Wednesday, December 31, 2014

For some mysterious reason, I slept until 8 this morning, despite suffering all-night-long horrible cat-induced leg cramps. Still, once I'd hobbled downstairs, I was pleased to note that my house is warm, clean, and now pleasantly de-Christmased, an annual moment that always makes me feel as if we've gained acres of living space. So here I am, sitting in my pink flannel bathrobe at the kitchen table, drinking vigorous black coffee and scoffing at the outside thermometer, which has chosen to end 2014 with a below-zero bang.

Another year in Harmony dribbles to a close. Several of our citizens have died and one or two have been born. Though in general we tend to ignore each other, we are united in being annoyed at the road commissioner.

Things I have heard in Harmony this year:

* What the plow guy said to my husband: "Do you know what the weather's supposed to do? I don't have a radio. I just get up and go plow if it looks snowy outside."

* What the young woman said as she stood at the local store counter, speaking to the clerk (the mother of a childhood friend) as her former music teacher (me) and the elementary school janitor/tyrant stood in line behind her: "These cigarettes aren't for me. I'm buying them for a friend."

*What my sons said to me: "Let's name our cars after people in town."

* What the lady at the dump wrote on the Christmas card she handed to my husband: "Thank you for your support."

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Despite the icy driveway and the broken washing machine and the Christmas-tree ornaments we keep finding under the couch; despite the gray birds flattened against the gray sky, the confusions of communication, and the Luis Tiant baseball card lost forever among my books; despite Anna Karenina's hideous debasement, Jane Eyre's sadistic love battles, Emma Wodehouse's blithe snobbery, and Rosamund Vincy's maddening swan neck; despite burnt toast and terrible news on the radio; despite the sadness of children, the misery of parents, the crass ignorance of shouters, the chilly ironies of watchers; despite good manners and bad thoughts, bad manners and good thoughts; despite all of these states of mind and action, despite all of their ambiguous permutations, the year has trickled through the stones and marshes, down and down its accustomed path to the sea.

Monday, December 29, 2014

I came home on Sunday night to a stack of mail, including a package that turned out to contain a copy of the latest edition of The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. And I just want to say: if you're a publisher and you want your book cover to cheer up a minor regional poet, include her name in a list titled "A comprehensive selection of work by 106 important American poets." Personally, I was very cheered up.

Now I must turn my thoughts to step 1 of the new editorial assignment that has appeared in my inbox: e.g., "Is there a desk under this mess?" In the meantime, as I remove cat footprints and reshelve books and throw away mysterious scraps of paper, you can pass three seconds' worth of time glancing at this picture of Doughty Hill performing "Wagon Wheel" yesterday morning.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

We got home last night, and this morning I am rushing off to play music at Stutzmans' Cafe--its final brunch of the year. I am still shell-shocked from five days of too much food and not enough exercise, and I haven't picked up my violin for a week, so we'll have to hope that my muscle memory sees me through the gig.

While Christmas shopping in Middlebury, Vermont, Tom and I stumbled into the sort of used bookstore that no longer exists anywhere close to us in Maine--too many books packed onto too-high shelves in too-narrow aisles: my favorite arrangement. Naturally I bought $50 worth of books for myself and nothing for any of the people I was supposed to be shopping for.

* Two novels: E. L. Doctorow's Billy Bathgate and Margaret Drabble's The Peppered Moth

* Her Husband, Diane Middlebrook's biography of the Plath-Hughes marriage. Baron Wormser loaned me his copy once, but this is a book I ought to own. Middlebrook's discussion of the Joy of Cooking meals that Sylvia concocted for Ted is a poem in the making.

* Two Czeslaw Milosz books: Bells in Winter (a poetry collection) and Milosz's ABCs (a prose oddity: sort of an autobiographical encyclopedia with entries such as as "automobile," "love," "stupidity," and "Whitman").

* A one-volume abridgment of The Lewis and Clark Journals. (Actually Tom bought this for me under the alias of Santa.) It will join Pepys's diary and The Golden Bough on my consult-the-I-Ching shelf.

Monday, December 22, 2014

I'll be traveling tomorrow and may not have Internet service for the next few days. So have a lovely holiday, wherever and however you will be spending it.


Christmas (I)
George Herbert

After all pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tir’d, bodie and minde,
With full crie of affections, quite astray,
I took up in the next inne I could finde,

There when I came, whom found I but my deare,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to him, readie there
To be all passengers most sweet relief?

O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:

Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging than a rack or grave.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

I am not, under general circumstances, a person who lies around doing nothing. Yesterday, however, I stayed in bed till 11 a.m., spent the rest of the day dozing on the couch, and then went back up to bed and had a full night's sleep. But the sleep magic worked because this morning I feel almost human again, and I am very tired of my pajamas.


The City of Sleep

Rudyard Kipling

Over the edge of the purple down,
Where the single lamplight gleams,
Know ye the road to the Merciful Town
That is hard by the Sea of Dreams –
Where the poor may lay their wrongs away,
And the sick may forget to weep?
But we – pity us! Oh, pity us!
We wakeful; ah, pity us! –
We must go back with Policeman Day –
Back from the City of Sleep!

Weary they turn from the scroll and crown,
Fetter and prayer and plough –
They that go up to the Merciful Town,
For her gates are closing now.
It is their right in the Baths of Night
Body and soul to steep,
But we – pity us! ah, pity us!
We wakeful; oh, pity us! –
We must go back with Policeman Day –
Back from the City of Sleep!

Over the edge of the purple down,
Ere the tender dreams begin,
Look – we may look – at the Merciful Town,
But we may not enter in!
Outcasts all, from her guarded wall
Back to our watch we creep:
We – pity us! ah, pity us!
We wakeful; ah, pity us! –
We that go back with Policeman Day –
Back from the City of Sleep!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Stomach flu and holidays: they go together like screaming children and Limburger cheese. Argh. Wish me luck.

Friday, December 19, 2014

A few week ago I told you I was writing an essay based on some of this blog's post-election literary-political posts and comments. Well, I did write that essay and, today the progressive online magazine Vox Populi has published "The Marketing of American Individualism." Thank you all for your support in this endeavor, and thanks especially to my friend David, whose civilized and large-hearted sadness about the American state of mind triggered so many of my thoughts.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Okay, it's time to turn your attention to food. This is what I'm serving at tomorrow's holiday party:

  • Chili con carne (kidney beans, onions, garlic, fried cumin, ancho peppers, red peppers, canned tomatoes, ground beef, stew beef, parsley, salt, pepper)
  • Vegetarian chili (kidney beans, onions, garlic, fried cumin, ancho peppers, red peppers, canned tomatoes, corn kernels, parsley, salt, pepper)
  • Cornbread with cheddar and black pepper
  • Vegetable tray
  • Homemade dills, mixed olives, almonds, chips

    ***
  • Homemade eggnog
  • Mulled cider
  • Other assorted beverages in bottles and cans

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Though I'm still struggling with a hair-raising poem draft, I've had a productive writing week business-wise (though I am reluctant to use the word business in the context of my un-business-like career). As I told you earlier this week, the Solstice MFA program has contracted me to teach a lyric-essay class. In addition, I've been checking proofs and filling out paperwork for the first of several Same Old Story poems that will appear in state poet laureate Wesley McNair's Take Heart newspaper column. Autumn House Press has just announced the release of the third edition of The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, which includes several of my poems. I've also agreed to join the book-review staff at Green Mountains Review, and next week Vox Populi will be publishing my cranky literary-political essay "The Marketing of American Individualism."

And I am standing here at my desk, on this dim morning in the waning of the year, drinking black coffee, listening to the dryer rumble, writing to you, and thinking that nothing that I have done, either publicly or privately, has made even the slightest bit of difference in a world in which schoolchildren are slaughtered in the name of God.

I suspect that you, too, are looking at your own life, your own accomplishments and struggles, in light of this continuing barrage of evil. We are are, essentially, helpless.

I don't know what to do with this feeling. Do you?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Last night Tom drove south to the bus station to pick up the returning college boy while I drove north to the gymnasium to attend the high school boy's holiday concert. This morning the high school boy has already stalked off to class while the college boy still wallows among his pillows. But as soon as I start editing or writing, the college boy will be calling, "Do you want any coffee?" up the stairs, and my working day will end. He is the most distracting child--a chatterbox, funny and sociable, and I have no idea how his college housemates get any schoolwork done when he's around . . . though mysteriously he seems to finish all of his own, and finish it well.

Believe me: I am not complaining.

Monday, December 15, 2014

What the Photographer Saw (1956)

Dawn Potter

Nijinksy in gauntlets, silhouetted
against a cancerous fog,

or Sandburg unchained. Flares,
prodded, leap up like angry dogs—

dance of the flaming coke
under a Van Gogh sky.

There’s an art to a man’s sweat.
I meant to ask his name.


***

I haven't got permission to reprint the photograph that triggered this poem, but you can see it here.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

I am a person who hates clutter. Christmas is a holiday that promotes clutter. Thus, decorating for the holiday always feels like an out-of-body experience, a sensation encouraged by the stuff that passes for family nostalgia in this house. To wit:
  • Six early-1960s styrofoam gingerbread men, prominently labeled "Made in Japan," which my mother bought at Woolworth's in the early days of her marriage and later sloughed off on me in the early days of mine 

  • A rubber figurine of King Kong, which Tom romantically purchased for me at the top of the Empire State Building
  • A headshot of old fat Elvis, cut out of a circa-1988 newspaper, with a pasted-on Santa hat and beard
The Elvis photo always goes on top of the tree. As four-year-old James once reverently explained to a confused grandparent, "It goes on top because Elvis is a star."

Saturday, December 13, 2014

I just got word that I'll be teaching a lyric-essay class for the Solstice MFA program! This makes me very happy, as does the conversation accruing around the poem in yesterday's post. I also made some progress with that sucking-drain-of-badness poem I was complaining about a couple of days ago. So despite the ongoing wretched condition of our driveway, things seem to be looking up around here.

To celebrate, I've started reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina again. I daresay I will have to skip the train scene and the scene when she leaves her son. I can't reread George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss or John Updike's Rabbit, Run without skipping the drowning scenes; and if anything, Anna Karenina is worse because Anna's tortured decision making is woven so thoroughly into the plot. I wince about Shakespeare's Othello too. Oh, poor Desdemona: everything goes wrong for her. As much as I love rereading, it has a serious down side that cannot be avoided. I always know what's coming.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Land of Spices

Dawn Potter

These days, what seeker has ever laid
eyes on a nutmeg grater? Something called
nutmeg leaps fully formed
from red-white-and-black Durkee boxes,
a harmless grist, innocently beige,

dry as the moon, sandy as kibble,
which mothers tap by scant
teaspoons into One-Pie pumpkin and scatter
thriftily onto box-milk Junket.
“Makes food look pretty!”

vows the label, but nutmeg
isn’t meant to be anything;
and if a child falls asleep on the sofa
with the library’s black-leather
Dickens flung open on her chest

and dreams of Peggotty’s
red forefinger, rough as a nutmeg
grater, smelling of lye and ancient
floors, she dreams in similes
as vague as chivalry.

Then how is it that this child,
born to inherit our Age of Convenience,
feels so exactly the pine-cone
scrape of that phantom finger
against her sunburnt cheek?

Has callow Shelley turned out to be right
after all, blabbing his shrill claptrap
at Godwin’s high-toned soirĂ©e—
“My opinion of love is that it
acts upon the human

heart precisely as a nutmeg
grater acts upon a nutmeg”—
and is the dog-eared, grade-school
social studies book just as true,
chanting its ode of immortality for those

glory-hunters—da Gama,
Magellan—who bartered
their souls for cumin and cardamom,
vanilla and myrrh, for rattling
casks of seed more precious than prayer?

Because if the Land of Spices
is something understood,
a dream well dressed,
a paraphrase,
a kind of tune, brown and sweet,

round as earth,
ragged as our laboring flesh,
then even now, in the empire’s
rustiest outpost, in a kitchen
as dull as Saran Wrap, the slow palms sway

and the milky scent of paradise
lingers on the clean south wind:
our ordinary heaven,
this seven-day world,
transposing in an hour, as a child

snaps her sandals against a chair,
gobbles saltines and cherry Nehi,
and grates away at her own
hungry heart . . . word, after word,
after sounding, star-bent word.

[first published in the Maine Poetry Review (fall 2005)]


***

As you can see from the credit line, this poem has been around for a long time, but somehow I could never find a place for it in a collection. The tone of the piece is eager and naive--a characteristic that I treasure--but this has also made it difficult to place within a group. The poem is like a cowlick that can't be combed down.

A couple of years ago, I thought of revising the piece to make it part of my western Pennsylvania history-poem project. So I tried out a few experiments: burnishing regional and 1950s-era details, re-imagining the "I" as a young woman of my mother's generation. Interestingly, however, none of these revisions had much effect on the original tone. The poem insists on being itself.

This fall, as I was grappling with the unwieldy organization of my Pennsylvania project, I found myself unexpectedly constructing Vocation, a poetry manuscript that combined a handful of those western Pennsylvania poems with a number of regionally unrelated poems about music, writing, practice, inspiration, and frustration. Suddenly, after a decade in limbo, "The Land of Spices" had found a context and a home. I never would have expected I'd be adding a ten-year-old poem to a new collection, but the development of this book has been a surprising lesson in patience.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

I feel as if I am fighting to find things to write about here. Everything in my quotidian world seems too tedious to share. Our driveway is a slush-bound disaster. This morning's Facebook wall features complaints about people who say, "Happy holidays!" instead of "Merry Christmas!" In between checking manuscript corrections for a publisher, I am torturing myself with a poem draft that is like a sucking drain of badness. [Please enjoy this morning's Teenage Simile Replica®.]

Well, at moments like this, I always turn to the diaries of Samuel Pepys. Here's what was happening in London on December 11, 1660:
My wife and I up very early this day, and though the weather was very bad and the wind high, yet my Lady Batten and her mayde and we two did go by our barge to Woolwich (my Lady being very fearfull) where we found both Sir Williams and much other company, expecting the weather to be better, that they might go about weighing up the Assurance, which lies there (poor ship, that I have been twice merry in, in Captn. Holland's time,) under water, only the upper deck may be seen and the masts. Captain Stoakes is very melancholy, and being in search for some clothes and money of his, which he says he hath lost out of his cabin. I did the first office of a Justice of Peace to examine a seaman thereupon, but could find no reason to commit him. This last tide the Kingsale was also run aboard and lost her mainmast, by another ship, which makes us think it ominous to the Guiny voyage, to have two spoilt before they go out. After dinner, my Lady being very fearfull of her ships she staid and kept my wife there, and I and another gentleman, a friend of Sir W. Pen's, went back in the barge, very merry by the way, as far as Whitehall. Mr. Moore has persuaded me to put out 250l. for 50l. per annum for eight years, and I think I shall do it. Thence home and to bed. [Conclusion: Captain Stoakes is having a far worse day than I am. Mr. Moore has found that business matters are improved when the clients are drunk. What did the ladies do on the boat after the men went off to be merry?]
December 11, 1661, was even livelier:
I went out, and in my way met with Mr. Howell the Turner, who invited me to dine this day at Mr. Rawlinson's with some friends of his, officers of the Towre, at a venison pasty, which I promised him, and so I went to the Old Bayly, and there staid and drank with him, who told me the whole story how Pegg Kite has married herself to a weaver, an ugly fellow, to her undoing. From thence home and put on my velvet coat, and so to the Mitre to dinner, but going up into the room I found at least 12 or more persons, and knew not the face of any of them, so I went down again and walked to the Exchequer, and up and down, and was very hungry, and from thence home, and my wife was gone out by coach to Clerkenwell, to see Mrs. Margaret Pen, who is at schoole there. So I went to see Sir W. Pen, and he and I after some talk took a coach and went to Moorfields, and then into an alehouse and I drank some ale and eat some bread and cheese, and so being very merry we went home again. [Conclusion: Why can't a few Tower officers invite me to a gossipy lunch party at the Old Bailey? And look at these fabulous run-on sentences! My poem would be so happy! (P.S. For a good time, call Sir W. Pen.)]
So what about December 11, 1662?
Up, it being a great frost upon the snow, and we sat all the morning upon Mr. Creed's accounts, wherein I did him some service and some disservice. At noon he dined with me, and we sat all the afternoon together, discoursing of ways to get money, which I am now giving myself wholly up to, and in the evening to my office, concluding all matters concerning our great Treasurer, till almost one in the morning, and then home with my mind much eased, and so to bed. [Conclusion: This is the same day that I am having. I'm already looking forward having "my mind much eased, and so to bed."]

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Sleet, CIA torture, teenage angst, a slow roof leak--

I am finding it hard to concentrate on my work but easy to be ashamed. At least there is plenty of firewood. And I do have a poem draft, though it is shrinking into shape like a badly washed wool sweater.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

An ominous sky, a five-day forecast of sleet-snow, and a Hammond Lumber truck with a load of plywood backing up our narrow driveway: this is hot-off-the-presses news from Harmony, Maine. On the bright side, the load of plywood means that Tom will have no need to drive to work during the five-day sleet-snow storm. He'll be snugly ensconced in his shop with his big new saws, his nice insulated walls, his hot woodstove, and the Minutemen or Stereolab or 1970s Nigerian gospel reverberating from his stereo . . . because Tom is the kind of cabinetmaker who installs a stereo and large speakers in his woodshop years before he purchases the big new saws. Better a little useless saw than a bad sound system.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Although I have read Jane Austen's Emma at least a million-and-one times before now, I am not sure that I've ever noticed during those readings the very interesting contrasts the novelist creates among the talkers-at, the talkers-to, and the non-talkersMr. Weston (sociable rising-genteel neighbor), Miss Bates (sociable shabby-genteel neighbor), Mr. Woodhouse (Emma's sweet but dumb wealthy-gentleman father), and Mrs. Elton (the vicar's obnoxious nouveau-riche bride) are talkers-at, though all are very different kinds of people in terms of class, talking style, and personality. Emma (smart wealthy gentlewoman) crosses the line between both: with Harriet (pretty but dumb schoolgirl of unknown parentage) and her father, she is a talker-at; with Mr. Knightley (intelligent wealthy-gentleman neighbor), she is a talker-to. Likewise, Mr. Knightly crosses the line. Mrs. Weston (Emma's ex-governess) is firmly a talker-to. I think there is also a cast of characters that might be defined as non-talkers: those who either mostly keep their mouths shut (Jane: elegant, impoverished niece of Miss Bates) and those whose thoughts are entirely manipulated by the person talking (Harriet). Frank Churchill (Mr. Weston's son, raised by rich relatives) is a talker-to who is also a secretive non-talker, which is why Emma misreads him.

Anyway, enough of this, which I'm sure makes no sense to anyone who has not read the novel. Now I am going to copy out my very favorite passage in the book, which has nothing to do with categories of talkers but offers a swift and lovely vision of everyday life in a small English town in 1800. It reminds me that nothing is too dull to write about, that we live in the midst of wonders. Here: I give it to you as a gift for a cold Monday morning.
Harriet, tempted by every thing and swayed by half a word, was always very long at a purchase; and while she was still hanging over muslins and changing her mind, Emma went to the door for amusement.--Much could not be hoped from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury;--Mr. Perry walking hastily by, Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office door, Mr. Cole's carriage horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker's bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

I have begun a new winter project, and one that has nothing (overtly) to do with writing or reading. I have decided to study a handful of Carter Family songs, singing alone and playing leads and accompaniment on an instrument that I have not mastered: the mandolin. Although a mandolin is tuned like a violin, its double strings, frets, resonance, and picking requirements make it a very different beast. I find the instrument quite frustrating, actually, but in an interesting way. It forces me to roughen and simplify what, on the violin, would be suave and complex. And because suave and complex are exactly wrong for Carter Family songs, I have hopes of learning something new about myself as an interpreter.

The first song under study is "Wildwood Flower." Perhaps you would like to listen to the Carter Family's version.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Seen in the checkout line at Bud's Shop 'n Save: A young Amish man in dress-up clothes, lugging a stack of eight extra-large boxes of baking soda.

Seen on an empty highway next to a chopped-up cornfield: A bald eagle disguised as a crow (i.e., strutting around cheerfully on the tarmac while inspecting a delicious ex-porcupine).

**

Otherwise, things are pretty quiet around here. I was supposed to be driving back and forth to Piscataquis County all day--first, lugging Paul up to the Reindeer Run 5K Race, then lugging myself to a gig at the Sangerville Grange--but both have been canceled, so here I am, still in my bathrobe, with nothing to do but bake and look out the window at the snow-sleet-rain-sleet-rain-snow-rain.

Yesterday afternoon I made stollen; today I'll make something else: Russian teacakes, maybe; or frosted butter cookies; or thumbprint tarts with jam. Like the stollen, they all freeze well and can be produced quickly for holiday emergencies.

The working title of my draft poem is "Essay on Midcentury Women." So I'll also spend some time today revisiting Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man," with hopes that something will happen to me or the poem. But I can tell you right now that it won't be rhymed couplets or hardboiled snark. I am not in the mood for either.
Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of Kings.
He is pretty good at them, though.

Friday, December 5, 2014

In response to the grand-jury debacles in Missouri and New York, numbers of poets have been sharing their outrage about the toxic relationship between cops and black citizenry in America. Simultaneously, a handful of nonwhite poets are publicizing their distress at how white poets are writing about the situation. Generalized politics aren't the issue here: by and large, the white poets are striving to protest alongside the black poets. Rather the question has often been simplified into "Should white poets be writing about black issues?"

My answer? Of course, white poets should write about black issues. Will they make mistakes? Will they misunderstand? Will they perceive the world through their own lens? Yes. But if writing is discovery, if writing is working to figure something out, if writing is a struggle to articulate what can't be easily said, then how are white poets going to grow into knowledge about a complex issue without trying to write about it?

For an analogy, ask yourself, "Should women write about men?" "Should men write about women?" Now imagine the state of literature if neither of those things had ever happened.

I wrote an essay a while ago about The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a book that I care about a great deal. Yet I also think Malcolm X made some mistakes about women, maybe even about white people. And I think that I'm allowed to say so.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

I've been reading Jane Austen's Emma and Adrienne Rich's Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law as well as a long New Yorker article about the lifelong boringness of Chancellor Angela Merkel, all of which is beginning to accrue into a murky, sleety, women-in-history brain mist rather akin to the crappy weather of central Maine. This is probably very useful for my poem under construction, but I wouldn't mind a little sunshine. (And don't assume that Emma is a ray of light in a cloudy sky. Austen's novels are always expositions of cruelty. Why don't people talk more about this interesting meanness instead of pretending the books are romantic screenplays?)

Unfortunately, Tom has just informed me that the aforesaid crappy weather is scheduled to rear up again on Saturday, when my band is supposed to be opening for the Old Blues Kats at the East Sangerville Grange. Ugh, ugh, ugh. Now that we're a trio instead of a quartet, we've been working and reworking on our sound, with (as radio announcer Joe Castiglione says about the Red Sox) "good success." So if we can't play this weekend, we'll all be glum.

In other news: Ruckus has just bounced up onto my desk and is excitedly licking up the dregs of coffee in my cup. This cannot end well.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

I woke up this morning to the ticking of sleet on the window, followed by Paul's boing-squeal-boing alarm clock, the sound of his bare feet stalking to the back door, the sound of his bare feet stalking back to bed. When I went downstairs to inform him that, thus far, school had not been canceled, he stared at me impassively. "You go look outside," he said. "There's no school today." He was right. We've got five inches of sleet on the ground and it's still coming down strong. Even in Maine, this kind of weather makes no-school a pretty safe bet.

I guess I'll start baking gingerbread boys today.

And I should tell you: that essay I killed yesterday? . . . it turned out to be an embryo poem. Apparently I have another big one on my hands.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

For much of the past year, I've been wrestling off and on with an essay that just will not come together. Although the subject matter is linked--historic patterns of self-education among women writers, the relatively late rise of academic certification for poets, the struggles of women poets in the 1950s as that shift in professionalization began to happen--the piece refuses to cohere, and I have yet to figure out why. I have moved sections, added and deleted material, but none of these revisions has opened a door. I'm still trapped in what is more or less the same six-page uglydraft I've had for the past ten months.

Sometimes assassination is the only possible revision strategy. I've given this essay too many chances, and today is the day I kill it. I'm even sort of looking forward to the bloody knife.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Monday morning, 7 a.m.: 30 degrees, with a warmish breeze and a dim cloud of mist rising from the clotted snow. The air is the color of smoke.

I've been thumbing though translations of work by the ninth-century Chinese poet Cold Mountain (Hanshan). The book is filled with what must be gems, yet I can't exactly make them refract clarity into my own life. For instance--
The wine of wisdom is so cold
drinking it makes me sober
and more confusingly
A child who doesn't have a teacher
will never catch a city rat
It's puzzling, this disconnect. I begin to understand what he is saying, and then I don't. Although my ignorance doesn't exactly worry me, it does make me feel off balance, as if I'm slightly drunk or am coming down with the flu; and the sensation flows into this odd smoky daylight, first dawn of December--the house suddenly quiet now that the washing machine has kicked off, a ticking clock rising into the void like a soloist.
People can't explain
the reason they're so crazy
there's a road but not to town
only mindless men can climb 
Hey you people who leave home
what does leaving home mean
Who knows how to catch rats
doesn't need five white cats
if you can't make sense of this
I suspect you'll die of anger

Sunday, November 30, 2014

An agreeable romance might begin to take on the appearance.
That is the fortune I found in a Brooklyn-baked Chinese cookie served to me at a Vietnamese restaurant in Portland, Maine. Perhaps the fortune's peripatetic history accounts for its obscurity.

Since returning to Harmony, I have not encountered any new agreeable romances, but the old ones appear to be extant. After cold-shouldering me for 45 minutes, Ruckus relented and allowed himself to be kissed. Anna held no grudge whatsoever, though the accidental jingle of car keys made her worry that we were leaving again. The yard is blanketed with what looks like permanent winter, and this morning I woke to the sound of Sunday morning snowmobiles on the other side of the stream.

I haven't yet ventured out to do my chores, but here's a photo of what the snow looked like over the reservoir in Amherst on Thanksgiving Day. In Harmony we have roughly twice as much, without the beautifying reflection.


And here's a photo of three brave Amherst Thanksgiving turkeys. We probably have some of these lurking in the Harmony woods, but they know better than to show themselves on the last weekend of deer-hunting season.


An agreeable romance might begin to take on the appearance
  1. [of not being eaten for a national holiday].
  2. [of an old dog and a warm woodstove].
  3. [of dirt-cheap Vietnamese pho].
  4. [of an Anthony Trollope novel I haven't opened for a decade, only to discover that it's much more psychologically subtle than I had remembered].
  5. [of sitting on the couch with Tom watching Boogie Nights and being relieved/disappointed that I was safely walled up in elementary school during the seventies].

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The 2015 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching faculty members have been announced! Our guests will be Marcus Jackson and Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, and you can learn more about them on the FP website. I'm on the road again today, so I need to stop chattering and get busy. For now, let me say I couldn't be happier about the prospects for this year's conference.

And it's a sunny day!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Here in western Massachusetts, the trees are bowed with snow, heavy as cake frosting. As the male cardinal at the bird feeder poses like a Christmas-card model, we stand at the window making personal comments about his wife's tangerine beak as we steadily consume all the coffee in the house. Everyone under the age of 21 is still asleep.

Today is one of those days when no one has anything to do but feels the necessity of inventing a plan. Such situations often lead families inexorably into bowling alleys. The rancor of yesterday's Monopoly game has probably faded by now. Still, no one has the stamina to repeat that experience more than once a year.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Saturday Night

Dawn Potter

Because, across a crowded table,
the man you have loved for twenty-five years
catches your eye and breaks into a smile
so bright it could light up the Yukon;

because, as you smile back through the candle flame,
your lanky fifteen-year-old leans all his wiry,
vibrating weight against your shoulder,
and your chair shudders and your neighbors laugh;

because when you put your arms around your boy
and press your cheek into his bristly hair,
he reaches for your hand and holds it against his own cheek
and doesn’t let you go;

because the man on the tiny stage dances
over the guitar strings as if his fat hands
are as fragile as the snowflakes
that sift slowly from the unseen sky;

because the crowd breathes alongside you
in easy patience, in careful, quiet joy;
because even time has paused
to shift its flanks and listen,

you say to yourself:
I will remember this.
I will remember this forever.


***

This poem, which has undergone numerous title changes, is included in Vocation, my most recent poetry manuscript. Though it was not originally composed as part of the western Pennsylvania series, I have at times reconfigured it to fit into that chronology. For the moment, however, I've let it slip more naturally into the music themes of Vocation. The collection, as it now stands, includes a number of poems that center on playing or listening to music--experiences that are not necessarily easy or delightful. But sometimes music and love do come together, and that is what I was trying to describe in "Saturday Night."

Happy Thanksgiving to you and to everyone you love. May you have warm hands and someone to hold them.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

You won't hear from me on Wednesday because I will be getting up at 3 a.m. in order to drive to Massachusetts in a snowstorm. Ugh.

The Death of the Heart

Following are three status posts that appeared on my Facebook wall this morning, responses to the grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot a young black man named Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri:
150 years ago, whites went to war to free the slaves. Fifty years ago, whites marched together with blacks to Washington to demand an end to segregation. We need to stand united once again. We need to show that this decision to not press charges [and] letting Wilson off was unacceptable. As a country, we are better than this. As people, we are better than this. We need to demand change. We need to use this as a rallying point to stand up not just for what we believe in, but what is right.
      --17-year-old white male, rural central Maine

Really disgusted with America right now. Darren Wilson deserved at least some form of punishment for killing an innocent teenager. Has society come to the point where killing someone doesn't matter if you're a white policeman? Is it a coincidence that the majority of votes needed was nine, and out of the twelve jury members, nine were white? When will race issues ever end?
    --17-year-old white female, rural central Maine

I am appalled and saddened by a society that allows a man to shoot an unarmed African American teenager and get away with it. Or all the other terrible murders/shooting that people have gotten away with because the victim was colored. I cannot wait for the day when the US is officially the land of freedom and equality for everybody regardless of gender, race, sexual preference, sexual orientation, gender identification, religion, rich or poor or whatever else you can think of. We are all human and we all should be treated equally and strive to treat others equally. Live by the Golden Rule; Treat people the way you want to be treated. 
      --19-year-old mixed-race male, rural central Maine
I think it's safe to say that, like most Americans, these three teenagers did not comb through witness testimony, watch hours of video footage, or conduct interviews with law enforcement and family members. They watched or listened to news highlights, glanced at Internet updates, saw selected photographs or video clips. What they (and I, and most likely you) absorbed was the bare bones of the situation, buffed up for generalized public consumption. Nonetheless, facts emerged from that disclarity: A police officer shot and killed a young man. The officer was white. The officer did not first attempt to subdue the young man with a taser or pepper spray or anything less than deadly force. The young man was unarmed. The young man was black.

Meanwhile, administrators at the University of Virginia are dealing with allegations of gang rape at a fraternity and tales of a longstanding rape culture at the university. Though the story that broke in Rolling Stone doesn't specifically describe the perpetrators, the student body portrayed in the article reeks of privilege. This issue doesn't end with UVA, of course: it's endemic, and it's not going away. In 1960 my mother was kidnapped by a fellow student at a small Christian college, driven to the town dump, and threatened with rape. In 2013, according to the Rolling Stone article, a Dartmouth University student posted a "how-to-rape guide" online. This weekend, you, too, can watch frat boys reeling through the college-town streets closest to you--drunk, rowdy, predatory, and mostly white. Will police officers shoot any of them? I'd say it's highly unlikely.

I went to college with a young man who grew up to become a prominent human-rights lawyer. He recently visited Ferguson, where I'm sure he did comb through witness testimony and watch hours of video footage and do all of the things that the rest of us have not. Yet this was his Facebook status after the grand-jury decision was announced:
This empty feeling in your stomach right now happens when justice is sorely lacking . . .
His reaction to the decision in the Ferguson case was not so different from the reactions of the three rural Maine teenagers. Something, somewhere, somehow, had gone wrong. Or had stayed wrong. Once again, a young black man had paid the price for being a young black man. Rather than giving him the benefit of the doubt--perhaps paternally remarking, "Aw, he's just being a regular kid," or, in a more hopeful scenario, asking, "I wonder if that kid's had too much to drink and ought to go the hospital," the officer killed him.

So now a young man is dead, for no particular reason, other than being foolish in public. Meanwhile, another foolish young man on the street has broken a beer bottle against the face of the young woman who dared to tell a reporter that she had been raped at a frat party. As far as I know, he's still alive and partying.

This morning, in a comment on one of the teenagers' posts about the grand-jury decision, someone wrote, "You're too young become a cynic." That remark made me as angry as anything else I'd been reading. Sure, all three kids simplified the current situation, simplified history, simplified justice and morality. Yet they are not cynics but idealists, and their idealism has been crushed. The same goes for the woman who had the bottle broken against her face. She thought she was going on a date with a handsome, friendly guy. It never occurred to her that he was purposely setting her up for a gang rape. Would it have occurred to you?
Two weeks after Jackie's rape, she ran into Drew during her lifeguard shift at the UVA pool. "Hey, Jackie," Drew said, startling her. "Are you ignoring me?" She'd switched her shift in the hopes of never seeing him again. Since the Phi Kappa Psi party, she'd barely left her dorm room, fearful of glimpsing one of her attackers. Jackie stared at Drew, unable to speak. "I wanted to thank you for the other night," Drew said. "I had a great time."
After the decision not to indict, Michael Brown's parents released a statement through their lawyers:
We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions. While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen. Join with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera. We respectfully ask that you please keep your protests peaceful. Answering violence with violence is not the appropriate reaction. Let's not just make noise, let's make a difference.
Idealism is not dead, at least not insofar as public statements go. Brown's parents are maintaining their dignity; they are trying to help the rest of us angry onlookers maintain ours. But their lives have been ruined. How could they not be? Their child, scarcely older than the three teenagers I have quoted, was murdered. Nothing will stanch that wound. Jackie, thank goodness, is still alive. But I wonder how her parents felt when they read the description of her rape, when they saw the "blood-red bruise around her eye," relic of that broken bottle. The heart is fragile, and death isn't the only way to kill it.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Today I have to TAKE MY TEENAGER TO THE MALL, and CHRISTMAS-SHOP and SORT THROUGH SALE RACKS and unfortunately TRY ON PANTS in DRESSING ROOMS WITH FLUORESCENT LIGHTING and then wander around the parking lot in the COLD POURING RAIN

The only good thing about this adventure will be the TEENAGER. But he will be hungry, so we will have to eat MALL FOOD.

Ugh.

See you on the other side.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Letter from the 142nd Pennsylvania Infantry (1862)

Dawn Potter

I received the sad intelligence
Of Juliet’s demise.
That sweet good girl now peaceful sleeps,
At rest in Paradise.

We lay last night in Snickers Gap,
Endured a foul brass band.
Midst sharps and flats, I wrote to Jane;
My friends and I shook hands.

We hope that we shall meet again
As victors on the field.
Without a faith in God above
What thorns this life would yield.

Our cavalcade has halted
In a meadow by a stream.
Two drovers work to drown a mule.
We listen to it scream.

***

This is one of the "Chestnut Ridge" poems I've included in my new manuscript, Vocation. Along with incorporating mid-nineteenth-century-esque rhythm, rhyme, and themes, the poem borrows incidents from a collection of Civil War-era letters:  Extracts from the Letters of Alfred B. McCalmont, Late Lt.-Col., 142d Regt., Col. 208th Regt., and Brev. Brig.-Gen. Pennsylvania Volunteers, from the Front during the War of the Rebellion, which were privately published by McCalmont's family in 1908. I have not been able to ascertain where McCalmont himself was from, but the regiment drew recruits from many western Pennsylvania counties, among them Fayette, Somerset, and Westmoreland. McCalmont took command of the regiment at Gettysburg, after the colonel fell, and led the men through many terrible battles, including those at Spotsylvania and the Wilderness. The regiment was present at Appomattox, when Lee surrendered.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Eight degrees outside this morning, but the house is warm and the coffee is strong and hot. Paul's school is closed all next week, so the holiday starts today--not that I'm doing anything special this morning other than getting my hair cut. Still, I have a warm happy feeling about not getting up at 5:30 a.m., starting a fire, waking the boy, heating up his breakfast, packing his lunch, and rushing around the house with him as he helplessly hunts down his phonerunningshoeslatinhomeworkmandolinpickipadwintercoatetcetera.

I invented a pie yesterday that turned out rather well--a pumpkin-ricotta pie, though I used winter squash instead of pumpkin because that's what was sitting on the counter asking to be eaten. Basically, after baking and straining the squash, I followed a regular pumpkin pie recipe but substituted 1 cup of ricotta and 1/2 cup of milk for the usual 1 1/2 cups of milk. I also made sure to whip the ricotta, squash, and sugar thoroughly with an electric mixer before adding the eggs, milk, and spices. This gets rid of the cottage-cheesy lumps and turns the mixture into something resembling cannoli filling, which is a much more delightful texture. I pour the filling into an unbaked pie shell and baked it as I would any other pumpkin pie. The result was a delicate amalgam of custard and cheesecake, pumpkin-flavored and not at all heavy.

In other news: I am recovering from complex and vivid dreams involving New Jersey, a motel room, outlaws wearing thick plastic-rimmed glasses, four oddly shaped personal watercraft, a cocktail party, and the high seas.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Lately I've had a few people ask me to write up proposals for a possible lyric essay workshop. I led one a couple of years ago in Portland, under the auspices of the Maine Writers and Publisher Alliance; and I am now booked to lead another--in early June, way, way downeast at the Cobscook Community Learning Center in Trescott.

I enjoy teaching this class: for me, it's a way to examine the distinctions and connections between my urge to write poetry and my urge to write prose. However, most of the people who sign up for it do not think of themselves as poets, which is to say they tend to come to lyric prose from informational prose, whereas I am coming to lyric prose from narrative-lyric poetry. So the conversations are interesting . . . as is the fact that a poet keeps getting hired to teach prose. I think that's a financial decision, at least to a certain extent. In Maine, prose writers are more likely than poets to sign up for writing workshops. Are there more prose writers? Or are poets just too poor or iconoclastic to consider signing up?

Anyway: if you're interested in having me lead an lyric essay workshop (in or outside of school) or you have access to a venue that might host one, let me know because I am on a proposal-writing roll.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

This morning I'm headed south to visit a university English class--reading some poems, answering some questions, that sort of thing. Apparently a number of the students are under the impression that all of my poems are deeply coded symbols for SEX!SEX!SEX! so the visit should be interesting.

[P.S. When I mentioned the class's assumptions to my husband, he said, "Well, aren't they?"]

[P.P.S.
We played with her cat and it fell asleep. We
seem very mild. It's humid out. (Are they spelled "dikes"?)
People say they are Bacchantes, but if they are 
we must be the survivors of Thermopylae. 
--from "Poem" by Frank O'Hara]

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ten degrees this morning, but nothing daunts Ruckus. He bounces into the house after his morning constitutional, blue-eyed and beaming, his white pelt as fluffed and dense as an ermine's--a cat who has lucked into the best of all possible worlds: shrews and songbirds in the forest, wood heat and a homemade cardboard-box playhouse (with windows and a front porch!) in the living room. He runs over to me, puts up his paws to be carried, rubs his ears into my hair to warm them up, wriggles down again, rushes over to Anna's breakfast dish and licks up her leftover gravy (while carefully avoiding the carrots), whizzes upstairs to jump on my keyboard while I'm typing, gets pushed off, sharpens his claws on my violin case, gets yelled at and chased down the stairs, which is exactly his goal, because now I'm going to let him outside again so that he can go back to prowling around among the shrubs and stones doing Top Secret Cat Stuff. This will all be repeated in about 45 minutes.

Writing of his cat Jeoffry, eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart said: "For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life"; "For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he's a good Cat." This is blatant cat propaganda; I daresay mole- or chickadee-centered poetry would tell a different story. Nonetheless, like Smart, I am susceptible to the way Ruckus "brisk[s] about the life."
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
It is good to imagine an eighteenth-century man, on his knees in a flagged, rushlit kitchen, tossing a cork to his cat, and laughing, and tossing it again. His poem is like a cat video in words. "Spraggle upon waggle"! Ruckus can do that too!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

It's amazing how much time and energy the satellite tasks of being a writer can absorb. With a bit of an editing hiatus this week, I've finally been able to turn my attention to stuff such as submitting proposals for workshops, setting up readings, consulting with Tom about new author photos, submitting Same Old Story to contests, doing Frost Place paperwork, finishing up last-minute permissions issues with The Conversation, making an index for The Conversation, and so on and so on. This is the stuff that writers who earn money hand over to their assistants, but I am my own assistant, which is kind of like being my own grandpa insofar as I feel like I am churning around in circles instead of advancing into stately professionalism.

Ah, well. At least my desk is a lot cleaner than it was two days ago.

Monday, November 17, 2014

For close to 20 years I've been an active member of our local food coop. I even have a job title: mailing and truck coordinator. Thus, four times a year, I drive over to the Wellington Fire Station to meet the distributor's truck and unload boxes of food. This means that every three months, in blizzard and in flood, the driver and I hang out together for 15 minutes. So we have gotten quite friendly while knowing absolutely nothing about each other.

Last Friday, as we were unloading boxes, I asked him how often he drove up to Maine from the distributor's headquarters in southern New Hampshire. "Once a week," he said. "Every week I head to a different region."

"That's a lot of driving around on bleak Maine roads," I said.

"But it's okay," he assured me, "because I have a good audiobook."

It turns out that recently, while driving along the glowering seacoast and desolate blueberry barrens of Washington County, he'd started listening to a history of the Comanches, "and now I can't wait to get back into the truck and learn more, like for instance, let me tell you about how they got their horses. . . . "

For the rest of the day, I felt downright jubilant. The next long-haul driver you pass on Route 95, that guy sitting up there in the cab? Well, that guy, he could be dreaming of the Comanches. Doesn't the picture make you happy?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

I've spent the past two evenings sitting on a plastic chair in a high school gym watching my son swagger around the stage in a fedora, enacting his role as sexy 20s crime boss in this year's school musical. It is a bemusing position to be in, and I suspect the parents of the girl who played the demimonde vamp had similar feelings. Here we are, sitting in an audience, watching our children perform roles in which they are dolled up to entice. With his long curls and his smoldering glare, his pinstriped suit and his fur-trimmed overcoat, my son looked like some sort of hybrid Johnny Depp/Red Hot Chili Peppers version of a gangster. But in real life he's a 17-year-old junior at a rural high school who coos over cats, hugs his mother every day, and still forgets to brush his teeth. He's also the same boy who paced around the kitchen in his bathrobe yesterday afternoon, orating an impassioned defense of nineteenth-century Kentucky senator Henry Clay along with a grouchy diatribe against present-day Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell. I said, "Honey, you write that all down, and I will publish it." My guess is that he'll get distracted by cat videos and cross-country running in the rain. But we can hope.



Saturday, November 15, 2014

Eighteen degrees here this morning. There's no escaping winter now.

I spent most of yesterday working on a longer essay that fleshes out some of the thoughts in my recent posts about heroes and American individualism and the kinds of people we keep voting into office. I rather doubt anyone will publish such an amalgam of literature, political history, and personal reaction. But I seem to be on a roll with the topic; so I suppose I really ought to say, "Thank you, dear Maine governor, for chasing this bee into my bonnet."

Bad politics as a writing trigger: and why not? Try to imagine what Twain's books would have looked like if he hadn't spent most of his life being pissed off at public officials. Maybe we would have been stuck with a thousand versions of Tom whitewashing a fence. But fortunately we have this:
Sometimes, in the beginning of an insane and shabby political upheaval, [a citizen] is strongly moved to revolt, but he doesn't do it--he knows better. He knows that his maker would find out--the maker of his Patriotism, the windy and incoherent six-dollar sub-editor of his village newspaper--and would bray out in print and call him a Traitor. And how dreadful that would be. It makes him tuck his tail between his legs and shiver. We all know--the reader knows it quite well--that two or three years ago nine-tenths of the human tails in England and America performed just that act. Which is to say, nine-tenths of the Patriots in England and America turned Traitor to keep from being called Traitor. Isn't it true? You know it to be true. Isn't it curious? 
Yet it was not a thing to be very seriously ashamed of. 
--from Mark Twain's essay "As Regards Patriotism" (ca. 1900)

Friday, November 14, 2014

                                                   Quite swiftly
we move through our lives; swiftly, steadily the train
rocks and bounces onward through sleeping fields,
our unknown stillness
holding level as water sealed in a glass.

--from Denise Levertov's "Evening Train"

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Nationalism and Civility

The comments on yesterday's post as well as the private emails I have received make it clear that numbers of us are uncomfortable about the way in which words such as hero are reduced and commodified. I focused on Veterans Day, but I could have written a parallel essay about, say, football. Yet despite its absurdity and greed, the sports industry is at least forthrightly focused on entertainment. Manipulating language as a way to promote military prowess while masking its actuality is a darker endeavor.

The marketing of nationalism is not unique to either the United States or to our era in history. Look at any military culture at any time, and you'll find it: Bismarck's Germany, the Napoleonic wars, Saladin versus Richard the Lionheart, the Mongol invasions. . . . The list goes on and on. Still, Americans have a particular bent for jingoism and catchphrases, and this has been an element of our national personality since colonial days. Numbers of writers, from Horatio Alger, to Mark Twain, to Louisa May Alcott, to Walt Whitman, have captured the joy, cynicism, and naivete of the fast-talking, self-satisfied American striver; and visitors from other countries have been downright caustic about that persona. Consider the central character of Charles Dickens's novel Martin Chuzzlewit, a young Englishman who spends much of the book traveling around the United States. These scenes are comic syntheses of Dickens's own travels, which he chronicled in his journals and published as American Notes; and they are often painful to read. Dickens gleefully caricatures our national temperament, cramming the book with a chaos of carpetbaggers, tobacco chewers, suffragettes, and evangelical ministers, all of them trumpeting America's get-ahead pioneer spirit and scorning lily-livered, slowpoke, old Europe.

Dickens may have been mocking Americans, but he didn't lack models. As a nation, we still hang on to our foot-stomping, pioneer delusions, and outfits such as the National Rifle Association thrive on manipulating that image. This is nothing new; it's not even a secret. So why did I, and many of you, feel such diffidence about publicly discussing our misgivings about Veterans Day? For me, I think it comes down, in the end, to the simple fear of hurting someone else's feelings. Is that a cowardly response? A kind one? Or merely a weak one?

In a way my dilemma goes back to the split that Dickens describes in Martin Chuzzlewit: a pack of get-ahead, speak-your-mind Americans versus one thoughtful, well-mannered, somewhat bewildered English gentleman. Dickens would be the last person to claim that every Briton is a model citizen. But I think his point in this novel is to highlight the difficult tension between thoughtless nationalism and individual civility. Those of us who feel driven to chronicle what we see must contend with the fact that what we see is constantly contradicting itself. Those crowds of gun-toting, Obama-bashing anti-intellectuals break down into real people: into the man who responded to the car accident on the Ripley Road; into the neighbor whose child died of cancer; into the night-shift factory worker who drove my son home after theater practice.

Truth has so many faces. We must deal with the both/and, not the either/or, and this makes every word more dangerous--a destroyer, a divider, a knife--whether or not we believe in, or trust, its altruistic urgency.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Who Are the Heroes?

The date that we now call Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day. In other words, a holiday that was founded to mark the end of a war has somehow been co-opted into a day of military propaganda. This makes me angry, and I wonder why it doesn't seem to make other people angry as well.

Contrary to popular belief, I don't think that every person who has served in the military is a hero. Signing up for the army because you can't afford to pay for college, or because your parents say, "The discipline will shape you up, and you can learn some work skills and get good insurance," does not make you a hero. It does suggest that you are a young person who is trying to figure out how to become an adult, and that, as far as I am concerned, is an honorable and fascinating and sympathetic and eminently human position to be in. Nor does killing a swath of government enemies on someone else's order make you a hero, though it does dramatically complicate your moral, emotional, and intellectual obligations and impulses. Yes, sometimes individuals in the military do undertake specific heroic actions. Some may become longterm models and sources of support for those around them, and that is heroic work too. But they aren't heroes because they have served in the military. They are heroes because their acts of physical or social bravery specifically helped others who desperately needed that aid.

One might argue that military personnel face the possibility and presence of death in ways that make them uniquely heroic. But even if I set aside the fact that most career service members have non-combat jobs, a focus on military service as the ultimate heroism gives us latitude to ignore the perilous work of, say, public health doctors, not to mention the contributions of coal miners and uranium millers, who die every day so that we can keep our refrigerators cold.

Heroes live all kinds of lives. Some are poets, and some are clerks, and some are homeless people, and some are teachers, and some are social workers, and some are sisters, and some are soldiers, and some are ambulance drivers, and some are cartoonists, and some are ministers, and some are atheists, and some are kids on a playground. Why not call the holiday Heroes Day and celebrate all of them?

I feel a lot of bitterness about the way in which the military, over the thousands of years it has existed on this planet, across so many cultures and nations, has repeatedly lured young people into sacrificing their own humanity for the sake of someone else's political and financial gain. I'm not claiming that I have a solution. I don't see how an empire the size of ours can not have an army, and I also don't believe that an American president should ignore situations of genocide beyond our borders. In moral terms, withholding aid may be worse than sending in troops.

There is no right answer because all of the answers are complex and ambiguous. The situation is not heroic.

In 1968 my father's younger brother, Paul, went to Vietnam. Paul was a regular central Jersey farm boy--blond, cheerful, not too interested in school. So when his grades at Rutgers started to slide, my exasperated grandparents pushed him to join the army. He went over as a lieutenant, and in the photos taken before he left he is nervous, chunky, baby-faced. The hat of his dress uniform looks stiff enough to rub blisters.

I was only four years old, but I remember the tears when he left, and later I remember singing songs from The Music Man into a tape recorder so that he could listen to them in the jungle. I wonder if he liked listening to them, or if playing back those tapes was too embarrassing, or distressing. Or maybe the world back home seemed so detached from his present life that he could not even push the play button.

The North Vietnamese dropped a bomb on Paul's barracks. He was killed while he was sleeping. This was not a heroic death. It was just a death--an unnecessary death, a stupid death, one that damaged his brother's relationship to his parents, one that scarred the small nieces and nephews who had learned to love him. His death was a tragedy, as the death of Hamlet's father is a tragedy: which is to say, it reconfigured the bonds of the living; and those reconfigurations created ripples of anger, guilt, grief, led to repressions and explosions, redirected the futures of every player on the family stage.

I loved my fun uncle--that big boy who teased me and played with me and held me on his lap and consumed a ridiculous amount of food at dinner. I miss him, and I honor his memory; but his death saved nobody, and calling him a hero masks rather than illuminates his life.

Yesterday Facebook overflowed with portraits of military family members along with expressions of pride and gratefulness. It was moving, yes, to feel that commonality of emotion. The photographs kindled and rekindled love, and also amazement at the youth of the faces, and also fear, and also grief. These are noble sentiments, and they cross within and beyond the uniforms those children were wearing. Why not call the holiday Admiration Day and sing out our love for all of our families and ancestors?

On October 13, 1915, Scottish poet Charles Hamilton Sorley, a captain in the British army, was shot in the head by a German sniper, years before anyone dared to think about an armistice day. According to Wikipedia, his favorite activity as a high schooler was "cross-country running in the rain," an image that makes me want to cry. In his memoir Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves spoke of Sorley as one of the three most important poets of World War I, alongside Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg.

Sonnet 
Charles Hamilton Sorley 
Such, such is Death: no triumph: no defeat:
Only an empty pail, a slate rubbed clean,
A merciful putting away of what has been. 
And this we know: Death is not Life effete,
Life crushed, the broken pail. We who have seen
So marvellous things know well the end not yet. 
Victor and vanquished are a-one in death:
Coward and brave: friend, foe. Ghosts do not say
"Come, what was your record when you drew breath?"
But a big blot has hid each yesterday
So poor, so manifestly incomplete.
And your bright Promise, withered long and sped,
Is touched, stirs, rises, opens and grows sweet
And blossoms and is you, when you are dead.
12 June 1915 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

I woke up early this morning with this poem in my head. It's in the new manuscript, so of course I've been rereading it fervently along with the rest of the collection. But I couldn't figure out why it might be niggling at me more than the other poems were. And then I remembered that, as I was driving to Dover last night to pick up kids after theater practice, I was listening to a Fresh Air interview with an accordion player. The songs mentioned in this poem are all polkas, so perhaps that was the dream link. On the other hand, its bossiness might be linked to an acquaintance's request to send her some poems about aging that she can use in her work with nursing-home residents. I hadn't intended to send her any of my own poems, but maybe this poem was telling me that I should.



Mill Hunky

Dawn Potter

Raised in a coal patch flaunts his mustache survives
on pierogis and Coca-Cola splashes liquid steel into girder molds
plays the squeezebox plucks the guitar gulps dago red from a pint bottle
sleeps it off in the Ford bets on the dog races carries a switchblade
cheats at cards curves his rough palm round the hip of a big Slovene girl
from Johnstown sings In Heaven There Is No Beer sings I’ve Got a Wife at Home
swears at the umpire dreams of victory staggers into a church
at two in the morning loves his brother as himself ignores advice
spends his pay on a gold tooth

this bent old man with no teeth left a shabby dog
and five grandbabies Beloved Be Faithful he sings
and curves his rough palm over the dog’s
narrow head.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Last night, as I lay in the tub recovering from Firewood Weekend, I was reading a New Yorker article about a playwright I'd never heard of before and whose plays I will probably never see. I soon realized that if this article (written by Alec Wilkinson) was trying to make me very interested in Jez Butterworth's plays, then it was failing because I really couldn't quite figure out what they were about (though lying in hot water after a long day of stacking wood may have had something to do with that fog). However, it did make me very interested in Butterworth as a guy to hang out with because it was sprinkled with numerous intense remarks about other artists' struggles to make art--or to deal with not making it. For instance:
Butterworth quoted Harold Pinter, with whom he'd grown very close. Pinter, who died in 2008, once said that "when you can't write, you feel you've been banished from yourself."
And this:
He recalled watching a Miles Davis interview on YouTube, in which the jazz legend was asked how, having spent years in the seventies doing pretty much nothing, he had managed to return to work: "And he said 'Dizzy Gillespie came round my house and said "What the fuck are you doing?" and I went back to work.'" Butterworth laughed. "I just loved the idea that it's that simple."
And also this:
A few years ago, Butterworth went to an exhibition of Robert Capa photos in New York. Capa's contact sheets were on display, and you could see the pictures leading up to each famous shot. The differences between photos came down to a matter of milliseconds, yet, Butterworth said, "the one before, that is so nearly the shot that rings like a bell forever," had no resonance at all. "And it taught me something about the difference between nearly and really. Those days when you're looking at a page and thinking this is an imitation of itself--it could be as close as the frame before the actual one, and it's nothing. It's nothing."
Here's his reaction to listening to his friend, the Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance, read Ted Hughes's poem "Daffodils" aloud:
It had such a fundamental effect on the play [Butterworth was trying to write, Jerusalem], because you were suddenly aware of what this person was capable of. You knew the second that it began that what you were hearing was the poem; it was the clearest transmission. It came through on the clearest frequency, and I had never experienced anything like it in my life. It was like hearing Aretha Franklin sing.
Yet even though he seems to have spent much of his interview with Wilkinson acknowledging the power of influence, he was also able to speak precisely about its dangers, especially those that emanate from the work of an admired and well-loved mentor. For we can love our mentors too much; we can begin to pretend that their vision of the world is our own. And it never is.
He says Pinter's friendship was as important to him as Pinter's work, yet he acknowledges that he went through a Pinter "phase," something he was glad to emerge from. "Harold was such an inspiring man and guiding light, and so relentlessly himself. But a play like 'The Homecoming' is fucking horrible--what that is saying about relationships and people. It's unbelievable and brilliant, and so true. But, Christ, it is horrible."
Still, my favorite anecdote appears in the article's final paragraph, when Butterworth is shrugging about the likelihood that audiences will be disappointed by the modesty of his newest play, The River. His remarks are a good reminder that we have to stay attentive to the shifts in our creative paths. It's not our job to give the audience what it expects but to open a door and ask them to walk through it.
Quite apart from taking pride in the show, Butterworth is pleased with [the play] for reasons of perversity. He talked about Neil Young, one of his musical heroes, following up his hit album of 1972, "Harvest," with a series of more muted records, among them "Tonight's the Night." He said, "He's playing 'Tonight's the Night' to an English audience, and they're screaming at him for songs off 'Harvest' and they're all off  'Tonight's the Night,' and at the end he goes, 'I'm going to play you something you've heard before,' and they all cheer, and he played 'Tonight's the Night' again."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

It's eight o'clock on a Sunday morning, and I am sitting at the kitchen table rereading my poem "Mr. Kowalski" and thinking, My god, did I really write this?

Something about that poem feels like an out-of-body experience. I know I wrote it, I know I struggled over it, but where the hell did it come from?

Imagine me spending day 2 of Firewood Weekend stacking log after log, miming friendly commentary to deafened Tom who is running the splitter, running in and out of the house to check on the rising bread, speeding up to Dover to bring Paul home, unloading groceries, stacking wood, spelling Tom for an hour or so at the splitter, bossing Paul into stacking wood . . . and all the while wondering, My god, did I really write that?

Saturday, November 8, 2014

As I mentioned earlier this week, the new poetry manuscript I'll be submitting to my publisher includes a sheaf of western Pennsylvania poems, many of which were triggered by historical anecdotes and include details or language from those sources. So I spent much of yesterday typing out a list of source notes to include with the manuscript . . . though I do always wonder: does anybody other than me care about citations in a work of fiction?

I'm always very interested in finding out where a writer's ideas come from, but at the same time I understand that those sources aren't necessarily central to the imaginative essence of the poem or the novel. Peter Mathiessen's Shadow Country may circle an actual series of events, but the beauty and intensity of that book arise from the way in which the writer elaborated on the facts. Likewise, Ford Madox Ford's trilogy The Fifth Queen, a gorgeous and tragic evocation of the marriage of Henry VIII and Katherine Howard,  is more or less a complete lie, though the characters did exist as historical figures. Ford did not feel the need to include a list of "books I have read about the Tudors" at the end of his trilogy: but to tell the truth, I wish he had included a list so that I could search them out and read what he was reading in the months before his novels came to life, when the ideas were still fermenting in his mind.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Rain again, with a prospect of snow.

Orange flames lick at the blurred window of the wood stove. The lamps expel circles of gold into the browning air, whose color is the absence of sun in a room that stares north into a thicket of autumn olive, into crazed bare-limbed lilac. Behind their clutter, a pine forest looms like a siege.

At random, I open Milosz's Treatise on Poetry, and he tells me:
Spirits of the air, of fire, of water,
Keep close to us, but not too close.
His lines are like arrows, and he shoots to kill. The spirits waver in the northlight--masked but half-recognizable, crowding me, as lake mist crowds a solitary canoe, as guilt crowds an unremembered dream.


The Husbands

Dawn Potter

Their work boots were filmed with grease,
and their faces were weary.
They never showed up till the fourth inning.
Knees spread, they let themselves rest
on chairs beside the gravel-pocked ball field;
and when the women hollered, “Good eye, honey!”
at a tearful, trembling batter,
the men smiled like gentle but distracted strangers.

In their houses, a drawer slammed,
a kettle boiled, a hound twitched on the mat.
Televisions gabbled,
and the husbands pined for a secret world.
One drove six hours in dense fog
to a motel in Mississauga
instead of sitting down to supper.
Another stayed up till dawn
picking out “Night of the Johnstown Flood”
on his mother-in-law’s old guitar.

They fumbled with their sadness,
but nothing changed.
Women still clustered along the ball field
sharing packs of licorice, cat-calling the ump,
cheering at bloop singles and horrible throws to first.
The women behaved as if they had front-row tickets
to something magnificent and vital,
but the husbands couldn’t see, couldn’t quite see.

They raised their eyes toward the blackening sky
where swallows wheeled among the mosquitoes.
A child hacked at a pitch,
and the men’s thoughts clung to emptiness.
No one cried, “Cross out this life
that batters you down, and down, and down!”
Like chairs left in the rain for twenty years,
they sat.
Then one day their knees snapped
and they toppled into the flood.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

For months now I have been wrestling with my western Pennsylvania manuscript--organizing, reorganizing; inserting, deleting; breaking it into sections and different sections and different sections. Nothing has been right; nothing has worked. As a group, the poems are unwieldy, disjointed, clumsy; and trying to collect them into any kind of order has been an exercise in despair.

It is hard to give up on a project that has been so vital to me. But last week, I admitted to myself that these poems cannot all be in the same book. I sat at the kitchen table, staring at the stacks, and thought, What's next?

And then I thought of my chapbook manuscript, Vocation, the one that was a prize finalist earlier this year. I took it out of storage and looked through it. My organization strategy had been to alternate several Pennsylvania and non-Pennsylvania poems, following a thematic thread of work in all of its ambiguities--joy, desperation, weariness, illness, destruction, and so on. Since putting together that chapbook, I'd written a number of other non-Pennsylvania poems. So using the chapbook as a template, I began creating a longer version of that original alternating manuscript. Now I began to understand that common subject matter was crossing back and forth among both kinds of poems, despite their historical separations: music, violence, baseball, obsession, time. I began to see a book.

The upshot: I have a new poetry collection, one that I am ready to ask my publisher to read. And if any of you are interested in being thoughtful early critics of its content and order, I would be happy and grateful.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Power, Responsibility, Creation, Change

Anyone living outside Maine must think Mainers are idiots. [We are.] Anyone living outside the United States must think Americans are idiots. [We are.]

Every news outlet is bombarding us with the vengeful, gloating greed of this season's political marionettes, who (under the guidance of their billionaire string pullers) have managed to thwart and bamboozle a depressed electorate into damaging its own best interests. But that is all I will say about yesterday, because now I'm going to press myself to focus on where I do have power, hard as that is to envision this morning.

And I hope you're focusing on your own power too. I hope you're calling on your righteous role as a citizen of the world, as a person who ponders conundrums, as a person who understands both/and, not just either/or. I hope you're calling on your strength as a person who pities and embraces and forgives and gets angry and stands up and shouts and speaks the truth.

I look at myself, and I know have the power to see and hear and feel. I know I have the power to write cogently about what I have witnessed. I know I have the power to convince at least a few other people to read or listen to what I have written. So on this gloomy, heartbreaking morning, I promise that I am going to keep watching and writing and talking and listening and feeling. I promise that I will chronicle the sweetness and the terror, the decay and the beauty. I promise that I will say what needs to be said--as clearly, as sharply, as imperatively, as I possibly can.

I promise to remember what the great Audre Lorde said in her 1978 speech, "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power":
It is never easy to demand the most from ourselves, from our lives, from our work. To encourage excellence is to go beyond the encouraged mediocrity of our society. But giving in to the fear of feeling and working to capacity is a luxury only the unintentional can afford, and the unintentional are those who do not wish to guide their own destinies.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The temperature is 25 degrees this morning, and the ground is still patched with snow from Sunday's storm. My garden is done for: the wet snow has smashed the last few fall greens into pulp. The storm coincided with the clock shift, so now it really does feel like winter: darkness creeping in at four in the afternoon, a fire burning all day in the stove, lamplight glinting on snow crystals, a flock of juncos fluttering up from the driveway. It's time for me to start thinking about baking Emily Dickinson's black cake.

I am not very like Dickinson. She was tiny and I am tall. She lived in a big brick house in the middle of town. I live in a small aluminum-sided house in the middle of nowhere. She was a spider in her web, waiting for vibrations, then biting. I am more like a chipmunk running back and forth, back and forth, back forth, in and out of my hole, my cheeks crammed with sunflower seeds. Notice, however, how interested we both are in food. Also, a cat might eat either of us.
Drama's Vitallest Expression is the Common Day
That arise and set about Us--
Other Tragedy


Monday, November 3, 2014

What a bizarre storm! Wind, sleet, snow, sleet, wind; trees and power lines down everywhere, except for in our yard. We had just one power flicker and were otherwise unscathed--most likely because Tom had already cut down a couple of failing maples earlier this fall. But people all over town are still without power, and I have seen many photos of trees blocking roads. The worst story I have heard is from an acquaintance who was trapped in an ambulance between two sets of downed power lines while trying to get her son into Bangor for an emergency appendectomy. (Thankfully, they got him into surgery just in time, and he will be fine.)

I am glad we got this storm out of the way before Tuesday. We're dealing with one of those every-single-vote-counts governor's races, though why anyone would even consider voting to reelect the nation's most embarrassing governor is beyond me. Meanwhile, the Democrat and the Independent, who are more or less the same boring guy dressed in slightly different ties, risk canceling one another out, though the Independent has mentioned that his followers should feel free to vote for someone else if they think he can't win . . . which he can't. This race is like a dull headache that won't go away. I'd like to think that Governor Loudmouth's Christie-esque hijinx with that sassy Fort Kent nurse did him some damage, but an irrational fear of illness doesn't follow party lines. I have heard more than one liberal say, "Well, to give him credit, you can't be too careful," which by the way is bullshit, because you can be too careful and end up damaging not only individual lives and reputations but also the necessary and heroic response of specialists among people who really are living in terror.

I hope your state is in a better mood than mine is.