Wednesday, March 26, 2014

1. CavanKerry tells me that the printer will be shipping Same Old Story this week, which means, I hope, that anyone who has ordered a copy will receive it soon.

2. Thanks to Maureen, who reads these notes regularly (and keeps a fine blog of her own), I learned that the collection was featured in the Academy of American Poets' April newsletter, advertised among books by Gertrude Stein, W. S. Merwin, William Logan, Edward Hirsch, and even Shel Silverstein. If that advertisement were a cocktail party, I would be lurking in a corner nursing my glass of box wine, wishing/fearing that someone would talk to me, and gloomily checking the clock. There's much to be said for mere virtual contiguity.

3. On Saturday my band, String Field Theory, is playing at the second annual fundraiser for the Aliza Jean Family Cancer Foundation. You probably remember that Aliza, the daughter of one of our band members, died of brain cancer last winter at age 13. The benefit raises money for other Maine children in similar dire straits; so if you live locally and you've been meaning to come watch us play, Saturday would be a good time to do so. I'll be singing a lot in this one. That may or may not be an inducement.

4. Don't forget to submit your applications for the Frost Place Conference on Poetry & Teaching. Scholarships are first-come, first-served, so make sure you apply as soon as possible. This summer's faculty includes Teresa Carson, Meg Kearney, Iain Haley Pollock, and Baron Wormser. And the air will be warm, and there will be green on the mountaintops, and Bode Miller's Olympic medals might be on exhibit at the Franconia town office, and the cranky spirit of Robert Frost will preside, and you may even see a bear.

5. The saddest story in this week's Bangor Daily News involved a dead baby, a burnt-out mobile home, and a meth lab. If I were the poet of that town, I think I would fall into the same black cellar hole that I really did fall into when Steven Lake murdered Amy Bagley Lake and their children Coty and Monica. As it is, I am tumbling down some slate-gray stairs over the tale. And the worst part is that this story isn't even surprising. It's merely terrible.

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.

[from Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]


Maureen said...

Wow, what a poem, Dawn. I felt my heart in my throat while reading it.

That April reading list is making the rounds on FB, so I hope many more will notice your book listed there. I'll let you know when I get the copy I ordered.

Thank you, too, for the mention.

Anonymous said...

"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."

But it does express the dilemma; it does explore art as escape and expression of the stark realities strong enough to shake our confidence; strong enough to kill us all in the end. Thanks for this.

Dawn Potter said...

Thanks to both of you, Maureen and Bill. This poem matters a lot to me--not least because it pulled together a lot of disparate threads into rough dramatic unity without, I hope, being overly cerebral, pretentious, or anecdotal. I feel like I learned something about poetry from the difficulties I dealt with while writing this poem.