Wednesday, April 25, 2018

So, the bad news is: poor little Tina the Subaru was towed from the garage to the transmission shop. I await further word. Sigh.

The good news is a warm spring rain and company for dinner. And I can walk to work this afternoon.

I've been reading Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke and I can't decide how I feel about it. The characters are amazingly vivid, so that is a wonderful thing. But there's something about the chronological structure of the novel that is confusing. Even though the sections are clearly labeled with dates--1963, 1964, 1965--the later sections can feel like flashbacks to something that has already happened or been mentioned in earlier sections, which perplexes me. Of course Johnson did this on purpose, but my brain hasn't figured out why. Anyway, I am plowing ahead, on the assumption that everything about the Vietnam War was chaotic so why shouldn't the timeline of a novel about the war also be chaotic. Still, if there's any novelist out there who's read this book, I'd love to hear what you have to say about its construction.

Fortunately reading Akhmatova is like drinking water.


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Downstairs the radio news is earnestly describing Melania Trump's plans for setting the dinner table. Apparently she's having the Macrons over for a meal. No one will have a good time.

Meanwhile, here at Alcott House, the cat is campaigning to go outside. I expect him to hire lobbyists at any moment.

The sun is shining, the day will be warm, and I will be spending most of it inside at my desk. But at least the windows will be open as I dread the car mechanic's phone call.

I've started reading Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke. I'm still immersed in Akhmatova's poems.

Last night I made potato pancakes with guacamole--a fine combination that I highly recommend. Tonight: seafood risotto and carrot-lemon salad, with, if I'm lucky, a few gleanings of tiny lettuce sprouts.

Did I tell you I planted my peas?

Monday, April 23, 2018

Today will be a day filled with things nobody wants to do, such as Take Car to Garage and Hope I Don't Get a Terrible Phone Call Later This Morning, and Convince Maytag to Send Someone Over to Fix the Burner on the Stove for Free, and Hope That I Don't Spend Two Hours on Hold When I Call the Insurance Company.

So Wish Me Luck.

I've also got my endless editing job, and a batch of curriculum planning for my high school poetry residency, and all of the housework I ignored over the weekend when I was outside doing all of the yardwork. . . .

Well, every member of the bourgeoisie has to have a Monday like this once in a while.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with these lines from an untitled Akhmatova poem, dated "Spring 1917":
The mysterious spring still lay under a spell,
the transparent wind stalked over the mountains,--
and the deep lake kept on being blue,--

Sunday, April 22, 2018


Spring arrived yesterday--cool, breezy, but certainly spring. I spent the entire day outside: first, at the nursery buying plants; then home putting them in; and then, for the rest of the day, bagging brush, wheelbarrowing leaves, and generally trying to make something out of nothing in the dead zone of the back yard. Meanwhile, Tom reamed out the rickety shed, hauled crap to the dump, yanked out a prickly bush with a come-along, and discussed chainsawing some ash and maple saplings that are growing in all the wrong places. Right now, we are still in destructo mindset: we can't improve the back yard until we get rid of the random tree growth and deal with our own construction detritus and the garbagy leftovers of the previous inhabitants.

But the front yard is coming along nicely. I'm still waiting for soil for the new bed, but yesterday I planted a small parsley and rosemary hedge, planted a small lavender hedge, hauled rocks for a miniature retaining wall along the sidewalk, planted mint in a beautiful blue pot, and wedged some creeping thyme into the crevices of a stone wall. My peas are in, and I have planted beets, arugula, cilantro, dill, lettuces, and radishes. The garlic shoots are glowing, and tulips are budding. Yesterday, I had a long talk with my friendly gardening neighbor, who tells me that this area of town is well known for its rich soil and easy growth. After twenty years spent gardening in a hard climate and on fir-shaded ledge, I don't know if I can handle such ease. Good thing I have an ugly back yard to keep me from swooning.


This isn't much of a photo, I know, but I'm not much of a photographer. Still, maybe you can see the outlines of what's to come in this bed. There will be a hedgerow of shrubby herbs along the right side; the green visible in the center is my garlic; the other patches of green are tulips planted by a previous occupant. At the back is the blue pot of mint. At the front, where you can just glimpse the terracing, are more tulips, some lavender, and, if the seeds sprout, a row of black-tipped ornamental grass. On the left, beside the foundation, are hyacinths and tulips and, eventually, I think, there will be dahlias. Closer to the front is a new bed waiting for a soil delivery. It will mostly be vegetables, with screens along the walkways of low sunflowers and ornamental grass.

Anyway, that's the dream plan. We'll see if the squirrels and the weather and the insects and my dedication to weeding will allow some version of it to come alive.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Some excellent news yesterday: Allan Monga, the young asylum seeker from Zambia who won the Maine state Poetry Out Loud competition, triumphed in his lawsuit against the National Endowment for the Arts and will be going to D.C. for the nationals. The judge was firm in his decision, citing a Supreme Court case verifying that all children, no matter what their immigration status, have the right to a full education. He compared Allan's situation to one of a soccer player who would be allowed to play on the school team but not allowed to compete in the championship. He then asked, "Is this what we as Americans stand for?"

I feel so happy about this, not least because I had my teeth gritted in preparation for the decision to go the other way. As I've said before, I understand that a poetry-recitation contest is a tiny blip in the broader tale of misfortune, disenfranchisement, rejection, and unfairness. But of course I took it personally, having been a state judge and thus responsible for the decision that brought Allan to this point. He deserved to win, he did win, and now he will move on to the next level.

Yesterday was altogether an immersion into the conversation of poetry. In the morning I had a long quiet visit with Baron Wormser before he headed home to Vermont; in the afternoon I sat with the guys in our community writing project and listened to them talk about each other's writing, share thoughts, make jokes, ask questions, wonder about their purpose in life. And then one of them, an asylum seeker from Angola, shouted, "I want to open a center for everyone, and I would call it Come In!"

Yes, we all agreed; yes, we all laughed. Yes. That's the place we need to be.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Yesterday was one of those days when everything seemed to go wrong and then everything seemed to go right, so who knows what to think?

First, Chestnut Ridge got a big rejection from a major poetry publisher that had held it for more than a year and then wrote me a letter filled with praise about it but declining it anyway. Then I started my car (I was up north in Wellington), and all the dashboard lights started flashing like crazy, as if everything under the hood and all the wheels and even the cruise control had broken, but why and how since all it had been doing was sitting quietly all night?

Anyway, I took the risk and drove the two hours home anyway, without consequence, so apparently there's some kind of computer malfunction but not imminent meltdown.

And then, when I got home, I spoke to another publisher, who very kindly asked me to send him the ms of Chestnut Ridge. So that was comfort.

And things got better yet: I spent the evening listening to my friend Baron read at Longfellow Books, and then Tom and I had a late dinner at our favorite Portland restaurant.

So all in all, I guess it was a good day rather than a bad one . . . though once the car goes into the shop on Monday, I may feel differently.

But poor Chestnut Ridge: always a bridesmaid, never a bride. I am finding it hard to believe it will ever settle down.

* * *

P.S. There was also this good news: a poem I thought a journal had forgotten to publish actually turned out to be in the journal. Thank you, Green Mountains Review, for removing one worry from my day. The poem is called "Eight-Track Tape Player," and it's dedicated to my sister.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

So much sun this morning! The roofs are glints of light, shards of glitter. The phoebes flit and flicker along the fences. Rush-hour traffic grumbles along the main ways, as cats tread purposefully across this quiet offshoot, with its shadowy bare-armed trees, its gardens of dead leaves--an old-fashioned suburban cloister, its nest of houses rising out of time--from 1890, from 1920, from 1940--and its scattering of bike riders, dog walkers, hustling bus catchers, fervent schoolchildren.

Last night I roasted a chicken, mashed potatoes, and made gravy--a meal fit for an anachronism--and already this morning I've ground coffee, fed the cat, plumped up couch pillows, stacked clean dishes, made the bed. I live in time and out of time; my small tasks fade into the invisible rounds of story. Louisa May Alcott grinds the coffee; Emily Dickinson feeds the cat; Phillis Wheatley makes the bed.

Who lives in this house anyway? Am I myself, or am I these ghosts? There is a detachment. There is a pressing-on. There is this doddering pattern of staying alive.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

This morning we woke to fog and silence, which was a relief. Yesterday's rainstorm turned out to be much more than rain. It was a full-force gale, and it howled for hours. Trees whipped and tore against the sky; garbage cans sculled down driveways; buckets of water poured from the clouds.

This morning, though, things are serene, if sodden. The neighborhood is draped in an islandy mist; and should you be into mud wrestling, do consider locating your event in my backyard. But no branches came down on the cars, and the squirrels and birds are up-and-at-it, prowling and singing and chattering and chasing each other through my garden.

Happy spring, I guess.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Yesterday morning I did manage to make progress on my essay, and I copied out a number of Akhmatova poems as well.  Accomplishing that work was a good feeling. And Akhmatova is clearly the poet I need to be reading now, to the point that I've started propping her poems up around my room so that I can see them while I'm editing and doing other non-writing tasks.

Those poems are miracles of faith to the imagination, yet as clear as birdsong. I want to write like that.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Yesterday I did manage to do everything I hoped to do outside: clear away branches, finish raking out the side yard, cut out maple saplings, wrestle my way around the world's meanest rosebush. I still don't have much idea about what's in this area of the yard, other than a sea of scylla and a few daffodil and tulip prongs. But at least now I'll be able to see the growth.

I also weeded in the cultivated beds, where my arugula and lettuce and radishes have sprouted, the garlic looks eager and healthy, and the hyacinths are in full regalia. If only we could get some steady springlike weather: I'm perfectly happy with regular rain, but this morning's freezing rain is just ugly.

Still, the birds are starting to arrive, despite the weather. Yesterday I watched a nesting crow anxiously patrolling the backyard. I saw a pair of phoebes and a pair of titmice flitting here and there among the rocks and roots, and a single enthusiastic wren inspecting the crevices in the stone wall.

Clearly today will not be a gardening day. I suppose it will have to be a housework one, but I'd like to carve out some writing time. I have thoughts about the laundry essay, and I suppose I ought to take a look at my manuscripts and see what I can do to improve them before embarking on another round of submissions. Sigh.

I could also sit beside the fire and read a Virginia Woolf novel. That would not be a waste of time.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

We had a day of spring yesterday, but by tonight we'll be back to winter, with snow, sleet, and freezing rain forecast into Monday. It's very difficult to get anything accomplished in the garden, but I have faint hopes of doing some weeding and stick collection today, before the glop moves in.

Anyway the Red Sox are winning, and that serves as a facsimile of spring.

Though waking up to the notion that Trump is in charge of a war in Syria is not a good feeling. Waking up to the notion that Trump is in charge of anything is not a good feeling. [Understatement of the century.]

* * *

I've been thinking about the definitions of being useful . . . in particular, how much of my work--editing, teaching, mentoring--requires me to restrain my personal ambitions and pride . . . really, such restraint is a necessity in all facets of the work I do outside the privacy of my own writing. Perhaps this is one reason why I find Trump and his cronies so unbelievably coarse and gross and sickening: because they have no comprehension of any need for self-restraint in service of another's voice. Unless it's Putin's.

* * *

I have begun rereading what has become my favorite Virginia Woolf novel: The Years. It suits my Akhmatova project as well . . . two writers with such an ability to concentrate on those points of synthesis, when past and present become fused.

* * *

For some reason I'm feeling a bit glum this morning. Maybe it's Trump's fault. Maybe it's the weather. Maybe I'm recovering from all my passionate upset about Allan Monga's Poetry Out Loud disqualification. Maybe I wish someone would say yes to my poor floating manuscripts.

* * *

But, hey, I have a house to live in. I have flowers in my garden. After yesterday's session with the homeless writers--listening to them tell their stories of loss and dismay and worse--I know I should be happy all the time.

Friday, April 13, 2018

On Wednesday, while I was on the road, I learned, via my friend Gibson Fay-LeBlanc (Portland's poet laureate), that Allan Monga, the young man who won this year's Maine state Poetry Out Loud competition, had been disqualified from competing on the national level because of his immigration status. By the time I got home yesterday, both of Maine's major newspapers had posted articles about the situation. Allan and Portland Public Schools are suing the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation for civil rights violations.

The newspaper articles will give you the gist of the story, including information about Allan's and his school's good-faith efforts to make sure he was qualified before competing. Lawyers have taken this on as a pro bono case, so it seems to me that everyone is quite sure that they have grounds for this action.

Allan is a teenage refugee from Zambia. He is not in the country illegally. Moreover, he has been issued a social security number. He has worked steadily at clarifying his status, and any delays in final paperwork are the fault of the system.

As a judge at the competition, I feel strongly that Allan should be allowed to compete at the nationals. We were not aware of any immigration questions, but the powers-that-be allowed him to compete, and he won fair and square.

But wait, there's more: I discovered from the article in the Bangor Daily News that Allan learned that he would not be allowed to compete at the nationals during the state finals. This means that I, as a judge, was working under false pretenses and that the arts commission staff knew that our final decision was moot, even though we as judges did not.

I am irate about this.  No one at the arts commission has ever spoken to me about what really was going on. I had to find out about it from the newspaper.

On one level, this mess may seem tiny: a poetry-reciting contest; what could be more petty? Yet Allan's situation is emblematic of our nation's larger cowardice and its dismissal of the richness of our future. Likewise, these administrative deceptions put all of the participants into extraordinarily uncomfortable positions.

Here are some contacts, should you care to make your voice heard about this matter: the chairman of the NEA (chairman@arts.gov); the head of civil rights at the NEA (griffinm@arts.gov); a general contact for POL (mail@poetryoutloud.org); the Maine coordinator of POL (mainepolcoordinator@gmail.com).


And here's a link to one of Allan's recitations at the state finals. Clearly, he knows something about poetry's fire.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Everything's just as it was: fine hard snow
beats against the dining room windows,
and I myself have not changed:
even so, a man came to call.

[from Anna Akhmatova's "The Guest" (January 1, 1914), translated by Jane Kenyon]

* * *

Today, our whirlwind visit with our college boy ends, and I'll be lugging him back to school. It's been a good visit--one involving many windy seaside walks, innumerable serious and not-so-serious conversations, enthusiastic baseball listening, the gleaning of childhood detritus, and much eating of seafood. I'm sad to relinquish him but glad to listen to his excitement about what he's learning and experimenting with and figuring out in his composition and directing classes. In my life anyway, there is no joy like the joy of watching my sons become fascinating and complicated men.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

We seemed to have dropped into a refrigeration weather pattern. The plants have retreated into stasis, the breeze is steady and cold, and the temperature never rises out of the 40s. Still, Paul and I enjoyed our walk on the beach and along the marshes. We saw no migrating birds, but we did find some beautiful sedimentary stones, striped and rough to the touch. We looked into an empty crab shell and noticed that whatever animal had eaten it out had decided to leave the eye stems. We watched a big seagull lug off an enormous quahog.

I have been rereading Laura Ingalls Wilder's By the Shores of Silver Lake and noting her discussions of laundry . . . more fodder for my slowly unfolding essay. These mullings over the historical minutiae of housework are conflicting strangely in my mind with the distractions of the news: FBI raids, talking-head meltdowns, presidential tantrums. The horrible gaudiness of our current political moment does not have much to do with hanging up clean shirts in a stiff wind. Yet the horrible gaudiness is mesmerizing.

Monday, April 9, 2018

I hurried home from Wellington yesterday morning, then hurried out to the markets, and then my travelers appeared. I raked some leaves off the crocus sprouts around the stone wall, baseball started chattering on the radio, the cold sunshine beamed, and I was getting ready for our little house's first dinner party . . . a crowded table surrounded by dear young people plus Tom and me. I made them bouillabaisse with Casco Bay mussels and scallops, and I got to use all of my favorite little glasses and plates and created an unholy stack of dirty dishes for poor Tom to wash, and now the house is full of daffodils and tulips and it's Monday again and there is a boy asleep in our back room.

Today I'll work while he sleeps, and then I think the two of us may drive down to Wells and hike along the estuary. Or maybe we'll walk to the map library at the university. Or maybe he'll decide to plug in his piano keyboard and do his composition homework. Any of this would make me happy. I'm just so glad to have him here for a few days.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

This afternoon I'm heading north for a gig, and then tomorrow I'll be rushing back to greet my college boy, who'll be home for a whirlwind "spring" break. It is nice to imagine that the temperature will rise above 40 degrees, but I doubt it. This gig I'll be playing is advertised as a Spring Fling, and we're supposed to wear Florida clothes and play Jimmy Buffett songs and and such, and I am, like, ugh. It's a good thing I love the guys in my band because I do not love Jimmy Buffett songs.

In meantime, here I sit comfortably in the gray living room. Snow fell yesterday, and the wind howled all night, but things seem to have calmed down now. Most of the snow has dissolved into plain wet, and the clouds should clear out. And there will be baseball on the radio for my drive north, so that will help me pretend that the weather is balmy.

I tell you: there are some things I will not do for money, and one of them is wear a Hawaiian shirt on stage. I have already informed everyone in the band that I draw the line there. Also, I will not play any Eagles songs. You may ask, "Why Jimmy Buffett but not the Eagles?" And all I can say in my defense is that the Jimmy Buffett songs sneaked up on me.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Last night was the final session of my essay class, and I'm sad that it's over. The participants, their work, my own opportunities for reading and thought and conversation: the entire experience was so absorbing. I think it was a successful workshop, but it has also prompted me to cogitate about how I could have made it better and more useful, which is, I suppose, why teaching, like writing, always remains compelling.

Anyway: now a day of space has opened back up in my week.

This morning I am turning to one of the copies of Akhmatova translations that just arrived, and I'm reading the first words of Jane Kenyon's introduction to her translation of twelve poems: "As we remember Keats for the beauty and intensity of his shorter poems, especially the odes and sonnets, so we revere Akhmatova for her early lyrics--brief, perfectly-made verses of passion and feeling."

Then she quotes these lines:
With the hissing of a snake the scythe cuts down
the stalks, one pressed hard against another.
In that image I feel as if I am lifted into the life of a Tolstoy novel, where the physical world, and physical engagement with that world, have such an intense influence on the way in which the novelist's characters expand into both self-knowledge and a broader humane knowledge embracing time and geography and community and the inner private flames of yearning and hope. But all Akhmatova has done is to transcribe the details of a single moment. The miracle of poetry is its mystery.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

And the sun goes down in waves of ether
in such a way that I can't tell
if the day is ending, or the world,
or if the secret of secrets is within me again.

[from Anna Akhmatova's "On the Road," translated by Jane Kenyon]

* * *

Yesterday, in the midst of school, a poem draft began unrolling itself in my notebook. I am almost afraid to hope that the long embargo might be lifting.

This morning has dawned bright and cold and windy. This evening will be the last night that my essay class meets, and we will have a small reading celebration. In the interstices, the quotidian world.

But perhaps words are rising; perhaps silence is turning toward something, toward somewhere.

I am trying to keep the door open.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Rain and rain and rain: a beautiful sound in early spring. Even in the dim light of dawn  I can see that the remaining snowpiles have melted away overnight, and I know the small plants are opening their arms in the darkness. This is the perfect rain . . . mild and steady, a long drink for the dormant earth.

I lit a fire in the stove last night, and we listened to baseball and ate roast lamb. It was a good evening to be home. But today, when I walk to class in the rain: that will be good too. I think my sap is running. Why else would I feel so awake and eager?

I've been chipping away at my essay, reading Akhmatova, editing a difficult manuscript. I've been raking leaves and piling twigs and uncovering plants. The jobs seem parallel.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

This is a relatively quiet week for me. I'm not on the road till Saturday, and my teaching responsibilities are low-key. So mostly I'm editing and working on my essay and doing housework and thinking about Frost Place stuff and hoping that the weather will allow me to get outside and work in the garden. Yesterday there was snow for much of the day--a meaningless constant flurry that did not accumulate. Today the sky should be clear for a while, but rain is scheduled to move in later in the afternoon. In the garden, pale pink hyacinths tremble on the cusp of blooming. A few purple and yellow crocuses have appeared, and the tulips and daffodils are in leaf. Alongside the driveway, a mass of scylla is sprouting, and some has even spread even into the dead zone of the back yard. It must have been planted a number of years ago to be so hardy and well established now. I'd like to know who that lover of spring flowers was.

And my arugula seeds have sprouted! With tonight's warm rain, I expect to wake up to see greening grass and swelling lilac buds, and perhaps my radishes and spinach and dill will be thrusting their first leaves through the wet soil. I'm still waiting for a load of compost to arrive, so much of my planting is on hold for the moment. But I still have lots of twigs to pick up and leaves to move, so that's what I plan to do today.

Monday, April 2, 2018

The other day, a poet acquaintance made reference to "old-fashioned" communication platforms "such as blogs." Of course this made me laugh, because of course it's predictable that I would turn out to be comfortable communicating in a social-media manner that attracts the fewest number of readers.

Which leads me to my periodic dither: why not give it up? Perhaps one of these days I will throw up my hands and cry, "Enough," and you eight readers and I will make a pact to send postcards to one another.

Tom and I ended up spending most of our lovely mild Easter wandering around the Wells Estuarine Research Reserve, which we discovered by accident after running out of trails at the Rachel Carson Refuge. If you haven't been there, you should make the trek. The trails wind alongside a remarkable variety of terrain: freshwater bogs, saltmarsh, vernal pools, and open ocean. In a few weeks it will be a significant bird-migration pitstop, and I'm hoping to get back to see that in action.


Sunday, April 1, 2018

I have been dreading this weekend. No children at home means no little Easter rituals, and though both boys have been out in the world for a few years now, I found myself, during this season of Lent, missing them so intensely. Somehow Easter, in my mind, would inevitably be the pinnacle of that loneliness. I did not want to plan for the day, though I knew I needed to do something to foil my expectations.

But as is so often the case, things aren't turning out the way I feared they would. Yesterday Tom and I went for a long walk down to Capisic Pond and listened to the birds sing and sat on a bench labeled "Harvey" and "Polly." Then we went out and bought a grill and some charcoal and some flank steak and some vegetables, and we planned an Easter cookout.

For twenty years in Harmony, Tom cooked over hardwood in his self-designed fire pit. Then, for a year in the apartment, we did no outdoor cooking. So even though buying a grill may seem like a boring suburban activity (and it is), it also felt like relinking ourselves to our history of cooking together. I don't suppose the city of Portland will ever condone a giant wood fire in our backyard, but now we can still make flame-roasted peppers any time we feel like it.

Once, a long time ago, during a particularly late and obnoxious winter, Tom built a fire in the snow, cut flowers out of paper, stuck hotdogs on sticks, and all four of us went outside in our winter boots and pretended it was summer. This Easter is not the same story, but it might belong in the same album. Despair, you've been foiled again.

In other wonderful Easter news, I have just discovered that there will be a sea of sky-blue scylla billowing alongside our driveway. My cup runneth over.

By the way, according to the Bingo Bugle (a free paper all about the bingo lifestyle, which Tom snapped up at Pat's Meat Market), this is my horoscope for the week: "Your love of harmony keeps you leaning towards the sweet side of life." No kidding.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Thanks to the insomnia troll, here I sit in the dark, stupidly drinking black coffee at 4:30 on a Saturday morning. Only the cat is pleased about this.

Through the windows I see rainwater glittering on the cars and the pavement. Yesterday I walked coatless and damp all around town: up and down busy wet Congress Street, in and out of crowded markets and the bank. It felt like the first true day of spring. Today there will be sun, and I have high hopes for my radish seeds. This is just the sort of weather that convinces them to burst.

Still, despite these cheering thoughts, I'd rather be asleep now.

Yesterday I worked a bit on my laundry essay; I did some classwork; I spent an hour at the library talking to a young woman about her hopes and dreams and fears. I read The Maltese Falcon and marveled at the evanescence of slang. I thought about the poems of Anna Akhmatova. I lugged home bags of groceries. I arranged tulips in vases. I cooked chicken and peppers and crushed up avocados into guacamole. I listened to David Price pitch a good game for the Red Sox and comfortably ignored/intersected/overlapped/engaged with Tom, as the whim took us. All the while, my thoughts kept turning back to the young woman in the library . . . not just her but the other people who trickle in and out of that writing project. My tame and modest days are the days that some of them desperately desire, that others desperately flee, that still others cannot conceive of as a possibility. Once a week I finish up my conversations with them and return home to this plain life--to what a friend labeled yesterday, with a certain amused irony, as my wholesome life. What an outdated, even embarrassing, word wholesome is: connotations of cheese and lettuce sandwiches on brown bread, and going to bed early, and washing dishes, and sewing on buttons, and packing lunchboxes, and going for walks along suburban streets, and reading old Dashiell Hammett novels because the slang is enjoyable.

When I was a teenager, I was constantly humiliated by my boringness. Or what I perceived as my boringness. At the same time I was obsessed by my obsessions. Now, in my early fifties, I am demonstrably the same person, but with fewer stabs of shame. Though shame never disappears.

Friday, March 30, 2018

They didn't bring me a letter today:
He forgot, or went on one of his trips;
Spring's the trill of silver laughing on the lips,
I see the boats in the harbor sway.
They didn't bring me a letter today . . .
This is the first stanza of a brief untitled Anna Akhmatova poem dated 1911. The translator of this version is Lyn Coffin, and I am currently waiting for two other translations to arrive: one by Jane Kenyon, the other by Judith Hemschemeyer.

I think what I love above all about Akhmatova's poems is the way in which so many of them live simultaneously in her terrible Stalinist present and in the timelessness of fairy tales. They are so extraordinary in their mythical geography and their medieval cadence, in the way in which the characters reflect both the speaking twentieth-century narrator and the ancient storytelling voices of poets such as Marie de France and Christine de Pisan. Here, for instance, is one of Christine's 14th-century lyrics:
It is a month today
Since my lover went away.
My heart remains gloomy and silent;
It is a month today.
"Farewell," he said, "I am leaving."
Since then he speaks to me no more.
It is a month today.
The two poets are not only telling the same tale but offering it to us in a similar mode: both speak directly of their loneliness, of being caught in a web of waiting, but both also accept that role. Their task is to long for their lover and to be patient. Whether or not the lover returns is immaterial to this narrative. The waiting is all.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

This afternoon I'll be teaching a class, and then I'll be driving north for practice. These days I can make it all the way to Piscataquis County before dark, which is good because the central Maine asphalt roads are a hideous collation of frost heaves. But they're passable, at least. The gravel roads are morasses of mud and ruts, and I'll probably be walking a half mile under the stars in order to get to bed tonight.

Here in Portland, snow clings to north-facing yards and shady corners. My front garden is one of the few that is entirely clear. Juncos and woodpeckers flit among the trees, and I am waiting impatiently for the crocuses to bloom.

I am kind of dreading Easter, though. I have no plans, no children to cook for. I need to find a way to distract myself from all the things I won't be doing: coloring eggs, baking hot cross buns, filling baskets. For some reason, the hole seems large this year.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Yesterday evening, before dark, I walked around Back Cove with a friend whom I've loved since she was three, and we talked about men and politics and ducks and parents and movies and how terrifying a screaming rabbit sounds at night in the woods. Every few weeks this friend texts me and asks me to go for a walk with her, and I can't tell you how much pleasure that gives me. Just being sought out by a young person: it is sweet to me, in this era of loneliness for my boys.

From my study window, I can see the tips of lilies sprouting in a neighbor's yard. From the bedroom window, I glimpse the swelling buds of another neighbor's lilac. I wish my backyard could give them an equivalent hopefulness, but it remains blank and ugly.

I am listening to Tom fry an egg in the kitchen. Beside him, the radio news drones on and on, like a single-minded eel slipping through a river of garbage. And now Tom turns off the radio, and the sudden gap of silence fills with the dim roar of morning traffic and, closer, a sparrow chirping among the local maples.

The blue walls of my study reflect a chill and watery light, a pale north-facing dawn. At random I open the poems of Anna Ahkmatova, and she tells me:
The souls of all my loved ones are on high stars.
It's good there's no one left to lose,
And I can cry. The air in this town of the tsars
Was made to repeat songs, no matter whose.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The week is dawning like spring . . . bright and cool and with the hope of warmth. Yesterday morning I turned over a new small garden bed, and I may get a chance to start digging up another one this afternoon, after I do my time at the editorial desk. I love these longer days, when the light stretches into the evening and I can linger outside after work instead of hunkering down beside a lamp. We don't yet have a deck or patio or any kind of outdoor living space, only a bare-dirt backyard piled with old siding and tree branches. I don't expect we'll construct much back there this year, but the moss is beginning to return now that the place is dog-free, so that is a sign of recovery. And I've bought some shade-loving wildflower seeds to scatter in the corners.

I've been reading Graham Greene's Travels with My Aunt, still studying the clothing and housework histories, but for some reason not spending much time with poems lately. I will correct that.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Yesterday I gardened.

I raked out the tulip beds beside the front door and discovered that some previous owner had planted hyacinths.

In the bed along the side of the house (e.g., the weed patch I reamed out last fall), I uncovered my garlic; dealt with some damage the electricians had done when they were installing a new meter; and then prepped and planted a few short rows of radishes, spinach, dill, cilantro, lettuce, and arugula.

In the new big bed (half the front yard), I covered the turned-over sod with the leaves I'd raked off the other beds, and then I ordered a truckload of composted soil, which will be delivered, I hope, at some point this week. That new soil, over the layer of leaves and sod, should make a decent base for a first-year planting.

Of course, I still have the other half of the front yard to think about. And the packed-dirt back yard. And the mess along the stone wall.

After gardening, Tom and I went for a long walk in the neighborhood, and then we drove to a friend's beautiful poetry reading in Cape Elizabeth, and then, on the way back, we stopped for a walk along the Western Prom and goggled at the mansions and their industrial view of oil tanks and container ships and interstate traffic and landing airplanes. I daresay that was not exactly what the lumber barons and shipping magnates had planned when they commissioned those houses.

And then we came home and ate macaroni with bacon and listened to a basketball game on the radio.

That's one thing about living in town: you can do all of these things in the same day without dying of exhaustion or spending every interstice in the car. But I am still missing my Harmony crocuses.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

I have been volunteering on Friday afternoons in a community writing project that serves people who are dealing with issues of homelessness. Generally between three and five people show up each week at our room in the public library, sometimes fewer. I am one of three writer-volunteers at these sessions, and with those numbers it has worked well for us to match up in pairs or threes and take part in individual conversations with participants.

Yesterday, however, one of our regulars appeared with about eight people in tow. He'd convinced them all that they ought to come share their stories, that they ought to write with us, and the sudden influx of new faces was overwhelming. They were uneasy, and we were uneasy too. I was particularly jangled because I'd planned to introduce a small poetry prompt to one or two people, and now I had a roomful of strangers whom I didn't yet know how to read.

There were introductions, and it was clear that the new group members ran the gambit from bitter young person, to ex-felon, to shell-shocked refugee, to grieving parent . . . the confusion and misery and anxiety were palpable, but so was the bravery they'd called on in order to enter into this strange scenario.

Still, here I was stuck with having to speak to everyone about poems, and there is no one who is more nervous about poetry than a poet.

So I introduced a tiny prose poem by the Burundian poet Ketty Nivyabandi, a poem about being homesick. It describes, vividly and economically, a city street scene . . . a street very different from a Portland one yet recognizable too. And then I suggested that they write their own descriptions of a street they knew well: perhaps one they see every day, perhaps one they recall from another time in their lives. I mentioned that, if they got stuck, they could add a word such as on, in, above, below, across, because those can be good triggers for helping a writer add details about a place.

And then every one of them sat quietly and wrote.

What they shared afterward was stunning in its beauty, and its individuality, and its emotional resonance. As they listened to each other's pieces, I could see that they, too, were stunned: by their own creations and by the words of their colleagues. I know that the three writer-volunteers were barely breathing. At this moment everyone in that room recognized that the act of reading and writing a poem can change the course of a life . . . not permanently, not alone--I don't want to exaggerate here--but the communal bond was powerful in a way that I am unable to describe.

I don't know if any of these people will manage to come back next week. Given the chaos of their lives, that alone would be a miracle of sorts. But they have intentions to try again; they have a sliver of confidence that they may, indeed, reappear. They carefully wrote down the time and place; they tried to give themselves an assignment to do it again. And they were not anxious when they left. They were smiling and tearful, in ways that I have seen at the Frost Place. They felt the power of themselves as a cadre: one with deep feelings and vital memories.

For the writer-volunteers, I think this was an afternoon of both humility and wonder. I, at least, felt as if I had done nothing except open the space and remove myself to its edges. The small poem did the work.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Yesterday evening my essay class talked about Twain, and narrative voice, and the importance of friction as a driver of the personal essay. And then I drove home and sat on the couch and watched Loyola Chicago squeak out a win over Nevada. This morning I'll do some more work for the essay class, and then go to a meeting where I'll prep for a different class, and then lead a poetry session for the community writing project I've been volunteering for. It's so interesting to be immersed in these three different situations: a circle of experienced adult writers, a class of immigrant high school students, a fluctuating group of people who've been dealing with homelessness.

The thing about this kind of peripatetic teaching: it's a way to listen to what I don't know . . . about other people, about myself. It suits my state of mind. And I wouldn't have gotten a chance to take part in any of these projects if I hadn't moved to Portland. So I try to keep that in mind when I fret over my writing drought and mourn the loss of those crocuses breaking through the crust of my Harmony snow.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Well, I was a baby and begged off band practice last night. This morning I feel less cowardly, given the thickness of the flakes and the travel warnings on the turnpike. I'm sure all of the guys in my band would have barreled on through, but I can get so anxious when driving, even in beautiful weather. If necessary, I can persevere, but I do feel a whole lot happier when I'm not on an interstate in snow.

As a result, here I remain in Portland, non-anxiously watching the fat flakes drift and swirl in the stiff breeze. Yesterday, during an activity with my high school class, I was so happy to suddenly receive a tiny, bare-bones poem trigger for myself. I've occasionally received those triggers while teaching in other situations, yet I'm always surprised. After so many years of being a solitary writer, it feels strange to experience that surge in a busy public setting. But in this era of drought I snatch at whatever I can get.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

We have another storm on the way, though this one will only clip Maine--meaning that we'll get a couple of inches instead of a couple of feet. Still, I'm supposed to be driving north for band practice this evening and then driving back home tomorrow morning, and I do not want to travel for all of those hours in any amount of snow. So I may chicken out and stay here.

I got back from my Poetry Out Loud gig around 7 last night, to find Tom whipping up a glorious and weighty meal of parmesan-breaded chicken breasts and scalloped potatoes. It was enjoyable, for a change, to be the one coming home late to a bright kitchen.

Today I'll be prepping for band practice and then teaching a high school class and then, ostensibly, girding my loins and driving north. I wish I didn't have such a sinking feeling about the weather.

My class should be fun, though. One of the kids at the high school won the state Poetry Out Loud competition, and I expect his friends will be giddy about it. I don't know this young man personally, of course (otherwise I wouldn't have been a judge), but he was impressive onstage, combining an old-fashioned sensibility (he chose to memorize poems by Du Bois, Byron, and Stephen Crane) with a compelling physicality. And he's an immigrant, which also makes me proud.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

From my study window I can glimpse, through the bristle of roofs and fences, a freight train slowly rolling through the neighborhood. It is strange to live so close to the tracks. I wonder if we are on the right side or the wrong.

Yesterday evening, as the chicken and rice soup simmered, I lit a fire in the woodstove, sat myself on the couch with a cup of coffee, and instructed myself to write. And oddly enough that bossiness worked: my housework essay underwent a sudden burst of progress. While nowhere close to finished, it now seems to have a more purposeful arc, and I am slowly figuring out how to insert my narrative voice and an imagined third-person character in and among the historical details. But slowly remains the operative word. Writing this essay is like wading through molasses.

[FYI, the soup was magnificent. First, I made broth (a half-dozen unpeeled garlic cloves, half an onion, a carrot, a pinch of dried sage, and two dried hot peppers, boiled it up for an hour and then sieved and pressed out the solids); added diced potatoes, carrots, and chicken breast and simmered for half an hour; added a cup of leftover cooked basmati rice and a handful of spinach and heated through; added, off heat, a maceration of fresh basil leaves, diced fresh tomato, minced garlic, fruity olive oil, and grated parmesan. Served with a toasted baguette and a salad of sliced radishes, capers, pecans, and greens.]


Monday, March 19, 2018

This week I am back to busyness. With no snowstorms in sight, I'll be heading to Waterville for the Poetry Out Loud finals tomorrow, then teaching on Wednesday afternoon, then driving north for band practice on Wednesday night, then rushing home on Thursday for class prep, and then teaching again on Thursday night. I suppose this is how regular people live, but it seems like a lot of uproar to a homebody.

Thus, today I will wash sheets and clean the oven. In the meantime, I will also think about mothers and sons. Last Friday, as I was talking to the men who showed up for the community writing session, I understood how ubiquitous that link can be. A young man from the American South; an older man from the Democratic Republic of Congo: both spoke yearningly of their mothers, as if there, in that connection, lay the soul of their loves and troubles. I, the mother of sons, could not help but worry and rejoice and worry. I do not know the future of my own tremulous link, only that it will continue to vibrate. Every day I miss the presence of their bodies in my empty rooms; their laughter, their huffy complaints, their outrage and their patience. And then the phone rings, and I answer, and even through the crackling ether, I feel our line trembling again.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

It's 10 degrees in Portland this morning, and the furnace is sighing and groaning in a January state of mind. Yet the sunlight speaks of spring. I am sitting here on the couch thinking of making more coffee and of eating breakfast, but mostly enjoying doing neither of those things. Yesterday we ran a few hardware-store errands, watched a little basketball, walked out after dark for dinner and beer. And now we have an unstructured Sunday ahead of us.

This sunlight is making me long for the garden, but there's no chance of that. Fortunately I have some store-bought daffodils for comfort, and the yellow looks lovely against the grey walls. Here, in the following sloppy photo, you can see the old stone jar and the top of my granddad's Victrola (don't worry; the stripe on the left is just sunshine), which was in the western Pennsylvania farmhouse he bought in 1969, when I was five years old: the place I have written of so often--where all the furnishings were redolent of 1910, and everything was faded and dusty and cheap and inconvenient and ugly, and fated to become more so over the years . . . and yet I loved it so much, even more than my Harmony land.

I think I will have to write about it again. I feel it looming over my housework essay, though I thought, with my Millbank piece, I might have managed to say what needed to be said about the place and its stuff.

Still, it comes back to me, year after year, decade after decade. The place is woven into my synapses and does not forsake me.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

I've spent the past two weekends on the road, so I am very pleased to be going nowhere today. But there will be no gardening. Though the sun is shining  brightly, the temperature has dropped precipitously, and I do hope my exposed tulip shoots will weather the cold snap. Mostly the yard is still covered with snow, but a large patch of south-facing front garden has reverted to bare ground, thanks to reflected house heat and a dryer vent, and it's given my bulbs a perhaps too-enthusiastic start. It's a good thing they're tough.

Still, I'm going to think about gardening. I've almost finished filling out my seed order, and today I'm hoping to reorganize the tool shed so I can squeeze my wheelbarrow out from behind Tom's lumber pile. Inside, I'd like to solve our window blind problem. I'm hoping we'll get the freshly painted guest-room door installed.

Little by little this place pulls itself together. Someday we might even get the dishwasher out of the living room.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Last night I came back from class so happy. These essay revisions that my students have submitted are good. It is wonderful how much their confidence and control have advanced since their first drafts, and I feel all the joy of a proud teacher . . . though I didn't do any more than create a space for us to think out loud about what they were doing and trying to do.

And then Tom and I sat on the couch and ate mangos and watched a ridiculous Clint Eastwood spaghetti western, and meanwhile my son texted me nonstop about our NCAA bracket competition, which, believe it or not, I am winning. So all in all, it was an enjoyable Thursday night.

This morning I'll be doing class prep and hammering away at my own essay, and then this afternoon I'll go into town to work with whomever shows up for support at the volunteer writing project. And then I think I'll be sitting on the couch watching basketball. It appears to be my motherly duty.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

It appears, for a change, that I might actually get to teach a class tonight. And if you want to pretend you're there with me, you can read the essay we'll be discussing: E. B. White's Death of a Pig, one of the finest considerations of the human-animal relationship ever written. I'll be rereading it myself this morning, here in my little blue room, sitting in my yellow armchair beside the window, lifting my head now and then to gaze out over snowy fences and toolsheds and packs of self-satisfied squirrels.

Speaking of self-satisfied, today is Ruckus's fifth birthday, and so far that fathead has celebrated by clawing up the couch and threatening to drink paint water. Once he ate a tack, just to see what I would do. And yet here he is: enthusiastically healthy and as vain as a Kardashian. Apparently if you're a cat, it's excellent luck to be born on the ides of March.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


Well, we got some snow: 16 inches so far (according to reports), and it's still coming down. My high school poetry class has been canceled for the second week in a row, the Poetry Out Loud state finals that I was supposed to judge today have been postponed till next week. I guess I'll be cleaning bathrooms and painting a door--and shoveling--instead.

But let's not talk about that. Let's talk about Pennsylvania House District 18! This is Chestnut Ridge country. The town of Scottdale, which features prominently in my poetry collection, is located in Westmoreland County, which went heavily for Trump in the presidential election. And while it remains the most conservative section of the district, the fact that this election is currently too close to call--and that the Democrat is ahead--is exceptionally good news.

According to what I have read, the Republican candidate has made a couple of big mistakes (in addition to being associated with Cadet Bone Spurs). First, he's been loudly anti-union in a very pro-union district. Within the long and fraught history of the steel and coal industries in the region, there has been an equally well-established and active union culture among regular working folks, and they don't care to risk losing that voice. Second, he paid little public heed to the opioid epidemic, which is devastating a generation of rural and Rust Belt citizens.

Even if the Democrat loses this race, it's clear that Trump and his cronies cannot automatically count on the support of voters like those in Westmoreland County. The times, thank God, may be a-changin'.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

No storm yet, just BLIZZARD WARNING splashed on the weather reports and an ominous thickening of the air.

But the pantry is full, and the house is warm, and I have plenty of stuff to do inside: editing, housework, baking, reading. I suspect this may be a "light a fire in the stove and work on my essay in front of it" afternoon . . . before I bundle up and go out to shovel open the driveway so Tom can get his truck into it.

I realized I forgot to tell you about the diamond miner: he is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and worked as a foreman on a mining crew--though in this case mining sounds more like dredging, as what he was describing involved sieving diamonds up from a riverbed. He had a lot to say about the horrors of war and politics and being caught up in all of that, but he also had a lot to say about how hard it is to work in a region filled with monkeys and chimps. Every time you set down your gloves, for instance, monkeys snatch them up and run away with them. He said the men would look up into the trees and see chimps wearing their shorts. These are not problems that I have ever had.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Lots and lots of people showed up to ski on Saturday, so our gig was bustling. And then I drove home Sunday morning, and Tom and I went for a 4-mile walk around Back Cove and its assorted streets. Already the cove is filling with birds, and I am excited to see what happens there once the spring migration begins in earnest. It's clearly a stopping place for shorebirds in transition, and I look forward to a glimpse into the mysteries of dowitchers and grebes. After all these years in the woods, I'm not really that familiar with the varieties of shorebirds.

Saturday night, as I was talking with my friends in Wellington about some goofy thing this guy that Tom works with did with ratchet straps, bald tires, and a snow-covered Portland Street, I suddenly said, "The central Maine diaspora! That's what we are!" My friends laughed, but I felt so much better. Finally I had a label for myself: I'm still from there; my thoughts and reactions are linked to that place; but here I am, trying to work out a way to be in this other situation.

In other words, I'm the person who starts digging up her front yard, by hand, in March, just before the giant snowstorms hit. No time can be wasted.

And we've got another storm on the way, all ready to disrupt my Poetry Out Loud gig on Wednesday and possibly cancel my classes again and definitely require us to shovel 18 inches of concrete-heavy glop out of our driveway again. Blah. But I am loving the time change--yesterday's long bright evening was tonic.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Just a quick note this morning, as I must rush off to the north for a daytime gig at the ski slopes in Greenville. But I wanted to let you New Hampshire-area Frost Place friends know that I've been invited to read with two FP faculty alums--Meg Kearney and Jeffrey Harrison--at the Community Church in Durham on Sunday, April 29, probably in the midafternoon. You all should carpool down!

And now I must shower, and pack an overnight bag, and collect my violin, and leap into the driver's seat of Tina the Trusty Little Subaru, and chug north to the future. Talk to you on Monday.

P.S. Remind me to tell you about the diamond miner I met on Friday. . . .

Friday, March 9, 2018

Sunshine on snow this morning. For the moment, the world is stiff and bright and heavy, but already chunks are sliding off branches and roofs, and soon everything will be dripping and sodden. Yesterday's snow was a classic spring storm, fat-flaked and wet, and shoveling it was like shoveling bricks. But underneath that weight, my tulips and daffodils and grape hyacinths and garlic shoots are blithely growing. By Sunday afternoon, I could be back to digging up the front yard.

First, however, I have to play at that Saturday apres-ski party in Greenville. There's no relief from winter yet.

For the past few days I've been reading a stack of books, switching back and forth among them, carrying them around the house and setting them down in mysterious places such as on top of the flour bin (why?), losing track of my bookmarks and accidentally skipping ahead or rereading what I've already read. I'm still browsing through the collection of clothing photographs and the history of housework. I'm also reading Baron Wormser's Tom o'Vietnam and Mary Norton's The Borrowers, which make a very strange pairing. I'm having a hard time figuring out what all these books are saying to each other, but I suppose it will come clear in time.



Thursday, March 8, 2018

. . . and now both of this week's classes have been canceled.

The snow is still falling, but it's hard to see how much we've gotten because the window screens are plastered with windblown blobs. I guess I'll be staying home today, and editing and working on my essay and making bread and fish chowder--and shoveling.

One thing about this little house: we don't hear the gales like we did in the apartment or even in Harmony. The windows are tighter, and the site is more protected. That's good on the whole, though I do love the sound of a wailing wind.

I got quite a bit done yesterday on the essay, and hope to accomplish more today. I still can't say that words are pouring out easily, but they are appearing. Still, I am having the worst time with my verb tenses. Present or past, present or past: clearly my brain doesn't know which way to turn.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

After a sweet interlude of friend-visiting yesterday evening, I'm now waking up in grim pre-snow Portland with a list of morning errands to run and then an afternoon class to teach and a sensation that all of this planning could be moot if they sky decides to dump its load earlier than scheduled. Last night's chatter was tonic: three mostly solitary writers eating grilled-cheese sandwiches, and our conversation shooting off on this-or-that tangent, and probably all of us feeling odd about talking at all. But feeling good, too, I think.

And then I came home to find Tom under the couch blanket watching The Thirty-Nine Steps. So that was good also.

And my writer evening reminded me that my housework research is actually interesting.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Today is our last day of pretend spring; tomorrow winter will jump out from behind the rosebushes and bean us over the head with a shovel. Apparently we're supposed to get up to 18 inches of snow plus wind, and all of the northern writers who are trying to fly to Tampa for AWP are having Facebook meltdowns, but those of us who are scheduled to play apres-ski parties on Saturday at ski areas that were about to close for lack of snow are, like, "Well, I guess we still have a gig."

Not that I'm complaining about pretend spring. So far I've dug up about a third of the front lawn, which is an amazing accomplishment so early in the year. The snow may annoyingly require us to disinter cars and driveway and sidewalk, but it won't do anything worse than water those new daffodil and tulip sprouts. The temperature is mild, and the earth is thawed and ready, and I will spend the snow day browsing through seed catalogs.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Saturday night's gig turned out to be wonderful--a warm, easygoing, affectionate, elegiac show involving multiple musicians and combinations . . . lots of hanging out with people I've known for a long a time, plus the pleasure of meeting new people in an environment of friendly seriousness--by which I mean we all took our performances seriously but without any sort of bustling aggressive "I'm better than you" crap.

But I was completely exhausted when I got home, and ended up lying on the couch dozing and reading the New Yorker for much of the afternoon, until finally I pitchforked myself up and outside and starting digging up the front lawn.

Eventually the whole lawn will be under cultivation, but first I have to turn over all of the sod. After a year without a garden my digging muscles are somewhat atrophied, so I'm trying to take it slow. But the ground, even this early in March, is completely thawed, and the soil has few rocks and roots--unlike my Harmony garden, which year after year erupted in brand-new boulders. This morning I woke up to discover that the fresh patch of soil is now coated in snow, but that doesn't matter as I won't be planting anything for several weeks yet. The task now is to see how much of this space I can spade before I need to turn my thoughts to seeds.

Here's a photo looking down the street, away from my house. I realize it probably just looks like a patch of dirt to you, but to me it feels like so much more.






Saturday, March 3, 2018

The wind is still blowing, but not as a gale anymore. We never did get too much rain here, though I think the high seas did create flooding along the coast and its associated rivers.

Yesterday I breasted the wind and went downtown to the library for my second mentoring session with the community writing project I'm volunteering with, the one I told you about last week, that focuses on people who are dealing with homelessness. This week I worked individually with one of the young men I'd met last Friday. And I think it went well; I think it went really well. The two of us are developing comfort with one another, and he is a compelling storyteller. But I came home filled with such a deep and inarticulate sorrow. The world is so full of bright smiles and sad eyes.

Anyway, today I'm on the road again: first southbound to help Tom fetch home the truck he just bought to replace his jalopy; then northbound for tonight's gig in Sangerville. I'll let you know how it all goes.

Friday, March 2, 2018

I came home from my travels yesterday morning and immediately got into bed and went to sleep, which is something I never do. And now I have a headache that won't quit. Ugh.

However, I did manage to accomplish all tasks, and today will be a bit slower--no long-distance driving and late nights, anyway. And yesterday, on the first day of March, I raked my gardens and discovered that my daffodils and tulips and garlic and chives are sprouting. Walking to class on Wednesday afternoon, I saw a yard full of snowdrops. Flowers that bloom in February! I need to plant some of those for next year.

Today will be wind and rain and wind and rain. I have some classwork to do, some editing to do. I'll slosh downtown to volunteer again with the guys at the library. I've got to practice singing Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" for tomorrow's show. I've got to figure out something for dinner.

And now the wind is picking up, and rain is beginning to spatter on the panes. I am sitting in the dark living room, and from the window I can see enormous bare boughs, a clutch of roofs, and, beyond them, a steeple and its cross silhouetted gray against gray. Overhead, gulls sweep toward the invisible bay. Last night I dreamed I was in Harmony again. The night before I was up north but dreamed I was here. My subconscious is a muddle.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

This morning I'll finish editing a manuscript and send it to the author. Then I'll do some prep for my essay class. Then I'll do some prep for band practice. Then I'll pack my dinner and an overnight bag. Then I'll walk to my afternoon class at the high school. Then I'll walk home, grab my bags and my violin, and drive two and a half hours north for band practice. Then, after practice, I'll drive 40 minutes south to my friend's house in the woods. And the unanswered question is: Has the thaw set in and transformed her road into the LaBrea tar pits, and will I have to trudge a half-mile in the gloppy dark, lugging a violin and an overnight bag? Only time will tell.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Finally I'm beginning to make some real progress on my housework essay. I still don't know where it's going or what it might do once it gets there, but sentences are flowing and paragraphs are sprouting, and my reading life has gone haywire, in a very good way.

Of course this would happen in the midst of an incredibly busy week, when I am obligated to do many, many things that have nothing to do with staying home and constructing an essay. By the time I'm back to wandering around the rooms and staring out the windows, will all of my writing pep have dissolved?

Pep is a word with a fine old-fashioned huckster feel. Just saying it makes me feel as if I should drink a few bromides or get started on my Indian-club exercises. Care to join me?




Monday, February 26, 2018

This was how your great-great-grandmother started her week. Keep in mind that "one wash, one boiling, and one rinse used about fifty gallons of water--or four hundred pounds--which had to be moved from pump or well or faucet to stove and tub, in buckets and wash boilers that might weigh as much as forty or fifty pounds."
Without miracle fabrics, washing machines, or detergents, getting clothes really clean was a complicated process, described in almost identical detail by [household-advice writers] Catharine Beecher in 1841 and Helen Campbell forty years later as the "common mode of washing." Sort the clothes first by color, fabric, and degree of soil, they suggested, and soak them overnight in separate tubs full of warm water; with few soaps or washing fluids, overnight soaking saved "considerable labor." The next morning, drain off that water and pour hot suds on the finest clothes. . . . Wash each article in that suds bath, rubbing it against the washboard. Wring them out, rub soap on the most soiled spots, then cover them with water in the boiler on the stove and "boil them up." . . . Take them out of the boiler, rub dirty spots again, rinse in plain water, wring out, rinse again in water with bluing, wring very dry, dip the articles to be stiffened in starch, and wring once more. Hang clothes on the line until perfectly dry. And while that load is on the line, repeat the entire process on progressively coarser and dirtier loads of clothes. (from "Blue Monday," in Susan Strasser's Never Done: A History of American Housework)
Imagine the work this would involve, just for two people. Now imagine a family with ten children, or with boarders (very common in, say, the coal fields). Now imagine trying to get brick dust out of those clothes, or consider the fate of the clean clothes on the line in a town where the air is full of industrial soot. Imagine the amount of fuel (coal or wood) necessary to haul to keep those stoves at top heat for boiling these enormous quantities of water. Imagine trying to wring out long wool dresses by hand. Imagine babies crawling around the kitchen, getting burnt on stoves or scalded by spilled water. Imagine all of the ironing that came next. And then imagine you repeat this chore, Monday after Monday after Monday, for the rest of your life.


Sunday, February 25, 2018

Our forecast today calls for "rain/snow/then heavy rain"--a prediction hinting darkly at glop, terrible driving, ugly walkways, and wet basements--but as of yet there is nothing: only the trembling air, only the sky sagging quietly through the bare trees.

This week will be crammed full of obligation: editing, two classes, one mentor session, two trips north for band stuff. So I suppose I'll spend today doing housework. It seems like the logical thing to do on a messy Sunday, though, for the moment, I'm not feeling too enthusiastic. Mostly I don't mind housework; I take great pleasure in clean counters, bright bathrooms, a stack of folded towels, a polished table. Eventually I'll stop imagining that a fairy-friend godmother will swoop through the storm to curl up next to me on the couch and regale me with dense and cozy conversation. I think that is not in the forecast.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

On the next two Saturdays I've got band gigs up north, so this is my last free weekend for a while. Today is forecast to be mild and beautiful, and Tom and I are considering the possibility of driving down to Old Orchard Beach and looking at big waves, if time and chores so allow. Tomorrow we're supposed to get more snow, of course. Winter has no intention of letting us off the hook, though these constant thaws are disorienting and seductive.

I've been reading Strasser's history of housework, prepping for my essay class, and yesterday I spent a couple of hours volunteering as a writing mentor in a community project for people who are or have experienced homelessness. Given the vicissitudes of this particular population, no one can be sure who will show up every week, but this time two young men came to tell their stories and talk about what they'd read, their hopes for the future, the chaos of their past and present, their comic anecdotes about being in bands and listening to their moms. My thoughts, which, in light of my sons, are naturally tender to young men, flickered back and forth among distress, anger, laughter, shock, curiosity, impatience--all the feelings one might have around kids who have so much to give themselves and the world but who also have so much of a propensity to shoot themselves in the head.

I have no idea if these young men will show up again next week, but I will. I need to learn how to be a better teacher.

Friday, February 23, 2018

I'm going to send out a little note of praise and thanks to my Thursday-evening essay-workshop class. These people lift my spirits every week: they are so eager to talk about the readings, so cogent and kind and acute about each other's drafts. And the drafts they've submitted are so full of interest, so worth studying and learning from. This class is a complete joy, a gift from the teaching gods.

As a result, I stand here at my desk on this bright and chilly Friday morning in late February, lifted up in spirit. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. That verse from the Book of John can sometimes feel like lived experience.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

from Never Done: A History of American Housework by Susan Strasser

Many of the changes in housework matched changes in other kinds of work during the long process of industrialization. Shorter hours and better working conditions--less hard, constant physical labor, in safer and more comfortable circumstances--distinguish twentieth-century housework as they distinguish other twentieth-century labor. Like other workers, the housewife lost control of her work process; manufacturers exerted their control on her through product design and advertising rather than through direct supervision. The clock and the calendar replaced the sun as arbiter of everyone's time. Yet the isolation of the full-time housewife increased. While other workers went to work in groups, however thoroughly supervised, full-time housewives lost the growing daughters and full-time servants who worked with them at home, the iceman and the street vendors who came to their houses, the sewing circle and the group of women around the well. That isolation, combined with the illusory individualism of consumerism, intensified the notion that individuals could control their private lives at home, protected behind the portals of their houses from the domination of others: the central legacy of the doctrine of separate spheres.


* * *


Disappointed Women

Dawn Potter

They lived in filth. Or were horribly clean.
They piled scrapple onto dark platters.
They poured milk and ignored the phone.

They arranged stones on windowsills.
They filled lists and emptied shelves.
They dyed their hair in the sink.

One stored a Bible in the bathroom.
One hoarded paper in the dining room.
One stared at Lolita and stirred the soup.

When I say emptied I mean they wanted to feel.
When I say filled I mean they wanted to jump.
When I say bathroom, dining room, soup I mean

I washed my hands.
I sat at the table.
I ate what they gave me.


[first published in the Portland Press Herald, November 6, 2016]






Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Bizarrely, here in February Maine, the temperature is forecast to rise to more than 60 degrees by afternoon. For the moment, we're beginning the day with island weather--a dense fog creeping in from the sea, dowsing daylight and trailing damp snail trails along the windowpanes. It's quite beautiful, though I'm glad not to be driving in it.

Today: yoga and a visit to the library and essay reading and grocery shopping. I'm revisiting a couple of books I studied during my Chestnut Ridge project--Susan Strasser's Never Done: A History of American Housework and Joan Severa's Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900--which I think will offer me some new angles into my apron essay. And I'll be opening windows and pretending that spring is here to stay.

I did read some Merwin yesterday, and I've started my friend Baron Wormser's latest novel, Tom o' Vietnam. Someday, I hope, the writing will once again spill from my fingers. I've been in a long spell of zonelessness.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018


Here's another less-than-accomplished photograph of a less-than-thrilling house event: the hanging of the bedroom closet door. There's no doorknob yet, as Tom is stripping paint off the brass lockset. But the door looks neat and sweet next to the blue sunrise sky craning over the kitchen-towel curtain and the enthusiastic begonia.

In order to whittle down our enormous record collection, Tom has asked me to go through all of my classical music LPs and decide whether or not I want to keep them. I acquired most of them as a child and teenager, so they have the sentimental power over me that such music does. It's true that a lot of them are cheap recordings played for years on stereos with blunt needles, so the quality is often poor. Still, Vivaldi double violin concertos remain exquisite, and Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet is a beautiful bludgeon of melodrama. You'll cry, you'll laugh, you'll ask, ""Does enacting sex via symphony require five trombones and three sets of cymbals?" Apparently it does. (In other words, I'm keeping that record.)

This morning I pulled Merwin's collection Travels off my shelf, and I hope to spend some time with it today. I've got some fennel in the vegetable bin and need to decide how to prepare it. Raw in a salad or cooked in a main dish: that's the question. I should go for a walk and vacuum the floors. I should take the violin out of her case and experiment with the acoustic pre-amp setup I'm supposed to figure out before our next band practice. Mostly I should edit edit edit, and try to get rid of the sinus headache that's been plaguing me for days. Between this headache and its pal insomnia, I'm starting to feel borderline subhuman.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Forgive my extended silence. I've been overwhelmed by various things, public and private, and a couple of days of quiet felt necessary.

I spent the weekend moving furniture, unpacking a few boxes, going for a long walk in a cemetery, reading a P. G. Wodehouse novel, watching televised young people jump off mountains, and otherwise not doing much worth recording. I'm preparing myself for an upcoming onslaught of busyness. Starting next week I'll be teaching twice a week: continuing my ongoing essay workshop and adding a high school poetry residency. I've got band gigs two weekends in a row. This Friday I'll begin volunteering in a seven-week community writing program that works with people who are dealing with homelessness. I'm still loaded with editing. I've got state Poetry Out Loud judging on the horizon. I need to start seriously prepping for the Frost Place. I have a garden to plan and execute. You get the idea.

Anyway, better to be busy than frozen. As Angela wrote in her comment on Friday's post, those Florida young people are an inspiration. I do love that adolescent fervor. O, to keep the fire alive--

Friday, February 16, 2018

Elegy for the Children

This week one of my former students lost her five-month-old son to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I tell you this so that you can add a specific, individual grief to your horror at yet another school massacre, yet another opportunity for our legislators to do nothing.

A thin rain is falling here in Portland. Pale fog crouches over the roofs and trees and fences. I yank my recycling bin out to the street and say good morning to my neighbor, who says good morning to me. He is lithe and brisk and forty-ish and starting to lose his hair. I've seen him shoveling out his driveway and parking his sensible car. I've seen him toss a football back and forth with his six-year-old son. My assumption is that he's a nice man who does not stockpile firearms in his basement and dream of bloodbaths. But who knows?

My former student woke up on Wednesday morning and found a dead baby.

Her stepfather used to be my plow guy in Harmony. He features in my poem "Valentine's Day." His children borrowed books from my children, and played on their sports teams, and quarreled together on the playground. When I was their music teacher, I taught them to sing Woody Guthrie songs and Johnny Cash songs and how to play three simple chords on the guitar. That was my job.

If a gunman had opened fire during music class, I would have had to die for his children. That would have been my job too.
Where wert thou, mighty Mother, when he lay,
When thy Son lay, pierc'd by the shaft which flies
In darkness?
Shelley wrote those lines in "Adonais," a poem dedicated to Keats, yet the metaphors remind me that he, like us, knew something about the death of children. One after another after another, his babies died. Shelley was an unreliable and feckless husband, but he did love those children. His love did not keep them alive.

When I was in Rome, I visited the grave of one of those lost infants. In order to stand in that place, I had to leave my own two small boys behind, far away, in America. I had to trust that they would be safe until I returned. I could easily have been mistaken.

Our legislators have made their opinions clear: It is acceptable to murder teachers as they try to protect their students. It is acceptable to murder children as they try to telephone their mothers to say, "I love you."

If a gunman had opened fire during music class, I would have had to die for my students. And then the gunman would have kept shooting, and my students would have died too.

Shelley famously declared, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." If so, we are just as useless as the acknowledged ones, at least when it comes to keeping our children alive.

Grief is both specific and formless. It tears at us, day upon day, as the eagle tore at Prometheus' liver. Imagine those mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and friends and teachers and grandparents and neighbors jolting awake, night after night--their memories poisoned, their dreams unhinged.

As Shelley knew, "The life can burn in blood, even while the heart may break."

Thursday, February 15, 2018

After the Shipwreck, 1903

Dawn Potter


Father and I walk down to the sea,
but it hides behind a thicket of fog.
“The sea defies us!” I cry, kicking kelp
and stones. Father laughs and tells me
I am too pompous to be a writer.

            Along the mussel-strewn tide-line,
a gull tears at a forgotten parcel.
            Hoot, hoot, wails a fog-horn
            that no one can see.

Father and I walk down to the sea,
but we cannot reach the shore.
A police-man lays a hand on Father’s arm
and wonders if I am too young
to imagine bodies washing up onto the rocks.

            Once there was a dead cat in the garden.
            Flies clustered in an eye socket.
            I try to remember.
I try to remember.

Father and I walk down to the sea.
The fog has lifted, and a sudden glare dazzles our eyes.
“Tell me about the bodies,” I beg.
Small hissing waves etch shadows on the sand.
Father sighs and says nothing.

            Back and forth, the ships sail.
            Some go to China, some to France.
            I have watched them
            vanish over the edge of the world.

I walk down to the sea alone.
Children splash in a tide-pool
as their mothers sing hymns into the wind.
I do not know them; everyone is strange to me
without Father.

            Somewhere, the dead sprawl
            like split rag-dolls.
Their hands soak up saltwater.
            Their veins leak tears.

“The sea defies us!” I cry before tea.
Father looks up from his journal. He nods,
and is silent. I am too pompous to be a writer.
In the twilight, a police-man trudges uphill,
his boots caked with sand. Already, the lamps are lit.

            China cups and saucers
            circle a silver tray, a cake is sliced,
pale butter melts, the shadows
darken, darken, darken.           

A sea wind rushes among the houses
that cling to the hill. I crane to hear
Father’s nib scratching paper,
his pipe rapping ashes onto the hearth.
His body displaces time like air.

            Father has never sailed in a ship.
            He never swims in the sea.
            I lean against his closed door.
            I write a word in the dust of the hall mirror.

Father walks down to the sea.
I wave from my window, but he does not see me.
In his tall hat and black coat and stout shoes,
he is strange to me; I pretend I do not know him.
Who is that man? I ask myself.

            I think of the women
wailing hymns into the wind,
            how their wet skirts blow back,
            how their icy hands clench against their breasts.

In the blackness beyond lamplight,
the tide rolls in, spilling over the jetty.
I am too young. I rush downstairs, appalled.
“Tell me about the bodies!” I beg.

But Father has not returned from the sea.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

from "Some Notes on Attunement" by Zadie Smith

I'd like to believe that I wouldn't have been one of those infamous British people who tried to boo Dylan offstage when he went electric, but on the evidence of past form I very much fear I would have. We want our artists to remain as they were when we first loved them. But our artists want to move. Sometimes the battle becomes so violent that a perversion in the artist can occur: these days, Joni Mitchell thinks of herself more as a painter than a singer. She is so allergic to the expectations of her audience that she would rather be a perfectly nice painter than a singer touched by the sublime. That kind of anxiety about audience is often read as contempt, but Mitchell's restlessness is only the natural side effect of her artmaking, as it is with Dylan, as it was with Joyce and Picasso. Joni Mitchell doesn't want to live in my dream, stuck as it is in an eternal 1971--her life has its own time. There is simply not enough time in her life for her to be the Joni of my memory forever. The worst possible thing for an artist is to exist as a feature of somebody else's epiphany.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Already the sun is shining. Over on the other side of the backyard fence, a male cardinal flutters onto a neighbor's feeder as a squirrel prowls in the snow below.

I feel worried about various people and situations--a worry that is ineffectual yet distressing: not only because I have no power to fix anything, but also because I know that the worry itself is an irritant to those I am worrying over. I have been worried over myself, and I know how annoying it is. And yet how does one stop actively fretting about another's suffering or unhappiness?

Ah well. Another conundrum of being human.

Anyway, the sun is shining! The squirrels are rascally and the cat demands breakfast. My room has two windows that look down onto snow and shadow. Our bed will have clean sheets tonight. Small things, small things. Let us try to love them.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Tom spent yesterday building shelves in the cellar, so that we can get things out of the upstairs attic space, so that we can fit more things into the attic space . . . you know, Ye Olde Cycle of Storage. But new shelving also means that the canning jars have a home, and now, when I go downstairs to do laundry, I can admire them in their glassy rows, sturdy and hopeful even when they're empty. Maybe next fall they'll be full of tomatoes.

Today will be all editing all of the time. Over the weekend I did crank out a few more paragraphs in my apron essay, though I'm dissatisfied with its trajectory. So far it's a fairly boring piece, and I've got to figure out how to spice it up--which means veering into unexpected territory, constructing a more interesting I, and juggling a few more balls in the air. It all sounds so easy when I describe the process to my class. . . .

I also took Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits out of the library. Have any of you read it? I've long been meaning to delve into her books, and now I might finally get around to it.

Sunday, February 11, 2018


It's true: we are now the sort of homeowners who have a bathroom door instead of an extra shower curtain looped over a few flooring nails hammered into the framing.

We found this door chopped off short, wedged into one of the dining-room doorways, and serving as the back of a temporary closet in a room that had been transformed into a bedroom in a house that had way too many people living in it. But Tom was pretty sure that it was the original bathroom door; and after much resurrection and rehabilitation, it now hangs in its proper place.

All of the doors in this house are fir, heavy and solid with simple panels, but this is the only one with pebbled glass. I love the way the wall paint shimmers through as watery light. The glass knob is also original. It's not one of those cut-glass-like Victorian openers but small and smooth--a modest implement, but a sweet one, like a lot of things around here.