Sunday, August 31, 2014

My friend Donna asked me to post a photograph of the maple-pecan pie I made yesterday, but honestly: pecan pie, delicious as it is, always looks like dog food in a pie shell. You don't really want to see that on a Sunday morning, do you?

I am still reading that dreadful Sexton novel, and I really don't know why. It has turned into a paean for Alcoholics Anonymous; and whatever one might think of the organization and its efficacy, there's no question that drunk-to-sober makes a tedious plotline . . . especially when decorated with details such as "She tried on the opera-length pearls that [her father] had given her. Standing before the mirror, she spoke of their translucence, and carefully matched size," or "Lobster without champagne was like littlenecks without martinis," or "She did not have the sort of small remote control brain requisite for [proofreading]."It seems that I am supposed to sympathize with this girl, but drunk or sober, she is an idiot. I have no idea how she managed to get into Harvard.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

I spent yesterday evening with a hundred fair exhibitors and their oversized cucumbers, knitted socks, quilts with fur-trapper themes, cribbage boards made from logs, strawberry jam, and photos of golden retrievers. This morning Tom (aka Photography Judge) heads off to sift through entries. Paul will be running a 5K, judging baked goods, and then selling hotdogs in the Patriarchs Food Booth; but I will be going to the grocery store to buy the ingredients for my entry in tomorrow's Maple Syrup Baking Contest. I'm submitting a maple pecan pie, which I fortuitously invented for Thanksgiving dinner last year. And because I also entered sunflowers and a mixed-vegetable arrangement into the exhibit hall, it's conceivable I could win, like, ten dollars.

To get ready for this busy day, I am sitting here at the kitchen table reading Linda Gray Sexton's novel Rituals, and it is awful. Let me just say: her mother's genius with a simile did not transmit down through the generations. Think Valley of the Dolls set among rich Harvard girls in the 70s, the kind of chicks you find blotto at the Ritz and smoking Thai stick by the family pool. You get the idea.

Friday, August 29, 2014

In my newfound solitude, I managed to crank out many pages of uranium editing, finish the syllabus for next weekend's poetry retreat, and harvest all of my potato plants. What a relief.

So today, after another batch of editing, I get to go outside and decide what to show at the Harmony Fair exhibit hall. I'm thinking of sunflowers . . .

. . . and perhaps dahlias . . .

. . . and possibly pickling cucumbers, or yellow potatoes, or cherry tomatoes, or chard . . .

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Today is the first day of school. Tomorrow the Harmony Fair opens. In the meantime, I have a day to myself, the first in months--not that I will be writing poems or anything. But even though I will spend my hours editing and preparing for next week's workshop, I will be alone, and that fills its own craving.
When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.
Thank Wordsworth for that apropos description of my sensations. There's less ease in Emerson's remark: "Solitude, the safeguard of mediocrity, is to genius the stern friend." Still, I'd rather risk mediocrity than have to spend my morning nagging a kid to do his math homework.


In other news, here's today's uranium history update: "A guest editorial in the San Juan Record asserted that 'all that dust people complain about coming from the [uranium] mill' was being exaggerated and might actually be a positive outcome because 'dusting takes up our wives’ time . . . [and] keeps [them] in better physical condition.'"

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Yesterday I mowed an enormous amount of lawn before 8 a.m. Today I get the mowing day off: just bread baking and laundry washing and boy driving and uranium-book editing. [Did you know that in the 1950s in the Colorado Plateau you could enter a Miss Atomic Energy pageant? Afterwards you could eat at the Uranium Cafe.]

This morning the corn is nine feet tall and the sunflowers are blooming riotously. I am thinking about poems and the ocean and the plunging hawk that almost bashed in the windshield of my new car. I am coaxing myself not to be cranky with my son, who did various aggravating 16-year-old boy things yesterday. Let bygones be bygones, I tell myself [but he'd better get that summer math packet finished and remember to charge his phone so that his mother doesn't have to spend 5 hours waiting for him and drive 80 miles out of her way].

On the bright side, I've just discovered that my sister is planning a 50th birthday party for me in October. And where will she be holding this party? In Franconia! A nine-person weekend at the Kinsman, beer at Schilling's, and finally a chance to show my boys Robert Frost's front porch. Also, finally a chance to hike at the Notch, which I've never done because I'm always working when I'm in the White Mountains. It will be lovely.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Today's temperature is supposed to approach 90 degrees. Why, all of a sudden, is Maine getting this heat? Apples are ripening, trees are turning, the light is shifting, and the weather feels like Philadelphia's. Ah, well: it's a last chance to wear my summer dresses and eat coconut popsicles three times a day.

This weekend I will be arranging vegetables at the Harmony Fair; next weekend I will be teaching on Star Island in New Hampshire; the following weekend my band plays at Pat's Pizza's Oktoberfest night in Dover-Foxcroft; and then I'll be heading to New York to read at the Verdi Square Festival of the Arts. That's a funny list of obligations, isn't it? In the meantime, I'll be editing and driving to soccer practice. You know: I haven't canned one single thing this summer . . . not a pickle, not a jar of jam. I have frozen a number of raspberries and a few green beans. I hope I'll eventually be doing tomatoes, but it's conceivable that I won't. And if I don't, this will be the first time in decades that I haven't loaded those basement shelves with winter produce. My life appears to be changing, incrementally but inexorably. I have become the kind of woman who might not can tomatoes. I'm not sure how I feel about this.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Just yesterday Tom was chainsawing firewood and I was tearing out weary garden plants. Today the forecast tells me it will be 85 degrees here in the northlands. Summer is over but not over.

This morning my older son heads off to begin his third year of college. He spent his last day in Maine climbing a mountain with two of his best friends from childhood, and in the evening we all ate a big summer dinner: fried chicken, biscuits, watermelon salad, cucumber salad, and rootbeer floats. Today, the boy and his father will drive south with their truckload of stuff, and his brother and I will drive north to soccer practice, and all of us will feel odd.

Here's a poem by my friend Baron, a poem I've always liked because it captures my own sense of the way in which we cling to our tenuous, temporary seasons.

Poem for My Son

Baron Wormser

Each time you connected I strode among junipers
And ankle-twisting stump-holes to where it seemed the ball had landed.
You waited and gave occasional directions:
"In front of the apple tree. To the right of the boulder, I think."
Before each pitch arrived your boy's body grew taut.
You were like a green snake--lithe, patient, concentrated.

In spring, the hardball's plummet
Ended in a soggy plop. Grounders skidded rather than bounced.
In summer there were wild strawberries--
The tiniest winces of fruit sugar.
We lolled in the modest northern heat and watched
The grasshoppers inherit the earth.

Sometimes while throwing the ball I critiqued
Your swing: "The most difficult of physical feats,
Hitting a baseball." Or I chattered: "The game was not invented
In America but evolved like a--"
You were correct to interrupt. Pleasure wanted
The uncanny knack of concentration: not bearing down too hard
Nor assuming valiant strength would right all flaws.

You rarely flailed in vain. Eventually, you could have
Started for any school team, but we lived too far away
From the practiced accuracy of diamonds.
Whatever was to be learned, in all its green amplitude,
Had to be done there, on a sloping, runneled field.

[from Mulroney & Others (Sarabande Press, 2000)]

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Tarte aux framboises des bois du Nord

This is a fairly standard French-style berry tart. I followed Julia Child's recipe for crème pâtissière, in this case using vanilla as a flavoring, though if one could buy kirsch in Harmony, Maine, I might have used that instead. Unlike Julia, I do not add sugar to my tart shells, and I use all butter instead of her shortening-butter combination. This recipe does require a prebaked shell, which for a change came out perfectly: not a slump or a bump. Next time I won't be so fortunate.

The raspberries are from my garden, so that's what I used this time, though I've also made good versions with blueberries and strawberries. Julia's tart recipes call for an apricot-jam glaze over the fruit, but I've never liked handling that gloppy mess. So I lightly brushed the berries with local maple syrup, and the result was beautiful: a delicate shine that didn't darken or weigh down the fruit. I'll always do this from now on. I imagine that if I wanted to intensify the maple flavoring, I could beat some into the crème pâtissière. That variation might be a good choice for a summer-apple or a pear tart.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Having survived the first cut for varsity soccer, Younger Son joyously leaped out of bed at 6 a.m., ate several slices of cold pizza, and chortled all the way up to Dover-Foxcroft, where he'll be playing in the preseason soccer tournament. Elder Son is still in bed, procrastinating slothfully before he stalks off to his last summertime pizza-cooking stint. [You no doubt are beginning to draw pizza conclusions here: yes, Younger Son is the garbage disposal for Elder Son's leftovers.] I plan to do absolutely no editing today . . . mostly because I'll be spending a good portion of it driving the chortler back and forth from the tournament but also because I just don't feel like it. What I do feel like doing is making a French raspberry tart and reading more Denise Levertov poems, and what I ought to do is vacuum and clean the bathroom. But maybe none of it will get done. Maybe I will drink more coffee and do crossword puzzles. This day is already shaping up to be a day of nothing in particular. Sorry you got the brunt of the Blog-Post-That-Need-Not-Exist, but maybe it will make you feel better about your own indecisive Saturday.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Here's a new review of Same Old Story, which has arrived to cheer me up here in the Land of No Time to Write Poems.

And now I must re-embark onto the Editorial Sea of Really Complicated Footnote Problems. I'd better to stop writing to you and go back to work before I starting getting all Ahab about them.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

This time next week, both boys will be back at school. The house will be quiet. Autumn light will be filtering through the fading maples, and the wild geese will begin to gather themselves into their sharp celestial formations. For now, though, we are still four people sharing one bathroom, a perpetually emptying fruit bowl, and a coffee pot in constant use. I am trying to work in the interstices, but the interstices are few.

I wrote a long letter to you yesterday, but today I have no such fervor. This morning I am wondering when my corn will be ripe and how many more days the raspberry crop will last and if the grass will ever stop growing. I am trying to reread Peter Mathiessen's Shadow Country, a narrative of sweat and mosquitoes and murder and tropic heat and fear and painful beauty, but my sons keep calling up the stairs: "Come look at this!" "Do you want more coffee?" "Want me to set up your phone?" "Guess what happened in the Red Sox game!" "I hate what's going on in Ferguson!" "Can Sam come over?" Do not think I am complaining. I have sons who seek out my company: what could be more flattering? But there is no solitude in this tiny house, and there will not be any, until there is too much.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Landscape, Justice, Activism, Ambiguity: or Where Do Poems Come From?

I'm editing a mesmerizing yet distressing book about uranium production in the Colorado Plateau--a book that mentions, for instance, that "industry privatization, de- and re-regulation of related frameworks, and corporate self-monitoring are just some of the neoliberalized traits of the uranium industry." (Always good attitudes, eh?--and even better when radioactivity is involved. Ay yi yi.) But the author also talks about the clear class divide between the people who live in a region that depends on natural resources as an industry and the people who campaign for those natural resources as vital and important in their own right. I see this in the north woods as well: the ire that erupts between fourth-generation loggers and activists who want to turn working forests into parks. Yet, of course, the locals are always getting screwed by the corporations; the locals always live at the whim of the market; the locals are always the ones left with the Superfund sites and the cancer clusters.

One might claim to perceive a clear right and wrong in such situations. But the people of a region have more than economic ties to the natural resources they are hired to dig up or cut down. They are culturally bound to that labor: by family and community history, by stanza and story. Without mining we would have no Clementine. Without logging we would have no Paul Bunyan. Do stories matter when a landscape is at sake? No, and yes.

To me, such deep ambiguities are self-evident, but they are not so obvious to many activists. I say this as a person who almost always supports progressive causes, both environmentally and socially: I am a staunchly liberal voter. But I also recognize that, in large part, the fracking haters and wolf lovers do not live on the piece of land that will be directly affected by fracking or wolves. Those activists who do live there are often relative newcomers, not people with long cultural ties to the region. Does this make their arguments wrong? No, of course not. But these activists often tend to assume that the locals who cling to an industry are serfs cowed by corporate greed rather than individuals with histories and perspectives.

It is painful to be a poet who lives on both sides of this divide, and I have found myself writing so much about these people who are me, and also not me. My poems solve nothing, but at least they allow me to map the complications.

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)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I promised you a comic interlude from the Subaru dealership, and here it is:

Picture Dawn and her two young men test-driving a ridiculously well appointed mid-sized sedan--one of those cars that feels like driving a couch. Picture one of those young men fiddling with the ridiculously powerful stereo system and coming across a My Bloody Valentine song, which he then proceeds to blast from the twelve surrounding speakers. Picture the three of them laughing hysterically as they tool up and down the roads and through the parking lots of the Bangor Mall. Our conclusion: what a great song.

It was the sort of car that none of us will ever own, but we spent an extremely enjoyable ten minutes in it. The rest of the experience was a more typical stressful oh-my-God-what-am-I-thinking-argh-car-salesmen-argh-prices-argh-dickering-argh-argh-argh-and-now-Paul-is-almost-late-for-soccer-practice-and-he-hasn't-eaten-lunch kind of day. But we did manage to come home with a Subaru Impreza: a car that does not drive like a couch but is a million times nicer than the aging vehicle that stranded me on the side of the road with a one-armed tow truck driver last month.

Now back to work.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Today is my parents' 52nd wedding anniversary. So here is a small song for them--a poem from my first collection, Boy Land (Deerbrook Editions, 2004).


Dawn Potter

It was darker then, in the nights when the cars
came sliding around the traffic circle, when the headlights
speckled with rain traveled the bedroom walls
and vanished; when the typewriter, the squeaking chair,
the slow voice of the radio stirred the night air like a fan.
Of course, the ones we loved were beautiful—
slim, dark-haired, intent on their books.
The rain came swishing against the lamp-lit windows.
The cat purred in his chair. A clock sang,
and we lay nearly asleep, almost dreaming,
almost alone, nearly gone—the days fly so;
and the nights, like sleep, disappear without memory.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

There's a sense of late-summer bustle here in Harmony. The boys are getting ready to go back to school. The cucumber plants are overflowing with spiny fruit. Mushrooms are springing up in the forest, and the ferns are yellowing. The maples are sporting their first red leaves, and the robins are haunting the berry bushes. The season is rushing to its death.

Meanwhile, I am heading north on this rainy morning to play music at Stutzmans' Cafe in Sangerville. It's been a while since I've performed anywhere, and I'm slightly anxious about my ability to dredge up lyrics. Fortunately this is the kind of gig where everyone is too busy eating to concentrate on the musicians. So when I get the words wrong, the audience will be indifferent.

And tomorrow--dare I say it? Believe it or not, I am going car shopping. Stay tuned for comic updates from the Subaru showroom.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

I was on the lake this morning, drinking coffee from a thermos, eating fresh cranberry-oatmeal scones, and watching herons and loons and red-winged blackbirds and a sweet baby turtle who plopped into the shallows as soon as I spied him.

And now the idyll is over, and it is time for Tom to deal with the broken toilet and for me to shave acres of extra-long grass with a wonky push mower.

But we have a dish of ripe tomatoes on the counter and a feast of cucumbers in the garden. The sunflowers are blooming in a riot of red and gold, and vast clouds are sailing over the rippled fields.

Shakespeare wrote:
And every fair from fair sometime declines, 
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd
And then I wrote:
For every fair does vary in her temper, 
as every course, in changing, is retrimmed

Friday, August 15, 2014

Last year, when I drove past the general store in West Danville, Vermont, I found a collection of Rilke's letters in the fifty-cent book bin. This week I found the novel Rituals by Linda Gray Sexton. And, yes, this Sexton is the eldest daughter of that Sexton.

The volume bears a copyright date of 1982 and is packaged as if someone hoped it would have early-80s bestseller potential: busy oversized display fonts, a misty airbrushed cover illustration of a pink-tinged young woman with Pat Benatar hair. She is gazing coyly at a houseplant. Without question, the design contains a soupcon of first-edition Danielle Steele (minus the semi-naked ravishment), but this is how the flap copy summarizes Rituals:
It is Christmas Eve. Kat Sinclair sits in her mother's place at the head of the table, twirling her wine glass and observing the ritual holiday feast around her. She appears to be an independent young woman who has coped surprisingly well with the sudden death of her beautiful mother nine months before. Kat has stepped in and taken charge, despite the discovery of certain peculiar documents in her mother's desk--secrets half-revealed that threaten family myths.
I read that summary and then opened the book to the usual disclaimer ("All characters in this book are fictional and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental"), at which point I burst into laughter and immediately bought the book.

Understand that my laughter contained a large dose of rue alongside the disbelief. As of 1982, most of Linda Gray Sexton's recorded accomplishments were shadows of her mother. The flap bio in Rituals tells me that she had also published a nonfiction work titled Two Worlds: Young Women in Crisis and had edited Anne Sexton: A Portrait in Letters as well as her mother's posthumous collections: The Complete Poems, Words for Dr. Y, and 45 Mercy Street. How does one lead a literary life as the daughter of Anne Sexton? Not easily.

After I finish reading Rituals, I think I will store it on the bookshelf next to Otto Plath's Bumblebees and Their Ways.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Band from the Beer Garden (1948)

Dawn Potter

We played in rain, we played in snow, we played by lantern light.
Our fingers ached, our throats were raw.

Every night we sang all night.
Then, at dawn, under a blood-streaked sky,
under those scarred and dangerous stars--

how the winds rocked the car,
how the roads misunderstood us!

I don’t know who we thought we were.
I don’t know why we thought
we were anybody at all.

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

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Heading back to Maine today, through the wind and the rain. But you could read some new Rilke comments while I'm driving / being terrified by Paul's driving.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Vermont summer:

Sunset over the Green Mountains, mist over the Adirondacks; boys of all ages playing pickup soccer in the gloaming while two black spaniels tear over the grass after their own balls. Cold sangria and brandywine tomatoes hot from the garden. A rabbit beside the road, a lake as large as a bay, a silver bridge. Eighteenth-century ruins, one hundred seagulls huddled on a dock, a school of starlings banking in the sky, blueberries and ice tea and chanterelles, a red-winged blackbird in the hedgerow.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Because today will be the kind of day devoted to all-ages (8 to 74) X-Treem mini-golf, I have to drink a lot of coffee beforehand so will not be able write much. However, I am hoping to have many observations to share with you at a later time, if the Internet is working at my parents' house this evening, which is not a given, because (a) their connection stinks and (b) my father has the habit of turning off the router while other people are using it.

Imagine me under the hot sun, with a small plastic putter and a cheating nephew: e.g., dreaming of cold beer.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

* The boys and I are heading west to Vermont for a few days . . . the last hurrah of summer before J goes back to college and P dives into preseason soccer practice. I'll talk to you along the way.

* I've been rereading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I still love this book, and I still laugh at the characters and the conversations, and I still can't understand any of the logic jokes.

* Is there another reading project you'd like to do together on this blog? (Don't say Ulysses.)

* How did your garlic do this year? Mine is the best ever, but I still can't seem to grow onions that get any larger than teaspoons. Leeks, yes; scallions, yes; onions, no. Why?

* Next year I'm growing a lot more kohlrabi because I invented a delicious salad and now I don't have enough materials to make it. However, I might also try this with raw turnips.

Kohlrabi Slaw

Peel as many little purple kohlrabi (kohlrabis?) as you can find. Then peel a carrot or two. Using a mandoline or a grater, shred them all into a bowl. Add 1 large clove of garlic, pressed; a lot of chopped fresh cilantro; a soupcon of rice vinegar; a dash of olive oil; coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. If your family is like my family, they will complain because I didn't make enough.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Two decades ago, in the autumn after my oldest son was born, I walked by myself into the woods, and I sat down on a log, and I said to myself, forming each word with deliberation, "It's time for you to realize that you will never be a writer. It's time for you to find something else to do."

Two decades ago, I thought my dreams of a vocation had sputtered and died. I had been writing mediocre stories, I was unable to finish drafts, I was receiving rejection after rejection (with good reason; the stories weren't worth publishing), I had no writing friends or mentors. . . . The fact that I also had a wailing colicky infant didn't seem to be any part of the issue. I'd already been writing bad, unfinished, unpublishable stories before he was born. It wasn't his fault that I was hopeless.

I had intentions about that walk into the woods. My deliberate face-the-facts announcement to myself was meant to be a step toward honesty; I would shed my illusions so that I could move on into a prosaic adulthood. But it was a horrible moment. I remember so distinctly the sensation that I'd emptied myself, like a glass; poured the dregs of myself into the leaf litter below my feet.

This morning, two decades later, I look back at that moment and see that I was trying to do something brave. And perhaps that ritual emptying was truly what I needed. Perhaps, by shedding one illusion, I made space for the unknown to enter my life . . . the unknown that turned out to be poetry. I was telling myself to live in the present: to change these diapers, to wash these plates, to milk these goats. They were the stuff of my days, and they were also my poetry, but I didn't know that yet.

I received an email yesterday, in which my correspondent, whom I don't know personally, cited various reasons for why I might be interested in a particular job: "your experience, savvy, ideas, ambition, strong sense of purpose, and just the right degree of gravitas, not to mention sense of humor, that this work requires."

Gravitas! Savvy! The words make me laugh. I am the person who falls over chairs.

Yet I can't stop thinking of my 29-year-old self, sitting on a log in the woods, murdering her daydreams. Someone needs to put their arms around that girl, and let her cry.


P.S. More comments are appearing on the Rilke entries. If you're following along with that project, you might want to continue the conversation.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The CavanKerry Press blog is featuring "Notes from a Traffic Jam," a poem from Same Old Story. I know I posted it here at some point in the past, but now you can read it in an entirely different font.

My Manhattan reading has been set: September 23, at 7 p.m., at the First Republic Bank, at 78th and Broadway. Have you ever gone to a poetry reading at a bank? I haven't either. So that in itself is a reason to attend. Plus, I'll be reading with Jeffrey Harrison and Howard Levy, who are both outstanding poets and Jeff is even kind of famous.

With sadness, I announce the final dissolution of the band formerly known as String Field Theory. Our missing member's hiatus has become permanent, and the rest of us have spent the summer feeling depressed. However, on Wednesday evening the trio reconvened and decided to keep playing together. We'll probably perform as Doughty Hill, the name of Sid's road and a monicker that has covered many permutations of band personnel over the years. I'll let you know how things work out.

On a more uplifting note: a CavanKerry staff member has suggested that I consider working with another artist to create a new version of my long fairy-tale poem "The White Bear" . . . an illustrator, perhaps, or an animator, or a puppeteer, or a choreographer. I am intrigued and excited by this idea, but don't exactly know what to do next. How do I find any of those people? How do they find me? What are your thoughts about this suggestion?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

I spent much of yesterday copying out the poems of Denise Levertov. She is a poet whose work I have known but not known; and as the summer wanes and I am beginning to feel myself opening again into my own work, I thought I'd see if she might be a door. She is.

Here's the opening of "For Instance":
Often, it's nowhere special: maybe
a train rattling not fast or slow
from Melbourne to Sydney, and the light's fading,
we've passed that wide river remembered
from a tale about boyhood and fatal love, written
in vodka prose, clear and burning--
Levertov is a poet who trusts the twists and turns of her sentences; a poet of elegy and moral rectitude, with a graciousness of gaze; who forgives and does not forgive. I copied out her poems, and outside my window two crows argued; a mob of bees bumbled among the thyme flowers; the cat tore apart a frog.

"Once a woman went into the woods," writes Levertov, in "Sound of the Axe."
The birds were silent. Why? she said.
Thunder, they told her,
thunder's coming.
If the birds were silent, who were "they"? The poem has no interest in answering that question.

Today will be another day of cloud and sun and rain and wind. The heavens are chaotic this week. The clothes on the line have been wet for three days, and the lettuce in the garden is coated with mud. I am trying to be a good girl, to do my work, to extract patience, though I am too old to be a girl. I imagine cultivating a fine carelessness.

"Everything is threatened," writes Levertov, in "In the Woods,"
                 but meanwhile
everything presents itself:
the trees, that day and night
steadily stand there, amassing
lifetimes and moss.
For now, the air is quiet, but already clouds arrange their formations, a regimental swirl blotting the hapless blue. I should close my eyes and work.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet," letters 9 and 10

Your doubt may become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become critical. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perplexed and embarrassed perhaps, or perhaps rebellious. But don't give in, insist on arguments and act this way, watchful and consistent, every single time, and the day will arrive when from a destroyer it will become one of your best workers--perhaps the cleverest of all that are building at your life.
This passage from letter 9 spoke to me intensely. I have struggled all my life with doubt, with second guessing, with ambivalence: it has taken me most of my years to begin to see this behavior as "one of [my] best workers--perhaps the cleverest of all that are building at [my] life." Rilke is right: it's been important to "train" doubt--to "demand proofs from it." In the sphere of writing, doubt is where revision comes from. In the sphere of being a plain aging human being, doubt is where empathy and patience come from, but also the ability to stand away from the tumbling crowd of assumptions and declarations and say, "Wait a minute. Something is wrong."

At the same time doubt is so debilitating, and pervasive, and endless. I never learn not to doubt--for instance, when Rilke writes, in letter 10, that "art . . . is only a way of living." Yes, I think, and then I read on, about unreal "half-artistic professions, which, while they pretend proximity to some art, in practice belie and assail the existence of all art, as for instance journalism does and almost all criticism and three-quarters of what is called and wants to be called literature." Is that me? Am I part of that "three-quarters of what is called and wants to be called literature"? Doubt here becomes a nearly unbearable burden. Though I am not at all suicidal (do not worry, do not worry), I feel the necrotic pang: why bother to exist if one is only in "pretend proximity" to the art one has been working so hard to live for and within?

Anyway, those are my thoughts. My edition of the Letters includes Kappus's reactions to each of them, which I have decided not to read. I'm not very interested in listening to him contextualize Rilke's words. For some reason, the idea reminds me of those poets who stand up in front of a microphone and read a poem and then afterwards waste time explaining what the poem was about, what really happened, etc., etc.--a readers' tic that drives me crazy because it distracts me from the poem into sideshow storytelling. But you should feel free to follow your own predilections.

By the way: a few new comments have appeared on previous Rilke posts. Scroll down and see what others are thinking, and keep the conversation going.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Things that make me happy

1. Yesterday, my perpetual insomnia finally caught up with me. In the midst of cooking, I staggered and said, "I can't do this anymore." Then I lay down on the couch and went to sleep for an hour. When I woke up, I found out that Tom had finished making dinner, washed the dishes, done everything. This is how long-married people figure out that they still love each other.

2. This week three friends sent me notes about about their reactions to Same Old Story. Even though this collection has received very few public reviews, I have never had so many serious personal responses to anything I've written. They take the sting out of the generalized ignoring. In fact, they almost make me forget it.

3. Yesterday, my older son's oldest friend turned to me, without irony and with immense sweetness, and said, "Thank you for being my second family."

Monday, August 4, 2014

August 4 is the anniversary of the sighting of a supernova in Cassiopia (1181), Dom Perignon's invention of champagne (1693), publication of the first edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (1855), Custer's opening clash with the Sioux (1873), Lizzie Borden's arrest (1892), and Elvis Presley's release of "Hound Dog" (1956).

It is also the anniversary of several events that never really happened:
The death of Mrs Maidan occurred on the 4th of August, 1904. And then nothing happened until the 4th of August, 1913. There is the curious coincidence of dates, but I do not know whether that is one of those sinister, as if half jocular and altogether merciless proceedings on the part of a cruel Providence that we call a coincidence. Because it may just as well have been the superstitious mind of Florence that forced her to certain acts, as if she had been hypnotized. It is, however, certain that the 4th of August always proved a significant date for her. To begin with, she was born on the 4th of August. Then, on that date, in the year 1899, she set out with her uncle for the tour round the world in company with a young man called Jimmy. But that was not merely a coincidence. Her kindly old uncle, with the supposedly damaged heart, was in his delicate way, offering her, in this trip, a birthday present to celebrate her coming of age. Then, on the 4th of August, 1900, she yielded to an action that certainly coloured her whole life—as well as mine. She had no luck. She was probably offering herself a birthday present that morning. . . .  
On the 4th of August, 1901, she married me, and set sail for Europe in a great gale of wind—the gale that affected her heart. And no doubt there, again, she was offering herself a birthday gift—the birthday gift of my miserable life. [from The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford; the ellipses are his.]

Ford contrived most of his novel's August 4 coincidences--but not all of them. In the early 1990s, as I was reading The Good Soldier for the first time, I came across the passage above . . . and realized that the date was August 4. I've never quite recovered from that jolt.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

I am busy all the time, but I feel as if I have nothing interesting to say to you. I know you don't want to hear about the War of the Mice.

On Friday I finished editing a book about Oppenheimer. Next up is a poetry collection, followed by a book about uranium mining, and then (as a break from the atom) a book about Audre Lorde. It's been a long time since I have been so booked with books.

Today I plan to vacuum and launder and weed, finish reading Frost Place graduate projects, and look at the moon. Have you seen the moon lately? On Wednesday night, when I was standing by the side of the road, watching a one-armed man tow away my car, the moon was a curl of orange peel. Last night, as I sat on the couch eating whipped cream and raspberries and staring out the window, it was a cap, pale and fog-laced.

I hope it doesn't look like this:

The Waning Moon

Percy Bysshe Shelley

And like a dying lady, lean and pale,
Who totters forth, wrapp'd in a gauzy veil,
Out of her chamber, led by the insane
And feeble wanderings of her fading brain,
The moon arose up in the murky East,
A white and shapeless mass.

Saturday, August 2, 2014


Dawn Potter

When the historical process breaks down and armies organize with their embossed debates the ensuing void which they can never consecrate, when necessity is associated with horror and freedom with boredom, then it looks good to the bar business.
                        --W. H. Auden

Illegal after 8 p.m. (we don’t tell them
cops will mosey by from the doughnut shop
and drag them off to Rikers,
but they like to believe it anyway),
the boys have taken over the bar.  A few hip

passersby peer in through the rain-crazed plate glass,
then scuttle on at the sight of Paul, front and center
in his brand-spanking-new superhero cloak,
hogging the empty dance floor, while James bellies up
to a third root beer and hashes out a few good

subway routes with Ray the bartender.
He, from a far corner of his eye,
watches customers vanish into the fog, veiling not very
completely his anxiety and regret, though possibly
he doesn’t attribute them to these underage freeloaders.

It’s a mother’s privilege to assume
that her children cause more trouble in public
than anyone else’s, but he, childless,
has only his business to worry over:
maybe the “Commonwealth” sign isn’t pretty enough,

the gloss on the bar not seductive enough under the artful
candles: so when out of nowhere a laudatory egg
whacks the righthand window with a noise
like Christopher Robin’s popgun,
his alarm, premeditated and ready for anything,

flings him into the street to examine the goo
just like a regular fussy, pissed-off, middle-aged,
responsible gay man lamenting the goddamn
lack of respect kids today have for other people’s property.
Lingering inside on our shiny barstools, we friends

of his youth are bemused and, despite the free beer,
obscurely regretful that Ray, last bastion of irresponsibility,
has finally taken to muddled bourgeois worrying
like the rest of us.  The boys, always eager for fun,
rush out after him to exclaim over the mess,

no doubt pestering him with inscrutable “whys?”
and milling underfoot while he hauls out the Windex
and scrubs out the evidence, then smokes
yet another Camel in hopes of recovering the equanimity
that seems to have permanently deserted him

since the bar opened last Saturday.
The boys fizz and hop in the drizzle; smoke hovers
over the trio like a portable cloud, and at the bar
we friends of his youth, lovers and ex-lovers, in permutations
hardly worth discussing these days, consider them

as we might examine a Soviet-era inspirational poster
or a silent movie clip, all the subtitles screaming at us
in 1920s gangster slang, funny and unfamiliar
and vaguely frightening. Our eyes meet.
Now that Ray’s grown up, what’s next?

Fear, trembling, Kierkegaard all over again,
there’s just no escape from foreboding,
even in a freshly painted bar in Brooklyn,
good beer, sweet friends,
and kids old enough to stay up after dark

without turning into Robot Monster.
Quick, shove terror under the counter
before the secret-agent man shows up
to muscle Paul off to war in his little black cloak,
shred James’s heart, hand round needles for comfort,

pistol-whip the faggot new neighbor:
for it’s Ray’s fate to hold this fort,
stare out his polished window at the drinkers
who trickle in from the midnight rain
longing for happiness, a shot of Jägermeister,

a chattering crowd of seekers,
insomniac and wild, every one of them
doomed to a private, lurking future.
The hour’s arrived: Buy the boys
two tacos apiece, wipe sauce out of their hair,

toss them like spoons into sleep.
Yes, love, love, the same old bedtime story:
but say it again, who knows?—
joy might send up a flare
bright enough to read by, at least for a minute.


While trolling through some old unpublished poems, I found this piece, dated 2004. It has its flaws; but if nothing else, it captures those those days when I finally began to let myself go sentence-wise. That marked a big shift in my writing: the poems began to run, in ways they hadn't before.

Friday, August 1, 2014

[Newspapermen] did not feel it so necessary to assume an objective tone in our reporting [in the 1870s]. We were more honest and straightforward and did not make such a sanctimonious thing of objectivity, which is finally a way of constructing an opinion for the reader without letting him know that you are.

      --from E. L. Doctorow, The Waterworks

Beyond is a brightness
I am not equal to

Yet what I see
Turns into what I want

     --from Sophie Cabot Black, Bird at the Window

I'm not sure that these extracts have anything to do with one another, but both struck me this morning, as I sat here trying to forget how much of my day I've already devoted to dealing with an ear-infected poodle, a rascally cat, and an ex-mouse who spent his last hours dancing incontinently over my kitchen counters. [I wonder if I am the first person to turn "incontinent" into an adverb. I think I should also be the last.]

It's a cool morning: a scant 50 degrees and overcast, as usual. The angle of daylight is autumnal, and we've only reached the first of August. My feet are cold, and already I am thinking about firewood, yet the corn has only just now come into tassel and the tomatoes are still green.

Next weekend the boys and I are going to Vermont for a few days, to visit my family. Then J goes back to college, and P goes back to high school, and I begin another round of travel. First, I'll go to Star Island in New Hampshire to teach at a retreat, and then I'll go back to New York City. Yesterday I was invited to read at the Verdi Square Festival of the Arts, alongside a handful of my favorite poets. I am so pleased. I will go to the city by myself this time--nine hours south on two buses, a clutch of books on my lap. The leaves in the parks will be yellowing, and I will kick them with my boots. I have voyaged so much this season, as the weeds in my gardens will testify. But the travel has been good for me . . . my thoughts en route; my eyes, watching.

Someday I'll write poems again; I can feel them burgeoning. In the meantime I read and look out the window, and work on other people's manuscripts. I try to remind myself that editing is like playing scales: I may not be writing my own poems or essays, but I am thinking hard about writing. I am listening to sentence cadence and paragraph structure and line breaks and the breath of commas. I try to remind myself that all of this is nourishment. The paycheck is nourishment also.