Friday, November 28, 2008

Notable discoveries, Thanksgiving 2008--

1. A tip for long car trips: three hours into the drive, insert Barry White's greatest hits into the CD player. Instantly your sensible family car assumes the ambiance of an early-seventies, two-tone Oldsmobile with a landau roof, which is very refreshing.

2. To occupy boys of all ages (our focus group was ages 4 through 70), provide a large basket of blocks and watch how many days they can spend trying to win the "who can build the tallest tower?" contest. Loud crashes are an essential side-effect of this entertainment.

3. Daughter-in-law = sous-chef.

4. According to the carver, a turkey's bones and joints are not in the same place every year.

5. Black Friday is best spent at the bowling alley.

6. Large holiday gatherings are better if everyone is silly.  Says John Donne, "Every man hath a Politick life, as well as a naturall life; and he may no more take himself away from the world, then he may make himself away out of the world. For he that does so, by withdrawing himself from his calling, from the labours of mutual society in this life, that man kills himself."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

I'm supposed to be packing for Thanksgiving travel but instead I'm mooning over my Bronte essay and listening to the Dream Syndicate, which I haven't listened to for a hundred years and makes me feel exactly like I'm nineteen and half and lying flat on my back on the living room floor of a very grubby boy-run rental house; and now I'm wishing for a bowl of butter pecan ice cream (there's none in the house, of course) and trying to decide what books to pack in my suitcase, and meanwhile rain is banging impetuously at the windows like it's Inspector Clouseau and my sons are standing at the bottom of the stairs trying to choke each other (in a friendly manner, of course).

Helpful words of wisdom: I can't think of any. Maybe you can.
A link to NPR's story about journalist Tom Gish's career. His son Ray is my husband's best friend from college. We grew up thinking about Ray's dad just as Ray's dad. Turns out he was a hero.

Monday, November 24, 2008

In memoriam: for my dear friend Ray's dad, Tom Gish, one of the great journalists of our time. Take a look at the NYTimes obit to get an idea of what he accomplished.

Such a season for sadness this has been.

The Woodspurge

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,
Shaken out dead from tree and hill:
I had walked on at the wind's will,--
I sat now, for the wind was still.

Between my knees my forehead was,--
My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!
My hair was over in the grass,
My naked ears heard the day pass,

My eyes, wide open, had the run
Of some ten weeds to fix upon;
Among those few, out of the sun,
The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one.

From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom or even memory:
One thing then learnt remains to me,--
The woodspurge has a cup of three.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Emily Dickinson's Black Cake

The time has come, once again, to bake Emily Dickinson's black cake. This is a brandy-fortified currant cake, similar to more typical fruit cakes except that it doesn't have any red and green maraschino cherries. It's beautiful, moist, and delicious and is good for mailing to relatives as well as for quenching unruly children who refuse to go to bed on Christmas Eve.

My mother-in-law used to be the curator of Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst (and someday I can chat about what it was like to sleep in the room next to the white dress and to eat Christmas breakfast while tourists pressed their noses against the kitchen window to see us in our pajamas), and she reworked Em's recipe for giants into one that is more manageable for modern stoves and appetites. In turn, I've also made some changes to the fruit types and quantities. But that's the story of poetry and cookery: somebody always comes along and messes with tradition.

If you want a copy of this recipe, let me know. I'll be glad to share it. 

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Working on my Bronte essay today. It goes slowly.

The wind is cold; the sky is grey; the fire spits and groans in the stove. One of my sons has spent all morning trying to electrify a ukelele. The other is wiggling a loose tooth and singing, "This old man, he played one . . . " over and over. That's just the kind of day this is.

I should be vacuuming. But I'm working on my essay and thinking about poor Charlotte, who wasn't always "poor Charlotte." That's more or less what the essay's about: self-mythology . . . a problem my husband declares that I also have. Maybe I caught it from her.

Lines for a drear Saturday in November:


Henry Vaughan (1621?-1695)

My soul, there is a country
     Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a winged sentry
    All skillful in the wars;
There, above noise and danger,
     Sweet peace sits crowned with smiles,
And one born in a manger
     Commands the beauteous files.
He is thy gracious friend
     And (O my soul, awake!)
Did in pure love descend
     To die here for thy sake.
If thou canst get but thither,
     There grows the flower of peace,
The rose that cannot wither,
     Thy fortress, and thy ease,
 Leave then thy foolish ranges;
     For none can thee secure,
But one that never changes,
     Thy God, thy life, thy cure.

Even though it's overheavy on the sentimental Christianity, I like this poem, but line 5 seems to be missing syllables. Every time I say it aloud, the rhythm feels wrong. However, the first 4 lines are so excessively beautiful that sometimes they wake me up in the night.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Today I did a lot of editing, made a plum tart, washed some clothes, jumped rope, wrote about half a sentence in the essay I'm working on, ate peanut butter crackers, and read some more of Bronte's novel Shirley, which is a challenge because all the pages are falling out.

I'm feeling the need for some moral support, however, so I'm going to randomly open Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough and see what it has to tell me.

Okay, here's what I've found:

"Old men may eat tortoises freely, because having already lost the power of running they can take no harm from the flesh of the slow-footed creature."

I'm really not sure how this information will help me out, but one can never tell what the future holds. Just to be on the safe side, however, I'll randomly open a volume of Samuel Pepys's diary and see if that illuminates the tortoise quotation at all.

"My wife having dressed herself in a silly dress of a blue petticoat uppermost, and a white satin waistcoat and white hood, though I think she did it because her gown is gone to the tailor's, did, together with my being hungry, which always makes me peevish, make me angry, but after dinner friends again."

Possibly she served him tortoise?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

from The Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857)

Elizabeth Gaskell

When a man becomes an author, it is probably merely a change of employment to him. He takes a portion of that time which has hitherto been devoted to some other study or pursuit; he gives up something of the legal or medical profession . . . or relinquishes part of the trade or business by which he has been striving to gain a livelihood; and another merchant or lawyer, or doctor, steps into his vacant place, and probably does as well as he. But no other can take up the quiet, regular duties of of the daughter, the wife, or the mother . . . : a woman's principal work in life is hardly left to her own choice; nor can she drop the domestic charges devolving on her as an individual, for the exercise of the most splendid talents that were ever bestowed. And yet she must not shrink from the extra responsibility implied by the very fact of her possessing such talents. She must not hide her gift in a napkin.

This may or may not be true, but it's not necessarily making me feel calmer about the possibility of taking a full-time job.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

After many long years in the making, my husband Thomas Birtwistle's photography website finally exists. Once you look at it, maybe you'll understand why this blog never has any pictures on it. I mean, there are clearly some things, like taking photographs and figuring out why the coffee grinder doesn't work, that only one family member needs to learn. My own specialties are spelling and paper snowflakes.

Dinner tonight: who knows? At the moment I am chock-full of woodchuck stew and teriyaki moose tongue, just two of the many meaty items spooned onto plastic lunchroom trays at this year's Wild Game Dinner in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine. 

Friday, November 14, 2008

I went into the Harmony School this afternoon for the first of my now-to-be-weekly revision workshops with the combined fourth- and fifth-grade class. This age group is among my favorite to teach: most of the students have a fair amount of writing fluency, but they still retain their wacky little-kid imagination, and they absolutely love visitors. I am always fervently embraced, which is an unfailing charm.

So after we hugged and kissed, we sat around in our little groups and carefully listened to the reader's journal entry or story or whatever that person had chosen to read: "Mr. Bobcat Talks to Me" or "I Met an Elephant in a Candy Shop in the Forest" or "Sarah's Goosebumps Adventure." And it took about thirty seconds' worth of modeling before these kids caught on to the "what if?" strategy of civil critical discourse. That phrase is magical. By the end of forty-five minutes they were asking each other questions such as "What if the writer tries to think more carefully about the personality differences between the 'I' she's inventing and the 'I' she really is herself?"

I mean, these are nine- and ten-year-olds! In their first revision workshop ever! I came home in such a good mood that I immediately had to make brownies. Plus, I've found a hook for a new essay, which so far is jumping quite enthusiastically onto the page. 

Dinner tonight: tomato and bread soup (much better than the name might indicate), cheese wafers, some kind of salad-green mixture I'll have to slog out into the rain to pick. Blah.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

So why is it that poets continue to flourish in a world that sees "the poetic imagination [as] . . . a most superfluous quality"? In 1849, Charlotte Bronte had a few pungent, one might even say ass-kicking, thoughts on the subject.

from Shirley

It is well that the true poet, quiet externally though he may be, has often a truculent spirit under his placidity, and is full of shrewdness in his meekness, and can measure the whole stature of those who look down on him, and correctly ascertain the weight and value of the pursuits they disdain him for not having followed. It is happy that he can have his own bliss, his own society with his great friend and goddess, Nature, quite independent of those who find little pleasure in him, and in whom he finds no pleasure at all. It is just, that while the world and circumstances often turn a dark, cold side to him--and properly, too, because he first turns a dark, cold, careless side to them--he should be able to maintain a festal brightness and cherishing glow in his bosom, which makes all bright and genial for him; while strangers, perhaps, deem his existence a Polar winter never gladdened by a sun. The true poet is not one whit to be pitied; and he is apt to laugh in his sleeve, when any misguided sympathizer whines over his wrongs. Even when utilitarians sit in judgment on him, and pronounce him and his art useless, he hears the sentence with such a hard derision, such a broad, deep, comprehensive, and merciless contempt of the unhappy Pharisees who pronounce it, that he is rather to be chidden than condoled with.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

My brain feels all clogged up with academic editing. I am having a hard time paying attention to the real books I'm reading in between these nursemaid editing jobs, a situation that always scares me . . . like maybe it's an early symptom of pop-eyed CSI-watching dementia or a sign that I may soon be reduced to a diet of holiday needlepoint kits and Christian talk radio. I'm hoping that some combination of Bronte and Rilke will cure me, perhaps fed by the teaspoon at first. One hopeful indicator is that I've found myself craving The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but I can't seem to find it anywhere in the house. I'd like to think that the couch delivery man stole it, but I suspect what really happened is that all the pages fell out while I was reading it in the bathtub twenty years ago and I just forgot to replace it.

I'm thinking of writing an essay about what happens when a well-behaved twelve-year-old white girl first reads The Autobiography of Malcolm X while sitting in a tree in the backyard of a 1970s Providence suburb, but I'm not exactly sure what did happen. I do remember really wanting to take a good look at a conk and a zoot suit. I do remember thinking that being a well-behaved white girl wasn't a very interesting prospect for anyone who wanted to lead a brave life. I do remember thinking that "X" was an excellent choice for a last name and that Malcolm would have scared the shit out of my mother if he had shown up at the front door trying to sell her some Fuller Brushes. (I didn't actually think the words "scared the shit out of"; my thoughts were too well behaved.)

Dinner tonight: corn and bacon chowder, greenhouse salad, cheese biscuits.

Encouraging thought for the day, by Yves Bonnefoy (trans. Stanley Appelbaum):

from "Aube, fille des larmes, retablis"
Dawn, daughter of tears, reestablish
The room in its gray thing's peace
And the heart in its order.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

My essay on Jane Austen's Mansfield Park is just out in the current issue of the Sewanee Review, so I've been thumbing over what I wrote and wondering, once again, what other readers think of this novel. Do people even read it? Judging from the glut of Austen knockoffs in the Borders' fiction section, somebody is still reading Emma and Pride and Prejudice. But what about poor Fanny? It makes me sad to think that both she her novel might be so perpetually disliked and neglected.

from In Defense of Dullness, or Why Fanny Price Is My Favorite Austen Heroine

Yes, it’s true: I do love Fanny, “the quiet and in some ways uninteresting” protagonist of Mansfield Park, more than any of Jane Austen’s other heroines. But though I rush now to explain that the “uninteresting” tag is not Austen’s reduction but one lifted from my 1983 edition of The Cambridge Guide to English Literature (which does not appear to be especially fond of either Fanny or this novel), I can’t help but acknowledge a certain truth to the label. Fanny’s character is a study of the English Protestant good-girl ideal: sweet-tempered and duty-driven, morally and socially obedient; also shy, stammering, self-effacing; also doubtful, tender, awkward, and embarrassed—and anyone who has herself been marked as a good girl recognizes at least those last two descriptors as painfully accurate. Doesn’t every good girl suffer over the vision of herself as good? Just the recollection of myself in high school—earnestly long-haired and studious, boringly voted “Most Musical Girl,” and prone to having my English papers held up as models to classmates with better things to do than write essays on Puritan sermons—makes me wince. I wish I could run away from the memory of my good-girl self, even though every one of those embarrassing characteristics (except possibly for the hair) has been crucial to my life as a busy, engaged, and wondering adult.

     But my future at forty made no dent in my present at seventeen. I was horribly conscious of my unfashionable clothes, my wretched volleyball skills, my prissy reputation. And this is also Fanny’s torment, time after time. She is “ashamed of herself,” perennially impaled on the thorn of her imperfections. . . .

Monday, November 10, 2008

A small in memoriam for Mr. Brown, English department head at my son's high school, who drowned in a boating accident on Saturday, while I was kissing my husband in Quebec.

And for Mr. Stewart down the road, who was killed in a logging accident the day before the election.

And for my rude cat Frankie, who disappeared without a trace before Halloween.

And for Daniel, who made the cops kill him up on the South Road last spring.

from The Fourth Duino Elegy

Rainer Maria Rilke,
trans. Stephen Mitchell

Who shows a child as he really is? Who sets him
in his constellation and puts the measuring-rod
of distance in his hand? Who makes his death
out of gray bread, which hardens--or leaves it there
inside his round mouth, jagged as the core
of a sweet apple? . . . . . . Murderers are easy
to understand. But this: that one can contain
death, the whole of death, even before
life has begun, can hold it to one's heart
gently, and not refuse to go on living,
is inexpressible.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Need I say more about le week-end?

The Sun Rising

John Donne

          Busy old fool, unruly sun,
          Why dost thou thus
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?
          Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
          Late school boys, and sour prentices,
     Go tell court-huntsmen that the King will ride,
     Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

          Thy beams, so reverend and strong
          Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long:
          If her eyes have not blinded thine,
          Look, and tomorrow late, tell me
     Whether both the Indias of spice and mine
     Be where thou left'st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those Kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear: all here in one bed lay.

          She's all states, and all princes, I,
          Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor's mimic; all wealth alchemy.
          Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
          In that the world's contracted thus;
     Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
     To warm the world, that's done in warming us,
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Tomorrow, as a belated birthday present, Tom is taking me to Quebec City. We will stay in a beautiful hotel with an enormous, many-pillowed bed, and we will Frenchly say, "Merci," to the concierge. We will eat a prix-fixe dinner composed of jewel-like and mysterious ingredients that requires for its consumption a battery of forks and at least five different wineglasses, and we will become romantically inebriated in a plushy hushed restaurant that contains too many waiters and not enough eaters, although the few in attendance will all be older and richer and less giggly than we are. I am so excited. It will be nothing like Harmony.

So I am imagining now, but probably it will be more like Harmony than I expect. I mean, already I have been reading some Canadian poetry, just to get in the Canadian mood, you know, and this is what I'm discovering:

from the wundrfulness uv th mountees our secret police

Bill Bissett

they opn our mail     petulantly
they burn down barns they cant
bug     they listn to our politikul
ledrs phone conversashuns     what
cud b less inspiring to ovrheer

they had me down on th floor til
i turnd purpul thn my frends
pulld them off me     they think
brest feeding is disgusting     evry
time we cum heer to raid ths place
yu always have that kid on yr tit


I'm thinking we would be wise to observe the speed limit.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

My children have grown up under the Bush plutocracy. So they're used to thinking of Election Day as an exercise in dread that is then followed up by Election Hangover Day, which their parents celebrate by way of gloomy discussions on the feasibility of moving to Canada. But last night my boys were starry-eyed. They pored over the New York Times website map of state returns; they groaned and cheered as Virginia wavered between red and blue. We all excitedly wondered what kind of puppy the Obama girls would choose and how often it would pee on the Oval Office rug.

Election night was wonderful: it really was. And today, when I was sitting in Dexter Discount Tire's waiting room being afflicted by CNN News, I saw, for the first time, that video everybody else has seen of Jesse Jackson weeping in Grant Park, and I thought, thank God that at least a few of these civil rights soldiers didn't miss out on this moment. And thank God that the people of Gary, Indiana--the U.S. city, according to my fact-filled son, where you're statistically most likely to be knifed in the back--learned they had the power to start changing the color of an entire state. It's about time. It truly is about time.

On Hangover Day 2004, the day after Bush's reelection, I wrote a poem called "Exile," which in snail-like fashion, is only now forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, so I won't quote the whole thing here. But this is how the poem ends. I'm glad to see, these four years later, that I hadn't quite lost all hope.
I tucked a weary child into each coat
pocket, wrapped the quiet

garden neat as a shroud
around my lover's warm heart,

cut the sun from its moorings
and hung it, burnished and fierce,

over my shield arm--a ponderous
weight to ferry so far across the waste--

though long nights ahead, I'll bless
its brave and crazy fire.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I am, in general, allergic to politicians, so I've been surprised by my growing anxiety about this election. Last night I could hardly sleep, and today I was all of a flutter until 10 a.m., when the polls opened at the school.

Usually when I show up to vote, the library contains 0-2 potential voters and 6-8 yik-yakking elderly poll workers. As a mere formality, they look up my name on the list of registered voters. Then one of the ladies says, "Democrat," in a loud voice, and another lady has lately taken to chiming in with "Poet" to complete my requisite public humiliation. Then she hands me a paper ballot, and I go stand in my allotted booth and pencil-X my choices like a kindergarten illiterate. The last step, and possibly the most enjoyable, is to drop my ballot into a shiny square wooden ballot box that's clearly been in use forever. Probably it came over on the Mayflower, padlocked into a secret compartment in the hold. Probably those old poll ladies have to recite a complicated, fearsome oath before they're allowed to open that box; there might even be a secret handshake or special hats.

When I first started voting in Harmony, the town used to hold elections in the fire station, so we had the fun of snaking our killing-time-while-waiting-to-vote line among the fire engines. Those were the days when the voting booths themselves were a linked row of three rickety shelves on buckling legs, with the whole contraption sloppily painted in Depression-era puce. The row leaned precariously to the right; and whenever anyone pressed too hard during their pencil-Xing, the entire structure tottered dramatically. This was exciting for everyone, especially my babies, who also enjoyed the social-crawl aspects of illegal voting-booth invasion and looked forward to the final treat of the day: pasting two or three "I Voted Today" stickers into their hair.

But times have changed: now we vote in the school library and have sturdy prefab voting booths hung with patriotic curtains. And today: what a line!

Harmony has roughly 800 citizens, many of whom would never consider voting for anyone--though of course, as we all do, they enjoy complaining and inventing conspiracy theories. It seems, however, that an unprecedented number of non-voters decided this morning to be voters. Our line trailed into the parking lot. Would-be voters pressed their noses against the double-door windows. The town clerk had her hands full, what with all the aid she was needing to offer to the various stout, heavily mustached men in orange knit hats who were wrestling with their voter-registration cards.

The retired diner owner in front of me murmured to the Baptist minister's wife behind me, "Doesn't anyone in this town have a job?" Apparently none of us did this morning. "Bored? Aimless? Why not vote?" It could be a slogan. I must say, however, that people seemed pretty jittery. As if, like me, they were mysteriously affected with nerves.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Another Halloween behind us, and the haunted house in Harmony's old grange hall was a great success. My older son was one of the players and got to spend the entire evening with his head on a platter while eighth-grade girls tousled his hair and spilled fake blood on him. By the time he got home, he looked like he'd been ravaged by pit bulls. My younger son was dressed as a Skeleton Priest, whatever that might be, and spent the evening running around and shrieking with various other nine- through eleven-year-old boys. As the assigned player of scary piano music, I needed to dress for the part; so I came up with an outfit consisting of a late-50s A-line wool coat with a fur collar, baggy stockings and chunky shoes, a headscarf, badly applied lipstick, and glasses sliding down my nose. I looked surprisingly like Ethel Rosenberg; and because it's politics season, I should have topped off the costume with a Communist party sign pinned to my coat. But of course that wouldn't fly in Harmony, land of the free and home of the brave, so I substituted some Roosevelt New Deal propaganda and then peacefully banged out my repertoire of goblin songs, etc., while sorties of very small children in cow costumes (why were cows so popular this year among the under-two set?) haplessly pursued black and orange balloons and teenage girls displayed their ripped fishnet stockings and the Skeleton Priest hallooed and our staid elementary school secretary wandered by wearing a truly remarkable flowing curly white wig that made her a dead ringer for Montaigne.