Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Out on the deck, the seedlings in my miniature lettuce garden--four brief rows of mesclun, arugula, kale, chard--have broken out into their first true leaves, tiny replicas of the plants to come. I am longing for someone to arrive at my door with an armload of lilacs. At home I would have been cutting fresh flowers every day, but all I can do now is to steal a whiff over other people's fences.

I have noticed that this town is full of mockingbirds, many of them living in the brushy areas down by the bay. A mockingbird is a bit like a socialized thrush. In Harmony, in the quiet damp of the evening, I would hold my breath, waiting to hear the invisible thrush sing. But a mockingbird flits boldly from crabapple to lamp-post, cocking his tail and pouring out his comic repertoire. Sometimes he even seems to follow me as I walk, bouncing from tree to post to tree, crying out, "Wait! Here's another one!"

Yesterday I borrowed three more Penelope Fitzgerald novels from the library. Apparently I am in a mood. Or maybe I just need a smart woman's voice to balance out this Philip Roth novel I am reading. Sabbath's Theater is more or less an old man's version of Portnoy's Complaint. In other words, it's obnoxious on purpose, and that is tiring.

Later this afternoon I'll be heading north for band practice, so you're unlikely to hear from me tomorrow morning. I hope your day has some mockingbird in it.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Heavy warm rain last night, then a rich lamplit fog, and now the sky lifting its blanket before my eyes . . .

Today I will work on Frost Place stuff--mostly writing introductions for readers, which means constructing my version of the sweetest review the poet has ever received. We don't have a great deal of honorarium money at the Frost Place, so I do what I can to make my visiting faculty feel like honored guests. And for a writer, not much feels better than knowing you've had a careful and sympathetic reader who wants to tell the world about your art.

But writing reviews takes time, and in such situations I am the opposite of a procrastinator. I'm always afraid I'm not going to give myself enough of a chance to do the best job possible. That accounts for why I'm prepping for a program that's still a month away.

The conference is, at this point, in a really good place. We are full-up with applicants, which is a great boon for our fragile budget. Of course, there's always the chance that someone will have to drop out, but we even have some wiggle room to weather that eventuality.

So, Frost Place stuff today, and a long walk, and lilacs in bloom, and a yoga class, and then homemade falafel for dinner. Maybe I should concentrate on the picaresque as a life goal.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Last night my son sent me a small essay he wrote about leaving Harmony, which he's going to transform into the script for a dance performance he's designing as his final for a choreography class. I cried, of course. He telephoned afterward, and we talked for a while, and then he started reading passages aloud from my book Tracing Paradise--passages he's planning to use as citations in a paper. As he pointed out, there aren't that many historians of Harmony around. He and I may be the only ones.

Anyway: to think that my own son will cite me in a college paper-- It's an odd feeling.

This morning I'll put in my last day of writing work with the ELL kids. And then I'll walk home in the rain. I'm feeling melancholy . . . not because of the weather--it's just another gust of homesickness and elegy. I think that sadness will never vanish.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Last night as I was making dinner (sauteed chicken breasts breaded with fresh crumbs and parmesan, oven-roasted potatoes in duck fat, cherry tomatoes and fresh basil), I decided that clank may be the top word in the English language in the category of "words that sound exactly like what they describe but also work very well as words." Of course, there are other good words in this category, such as buzz and boom, but I think clank is special because it takes into account the volume and pitch of the imitated sound as well as the sound's aural shape. Buzz makes an excellent buzzy noise but it doesn't differentiate between the varieties of buzz: e.g., the low hum of a hive of bees versus the high-pitched hum of a gnat. Boom enacts the open-ended whoosh of an explosion but not its deafening resonance. Clank, however, is exactly like a clank.

I also think sneeze is pretty good, although humans and animals have a variety of sneezes--including, for instance, the painful un-sneeze-like version that some people exhibit, when they seem to swallow the sound instead of exhaling it.

I'm eager to hear your arguments against clank. What have you got that's better?

Saturday, May 20, 2017

For some reason I slept like a drowned person last night, and now I've woken up groggy and mush-minded and generally unfit for conversation.

The sun is shining, and a sparrow is chirring. Through the window, I am watching two starlings have the bad idea of building their nest inside the neighboring house's exhaust vent.

Outside on the street corner, someone has set up tables and chairs and piles of little cups . . . yard sale items, perhaps? An event I'll need to avoid?

In the bedroom the mantel clock ticks ticks ticks ticks. Here in the main room, copies of the New Yorker and of Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater lie on the kitchen table, alongside a candle and a coffee cup. There's a stack of records on the stereo cabinet--Yo La Tengo, William Onyeabor, the Holy Modal Rounders, the Louvin Brothers. On the coffee table there's another New Yorker, a half-finished New York Times crossword puzzle, a copy of Dwell, a historical atlas of Maine, a DVD case for an Alex Cox movie titled Walker, two remote controls, a pencil, and Tom's glasses. On the table beside the window: a small lamp, an empty fruit bowl, a dish of cherry tomatoes, and a white cat.

On the floor, Tom's shoes, a copper pan filled with cat toys, a stack of last Sunday's New York Times, a red floor lamp, a black and gray rug. On the walls, a portrait of one of my great-great-great grandmothers, three of Tom's photographs (the gas station in Harmony, a pixelated beach, a woman driving a car), a bookcase filled with CDs (too many to list) and decorated with four small candles and one old camera and and a device for looking at stereo photos, a blue clock, two stereo speakers. On the low shelves: a philodendron, an orange and white tin cup filled with pencils, two library books (Skylark, Human Voices), a cribbage game, a copy of Aperture, three marble tiles, a silver reading lamp. On the high shelves: two sea shells, a baseball-sized sphere of concrete, a salad bowl, three candles, two DVDs from the library (Kubrick's The Killing, Kaurismaki's Ariel), a small TV, a tangle of wifi and router stuff and an HD box and a DVD player, a small computer printer, ten or fifteen art-photography books (Disfarmer, Arbus, Gowin, Shore, etc.), and a shelf of records (too many to list).

Now the white cat jumps off the table, and the day begins.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Yesterday was our first (possibly our only?) hot, hot day . . . a day for ice tea and linen dresses and barefoot babies in the grass . . .  a day that magically transforms cats into torpid blobs of hair . . . a day to watch overweight corgis try to drink out of water fountains . . . a day to listen to the drivers of 80s-era muffler-challenged junkers blast obscure Clash songs through their permanently open windows . . . a day to sit on a shady deck playing cribbage and losing to Tom again . . . a day to eat macaroni salad with fiddleheads and ramps, to chase away love-sick moths, to curse the repetitive jingle of the ice cream truck . . . a day to sleep without a blanket and to wonder where we stored the box fan. We may not see this day's like again.

This morning I'm off to another session at the high school. Yesterday I worked on poems with two young women, and at the end of the class, one of them crowed to her classroom teacher, "Poetry is magic!" So, needless to say, I am full of joy and pride in her happiness. Today the two girls and I will sit together and go through our "two stars and a wish" revision conversation. Frost Place alums know that phrase as a shorthand version for "what do I notice? what do I wonder?" I am excited to hear these young women--one from Burundi, the other from Iraq; both so homesick; both still living with the shock of war and displacement; both overflowing with the smoldering emotions of adolescence--ask each other those questions about their work.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Yesterday I was invited to co-direct the 2017 Kauffmann Summer Writing Seminar, a brief but free experiential learning opportunity for Maine high schoolers. The focus will be on environmental writing, intermingled with sea kayaking and camping overnight on an island; and I will get to take charge of the workshops while my co-director, the poet/musician/teacher Ian Ramsey, takes charge of the kayaking, etc. I'm excessively pleased about this opportunity, even though my kayak skills are rudimentary and I will undoubtedly be awake all night wondering why I always manage to arrange my sleeping bag on rocks and roots.

Such a pleasant invitation was a sweet distraction from the presidential scandal du jour. I am so glad to have a fresh chance to spend time with kids. As my younger son said to me tenderly over the phone, "I know you miss us." Indeed I do.

Today the temperature is forecast to rise to over 90 degrees . . . an unbelievable change from last week's perpetual 40-degrees-and-rain. Most of my summer clothes are still folded up at the bottom of trucks, so I hope I can find something decent to wear to school today. The cat is already torpidly arranged on his yellow chair, and Tom is loading his water bottle with ice cubes, and I am imagining macaroni salad with ramps and fiddleheads for dinner. Maybe we can climb out the window and sit on our teeny deck and listen to the passing motorcycles blast "Honky-Tonk Woman." Guys on motorcycles really love the Rolling Stones.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

During last week's visit to the library, I impulsively borrowed a novel I'd never heard of before: Skylark (1923) by the Hungarian writer Dezso Kosztolanyi. It's an intriguing book, and I'll tell you more about it when I get further into it, but Peter Esterhazy's introduction is interesting as well. In the course of writing about Kosztolanyi, Esterhazy discusses the evolution of the Hungarian literary sentence:
Kosztolanyi simplified the Hungarian sentence, made it shorter, purer. The nineteenth-century sentence was long-winded, the meaning wandering through long periodic structures, and in any case the Hungarian long sentence is a dubious formation because the words do not have genders and the subordinate clauses are more uncertainly connected to the main clauses than in the reassuring rigour of a Satzbau (German sentence construction). Such sentences totter along, uncertain even of themselves, stammer a little; in short, are extremely lovable.
Esterhazy's charming conflation of grammar and human awkwardness is itself "extremely lovable" and it makes me want to borrow one of his books from the library. I am glad to have accidentally stumbled into another undiscovered country.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

So, what's it going to take for the Republicans to face the facts here? Our so-called president is more than a morally corrupt braggart. He's also incapable of protecting our national security and is very likely treasonous. Why isn't every single member of Congress rushing into meetings to solve this problem? Why are our elected officials letting this happen?

Every day offers a new way to feel sick about the state of our nation.

I love my country so much . . . its landscapes, its people, its languages. The foods we eat, the water we drink. Our stories and poems and songs. The wilderness and the cities. Every one of these glories is under threat. Will we be left with nothing but rubble?

Monday, May 15, 2017

Here are two amusing/gloomy quotations-out-of context, both from Penelope Fitzgerald's Human Voices:
"When one's children are grown up . . . and the flat is empty I find that one talks to certain pieces of furniture quite often, and to oneself, of course." 
"These are hard times for poets. . . . Poetry has suffered its fate. Let's only hope that music doesn't follow it."
* * *

The rain has stopped, for the moment, but last night our bedroom was like a treehouse in a gale. It was delightful. I spent Sunday doing a whole lot of nothing much, other than some desultory laundry-washing and stew-making. This week I hope to be more energetic. I have a batch of Frost Place poet introductions to write, a poetry manuscript to finish editing, and a new academic-manuscript project on the horizon.

And no doubt there will be more chaos in Washington to distract me. The various characters in our executive branch are like flotsam spinning down a curbside drain.

* * *

And here's another bit from Fitzgerald. Ponder it metaphorically as you see fit:
"In size and shape [the bomb] approximately resembled a taxi, and passers-by in fact mentioned that they had thought it was a taxi. It was understandable therefore that [Jeff], who appeared anyway to have something on his mind, should walk up to it, and, confusing it in the darkness, try to open what might have been, but was not, a door. Anyone might have done this."

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The rain is pouring, pouring, down onto the streets and brick sidewalks, onto the green hill, into the gray fidgeting bay. The doll-house windows run with water; wind whips at the wheeling gulls.

But yesterday was lovely. I wore sandals to the farmers' market. We bought a fresh duck breast and a pint of lion's mane mushrooms and a bunch of green garlic and a bottle of local cider, so I suppose you can guess that the beef-stew-and-artichokes plan was postponed.

And now we have a Sunday without intent. I might actually put on my rainboots and go out and purchase a paper copy of the New York Times. It seems like one of those old-fashioned days that should be spent among piles of newspaper and cups of coffee.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Personally, I am convinced that the hammer is about to fall on this administration, and I am working hard not to be impatient for the denouement. So instead of obsessing about the news, I will attempt to concentrate on books and sunshine. Last night I made cavatelli with shrimp, asparagus, and ramps. Tonight we'll have stifado and artichokes. Along the way I will read a Hayden Carruth poem and a Penelope Fitzgerald novel. I will try to clean the cat footprints off the cherry side-table. I will go to the bank and to the farmers' market. I will listen to a baseball game and thin my arugula seedlings. I will look at the photographs of houses for sale.

Yesterday one of the high school students told me that she'd gone for a walk and, for the first time, suddenly realized that Portland was beautiful.

These children make me cry.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Sorry you didn't get a note from me yesterday. I'd gone up north on Wednesday afternoon for band practice, and then raced back here first thing in the morning so that I could make it to my high school session . . . and I'm so glad I did because I got to work with a young woman from Iraq who is drafting an extraordinarily moving poem.

The tone of the poem is both elegiac and puzzled: the writer misses her country and admires it, but is also saddened by the fact that that she has known it only as chaos and rubble, never as the beautiful land that older people can recall. Her feelings vibrate through the piece, despite grammar struggles and vocabulary confusions. To me, her poem is an important lesson in the power of a language to transcend its own materials. Every other word may be "wrong," yet a sentence may still sing.

My life has improved considerably since I've started spending time with these students.

* * *
from The Sleeping Beauty by Hayden Carruth 
The poem moves.
                                    After the fierce intention,
The exalting, reaching and thrusting through lust,
Through densities of image, to explode transcendence
From a broken language, to touch
Everyone’s wordlessness, to crush what was meant
Till it dances clear of language like forestfire bent
And flaring in the wind—

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Thanks, Trump. By firing James Comey, you've convinced me that every member of your cadre is gnashing his or her pointed little teeth in a fen of treason and corruption, that they all answer to you, and that you answer to Putin. I was already pretty sure things were bad, but now you've been stupid enough to verify every suspicion. I mean, really: what could be more revelatory than firing the person who's leading an investigation into your misdeeds? Your idiocy is our only hope, because your evil and your selfishness are unmitigated.

Nixon's former White House counsel, John Dean, has said to the New Yorker: "If they think they can influence the Russian investigation by removing Comey, they are naive. I learned from my own experience that you can't put in the fix by removing somebody."

I'm think he knows what he's talking about.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Yesterday I spent another session with the immigrant high school students. And it came to me again--for this is no new discovery--that what is drawing me to this class is a bond of homesickness. Most high schoolers I work with don't have a powerful sense of elegy. But these children do, and it constantly emerges in their conversations and their writings. They come from many different places, and they have many different skills and backgrounds and pains and joys. But they are bonded with one another over a deep understanding of loss, and that connection is so clear, so evident, even in their banter and their simple physical behavior with one another.

I was talking with one girl--I think she may be from Iran--who told me that she has a vivid memory of this past Christmas, her first in Portland: of walking outside at night, with the snow coming down under the streetlights, and the bay blinking along the stones, and the little narrow-gauge engine chugging up and down its track, puffing its smoke, playing at being the Polar Express. And I said to her: "That's just what I remember! This was my first Christmas in Portland too!" And we looked at each other: a 15-year-old and a 52-year-old; strangers. It was a moment of comprehension for both of us.

Anyway, it's good I've fallen into this situation because I know that sadness is taking its toll on me. I went to the doctor yesterday and told her about the intermittent anxieties and palpitations and traveling nervous pains that I've been working on overcoming since I first found out I would have to leave home. I am perfectly healthy, but my body is sorrowing. Still, I'm better than I was, and I know the classroom visits are helping. They give me perspective, certainly. These children have endured death and disaster; they have fled wars and warlords, often alone. I didn't cross continents; I drove two hours south. Yet a loss is a loss.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Yesterday Tom and I went for a walk on windy, windy Mackworth Island, and then we went to the Goodwill, where I bought three books, and then we came back to Portland and played cribbage and drank Belgian beer in the middle of the afternoon. It was a pleasant Sunday . . . and there were no more Blanche DuBois dreams in the night, thank God.

Today will be a rushing-around-for-appointments day. And this week we are going to begin our preparatory moves toward house shopping redux, which has become more complicated because we've just discovered that Tom has to buy another vehicle. His truck looks fine on the outside, but treachery lurks within.

I finished the beautiful Penelope Fitzgerald novel and am now reading Blindness, a less beautiful but still interesting Henry Green novel--his first, and as awkward and fascinating as the first novels of great writers often turn out to be. It does have awful cover art and text design, however . . . not his fault, but distracting.

The books I bought at the Goodwill were Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, Tim O'Brien's Going after Cacciato, and The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction. I wanted to buy Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory, but somebody seems to have dropped all three of the copies for sale into the bathtub. I drop plenty of books into the tub myself, but I don't want to buy other people's bathtub accidents.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Last night I dreamed I was Blanche DuBois.

Ugh. Enough said about that.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

The neighborhood is wrapped in fog. Anything that can be seen is gauzy and indistinct, and there is no sign that an ocean exists. I am sitting in our grey living room listening to wet car tires and bus sighs and a ticking clock on the mantel and the sound of the cat's claws picking at a window screen. I don't know what we'll be doing today, but I daresay most of it will require lamplight.

I am weary this morning . . . partly because it hurts to sleep on my yoga-injured hip, partly because I am exhausted by Republican malice, partly because being fog-bound is soporific. I have been reading Offshore, a beautiful tiny novel by Penelope Fitzgerald about living in a shabby houseboat in the Thames, and I am imagining I would have slept much better last night if I'd been rocking back and forth on a tidal river. I have always wanted to sleep in a houseboat, and to sleep in a Pullman car, and to sleep in Heidi's loft in the Alps. Do other people also have lifelong fantasies about lovely places to sleep? Or am I the only one?

Friday, May 5, 2017

Yesterday I conceived and finished another poem, which, like the one I wrote earlier this week, also arrived nearly fully formed. I'm afraid to jinx matters by talking about them, but I could be sliding into the zone, which is a place I haven't seen for a long time.

This morning's cloudy weather is forecast to descend into rain, and then heavy rain, and then wind and heavy rain, but I have three library books and the ingredients for minestrone, and I will try to avoid thinking about the government.

I can't stop marveling about the poems. They flowed from my thoughts like water. The act of writing felt like benediction. I'm grateful.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Sorry about this late post, but I was up north last night for band practice and just got back to Portland a few minutes ago. Now I'm trying to figure out how to exist inside this last beautiful day before our next deluge. I'm all for rain, but there's been a lot of it lately, and the bulk of it has been cold and raw and un-summery. I hope there will be at least a few southern breezes in this coming batch.

I'm in Portland for the weekend, though I was scheduled to be up in Washington County teaching a class. Unfortunately it didn't end up running, and fortunately I have a weekend to hang out with Tom, and unfortunately I don't get paid, and fortunately I don't have to drive for four hours each way. So I guess you could call that a draw.

This week has been fairly productive, despite all the time I've spent in the car. I finished an essay (which was a long torture), and finished a poem (which sprang from my skull fully formed), and returned an edited ms to its press, and saw my kid dance, and hung out with my in-laws, and looked at some art, and played music with my band, and read about the history of Vietnam, and talked on the phone with my family, and prevented the cat from destroying the couch, and yanked a muscle in my hip doing yoga. So that's something more than nothing. Tomorrow, instead of driving for four hours, I'll go back to the high school class I've been volunteering in. Today, maybe I'll manage to get something else more than nothing done. I hope so. My body is longing to dig in the dirt, but that is not an option. I've got to distract myself from springtime.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Sin

Every week is a shocking week in America. Our so-called president is demented and cruel, and he idolizes every strongman he meets. His ignorance about Civil War history may be embarrassing, but it is the least of our problems. We are in the grip of a prime-time terrorist who believes that the Constitution needs to be rewritten in his favor, that shutting down our government is a viable leadership strategy, that lying is a normal pattern of communication, that dropping big bombs is so fun . . . and the list goes on and on.

And then there are the other stories. A Dallas cop shoots an unarmed black child and lies about it. Boston baseball fans shout racist epithets at a Baltimore outfielder. Bill O'Reilly is forced out at Fox News . . . not because he is a serial sexual harasser but because the network was losing advertising revenue. Yet he received truckloads of money on his way out, refuses to admit to his crimes, and no doubt will continue to make truckloads of money in some other venue. Hell, maybe he'll run for president.

I am not a person who throws the word sin around lightly. But it seems to me that we are under its spell right now. Our so-called president is an evil man, and he has perverted his high office. He has no morals, no compassion. His prime motivations are greed and malice, and his wickedness is staining the fabric of our common humanity. I wonder what John Milton would have to say about all of this.

Meanwhile, I putter along, shellshocked. The sun shines on the water, and babies play in the green grass. It's difficult to know what to write.


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

It's 42 degrees and it's thundering and the rain is pouring down, and about twenty very wet women are jogging (slogging? bogging?) up and down the steep hill outside my window. Ick. I am happy to be dry and warm. I spent much of Saturday standing around in a grim almost-drizzle with my in-laws, watching or waiting to watch the senior dance projects at Bennington, one of which took place in a pool of water. I was reminded of the years I spent sitting on the sidelines of little-kid baseball games, grousing about how long six innings could actually last, internally cursing the slow and hapless pitcher, and wondering if I would have any non-frostbitten toes by the time the torment ended. Who knew that the same thing could happen at a modern dance extravaganza? [This is not to denigrate either baseball or dance, which are both beautiful. And I would stand in the rain all day for the privilege of watching my son perform.]

Anyway, there's much to be said for a thick red bathrobe and a cup of hot coffee and an enthusiastic iron radiator.

I wonder what you thought of the poem I linked to yesterday. A friend of mine commented that it sounded like a compressed sonnet to her, an observation that I found very exciting because this was not a conscious construction strategy . . . although, oddly enough, the poem does mention the word sonnet. I do know that I wrote it at a time when my son was infatuated with the Hamilton soundtrack and was also listening to a fair amount of Kendrick Lamar, so my air was suffused with hip-hop rhymes and cadences. I also know that I had Macbeth on my mind.  But the sonnet structure--which I can now absolutely track in the piece--arrived without my conscious volition. It seems that decades spent reading and copying out sonnets have affected my brain patterns. I think that's thrilling.

Monday, May 1, 2017

I'm still in Massachusetts, getting ready to head back to Maine, so I can't spend much time over this note to you. But I did think you might be interested in this poem, "Your Fate," out today in Vox Populi. Talk to you tomorrow.