Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Now that I (temporarily) have no children at home, I am noticing new and unexpected behaviors . . . and not just leaving-the-bathroom-door-open-while-taking-a-shower stuff. Sleep, for instance: for two decades I have been a very early riser, even in the darkest months of infant sleep deprivation. But for the past several days I have stayed in bed past 6:30 a.m., which may not sound late to you but is unusual for me. I don't feel as if I'm on holiday time: I have editing projects and plenty of yard and household demands. More, it's as if I've shed a carapace. For six weeks, I will have no close responsibility for the food, laundry, schedule, emotions, of anyone beyond Tom and myself. It's like shifting from 3-D to 2-D, and the change seems to require extra sleep.

Another interesting development is music. Tom and I used to play records all the time while we made dinner or otherwise hung around together. That petered out, and now I realize why. When the boys are draped around the living room, casually doing this or that with their devices, talking/watching/sharing what they're watching with me/talking/watching, the ambient addition of Dinah Washington or Stereolab or Booker T. and the MGs or the Ramones is sensory overload. They leave the room, and then our social interaction ends.

But now that I'm in 2-D, I've automatically, without knowing I missed them, started playing records again. It's been a lovely readjustment.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Monday morning, bright and wet after a Sunday of steady rain. The house is very quiet--children away, living their own lives for a few weeks, and Tom outside, packing his truck for work.

Despite my residual bone-weariness, the two of us have spent a sweet, companionable weekend together. On Saturday we cooked outside on the new brick firepit Tom has just built, and then we set up a card table next to it, with a blue-checked tablecloth and a pair of red candles that wouldn't stay lit, and we ate hamburgers and roasted onions and roasted asparagus in the twilight. Last night, we discussed living-room renovations and imagined owning a couch without giant holes in it. Then we ate tuna steaks and farro topped with fried sage. As you can see, food is a regular feature of our honeymoons. And one other nice thing? Tom asked me if I'd like to sign up for an afternoon fresco workshop with him. Neither of us knows anything about making frescos, and it will be lovely to be mutually ignorant.

Two decades spent tag-teaming with children, and now we have six weeks to pay attention to each other. Forgive our giddiness.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

This week's conference may have been the most intense one I've ever attended . . . not because anything went wrong but because so many participants were fragile, vulnerable, fragmented, transitional--family troubles, work exhaustion, artistic distress. We came to the Frost Place knowing, even as strangers, that we craved each other, and when we got there we cried.

Yet the experience was not New Agey or touchy-feely-smiley or in any way fraudulent or contrived. We engaged in intellectual struggle, and I am so tired from the intensity of our reading that I have barely been able to pick up a book since I've been home.

So much of this week hinged on improvising amid the circumstances of the participants' inner lives, and naturally, now that I am home, I am still pining for my partner in this task. So here's a picture of Teresa and me. Teresa's title is associate director of the conference but her real job in Franconia is to be my wise-cracking New Jersey mirror, my intuitive partner in the art of improvisational teaching, my example and my relief.  With Teresa I am not only a better teacher but a better person.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

This morning I'm heading west to the Frost Place--to drizzle, fog, and mosquitoes; sunshine and bright grass; ghosts and woodchucks; poets and lupines and stacks of books; to bats flitting in the half-dark. I'll write you a letter if I can.

Friday, June 19, 2015


As the Republican bigwigs and their media flunkies puff and gasp over what Rick Santorum calls "an assault on religious liberties," as the New York Times primly notes the existence of an argument that "assailants who are white are far less likely to be described by the authorities as terrorists," at a moment when the legal term hate crime is being used to whitewash the fact of racism, as a young white man wearing pro-apartheid badges walks into a black church in South Carolina and reportedly tells a Bible study group, "You are raping our women and taking over the country," and then murders nine people, six of whom are women, three of whom are elderly . . . you are raping our women and taking over the country! . . . as an intensely idiotic young man murders nine innocents, as the Confederate flag still flies in the state of South Carolina, as my own state of Maine loosens its concealed-weapon laws, as terrorists are only terrorists if they have dark skin, as racists aren't called racists, as schools and churches become morgues, as I imagine what it must feel like to have raised this young man, who is exactly the same age as my older son, as I realize it probably feels like nothing I would ever recognize because how else did he get that way except to absorb the stupid lessons of his stupid world? . . . a young man who can tell three old ladies you are raping our women and taking over the country and believe that he is talking sense . . . and as I stand here, trying to create some order out of these chaotic clauses, trying to move this sentence to some conclusion, I know that I have no hope of ending it because the idiocy goes on and on, because even the governor of South Carolina, the daughter of Sikh immigrants, a woman whom a former lieutenant governor once publicly denouced as a "raghead," won't scream Racism! Racism! Racism! because she's a Republican politician and Republican politicians don't use that word in public if they want to get reelected.

Poet Audre Lorde wrote, "Strong women / know the taste of their own hatred." And my hatred is strong right now.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

My essay about heartbreak, "Speaking of Sorrow," is featured on Vox Populi today, alongside work by John Keats, Frida Kahlo, and Doug Andersen . . . "a Vox Populi day devoted to sadness," as the editor said in his note to me.

His comment makes me think of Frost, who wrote that poets have "a vested interest in sorrow." So it's coincidental that this piece appears just before I leave for Franconia. I had been toying with reading it there: something about it felt right for the spirit of Frost's barn.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

At about 3:30 a.m., after letting the cat out and going back to bed and then getting up again half an hour later to let the dog out and then in again, I lay sleeplessly in bed watching daylight creep up over the edges of the trees, listening to a barred owl murmur, "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?--awww," hoping that the owl wasn't considering the possibility of eating my cat, admitting that the cat probably deserves to be eaten, falling into a thin slumber that cascaded into a dream about moving out of a dormitory, trying to pack my belongings into a golf cart [why?], noting that my belongings mostly seemed to be loose scraps of clothing [a topic connected to my waking life] and dishes of dog food [a topic connected to my waking life] and majorette batons [what the hell?] . . . and then the 5:15 alarm went off.

It's Paul's last day of school: summer vacation begins at noon. I like to imagine that I'll be sleeping in tomorrow, but a restless young cat and an incontinent old dog make that scenario unlikely. At least I won't be making school lunch, fixing breakfast, forking the snoozer out of bed, reminding the snoozer to get out of the shower, and so on and so on. There's more to summer vacation than dreaming about majorette batons.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Sorry I've been so late and/or absent for the past few days. I've been rushing out of the house for early-morning appointments, working to get all the picky little stuff done (haircuts, oil changes, etc., etc.) before I leave for Franconia on Saturday . . . and also working to organize my son, who will be heading off to a six-week summer theater program on Sunday, and who will not remember what he ought to remember to pack, unless I remember it for him before I leave.
Satirical Ode for a Sloppy Teenager
There once was a young man from France
Who neglected to water his plants.
One day, in a quandary,
He mistook them for laundry
And wore them instead of his pants.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Sunday Morning Canoe Trip

At 7 a.m. Tom and I got into his truck and drove down to Great Moose Lake, which is about 5 miles away, on the other side of town. He'd loaded the canoe the night before, so all we did was make a thermos of coffee and pack up some leftover potato salad for a picnic breakfast.

We paddled into the marshy side of the lake, close to the entrance of Higgins Stream. The area is bayou-like, and nesting birds love it: we saw loons, black-headed ducks, red-winged blackbirds, and, just as we were about to pull into a sandy cove for breakfast, an eagle.

The eagle was hopping back and forth along the beach, like a parrot on patrol. Occasionally he stopped to snack on something unidentifiable or to stare at us in disgust. We did not see his mate, but I assume she was in a nest in one of the tall conifers behind him. We could have paddled in closer, but I was afraid. Even a crabby swallow can be alarming, let alone a crabby bird of prey with a giant hooked beak and sharp toenails and a six-foot wingspan.

So instead we had breakfast on a lovely little spit of high marsh, next to this elderly beer can.

Here is our view. Missing are the fifty or so red-winged blackbirds flitting back and forth among the grasses. Also missing are the croaking bullfrogs and the mink that Tom saw but I didn't.

Then I went home and baked bread and mowed grass and pruned a lilac bush and washed the car and made chocolate chip bars and made pizza and watched television and went to bed. It was a very non-literary day.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The novels of Anthony Trollope are often treated as Victorian-lite, even though he deals with many of the same social and psychological issues as his canonized fellows do (Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell). But his touch is jauntier. His focus is always on figuring out how to put up with the way things are.

Up to this point, my favorite Trollope novels have always been in his Barchester series--tales of the political complications and secular lives of provincial Church of England vicars and their families. But last summer, wandering through a used bookstore, I took a notion to bring home Phineas Finn, and this spring I finally got around to reading it. As soon I finished, I ordered its sequel, Phineas Redux, and this is what I have to say about these very odd yet conventional novels:
  • Phineas is a handsome young member of Parliament whom all women adore. But he is neither grandly indifferent to his good looks nor a villainous Casanova. Instead, he is bumbling, well meaning, honorable, confused, embarrassed, susceptible--aware that women love him but doing his best to negotiate that awkward truth.
  • The most intense love passages in these novels involve women over the age of 30.
  • The married woman who throws herself at Phineas is treated with sympathy, tact, and respect. 
  • Phineas falls in and out of love with numerous women. He is affected by beauty, money, political connections, and sweetness. He loves the women who love him first and who aren't afraid to show it.
I can't think of any other Victorian novels that deal with love in this straightforward, worldly, yet very humane way. No one could call them erotic, but they do acknowledge that older women fall in love, that love isn't maidenly, that women can ask men to marry them, and that a person can be in love with more than one person at a time. Doesn't this seem remarkable?

Friday, June 12, 2015

June in Harmony

Because I can't stop swooning over these peonies, you have to put up with two flower photos instead of one. Half-open, they look like pale-pink silk ball gowns held up by a flurry of petticoats. Usually, my peonies are smashed by a hailstorm before I can bring any of them into the house. I got lucky this year.

This is peppermint, hung up to dry so that next winter it can feed my older son's peppermint-tea habit.

For years I only had purple lupines. Now I suddenly have pink lupines. Ah, the mysteries of genetics.

This is a forest of garlic.

The rest of my garden is considerably less forest-like. On the bright side, it's really easy to weed.

Strawberry flowers. Hurry up, berries.

First, you throw an old potato into the dirt. Then you wait for three weeks until you see a few wizened shoots thrust through the soil. Within days they unfold into vigorous green leaves. The process is like reverse aging.

Here is the swing that no little boys swing on any more. So I have to. Otherwise, the swing would be lonely.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

In a little more than a week, I'll be returning to Franconia for the opening of the 2015 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. I've been busy preparing for it--writing faculty introductions, working out schedules, finalizing lists of this and that, dealing with last-minute problems, etc., etc.--but I haven't yet started thinking about my own reading in the barn.

It's always tempting to try out new things during Frost Place readings. Year after year, I am reminded that there's no sweeter or more attentive audience in the world. So I may read prose this year, or a few raw poems, or maybe even a blog post or two. If there's anything in particular you'd like to hear, please let me know.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

On Murder, Schools, and Spring

After another night of rain, the clouds have vanished and sunlight is glinting off the dripping maples and lilacs. It is a beautiful day for a manhunt, which is what is going on in my part of the world. Earlier this week, two little children walked into their house and found their mother dead, and now several dozen cops and game wardens are combing the woods for her ex-boyfriend, whose "long rap sheet," according to the Bangor Daily News, "includes convictions for kidnapping, assault with a dangerous weapon, terrorizing, assault, tampering with a witness, trafficking in prison contraband and several violations of conditions of release. . . . He eluded police for two weeks in 2002 before being found in a camp in [the local town of] Willimantic, where a standoff ensued." Not much has changed in this man's approach to the world.

Meanwhile, the birds are singing and the citizens of Harmony have rejected the school budget as too expensive, though it already includes drastic cuts in staff and student services. Apparently many people in this town are comfortable about damaging the prospects of our next generation of citizens, not to mention the present-day livelihood of the friends and neighbors already slated to lose their jobs at the elementary school. Ignorance and selfishness rule the day, yet nothing could be lovelier this morning than my strawberry plants, beaded with rainwater and loaded with fat white blossoms.

Last night Tom and I went up to the high school to watch our son receive a Latin award. Before the presentation, his teacher told the audience that, since the school's founding in 1823, its curriculum has continuously included this language. For 192 years, the children of farmers and loggers, store clerks and nurses, river drivers and carpenters, factory workers and unemployable women have been conjugating Latin verbs and scrawling clumsy translations of Horace. I wonder what words lingered in their minds or on their lips, in the days and years and decades after they had left school.

In his own smooth and easygoing translation of Horace's Satire I, the poet William Matthews wrote:
Now I'm back where I began, noticing how
no greedy man can be content, but praises
the lot of others, sulks because his neighbor's
goat's got a more bloated udder, and compares
himself not to the majority of men
but to the rich and famous. In that race
you're always breathing dust. The chariots
burst from the starting gate, and each driver
strives after those ahead of him, who pay him
no heed, nor does he think of those who chase
the clatter and clods of dirt his horses cause.
No wonder it's rare that one of them will claim
a happy life or, when that life's sped past him,
resign like a thankful guest who's eaten well.
Earlier this week, two little children walked into their house and found their mother dead. Never again will she sit on a hard chair in a school gymnasium, missing her dinner just for the pleasure of watching a teacher tell her children, "You did a good job." No, she's dust, and her children are breathing dust, and wherever that ex-boyfriend is right now--holed up in someone's musty abandoned camp or careening down the paper-company roads in another stolen truck--I guarantee he's breathing dust too.

But the hillsides are thick with lupines--pink, white, purple--and the sky is as blue as an eye. It's a beautiful day to die, or to weep over your mother, or to lose your job or your teacher. A beautiful day. So let us be angry, and let us also mourn. As the poet David Ferry wrote in his translation of Horace's Ode I:
It may be you who needs these rites someday,
And they may be disdained, O passerby.
Let us thank those who have striven against evil and ignorance--those who, throughout the history of earth, have loved the lives around them. In the words of Horace, let us "pray for a new song."

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

I finished a draft of a poem yesterday--a day when I should have been editing, but isn't that always the way? I rarely feel as if I'm doing what I ought to be doing. When I'm editing, I think I should be writing; when I'm picking peas, I think I should be dusting lamps. I wish I could flip the switch on whatever it is in my brain that keeps shouting, "Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!" But perhaps this is creation at work: the brain's purposeful misdirection, the second-guesses and mixed signals, the unfinished cul-de-sacs, the quarrelsome thickets draped with poison ivy, the old cellar holes and the straggly rhubarb plants by the vanished door--

As Frost writes in "Directive,"
The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry-- 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Yesterday I went up to the high school to watch a friend's child graduate. Seventeen years ago, her mother and I were pregnant at the same time, so we had our baby showers together. But Sue's daughter was born before the kindergarten-entrance cutoff date and my son was born after it. So he is home for another year, even though the two are nearly the same age.

I watched the second and third basemen on Paul's championship second-grade Farm League team graduate. I watched a friend's child give the valedictory speech--a child I have known since toddlerhood, when she ran around with my little boys among the calves and kittens on her family's dairy farm while Tom built her father a new cow barn.

All these little children who aren't little children any more! How easy it is to wax sentimental over the passage of time, yet in truth I spent much of their little-childhood wishing they would stop crying or falling into the mud or demanding food or breaking stuff or having nosebleeds all over my couch.

For his part, my son said his primary feelings during the ceremony were loneliness at parting with lifelong friends who had always been just a little older, just a little more capable and pulled together, and an anxious sensation of not being ready to follow in their trail.

Ah, well. Even though graduations are always excruciatingly dull affairs, they also mark a formal border: a relationship that seemed eternal is over. The child will never again live at home in the same way. The schoolmates will never again climb the same ladder in the same order. There's nothing new or unexpected in this shift, but it's a shock nonetheless.

Today Paul donned a revolting pair of pink slacks, willed to him by a graduate, and went back to high school, where he'll twiddle his thumbs for the last few lame-duck days of the school year. He prides himself on being a sharp dresser and under normal circumstances would never be caught dead in baggy, ill-fitting, Pepto-Bismol-colored pants. Today, apparently, nostalgiac silliness is more important than style. I hope he and the other lonely juniors have a happy day giggling about how dumb he looks.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Little Girls and Horses

I was a horse-adoring little girl, though I rarely ever did more than brush their velvet noses with my hand. My grandfather, a miner and steelworker who also raised Hereford beef cattle, declared, with love and hope in his eyes, that he would buy a pony if our family would live with him all year round. My sister and I thought this was a fine idea, but our parents did not.

So I raced on fence rails and old tires. Usually my tire was named Secretariat, though occasionally, when my sister insisted on riding him, I saddled up Allegro, and then promptly lost the race, which seemed unfair since I was the oldest child and in charge of the game. But I nodded to the inevitable. Our bicycles were also horses--not racetrack stars but the sure-footed steeds of canny western sheriffs named Hank (my sister) and Leslie (me), and we galloped them through the neighborhood streets, in pursuit of desperadoes.

All my little-girl feelings about horses rushed back yesterday when I watched American Pharoah win the Belmont. The peacefulness of that race, the effortless ease of the victory, the beauty of the shoulders and the stretch of the head, and then, afterward, the quick ducking chin and alert ears, the skittish high step.

When I was in my twenties, I finally began to take riding lessons. I was not a good rider: I never really learned to sit a horse easily or to use my body to calm and direct his. It was a great disappointment. I had assumed that my childish passion would translate into skill, but it did not.

Nevertheless, I still hang onto that living sensation of animal love--the flooding warmth that enters me when I touch a horse's flank, my deep joy in the scent of horses.
Velvet's dreams were blowing about the bed. They were made of cloud but had the shapes of horses. Sometimes she dreamed of bits as women dream of jewelry. Snaffles and straights and pelhams and twisted pelhams were hanging, jointed and still in the shadows of a stable, and above them went up the straight, damp, oiled lines of leathers and cheek straps. The weight of a shining bit and the delicacy of the leathery above it was what she adored. Sometimes she walked down an endless cool alley in summer, by the side of the gutter in the old red brick floor. On her left and right were open stalls made of dark wood and the buttocks of the bay horses shone like mahogany all the way down. The horses turned their heads to look at her as she walked. They had black manes hanging like silk as the thick necks turned. These dreams blew and played round her bed in the night and the early hours of the morning. 
--from National Velvet, by Enid Bagnold (1935)

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The essay I posted yesterday is not a new one, but so many journals have rejected it that I finally gave up on publication and put it up on the blog. At least now it has eight readers instead of zero.

The market for literary essays has waned considerably during the past few years. I used to be able to place such pieces fairly easily, but this is no longer true. Am I a more boring writer than I used to be? Or are literary journals cutting their ties with the belle-lettrist tradition?

On the bright side, The Conversation has finally gone to the printer and should be available at the Frost Place. Contributors, I hope to have comp copies available for you soon.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Language of Love

Truly, as Marie de France says in her lai, Equitan,

Whoever indulges in love without sense or moderation
recklessly endangers his life;
such is the nature of love
that no one involved with it can keep his head.

And yet, as she remarks in another lai, Guigemar,

Whoever deals with good material
feels pain if it’s treated improperly.
Listen, my lords, to the words of Marie,
who does not forget her responsibilities when her turn comes.

How shrewdly, even matter-of-factly, this mysterious twelfth-century writer comprehends the two propulsions of the poet: the reckless abandonment to emotional experience; the cool-headed manipulation of her material.
            Marie’s Lais, a set of twelve verse narratives based on Breton legends, are key texts in the literature of chivalry and courtly love and were among the first writings to mention King Arthur and his court. They have influenced poets from Spenser to Keats, and their coupling of the Celtic supernatural with the formalized code of chivalry has been a primary influence on the conventions of European fairy-tale literature. But no one knows exactly who she was, other than the fact that she was born in France and, according to translators Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante, “wrote either at or for the English court, which as a result of the Norman Conquest, was French-speaking in her day.”
In an afterword to his own translation of her lai Eliduc, novelist John Fowles noted that Marie may have gone to England as a member of the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine. “The king to whom she dedicates her Lais . . . may have been Eleanor’s husband, Henry II; . . . and there is even a plausible possibility that Marie was Henry’s illegitimate sister.” In any case, “it is very difficult to imagine the Lais being written by other than a finely educated (therefore, in that age, finely born) young woman.”
            A fluent scholar of French, Fowles was deeply interested in the stories and legends that lie beneath so much French and English literature. But what also attracted him to Marie’s work was the way in which she “grafted her own knowledge of the world on new material.”

Effectively she introduced a totally new element into European literature. It was composed not least of sexual honesty and a very feminine awareness of how people really behaved—and how behavior and moral problems can be expressed through things like dialogue and action. She did for her posterity something of what Jane Austen did for hers—that is, she set a new standard for accuracy over human emotions and their absurdities.

Though I’m always irritated by Fowles’s tendency to use patriarchal shorthand—“a very feminine awareness,” forsooth—I think he is incisive about Marie’s remarkable ability to create new and complex characters and situations within the framework of what were, to her first audiences, already familiar narrative patterns. In Chaitivel, for instance, she tells the tale of a lady who is courted by four knights. After three are killed in a tournament and the fourth is gravely wounded, the lady “mourned for each by name.”

“Alas,” she said, “what shall I do?
I’ll never be happy again.
I loved these four knights
and desired each one for himself;
there was great good in all of them;
they loved me more than anything.
For their beauty, their bravery,
their merit, their generosity,
I made them fix their love on me;
I didn’t want to lose them all by taking one.
I don’t know which I should grieve for most;
but I cannot conceal or disguise my grief.”

When I read a passage such as this one, I almost feel as if Marie has reconfigured the notion of chivalry. Rather than the ideal of a singular devotion—one knight devoted to one lady—the notion takes on a new coloring: that of an individual’s responsibility to the bearers of the chivalric ideal. The lady in Chaitivel shoulders the weight of loving all of those men who have graciously loved her. Is the poet hinting that a woman’s sexual freedom can be not only an honorable choice but also a deeply moral one? If so, this is a breathtaking moment in the history of human conversation.
            Love is so often the trigger of transformation. What seems impossible without love becomes inevitable with it. In Marie de France’s Lais, that transformative love centers primarily around romantic partners. But for sixteenth-century poet Jan Kochanowski, the triggering change was the triangle of family love.
According to Czesław Miłosz, Kochanowski was Poland’s “first great poet,” a classical scholar whose decision to write in the vernacular helped expand the imaginative and sonic possibilities of Polish literature.

For all Europe the Renaissance was the hour of Italy, and Kochanowski spent several years there, traveling, studying Latin and Greek authors in Padua, writing poems in Latin. He did not switch to the vernacular immediately. That seems to have occurred in Paris, where he found himself on a return journey from Italy to Poland, and where he was perhaps prompted to rivalry by the example of Ronsard, who wrote in his native French, not Latin.

Nonetheless, Kochanowski was bound to what Miłosz calls “the poetics of classicism.” Even when he wrote in Polish, his models were the Latin and Greek poets, whose goal was “to create as beautiful a structure as possible out of topoi universally  known and fixed, instead of trying to name what is real and yet unnamed.” Much of Kochanowski’s lyrical poetry adheres to this aesthetic. The exception is a single cycle of nineteen poems, Treny, a title that translates as Threnodies or Laments. They appeared in 1580, after the death of the poet’s two-year-old daughter Urszula; and to the shock of his contemporaries, the poems did not conform to convention but exposed the parents’ raw pain and grief.

Threnody 6

Jan Kochanowski

Dear little Slavic Sappho, we had thought,
Hearing thy songs so sweetly, deftly wrought,
That thou shouldst have an heritage one day
Beyond thy father’s lands: his lute to play.
For not an hour of daylight’s joyous round
But thou didst fill it full of lovely sound,
Just as the nightingale doth scatter pleasure
Upon the dark, in glad unstinted measure.
Then Death came stalking near thee, timid thing,
And thou in sudden terror tookest wing.
Ah, that delight, it was not overlong
And I pay dear with sorrow for brief song.
Thou still wert singing when thou cam’st to die;
Kissing thy mother, thus thou saidst good-bye:
            “My mother, I shall serve thee now no more
Nor sit about thy table’s charming store;
I must lay down my keys to go from here,
To leave the mansion of my parents dear.”
            This and what sorrow now will let me tell
No longer, were my darling’s last farewell.
Ah, strong her mother’s heart, to feel the pain
Of those last words and not to burst in twain.

translated by Dorothy Prall

            Kochanowski’s grief and love rocket this poem into two markedly different spheres. The first is both public and infinite: it is the pantheon of poetic genius; it is time—past, present, and future; it is heritage, a torch passed from woman to woman, poet to poet, father to child, mentor to student. But how many sixteenth-century men would have voiced such confidence in the talents of a two-year-old? How many fathers would have joyously ceded their poetic power to a daughter? No wonder Kochanowski’s contemporaries were shocked. Not only did the poet use his skill with words to express real human anguish, but he used it to grieve publicly for the loss of a fellow artist—one who happened to be a very little girl.
            The poem would be remarkable even if Kochanowski had done nothing more than drape his dead daughter with poetic laurels. What he did, however, was to weave the public sphere of the artist into the private sphere of the family. “Dear little Slavic Sappho”: in those four words, the poet jumbles home, tenderness, history, and hope into the wholly  recognizable chaos of a devoted father’s pride and affection.
            Yet despite the grief we so clearly discern in this father, the poem does not focus primarily on his own loss. The poet is a watcher, and the poem memorializes what he saw: a singing child stalked by death, the parting of mother and child. The final two lines are a vivid, excruciating depiction of what a loving couple faces after the loss of a child: the terrible vision of the other parent’s grief.

Ah, strong her mother’s heart, to feel the pain
Of those last words and not to burst in twain.

In 1580, children in Poland died far more frequently than they do today. No doubt all of Kochanowski’s contemporaries had endured parallel family tragedies. But for whatever reason, this poet’s love for his wife and little daughter, the pain he suffered at sight of their pain—this was the transformation. Kochanowski was an intellectual, a man devoted to literature, yet it was his home life—a family dinner, the sound of a toddler inventing her own song—that taught him how to write a poem that brimmed with plain, everyday tears. For another poet, the inverse might have been true.
Take Phillis Wheatley, for instance. In a 1773 letter, the Countess of Huntingdon told Susannah Wheatley, “Your little Poetess remember me to her may the Lord keep her heart alive with the fire of that alter [sic] that never goes out.” By altar the countess meant faith in God, and certainly Susannah Wheatley’s “little Poetess” was avowedly and obediently religious. But the fire burning on Phillis Wheatley’s version of that altar was fed with words.
Born in West Africa, Wheatley was kidnapped at a young age and shipped to Boston, where wealthy merchant John Wheatley bought her as a domestic servant for his wife. According to a Wheatley relative, Phillis was about “about seven years old” when she arrived in Boston, an estimate based on “the circumstances of shedding her front teeth.” Very soon family members decided to educate their new slave, a project that snowballed when her owners discovered the greed for knowledge buried in this frail child. Wheatley scholar Sondra O’Neale writes,

After discovering the girl’s precociousness, the Wheatleys, including their son Nathaniel and their daughter Mary, did not entirely excuse Phillis from her domestic duties but taught her to read and write. Soon she was immersed in the Bible, astronomy, geography, history, British literature (particularly John Milton and Alexander Pope), and the Greek and Latin classics of Vergil, Ovid, Terence, and Homer. In “To the University of Cambridge in New England” (probably the first poem she wrote but not published until 1773) Phillis indicated that despite this exposure, rich and unusual for an American slave, her spirit yearned for the intellectual challenge of a more academic atmosphere. 

            In an era when the Bible was often the only book in a New England house, Phillis Wheatley received an extraordinary education. The average free white man in Boston never glimpsed such riches. But for an obsessed reader, too much is never enough. Although the Wheatleys’ slave girl had faith in herself—“While an intrinsic ardor prompts to write, / The muses promise to assist my pen”—she must have struggled to make peace with the knowledge that only university men would have the opportunity “to scan the heights / Above, to traverse the ethereal space.”
            Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) was Wheatley’s only published collection of poetry. The title suggests a stricture of tone and topic that the poems themselves sometimes belie. Or perhaps Wheatley’s conception of religious and moral was a more complicated amalgam of conviction and “intrinsic ardor.” She was, after all, well acquainted with Milton’s Paradise Lost, which might easily be construed as an argument for imagination as a moral virtue.

On Imagination
Phillis Wheatley

Thy various works, imperial queen, we see,
How bright their forms! how deck’d with pomp by thee!
Thy wond’rous acts in beauteous order stand,
And all attest how potent is thine hand.

From Helicon’s refulgent heights attend,
Ye sacred choir, and my attempts befriend:
To tell her glories with a faithful tongue,
Ye blooming graces, triumph in my song.

Now here, now there, the roving Fancy flies,
Till some lov’d object strikes her wand’ring eyes,
Whose silken fetters all the senses bind,
And soft captivity involves the mind.

Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.

Though Winter frowns to Fancy’s raptur’d eyes
The fields may flourish, and gay scenes arise;
The frozen deeps may break their iron bands,
And bid their waters murmur o’er the sands.
Fair Flora may resume her fragrant reign,
And with her flow’ry riches deck the plain;
Sylvanus may diffuse his honours round,
And all the forest may with leaves be crown’d:
Show’rs may descend, and dews their gems disclose,
And nectar sparkle on the blooming rose.

Such is thy pow’r, nor are thine orders vain,
O thou the leader of the mental train:
In full perfection all thy works are wrought,
And thine the sceptre o’er the realms of thought.
Before thy throne the subject-passions bow,
Of subject-passions sov’reign ruler Thou;
At thy command joy rushes on the heart,
And through the glowing veins the spirits dart.

Fancy might now her silken pinions try
To rise from earth, and sweep th’ expanse on high:
From Tithon’s bed now might Aurora rise,
Her cheeks all glowing with celestial dies,
While a pure stream of light o’erflows the skies.
The monarch of the day I might behold,
And all the mountains tipt with radiant gold,
But I reluctant leave the pleasing views,
Which Fancy dresses to delight the Muse;
Winter austere forbids me to aspire,
And northern tempests damp the rising fire;
They chill the tides of Fancy’s flowing sea,
Cease then, my song, cease the unequal lay.

How Wheatley must have loved her books! Although the poem never mentions an author or a book by name, “On Imagination” is the breathless, intoxicated song of a poet seduced by words, knowledge, and the ambition of creation. The poem crows, exults, dances, spins. It borrows Pope’s tidy couplets and infects them with a joyous frenzy that seems to presage Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” Each poet shouted, “I’ve just read something that has changed my life!” But Phillis Wheatley shouted it first.
What is the language of love? It is the visibility cloak that reveals the wordless architecture of what we love. It is the tick of Plath’s “fat gold watch.” Like the lady in Marie de France’s Chaitivel, language shoulders the weight of loving. Or retreats from it. Wheatley’s poem, word-drunk and euphoric, sinks back, in the final stanza, into that dreadful self-hate we writers recognize so well—the fear, the expectation, the tight-lipped knowledge that we will never be what we so ardently love.

Winter austere forbids me to aspire,
And northern tempests damp the rising fire;
They chill the tides of Fancy’s flowing sea,
Cease then, my song, cease the unequal lay.

Of these three poets, it is the oldest—that shadowy woman we know as Marie de France—who seems most immune to this misery. Kochanowski knows that he has lost his greatest gift to posterity; Wheatley knows that her ambitions are caged. Yet in the very first words of the prologue to her Lais, Marie declares,

Whoever has received knowledge
and eloquence in speech from God
should not be silent or secretive
but demonstrate it willingly.

This, too, is the language of love—this challenge she launches. Her words are a gift of courage from one poet to another, across history, place, and circumstances. Once upon a time, on a forgotten day in the 1100s, a poet named Marie recognized her “eloquence in speech” and chose to “demonstrate it willingly.” Her message is both gracious and clear:  on another day, in another land, the wise and eloquent poet may be you.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

I am writing again. A real poem is rising from my fingers--though real does not mean good. I can't think about good now. It's too dangerous. Thinking about good will kill real.

But I will give you one line that is making me happy.  
We felt the smallness of our lives: we hid nothing within us.
The poem is about noise and silence: it is cluttered with physical detail, yet this line is not physical. It came to me in the midst of the noise around it, and there it sits--a necessary breath, at least in the writing. I will not think about good, but the line is real.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Possibly, it may not rain today.

I am drafting a new poem.

And the cat was stuck on the roof for three hours.


So the Helming woman went on her rounds,
queenly and dignified, decked out in rings,
offering the goblet to all ranks,
treating the household and the assembled troop
until it was Beowulf's turn to take it from her hand.
With measured words she welcomed the Geat
and thanked God for granting her wish
that a deliverer she could believe in would arrive
to ease their afflictions.

[from Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney]


"A deliverer she could believe in." Therein may lie the tale behind the poem I am drafting.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Frost, Lowell, and Northcountry Rain

I do like rain, but enough is enough. I think my hands are starting to mildew. However, I've managed to get a lot of desk work done during the deluge. Among other tasks, I've been spending time with the Frost poem we'll be featuring at this year's Frost Place conference (it's a secret; you have to attend to find out), and I've also been thinking about Robert Lowell's 1963 elegy to Frost--a beautiful essay published in the New York Review of Books shortly after Frost's death.

Lowell writes:
Frost had an insatiable yearning for crowds, circles of listeners, single listeners--and even for solitude. Can we believe him when he says he "took the road less travelled by"? He ran, I think, in no tracks except the ones he made for himself. The thinker and poet that most influenced him was Emerson. Both had something of the same highly urbane yet homemade finish and something of the same knack for verbal discovery. Both went about talking. Both leaned on and defied the colleges. A few of their poems are almost interchangeable.
Poetry is not either/or but both/and. This is a central theme of our discussions at the Frost Place, and what I love about Lowell's description is the way in which he delineates a man who is also not either/or but both/and. "Frost had an insatiable yearning for crowds, circles of listeners, single listeners--and even for solitude." Of course he did. That is how artists shift among creation, conversation, inspiration, performance. Frost and Emerson "both leaned on and defied the colleges." Of course they did. They thrived within and against the canon, the long tradition. They longed for colleagues and ran away from them.

"I used to wonder," writes Lowell, "if I knew anything about the country that wasn't in Frost."  I spoke, in yesterday's blog post, of the idea of landscape as character. Lowell touches on that thought in his essay but pushes it even further:
Frost had a hundred years' tradition he could accept without question, yet he had to teach himself everything. Excellence had left the old poetry. Like the New England countryside, it had run through its soil and had been dead a long time. Frost rebuilt both the soil and the poetry: by edging deeper and deeper into the country and its people, he found he was possessed by the old style.
For a poet, landscape can function as method and style, character and setting, inspiration and enemy, death and life. Frost "wasn't quite a farmer," nor did he "quite make a living." Yet as Lowell sees it, his "fifteen years of farming were as valuable to him as Melville's whaling or Faulkner's Mississippi."

Frost was an extraordinary poet, and I am a speck in the book of letters. But we have a likeness. As another poet who has "not quite farmed" a difficult patch of northcountry land for two decades, I recognize--deeply, painfully--the terrible bond between my work and this plot of stone and tree roots. Place has broken me down and rebuilt me. I have become "possessed by the old style."

Yet "the arts do not progress but move along by surges and sags." I was born in 1964, a year after Frost's death, and here I am, plodding up his stony forest road, ancient wheeltracks ahead of me. An invisible deer weaves a narrow ribbon of hoofprints through the mud, among the rotting tree trunks, moss and lichen dripping with runoff, a scatter of tiny white violets along the verge.

A cold rain is falling, falling. Outside my window a huge pile of stones glistens in the wet--remnants of an old cellar hole, of an older stone wall. Three hundred years ago farmers began tearing these massive stones from the earth, yet every spring more boulders surge upwards from the ledge into my garden.

"This is what I remember about Frost," writes Lowell. "There was music in his voice, in the way he made his quotations ring, in the spin of his language, in the strange intuitive waywardness of his toleration"--
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Another morning of rain and dark green light, but the garden is singing: beans and corn are up, strawberries are in flower, peas are stretching their tendrils, the first lemon-scented iris has opened.

I am thinking about the way in which setting becomes a character, not only here in my own Harmony life but also in fiction: Richard Ford's central New Jersey in The Sportswriter, Ford Madox Ford's cold and ominous Greenwich Palace in The Fifth Queen. (Truly it was only by accident that I cited two men named Ford.)

I am also thinking about Beowulf, in which half a population--the women--are invisible but the sea is as alive as the men are:
Shoulder to shoulder, we struggled on
for five nights, until the long flow
and pitch of the waves, the perishing cold,
night falling and winds from the north
drove us apart. The deep boiled up
and its wallowing sent the sea-brutes wild.
I must learn how to write a letter to this poet.