Monday, January 24, 2022

The young people left yesterday, and the cat was devastated. He sulked and sighed all day, despite my coaxing. Paul is his special person and he hates to see him go. But other than cat sadness, the day went okay. Tom was downstairs in his shop, working on our bed frame; I did laundry and baked bread and read books every chance I could get. Then we watched the Bills-Chiefs game, which for anyone vulnerable must have been a fine way to induce a heart attack. Though our team lost, I have to say it was one of the greatest games of football I have ever watched. A quarterback clinic, from two of the best ever.

And so we return to Monday morning, 18 degrees, a household of two. I'll be writing, and then futzing around with Frost Place stuff today; probably also catching up on the housecleaning one cannot do when a carpenter is at work. Over the weekend I've been rereading one of my old standbys, John Fowles's The Magus, and this week I'll return to the Aeneid and the bird-migration book. I've been fairly sloth-like for the past several days, so I'll restart my exercise regimen.

In other words, I am trying to get back into the swing of not being the mother. That is never an easy transition, but it is how my life will always go now.



Milk Gap

 

Dawn Potter


Their udders were so bloated

a thorn might have slayed them.

Sidestepping their own stiff

tits, the cows hustled & hurtled

 

through the doorway, a barge

of skull & shoulder ramming a road

to the feed trough.

They were Herefords, beef cattle,

 

meaning Grandpap didn’t milk them.

That was left to the calves,

pink & white & knock-kneed,

a muddle of nose and bone.

 

Undaunted, they squeezed

among red brawn & hot flank,

joyfully smashing their rock-a-block

heads into their mothers’ tender

 

rope-veined pokes.

Crush, kick, slam—

twice a day, this greed circus.

And I, stashed on the other side of the fence,

 

teetered against the bars with a grain scoop,

pouring rivers of mash, dangling

a frail wrist among the grinding

jaws, the brutal tongues.

 

I would do anything,

in those days,

to be touched.



[from Accidental Hymn (Deerbrook Editions, forthcoming)]


 

Sunday, January 23, 2022

I slept till 7:15 this morning, and the cat also slept till 7:15, so I am well rested but confused by so much comfort. I don't know what got into the cat; he is usually eager to jump on me and bite me and otherwise make me eager to get out of bed and away from his machinations. But this morning he was happily curled up in the crook of Tom's leg as if he'd never been the sort of cat who would push an antique dish off a dresser just to get my attention.

Anyway, here I am, finally. We were out and about with the young people yesterday, eating oysters and hotdogs and drinking good beer and meeting an extremely attractive Newfoundland dog, and then coming home and taking naps and then eventually eating mussel risotto and miso bok choy and discussing the weirdness of the football games.

It's been a really good visit, but today they'll be heading back to the city, so I'll be washing sheets and feeling a little weepy and getting used to cooking for two again.


Saturday, January 22, 2022

It's 2 degrees above zero in the little northern city by the sea, but my living room smells like spring, thanks to a clutch of pink hyacinths on the table. Saturday morning quiet drifts through the house--Tom asleep, young people asleep, cat pacing upstairs and down, pushing his paws under doors, wondering when his friends will wake up.

I don't have any particular plans for the day, other than taking the kids out for an oyster and poutine feast this afternoon. Meals have been particularly fun during this visit. Paul and his friend are joyful eaters, and that of course is a cook's delight. Yesterday's dinner was a mussel boil, with much happiness ensuing. Tonight we'll have mussel risotto, stir-fried bok choy, and mint chocolate chip ice cream, and everyone is looking forward to it . . . though who knows how hungry we'll actually be after all of that poutine.

I haven't been writing this week, or even reading that much . . . distracted by cooking and visitors, yes, but also I've given in to mental sloth, which I guess is understandable. Now and again, I let myself off the hook. If I'm being reasonable, I do recognize how hard I drive myself into my reading and writing, though mostly, in the midst, I feel as if I'm not dedicated enough.

Here's a poem from the new collection. A number of the poems in the book are fictions built around the sensibility of various imagined characters, and this is one of them.


Sound Archive

 

Dawn Potter


What funnels through his brain

this morning isn’t last night’s hockey

game or bad thoughts about his ex-wife’s

lover or even worries about the tumor

sprouting on his cat’s belly; what he can’t stop

hearing is the creak of the katydid in the maple

outside his apartment window, the exact same

song that has stopped him cold every August

since he was five—one more relic in the reliquary,

this hullabaloo crammed with insects, freight trains grumbling,

alarm bell clang-clanging at the crossing, tires sashaying

down a humid street, dove wailing on a satellite dish,

slow drip from a clogged gutter, scuttle of dog toenails

on a concrete sidewalk, faraway shriek of a ripsaw,

dump truck wincing into a crowded intersection,

flap of a chopper looping a hospital, and still

that endless clang-clanging at the railroad crossing,

and now a Harley revving, and a nail gun, bam-bam-bam,

bam-bam-bam, a noise like a heartbeat,

pounding, pounding, a thud he never escapes,

hammer of blood, hammer of lead.



[from Accidental Hymn (Deerbrook Editions, forthcoming)]

Friday, January 21, 2022

Of course I have been charmed by the young people. The little house is littered with giggling and enthusiastic food enjoyment and cat coaxing and cheerful friendly chatter. Last night we had a central Maine diaspora dinner, with my dear Lucy here as well, and a feast of garlicky meatballs (from the lamb raised by Lucy's sister) plus baked feta and roasted vegetables and chocolate cake, and the young people spontaneously did the dishes and then flopped around the living room faux-seriously planning TikTok videos, and the ghosts of past and present smiled on us.

Today they'll be asleep for hours and then awake and away and then back and awake and then napping and eating, but I have no idea in what order or duration any of this will happen. I've got some desk things to sort through, and I want to go for a walk, but mostly I'll float amid whatever happens to be going on. I'm slowly beginning to work my way into the Aeneid, and as always I've got class prep waiting for me, but none of this is urgent. It's okay for me to float.

The little house is happy to be holding up so well: a kitchen crowded with cooks and conversers, a dining-room crammed with table legs, a living room without quite enough chairs (and one is criminally hogged by the cat) but with tulips and a warm fire and ska and plates of cake.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

I became interested in Polish poetry for a couple of reasons. First, my own heritage. My mother is half Polish, and her attachment to that bloodline has always been strong. Her grandparents emigrated early in the twentieth century, so the links between my American present and this patch of ancestral Europe feel unusually near and raw, given that every other branch of my family has been dug into American soil for hundreds of years.

As an apprentice poet, I knew nothing about Polish literature, nothing about Polish art, beyond Chopin. But then my mentor, Baron Wormser, introduced me to the poems of Czeslaw Milosz. I read, and kept reading, and then found the work of Wislawa Szymborka, Zbigniew Herbert, and others. All were very different from one another, yet they shared something. What was it? A tonal sorrow, perhaps. But also a candid drive to speak as individuals in the midst of destruction.

Poland, as a nation, has long been at the mercy of its powerful neighbors--pressed by Austro-Hungary and Germany on one side, Russia on the other; its borders hacked; its people subsumed, subdued, manipulated, murdered. Like a geographical amoeba, Poland shrinks and swells.

What is it like to be a poet in a country with this history? Those who were writing during and after World War II had, in some cases, been children during World War I. All were squeezed between German poison and Soviet poison. All felt the long, long history of Poland-as-pawn. And yet their poems, in large part, are not a chronicle of specific incident but are the voices of people tracking the coils of their own minds. The fate of their nation was an omnipresent dread, but they wrote as individuals, comic and tragic, within that dread.

Our situation today as Americans is in no way equivalent to theirs in 1950. Yet I think most of us have become acquainted with dread. How do we address this public miasma in our work--not as political beings only, but as people who love and hate and laugh and daydream and listen to music and cook dinner and lie awake at night worrying?

Those are the kinds of conversations I hope we have during my upcoming Frost Place Studio Session: The Nation as Muse: Learning from the Postwar Polish Poets. Maybe you want to write some new poems; maybe you want to talk to others about your complicated feelings around dread and creation. Whatever your impetus, I hope you'll consider joining me in March for an online weekend of camaraderie and experiment. Already this class is half full. I'm excited that it's attracting so much interest, but I also understand why. We are living in hard times.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Paul is driving up from NYC this morning with a friend, and I am making a chocolate layer cake for them, because why not? This will be P's first return to Portland since last summer, when he broke free from our quarantine nest, and he is eager to see his cat and pick up his canoe gear and show his friend the local sights, and also will be pleased to eat a good homemade cake.

So the house will be enveloped in its old-fashioned uproar for a few days, and I am looking forward to the ruckus, though I am also, for the moment, enjoying this pleasant early-morning quiet. There's a new bouquet of tulips on the living-room table, a fresh bunch of parsley in a glass on the kitchen counter, a wooden platter of pears and avocados in the dining room. The houseplants are glowing in the corners, the floors are scratched but clean, the shabby furniture is what it is and can be no better.

Today, when not working on my cake, I'll be reading the Aeneid, fiddling with some poem drafts, going for a walk, making up the guest bed, missing my garden a little. I can feel myself beginning to get ready for spring. I eye the beds through the window and wonder how the bulbs I planted a few months ago are doing, wonder how soon the soil will soften. We've got at least a month to go before I can expect to see a snowdrop, two or more before I can start yanking out kale stalks and consider planting radishes. But the gardening ichor is fizzing gently in my veins.

I have to be content with store-bought tulips and parsley and pears, and for now they really are good enough. It is restful, midwinter, to contemplate a bloom, a flat green leaf, a heap of red-blushed fruit. Every day Tom goes to work in one mansion or other, and every day he comes home to this little half-fixed-up house and its low-rent comforts. But I love them, and him, and he seems glad to see me too, and we are both looking forward to that chocolate cake.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

I'm going to tell you a small tale about being brave.

I have known Donna for close to 20 years. We met in Harmony, where we were both raising children and feeling like awkward weirdos. It was a good way to begin loving each other. Eventually Donna moved to Bangor and then I moved to Portland, but somehow, magically, we stayed good friends, though our children weren't the same age and, on the surface, we didn't share a lot of interests. For instance, Donna is an excellent shopper; I would rather have my eyes poked out. Donna knows everything there is to know about cute hairstyles; I can barely comb my hair. You get the picture.

Last fall, during a search for her older daughter's missing dog, Donna tripped into a ditch and broke both her leg and her arm. This coincided with her younger daughter's departure for college; the pandemic was raging: when I talked to her, I could hear how hopeless she felt. And I felt hopeless too. I lived in another part of the state; what could I do?

But tentatively I asked: "Do you want to read a book together?"

Probably I won't be able to convey how hard a question this was to ask. In Harmony, books were my private freak life. Any kid who came into my house stared in disbelief at the shelves. Most adults didn't mention them at all. I had one friend who would talk about books with me, but otherwise I mostly kept my mouth shut, unless someone asked me to help their kid with English homework. Much as I loved Donna, asking her to read a book with me meant opening a door into a life we had never shared. I feared making her afraid of me, but I also feared that her response would remind me of how stupid my devotions must look to so many of the people around me.

The thing is, Donna answered, "Yes."

She had trepidation, though. She wasn't confident, wasn't sure what she was capable of. So I asked her to choose a children's book she'd always liked, and we started off with a Nancy Drew mystery.

The next week we talked about Nancy, laughed about the plot, the dialogue, her social milieu; recalled our own childhood wistfulness in the face of this. Our reading dates continued. We moved on to Mary Poppins and compared and contrasted Edwardian bourgeois idealism with 1950s suburbia. Then we read The Mouse and His Child, and Donna was transformed. If you have not read Russell Hoban's classic, you should. It is a Dickensian exploration of a mythic Depression-era American dump, populated by discarded windup toys, rats, and various other animals. It is both loving and violent, a shocking book in many ways, but gorgeously written. Donna could not get over her amazement with this complicated piece of art.

Now I suggested that we maybe dip into books written for adults, and we began to read the classic crossover novel To Kill a Mockingbird. That is the book we are currently finishing up, in between long intense conversations about the Jim Crow South, doubts about Atticus as a rounded character, etc., etc. During last weekend's phone call, Donna mentioned that she'd seen a documentary about Flannery O'Connor, whom she recalled having read in high school, and was struck by O'Connor's statement that she couldn't ask James Baldwin to her home in rural Georgia. She would have to meet him elsewhere because "she had to live in that town." I said, "We could read an O'Connor story and a Baldwin essay and talk about them as a pair." And now that is our plan.

Flashback: do you remember that this all started with Nancy Drew? And now we're getting ready to read James Baldwin?

* * *

It's possible that you think that this experience with Donna has taught me a lesson: e.g., don't be afraid to ask your friends to share what you love. Apparently, however, that lesson is really hard to absorb. Because, as you might have noticed, all of these books we've been reading together are prose. Did I suggest that we should read poems? I did not, because I assumed Donna wouldn't want to, that poems would be asking too much, probably she thinks they're dumb, I won't push it.

Argh.

So last weekend I made myself take the risk. Nervously, I told her about a new program at the Frost Place, an online series we're calling the Poet's Table: short, accessible, inexpensive gatherings that present a few poems around a theme, along with a few writing prompts, and give us all a chance to write and share, maybe for the very first time, maybe after a long dry spell, maybe just because we want to meet some like-minded people.

Our first session is called "So Happy Together": Reading and Writing about Friendship. It will be led by Carlene Gadapee, a high school teacher, a long-time Frost Place alum, an indispensable member of our programming staff. I won't be teaching this class; I'll be a participant. But I did help design it, and one of my ideas was to have a special "friend" rate: $20 if you apply alone, $30 if you bring a friend.

I had to walk the walk. So, with anxiety, I asked Donna if she would like to attend the class with me, as my treat. Her response: "Oh, Dawn, I would love to."

* * *

So what's the point of this rambling tale? Of course I want you to take this class with me so we can spend two hours together on a Saturday afternoon, writing and reading and feeling close. Also, I want you to meet the fabulous Donna. But even more, I want to encourage you to take the risk of saying, "Friend, here is what I love. I want to share it with you."

Why is that so hard? I don't know why, but it is: it's incredibly hard. Still, if you try, something miraculous could happen.