Friday, October 31, 2014

Last night, as I sat fuming in the high school parking lot, waiting for student actors whose rehearsal was running an hour late, I was fully aware that my irritation was fueled not only by the fact that I have a son whose phone is never charged, turned on, or in the pocket of the pants he is wearing but also because I have been ignoring my own desperate need to write something, anything, that doesn't belong to someone else.

I think, sometimes, about what John Fowles said when he was writing about his trajectory as a novelist: “I had been deliberately living in the wilderness; that is, doing work I could never really love, precisely because I was afraid I might fall in love with my work and then forever afterwards be one of those sad, faded myriads among the intelligentsia who have always had vague literary ambitions but have never quite made it.” Compared to most of my peers, I have had considerable time and space to do my real work. I've written a number of books and composed thousands of poems and essays. Since the age of six, I have been reading and reading and reading. At the same time, I like teaching, and I like editing, and I think I'm good at both of these jobs. To a certain extent, I disagree with Fowles: I think that my day jobs do feed my private work. For a writer, editing other people's work is like playing scales and etudes: technical practice, a way of staying sharp, but also an education in coming to terms with the necessities  and confusions of another writer's individual style.

Still, it is service work, tending to another person's manuscript. Like teaching, the task is give, give, give; and as Fowles pointed out, it is easy to borrow that absorption as an excuse for giving up on one's own ambitions as an artist. Creation requires a deep selfishness--not at every moment of the day, not even at most moments. Nonetheless, the selfishness is imperative. Finding balance is a thin phrase for this ruthless juggling of time and attention, obligation and desperation, mine and yours, come here and go away.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

It's another one of those mornings: Boy misses the bus, Dog and Cat are tumbling up and down and up and down the stairs, "Ziggy Stardust" is stuck in my head.

Tom is frying eggs. When I complain, "Why 'Ziggy Stardust'?" he asks, "Are you from Mars?"

Dog and Cat, in a frenzy of happiness, crash among the table and chair legs. Boy, who is supposed to be folding his laundry, sits on the edge of his bed sniggering at his iPad. Fog peers through the windows.

"Just because I'm from Earth," I tell Tom, "doesn't mean I've always got Earth, Wind, and Fire songs stuck in my head."

All of which explains why, 20 minutes later, I'm wasting time watching a video of "Boogie Wonderland," which, by the way, features outfits that out-glitter Ziggy's and serve as a reminder that Mars and Earth have much in common.

And now enough of this silliness. Go back to work.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Soccer season is over. The boys suffered a big loss last night, Paul cried, his girlfriend held his hand in the car, I drove into the dark. I thought of correcting the comma splices in that sentence, but semicolons are too heavy, periods too final. It is autumn, and perhaps autumn is the season of splices--fallen leaves underfoot, high school boys weeping, a World Series game sputtering on the radio, the eyes of cats glinting on the roadside. This is the season of Blakean sunsets, jagged clouds splashed with lemon, salmon, plum. Startled sparrows fly up from the grass as the cars pass, and threads of smoke rise from the chimneys of window-lit farmhouses, tidy ranch houses, collapsing trailers. A month from now, at the strike of a shovel, the earth will ring like a tamped bell--muffled, ironbound. Branches will crack and sigh in the cold. Today, the long grass glistens, it peeps through a blanket of gold, it shines in the rain, but the air is dark, I cannot see the grass, I only know it is there, I only imagine the shine. On a late autumn morning, morning comes late. Paul has gone back to bed, unable to face school today, exhausted by his tears. Oh, the small tragedies of our lives. They feel, as we live them, as large as the large ones.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Paul, 2nd from left, with big hair and black sweats

Today is my younger son Paul's 17th birthday. He was a shy boy who struggled with social interactions, especially with adults--a child who very often chose to stay in his room organizing his baseball cards by nationality of last name, or dressing up as Weasel Man, or listening to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I look at him today, and I see all of those early activities reflected in his motivations, interests, and obsessions. He loves music and theater and growing his hair into a stylish mop; he thinks hard about literature and politics; he is a dedicated teammate and a sweet and romantic boyfriend. He has struggled hard to manage his shyness but has learned to channel it into performance and conversation. He has learned to read other people's needs and reactions. This past weekend, when we went to Hampshire to visit his brother during parents' weekend, Paul turned to me, without provocation, and said, "Mom, you look much younger than 50," as if he thought I might be anxious about my age, surrounded as I was by bastions of hippie parents. It was a silly moment, and we laughed, but it was a tender moment too--a child working to take care of a parent.

I think most parents of small children imagine that their tiny dependents will grow up and away from them. They envision a looming emptiness. And, yes, children do necessarily leave home and develop independent lives. But they also become your best friends. There's no one you know better, who knows you better. They are teasing chatterers who raid your cupboards for coffee; they are peaceable companions on the living room couch; they are idealists and satirists, sharers of worry and excitement. I am so proud to know them.

Spring on the Ripley Road

Dawn Potter

Knick knack, paddywhack,
Ordering the sun,
Learning planets sure is fun.
                        —Paul’s backseat song

Five o’clock, first week of daylight savings.
Sunshine doggedly pursues night.
Pencil-thin, the naked maples cling to winter.

             James complains,
             “It’s orbiting, not ordering.

Everything is an argument.
The salt-scarred car rockets through potholes,
hurtles over frostbitten swells of asphalt.

             James explains, “The planets orbit the sun.
             Everything lives in the universe.”

Sky blunders into trees.
A fox, back-lit, slips across the road
and vanishes into an ice-clogged culvert.

              Paul shouts, “Even Jupiter? Even foxes?
              Even grass? Even underwear?”

Trailers squat by rusted plow trucks;
horses bow their searching, heavy heads.
The car dips and spins over the angry tar.

               James complains, “I’m giving you facts.
              Why are you so annoying?”

The town rises from its petty valley.
Crows, jeering, sail into the pines,
and the river tears at the dam.

               Paul shouts, “Dirt lives in the universe!
               I want to be annoying!”

Everywhere, mud.
Last autumn’s Marlboro packs,
faded and derelict, shimmer in the ditch.

               James says,
               “When you get an F in life,
               it’ll be your own fault.”

[From Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014). P.S. The final line should align with the rest of the stanza, but Blog says no.]

Monday, October 27, 2014

Sometimes, in my grumpiest editorial moods, I think the primary difference between a poet and a scholar of poetry is that poets learn to be better writers by reading poetry, and scholars don't.

Why devote a dissertation, even a career, to the work of a particular poet--a person you consider to be a great artist worthy of intense, obsessive study--while simultaneously cranking out reams of undigested prose flecked with faddish pomposities hideous to ear, eye, and intellect? In the midst of that clot, your quotations from the poet shine like eyes in the dark. There she is, ready to teach you clarity of word choice, cadence of phrase, originality of thought; but you pay no attention. You are wrapped up in your so-called thesis, which devolves into some version of "Watch me show you what the poet meant! You will be impressed!"

I am not.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Yesterday began at 5 a.m.; took an 8 a.m. break for a victorious playoff soccer game in Waterville; stopped at noon for lunch at a noodle house in Portland; sat in stalled traffic at 2 p.m. behind a drawbridge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; sped through 3:30 shopping traffic in Lowell, Massachusetts; squinted into the 4:30 sun on the switchbacks in Shutesbury; pulled into an illegal parking space at Hampshire College at 5; kicked rocks on the euphonious stone plaza of the Yiddish Book Center at 6; rumbled over potholes to grandmother's house at 7; ate seafood risotto at the Monkey Bar till 9:30; and fell asleep over a Netflixed episode of Star Trek before 10:30.

Today will entail driving Son #1 to Home Depot to buy supplies for his sculpture project, driving Son #2 to a college tour, and driving back to Maine so that Son #2 can finish the homework he forgot to bring along.

In other words, my life is a Reader's Digest Condensed Books version of "Six Days on the Road."

Friday, October 24, 2014

On Tamka Street a girl's heels click.
She calls in a half whisper. They go together
To an empty lot overgrown with weeds.
A watchman on duty, hidden in the shadows,
Hears their soft voices in the bedding dark.
I do not know how to bear my pity.

Or how to find words for our common plight.
A little whore and a worker from Tamka.
Before them, the terror of the rising sun.
Later I would ask myself more than once
What became of them in the coming years and ages.

--from Czeslaw Milosz, A Treatise on Poetry


Yesterday, as I was doing Frost Place paperwork, I had occasion to answer a question that I myself had posed to the other faculty members of the Conference on Poetry and Teaching: "What poets/books have you been reading lately, and why?" Here was my answer.
Presently I am rereading Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Short Stories, Denise Levertov’s Selected Poems, and Robert Hass’s translation of Czeslaw Milosz’s book-length poem A Treatise on Poetry. All of these writers focus on civilian life during World War II: Bowen and Levertov in England, Milosz in Poland. For each, the damaged homeland, in terms of both landscape and civic integrity, becomes intensely important, narratively as well as lyrically. People are their place, for better or worse; and while the change that physical damage necessitates may sometimes be salutary, it also creates moral chasms within individuals and the nation.
Beyond their common themes, these three writers share an intense patience with both the tools of language and their own imaginative visions. I’m trying to absorb as many lessons from them as I can.
That public response is far more patient and measured than my inner response is.
I want to write like them, I want to see like them, I want to channel suffering into necessity, I want to speak what must be spoken, I want

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Yesterday's best Milosz quotation--
Perhaps it was not for nothing, the soldier's blood
Darkening into small stars beneath a birch.

Yesterday's best baseball news--
Ha! Royals won!

Yesterday's sweetest moment--
Cuddling on the couch with a giant almost-17-year-old, and, what's more, the cuddling was his idea, which made the moment even lovelier [although Ruckus did barge in and insist on cuddling as well, so there we were, trapped under the cat, who sociably bit us until he changed his mind and decided that he liked an empty bag better].

Yesterday's best email--
D, I just last night finished Same Old Story. WOW--it's one of the best books of poems I've read in a long while! I adore how it's grounded in myth & fairytale, as even the "non-mythological" poems absorb those flavors and ring with that kind of magic. 
BRAVO, my friend! I'll be recommending this to all who will listen.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Whoever, in this century, forms letters
In ordered lines on a sheet of paper
Hears knockings, the voices of poor spirits
Imprisoned in a table, a wall, a vase
Of flowers. They seem to want to remind us
Whose hands brought all these objects into being.
Hours of labor, boredom, hopelessness
Live inside things and will not disappear.
The one who holds the pen, to whom this world
Of things is given, feels uneasy, is afraid.
He tries to achieve a childish innocence,
But the magic had fled from magic spells.

That's why it was that the new generation
Liked these poets only moderately,
Paid them tribute, but with a certain anger.
It wanted to stutter programmatically,
For a stutterer at least expressed a sense.

--from Czeslaw Milosz, "The Capital: Warsaw, 1918-1939,"
in A Treatise on Poetry


The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote his book-length poem, A Treatise on Poetry, in 1955 and 1956. The section I have quoted is from part 2, which, in the words of Robert Hass, "describes Warsaw and makes an assessment--almost poet by poet--of the state of Polish poetry in the first three or four decades of the century, particularly of its failure to account for the reality that overwhelmed that city."

Imagine an American poet undertaking such a task! I fear the result would be either cruel or banal. And how would one choose the poets?

Hass, a well-known poet in his own right, translated the Treatise into English in tandem with Milosz himself. Their version was published in 2001, nearly fifty years after the original Polish version first appeared. I wonder what it was like for Milosz to translate this work of his youth into a language that is so sonically different from Polish. According to Hass, "the [original] poem is written in a rather strict meter. The English equivalent would probably be a plain, regular, and forceful blank verse. It also breaks from time to time into more lyric forms. . . . To give some sense of the surprise of these forms, it would have been desirable to find English equivalents. But because their tone is often complex and because they have philosophical bearing in the poem, it also seemed desirable to hew fairly closely to the literal meaning, at least in this first English translation."

I wish I could find a recording of Milosz reading this or any other poem in Polish. But I've heard enough Polish on the soundtracks of Kieślowski films to imagine the way in which the soft-crisp collations of consonants might wrap themselves around the vowels, the way in which two- and three-syllable words--stressed as loud-soft and soft-loud-soft--would dominate the cadence of the lines.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Today's post is late because I was off drinking morning coffee out of a beautiful blue and white cup with a friend whom I haven't seen for months, and we had a lovely, lovely time, so the question is: Why don't I drink morning coffee with my friends every week instead of hardly ever?

Among other things, we discussed poetry translation, and now we are thinking of choosing a couple of my poems and experimenting with an English-French translation. To the best of my knowledge, none of my writing has been translated into anything other than Pig Latin, and it would be so interesting to see how a shift into French might change a poem's sonic impact. I am sure I will be very surprised.

Czeslaw Milosz: "First, plain speech in the mother tongue. / Hearing it you should be able to see, / As if in a flash of summer lightning, / Apple trees, a river, the bend of a road."

Vladimir Nabokov: "Better a crude word-for-word translation than the prettiest paraphrase."

Monday, October 20, 2014


Dawn Potter

And on her mind is all the waste
and the waiting, and the pain
of wanting someone to listen
to the pain she can’t talk about, like how her lover
is a drunk, and how she is afraid
of time and of her mind
circling its mud-wrenched, idiot track.
And meanwhile a neighbor expires
in a strange bed, little birds
flutter in the bony lilacs,
            her lover slides another blank-faced bottle
                        under the torn seat of his pickup.
Wind blunders among the empty branches,
            raking their frail tips against a livid sky.
                        Another hour lost, she thinks, but hours later,
in the medicated dark, her mind
and what’s on her mind keep ticking, ticking,
stupidly ticking on.

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


Yesterday evening I received an email from Wesley McNair, Maine's poet laureate, who is organizing the project Poets in Public, a collection of short films featuring a number of Maine poets who will be reading and talking about their work. I'm very happy that he's chosen to include me among these poets, and even happier about the note he sent to me, in which he said that he thinks that Same Old Story "is a wonderful collection, a breakthrough volume." One of the poems he liked best is the one I've just reprinted . . . though it is such a sad and defeated poem, the characters trapped in their fates. I wrote it at a point of community misery: sudden death, persistent self-destruction, the dooms of age and aging. It was one of those poems that I spoke of in yesterday's post--a poem that surfaced from the dark underneath, into which the details that I transcribe every day (lilacs, birds,  pickup, wind, sky) entered as a sort of chorus behind the human pain.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The temperature dropped precipitously overnight, and this morning I started a fire in the wood stove. Today is the day to tear out sunflowers, dig up dahlias, plant garlic, haul brush, stack firewood. I've been reading the short stories of Elizabeth Bowen, still reading Levertov, still not exactly writing yet, but filled with the sensation of words blossoming. I will be patient. I keep telling myself this, and someday it may be true.

People often tell me, after I tell them a story, "Oh, that should be in a poem!" and maybe it should, but I can't write poems in that anecdotal way. The poems may be stories, but they surface from somewhere beneath story.

This morning I am drinking black coffee and watching the last of the browning maple leaves float down, down from the near-naked twigs, and I am struck again by the way in which my persistent need to describe what I see is not the same as my internal, explosive need to make a poem. I don't want to write a poem about those leaves, but those leaves might turn up in a poem. Perhaps this difference isn't clear as explanation, but I feel it.

I love Sundays, when everyone else is still asleep, and the early light filters through the early air.

The wood stove clicks. The small birds flock to the feeder. I have written down these details a thousand times; and here they are again. But they are not my poem. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

White dawn. Stillness             When the rippling began
     I took it for sea-wind, coming to our valley with rumors
     of salt, of treeless horizons. But the white fog
didn't stir; the leaves of my brothers remained outstretched,

--from Denise Levertov, "A Tree Telling of Orpheus"


A fellow poet inquired, in a general Facebook way, about why many women find the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice anti-feminist. He was puzzled but genuinely interested. The answer, in a general Facebook way, was that Orpheus was objectionable because he was forcing his dead wife to do what he wanted, which she herself may not have wanted to do: that is, return from the underworld and live with him again.

Reading their responses, I wondered what I'd been overlooking in this myth, which I have read and reread since childhood, and which has always seemed so intensely sad. And I realized, of course, that I have always identified with Orpheus rather than the shadowy Eurydice. It is the love and the loss that pulls me, and to me this seems to have nothing to do with gender roles, only with the intensity of the myth's delineation of character. Eurydice is not an interesting person in that story. She is a cipher, a symbol, a mist. I felt as if the women who responded to the Facebook question believed that the myth should have been a different myth.

What do you think?

Friday, October 17, 2014

A couple of new reviews have surfaced. I was very pleased to discover that A Poet's Sourcebook received a 5-star review in the Portland Book Review . . . and that's in Oregon, not Maine, which makes me even happier.

Moreover, my friend and colleague Teresa Carson has posted a review on Same Old Story's Amazon page. It's actually a snippet from the introduction she gave to my 2014 reading at the Frost Place--an introduction that practically had me in tears.

There's no friend like a friend who understands what a poet barely understands herself.

Meanwhile, the rain continues to fall. Meanwhile, I continue to read. And listen. And wait.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A steady rain is falling this morning, and the air is hurricane-heavy. Yellowing leaves gleam in the low light. A pair of chickadees taps at the feeder tray. On the rug at my feet, the poodle sighs in her sleep.

I expected to be on the road today, but my meeting was postponed; so here I am, standing at my desk staring through wet window glass into a sopping forest instead of driving for six hours in a downpour.

A few thoughts are sifting through my mind: crass ones, such as "I wonder if any of you might be willing to write an Amazon review of Same Old Story," but also tender ones, such as "I miss my college boy," which I am doing, quite intensely, at this moment.

Aren't there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
                     Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
            More often
those moments
    when roads of light and storm
    open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
                                      God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes. 
--from Denise Levertov, "Annunciation"

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The novelist Henry Green, as I know I've mentioned here before, has become one of the touchstone writers of my life. But I'd never heard of Green before I read a John Updike essay about him in the New York Review of Books. Perhaps I read that essay a decade or so ago. Whatever the date, my first meeting with Green was long past adolescence, when I bonded with so many of my other prose infatuations.

What attracts me to Green is the way in which his writing stays so firmly in the world of his characters' physical present, yet each description is tense with the unspoken--longing and loneliness; childhood and death. The characters seem almost stupid sometimes, yet they are not, and what is clear, always clear, is that Green loves them, and his prose--so oddly contorted, so extraordinarily patient--is a way of delineating that awkward tenderness.

Here is a description from his short novel Party Going. The character is named Julia, and she is walking through a dense London fog to the train station.
Then at another turn she was on more open ground. Headlights of cars turning into a road as they swept round hooting swept their light above where she walked, illuminating lower branches of trees. As she hurried she started at each blaring horn and each time she was reassured to see leaves brilliantly green veined like marble with wet dirt and these veins reflecting each light back for a moment then it would be gone out beyond her and then was altogether gone and there was another. 
These lights would come like thoughts in darkness, in a stream, a flash and then each was away.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

This is the view from the top of Bald Peak, just over the Franconia line in Easton, New Hampshire. To get to Bald Peak, you walk out the front door of the Kinsman Lodge, turn left, walk past the tennis camp, prevent your 8-eight-old nephew from dropping his borrowed ski pole down a storm drain, turn left again, find the trail head, and walk uphill for two miles.

At the top of the mountain, you ply your 8-year-old nephew with gorp, prevent him from galloping over the cliff edge, and put your hat back on because there's a brisk wind rippling across the notch and the clouds are moving fast.

At Delphi I prayed
to Apollo
that he maintain in me
the flame of the poem
 --from Denise Levertov, "The Prayer"

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Kinsman Lodge is full of dog guests who sound very funny (especially the corgis) as they bustle up and down the hall outside my room. This morning the fields outside my window are coated with frost, so all the dogs and their dog walkers must be cold as they stand around on their early morning back yard outing. I have no idea if these dogs have met before, or if this is a coincidental situation, but there are at least five dogs in this inn, though possibly I have lost count and there are more.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Sometimes I see funny things at a high school soccer game.

And sometimes I see beautiful things (with the funny things tucked into a corner).

Fortunately I did not see any ambulances.


Tomorrow we head west for a weekend in Franconia--my first-ever visit when I have not been working. I don't even know how to get to the park, let alone what I can do there. In theory, I'm planning to climb many heights; but a large family party spanning the ages of 8 to 74 will undoubtedly entail aches, whining, passive-aggressive reluctance, teenagers who won't get out of bed, a sudden and inconvenient need for lunch,  bossy eye rolling, the refusal to wear appropriate clothing, and chaos. I'm sure it will all be noteworthy.

P.S. 17-year-old wins the Nobel Peace Prize! Hurray for young people!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

I'm gearing up for another session of wrestlemania, which is what my son's soccer teammates have been calling this afternoon's game with the opponents chronicled here. Wish us all luck. We'll need it. In the meantime, I have bread to bake and a batch of honey mushrooms to clean, slice, saute, and freeze. I do love the wild mushrooms of October.

I'm also working, of course--editing a book about Audre Lorde and checking proofs of my own book, The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet, which is getting closer and closer to publication. I hadn't reread those chapters since last winter, so I was worried that I might have learned to hate them. But you know, they're not bad; they really aren't bad. Here's a bit from chapter 1, which eventually moves on to a study of Shakespeare's sonnet 81.

What’s the Most Important Word? 
On the surface, this is one of the simplest questions a reader can ask about any poem. Words are words: any English reader, however innocent or sophisticated, can identify them, react to them, and talk to each other about them.
            Words are also a poet’s solid artisan materials, which she grasps and throws down and grasps again as she struggles to construct a poem out of silence. In this way, making a poem is very much like building a stone wall. Poets create something out of nothing; they use words to shape what has, till now, been wordless. “How should this grief be properly put into words?” is how Roman poet Horace chose to open his ode “To Virgil.” The way in which he wrestled with that question is the way in which he created the poem.
            So when a reader asks, “What’s the most important word?” she’s starting to think about a poem as a poet thinks about it. She’s also starting to realize that her answer is impermanent. Great art, unlike so much else in our daily lives, requires us to come to terms with our own fluidity. As a reader becomes more familiar with the poem, her choice may change. As she grows older, her choice may change. As she experiences some momentous event in her own life, her choice may change. These shifts are themselves part of the ongoing poetic conversation; in some sense, they become part of the poem itself. A reader with a long, intense relationship with a particular poem might even agree with Adrienne Rich, who wrote in “Images of Godard” that “the moment of change is the only poem.”

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

I was walking in the forest, on a dim afternoon, hunting for mushrooms. Ruckus and the poodle were with me--the poodle dashing joyously ahead, Ruckus engaged in top-secret cat stuff in the brush. Suddenly a barred owl sailed silently through the tree trunks. It was close enough to touch, though I did not touch it. The owl rose and then folded itself onto the limb of a tall birch tree beside the pond. And there it sat, for as long as I watched it, a vivid mothy shadow in the faded daylight, looking down on the three of us, considering us as dinner prospects, I suppose. I picked up Ruckus, who was the only one of edible size, and I looked up at the owl, which looked down on me--tamely, one might say, or indifferently.

In The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer writes of owl mythology. He not only records the common tale of the witch's familiar but notes that eating an owl's eyes is said to give a person the power to see in the dark. He also speaks of the owl's place in the traditions of "many tribes of South-eastern Australia," where "each woman believes that the lives of her mother, sisters, daughters, and so forth, equally with her own, are bound up with the lives of particular owls, and that in guarding the owl species she is guarding the lives of all her female relations besides her own."

But if anything, the owl I saw was guarding me. Or it was planning to eat my cat. The interaction was mysterious; it was both beautiful and ominous.
                                          Well, I would like to make,
thinking some line still held taut between me and them,
poems direct as what the birds said,
hard as a floor, sound as a bench,
mysterious as the silence when the tailor
would pause with his needle in the air. 
--from Denise Levertov, "Illustrious Ancestors"

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

From a November 1840 essay [title unknown] by Walt Whitman, age 21:
I have sometimes amused myself with picturing out a nation of loafers. Only think of it! an entire loafer kingdom! Give us the facilities of loafing, and you are welcome to all your benefits of your tariff system, your manufacturing privileges, and your cotton trade. For my part, I had serious thoughts of getting up a regular ticket for President and Congress and Governor and so on, for the loafer community in general.
[Having loafed for a good portion of my fifty years on this earth, I can tell you with authority that loafers make terrible politicians. Do not elect us.]


I apologize for not writing yesterday, but honestly, I was both exhausted by the essay I posted on Sunday and overwhelmed by the response. Thus far, that post has received more than 200 visits--by far the largest number that any of my posts has ever received. But writing it did wear me out, and I'm not sure why.

So now I'm off to spend my birthday in the most mundane ways possible: dealing with the guy who's arriving to replace our rusty propane tank; doing three loads of laundry; sitting beside a soccer field in the rain. Loafing, in other words . . . which, in Whitman's terms, also means that I am laughing and crying and watching and explaining and questioning and describing and exaggerating and saluting you, my dearest reader. Thank you for your bright and loving friendship.

[Helpful remark from my friend David: “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.” – Kurt Vonnegut]

Sunday, October 5, 2014

On Turning Fifty

In two days I will celebrate my fiftieth birthday: a half-century spent clinging to the surface of this rolling planet, a half-century spent sleeping and waking and crawling and walking, a half-century spent--and still spent--as the little child of my parents. This last may be the oddest thought. In two days I will celebrate my fiftieth birthday, and my parents, as they do every year, will telephone me, and call me "Bunny," and reminisce about the day I was born. In two days I will celebrate my fiftieth birthday, but I am still an innocent because I am not yet an orphan.

When I was ten years old, I cringed at the thought of age. "How could such a thing happen to me?" I scoffed. Today, on the cusp of fifty, I look back at my small protoplasmic self with affection but not envy.

The short answer is: I love being alive.

In two days I will celebrate my fiftieth birthday, and I have so much to celebrate: the human connections, of course--my family, my lovers past and present; the dear friends of my heart; an open book under lamplight and music under my fingers. And the land and the animals, of course--a yellowing plum tree glowing in the drizzled morning light; the blue-eyed cat asleep in a wooden box on the windowsill.

But the world is not only beauty, not even mostly beauty; and celebrate is the wrong word for what I want to describe here, which is nothing that my ten-year-old self would have understood in any conscious way: that is, the power of being awake to ugliness and despair and grief; of attending to them, both as internal definition of the self and as trenchant conditions of life on earth.

I read somewhere, I forget where, that it's not a poet's job to fix the world. It's a poet's job to see the world and then use her artisan skills to reveal it sharply, poignantly, personally, universally. This is the bardic impulse, a way of reading Shelley's claim that poets are the "unacknowledged legislators of the world." At the same time, we swim in our own cramped and cluttered seas. We look out of our own windows, and see our own plum trees. We weep over our own losses.

I love being alive. But being alive means losing everything, slowly or suddenly, violently or peacefully. It exacts a terrible price, this gift of existence.

"Poetry has a vested interest in sorrow," wrote Robert Frost, yet that vested interest is, in its own way, a version of celebration. We seize sorrow; we examine, imitate, replicate, exaggerate it. We do not let it go.

In two days I will turn fifty. The sun will rise. A barred owl will float silently across the clearing. I will wake in a small bed, next to a warm and breathing body. "One day," as Jane Kenyon wrote, "I know it will be otherwise."

Otherwise arrives, and will arrive, on tender infant feet, and on the cloven hooves of the devil. It arrives, and will arrive.

In two days I will turn fifty, and I am lonely for the loves I have already lost. But I celebrate them too, because I miss them, because I cast and recast their shadows in my heart. The faucet drips in the kitchen. A car swishes by on the wet road. I am here. My eyes and ears have not yet stopped sponging up the busy, petty, present tense. Words flow from my fingers; a clumsy song searches for its shape.

The short answer is: I am alive.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Notes on yesterday's post:

The confusions in Vanzetti's statement exist in the official record, yet they are subtle enough to ignore if one is in the mood to convict a man.

Antheil's noisy ballet was apparently a shock. So why didn't the traffic sounds in Gershwin's 1928 American in Paris also upset contemporaneous listeners?

Barbara Kulbacki was my great-grandmother. My grandmother was one of the five hungry children. My mother went to her senior prom with the son of one of the girls next door. He grew up to be the foremost proponent of Middle Eastern dance in the United States, and he and his mother are the subjects of another poem in the manuscript.

I have an intense image of Chiang Kai-Shek "rub[bing] the top of his head with both hands."

Friday, October 3, 2014

Week in Review (1927)

Dawn Potter

BOSTON, MASS., April 9—
Bartolomeo Vanzetti explains to the judge,
“I would not wish
to a dog or to a snake,
to the most low and misfortunate
creature of the earth—
I would not wish to any of them
what I have had to suffer
for things that I am not guilty of.
But my conviction is
that I have suffered
for things that I am guilty of.”

NEW YORK CITY, April 10—
Premiering tonight at Carnegie Hall,
George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique
features full orchestra and the sounds
of elevated trains, aeroplanes, and canneries.
Thus far the audience is highly displeased.

The funeral of Mrs. Barbara Kulbacki, age 42, of Everson
will be held at St. Joseph’s Church
at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning.
Now, on this rainy evening,
as new grass flourishes among the chinks and crevices of the street
and the Syrian girls clatter pot lids in their next-door kitchen,
her five children still huddle in the cold bedroom above the store.
Eventually someone will remember to feed them.

Well before dawn streaks the eastern sky,
Chiang Kai-shek frowns.
He rubs the top of his head with both hands.
And now he shrugs and tells Du Yuesheng
to go ahead and let his Green Gang
start slaughtering all the Communists
they can find.

[from Chestnut Ridge, a verse-history-in-progress of southwestern Pennsylvania (and, in this case, the world beyond the mountains)]

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Driving home from band practice can be exciting, and I'm sure that all my Frost Place friends will be thrilled to learn that I finally saw a bear last night. It crossed the road in front of my car and, in the wonky shine of the headlights, bore a striking resemblance to a cartoon gorilla. However, I'd already had an exciting animal sighting just minutes before: a Scotch Highland cow (long horns, thick bangs, physique of a stuffed animal) looming out of a driveway like a hairy mailbox.

I had such a good day yesterday. The Chestnut Ridge ms is finally in groomable order, by which I mean that I've found a thematic structure. However, the ms is far too long and it's boggy and dull in places; so what I need to do now is delete poems, move the rest around, combine sections, break sections--all regular revision stuff, but much easier now that I've got a shape in my head. This work may or may not begin to happen today, but even if it doesn't, the shape exists and will persist, and that is a great happiness.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Yesterday I read and sang and baked bread and read and sang and revised poems and sorted poems, and it was all such a relief. Today will be more of the same, and how aware I am of the need behind these desultory acts.

In time of the crises of the spirit, we are aware of all of need, our need for each other and our need for ourselves. We call up our fullness; we turn, and act. We begin to be aware of correspondences, of the acknowledgment in us of necessity, and of the lands. 
--Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry
And this was the song I was singing over and over . . . and my son, too: he was singing this song, with me and alone. And then he played it for my husband, and the three of us stood in the darkening kitchen and the song sang to us.