be seen emerging from the nebulous depths of a park alley, her small figure cloaked and hooded in greenish-brown wool, on which countless droplets of moisture made a kind of mist all around her. As she came nearer from under the dripping trees and caught sight of me, her face would show an odd, cheerless expression, which might have spelled poor luck, but which I knew was the tense, jealously contained beatitude of the successful hunter. Just before reaching me, with an abrupt, drooping movement of the arm and shoulder and a "Pouf!" of magnified exhaustion, she would let her basket sag, in order to stress its weight, its fabulous fullness.

3. Mushroom hunting promotes anxiety. If I don't look for mushrooms today, they might not be there tomorrow. "The Mushroom," says Dickinson, "is the Elf of Plants":
'Tis Vegetation's Juggler--
The Germ of Alibi--
Doth like a Bubble antedate
And like a Bubble, hie--

4. Mushroom hunting requires a zest for danger, or at least the whiff of a zest for danger, or at least a soupçon of a whiff of a zest for danger. Remember, Babar was able to found Celesteville only because le roi des éléphants a mangé un mauvais champignon.


P.S. Felicitations to the great and wonderful Alice Munro, who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Sometimes things work out exactly as they should.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Few Thoughts about Literary Feminism

I was very surprised yesterday to see this link from the Sewanee Review blog pop up on my Facebook wall. When I followed the link, I was even more surprised to see myself described as "poet and critic." Critic! Who knew?

I have to say I'm sort of wondering if the blog is featuring me because the journal is trying to head off some of the Vida count backlash. As most of you probably know, the Vida organization focuses on revealing gender-based publishing inequities, and the numbers in its 2012 count certainly are egregious. Although Sewanee is not featured in that count, the journal does tend to be lumped into the old-boy group, as this Twitter post makes clear. I expect that certain members of the staff feel some anxiety about this label.

You won't be amazed to learn that I, of course, am full of mixed feelings about the situation. To begin with, the editor-in-chief at Sewanee, who has held the post for many, many years and is one of the last of the classic twentieth-century male literary intellectuals, has published every single essay I have ever sent him. Meanwhile, the women who run the Vida website have never published anything I have sent them. Thus, on a purely personal level, I find Sewanee far more welcoming to women writers than Vida is.

It is true, however, that as women writers go, I am frumpishly unfashionable. Rather than writing about the poetics of sexual politics, I write about sitting in a house in the north woods and reading the poetry of John Milton. Vida is not, as far as I can tell, particularly interested in women writers of my ilk. In a way, that attitude parallels the food-and-home attitudes I excoriated here. Everywhere, among my feminist peers, I hear my devotions derided and dismissed. In this atmosphere, it is difficult to continue to think of myself as a "feminist peer."

Nonetheless, I am a feminist peer--one who is honored that the editor-in-chief of the Sewanee Review believes in my voice. At the same time I wish he would publish more women writers. Likewise, I honor the work that Vida is doing to reveal gender inequity. But I also wish that the Vida cohort would begin to recognize that feminism works in mysterious ways. For some of us, struggling to stand in collegial sympathy alongside the poets of the past has been the work of a lifetime. I believe this work has been enormously influential to me as a twenty-first-century woman poet. I also believe that writing about these poets of the past has helped a few other twenty-first-century women writers, readers, and teachers come to terms with their own anxieties, devotions, and curiosities.

A few days ago I posted a blog entry about how fraught it can be to write about poetry of the past: "No matter how much I might it wish it were otherwise, I cannot pretend that Christina Rossetti is as good a poet as John Keats. I cannot pretend that Aphra Behn deserves as much attention as William Shakespeare. As I keep saying to myself, maybe what matters here is that I am a woman and I am writing this book. And I am conversing with these men, and I will not stop."


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Advice from a Reading Man (1908)


Dawn Potter

Nothing will bring promotion,
One to heaven and ten to hell
And better still, usefulness and happiness,
It does offend my heart
Than culture lending you general knowledge
Manners are not idle, but the fruit
Beyond the depths of those with whom
The last—the worst—if torture were not worse
You may shortly have to deal.
This portentous Bridge the dark Abyss
Such knowledge of the poets
The mind is lord and master
Finds a ready and profitable market
Brave men who work while others sleep
In the broad and gleaming halls of industry.
The ominous paralysis continues



[from Chestnut Hill, a verse-history-in-progress of southwestern Pennsylvania]

Monday, October 7, 2013

It is raining for the first time in weeks, and Ruckus the Kat is shocked and appalled. I have started a fire in the woodstove, and Anna the Poodle is comatose with joy. The light outside is dim; the lamplight inside is beautiful.

Today is my 49th birthday. To celebrate, I am wearing a long black knit skirt, a blue cashmere cardigan, and big earrings because dressing up when I'm home alone is more uplifting than one might think. A month ago I dyed my hair, and my husband still hasn't noticed. I think this is very funny.

My favorite sentence from the book I am currently reading is

"I was walking along the taking line that's the high-water mark that was one of my jobs for LeBrun making sure all the NO TRESPASSING signs were up right where the Authority's property ended I was walking along the beach and I came across this old man dancing practically jumping in and out of this hole in the sand with a fire at the bottom turning over a whole lamb and the smell I thought this is like the wine-dark sea you know from The Odyssey well that's Greek history too it really happened of course it did do you think you could make something like that up?" 
(Thomas Rayfiel, In Pinelight)

Isn't that some kind of sentence? Yesterday I was sitting in a car in the Guilford IGA parking lot, with all the windows rolled down, and the sound of "We Are the Champions" floating over from the athletic fields where Paul was holding his girlfriend's hand after running a 5K (and doing quite well too), and I was waiting for them to finish up with that project, and then I read Tom's sentence and I said, "Whoa," and scribbled the page number down on the bookmark so that I could be sure to remember it forever.

Anyway, today is my birthday, and I will probably spend part of it washing the kitchen floor because Tom (my Tom, not author Tom) spilled something greasy on it while he was cooking me the most amazing birthday dinner yesterday. His homemade lobster ravioli. Wild mushrooms and wine roasted over a wood fire. Skewered cherry tomatoes, shallots, and chunks of green tomatoes grilled over ditto. A tender white cake with thick chocolate frosting. It was a remarkable meal.

I will also spend part of my birthday trying to finish that index I started last week, and setting up parent-teacher conferences, and washing clothes, and reading more of In Pinelight, and picking up kids after play practice, and listening to the Red Sox game, and imagining what it would be like to write a poem. I don't expect to get any closer than that, but it will be as close as I've been in a long, long time.

Sunday, October 6, 2013


The Wild Swans at Coole

            W. B. Yeats

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon these brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?


Saturday, October 5, 2013

I spent much of yesterday roughing out an author index for The Conversation. Despite my many years of copyediting, I've never made an index before, so I thought I'd be wise to give myself a head start with the manuscript copy before I was faced with typeset pages and a breathless deadline. It turns out that, so far, I've got nine pages of author names. This seems amazing to me. Did I really cite that many different writers in this book?

There are a few front runners in the "numbers of times mentioned" category: Shakespeare is the clear victor, closely followed (in order) by Frost, Coleridge, Keats, and Whitman. None of that is too surprising, but what about Browning and Tennyson neck and neck in the second round? There's a surprise.

Probably you've noticed that every one of these names refers to an old white guy. Frost is the baby of the list. But I do include lots of women in this book, as well as many people of color, so why do the white guys get mentioned so much more often?

When I looked at how and where they appeared in the book, this is what I noticed. I referred most often to Shakespeare's work. I referred most often to Frost's teaching and writing philosophies. I referred most often to Coleridge's poetry and his writings on Shakespeare. I referred several times to Keats's work, but his name also came up in the commentary of other people I was quoting. I referred to Whitman's poetry and his influence but also used him in writing strategies. I referred to Browning's and Tennyson's poetry but spoke most often of them in historical context.

What you can't see from this list is the length of the citation. I do devote entire chapters to Dickinson, Amy Lowell, Brigit Kelly, and Gray Jacobik. Note that I have to use first names with three of these women because if I were just to say "Kelly," you would have no idea whom I meant. Moreover, three of these four women are twenty- and twenty-first-century writers.

Besides Dickinson, what other pre-twentieth-century English-speaking woman poet has the cachet of last-name-only familiarity? Barrett Browning needs to be distinguished from her husband. Rossetti needs to be distinguished from her brother. And neither of these poets is anywhere close to Dickinson in stature.

This skewed situation disturbs me, of course. But when I'm writing a book that focuses on the great poetry of the past, there's nothing I can do about it. No matter how much I might it wish it were otherwise, I cannot pretend that Christina Rossetti is as good a poet as John Keats. I cannot pretend that Aphra Behn deserves as much attention as William Shakespeare.

As I keep saying to myself, maybe what matters here is that I am a woman and I am writing this book. And I am conversing with these men, and I will not stop.

Friday, October 4, 2013


It's honey mushroom season, and my yard and woods are speckled with these wonderful prolific mushrooms, which grow on dead or dying wood. In the grass, they are usually clinging to tree roots. In the woods, I find them around stumps or fallen logs, even sometimes on living trees that won't be living much longer. They grow in bunches--find one, and you find fifty--and after every morning run, I come back with a pail of them. (Yes, I go running while carrying a bucket. I also run in hiking boots and jeans, which is I why I never, never run on the road. I prefer private visual absurdity. Anyway, I live in a forest. Why run anywhere else?)

The first few batches are drying on trays on my porch. Yesterday's batch I sauteed in grapeseed oil (tasteless so as not to limit future use) and froze. That way I can break off a chunk and thaw them out in butter or olive oil or whatever.


Even though I have lived in these parts for two decades, I cannot get over the joy of foraging in my very own forest. Fiddleheads, berries, mushrooms: I take such pleasure in them all.

So tonight, while the Vegetarian Mushroom Disliker holds hands at a high school football game, Tom and I will eat chicken with mushrooms and fresh tomato sauce; chard fried with garlic; and boiled red potatoes with dill. And then we will go outside and sit next to a campfire and pet the delighted dog and drink cognac and wear coats and admire the Milky Way and listen to Ruckus prowl around in the underbrush. Happy autumn.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Creating books such as The Conversation and A Poet's Sourcebook requires more than writing and research. It also demands a whole lot of routine organizational management. In both books, I've spent hours applying for reprint permissions, negotiating permissions fees, and typing out source information and credit lines. I've pored over the formatting of the manuscripts (titles, subheads, etc.) so that the designer can create pages that have consistent and predictable styles. The Conversation includes citations, so I've had to make sure that the information in the end notes is accurate and consistent and that note numbers always match citations.

On one level, this activity sounds petty and unimportant; but as a writer who also works as an editor, I can't tell you how frustrating it is to get a manuscript from an author who ignores these matters. A copyeditor is essentially a hired close reader. In most cases she is also a nonspecialist, which gives her detached view of the situation. Such detachment is necessary, although I've worked with authors who've been horrified because I didn't find their sloppy incoherence "inspirational." Frankly, an author who turns in a book filled with bloated, lurching paragraphs, confusing chapter titles, no clear idea of the needs of her audience, and a bibliography that seems to bear no relationship to the text is hardly inspirational.

It's true that many people (academic scholars and researchers, for example) must use writing as a medium for transmitting information but are not themselves facile writers. The editor helps them, and the editor is glad to do so. The editor is not glad to deal with the detritus that results from magical thinking ("My grammatical lurches are heavenly and this book will change the world!") and plain old indifference ("Who cares if the page references are missing, the note citations don't seem to match the text, and a name is spelled three different ways on three different pages? Not my problem!").

Still, there's no question that checking citations and formats is a tedious task that requires hours of close attention. I've devoted a number of recent work days to teeny-tiny cleanups of The Conversation, and I'd rather be doing something else. But one interesting side task was the work I did to create a list of recommended resources, which I've set up as an annotated bibliography of books that I find particularly useful. I'm going to reprint that list here, and if you, too, happen to love any of these resources, leave a comment or send me a note. I'd love to add your remarks to the published list.


Recommended Resources
There are thousands of useful and eloquent craft manuals, biographies, letter collections, and anthologies. Here I simply list a few of my own favorite resources—books I return to again and again for advice, explanation, inspiration, and support.

Aldington, Richard, ed. The Viking Book of Poetry of the English-Speaking World. 2 vols. New York: Viking, 1958.
Don’t give away old anthologies just because they’re old. As survey anthologies go, Richard Aldington’s is completely out of date, but they I’ve always liked it because he offers an unusually rich assortment of Elizabethan and Victorian poetry. Recently I discovered that Aldington was a spokesman for the Imagist movement in poetry (a group that included Ezra Pound, H.D., and Amy Lowell). From the contents of these volumes, I never would have guessed.

Atwood, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1982.
This anthology chronicles, as the back cover explains, “the emergence of poetic expression in a developing country.” Beginning with sixteenth-century poets and ending with poets born in the 1950s, Margaret Atwood’s anthology coheres into a complex portrait of a population coming to grips with itself and its landscape. It’s one of my favorite poetry books.

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1964.
This is the best poet’s biography I have ever read. As he traces John Keats’s growth as a poet, Walter Jackson Bate manages to make me feel as if he is simultaneously tracing the expansion of my own mind. It is not only a wondrous achievement but a tremendous source of encouragement for any apprentice poet.

Borges, Jorge Luis. This Craft of Verse. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.
I always like to find out what other people read and listened to before they began to think of themselves as writers, and that’s much of what Jorge Luis Borges does in this collection of lectures. He entwines these memories with beautifully articulated explanations of the way in which craft intersects passion.

Byatt, A. S. Passions of the Mind. New York: Vintage International, 1993.
A. S. Byatt is primarily known as a novelist, but she is also a literary scholar and a skilled and complex personal essayist. This collection focuses on a number of her favorite writers, including poets such as Robert Browning, Sylvia Plath, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It is an excellent model for anyone who is striving to write prose about literature.

Carruth, Hayden. Letters to Jane. Keene, N.Y: Ausable, 2004.
In 1994, Hayden Carruth learned that fellow poet and friend Jane Kenyon had been diagnosed with leukemia. His first instinct was to write her a letter, though he told her, “Don’t think about answering this.” She never was able to answer him, but he continued to write to her regularly until she died in 1995. This book collects that one-sided correspondence, a moving example of the way in which a conversation endures despite silence.

Frost, Robert. The Notebooks of Robert Frost, edited by Robert Faggen. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2006.
Robert Frost’s notebooks are a mishmash of drafts, cranky polemic, opinions about poetry, and his teaching philosophy. Spanning nearly seventy years, they are an unparalleled window into the thought process of a poet who was also a committed teacher of poetry. This is one of our touchstone texts at The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching.

Lopate, Philip, ed. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1994.
If you’re interested in writing personal essays about what you’ve been reading, Philip Lopate’s anthology is one of the best resources available. Not only does the book offer numerous models, but his detailed introduction illuminates many facets of the genre, which, “unlike the formal essay, . . . depends less on airtight reasoning than on style and personality, what Elizabeth Hardwick called ‘the soloist’s personal signature flowing through the text.’”

Miłosz, Czesław. The Witness of Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.
Polish poetry occupies a unique niche in the history of European literature. Since at least the Middle Ages, Polish poets have aligned themselves with the traditions of classical Greek and Roman literature. Yet the nation itself has been in almost constant political turmoil—a pawn in every invasion, its borders altered, its government usurped, its people murdered. Miłosz was one of several twentieth-century Polish poets who brought their art to an extraordinarily high level in this atmosphere. His lectures consider how external events and aesthetic history influence the art of both an individual and a generation.

Nims, John Frederick. Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry. New York: Random House, 1983.
I bought this poetry guide when I was a college student, and I have never found a better one. Not only will it teach you everything you need to know about form, meter, figurative language, and other technicalities, but it also includes poems, writing exercises, philosophical talk, and even physics demonstrations.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America. New York: Knopf, 1995.
This biography of Whitman is also a biography of his times. Reynolds explores the busy, shifting world of nineteenth-century American politics, culture, and society as it influenced Whitman’s transformation from hack journalist to poet-sage. It’s a wonderful portrait, overflowing with details and color.

Rilke, Rainer Maria, Letters to a Young Poet [1929], translated by M. D. Herter Norton. New York: Norton, 1954.
These are among the sweetest, most patient, most sensible letters every written. Whether you are a mentor or an apprentice (or both), Rilke’s words will be sustenance.

Sternburg, Janet, ed. The Writer on Her Work. Vol. 2, New Essays in New Territory. New York: Norton, 1991.
In this volume Janet Sternburg collects twenty personal essays by women writers who talk about how they found their way into their art. Covering a broad range of genres, the book includes pieces by several women poets, including Rita Dove, Linda Hogan, Maxine Kumin, and Carolyn Forché.

Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader. 1st and 2nd series. New York: 1948.
Virginia Woolf is, without a doubt, my primary influence as an essayist. Although she was a voracious and wide-ranging reader, she had no formal schooling. As a result, her essays are extraordinarily personal, revealing their author’s obsessions, excitements, snobberies, shyness, anxieties, and brilliance. I love them dearly.

Wormser, Baron, and David Cappella. A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day by Day. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2004.
______. Teaching the Art of Poetry: The Moves. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum, 2000.

Baron Wormser founded The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. In these two books, he and his colleague David Cappella lay out a blueprint for a poetry-centered classroom. A Surge of Language is the diary of a fictional teacher, whereas Teaching the Art of Poetry is a guide to teaching specific poetic elements. Both, however, offer innumerable ideas for making poetry a regular part of the school day. The books are invaluable for teachers working at all levels, kindergarten through university.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Yesterday was an odd day. First, this whole government-shutdown thing made me angrier than I anticipated being. Oh, I anticipated being angry, but not to the personal level I am. One of our very own Winter's Tale readers, who holds an important position at the National Archives (you know, the place the where the United States keeps the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and such), is apparently nonessential, so she spent the day organizing the hangers in her closet. Sure, if one defines nonessential as "not involved in actually keeping people alive," then the guardians of American history are nonessential. But.

Then I found out that the husband and father of two of our other Winter's Tale readers was accosted by cops because he was seen walking around a cemetery peeling an apple with a knife. He happens to be a minister, but his hair is just a little bit long. The local dumbness of this event combines with the national dumbness of the other: "This is not [to quote my former toddler] making me happier!"

Plus, Ruckus spent the day at the vet getting neutered, which was not making him happier either. But on the flip side: suddenly it seems as if a publisher might actually (hold your breath) have taken a constructive interest in my rereading manuscript (let your breath out now). Yes, everyone's heard that story before. Still, hope is like an irrepressible cat who's just been fixed and now feels fine and can't understand why I won't let him go outside and prowl around and kill stuff so he sits very, very close to the crack in the door and yowls suggestively in case I'm so Congress-level dumb that I haven't noticed that he wants to go outside, and as we all know, Congress-level dumb is so dumb that even though a million people are already excitedly trying to sign up for health care, idiotic elected officials keep harumphing, "Obamacare is a failure because the website is overloaded," and, like, you are so stupid that you are, like, making me screech and squeal like I'm fourteen years old and my mother won't let me get a tattoo. Argh.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Review: On Rereading, by Patricia Meyer Spacks

Dawn Potter 
Readers fall into two general but very uneven categories: those who read a book once and then rarely return to it and those who regularly reread. At least among adults, this second category is far less common, and most of those who belong to it have some scholarly or pedagogical reason for revisiting books. Almost all “pure” rereaders—those insatiable consumers who crave stories like a drunk craves whiskey, who will finish a novel and then turn back to the beginning and read it straight through again—are children.
            Author Patricia Meyer Spacks is no exception to the rule. A retired professor of English who has taught at institutions such as Wellesley, Yale, and the University of Virginia, she is without question a professional rereader. Yet on page 1 of On Rereading, a memoir of her deliberate project to reread a variety of books she had read at least once before, she quotes one of those rare adult rereaders who has allowed himself to revert to a childlike companionship with books:
Consider Larry McMurtry, writing in his early seventies: “If I once read for adventure, I now read for security. How nice to be able to return to what won’t change.” McMurtry reports that publishers keep sending him new books to comment on. He sends them back, preferring the books he already knows. “When I sit down at dinner with a given book,” McMurtry writes, “I want to know what I’m going to find.”
            Spacks finds McMurtry’s behavior appealing but unsatisfactory. To her, his comment “suggests that a book reread offers what will not change—but for most rereaders, rereading provides, in contrast, an experience of repeated unexpected change.” She seems, in this remark, to assume that McMurtry’s preference for “know[ing] what I’m going to find” implies that he has a static relationship with what he reads. And that assumption, like her phrase for most rereaders, is telling; for Spacks’s book almost entirely overlooks the existence of another small but important group of adult rereaders: people who reread because an intense, non-analytical relationship with a handful of books is key to their own creative enterprise.
            This disconnect may seem subtle, but it has influenced nearly every element of this book, from the rereading project itself, to Spacks’s analysis of her results, to the tone of her prose. Yet her gentle memoir has a great deal of charm, and the author is an appealing narrator who conveys on every page her deep, respectful, and abiding love for the way in which rereading affects our moral and emotional comprehension of the world. “Rereading,” she notes, “is a way of paying attention. It takes books seriously and allows them to do their work: work that includes the changing of one’s self and consequently of one’s life, although in the nature of things we never quite glimpse the changes as they occur.”
            As one might expect from a long-time teacher, Spacks planned her project carefully. She chose books such as L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and Munro Leaf’s The Tale of Ferdinand that she had loved as a child but had not read since. She revisited books such as Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Saul Bellow’s Herzog that she had strongly liked or disliked as a younger adult. She considered “guilty pleasures”—books she had formerly found herself reading for relaxation, such as P. G. Wodehouse’s stories and novels. Most often she had read her chosen book just once before, or years had elapsed since her last rereading. Only occasionally did she discuss novels such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that she continues to reread regularly.
Given that Spacks has already published scholarly works about many of the novels that might have fallen into this last category, her choice of books is logical, for it has given her a fresh way to note how time and memory can distort or clarify our relationship to literature. But the methodical rationales she lays out for her choices, the patient plot summaries and close readings she includes, the instructional tone of each explication and conclusion undercut what, to me, is a key reason for rereading: that greedy, indiscriminate, almost desperate longing for a book one has loved for a lifetime. This, I think, is what McMurtry has allowed himself to reexperience. It’s not that Spacks overlooks this longing, but for the most part she relegates it to her past. She may have a certain amount of nostalgia for that blind enchantment, she frequently acknowledges that even adult rereading can be “a form of self-indulgence or relaxation,” but she can no longer simply absorb a book into her imagination’s bloodstream. As a professional rereader, she has, for the most part, shed the sloppy, indiscriminate, obsessive habits of her youth. She has retrained herself, and that “analytic frame of mind, far from spoiling my enjoyment of reading, only adds to it; and I absolutely believe that to be true as a general proposition.”

It’s not true as a general proposition. I know from my own experience as both a poet and an obsessive rereader that an “analytic frame of mind” more often than not hinders my creative engagement with a text. But if Spacks seems slightly myopic about how different sorts of intellects might approach rereading, she did give me great joy in her choice of books. So many of them were exactly the novels that I, too, have read, and read again, and yet again: Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine . . .To imagine her sitting in her chair by the fire dreaming over Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped gives me great happiness, for it is always a joy to learn that somebody else loves the books I love . . . as if, in a way, that stranger and I now also love one another. Of such mysteries is rereading made.

[first published in the Sewanee Review (fall 2012)]