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.


Saturday, February 10, 2018

I slept until 7, which is a miracle, and now I am sitting in the dim living room, drinking black coffee, and looking regretfully at a vase of fading daffodils, and watching a few snowflakes flit and scatter in the still air outside the windows. Supposedly rain is on the way, so I am expecting a weekend of slop and slush and general grumpiness.

Not that I'm grumpy now. I spent much of yesterday morning reading essays and writing notes to students about their drafts. It has been a treat, this opportunity to be a real teacher for a few weeks. I feel optimistic about the tone and tenor of the class sessions, I'm so interested in the submitted work, and I'm having a lovely time delving into my essay anthologies and collections hunting for pieces to recommend or discuss. Right now I am rereading The Best American Essays, 2013, which I happen to own because my "Not Writing the Poem" appears on the list of "notable essays" that didn't make the year's final cut. Given that the winners include the likes of Alice Munro, how could I be disappointed? In fact, I feel a small frisson of mostly suppressed semi-hubris every time I recall that my name is printed in the same volume as hers. Puritan modesty requires me to squelch that pride, but the truth will out.

Today I will keep working my way through the essays in the anthology, and maybe I'll add a few lines to my own burgeoning apron essay, and certainly I'll be wading through the slush to the grocery store, and probably I'll do whatever house stuff Tom might find helpful, and I hope I'll be replacing these dying daffodils on the coffee table with something less melancholy. But first I'm going to refill my coffee cup and make the cat stop jumping on the counters. Talk about hopeless tasks. . . .

Friday, February 9, 2018

It's 10 degrees here this morning, which is nowhere near as cold as it is in Harmony (or at your house, northcountry friends), but still: it's wearisome, and all of February and March loom before us. This weekend is forecast to be a mess of snow and rain and snow and rain, the basement will leak, and the mailbox will fill up with slush, and I will bumble and slide down the sidewalks on my way to buy a chunk of cheddar at Pat's Meat Market, and Jack the neighborhood cat mayor will glower from his upstairs window across the street.

But today, at least for the moment, a sliver of cold sunshine is cutting through the back gardens. Later in the afternoon I'm going to meet a friend for coffee down by the wharves, so I'll get a chance to watch the ferries chug in and out of the terminal and wander among the exhibits at the Harbor Fish Market, and, I hope, buy a pound of squid for dinner tonight. My plan is fried calamari with kumquats, but I will adjust to whatever the catch happens to be.

I did end up starting a draft essay about aprons yesterday. And in the process I suddenly remembered that freighted word apronstrings . . . which is to say: this essay is going in directions I did not expect; which is to say: hurray!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Yesterday, at 4 p.m., I shoveled eight inches of snow off our (too long) driveway and our (too long) sidewalks, and this morning I was back at it again, only this time I was peeling back three inches of sleet crust and breaking the carapace on the car. As I result, I am hot and cold and tired and sweaty, and not likely to be an elegant correspondent. Nonetheless, I will attempt to speak cogently, for last night I was imagining an essay about the hidden power of aprons and/or that overlooked foodstuff: the old-fashioned savory dumpling. I wonder what it would be like to write an entire essay collection about housework?

In any case, I am not going to attempt it now. I've got grocery shopping to do, and essays to read, and a class to teach tonight. But before I rush off to take a shower, I want to recommend a very strange and disturbing short novel, Irene Nemirovsky's The Courilof Affair. It's told from the point of view of a Bolshevik terrorist who infiltrates the household of the tsar's minister of education, with the aim of assassinating him in some public way. Yet as he waits for the moment to act, he becomes involved in the minister's private life and, while remaining faithful to his mission, chronicles his growing awareness of ambiguity: the confusions of sympathy and distaste, the complications of choice. It's a chilling novel but also, somehow, a very Tolstoyan one.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

So lovely to see that some of you took yesterday's hint and did submit your applications to the conference!

I got home an hour ago from my whirlwind trip north, just as the first snowflakes began to swirl down from the grim clouds. During this morning's hundred-mile drive, I found myself being distracted by the quality of the sky. The subzero air was low and blurry and dense, punctuated here and there by chimney smoke, but otherwise very still, almost tense, as if something, somewhere, might be lying in wait. I was glad to get home and now I'm tempted to light the woodstove, not so much for the heat as for the light and the comfort. The day feels ominous.

Thus, I've also decided to make chili and chocolate-pecan cookies for dinner. And to drink a great deal of hot tea. And to read essays while being wrapped in a cat and a couch blanket. There are benefits to working from home, and couch blankets are one of them.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

I'll be heading north for band practice later this afternoon, with hopes of getting home tomorrow morning before the next winter storm strikes. It's been a while since we've rehearsed, and my fingers feel stiff and out of sorts. Plus, I've had some carpal tunnel flareups this winter, and they always affect my dexterity. But at least the days are longer and I won't be driving the whole way up in the dark.

I was supposed to be editing yesterday, but some problems arose with the manuscript, so for the moment it's back in the hands of the press editors. This gave me a chance to lug a carload of stuff to the Goodwill: records, books, clothes, dishware. Ugh. Why did we move all of this stuff and only now decide to get rid of it? But anyway, I managed to clear enough space in the basement for the next stack of things that we can't figure out what do with. Anybody need a small, aging, flatscreen TV? How about a CD player that only sort of works? I thought not.

If you hear from me tomorrow, it won't be till later in the morning. In the meantime, you could be filling out your application for the Frost Place. . . .

Monday, February 5, 2018


Yesterday afternoon I received an email from a blog-reading friend, who noted: "You didn't say what you are making for Super Sunday. Or do you not observe?" His question made me laugh because, in fact, I had purposely avoided mentioning football in my post. When my younger son is home, we always watch it together, but without him here Tom and I are not always so faithful to the spectacle. Though I'm mostly indifferent to football, I actively dislike the Patriots, which does not lead to easy small talk up here in Patriot Country. So, given that I don't like to make my friends crabby, I usually keep my mouth shut.

Yet we have a new TV, and Tom has been busily setting up its habitat: a room that we can't quite figure out how to name. It's a spare room/TV room/stereo center/tiny corner room/place the cat likes to sleep. So far we are trying to find something along the lines of "hospitality suite" for a room that is nothing like a suite.

In any case, midafternoon I said to him: "Are we watching the Superbowl, or aren't we?" And he shrugged and said, "I could watch it." Thus, I now coil back to my friend's email question: what did I make for Super Sunday? Well, I boiled some shrimp and served them with spicy Indian catsup. Then I made cheese wafers and a big salad: sauteed cherry tomatoes with garlic and pesto, a mixture of spinach and arugula, a diced avocado, and thinly sliced kumquats. And then we had warmed-up leftover pear crisp with plain yogurt on top. It was not exactly classic football-shaped-platter fare, but it's what I had to work with.

And we actually watched the entire game, and our team won, and I also realized that I recognize zero Justin Timberlake songs. This is what happens when the young people move out.

[Here are a couple of quick photos of the hospitality closet. The coffee table is my father's 4-H show box from the 1940s and 1950s, when he and his Guernseys used to compete at New Jersey fairs. Tom built the stereo cabinet, naturally. And one of those turntables is for playing 78s.]



Sunday, February 4, 2018

Another bout of insomnia finally drove me out of bed at 4:30. Is it better to be sleepless on a weekend or a weeknight? I suppose it doesn't make much difference. The deliciousness of late sleeping eludes me, yet the thought of it is sweet. I like to imagine sleeping till 8 on a Sunday morning.

But I suppose there are worse things than sitting quietly in my cottage living room, listening to the freight train blow its lonesome horn as it rumbles slowly through the darkness.

The old clock on the mantle grinds out the quarter-hour. A jar of half-open daffodils gleams in the dim light. I am reading a sad novel about the battle between the Bolsheviks and the White Russians . . . the loss of land, the death of sons, the strange ironic inversion of servant and master.

Yesterday, by accident, I misunderstood a question about my personal dreaming habits: I thought a friend was asking instead what my dreams for the Frost Place might be, and off the top of my head reeled off what we laughingly called the Charter of the Conference. But really it's more like a charter for an imagined life . . . an opium dream, a New Year's resolution.
That the shadows of the old will continue to wind among the shadows of the new 
That the bonds of intellectual engagement will also be the bonds of emotional engagement 
That our tears and laughter will well from the same source
That we will move the definition of teacher beyond the classroom into the way in which we choose to exist in the world
These wishes all seem actual yet impossible, progressive yet archaic: a tale of what happened and a tale of what could happen. I could read them on a water-stained list extracted from a snuff bottle hidden underneath the floorboards of a tumbledown house, where mice gnaw at shattered plaster and skunk families slip among broken stones. I could read them on an enchanted blade, flickering red and gold in the silt of a Cornish lake.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The temperature has plummeted again. It is two degrees this morning, but the furnace is growling and the cottage is warm. It still feels odd not to head straight to the woodstove every morning. Now I light the stove only in the evenings--for the spectacle of flame, as much as anything. Last night Tom was working late on shelves and drawers, so I started broth for chicken soup, put a Beethoven piano concerto on the record player, and curled up on the hearthrug beside the bright fire, where I read all evening, switching back and forth between a Michael Chabon essay in the New Yorker and Irene Nemirovsky's novel David Golder. I will be sad when I get too old and stiff and blind to spend my evenings reading by firelight on a hearthrug.

Today: Going for an afternoon walk with a dear young woman. Cheering up my houseplants with some fresh soil. Figuring how to get the scanner to work so I can email a discussion essay to my class. Trying to remove some lingering ugly dirt from the bathroom. Watching Tom set up his new TV. Carrying the cat around on my shoulder. Wondering how I feel about the novels of Irene Nemirovsky. Wishing we could finally get the goddamn dishwasher out of the living room. When will that plumber ever come?

For now, though, I am lingering in the still-dark: drinking black coffee, tapping out a few words to you. And I'm thinking about the brief correspondence I had yesterday with a young man I have known for a decade. I've watched him struggle with near-death addiction and family chaos, and tremendous loss and grief. Yet he has now earned three degrees, holds a professional position, lives in peace with a beloved partner. The grief and chaos are not behind him, but they have become a foundation rather than a swamp. He wrote to me, thanking me for my trust in him. And I wanted to sing, or maybe cry . . . not with hubris, not as a way to gloat to myself "I saved him!" or any such absurdity. Just for the modesty of our lives and interconnections. The humility of self-knowledge. The ease of slipping into the abyss. The invisibility of our struggles and our successes. Just the regular feeling of being human, and not knowing, from day to day, if I'm making a terrible mess of things or maybe, now and again, managing to get something right. Tomorrow, no doubt, I'll get it wrong again.

Friday, February 2, 2018

I am so delighted to announce the 2018 faculty for the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching! My associate director Kerrin McCadden and I will be joined by the poets Joaquin Zihuatanejo and Diana GoetschKamilah Aisha Moon will serve again as the director of the Writing Intensive, and Nate Fisher will be our resident Teaching Fellow. It's a wonderful lineup, and I'll be so honored to have these stellar writers and teachers in the barn with us.

So if you've never attended, do you think now might be the year you take the plunge? Whether you are a teacher or not (and a number of our regular participants do not teach), the conference is place to develop close collegial friendships of the heart and mind, to explore ways in which we can bring poetry into partnership with the daily world. The Frost Place is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and the deep and lasting camaraderie of those who go there each summer is just as beautiful. I'd like to be sitting on the porch with you too.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

A thin snow is sifting down through the dark air, coating steps and sidewalks and windshields. I hear Tom downstairs making toast, flicking on the radio news, opening and closing the refrigerator, tapping his coffee cup against its saucer. "Democrats versus Republicans," mutters the radio. "Regulations, government, argument, administration," and so on and so on.

My study is pooled in lamplight. From the corner of my eye I can see into our bedroom--the bed, a flurry of unmade white; a low pot of begonias silhouetted again the muslin window blind; the polished floor shining. There is hardly any furniture in there. We don't even own a bed frame anymore: it, like our bookshelves, was built into our Harmony loft-bedroom. Now we sleep on the floor, as if we're kids in our first apartment.

Tonight I'll be teaching the second class in my 10-week essay workshop. In the meantime, I'll be rereading essays and, in the interstices, having lunch with a friend from high school, unless he's held up by snow. I hope I'll also be spending some time with Ahkmatova's poems.
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. 
[from an untitled poem, dated 1944]