Friday, January 30, 2009

I've been idling through the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins this sunny morning. Here's a remark from his notebooks, dated April 14, 1864:

It is a happy thing that there is no royal road to poetry. The world should know by this time that one cannot reach Parnassus except by flying thither. Yet from time to time more men go up and either perish in its gullies fluttering excelsior flags or else come down again with full folios and blank countenances. Yet the old fallacy keeps its ground. Every age has its false alarms.

I copied out one of his sonnets, and I was thinking as I did so that you might like to try copying it out yourself. The music of his metrics as well as his quite remarkable use of repetition became exquisitely apparent, once the poem was under my fingers. In his notebooks and letters, Hopkins frequently talks about Milton's prosody; and clearly his syntax alone shows a striking resemblance to the strange and beautiful grammatical contortions of Paradise Lost.

My Own Heart

            Gerard Manley Hopkins

My own heart let me more have pity on; let

Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,

Charitable; not live this tormented mind

With this tormented mind tormenting yet.


I cast for comfort I can no more get

By groping round my comfortless, than blind

Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find

Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.


Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise

You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile

Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size


At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile

’s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies

Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

This would be an apt entry in a history of radical poetry.

The Little Vagabond

            William Blake

Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold.

But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm;

Besides I can tell where I am us’d well.

Such usage in heaven will never do well.


But if at the Church, they would give us some Ale,

And a pleasant fire, our souls to regale:

We’d sing and we’d pray, all the live-long day,

Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray;


Then the Parson might preach & drink & sing.

And we’d be as happy as birds in the spring:

And modest dame Lurch, who is always at Church,

Would not have bandy children nor fasting nor birch.


And God like a father rejoicing to see

His children as pleasant and happy as he:

Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel,

But kiss him & give him both drink and apparel.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

My poem "Coal," published in the Beloit Poetry Journal in 2003, is the journal's randomly generated "Poem of the Day." How pleasant it is to be randomly generated. I feel quite uplifted.

How I Could Have Spent My Allowance

As advertised in "Ambushed in Anarchia," an issue of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, a comic book published in 1980:

SMOKE CLOUDS   Just light one--thick black clouds fill the room. $2/bag.

SUPER IRON-ONS    Just ask Mom to help you iron these Terrific FULL COLOR TRANSFERS onto your own favorite T-Shirt or garment. IT'S FUN!! [options include Grizzly Adams and Shaun Cassidy] $1/each.

Remember How Many Times You Felt Left Out Because You Were Broke! WELL, YOU'LL NEVER BE LEFT OUT AGAIN. Introduce GRIT to Friends, Relatives, Neighbors and Others.

CHILDREN'S 12" LP RECORD CLASSICS   Record #11 includes BOZO AT THE DOG SHOW--the original BOZO talks to dogs in a humorous and educational way. $4.95/record.


Enter the WONDERFUL WORLD OF AMAZING LIVE SEA-MONKEYS. SO EAGER TO PLEASE--THEY CAN EVEN BE "TRAINED." They swim, play, scoot, race and do comical tricks. Raise a Sea-Monkey family consisting of Mom, Dad and their babies in an ordinary milk glass. [I tried hard to convince my mom to let me buy sea-monkeys, but she was inexorable. Parents are so unreasonable.] $1.25/postage.

SUPER POSTERS [choices include Bay City Rollers, the Bee Gees, Ted Nugent, and Hoot Roots] $2.50/each.
Perhaps, like me, you have no memory of ever having heard of Hoot Roots. And my Google search turns up nothing. But the poster shows a lot of cartoon owls sitting in a tree.

John Updike may have been the only really famous writer I have ever laid eyes on. I won't say that I actually met him, although I did stand around in his kitchen looking out the window and drinking the cup of tea that his wife had made me. Meanwhile, John was wandering across the yard in his blue knit cap doing nothing in particular.

I went to college with his stepson and, due to series of unforeseen circumstances involving a commuter train strike, was temporarily stranded in Beverly Farms after a job interview. So Mrs. U picked me up at the station and brought me home until her son could arrive to drive me back to Boston.

I was 21 and had not yet read any Updike novels; so while I was certainly cognizant of his fame, I was actually more impressed by the fact that Mrs. Updike had made me tea in the microwave instead of using a tea kettle. This was 1986, and I had never lived in a house with a microwave. I think Mrs. U may have also picked me up at the station in some kind of fancy Jaguar-like sports car, but for some reason the microwaved tea made a deeper impression on me.

Unlike my own mother, Mrs. U had a coiffure and seemed altogether elegant and sophisticated. It struck me as odd, as I watched her husband wandering around the yard, that she had settled for a puttering middle-aged man in a frumpy hat.

Twenty years later her attachment seems less odd, especially now that I've read the Rabbit series so many times (except for the first book: see my War and Peace essay for an explanation). While Updike's work was certainly uneven, the Rabbit books have had a tremendous influence on my conception of character and motivation. They are so observant, so frighteningly observant, of the minutiae that form our lives. The only novelist who comes close is Richard Ford. But he doesn't surpass Updike.

Part of the problem with Updike's weaker novels is that his eye for minutiae can overwhelm his management of other novelistic elements. But the Rabbit novels strike a balance. Moreover, the later books in the series are stronger than the earlier ones, which has meant that rereading them has only intensified my attachment to Harry Angstrom and his preoccupations.

In my list of great books, the Rabbit novels would certainly appear. Maybe I will go back and read them right now. Maybe I'll even attempt to face the first one again.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

It's been so cold here--20 below zero at dawn. Perhaps Maine has detached from the rest of the continent and is floating away on an arctic sea, like an iceberg.

Time for a Canadian sonnet.

Winter Evening (1899)

     Archibald Lampman

To-night the very horses springing by
Toss gold from whitened nostrils. In a dream
The streets that narrow to the westward gleam
Like rows of golden palaces; and high
From all the crowded chimneys tower and die
A thousand aureoles. Down in the west
The brimming plains beneath the sunset rest,
One burning sea of gold. Soon, shall fly
The glorious vision, and the hours shall feel
A mightier master; soon from height to height,
With silence and the sharp unpitying stars,
Stern creeping frosts, and winds that touch like steel,
Out of the depth beyond the eastern bars,
Glittering and still shall come the awful night.

Still, as I type out this sonnet, I'm realizing that it's not all that scintillating a piece of work. Perhaps I will try to find another cold sonnet.

This one, for instance.

Cold Are the Crabs (I don't know the date but 19th century, of course)

     Edward Lear

Cold are the crabs that crawl on yonder hills,
Colder the cucumbers that grow beneath,
And colder still the brazen chops that wreathe
          The tedious gloom of philosophic pills!
For when the tardy film of nectar fills
The ample bowls of demons and of men,
There lurks the feeble mouse, the homely hen,
          And there the porcupine with all her quills.
Yet much remains--to weave a solemn strain
That lingering sadly--slowly dies away,
Daily departing with departing day.
A pea-green gamut on a distant plain
When wily walruses in congress meet--
          Such such is life--


Clearly melodrama is the best way to close this rapidly melting endeavor.


     Mary Locke (also 19th century)

I hate the Spring in parti-colored vest,
          What time she breathes upon the opening rose,
When every vale in cheerfulness is dressed,
          And man with grateful admiration glows.
Still may he glow, and love the sprightly scene,
          Who ne'er has felt the iron hand of Care;
But what avails to me a sky serene,
          Whose mind is torn with Anguish and Despair?
Give me the Winter's desolating reign,
          The gloomy sky in which no star is found;
Howl, ye wild winds, across the desert plain;
          Ye water roar, ye falling woods resound!
Congenial horrors, hail! I love to see
All Nature mourn, and share my misery.

"Congenial horrors, hail!" How do you think it would look on a t-shirt? Or do you think it would work better on a greeting card?

Dinner tonight: beef vegetable soup, popovers, green salad, and maybe I'll scald milk and make eggnog or hot chocolate for dessert, and then maybe I'll sit under the couch blanket and fruitlessly attempt to defend my household cribbage title.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

I'm still working away at Adam Bede, thinking of reading some of James Baldwin's stories next, and I'm yearning to get back to my project of randomly copying out Dickinson poems. Rereading "Protestant Cemetery," which I posted yesterday, made me long to be writing again; but ironically, now that I've won a time-to-write grant, I seem to be snarled in tasks for other people. At the moment, Adam Bede is what passes for my private life. Without a book in hand, I would be as good as dead, which is a notion I've had since childhood, when I was fully aware that reading was only slightly less vital than breathing. Oddly, my need to have an animal living in my house has a similar urgency. On those terrible occasions when I've been "between dogs," I'm filled with restless anxiety, the choking sensation of being trapped somewhere with nothing to read, no dog toenails clacking across my kitchen floor, no air in my lungs.

It's strange how babyish we can be, all our long lives.

But suddenly I am in the mood to read Blake.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A poem forthcoming in How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry, 2010). I think of this as my turnaround poem: my giant step into learning how to write. It's about one of my best friends, who died after I wrote it. It was published by the Puckerbrush Review, whose editor died after it appeared. I'm not blaming these events on the poem; however, you may still want to watch your step after reading it.

Dinner tonight: pork loin braised in milk, arborio rice, kale, carrot salad. Pork loin cooked in milk is one of the best foods ever and just shockingly unkosher.

Protestant Cemetery

   Here lies one whose name was writ in water.


Keats is dead, time’s swift apprentice

tramping the grimy London lanes,

pockets crammed with pencil stubs, two mice,

a half-penned letter of delight—“ah!

had I never known your kindness . . . ”


and Shelley is dead, one white hand

clutching a tinker-toy mast,

silk scarf flying, a torrent of curls

shock-whipped by wind, and the sea

tearing sheets from her bed;


and baby Severn is dead, reckless

philosopher of floors and stairwells,

founder of speech, tyrant-prince,

squawking cricket, famished

at twilight and dawn;


and here they lurk, next door to a squatty

pyramid, ten or twelve feral cats, a flea market

packed with bargain-mad nuns; and before us,

a whistling man digging a ditch. Two pear-shaped

English ladies consult a guidebook,


peering anxiously at a laurel shrub

for aid; the cheerful digger, unconsulted,

flaps a dirty hand toward the damp corner

where Keats and baby Severn hide,

not far from baby Shelley,


though Shelley himself is stuffed into denser

congress, cheek-to-jowl with Corso,

that misbegotten seeker, and a thousand other

amputated poets, Christian soldiers, wastrel

lovers of light not cited in the ladies’ guidebook


or anywhere else, for that matter,

a collection of forgotten Protestants farmed out

for eternity to this heretic Anglo-Saxon outpost

nestled at the bony knee of an ancient dump,

by far the tidiest park I’ve seen in Rome.

Compare the Aventine on Sunday morning—

parade of chubby brides and crabby mothers,

grooms dangling like haute-couture chimps

from the orange trees, high-heeled grandmas

shaking fists at pig-headed husbands who refuse


to beam, a dozen stray soccer balls, bums snoring

in the lanky grass, and beyond us, all Rome

painted under the haze like a tacky postcard.

They don’t let bums nap in the Protestant Cemetery,

though it would be a pleasant place to rest,


like sleeping in the Secret Garden, high-walled

and remote, a clipped thick lawn, green

as a golf course, smooth footpaths, and neat little

English-speaking arrows directing mourners

to “Gramsci” and “W.C.”


It’s a relief to us Protestants, this orderly

plantation, yet even here Italian chaos

creeps over the fence: Where is the “Keats” sign?

worry the English ladies, fidgeting at the edge

of the ditch. The digger lays down his spade,


waves both hands toward the corner,

smile packed with intention, but does he intend

“Keats”? The ladies retreat into their sunhats,

nod wanly, then too vigorously, then hasten

precipitously into the shade, pretending to search


for Shelley. Only when my friend and I forge

boldly over the ditch and beeline a placid trio

of stones do the ladies brake and regress, politely

hovering with cameras while I examine the earth

for traces of violets (none) and consider


the fate of baby Severn, dead of an accident,

age one year. Another predestined blunder—

tipped out of a casement, choked on marzipan,

crushed by the cart of a fruit vendor . . .

My friend, a Sicilian Catholic from New Jersey,

amiably shouts, “Grazie!” at the digger,

who murmurs, “Prego, prego,” and eyes her tits.

It’s our last day in Rome, and she is humoring me,

killing time with dead poets and babies

when we could be squatting on the hot


Pantheon steps devouring artichokes

and strawberries from a plastic bag.

She flits her false lashes knowingly

at the digger, shifts her brassy red

pocketbook to the other freckled shoulder;


and the fidgeting ladies, alarmed,

are nonetheless impressed by her sang-froid,

another trait of my hungry people—

this laborious, admiring fear of eros:

and it is lovely,


the digger’s desire, my friend’s frank

acknowledgment, though I, like the ladies,

blush and scuttle. Shelley, poor sap,

doing his Jim-Morrison dance all over town,

wasn’t, at heart, much better off;


he had to invent a sort of faith transcending

faithlessness—a house of cards

that would have crushed him in the end,

if the gulf hadn’t eaten him first.  The digger

commences his whistle, my friend and I recede,


the ladies, shy as ducks, open their Portable

Romantics and murmur a brief hymn;

the short lady sighs and closes her damp eyes:

all praise, they sing, to Keats,

bright star, alone and palely loitering.


Dying, you came staggering to Rome to live,

choking on black phlegm and gore,

dim eyes fixed on a gaudy sky.

And left behind your tired epitaph.

Nothing we make will matter.


Here it idles, scratched into the mossy

opalescent damp, embroidered with a passel

of lament you didn’t want to hear.

But too little is never enough for our people,

once we’ve been jolted to love;


and I know baby Severn’s father loved you,

dragging his nursemaid bones

down to the city limits sixty years later,

waiting out Judgment Day with you

and his child in arms, under the noon


jangle of a dozen Holy Roman church bells,

trams hissing to a stop, digger whistling an unknown

tune, my friend crossing herself, tendering

a muttered prayer for her cancer-mangled breast.

I’d light a candle, my brothers, if that were our way.

[first published in the Puckerbrush Review]

Thursday, January 22, 2009

George Eliot's Adam Bede is a beautiful, beautiful book . . . and so sad, and so perceptive, and so patient.

from chapter 4:

Family likeness has often a deep sadness in it. Nature, that great tragic dramatist, knits us together by bone and muscle, and divides us by the subtler web of our brains; blends yearning and repulsion, and ties us by our heart-strings to the beings that jar us at every movement. We hear a voice with the very cadence of our own uttering the thoughts we despise; we see eyes--ah! so like our mother's--averted from us in cold alienation; and our last darling child startles us with the air and gestures of the sister we parted from in bitterness long years ago. The father to whom we owe our best heritage--the mechanical instinct, the keen sensibility to harmony, the unconscious skill of the modeling hand--galls us, and puts us to shame by his daily errors; the long-lost mother, whose face we begin to see in the glass as our own wrinkles come, once fretted our young souls with her anxious humors and irrational persistence.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The fourth and fifth graders adored the Odyssey snippet I brought into yesterday's workshop. They absolutely loved the language . . . "hoisting" and "wine-dark" and "bellied out" and "foaming" . . . and their excitement about words was so exciting. I wanted to do an entire Odyssey unit with them.

Dinner tonight: post-Harmony-School-basketball-game pumpkin-garlic soup . . . and here's hoping my sick kid can keep it down.

Monday, January 19, 2009

I'm spending all day tomorrow at an elementary school in Tenants Harbor, Maine, where I'll be leading poetry workshops for several classes spanning grades 2 through 5. Because the kids are concurrently studying their local watershed, I'll be working primarily with poems that involve human-water interaction. I'll begin by introducing students to a few stanzas from May Swenson's "Cardinal Ideograms," as a way of leading them into language as imagination. Here are the first two stanzas of that poem:

A mouth. Can blow or breathe,
be funnel, or Hello.

A grass blade or a cut.

Then second and third graders will work with a Dickinson excerpt and a Chu Hsi poem, while fourth and fifth graders will work with the Chu Hsi and an excerpt from the Odyssey. All classes will write a group poem and will begin work on individual poems.

Except for the fact that I have to get up at 4 a.m. and drive for two and a half hours each way, I'm looking forward to the day.

from Poem 520

         Emily Dickinson

I started Early—Took my Dog—

And visited the Sea—

The Mermaids in the Basement

Came out to look at me—

The Boats Are Afloat

         Chu Hsi (1130-1200), trans. Kenneth Rexroth

Last night along the river banks

The floods of Spring have risen.

Great warships and huge barges

Float as lightly as feathers.

Before, nothing could move them from the mud.

Today they swim with ease in the swift current.

from The Odyssey

        Homer, trans. Robert Fagles

Bright-eyed Athena sent them a swift following wind

rippling out of the west, ruffling over the wine-dark sea

as Telemachus shouted out commands to all his shipmates:

“All lay hands to tackle!” They sprang to orders,

hoisting the pinewood mast, they stepped it firm

in its block amidships, lashed it fast with the stays

and with braided rawhide halyards hauled the white sails high.

Suddenly wind hit full and the canvas bellied out

and a dark blue wave, foaming up at the bow,

sang out loud and strong as the ship made way,

skimming the whitecaps, cutting toward her goal. . . .

and the ship went plunging all night long and through the dawn.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Spent all day yesterday in an editorial board meeting for the poetry journal I'm reading for. And one submitting poet's work did exactly what poetry should do, at least according to Dickinson's it "blows-off-the-top-of-my-head" definition. Hearing these poems read aloud was very exciting, a physical thrill . . . a moment when an emotional response became a bodily response, in the way I remember feeling on an overcast day when I was clinging to a wind-crippled tree on a mountain outcrop and looking down dizzily into a choppy bay; like the first wondrous sensation of stepping into a scalding bath after spending a subzero night on my knees in a lambing barn.

I'm getting close to beginning an essay on George Eliot's Adam Bede. Talk about a writer with a gift for kindness. She has such a patient, forgiving eye. It's humbling.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I learned today that the National Book Foundation has created a new prize, called the Innovations in Reading Prize, specifically aimed at publicizing the work of "individuals and institutions that have developed successful, innovative approaches to inspire Americans to become life-long and passionate readers." Naturally my thoughts turned to the Man, aka Baron Wormser; and because I am well assured that he does not read this blog and anyhow is in Ireland having jet lag at this very moment, I feel no compunction about announcing that, in my opinion, he ought to win this award. I mean, who do you know who does the job better? Of course, if you do know someone, you'd better hurry up and nominate them now and then introduce me. If, however, you feel like jumping on the Baron bandwagon with me, I think it would be enjoyable to flood the foundation offices with nomination forms. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I've spent a portion of the day reading page proofs for Tracing Paradise, otherwise known as the Milton Book, a task that is more or less similar to the job I get paid an hourly wage to do for other people, except that now, of course, every misplaced comma is not only noteworthy but excruciating. Oh, the agonies of punctuation.

Anyway, because I've currently got Milton on the brain, I will also inflict a bit more on you, in lieu of any more available gossip about Ho Chi Minh's pastry skills.

from Chapter 6: Angels, Obedience, and ATVs
                I might relate of thousands, and thir names

Eternize here on Earth; but those elect

Angels contented with thir fame in Heav’n

Seek not the praise of men.

Angels, as “eternize[d] here on Earth,” tend to be a rather feminized and delicate lot, inclined, when adults, to wear limp ecru nightgowns and stare off dreamily into the distance; when children, to display much chubby thigh and damask cheek. This is not the case with the angels of Paradise Lost, though they are unquestionably handsome in classic Hermes-and-Apollo style. Take Raphael, for instance, with his gorgeous and sultry wings:

A Seraph wing’d; six wings he wore, to shade

His lineaments Divine; the pair that clad

Each shoulder broad, came mantling o’er his breast

With regal Ornament; the middle pair

Girt like a Starry Zone his waist, and round

Skirted his loins and thighs with downy Gold

And colors dipt in Heav’n; the third his feet

Shadow’d from either heel with with feather’d mail

Sky-tinctur’d grain. Like Maia’s son he stood,

And shook his Plumes, that Heav’nly fragrance fill’d

The circuit wide.

But Milton’s angels are more than gloriously attractive and good-smelling. Like the Greek gods and heroes, they’re also tough. Heaven bristles with “thick embattl’d Squadrons bright,/Chariots and flaming Arms, and fiery Steeds/Reflecting blaze on blaze.” Being “wont to meet/So oft in Festivals of joy and love,” these angels aren’t single-minded warriors like Ares or Achilles. They’d just as soon spend their time “Hymning th’ Eternal Father.” But when God talks, they listen:

Go Michael of Celestial Armies Prince,

And thou in Military prowess next,

Gabriel, lead forth my armed Saints

By Thousands and by Millions rang’d for fight;

Equal in number to that Godless crew

Rebellious, them with Fire and hostile Arms

Fearless assault, and to the brow of Heav’n

Pursuing drive them out from God and bliss.

            In Rome, an enormous bronze statue of the archangel Michael stands on top of the Castel Sant’Angelo, originally Hadrian’s tomb, later a papal fortress and prison, with a wide stone ramp spiraling down the center, convenient for pouring forth soldiers, steeds, catapults, etcetera. When my friend Jilline and I first stepped into the building, she opened her arms and announced, “This would be a fabulous place to drive an ATV!” As soon as she spoke, our ears filled with the imagined echo of four-wheelers roaring up and down the dim passages of the Castel Sant’Angelo. We spent the rest of our visit expecting to be run over at any moment.

After my trip to Rome, every time I thought of the archangel Michael, I conflated my memory of the bronze’s bright wings spreading into a cloudless sky with rampant ATV riding in a dark hallway. Though not yet Miltonic, my portrait of angels had already developed certain engine-revving, road-destroying characteristics at odds with the more prevalent Hallmarkian visions current in stores and churches. But ATVs are blocky and loud, mostly decorated with camouflage or rust, and distinctly earthbound; so I’ve spent some time trying to figure out why I keep picturing the archangel Michael driving one. It’s not manliness; I do know that. Manliness has nothing to do with Milton’s angels, who are far too pretty and intellectual. (Among angels, reason, by way of “Fancy and understanding,” nourishes the soul—not a modern manly construct.) And at least in Harmony, manliness doesn’t have much to do with ATVs. By the age of nine or so, most local boys have torn up numbers of fields and snowmobile trails on their four-wheelers. Parents tend to think of ATVs as starter cars for their kids, a good opportunity to practice sharp turns at high speed on rough terrain. This isn’t to say that four-wheelers are strictly juvenile transportation. Hunters use them to haul heavy game out of the woods. A local farm wife drives hers out to the field twice a day when she fetches the cows for milking. A few seasons ago a teacher’s aide took to commuting to school on his. Last year, during the Harmony Fair, an unidentified driver backed one into the rear passenger door of my car—at least that was the forensic conclusion of several very interested bystanders, who enjoyed examining the puncture marks and woefully shaking their heads. But despite their all-around usefulness in field and forest, ATVs retain an aura of youth, possibly because they have limitations (small size, no roof or truck bed, plus they’re not street legal) that cut significantly into a driver’s independence.

In other words, while engines and guns are telltale signs of manliness in Harmony, even more they’re signs of adult self-sufficiency: with a rifle and a Ford, you have the requisite tools for freedom. You can drive to the mall. You can put dinner on the table. Perhaps it’s this issue of freedom, or lack of it, that allows me to envision Michael, Gabriel, and pals careening across a gravel streambed on their four wheelers. They don’t drive to the mall without asking their pa, and they never put dinner on the table. Like good boys, they show up promptly at mealtimes, where “Tables are set, and on a sudden pil’d/With Angels’ Food” by “th’ all bounteous King, who show’r’d/With copious hand, rejoicing in thir joy.” Now, on nights when I’m roasting a chicken and my sons rush into the kitchen shouting, “What’s for dinner? I’m starving! It smells great!” I feel just like God.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Finally I'm back home again, after a long week spent pondering my suitcase's repetitive selection of outfits and having insomnia in three different beds. On Saturday I was reunited with my family at Tom's gallery opening, and then we and some friends from NYC spent the night at the Parker House in Boston, original home of Parker House rolls and Boston cream pie. My sons enjoyed riding the elevators up and down without purpose and hiding our TV remote controls in the room safes and watching a Three Stooges marathon and pickpocketing personal-sized bottles of Heinz catsup from the breakfast table. This is the kind of hotel that has a Louisa May Alcott Ballroom and proffers claims that Longfellow wrote the rough draft of "Paul Revere" while hanging out at the bar with nothing better to do. At lunch we learned from a bus-tour lecturer (who was revealing the secrets of hotel history to a bored and motley group of Boston cream pie eaters) that Ho Chi Minh once worked in the kitchen as a pastry chef. Personally I think he made that up just to see if any of the bored and motley pie eaters would notice. As far as I could tell, they didn't.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

I think the MFA class went well, but I'm now distracted because this stupid hotel not only makes you pay for Internet service but forces me to type uncomfortably and coldly at a desk instead of in bed. Which means this entry will be short.

Here's the little bit of Milton we copied out in class, in case you want to a memento for old times' sake.

Forthwith the Sounds and Seas, each Creek and Bay

With Fry innumerable swarm, and Shoals

Of Fish that with thir Fins and shining Scales

Glide under the green Wave, in Sculls that oft

Bank the mid Sea: part single or with mate

Graze the Seaweed thir pasture, and through Groves

Of Coral stray, or sporting with quick glance

Show to the Sun thir wav’d coats dropt with Gold,

Or in thir Pearly shells at ease, attend

Moist nutriment, or under Rocks thir food

In jointed Armor watch: on smooth the Seal,

And bended Dolphins play: part huge of bulk

Wallowing unwieldy, enormous in thir Gait

Tempest the Ocean: there Leviathan

Hugest of living Creatures, on the Deep

Stretcht like a Promontory sleeps or swims,

And seems a moving Land, and at his Gills

Draws in, and at his Trunk spouts out a Sea.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Writing today from slushy southeastern Massachusetts, where I have spent the day reading Dickens and Dickinson and playing Scrabble. Must be wine time soon.

I would copy out a Dickinson poem for you, but you must be sick of them by now. So I will limit myself to remarking that she has a very strange way with nouns and verbs.

Teaching my copying-out-all-of-Paradise-Lost seminar tomorrow afternoon. Wish me luck with all these students who have more education than I do.

Dinner tonight: I don't know! Because I'm not cooking!

Monday, January 5, 2009

I am hardly able to speak because I can't believe this is true because I never earn any money. But today I won a $20,000 poetry grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. The check is in my hands and I keep looking to see if it really says $20. But it doesn't.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Poem 289

Emily Dickinson

I know some lonely Houses off the Road

A Robber’d like the look of—

Wooden barred,

And Windows hanging low,

Inviting to—

A Portico,

Where two could creep—

One—hand the Tools—

The other peep—

To make sure All’s Asleep—

Old fashioned eyes—

Not easy to surprise!


How orderly the Kitchen’d look, by night,

With just a Clock—

But they could gag the Tick—

And Mice won’t bark—

And so the Walls—don’t tell—



A pair of Spectacles ajar just stir—

An Almanac’s aware—

Was it the Mat—winked,

Or a Nervous Star?

The Moon—slides down the stair,

To see who’s there!


There’s plunder—where—

Tankard, or Spoon—

Earring—or Stone—

A Watch—Some Ancient Brooch

To match the Grandmama—

Staid sleeping—there—




The Sun has got as far

As the third Sycamore—

Screams Chanticleer

“Who’s there”?


And Echoes—Trains away,


While the old Couple, just astir,

Fancy the Sunrise—left the door ajar!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

My husband, Thomas Birtwistle, has 3 photos in the Rhode Island School of Design's New England Alumni Biennial show. The opening is on January 10, coincidentally his 44th birthday, if you happen to be in Watertown, Massachusetts, and care to eat cheese and crackers with him.

Poem 327

Emily Dickinson


Before I got my eye put out

I liked as well to see—

As other Creatures, that have Eyes

And know no other way—


But were it told to me—Today—

That I might have the sky

For mine—I tell you that my Heart

Would split, for size of me—


The Meadows—mine—

The Mountains—mine—

All Forests—Stintless Stars—

As much of Noon as I could take

Between my finite eyes—


The Motions of the Dipping Birds—

The Morning’s Amber Road—

For mine—to look at when I liked—

The News would strike me dead—


So safer—guess—with just my soul

Upon the Window pane—

Where other Creatures put their eyes—

Incautious—of the Sun—


Thursday, January 1, 2009

I ran across this article in today's NY Times. Interesting that it's in the the fashion & style section. Reading books with the fervor of a teenage girl: just one more way to feel like a freak. . . .

Living it up last night at the crazy family New Year's Eve party that my sons concocted. We ate big shrimp and crabmeat canapes and, yes, a plate of beef jerky for dinner. We made ice cream sundaes. We wore funny hats from the dress-up box and played poker and shot each other with cap guns. Then Tom and I went to bed at 10, and the boys stayed up to recklessly watch David Letterman and drop a frozen water balloon into the ash bucket at the stroke of midnight. Apparently the semifreddo splash was quite impressive.

As you can surely tell by now, the Milton memoir seems to be quotable for every occasion; so here is the New Year's bit.

This morning, first light of a new year, I wake knowing that my car has a flat tire and we’re almost out of dog food. Sleet rattles against the roof. Through the window daylight pulses and shivers like the wan, ticking breath of snow. I sigh and roll out of bed, clump downstairs, rake the dead ashes from the woodstove. I light a fire that sputters, but it stays lit: that’s a small triumph.

At the kitchen sink I run hot water into a five-gallon water carrier; after months in an unheated barn, old goats need a hot drink to stay alive. I swath myself in coat, boots, gloves, scarf, hat. I collect a pail of scraps for the chickens, heave the water carrier out of the sink. I stump outside into the wretched morning, draped with burdens. I am not in a good mood.

Beyond the tree line, a town snowplow clanks and scrapes, far away, now closer, close, too close, a roar, and fading now, far away, groaning and muttering, a distant scratch, gone.

A crow shouts once and falls silent.

Now the only sound is sleet, clicking, whispering, pecking the plastic sled my sons have abandoned in the driveway, wriggling a grainy trail between my scarf and my neck. The crow shouts; another shouts back.

I park the water carrier in a snow crevice and work my gloved hand into the container’s narrow handle, seeking a better grip, trying to save myself from getting wet. Eventually I start my trudge toward the barn. On alert, the goats begin bawling: hurry! hurry! The splayed spruce branches glitter ominously under their ice load. Happy New Year. Hunger and cold. Today’s thin snow doesn’t hide yesterday’s frozen boot tracks.

“If ye be found obedient.” How can I be otherwise? If I don’t feed and water the animals, they’ll die. My instructions are clear, my guilt poised and sensitive as antennae. But what about these circumstantial pleasures, these amusements and distractions that insist on surfacing, even as I bask in the grumpy glow of self-pity? Bragging crows and bossy goats, the fragile tick of sleet on the scrap pail, the cozy scrape of a snowplow taking care of business. That plow driver: this morning he’s been obedient way longer than I have. His belly’s bumping up against the steering wheel; he’s draining the dregs of a giant paper cup of cold coffee and smoking his fifth cigarette as the defroster clears a vignette frame of windshield fog and slush. I send both of us good wishes for a long afternoon nap. In the meantime, we’ll make our rounds.

Meanwhile enjoy

[Our] fill what happiness this happy state

Can comprehend, incapable of more.