Sunday, December 9, 2018

Sunday at dawn: cold and still: chimneys silhouetted like blunt paper dolls against the flat sky: bare grassy earth like iron: fringes of ice along the sidewalks: blank windows: a single gull flicking its long pinions, sailing low over the roofs: and now an invisible cacophony of crows: power lines crisscrossing the street like cat's-cradle string: streetlamp a tight ball of light: the slam, somewhere, of a car door: and now a motor cranking, catching, roaring, vanishing: and now silence: now the cold closes its fist: and the day hesitates:

Saturday, December 8, 2018

A cold morning, promising to be bright. I've been awake most of the night, falling asleep only to dream about car crashes, so I'd just as soon turn my thoughts to sunshine. I've got packages to mail, cards to write, trim to paint, a novel to edit. Here's hoping that all of it makes me very tired by the time 1 a.m. comes around again.

I'm still splashing and wallowing in The Birth of the Modern. I love a big messy history-of-everything, and this is a classic . . . one excellent anecdote after another. Here, for instance, is some fake news, 1814-style:

"[Robert] Fulton's battleship carried thirty 32-lb guns firing red-hot shot and was also equipped to fire 100-lb projectiles below the waterline. With its 120 horsepower developing a speed of up to 5mph and independent of the wind, it theoretically outclassed any vessel in the British fleet. Stories of this terrifying monster, which was launched on the East River on 29 June 1814, reached Britain and grew in the telling. The Edinburgh Evening Courant doubled the ship's size and credited her with 44 guns, including four giant 100-pounders. The newspaper added: "To annoy an enemy attempting to board it can discharge 100 gallons of boiling water a minute and, by mechanism, brandishing 300 cutlasses with the utmost regularity over her gunwales and works also an equal number of heavy iron pikes of great length, darting them from her sides with prodigious force." [Weird grammar in the original]

If any of you care to make a scale model of this, I'd be glad to see it.

Friday, December 7, 2018

This morning I'll be heading south for a planning meeting for a high school writing residency . . . step 1 in my forthcoming extreme teaching schedule. This particular job is going to involve a long commute, which does not delight me, though when I think back to my Harmony car life, I don't know why I'm complaining. I drove the better part of two hours every day to pick up my kid at school. But it's been easy to lapse into no-driving, and that is doubtless why Tina the Subaru required a visit from AAA's battery guy yesterday.

One thing about having all my books around me again: I can't stop taking them off the shelf and diving into them. So I've decided to let that approach run rampant. I spent a few days with the Bate bio of Keats, and now I'm swimming in Paul Johnson's The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815-1830, a wonderful messy tome that stews together war, poetry, typhus, colonial expansion, music, the uses of horses, obstetrical medicine, et al., into a giant pot of historical minestrone. [What a silly metaphor.]

Anyway, here's a couple of quotations you might enjoy . . . and find disturbingly familiar:

"One of [Andrew Jackson's] early biographers, James Parton, wrote that his 'ignorance of . . . everything which he who governs a country ought to know, was extreme. . . . His ignorance was a wall around him, high, impenetrable. He was imprisoned in his ignorance, and sometimes raged round his little, dim enclosure like a tiger in his den." A powerful image, but perhaps misleading. Jackson, like Cecil Rhodes at the end of the century, lacked schooling, but, as with Rhodes, a powerful intelligence and an even stronger will gave a strange force to his writing and still more to his speech. Throughout his life, it helped to inspire dread in his opponents, racial and political." [Unfortunately, we now have a so-called president who fits that description far better than Jackson did . . . and without any caveats about "powerful intelligence."]

"[Jackson] was an orphan at fifteen. Two years later he turned to a life in the law, which was in practice a blend of land grabbing, wheeler-dealing, office seeking and dueling, and perhaps could not have occurred in precisely this combination at any other time or place." [Maybe things were different in 1991, when Johnson publishing the book, but this description of lawyer seems to describe Cohen and Avenatti and Giuliani and their ilk pretty well . . . sans the dueling. Would more lawyer dueling mean less trouble for the American people?]

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Poetry-writing season is over for me, at least for the moment. I have now fallen back down the editing rabbit hole, where I'm frantically copyediting a 500-page translated novel on an extremely short deadline. It's a good thing I've had so much practice reading giant novels.

Meanwhile, I'm sewing and mixing up cookie batter and trying to keep my plans pulled together for the forthcoming family onslaught. And poor Tom does nothing but fix things--all day long for other people, all evening long for us.
.
But in darkness the Christmas lights glow; the candles flicker in the windows; the fire purrs in its little stove. In daylight, the northern sun washes over the blue walls of my tiny study. I am glad to be here . . . glad without reservation, these days.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The living room is dim, except for the glowing string of Christmas lights wrapping the stair balusters. On the street, a few cars slide past. In the sky, bright Venus nods at a shallow bowl of moon. My white cup and saucer are phosphorescent in the gloom. The kitchen clock ticks. Upstairs, Tom stirs among the sheets.

I'm thinking of poems, and of this passage in Bate's biography of Keats, and wondering if it's true:
For most beginning poets, the fashionable models--at least among their own contemporaries--have usually been no better than those followed by Keats, however different they might be in kind.
I am no longer a beginning poet, but when I was, I was in love with Keats. I knew so little about contemporary poetry. And now I am a contemporary poet. The situation is ironic, but also confusing to me. Am I now one of the poets "no better than those followed by Keats"? What happens when the eager apprentice becomes the imperfect model?

Monday, December 3, 2018

Richard III: Conversation (Act III, Scenes 5 & 6)

"Whether we want it or not, the massive legacy of past literature is ours. We cannot give it away. Moreover, it increases with each generation. Inevitably, we must work from it, and often by means of it. But even if we resist paralysis and do try to work from and by means of it, the question at once arises, does the habitual (and almost always sole) nourishment of the imagination by the great literature of the past lead to the creation of more poetry of equal value?"

--from John Keats, by Walter Jackson Bate

* * *

Perhaps the above quotation is not strictly relevant to our Richard III assignment (which addresses your thoughts about Hastings's life and death within the play, your thoughts about the meaning of liberty), but I think it does capture some of the difficulties that I at least have struggled with over the course of my entire reading life. How do I--the diffident I, the ambitious I, the fearful I--"resist paralysis" and "try to work from and by means of" this "massive legacy of past literature"? For Keats, Shakespeare was a significant element of the quandary. And here we are, two hundred years later, struggling with the same legacy . . . plus the weight of the two centuries that have passed in the interim.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

We will have eleven people celebrating Christmas at our little Alcott House, and Tom is engaged in an intense holiday countdown. Yesterday he finished cutting various found/scavenged/broken pieces of slate and marble into temporary countertop covers. He put a last coat of paint on the door to the unfinished upstairs bathroom and scavenged a beautiful porcelain doorknob from the hardware box at work. He bought plumbing supplies so that he can hook up the bathroom sink, which means, believe it or not, visitors will actually be able to close the door and wash their hands. He ordered window shades for the bedroom and the guest quarters--no more kitchen towels as curtains! He is putting up a banister and an outside light. In the midst of all this, he is making Christmas cards.

I've been sewing Christmas presents and trying to limit my shopping to mostly locally based small gifts. The focus is on meals, comfort, and nobody falling down the stairs. So yesterday I replaced the couch pillows, bought a new bathmat, fidgeted about candles and lighting, unpacked the nativity set my Aunt Rose made in her ceramics class in the 1980s and the styrofoam gingerbread boys my parents bought for one of their first holidays together in the early 1960s. Today I'll put a second coat of paint on some trim Tom has repaired.

We both seem to be equally committed to the project of making our house at least passably welcoming, which is good but also kind of whirlwindy and overwhelming. There's still so much unfinished business: no doors on the cellar, the upstairs rooms, the dining room closet; no trim in the kitchen; no grout on the kitchen tiles; no cupboard doors or real countertop. But when I consider what a mess things were last year, as we were getting ready to move into this place, I'm astonished.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

"Though so much is known of Keats from the time he was seventeen or eighteen until his death, comparatively little can be discovered about his very earliest years, and especially about his parents and their origin. Yet the life of no writer of the last hundred and fifty years has been more carefully combed for details. The reason for that close study is the always heartening union of achievement with the familiar. We have a natural hunger to learn what qualities of mind or character, and what incidents in a man's life, encourage--or at least permit--an achievement so compelling when, at the same time, so little is apparently given at the start. This same appeal explains the fascination with which the life of Lincoln, to jump to a superficially different realm, still continues to be scanned and reinterpreted. Whatever our usual preoccupations, in approaching such figures we become more open to what [Samuel] Johnson thought the first aim of biography--to find what can be 'put to use.' That direct interest, so broad in its appeal, continues just as strongly for the professional writer who, like the poets of Keats's own day, has wrestled darkly with the fear that there is little left for the poet to do--little that will permit the large scope or power of the poetry of more confident, less self-conscious eras in the past. He may not wish to divulge that anxiety; but it is very much on his mind. Hence, despite the most radical changes in taste during the last hundred years, no English or American poet (however widely he may swing away from any of his other predecessors since the death of Shakespeare) fails to drop the usual querulousness over poetic idiom or other details when he comes to Keats, and to look quietly, closely, and perhaps with a suspended secret hope."

--from John Keats by Walter Jackson Bate (1963)

* * *

I get flustered whenever anyone ask me to name my favorite book. There are so many, and I yearn for different ones at different times. But Bate's biography of Keats is certainly be in the top five. Very early in my poetic apprenticeship, Baron Wormser handed me his copy of the biography and told me I should read it. So I did, and I was stunned. I still have never read anything else like it: this loving, precise venture into the mind of a quiet man who is becoming a poet. Reading Bate's book is like existing inside the arc of poetic discovery.

Friday, November 30, 2018

For dinner last night I made steak with peppers and onions, garlic mashed potatoes, arugula salad, and poached pears with yogurt and pear syrup. Though it doesn't sound particularly unusual, it ended up being one of the most delicious meals I've made lately: perfectly cooked rare steak, peppers and onions melting into their wine sauce, potatoes light and flavorful, and the poached-pear syrup like nectar. Afterwards I found myself thinking about the personal histories of cooking--how variable they are. Mine is very different from Tom's, for instance. So now I'm meditating an essay on kitchen life. We'll see if I can get to it. I may be too busy in the kitchen.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Stopping for Breath

Yesterday I spent the morning taking stock of everything I've written since midsummer. As of now, I've got 25 finished poems, which feels breathtaking, unbelievable, a hallucination. The poems have arrived quickly, confidently. They have not required extensive revision or rewriting. They are in numerous styles--a sonnet, a pantoum, invented forms, free verse, blank verse. Some are lyric; some are narrative. Some are political; some are personal; some are persona poems. Some use heightened language; some are harsh and colloquial. The variety, as much as anything, amazes me. In past moments of intensity, the poems I wrote tended to be of a piece--that is, a series of personal poems; a series of history poems. This batch is not a linked in that way. Though I feel their relationship to one another is clear, I'm not sure I can yet articulate what the links are.

As always, while I've been writing or not writing, I've also been reading steadily. Since the end of June, I've read the poems of Akhmatova, Blake, Herbert, Schnackenberg, O'Hara, Jarboe, Fisher, Dante. I've read novels by Wilder, Byatt, Hamilton, Dickens, Mantel, Trollope, Gaskell, Atwood, Sayers. I've read Seward's history of the Wars of the Roses, Walls's memoir of her homeless childhood,  Middlebrook's biography of the Plath-Hughes marriage, Richard III, of course. But this is not a complete list.

In between, I edited several poetry and fiction collections as well as a number of academic books. I did some teaching. I played some gigs. I stepped into emergency overdrive when my dad almost died. I managed my household, tried to support my sons in their lives afar. I planted, and tended, and harvested, and preserved a garden. I pushed myself to become a better seamstress. I walked a mile or so, on most days. I went to yoga classes. I unpacked boxes, arranged rooms, tried to learn to live in a new place.

I'm not writing these things down in order brag about them, or to impress you. I expect your lives, different from mine, have been equally busy, equally productive. But perhaps, like me, you haven't, till now, sat down and thought about exactly what you've done. I get paid so little that I frequently think of myself as lazy, ineffective--floating hazily through the seas like an infant jellyfish. And yet when I stop to look, I can see I've been doing the work.

The end of the year is upon us. At this time, in 2017, I was feverishly packing boxes, painting rooms, struggling with worry and hope, homesick for Harmony, pretending that I was getting over my grief, trying to figure out how to make some kind of holiday for my son, wondering if I would ever have running water in the kitchen. Now, in 2018, here I am. At home. At work. I don't think I need any other Christmas gift.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Richard III: Assignment (Act III, Scenes 5 & 6)

This week, I'd like you to think hard about the character of Hastings. What do you learn about him from the manner of his death? How has his behavior throughout the play led to this moment? Do you feel a personal connection to the character, or do his emotions and reactions feel entirely different from yours? And the big question: what does loyalty require? Feel free to answer these questions in verse, if that feels better to you.

We'll talk about these issues on Monday.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Maine is stormy everywhere today. Further north it's straight snow, but in Portland I woke up to a nasty cocktail of sleet, rain, and glop, with a promise of high winds to come. It is a good day to roast a squash and try out the Nigerian peanut and pumpkin soup recipe I've been eyeing.

Yesterday I worked on a poem that ended up being only four lines long. I copied out a chunk of Canto III of the Inferno. I went to a yoga class. I cleaned the bathrooms. I cooked and washed clothes. I sewed Christmas presents. I read about Plath and Hughes. In a day or so, my next editing project will arrive, and I am anxious about losing private time/relieved about getting paid. It's hard to avoid discontent, no matter what the scenario.

By the way I got a notice from the 24PearlStreet administrators that they're "offering 15% off all classes starting in January. The code is NEWYEAR and students have to register by Dec. 7 to receive the discount." This includes the essay workshop I'll be beginning in early January . . . so now's the time to sign up, if you've been thinking of doing so.

Tomorrow we'll move ahead on Richard III.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Last night, for dinner, I baked a whole bluefish and served it with roasted fingerlings and brussels sprouts, aioli, and arugula. For dessert we had apple brown betty. (As you can see, lowercased proper nouns abounded in this meal.) Tonight may be a reprise: bluefish and sprout-potato hash cakes, with aioli on top.

I hadn't made aioli for a while, and somehow I had forgotten how excellent it is with both fish and vegetables. I decided to do it the old-fashioned way--with mortar and pestle and whisk--rather than in the food processor, and the texture was much more velvety than machine-made mayonnaises are. And it was very gratifying to feel the sauce cohere under my hands . . . though a cook needs a supple wrist for all that pounding and whisking. Violin playing, bread kneading, and goat milking are good training for the emulsification marathon.

And now Monday: back to the books.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

I am standing at my desk, staring out into the raw and drizzly day, thinking vaguely of laundry and groceries, thinking more pointedly of the books I'm reading--the Inferno, the Hughes-Plath bio--glad for warmth and lamplight but also restless, with a sense of being emotionally scraped, like a knee on gravel.

Downstairs the cat is complaining to Tom about the weather. Up here, all is silent, except for the click of my fingers on the keyboard and the drip of rain from the roof.

I don't know what I'll be doing today: I could veer in any direction. I have a poem draft to worry over. I have clothes to fold. I have sidewalks to tread.
My good master said, "Crouch down behind
that jagged rock so it won't seem you're here.
You'll need that shield to hide from them." 
--from Dante's Inferno, Canto XXI, translated by Susan Mitchell

Saturday, November 24, 2018

"You are my guide, my master and my teacher."
This is what I said, and when he moved
I entered on the deep and savage path."

--from Dante's Inferno, Canto II, translated by Seamus Heaney

* * *

It was only after his marriage to Plath that Hughes began applying his imagination to the place of his birth, the Calder Valley: a deep gorge running through the Pennine Mountains of West Yorkshire, where hillsides rise steeply to plateau on the wild moorland that many readers and tourists know as the setting of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. When Ted Hughes was growing up there it was a site of postindustrial wreckage. The Industrial Revolution had made the Calder Valley a prosperous location of the textile trade by 1800: cotton towns in Lancashire, woollen towns in Yorkshire. By the end of the century, business had moved on, leaving a legacy of deteriorating textile mills and clothing factories, and hillsides scattered with abandoned cottages on dilapidated farms. Then the First World War funneled off the able-bodied men. Very few of them returned, and those that did were deeply shocked and disoriented by the war. Hughes would describe living among them as being surrounded by mental patients.

--from Her Husband: Hughes and Plath--A Marriage, by Diane Middlebrook

* * *

Granny Has a Vision

 Dawn Potter

Against the bloodbeat, against the necrotic
pang, against the eyeless house,

you steady yourself.
The silverware in the drawer

speaks your language—
            the only language you hear today

            inside the glistening mirage
your distractions have concocted:

A bridge is wet with river water, wet with tears.
The cherries bend low to listen.

Their branches strain against the small
wind of your thoughts, the jumbled

meaningless words, the old scents and computations.
Once again, nothing known as love understands you—

you, the soiled puppet queen, reeking of sorrow,
flapping your royal nail-bitten hands

on an island of rats, on an island
where only the kitchen knives speak.

How cold it is in this place.



  [from Chestnut Ridge, 2019]         

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Thanksgiving greetings from chilly Massachusetts! Here I sit on my guest bed, drinking black coffee and staring out the big windows into a grove of oaks and spruce, but shortly I will step into my traditional role as my mother-in-law's eager sous-chef. I managed to forget my winter boots in Maine, so this looks to be a housebound holiday. But there's a son asleep upstairs, and lots of chat and food chopping and card playing on the horizon, so housebound will be fine.

I hope you are warm and cheerful and not too overwhelmed by carbohydrates. I hope your loved ones aren't grouchy, and that nobody eats any tainted romaine lettuce, and that your car battery doesn't die (I've got some small worries about this last). I hope that your own search for contentment spreads like a pebble dropped into a pond, and that your neighbors are also soothed, and your village, and your forest, and your island. Of course that's a silly thing to say, but vain hope is hope nonetheless.
I like not only to be loved, but also to be told that I am loved. I am not sure that you are of the same mind. But the realm of silence is large enough beyond the grave. This is the world of light and speech, and I shall take leave to tell you that you are very dear. 
― George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), letter to Mrs. Peter Taylor, May 14, 1875

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

I ended up spending yesterday morning answering Faculty Spotlight questions for the 24PearlStreet blog, and here they are, if you care to read them. And I started a new book (by which I mean a book I've already read, but not for a long time): Diane Middlebrook's study of Plath and Hughes, Her Husband. In the introduction I came across these words:
Hughes began developing his autobiographical persona, her husband, when he was nearly fifty years old. After years of attempting to avoid autobiographical writing, Hughes had come to believe that the voice in poetry had to issue from a human being situated in historical time and place, engaged in attempting to "cure" a wounding blow to his psyche inflicted by an historically significant conflict. The struggle conducted in a poet's art was his way of participating in history. Hughes also saw that no single work of writing stood alone, that a strong writer's work proceeded by accretion over time. Hughes observed that the poetic DNA expressed itself in single, definitive images or a "knot of obsessions" produced early in the poet's career and repeated in variations thereafter. Like the cells of a developing foetus, each work contained the DNA of the whole man, that is, the whole image of the persona.
 While this feels like a peculiarly male way of putting things (and Middlebrook's spelling of foetus makes me queasy), certain elements of Hughes's ethos (for lack of a better word) vibrate in me: "The struggle conducted in a poet's art was his way of participating in history." "No single work of writing stood alone, . . . a strong writer's work proceeded by accretion over time." "The poetic DNA expressed itself in . . . a 'knot of obsessions' produced early in the poet's career and repeated in variations thereafter." While I never expect to have a biographer--or even a reader who closely studies my body of work--I know that such a searcher would surely be able to track my "knot of obsessions," my "single, definitive images." And I also know that what I write does participate in history, though that participation may be oblique.

In truth, despite its masculine bravado, the passage gave me a glimpse of my own powers . . . which are not Hughes's, nor Plath's, nor anyone else's. But they are there, mostly subdued, yet rising now and again.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Snow and snow and snow this morning--a beautiful, light, fat-flaked fall. I am enjoying the snow so much this autumn, partly, I think, because, for the first time in two years, I'm not packing boxes for a move but am settling into the homebound pleasures of winter. I love candles, and wood fires, and couch blankets, and a curled-up cat, and a fat novel, and hot tea, and sturdy winter meals. I love the way dark creeps into the late-afternoon rooms, the way the lamplight glitters into dark. I will get tired of all of this in February and March, but for now it's perfect.

I've almost finished reading Middlemarch, but I still have most of the Inferno to copy out. I drafted a new poem yesterday, and I'll go back to it today. A new editing project will show up on my desk next week; tomorrow we'll step into the Thanksgiving social whirl. But for the moment I have a snow day and a desk to myself.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Richard III: Conversation (Act III, Scenes 3 & 4)

I'm opening up comments for this week's RIII assignment: a reflection on something you've struggled with as you've been reading the play.

* * *

In other news: it's a snowy Monday morning in Maine, and the cat is fed up with winter. I'm enjoying it myself, but then again I'm not currently a commuter. When my teaching residencies start up after the new year, I'll be less delighted. So far I've scheduled two long Telling Room gigs in southern Maine, have a teaching project brewing up north for MonsonArts, am leading an MWPA essay workshop in Bangor and a teacher workshop in Augusta . . . plus the two online classes for 24PearlStreet. I need to write poems now while I still have the chance.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Yesterday filled itself with miniscule chores: mending a waistband, sewing Christmas presents, watering plants, unpacking humidifiers and crampons from storage, putting away mud boots, counting candles and candle holders. For dinner I made parmesan breaded chicken breasts, roasted fingerlings, a chard tian. I read Middlemarch but I also watched three episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show while I was sewing. It's not usual for me to be so assiduous about needlework, but we will be hosting Christmas here, and I'm kind of keyed up. My three young people will be in the house, my Vermont family will be staying in town, and various Maine friends will be stopping in. I've got two dinners-for-eleven, Christmas breakfast, and a Boxing Day gathering to plan. It will be the closest thing to a housewarming we've had, not to mention a celebration of my dad's return to life after his horrible near-death summer.

Last year at this time the house was still uninhabitable. This year it is a home, but with some significant gaps: missing doors, no countertop, not nearly enough chairs. So Tom and I have much finagling to do.

I'd like to find a modest wreath for the front door. I don't know where to buy a Christmas tree in this town. I don't even own a tree stand anymore. I definitely don't have a big-enough table for eleven people. But we'll figure it out.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Saturday morning. The neighborhood is still and dark, cradled in snow. At the end of the street a freight train slowly rumbles through. Above us an airplane roars, rises, disappears. I sit here in the living room, in front of the cold woodstove, surrounded by the tools of my trade: a laptop, Middlemarch, a crossword puzzle, a complete Shakespeare, a pencil, an empty cup, a cat. In the kitchen, a tin of shortbread. Upstairs, a basket of sewing. On my desk, the Inferno. Under my desk, a violin case. I lead an old ladyish sort of life, I guess. And yet it's not much different from the life I led ten years ago, twenty years ago. I had more farm animals then, and more land, and more little boys. But I also had the books, the pencil, the cup, the violin.

I drafted a poem yesterday about the ruckus of a snow day here in the neighborhood: cars stuck in driveways, trash cans getting dragged through drifts, little dogs slipping on the ice, a general public hoo-hah. That's a difference: a snow in Harmony was so quiet. Of course the plow truck made noise, but there was no clutter of bodies and houses and busyness. The snow was a private event.

Today . . . I don't know what I'll do today. I suppose I'll walk out into the world. Cook a meal. Read. Invent a story. Write one down.

Friday, November 16, 2018

This morning we woke up to our first snowstorm of the season. Yesterday afternoon, knowing it was coming, I finished raking leaves, bagged up windfall branches, harvested the last of the chard and kale, found the snow shovels. And it was a good thing I did because this snow is real. It took me an hour and a half to shovel driveway, walkways, stoops, and sidewalk, and I haven't even touched my car yet.

But it's beautiful. Through the coated boughs, the steeple of the Congregational church rises over our lesser snowy roofs. Shoveling neighbors greet one another as if we've been trapped in an aggravating sort of holiday. Dogs and cats are amazed. And inside the house, the light is entirely new: pale and cool, an alabaster sheen.

In honor of the snow, I posted a new blog photo: my stalwart bed of lavender under its weight of crystal. And now I'm going to go eat leftover lamb stew and make a hot cup of tea, and write and write and write.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Richard III: Assignment (Act III, Scenes 3 & 4)

Act III of Richard III has many more scenes than the previous acts do, so we're going to creep through it. That mean's this week's reading assignment will be short and your writing assignment will be reflective. I want you to think back over the play so far and write a short essay (a paragraph or two) about what you've been struggling with most during this project. Shakespeare's language, characters, themes? Allowing yourself to immerse yourself in your reading? Fear of sharing your thoughts with others? Or something else altogether? Let's aim to share these next Monday.

* * *

On another note: I've resigned from my band, Doughty Hill. I've been playing with the guys for the better part of a decade, but schedule complications have made things increasingly difficult.We've limped along since I moved south, but it has become clear that I just can't keep up the travel and they need someone who can be at practice every week. I feel really sad about this, but c'est la vie. I wish I knew someone in Portland who wanted to play with me, but I have no connections in the music world down here. I guess I just need to wait and see what happens.

On the bright side, I'm writing like a crazy person. People keep contacting me about teaching jobs. We're hosting a big family Christmas at our new house. My car's transmission works great. The basement leaks only slightly in a heavy rainstorm. I baked a perfect pumpkin pie yesterday. I'm going up north into snow country to eat elk steaks this evening.

The moon above the eastern wood
Shone at its full; the hill-range stood
Transfigured in the silver flood,
Its blown snows flashing cold and keen,
Dead white, save where some sharp ravine
Took shadow, or the sombre green
Of hemlocks turned to pitchy black
Against the whiteness at their back.
For such a world and such a night
Most fitting that unwarming light,
Which only seemed where’er it fell
To make the coldness visible.
--from "Snow-Bound," by John Greenleaf Whittier

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Cold rain is spilling from the eaves, clacking on the sills, hissing under tires. Just north and west of us there is snow, and by the end of the week it will be our turn for white. In the garden, the kale and leeks hang on; the last of the chard and parsley linger; sturdy sage and thyme huddle under their beds of leaves. A few late flowers cluster on the dining-room table. Though I'll soon have to break down and start buying store lettuce, the fact that I have this much still available in the garden, in the week before Thanksgiving, feels like a personal record.

Today: Writing. Reading Middlemarch. Copying out the Inferno. Scrubbing bathrooms. Going to the grocery store. Then, later, I'll walk out into the rain to an evening poetry group. I have been writing so much that I'm not sure what I should bring to share. As I said to a friend yesterday, the poems have been pouring out like blood. And in that way, they also feel dangerous. As if they might draw sharks.

Tomorrow I'll get back to our Richard III project.


Monday, November 12, 2018

I've got a new poem out this morning at Vox Populi--"How to Ask for Money"--a sample from the stream of poems that has been pouring out of me since midsummer. Many, perhaps most, of these poems are entire fictions: the I is not me, and the surface situation does not reflect my personal history.

I'll never be a novelist. I'll never write short stories. Poems like this one are as close as I'll get. And yet, as George Eliot reminds me, "I know no speck so troublesome as self."

Inventions are still a conversation with that troublesome me.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Yesterday was a day littered with disappointments, small and less small. Then I went to bed and dreamed that I was repeatedly trying to call 911 on Donald Trump, who was in some vague way holding many people hostage at a motel, but no dispatchers would answer the phone. That was a nightmare without much subtlety.

So this morning I am feeling unrested, unsettled, unsure. What I'd like to do is go outside into the cold morning and rake leaves, but I've got a borderline infected blister on my hand from the last time I raked, so that's probably not a good plan. Maybe a long walk by the water is in order. Or maybe quiet and Middlemarch and a cup of coffee will solve all.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Last night's noisy windy rainy sleety storm has blown through, and this morning everything outside is drenched and dripping and dank. A clutch of pigeons flits across the lowering slate sky; the ground is heavy with fallen leaves; the trees are suddenly thinner, ghosts of themselves. The air smells of winter.

It will be a quiet day, I think: breakfast this morning with friends, and then a sewing project, garden-design planning with Tom, reading Middlemarch, going for a walk, drinking tea, folding shirts.

I've begun copying out the Inferno, so there's that too.
And like a man reneging his decision,
            having second thoughts and shifting ground,
            withdrawing from the course he has embarked on,
On that dark hillside there and then I weakened. 
--Canto II, translated by Seamus Heaney

Friday, November 9, 2018

There's a sheen of frost in the neighborhood this morning--riming windshields and roofs, sugaring leaves and grass. In the kitchen, the radio pours out chaos like syrup--lies, murder, lies, murder--but our rooms and the street outside our windows remain, on the surface, staid, even prim: recycling bins lined up tidily on the curb; place mats lined up tidily on the dining-room table; pillows plumped tidily on the couches.

I am reading Shakespeare, Dante, Eliot, Herbert. I am writing poems and making apple strudel and going for long walks. I am working on teaching plans and editing manuscripts. Meanwhile, poison leaches into the veins of the nation. Meanwhile, the work I do documents, reacts, resists . . . and solves nothing.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

What I've Been Reading Lately

"It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never be liberated from a small, hungry, shivering self--never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted." --George Eliot, Middlemarch

* * *

In the middle of the journey of our life
            I found myself astray in a dark wood
            where the straight road had been lost sight of.
How hard it is to say what it was like
            in the thick of thickets, in a wood so dense and gnarled
            the very thought of it renews my panic.
It is bitter almost as death itself is bitter.

--Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, translated by Seamus Heaney

* * *

Starres have their storms, ev’n in high degree,
                        As well as we.
A throbbing conscience spurred by remorse
                        Hath a strange force:
It quits the earth, and mounting more and more
Dares to assault thee, and besiege thy doore.

--George Herbert, "The Storm"

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

I woke up this morning to learn that Maine has elected its first woman governor: Janet Mills, a Democrat, a much-experienced state attorney general, a superbly qualified person for the job. This is tremendous news for our state, which has floundered through two terms of our mini-Trump, Paul LePage. The District 2 House seat is currently too close to call, yet that in itself is good news as the second district tends to be virulently conservative. But our excellent senator Angus King has won reelection; our excellent District 1 House member Chellie Pingree has won reelection. Right now Maine feels like a good place to live.

I voted yesterday morning at the St. Pius fellowship hall, standing in line for about an hour and a half among a stream of cheerful and patient citizens. Tom, who voted there in the evening, said there were long, long lines at the voter registration table. The process felt inefficient, occasionally verging on chaos, but somehow everything seemed fine anyway. It felt good to be part of the communal determination.

Voting in Harmony was very different from this. There were no lines at all, no chaos, but there was also a clear knowledge of who exactly was voting for what, not to mention the poll workers' weird hazing habit of announcing party affiliations--"Dawn Potter! Democrat!"--like they were pinning a scarlet letter to my parka. Portland is a heavily Democratic city, and voting here, I have to say, offers a certain sort of relief after so many years of Democratic shaming up north. At the same time, I know this sense of communal citizenship is extremely localized. No doubt, Harmony voters overwhelmingly supported every candidate I dislike. The size of the voting population is on Portland's side, but the rural-urban disconnect remains powerful.

Not all of the national races went our way. But some did. Though Florida and Texas are sad, Wisconsin and Kansas are big victories. The Democrats regained the House, and that is a crucial check on executive power. All in all, hope is flickering a little bit brighter this morning.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

I've been more or less awake since 3 a.m., which I'm not entirely blaming on worries about the election. There was also a clatter of rain on the roof and, eventually, an obstreperous cat, not to mention the irritation of Sheena Easton's wretched "For Your Eyes Only" looping through my skull. As a result, here I sit in the living room, drinking black coffee and trying to replace the night rubble with cleansing thoughts about Middlemarch and the poem I finished yesterday.

And the poem does make me happy, if for no other reason than it serves as proof of the elasticity of a reading life. I began the poem with a four-word trigger: words I'd chosen at random from a volume of George Herbert's poetry. But as the draft pulsed down the page, I began to hear something within it that sounded like another poet altogether. Quickly I figured out that I was hearing Dante . . . or, more accurately, Seamus Heaney's translation of the opening canto. I had not read that canto lately, had not been thinking of Dante's or Heaney's work, but that did not stop my brain from taking the Inferno off the shelf and brushing the dust into my draft.

* * *
What could I answer except, "I come"?
I said it, flushed a little with that color
that makes a man worthy, sometimes, of pardon. 
--from Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, translated by W. S. Merwin

Monday, November 5, 2018

Richard III: Conversation (Act III, Scenes 1 & 2)

Good morning, RIII readers! Feel free to begin posting your passage-with-stage-directions in the comments. Speaking for myself, I found it interesting to read these scenes with a specific focus on potential physical action. I'm sure actors and directors do this constantly, but I tend to get distracted by language and overlook the fact that plays are enacted by actual bodies. So I'm looking forward to your notions.

* * *

In other news: vote vote vote vote vote vote vote.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Making black cake is always time-consuming, but yesterday was worse than usual because I ended up having to candy my own citron before I could even start the cake. Of course, it was lovely to find fresh citron at the market (what an amazing fragrance it has!), and I was excited to learn how to candy it. But the project took all day.

By late afternoon, though, we did get a chance to go for a long walk into the headwinds. The gusts were strong and the light was watery and the leaves whipped every which way through streets and cemetery.

Today I will not be in the kitchen. Instead, I will be removing a bush I hate. I don't often hate a bush, especially not a rosebush, but this multiflora has got to go. Not only does it sprawl into sidewalk and driveway and snag all passersby and require quarterly pruning, but it also has the meanest thorns I have ever met. Two pairs of leather gloves are not enough padding for this monster. I will not miss it when it's gone.

In between times, I will read Middlemarch, make kale soup and winter-squash rolls, and worry about the election.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

The rain is pouring, pouring down--clacking on panes, on vents; sluicing onto sills and stoops. It is forecast to rain like this all day, so I will spend it baking Emily Dickinson's black cake . . . for the first time in two years. What a joy it is, not to be moving house at Christmas! And to have a beautiful baking kitchen on a cold, dank day.

I've been reading Middlemarch, copying out poems by Frank O'Hara and George Herbert, and crazily writing my own. Now, after a week of work, I've got three close-to-finished drafts, plus the embryonic opening stanzas of a fourth. The poems keep pouring, like the rain.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Richard III: Assignment (Act III, Scenes 1 & 2)

The other day I overheard my father-in-law (a retired theater professor) discussing Shakespeare with my son (a college theater major). My father-in-law mentioned that Shakespeare could be complicated to interpret because his speeches imply so much action yet they include very few stage directions. I immediately thought of Bach, whose works are also very difficult to interpret yet include little guidance for performers beyond the notes themselves.

So this week I want you to choose a short speech and write some stage directions to accompany it. Let's aim for comments on Monday morning; otherwise, we'll get entangled in Election Day.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

"Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted upon." --George Eliot, Middlemarch

* * *

Mary Ann Evans published Middlemarch in 1871, but the events in the novel take place much earlier in the century: in the late 1820s and early 1830s--and not in smart-set London but in the provincial Midlands, where local sensibilities reach back toward the 1790s. To put this authorial choice in perspective, compare Eliot/Evans to Alice Munro, writing now but choosing to set her stories in Depression-era provincial Ontario, with characters who have little connection with Toronto but complex ties to the nineteenth century.

I am fascinated by how writers work with setting: the ways in which time, climate, geography; the transmission of information; the making of money; the structures and substructures of class, race, religion intersect to create place. It interests me that Eliot/Evans and Munro overlap so closely in how they address setting, even as they remain markedly different writers.

And both, it seems to me, deal again and again in their work with the complications of "the woman problem," set forth so ambiguously and succinctly in that line at the top of this post. If you remember that their lives are separated by more than a century, you might find yourself getting pretty gloomy.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Dark huddles over the neighborhood, punctured by scattered squares of window light. It's a cold morning, the last day of October, deer season, and in Harmony I might have overheard a rifle shot or two, even before sunrise.

I never was a hunter; I've never even held a gun. Still, I can't help but notice that a large family might survive comfortably on the fat squirrels that overrun this part of town.

I've finished rereading A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book, and have just started rereading George Eliot's Middlemarch. I hope to work on a poem today. I hope to walk in the cemetery, tear out the rest of the arugula in my garden, get a paycheck in the mail, and scrub the kitchen sink. I hope a few dressed-up kids show up at the front door this evening looking for candy.

Here's a poem from 1803 that feels a bit like a poem for 2018. Godspeed, October.

October, 1803 
William Wordsworth 
These times strike monied worldlings with dismay:
Even rich men, brave by nature, taint the air
With words of apprehension and despair:
While tens of thousands, thinking on the affray,
Men unto whom sufficient for the day
And minds not stinted or untilled are given,
Sound, healthy, children of the God of heaven,
Are cheerful as the rising sun in May.
What do we gather hence but firmer faith
That every gift of noble origin
Is breathed upon by Hope's perpetual breath;
That virtue and the faculties within
Are vital,—and that riches are akin
To fear, to change, to cowardice, and death?






Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Hello, hello-- I apologize profusely for the long delay in posting, but my geriatric computer went into the hospital, and this similarly geriatric blog platform did not allow me to post from my phone. I hope that most of you got the explanatory messages I left in comments or on Facebook.

In any case, I'm back now, just in time to let you know that I have a reading tonight at Space Gallery in downtown Portland at 7 p.m. Maybe you can come. The theme is "Migrations" and is part of a larger project organized by the Maine College of Art. This morning I combined through my stacks looking for pieces that fit the topic . . . thinking about my Chestnut Ridge immigrant poems but also some of my pieces about leaving Harmony. I'm looking forward to listening to what the other readers will share.

I've been on the road, during these days of blog silence: a quick trip west to see the amazing college drama production that my son assistant-directed, and to celebrate his 21st birthday . . . and to watch the Red Sox win the World Series while sitting a bar full of what appeared to be Yankees fans. That was strange.

I know we need to get back to RIII, and I'll aim to post the next assignment later in the week, after I catch up on other computer-related stuff.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

. . . and just like that, I fell down the writing well again.

Yesterday, I finished--finished--a three-page epistolary poem titled "A Listener Sends Six Letters to God, in Autumn." I emphasize the finished because the poem had only been a half-baked meandering draft, composed last week during one late-afternoon sitting and then left to its own devices. A friend read the fragment and suggested the epistolary idea, but without any specific instructions. So I did nothing for a week; I didn't even think about the draft. And then, in a morning, I called it up, and it rearranged under my hands and became its final self.

I don't know why the task felt so obvious--not easy, but clear. This is the great mystery of the writing zone.

So today, perhaps there will be another poem. Or perhaps, instead, I will tear out frost-bitten cosmos and dig up dahlia tubers.

But what is happening to our country?

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The cat is curled in his chair. Tom is clicking cup against saucer. The household hums with its quiet electrical secrets.

Rain this morning, a winding-down of last night's steady pour. I hear the drops tapping on the panes, and through the darkened windows I see reflections of wet on the invisible street.

Yesterday I returned an edited manuscript to the author, so now, while I wait for the next project, I have a day or two to spend on my own work. I hope--I believe--I can rethread my summer needle. The unwritten poems feel alive, available, as if they're waiting for me to uncork the bottle or rub the lamp.

Look at this clutter of metaphors flying off the page already! But, really, I don't think it's glibness so much as a froth of imagining.

I've been thinking lately about persistence--how it intersects with solitude, and imagination, and skill. Of course, there's more than one way to conceive of persistence. There's the boxer comparison, for instance--getting punched in the gut, and falling down, and then getting up, and taking the punch again. There's also persistence as an endless question: "But what if . . . ? But what if . . . ?" And for a writer, persistence might mean the simple act of throwing words into space--not just now and then, not just under the persuasion of a mentor, but because throwing words into space has become an urgency of the body and the mind.

Persistence is recklessness.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Richard III: Conversation (Act 2, Scenes 3 & 4)

RIII readers: It's time to post your character descriptions in the comments. In the meantime, I will chatter a bit.

* * *

The end is in sight with my editorial project. It's been hard work and, like writing, has required much solitude. I realized yesterday that I can go for days without speaking to anyone other than Tom. Because this is a town, I do at least lay eyes on other people--during walks, even just staring out the window--which is more than I can say for Harmony . . . though of course my household was larger then.

It's looking now as if my teaching schedule will mostly be winter- and spring-based. Autumn is the lone time. But I did have house guests this past weekend. And I do have a reading next week, part of an event called "Making Migration Visible: Traces, Tracks & Pathways."  And I will see family this coming weekend. And I am getting my hair cut today. So at least I have the memory and prospect of speaking.

Do not think I am complaining. Home is one of my favorite places to be, especially now that I have one again.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Downstairs a batch of sheets is rolling and tangling in the dryer. Upstairs I am putting away clean dishes and making coffee and trying to figure out why only a few of the registers are shooting out hot air. It's a cold dark Monday morning.

Glancing up across the driveway, I can see into my neighbor's lit apartment window: red India-print cloth tacked up against a white wall; a hump of clothing hung over the corner of a closet door. For all I know she is looking down through my naked windows at me, wrapped in my red robe, typing away. Neither of us seems too concerned about curtains.

Flowers are blooming bravely inside the house, but the shadows are hiding the frost-damage outside. The season is dying. Yet later, when the sun rises, clouds will swirl against blue; the breeze will tug at the roots of my hair. It will all feel like life.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

It's been a busy weekend of house guests and gallivanting and staying up too late. But yesterday morning, while they were sleeping, I did find time to yank out my frost-nipped scarlet runners and the endlessly productive eggplant. I harvested the last of the lettuce and planted my garlic, discovered a couple of overlooked carrots, and did some weeding in preparation for flower-bulb planting. Tonight we're supposed to get our first hard frost, so I know I'll soon be digging up dahlia tubers and ripping out the rest of the cosmos and nasturtiums. Then the garden will be down to leeks, chard, kale, and hardy salad greens.

For now, though, I'm sitting here in the Sunday morning dark, on the grey couch, against a bright pillow, under a circle of lamplight. The furnace is humming to itself. The mantel clock is ticking. Various men are snoring gently in their various beds. Outside, the sky is just beginning to blue; and across the street one shaded upstairs window glows.


Immortal Autumn

Archibald MacLeish

I speak this poem now with grave and level voice
In praise of autumn, of the far-horn-winding fall.

I praise the flower-barren fields, the clouds, the tall
Unanswering branches where the wind makes sullen noise.

I praise the fall: it is the human season.
                                                               Now
No more the foreign sun does meddle at our earth,
Enforce the green and bring the fallow land to birth,
Nor winter yet weigh all with silence the pine bough,

But now in autumn with the black and outcast crows
Share we the spacious world: the whispering year is gone:
There is more room to live now: the once secret dawn
Comes late by daylight and the dark unguarded goes.

Between the mutinous brave burning of the leaves
And winter’s covering of our hearts with his deep snow
We are alone: there are no evening birds: we know
The naked moon: the tame stars circle at our eaves.

It is the human season. On this sterile air
Do words outcarry breath: the sound goes on and on.
I hear a dead man’s cry from autumn long since gone.

I cry to you beyond upon this bitter air.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Well, it's got to be said, and I'll get it out of the way now so as not to bore you too much with sports talk.
THE RED SOX ARE GOING TO THE WORLD SERIES! I'M SO HAPPY!
Okay, now, that that's been made clear, I can get back to thinking about books and food.

We have house guests arriving this evening--friends we've known since college--and they love good food and always expect me to go all out, so I've been planning tonight's dinner for months. We'll start with cheese and charcuterie. Then we'll move on to Portuguese seafood stew (with littlenecks, mussels, cod, garden tomatoes and peppers, and homemade pot au feu broth), with a salad of rapini and nasturtium leaves (picked before last night's frost) and two kinds of bread: breadsticks with black sesame seeds, and soft dinner rolls with black pepper and winter squash puree. For dessert: a pear and dried cranberry pie, with ginger whipped cream.

It's not exactly a fancy meal, but my goal was to make much of what Portland has to offer seafood- and garden-wise.  Needless to say: I'll be running that new dishwasher a lot today.

I've started re-reading A. S. Byatt's The Children's Hour. I've been writing. Probably I'll need to rip out some frostbitten plants today. My foot is getting better. The washing machine is still making that bad noise. More poems have been accepted for publication. A car-repair guy removed a nail from my tire. This coffee is delicious.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Downstairs, on the radio, Donald Trump is pretending that he slightly cares that the Saudis slaughtered a journalist in their own consulate. Outside, pebbles of sleety snow dot the roofs and cars and stoops. And now Tom has switched off the radio in disgust, and I can hear the washing machine motor making a new horrible noise that does not bode well for a long and happy life.

On the bright side, the house is warm; the lamps are bright; the books are on the shelves.

Yesterday afternoon I lit a fire in the woodstove and then started a new poem, a sort of fairy tale about an apprentice composer who is writing letters to God. I had no premonitions about this story; it just emerged from my fingers after I randomly chose four words from a child's biography of Beethoven: asked, atmosphere, music, concert. It seems, for the moment, to want to unfurl as a long narrative, and I am wondering what will happen to the young man, where he will walk along the canals, how God might answer him, and what his landlady will do with the butt-end of her dead husband's musket.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A couple of days ago I mentioned that I'd started reading Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely. Well, fairly early in the novel, I'd noted a brief reference to a "butt of malmsey wine." Ah, I thought, here comes Shakespeare, interfering with daily life again. I knew, of course, that this was a reference to Richard III, but the mention was incidental and I didn't get too worked up about weird reading synchronicity, as I am wont to do.

At least not until this morning, when I was sitting on the couch with my coffee, reading the final few pages of the novel, and I stumbled into this:
She leaned forward a little and her smile became just a little glassy. Suddenly, without any real change in her, she ceased to be beautiful. She looked merely like a woman who would have been dangerous a hundred years ago, and twenty years ago daring, but who today was just Grade B Hollywood. 
She said nothing, but her right hand was tapping the clasp of her bag.
"[The dead man was] a very bad murderer," I said. "Like Shakespeare's Second Murderer in that scene in King Richard III. The fellow that had certain dregs of conscience, but still wanted the money, and in the end didn't do the job at all because he couldn't make up his mind. Such murderers are very dangerous. They have to be removed--sometimes with blackjacks."
Why is this sort of thing always happening to me? I mean, I know I read a lot, but I don't remember ever opening this particular Chandler novel before. Certainly, if I did, it made no deep impression. And yet I chose to read it this week, and then RIII leaped out of the shadows, jumped up and down on my rib cage, squashed all of my cigarettes and broke my bottle of bourbon, conked me over the head, and dragged me by my heels into the sage-scented backyard of a Beverly Hills sanitarium, where I woke up three hours later, groggy and disheveled, to discover a gat pointed at my belt buckle. Geez.


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Richard III: Assignment (Act II, Scenes 3 & 4)

You'll be pleased to learn that this week's reading assignment is extremely short. And I hope you think the response assignment is fun.

Choose a character mentioned in these scenes and invent a detailed physical description of him or her. Incorporate all the senses: don't just concentrate on the visuals of clothes or facial features, but let us smell and hear and touch this person you are conjuring up. Feel free to put some dialogue into his or her mouth, either yours or Shakespeare's.

Let's aim to share these on Tuesday, October 23.

Monday, October 15, 2018

All you RIII folks: we have a new and fascinating contribution on last Tuesday's conversation post, so check it out and converse accordingly. I'm going to post a new assignment tomorrow morning, but I don't want you to miss this chance to keep talking about the previous one.

Today I'm going out first thing to get a tire repaired (sigh), then later hoping to get ye old foot through another yoga class, and meanwhile editing, editing, editing, of course, and trying to catch up on housework that didn't get done while Tom was touching up paint, fixing door jambs, and installing some shelves and hooks yesterday. He also, miraculously, found a big patch of honey mushrooms in our own back garden. So now I've got a cookie sheet of them parked in front of a furnace vent, hoping to borrow enough heat to dry them out. In Harmony I had racks hung directly over the woodstove, which worked like a charm, but that's not possible here, with our teeny-tiny recessed stove. So I have to depend on modernity to do the job.

I've been reading a book my nephew loves so much that he picked it out for me for my birthday: Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle, which I did not think was great prose-wise but agree had many compelling moments story-wise. Mostly I'm excited about getting to talk about a book with my fifteen-year-old nephew.

Now, as a prose tonic, I'm reading Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely. Let me share some fine sentences with you:

"He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck."

"It was a nice walk if you liked grunting."

Sunday, October 14, 2018

After a wakeful night, I am now blearily attempting to pretend that coffee will do something or other to rescue me. It's a shame to wreck a perfectly nice Sunday morning with an insomnia hangover, but such is the case.

On the other hand, this is what I found yesterday around the corner from my house, in Baxter Woods:


Honey mushrooms! Damp but delectable! Foraged in the middle of the city! I limped here and there among the rain-heavy trees, damp and cold and clutching my mushrooming basket, as inquisitive dogs bustled over to see what interesting things I might be smelling around the roots of trees. It was very exciting for me, and I couldn't wait to come home and brag to Tom about my haul.

So yesterday I sauted and froze a quart of wild mushrooms. I shelled out my scarlet runner beans for drying. Tom fixed the leak in the bathroom sink and mulled over the possibilities for building a dining-room table. I made eggplant and potato curry for dinner. Tom went out to listen to music and I stayed home to listen to the Red Sox lose. You'd think all this would have led to a pleasant night's sleep, but apparently no.

Anyway, better luck tonight, I hope.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

This morning in dull household news: the furnace kicked on, and I donned a sweater immediately after getting out of a hot shower. Now a small cold rain is pattering down, and I am sitting in my study with my foot up, not putting away the summer clothes as I'd planned to do, but instead staring out the window into the back garden, where the big maples twitch listlessly under the raindrops and a chipmunk grazes alongside the broken-down shed, stuffing his cheeks with seeds. It's a good Saturday to be home.

Downstairs the new dishwasher spits and sighs. Across the hall, in his study, Tom is opening envelopes and shifting boxes and crumpling paper and squeaking his desk chair. The cat paces back and forth between us, annoyed by the rain but pleased by our company.

Last night, for dinner, I made pan-seared opah (a delicious Hawaiian fish that's recently turned up in our magnificent fish market) topped with roasted-green-tomato puree and served with diced and roasted sweet potatoes, wilted rainbow chard, and parsley. For spice, we had the serrano pepper sauce I'd finished earlier in the day. Except for the fish and the oils and the salt and such, everything we ate was either from my garden or my father's--and the only items from his were the sweet potatoes. Even this late in the season, I still cannot get over the wonders of my little urban farm. It has gone a long way to reconciling me to this place . . . though I am softening to the sweetness of the house too: our modest 1940s cape, with its funny doorbell and its old-fashioned basement smell, its pebbled-glass bathroom door and its midcentury formalities: a tidy little dining room, a tidy little fireplace. This is a house that thrives on order, like a gypsy caravan in a child's tale. Its charm increases as everything finds a place. No wonder it was so woebegone when we first saw it, overwhelmed by stuff and stress, harrassed by clutter and dirt and crowds. It needed to be petted and soothed. I feel quite motherly about its nerve-wracked ghost.

I suppose I should update you about my foot. After laughing uproariously at my description of the UPS man incident (as everyone should), the doctor said she suspects I've torn a muscle or a tendon and tells me it will take a month or six weeks, maybe longer, to heal. In the meantime, I can keep doing what I'm already doing: walking slowly on firm ground, elevating it as much as possible. Her diagnosis was no surprise, but it's disappointing to accept that I'll be hobbling for so long, and my vanity is not at all enjoying the appearance of my swollen ankle. Oh, well. I knew awkwardness was bound to do me in someday.

Friday, October 12, 2018

It's a wet and puddly and leaf-strewn Friday morning, and I have just limped in from the slippery dark, where I have been accomplishing that quintessential urban chore: dragging containers to the curb for trash day. Now I am back on the couch with my coffee and considering the number of irritating dreams I had last night, all of which seemed to involve grocery lists. As I am fairly good at making lists and calmly following them when awake, I don't see why my subconscious felt the need to waste so many perfectly good sleeping hours checking lists, and fretting over them, and checking them again, and wandering up and down the aisles of the Hannaford searching for unfindable items. Sometimes brains are really annoying.

This morning I have a doctor's appointment, which, I hope, will shed some light on this limp. And then (as my subconscious made clear), I have to run some errands. And then I'll be back to my editing chair for a few hours. I've also got a kitchen project to finish: homemade serrano hot sauce, which I've never done before. I've just finished fermenting the ground-up peppers for a week, so today I'll strain them and mix them with vinegar, lime juice, and a dash of tequila. I'll let you know how it all turns out.

This weekend I'll post another RIII reading assignment, but till then, feel free to to continue commenting on the current post. You don't even need to have submitted your homework to post! I am an easy teacher.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

. . . and suddenly, with a wild gust of wind, the land returned to autumn. Yesterday's strange heat has vanished. Drizzle is tapping against the panes. We will have rain and rain, all day and all night, and I will bake a tomato galette and light candles for dinner, and the cat will burrow into the comforter.

I did, finally, manage to snag some writing time yesterday afternoon. And I mowed the grass, and went for a walk with a friend, but, still, things are not what they should be with my damaged foot. Perhaps the doctor will have some advice tomorrow morning. It's likely that I am just impatient.

I've been reading Jane Hamilton's novel Disobedience, which I found on the street. I've been trying to write a poem about pretending to be on a train, though I'm not especially delighted with it so far. I received another batch of acceptances, which brings my recent total to eight--a happy surprise. Otherwise, there's not much newsworthy in my small orbit, yet the days are meandering down a broad and pleasant path. I'm interested in the book I'm editing. I'm interested in the book I'm reading. I'm interested in the poems I'm writing. And beyond the word-world, there's a blue bowl overflowing with red and yellow tomatoes sitting on my kitchen counter. There's a vase of golden marigolds on the dining-room table. There are clean white pillowcases, and freshly painted walls, and a full woodbox, and Aretha Franklin singing on the hi-fi. There's a man who smiles when he walks through the door.
Who gave thee, O Beauty,
The keys of this breast,—
Too credulous lover
Of blest and unblest?
--from "Ode to Beauty," by Ralph Waldo Emerson, 

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

I expected to be heading north for band practice today, but as it turns out I'll be staying home in hot little Portland. Eighty degrees yesterday, eighty degrees today, amid the early dusks and late dawns of a Maine autumn . . . basically, the weather feels wrong, and it's making me tired and edgy. Or maybe I'm just coming down with a cold. In any case, not traveling north gives me time to limp around the grass with the lawnmower, and to limp around the kitchen making sauce with the tomatoes ripening on my windowsills, and to limp into the yard and shake my fist at the squirrels that keep chewing down my clothesline. I've also got editing infinitum, and I still haven't found time to work on the poem revision that's been niggling away at my semi-subconscious.

But, hey, the Red Sox beat the Yankees!

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Richard III: Conversation (Act II, Scenes 1 & 2)

As promised, I am late but finally here, and all ready to read your personal reactions to a line in one of these early scenes in Act II. I will add my own to the comments as well, after a few of you post first.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Having my sister here for my birthday was such a treat. She's got a house full of teenagers, juggles multiple jobs, and almost never gets the chance to escape anywhere alone, so seeing her was special. And then there's that guy I married, who made omelets for breakfast and steak for dinner, and washed all of the dishes, and bought me a set of beautiful noodle bowls, and was charming and affectionate and funny all day long. My cup runneth over. Being old is lovely.

Today I'll be prepping for tomorrow's workshop with seventh graders, and editing a manuscript, and, I hope, going to a yoga class if my foot can bear it. For dinner I'm planning to make black bean soup with roasted green tomatoes, and, if I remain enthusiastic, dinner rolls flavored with winter squash puree. I've got a poem collaboration project I want to start working on with a friend; I've got revision ideas for a poem in progress; I need to catch up on my Richard III reading.

But I'm still basking in the sweetness of the weekend. Love is a magical thing. And the knowledge of being loved is strangely humbling.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The small red clouds are fading into gleams of sun. The neighborhood is quiet. Upstairs Tom is beginning to stir. In the back room my sister, on a happy visit, is still silent. Today is my 54th birthday.

My private life is peaceable, my gardening life is swaggering, my political life is enraged, my writing life is fizzing over. It seems that the linking word in these phrases is life--though when I was 16, I wouldn't have guessed that an aging person could feel so lively. It's a nice discovery about growing older: that the world is still so interesting . . . maybe even more interesting than it ever was before.

Today I'll make breakfast with Tom and my sister. Later she will drive home, and he and I will wander off on some little unstructured jaunt suitable for a birthday-celebrator with a damaged but healing foot. I plan to read, and play with my cat, and listen to baseball playoffs, and fold laundry, and do nothing at all spectacular except enjoy being a 54-year-old woman: long married, graying, not as thin as she used to be. But smiling! I want to be one of those old ladies who laughs with noisy children in the grocery store. And militant! I want to be one of those old ladies who backtalks swamp monsters. And busy, and dreamy, and prone to kiss the cat. You can see: I have big ambitions. May the years strut forth on the promenade, and roll down to the sea, and wander through the forest.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

A pile of stones: an assertion
that this piece of country matters
for large and simple reasons.
A mark of resistance, a sign. 
--Adrienne Rich
I kept waking in the night and saying to myself, Do not think about Kavanaugh. Do not think about Kavanaugh. Other people report constantly clenching their jaws and crying over tiny nothings. People from faraway states text me, as if I might have some secret insight into why my state's senator, Susan Collins, has chosen to betray her constituents and vote this wretch onto the Supreme Court. I have no secret insight, other than the fact that she has always been wishy-washy and unreliable, with a patina of prim decorum that fools people into imagining that maybe, just maybe, she might not be one more Republican woman under the thumb of the good ole boys.

The other day a friend wrote to me, "It's times like these that make me realize I am, in spite of myself, a patriot. Otherwise I wouldn't feel so bad."

Before bed, as I sat on my couch, nursing the most spectacular bruise I've ever had in my life, listening to playoff baseball and spending time with a man who never had any interest in raping anyone--despite the fact that he grew up in the 80s, when apparently it was a favorite hobby of all healthy males; just ask our swamp-monster-in-chief--I tried to keep my mind steady, my rage in check. It's not that I think rage is wrong, but it's exhausting, and we patriots are running a grueling race.


Friday, October 5, 2018

Late yesterday afternoon, as I was writing an email, I heard the UPS man stop outside, so I bounced down to meet him, turned my ankle on the front stoop, fell into a chrysanthemum, and rolled to his feet. We were both very surprised. Unfortunately, when I turned my ankle I felt a bad sensation, and as I sat there on in the front yard I was not sure that I was going to be able to accept the UPS man's proffered hand to get up. I did, however, manage to stagger to my feet, receive my package, limp into the house, collapse on the couch, and assess the situation.

What I seem to have done is damaged muscles across the top of my foot, which is swollen and stiff and black-and-blue. I am now a hobbler on an ibuprofen diet, but no bones are broken.

I do keep laughing at the memory of my tumble down the stairs onto the UPS man's shoes, and the shocked look on his face, and the way he kept saying, after the fact, "But you didn't have to come outside for the package! I could have brought it to the door!" Comedy gold, I tell you.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The new poems I wrote this summer are starting to find homes. So far I've gotten acceptances for four of them, which feels like a surprising success rate, given the slow machinery of journals' submission-reading process. For the moment, though, I'm not writing any new ones. With two editing projects on my desk and a third in the wings, plus some teaching dates looming, I've had to shunt poem-making to the side. Still, I don't feel as if my ability to write has vanished; more like I'm refrigerating it for later use. This in itself is a good sensation. During my last long writing drought, my body felt as if the poetry ichor had drained entirely away. I was the husk of a poet. Now, even though I'm not currently writing, I feel as if the ichor is pulsing and bubbling in my veins. Yes, the mixed metaphors are running amok here, but so be it.

Anyway, this is all leading to an RIII schedule hiccup. I was supposed to be teaching middle schoolers this Friday morning, but now I'm supposed to be teaching them next Tuesday morning--and when I say morning I mean "crack of dawn, kids have just rolled out of bed and barely have their eyes open, plus the visiting writer has a half-hour commute" morning. Which is to say: I will not be opening the blog for comments until later in the day.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Of course I am a terrible photographer, but these pictures might give you some idea of the bookcases in their natural habitat. I know the second one is way too dark, but so was the room, which is currently lit only by a bare bulb in an overhead socket and a clamp lamp stuck onto the side of one of the shelves. When I say everything in this house needed to be overhauled, I am exaggerating only slightly.



Here's a galley-view of the kitchen. On the left, refrigeration! On the right, a dishwasher! We still have no countertops, trim, cupboard doors, or tile grout. But we do have plumbing and a freshly painted green door framing a beautiful tree trunk.


Tuesday, October 2, 2018

More than 9 months after we moved into this little house, we finally--yes, it's true, believe it or not--possess fully functioning kitchen plumbing! Gone is the green 5-gallon-bucket "sink drain." Gone is the giant dishwasherless hole in the cabinetry. Gone is the giant dishwasher box/fun cat play area in the living room. Last night ice cubes clunked out of the ice maker in the refrigerator. Water swished among the racks and plates in the dishwasher. I rinsed out a sink without afterward draining a pail. It was luxury living, I tell you.

Yet even kitchen plumbing pales in the face of our new bookshelves. Later today, when there's adequate light, I will try to take a photo of them. If anything, they look better with books. Scanning the spines of all of my old friends, seeing them out in the light again, arrayed in their shabby multicolored glory . . . well, I'd hand-wash dishes all day long for that pleasure. But apparently I don't have to.

Monday, October 1, 2018


This was an early moment during the weekend's thrilling bookshelf-installation project. The shelves are Tom's own design and fabrication: repurposed meranti boards (detritus from someone's fence and deck) between strips of steel, sprayed black.


He's got one more bookcase to finish installing tonight, but I have been given leave to begin unpacking novels before he comes home. I can hardly wait. It has been two years since I last handled my books, and then the moment was entirely sadness--living alone in Harmony, clearing my beloved volumes from the shelves, boxing them up for an unknown future.

Today could be eventful, for I think the plumber is still planning to arrive this morning to install the sink drains and dishwasher and ice-maker hookups. Naturally I am always prepared for plumbing disappointment. But maybe, just maybe, this time will be different. . . .

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Richard III: Assignment (Act II, Scenes 1 & 2)

There are major differences between cultivating a creative mind and cultivating a scholarly mind, and I can't emphasize enough how important I think it is for creative readers and writers to learn to trust and examine their own curiosity. Understand that I respect and honor much of the work that scholars accomplish, but too often academia privileges their methods as the only way to plumb a text. That is not true, not even close to true.

So, for this week's RIII assignment, choose one line from Act II, scene 1 or 2, and write a paragraph about why it matters to you. Is it pivotal plot-wise, in ways that you, as a human being, find compelling? Does it reveal something about a character or a relationship that seems important to you? Is the language mesmerizing? Does its subject, sound, shape, or word choice remind you of something in your own life? You don't need to write a thesis, but try to be as detailed as you can about why this particular collation of words bears so much weight in your world. Make explicating your own perceptions your central task. Tuesday, October 9, will be the due date for this assignment.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Today I am going to start tearing out summer vegetable plants--tomatoes, mostly, but other exhausted things also--and then Tom and I will start planning the architecture of next spring's front-yard farm. I think we'll be moving toward raised beds interspersed with flagstone pathways, and he's got some used meranti boards for the project, so it should look good. But mostly he's going to be busy this weekend installing the new wood-and-steel library shelves he's made--which means that, after two years without our books, we will finally have access to them again. This is a thrilling development. But wait, there's more: the plumber is supposed to install the kitchen plumbing on Monday. Yes, believe it or not, after 9 months spent with a bucket under one sink drain and a dishwasher boxed up in the living room, we may in fact possess a fully operating kitchen plumbing system.

Tomorrow I'll reignite the Richard III conversation, but if you haven't yet had a chance to post your experimental response to a character, no worries: you still have time. I have laid low in the conversation because everyone else has been so vigorously engaged. It's been such a pleasure to witness that enthusiasm and imagination and acumen and good will.

On another note: I want to thank everyone who has sent me such friendly remarks about my poem "Average Land," which appeared last week in Vox Populi. This summer's writing frenzy was cathartic as an activity, but of course I never know if the production itself will be worth the paper. The poems feel quite different from previous work, and it's difficult for me, at this close range, to figure out how they'll persist in the long run. To know that the poem resonated with you is a gift in more ways than one.

Friday, September 28, 2018

On Wednesday evening I went up north for band practice, so I was in the car, driving back to Portland, when I turned on the radio yesterday morning and heard the opening statements in the Ford-Kavanaugh testimony. In general, I don't tend to listen to such things; I'm working or writing or otherwise in need of silence. But I was in the car, so I left it on, and I heard Dr. Ford's statement from beginning to end.

I was stunned. I don't know that I've ever heard someone quite so convincing. She was clearly "terrified" (her word), but she spoke with earnest dignity and she described a situation that felt absolutely true, absolutely familiar. She was a fifteen-year-old girl, bewildered and frightened, in a strange place, with frightening boys, victimized by their scorn and their ridicule and their lust. Her words were lived history.

And yet. And yet.

She was outshouted by a pompous, self-righteous, hysterical, alcoholic, entitled ass, who seems to believe that being accused of sexual assault is worse than being sexually assaulted. And this man was congratulated, egged on, celebrated by a pack of aging, ravening political wolves. The scene was barbaric.

I'm not going to belabor this with you. I know and trust that you feel what I felt. But it is so painful, so extremely painful.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

from The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens (1843-44)

[The main character, Martin, is visiting the United States for the first time, and the narrator makes the following commentary on the general character of the American men he is meeting in New York City.]
All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Name and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to them?
* * *

I find this passage stunning. Recall that it was first published, in serial form, in 1843--175 years ago--yet it describes, almost exactly, the swamp we Americans still wallow in.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Richard III: Conversation (Act I, Scenes III & IV)

Because I was away from the play for four days (the tome was too heavy to take camping), I'm undoubtedly behind the rest of you A-plus students. I did manage to finish the reading assignment yesterday afternoon, but I have not yet found space to begin inventing a response. I hope eventually to add my imagined speech to the comments, but I'm going to ask you to start by leaving yours. Maybe, after sharing your lines or sentences, you could add a few words about why or how this character came to you. Did specific words or images trigger the idea? Were you intrigued by the idea of the silent entourage (servants, tutors, fools) that might accompany a royal household? Did you want a clash of voices or eras? Did you hear parallels with other literary works?

Monday, September 24, 2018



I spent the weekend workshopping poems in a cabin in the Dartmouth Second College Grant, at this confluence of two small rivers. The college-owned property covers about 27,000 acres, and is located in northern New Hampshire, close to Lake Umbagog. All of the poets in attendance were associated in some way with the Frost Place, though I really only knew one of them at all well and had never met two of them before. So I was a bit anxious about the outing beforehand, in the way one might be anxious about summer camp.

But the weekend turned out the be spectacular: lively company, great food, glorious views, complex conversations, rich poems, comic snafus, and an adorable dog. And a miracle: a young yearling cow moose spent the entire afternoon loafing in front of our cabin as we sat at the table workshopping. Sometimes she napped in the grass; sometimes she stood alongside the river; sometimes she browsed in the river. Clearly she was comfortable with our presence; we felt no sense of alarm from her. She just seemed to want to hang out with us for a while. And then, eventually, she slipped away, striding down the river toward tomorrow. As you can see from this photo, she was on the thin side, which worried us, but she was up and active and eating, so we are hoping for the best, though I have my doubts that she'll make it through the winter. It was a once-in-a-lifetime afternoon, really, to spend such casual time in the wild with a single native animal. I don't expect this to ever happen again.



And here I am, with the sun setting over the river, reading a poem about cabbage rolls.



Update: Catching up on my email, I discovered that Vox Populi has posted "Average Land," one of the pieces I finished during my crazy poetry-writing summer.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

I woke up to the sound of cold rain and a passing freight train. The time is growing near for me to yank out those tomato plants, dig up some more front yard for next spring's garden, plant tulip bulbs and garlic. But not this weekend. Instead, I'll be on a camping-writing retreat in New Hampshire, off the grid and incommunicado till Sunday night. I know a couple of the people on this retreat, but not most of them, though we are all friends of the organizer. So I'm a little nervous, of course, and hoping not to be soaking wet and freezing cold and crushed about where my poems are headed.

This will be my second poetry-sharing experience in a single week; on Tuesday evening I attended my first-ever writing group, and now I've got this adventure ahead of me. That's a lot of sharing for a hermit from the woods. But I'm trying to learn how to be a regular person.

Anyway, you won't hear from me till Monday. I look forward to talking with you about Richard III and canoeing and damp woodland cabins when I return.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Richard III: Assignment 2

Okay, let's move ahead into Act 1, scenes 3 and 4. I will be out of town this weekend so I'm going to push the conversation date to next Tuesday, Sept. 25.

Here's your assignment: Choose one speech from either scene and respond to it in the voice of someone who is not a character in this play. You could choose another existing literary character or actual human being; you could invent your own character; you could respond as yourself. Whatever your choice, focus on how that character responds to these particular remarks of the Shakepearean one. For instance, how would Huck Finn talk back to Anne? How would Anita Hill talk back to Hastings? How would Emma Goldman talk back to Gloucester? How would you talk back to Gloucester? You do not have to write in verse, though you can if that seems appropriate for your character. Just try to construct at least 5 lines or sentences.