Thursday, June 23, 2016

I've got two new poems out in the online journal Across the Margin--mostly thanks to my friend Tom, who suggested I contact the poetry editor. They are examples of the way in which facts can morph into more dramatic and terrifying fictions. I won't give you the backstory before you read them, but suffice it to say, no poets were harmed in the making of these poems.

Tomorrow morning I leave for the Frost Place, so my conversation here will be intermittent for the next week. When I return, maybe we can talk about Celan, maybe a little more about Tu Fu. I feel the need to open some windows.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

It is sad to own an ancient dog who gallantly tries to keep up her loving habits. Slowly she follows me up and down the stairs, up and down the stairs, her hips trembling with the struggle. She takes her daily visits to the compost pile, to the chipmunk hole under the propane tank. In the cool of the evening she sits bolt upright on the stoop and gazes blindly into her darkening domain.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

from a letter, Richard Wilbur to Robert Lowell, dated "Epiphany Eve" [1968].

I agree with you about the way that journeys—that fine Io speech in your Prometheus, Frost’s Directive, Shelley’s Alastor, the quest and trials in the Brothers Grimm, Beckford’s Vision—seem always to touch something radical, or primitive. What the old fellows chant in phalanx at the plaza, on the day of a Pueblo festival, is a story, or so I am told: how they came up out of the mud, how their heroes encountered the gods, where they traveled, how they came at last to Jemez or Zuni; are their ideas of what they are embodied in a string of happenings which at the clearest are parabolic, and are known darkly, not unperplexed as in theology. I wonder whether the first hearers of the Odyssey, sophisticated as it is, said to themselves in so many words that the story is a celebration of Suppleness and Adjustability and Shape-Changing. The journey-account seems not to work when it explains itself—as Shelley does at moments—or reeks of folklore like Yeats’ Oisin, or betrays a reading of Jung. However artful the work is, one wants the impression that it is flowing chancily as life and thought flow, simply saying and then and then, and then; believing what it sees; blundering into situations which threaten to mean something.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The temperature will be close to 90 today, and I will be driving to Bangor with an enormous load of stuff to donate to the Goodwill. For a non-packrat, I certainly have accumulated a lot of junk I didn't mean to keep. And that's just the basement. I've still got a chicken house and a greenhouse to go, plus an attic and various shelves and closets. This does not include Tom's shop and Tom's darkroom and the barn full of Tom's lumber, or the sheds with the lawnmower and the chainsaw, which are still cluttered with the junk of the previous owners.

Today's axiom: Do not own an outbuilding, or you will fill it.

The Frost Place conference begins on Saturday, which means I won't see Tom over the weekend. He will have to manage the stuff removal by himself. Also I see that the forecast is for hot during the conference. Usually late June is cold and damp at the Frost Place. Sweltering will be strange.

However, I do now own a pair of shorts. You may laugh, but I haven't worn shorts for a decade or so. It's not that I'm against them; it's just that I was wearing old dresses to garden in, mow grass, etc. My legs are very surprised by these shorts, but so far they are enjoying the air. And when my husband accidentally swamps the canoe, shorts are easier to flounder in.

Here are a few photos from yesterday's breakfast spot on Great Moose Lake. You'll have to imagine the soundtrack: a chortling loon, a grandfather and grandson puttering by in a fishing boat, a red-winged blackbird, a large bee, someone on the shore mowing grass, someone else on show bashing a dump-truck bed, a giant invisible scuffle that was probably a squirrel but sounded like a grizzly, me cracking hardboiled eggs on a rock. Etcetera.




Sunday, June 19, 2016

Last night Tom loaded the canoe onto the truck. Now I'm up early this morning--baking biscuits, packing hard-boiled eggs and coffee and watermelon--so that we can go for a breakfast paddle on the lake. This is one of our favorite things to do together. And this weekend we've also cooked meals together and moseyed around the yard admiring the pea blossoms and the roses and cheered Jackie Bradley's home run and coddled the dog and ridiculed the cat and talked about our children and gone to a yard sale and reamed out the basement. Middle-aged romance is pretty nice.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Vases of peonies, vases of roses, a tiny vase of thyme--

A cool morning. The grass in my small field glitters, dew-heavy, in the new sunshine.

Black coffee in a white cup.

The grief of a friend, whose niece was murdered this week. I do not know how or why. All I know is the note in my lap.

The chaos of my friend's heart. The peace of this place. I cannot reconcile them.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching begins next weekend. I'm confident that I'm forgetting everything I need to remember, but I'm also excited. Not only do we have a great faculty lineup, but our participant numbers have gone up this year. New people are coming from all over the country, and it will be wonderful to see their faces in the barn.

I hope the weather will be kind; I hope the ticks and bears will stay on their own side of the fence; I hope the mist will linger over Lafayette Mountain and the bats will fly at dusk and Merry the caterer will make that lemon layer cake again.

Already this morning hummingbirds are buzzing their feeder. I think it will be a real summer day: I might wear shorts; I might bury my face among mock orange blossoms; I might lie on my back and stare at the sky. Tonight Tom comes home.

Yesterday I started a poem draft. I edited a chapter about literary catfights among midcentury American poets. I ran the vacuum cleaner, and I made shrimp and potato salad for dinner. I did not cry on the phone; I did not even cry to myself. I must be getting better at being alone.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

I heard from all three of my boys yesterday, so that is a good thing. My house is extremely clean now, which I guess is also good. I fill empty time with reading; okay, that is certainly good. I am sleeping well, I am learning to cook for one, I try hard not to start dinner too early. Thank goodness for the affection of housepets. I am working on Frost Place stuff and I am editing. I am thinking about manuscript submissions. I have electricity, and the lawnmower still works. I have filled the house with vases of peonies and roses. I will cut some herbs today for drying. The sun is shining and people keep mailing me books and you are my friend.
from Maud  
Alfred, Lord Tennyson 
I have led her home, my love, my only friend,
There is none like her, none.
And never yet so warmly ran my blood
And sweetly, on and on
Calming itself to the long-wished-for end,
Full to the banks, close on the promised good.

None like her, none.
Just now the dry-tongued laurels’ pattering talk
Seem’d her light foot along the garden walk,
And shook my heart to think she comes once more;
But even then I heard her close the door,
The gates of Heaven are closed, and she is gone.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Evil

I am going to write about Orlando now.

There is one commonality I have seen among my LGBTQ friends: not just plain fear but a wartime terror, a flashback terror. Viciousness has been endemic to their history, and the scars are deep.

The Orlando massacre took place on the fifth anniversary of the murders of my friends Amy, Coty, and Monica. Both horrors arose from a dreadful amalgam of control, confusion, self-hatred, cowardice.

Cowardice. I wonder why the powers-that-be don't focus on this aspect of the situation. Why are these angry men such cravens? They romanticize right and wrong, yet exhibit none of the stereotypical bravery of romanticism.

Everywhere, the mowing down of innocents. The people at Wounded Knee. Matthew Shepard. The congregation in Charleston. The citizens at Tiananmen Square. The Rwandan genocide. The Crusades. The list goes on--back through history, across nations and continents.

Earlier this week my friend David wrote about Orlando: "It is beyond terrible. I am so sorry for them, for you, and for your country." Yes. I am so sorry for all of us, and all of our countries, and all of our epochs and ages. Evil is timeless.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A half-bright morning.

I slept till seven. Now I am sitting in this empty house counting the sounds that prove that my assumption of empty is specious: The dog's tongue slapping up water. The refrigerator's motor growling. The crabby finch blatting at the window.

Today: editing, housework, yardwork. The worst hour will be dinnertime.

Tomorrow will be day 2 of a new habit of life. Thursday will be day 3. Time will advance and I will figure out how to fill it.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Tom left at 5:30 a.m. to drive to work. For the moment the house is still draped with sleeping young people. But in a few hours they will all be gone, and I will have a stack of sheets and towels as a memento.

My incipient loneliness is a footnote to the real troubles of this world. Yesterday's news of the Orlando massacre; this morning's news that dear friends were injured in a car accident. . . . It's hard for me to know what to write. Anything I say about myself will be petty; anything I say about the larger terrors will be unnecessary. There they are: they speak for themselves. Evil rears its dragon head. Danger lurks on every country road.

Here's what I know. A small rain shimmers down onto the cars and roofs. The baby crows are silent. An orange azalea blazes in the morning mist. My young people sleep the sleep of the young.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Thus far commencement weekend equals a punctured pressure tank, well water all over basement, a heroic neighbor spending his entire workday replacing it, and voila--water in the pipes.

It equals two medical emergencies, one son's girlfriend who gets sweeter every time I see her, four enormous bundles of fresh asparagus, half a tank of gas, and three rose-breasted grosbeaks at the feeder.

It equals sitting in a school gym listening to eighteen-year-olds sing the pure harmonies of the Righteous Brothers. Listening to my own son sing a heart-wrenching Fountain of Wayne's song about a regular guy who keeps imagining that he's great. Listening to the students in the audience cheer and whistle and shout out encouragement. Listening to my nephew wonder if Paul's scholarship envelope contains a check for a million dollars.

And we still have two days to go before graduation. . . .

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Keepsake

Dawn Potter

The choir was singing today
I forget the name of it
the name of the song
it was a jazz song though
we were rehearsing for the concert
we had our act together
no one was wasting time
our harmonies were tight
finally
and Joe Veno
he’s the janitor
he came by the band room to listen
he was leaning on his mop handle
he was waiting with us
till the song was over
and then he said

One time
I went to see Thelonius Monk
he did a show
up in Old Town
it was a good show
It was a real good show

Joe Veno shook his head a little
he was remembering the good show

You kids
You remind me of him
           
Ma
He said that
He said that to us.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

In the midst of everything I wrote a poem. Back and forth I went, between editing and drafting, cooking and drafting, editing and drafting, mowing and drafting. There was a rhythm to the work, a meter I haven't felt lately in my life. All day long I rewrote the poem, and this morning, as I read it again, I see that I have finished it.

In the green darkness the baby crows are screaming for breakfast. A vase of lupines trembles on the table. This day is the same as all the others. Eating, sleeping, crying, fading.

Now my new unshaped collection contains seventeen poems. Song Book. That still feels like the title.

Last night I dreamed that I had not passed eleventh-grade English because I had forgotten to go to class for an entire year. In the same dream I also lost control of my car: the steering and the brakes failed, and I ran over a man in a parking lot. In my rear-view mirror I could see his crushed body with one arm still in the air, as if he were waving, or surrendering. I knew that this terrible crime would not have happened if I'd gone to English class.

Then I woke up and read about Mickey Mantle's dreams:
Mickey Mantle's final years in baseball were hard ones. His body had worn down and his talents were eroded, and he was playing, in his final years, for weak teams. . . . At night he had terrible recurring anxiety dreams. In one of them he would arrive at the ball park late only to find that the game had started without him, and he would have to find some way of getting through the wire fence so that he could play with his teammates. In another he got to the team bus just in time and got to the game and came up to bat. He would hit the ball hard, but then he would seem immobilized at the plate and he would be thrown out at first by a good throw from the outfield (David Halberstam, October 1964).
How we torment ourselves.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Through the window I watch a titmouse flutter onto the dead bough of a fir tree. Busily she raps a sunflower seed against the crackled bark, and a brief finger of sun brushes her doughty crest.

The cat has stalked into the house and demanded breakfast. The boy has complained about his sunburn and vanished into the bowels of the school bus. The dog is dreaming of her youth. I am drinking coffee and imagining sourdough French bread, and oven-fried chicken, and spicy Asian noodles, and realizing how much grocery shopping I need to do to accomplish this graduation-party extravaganza.

Last night I dreamed about a house that I think that I have never lived in, though some part of my brain was trying to convince me that it was my childhood home. The house was shadowy and cramped and smelled like an ancient pilot-lit stove. The stairs were narrow, the ceilings oppressive. The air was heavy with dust, and everything--walls, chairs, windows--was tinted a strange dark blue. All of the doors had been flung wide open, but I was alone.

I am tempted to stop writing now--to leave "All of the doors had been flung wide, but I was alone" as my final statement of the day. It's a nice dramatic ending. Yet the sentence would give you a skewed idea of the dream. Being alone in this dusty place did not feel ominous, or symbolic, or anything of the sort. Rather, I felt as if I were simply wandering and happened to find myself inside a setting from my so-called history. I didn't recognize the place, but I wasn't disturbed either.

What strikes me as odd is my intense awareness of the scent of the dream-place . . . the old gas stove, the dust. My real house does not have a gas leak, nor is it dusty. So I wasn't transporting truth into imagination, though I think I may have been creating a sort of mashup of various houses I knew as a child . . . the gas scent of one grandmother's spotless, loveless kitchen in New Jersey; the dust of another grandmother's Miss Havisham lair in Pennsylvania. Yet the dream-place itself resembled neither of these houses.

And what about that blue? Why was everything blue?

Monday, June 6, 2016

A night of warm soaking rain, and now a thrush singing; now the long grass, pale and sodden, folding beneath the plum tree; and in the small wind, a memory of water.

I am reading Halberstam's October 1964, reading Plath's Ariel, reading Austen's Sense and Sensibility. I am spring-cleaning the porch and washing towels and planning graduation meals and thinking of Homer. I am cutting lettuce and frying sage. I am kissing my boys good-bye, I am listening to quiet, I am feeding the dog and slicing bread. I am using comma splices deliberately, I am ending sentences with prepositions because I want to. I am wondering why anyone reads this blog because I am doing nothing notable--simply moving through the hours, simply moving toward something, anything, something.

In the small wind, a memory of water. In the small wind, a whisper of summer, a scent of winter. Roses fly their brave white flags. Beetles devour the asparagus.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

So Paul's high school career did achieve its Hollywood denouement: his track team won the state title. Though Paul is by no means a star runner, he is a team captain, so he's soaking up the drama with great joy and vigor. Yes, a rainbow arched over the field; yes, wailing fire engines escorted the victorious school bus through town . . . and the dark day of last October's soccer loss has faded behind the glory of today.
.
In college he does not plan to continue playing competitive sports; he'll be switching to dance. But since second grade he has taken them so seriously, in what has often been a painful way. He was the child bashing his head against the backstop when he struck out. He was the child weeping weeping weeping on the bench when the team lost.

Every game day I have asked myself: Will he cry? Or will he sing? And now it's all over--a burden lifted for both of us, undoubtedly, yet a loss too. He has cared so much.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Night has not yet relinquished its hold on morning. The kitchen windows are dim with fog, with the vague breath of rain. A thrush pours her melancholy tune into the green heart of spring. Who else is listening?

Today, for the last time in my life, I got out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to drive my son to a high school sports event. He'll be running in his final Maine state track meet today on Mount Desert Island, but I can't attend because Tom and I have so much house- and graduation-prep stuff to do and so little time together in which to do it.

Just now, everything feels like the last time . . . the fading lilac blossoms, heavy with rainwater; the teenage crows shrieking as their parents push them out of the nest; the old dog asleep on her towel. My words are clumsy, peripheral--no revelation, no clarity. Simply, they are what they are--the sounds of a mother whose youngest child is leaving home, the sounds of a home on the brink of not being home, the sounds of a traveler slowly picking her way among the stones of an overgrown, obscure trail.

Friday, June 3, 2016



Well, here it is: the front cover of The Vagabond's Bookshelf. The publisher, Jeff Haste at Deerbrook Editions, estimates that it should be back from the printer by the middle of June, meaning that copies will be available for sale at the Frost Place, in case you were wondering. I imagine that you could contact Jeff and preorder a copy, if you were interested. Even better, if you are mulling over the possibility of reviewing the book, he'd give you a free copy.

That's Tom's cover photo, but those are not our bookshelves. A few years ago he was hired to take pictures of small chapels around Maine, and I believe he found these books in the back room of one of those buildings.

So this will make seven books in print, plus one finished poetry collection in manuscript, plus one semi-finished essay collection in manuscript, plus a poetry collection under construction. When I look back at all this, I am shocked. How did I manage to write so much?

Still, seven books in print are nothing compared to my two gorgeous, glorious, funny, sweet, curious, loud, hungry, lovable, brilliant grown-up sons. They are the most surprising thing I've ever made.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

It's been a strange week--a major rejection letter, combined with messages from unexpected new readers, combined with the elegiac sensations arising from my youngest child's final days in high school, combined with sweet gift-words to me from his friends, combined with hobbling around like Dickens's Aged Parent, combined with teaching and editing and washing and baking and sweeping, combined with the field of loneliness that spreads before me. . . .

On my kitchen table rest a vase of purple lupines, a dish of fat red-black cherries, an empty white cup, a yellow hardback copy of Halberstam's October 1964. A male red-breasted grosbeak flits onto the feeder at the window. Outside, the green morning vibrates under dusty bars of sunlight.

Halberstam writes:
[Stan Musial] had always been a generous teammate, and he was always willing to help teammates and opponents alike with batting tips--although he was so spectacular a hitter himself, with such great wrist and bat control and so great an eye, that his tips were not always helpful. Once the young Curt Flood asked him how to wait on the curveball. At the time Flood was having trouble learning how to adjust his own swing to wait that final millimeter of a second in order to time it properly. Musial duly considered Flood's request and then replied, "Well, you wait for a strike. Then you knock the shit out of it." (I might as well, Flood thought, have asked a nightingale how to trill.)
It's been a strange week. I have no idea what to do next with my Chestnut Ridge poetry manuscript, which no one wants to publish. I have just received news that my prose memoir, The Vagabond's Bookshelf, has gone to the printer and will be ready in a week or so. I am writing new poems at a glacial pace. I am not writing new prose at all, except for the reams of prose you see here.

Somewhere, beyond my line of sight, a robin is singing, singing, singing.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Shakespeare in Middle School

Yesterday was the last of four sessions I've spent with a self-selected group of about 12 middle school students (the number varies slightly each week due to absences or whatever), 5th through 8th grade. The sessions are only 50 minutes long, and kids at this level (particularly the 5th and 6th graders) require a fair amount of structure rather than tons of free-writing time. However, I've still worked to stay with my preferred approach to creative writing classes: reading, conversation, writing, sharing.

In the first two sessions we focused on prose: six-word memoirs, flash-fiction character studies, dialogue. In the second two sessions we focused on poetry. Last week I brought in four different free-verse poems about animals (by Anne Sexton, Wallace Stevens, Donald Finkel, and Kathryn Mahan) and we discussed the different techniques that each writer used to introduce us to his or her subject. Yesterday I decided to give them Shakespeare.

When I'm working with elementary and middle school teachers, I try to emphasize how important it is to introduce young students to classic literature rather than just stay with self-styled children's or YA materials. Too often 9th graders are overwhelmed by the sudden shift from the expectations in their 8th-grade language arts classes to the expectations of their high school classes. I saw how gob-smacked my own boys were when they suddenly had to wrestle with Homer and Shakespeare after an in-school diet of YA chapter books.

Poetry is the perfect medium for introducing children to the complexities of great literature. The secret is quality, not quantity. Even a taste of a great poem gives kids a sense of curiosity and accomplishment ("I can do this!") without making them anxious or overwhelmed. For instance, I've used single lines from Coleridge and Dickinson with kindergartners and first graders, just to give them a chance to feel those words in their mouths. And I've found that Shakespeare is particularly good with middle school kids.

I start out by writing an Anglo-Saxon line from Beowulf and a Middle English line from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales on the board or on a few pieces of paper spread around the room. I offer no explanation: the kids walk into the room and start guessing and wondering. Eventually we have a quick conversation about the history of the English language, and then I pass out a scene from Romeo and Juliet. They discover that, in comparison to the lines on the board, Shakespeare is quite easy to read. This approach, which takes all of 5 minutes, is a great diffuser of defensiveness (no "why do we have to read this old stuff?" etc.).

The R&J scene is an edited version of the sword-fight scene between Tybalt and Mercutio. When I say edited, I mean that I cut some lines to make the action clearer. I did not edit the language at all. The goal here is for students to get the chance to quickly enact a Shakespeare scene--to learn that his plays are not just talk but also dramas. (Important note: do not give the kids prop swords. If you do, all they will do is hit each other.)

After a couple of groups of kids have acted out the scene, we switch to another play, The Tempest, and read the "Full fathom five" speech. My goal here is to show them how poetry and drama intersect in the plays, that Shakespeare is not one or the other but both. Then we shift to the sonnets. Yesterday we first read the famous Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?") and then the less famous Sonnet 81 ("Or I shall live your epitaph to make"). They thought about the words they liked; they looked at the rhyme scheme; they thought about the meter . . . but lightly, quickly, not as brisk instruction, more as "We notice that a few things are going on in this poem." Once again, in this context, my goal is to make them curious and eager to do more, not to impose A Lesson. That will happen soon enough in their lives. For now they have language and mystery and few bright diamonds of words and images.

All of this has taken about 25 minutes. And now I ask them to circle the first word in each line in Sonnet 81 and use it as the first word in each line of their own 14-line first draft. I assure them that I don't want them to write like Shakespeare; I want them to write like themselves.

The first words in Sonnet 81 are all very plain, very familiar: words such as or and from and although and you. So the students are not at all intimidated. At the same time, as I learned, they are vibrating with the feelings of Shakespeare--the drama and the strong emotions, which we have not discussed in any instructional way but which they have absorbed naturally. So when they share their first drafts, their own strong emotions are immediately front and center. I almost started crying; I was so moved by both the individuality and the clarity of their drafts. One boy wrote about how much he loved his mother. One girl focused deeply on the sounds of an old house. These poems were not Shakespearean imitations in any way, but they clearly arose from 25 minutes of living inside his work . . . 25 minutes; that's all it took. Imagine if we'd had a week.

At the end of the class a couple of kids asked, "Are you coming back next year? We really want you to come back next year." So my heart is full. This is what it's about, teaching: seeing your students' eyes shine, seeing them long for more opportunities to read and experiment and share. My heart is very full.