Friday, July 31, 2009

I'm gearing myself for company today, which means cooking, not reading and writing. Dinner will be roast beef, risotto, beet greens, and rose-scented pound cake. So as an interim post, I'm offering you this essay, "Self-Portrait, with War and Peace," published last summer in the Threepenny Review. About a year ago I posted a brief excerpt, but here's the whole thing.

Self-Portrait, with War and Peace

 Dawn Potter

[from Threepenny Review, summer 2008]

I’m forty-three years old, and to date I’ve read War and Peace eight or ten times. I’ve worn out one cheap paperback copy and am now working on wearing out an elderly Modern Library hardback I unearthed at a yard sale. My guess is that I’ll reread the novel a few more times before I die, though how many more times is impossible to calculate. As Arlo Guthrie says, “I’ll wait till it comes round on the gui-tar”—till I’m browsing along my bookshelves and am suddenly smitten with longing for the sight of Natasha dancing in Uncle’s hut, for fat Pierre innocently disrupting a fancy tea party, for Petya shyly asking a Cossack to sharpen his sword, for Nikolay stomping in to rescue Princess Marya from her confused serfs. One doesn’t plan ahead for infatuation; though after thirty years spent with the novel, I’m no longer surprised that it keeps appearing in my lineup.

On its simplest level, rereading books is a childish habit, like biting my nails or agreeing to play Monopoly only if I can be the dog. But children understand there’s satisfaction in familiarity. When I reread a book, I already know the characters and what they will do. I’m prepared for all sudden deaths and thwarted romances. The “shock of the new” is not, to me, a literary recommendation. It’s not that I dislike discovering unknown books. I just like reading them again better. Sometimes my desire to reread a well-loved book erupts twice in one year, sometimes once in a decade. Often I reread books I only sort of enjoyed the first time through, and fairly often I reread books that actively annoy me but that I hope will have a medicinal effect on my character or my brain. I’ve been known to reread books that have no good qualities whatsoever, just for old times’ sake.

Yet this clingy, childish attachment to books—this cozy insularity, this familiar pacifier—constructs its own lived history. That is particularly true of my inner circle of favored works, primarily novels, which have come to constitute an alternate lineage of near-equal reality. Among backward-looking literary types, it’s a common-enough list, including, among other works, most of the novels of Dickens, Eliot, Austen, and the elder Brontë sisters; several Gaskell, Bowen, Woolf, and Murdoch novels; and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Probably the only unusual factor is that I’ve reread each of these books ten or fifteen separate times without any intention of teaching them in an English class.

Lately I’ve learned that a new translation of War and Peace has been published, and by all accounts it’s a far better effort than the old Constance Garnett standby: more accurate to the rhythm of Tolstoy’s sentences, so the experts report, more attuned to the nuance of class-inflected language. The reviewers’ explications make good bedtime reading; and flipping languorously through the pages of the New York Review of Books, I’ve enjoyed various compare-and-contrast-the-translation extracts, easily convinced that the new edition would be a shiny addition to a bookshelf.

I’m relieved, however, that no one thought to give it to me for Christmas. For when it comes to my inner circle of books, I’m not all that interested in accuracy, or readability, or accessible notes, or pertinent introductions, or any of the typical reasons that drive a serious reader to purchase a new edition of a classic work. I do prefer to read a book that doesn’t fall apart in the bathtub; and since I’ve read many of my favored books to rags, I’ll occasionally acquire sturdier copies if I run across them at the Goodwill. But the idea of reading a new translation of a book I know intimately makes me anxious. I haven’t yet gotten used to the idea that Anna’s last name now translates as “Karenin,” not “Karenina,” or that the English title for Proust’s linked novels is no longer Remembrance of Things Past but In Search of Lost Time. What if a new translation of War and Peace spells Prince Andrey’s name in a new way? The thought is distressing in the way that any rupture in a comforting routine is upsetting. It opens a scary door. If Prince Andrey’s name has changed, will he be different from the man I love?

            On one level, it’s troubling to admit that I foster these babyish mannerisms. I should know better than to cling to the familiar for its own sake, and in fact I do know better. Seamus Heaney’s version of Beowulf makes me much happier than its stilted predecessors ever did. But would Keats be willing to give up Chapman’s Homer for Robert Fagles’s Homer just because the newer translation is a snappier read? I don’t believe he could. If one ages alongside a book, even its flaws become precious. And though Keats didn’t have the chance to grow old, he pored over his favorite works with what his biographer, Walter Jackson Bate, calls “an adhesive purchase of mind.” Bate explains, “What strikes us most in his capacity for sympathetic identification . . . is its inclusiveness. This is not the volatile empathic range of even the rare actor. For the range is vertical as well as horizontal.” Thus, it didn’t so much matter how many books Keats read; what mattered was how intensely he read a few. Those that he loved were as constant as brothers; and “when he picked up styles in the writing of poetry, it was not as a mimic or copyist but as a fellow participator.”

            But I bring up Keats only as an after-the-fact excuse for my reading habits, not as their guiding rationale. I just happen to read books over and over again; and among those books, War and Peace is not even the one I’ve read most often. Probably David Copperfield or Villette or Mansfield Park would take that honor, though I’ve never bothered to keep track of the statistics. Yet the scale of War and Peace, not to mention the stamina required to finish it, makes the trajectory of our acquaintance easier to recall. It’s a giant book in more ways than one; and for me its first attraction, in fact, was its remarkable girth. In my parents’ matched set of Great Books, it squeezed out the rest of the weighty-tome competitors—Cervantes, Homer, even Shakespeare. (In my juvenile rating scale, multiple volumes by the same author didn’t count.) “Tolstoy” wasn’t the most elegant name in the set. “Pliny” and “Descartes” looked far more scintillating on a gilt spine; but fatness trumped all, and I was dying to read the biggest book on the shelf, even before I could read.

            I’m certain I pulled the volume out of the bookcase many times before I was twelve, and probably I optimistically dipped into it each time I cracked open its stiff faux-leather boards; but twelve was the age at which I consciously and with much self-satisfaction announced my decision to conquer War and Peace. Though I was ignorant as a guppy about the workings of this particular novel, I had considerable reading hubris and believed wholeheartedly in my facile decoding abilities. The book was in English; how hard could it be? But more important than content, really, was style. People would see me reading it, and they would be impressed; for I had a naïve faith in the power of great books to reflect glory on their readers.

So I sat down on a beat-up tweed couch, opened War and Peace, and began plowing witlessly through the opening pages of Anna Pavlovna’s soirée. Not much takes place in this scene that could possibly interest a twelve-year-old girl living in suburban Rhode Island in 1976. Really, only two details prevented me from deserting the novel by page 10. The first was the silver samovar, a meal-related appliance that somehow involved tea and somehow involved steam and attracted the attention of ladies in silk evening gowns. Like many children, I adored lengthy descriptions of meals. And although nothing, in my literary experience, could yet surpass Ratty’s picnic basket in The Wind in the Willows—“coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidgespottedmeatgingerbeerlemondadesodawater”—the magical appearance of a samovar (what exactly could it be?) in the midst of a boring party was at least a promising hint of foreign and enigmatic meals to come.

The second detail attracting my attention was Princess Ellen, whose “white shoulders, glossy hair, and diamonds glittered, as she passed between the men who moved apart to make way for her.” That she turns out to be one of the novel’s few truly distasteful characters makes me sad every time I reread the book, for I know I would never have ventured further into its incomprehensible pages if I hadn’t succumbed to her enchantments. Blundering across Anna Pavlovna’s drawing room, I didn’t bother to stop and study Pierre or Prince Andrey or little Princess Bolkonsky. I didn’t understand why a short pregnant woman and her grumpy husband might make fascinating reading or why court diplomats were irritated by Pierre’s arguments and interruptions, but I knew enough about fairy-tale princesses to capitulate instantly before “the unchanging smile of the acknowledged beauty.”

As a whole, however, the drawing-room scene was heavy going, and I must have either skipped or dozed through the drunken-officer and Prince-Andrey-complaining-about-his-wife tableaux that followed. All I know for sure is that I woke up, suddenly and completely, when I read the following passage:

The dark-eyed little girl, plain, but full of life, with her wide mouth, her childish bare shoulders, which shrugged and panted in her bodice from her rapid motion, her black hair brushed back, her slender bare arms and little legs in lace-edged long drawers and open slippers, was at that charming stage when the girl is no longer a child, while the child is not yet a young girl. Wriggling away from her father, she ran up to her mother, and taking no notice whatever of her severe remarks, she hid her flushed face in her mother’s lace kerchief and broke into laughter. As she laughed she uttered some incoherent phrases about the doll, which was poking out from under her petticoat.

“Do you see? . . . My doll . . . Mimi . . . you see . . .” And Natasha could say no more, it all seemed to her so funny. She sank on her mother’s lap, and went off into such a loud peal of laughter that every one, even the prim visitor, could not help laughing too.

There’s a moment, as a reader, when you cross a river. Suddenly a book is not merely a journey. It becomes, most unexpectedly, a watery mirror—though not the reflection you might have prepared for. Such epiphanies are not one-time events. For me, these shocks never cease: in fact, one stunned me again yesterday when I was rereading Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, which I’d last read before I had sons, in the days when I had the leisure and detachment to hate Roth’s characterization of Alex’s overbearing mother. But even if I never know when books will pounce or how they’ll sink their claws into me, at least I now expect them to appall or delight or destroy me. At twelve, however, I was defenseless. For all their charms, Laura Ingalls and Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole don’t prepare a child for her first amazing vision of herself as a living character—in a stranger’s body clad in old-fashioned clothes, in a foreign room with a new family and unknown talents, behaving badly, stupidly, childishly, arrogantly, innocently—but like herself, with her own second heart beating through the page. I don’t know that I was a particularly charming child. But self-flattery isn’t what I mean here. Simply, I discovered a bit of myself when I met Natasha.

I suppose obsessive readers usually become obsessive because they identify with characters and their emotional and psychological situations. (Perhaps exceptions would be obsessive readers of mystery and suspense novels, who must be dedicated fans of plot.) Certainly in my own case, a fascination with characters and their interactions draws me back to my favored novels again and again. Yet that fascination is fluid: every time I reread one of these books, a new element rises to the surface. I’ve been reading Jane Eyre, for instance, since I was in early high school; and during my first immersions, I soaked up Jane’s loneliness, her melodrama, her self-sacrifice, her destitute-plain-girl-makes-good trajectory. They were the novel’s wonders and attractions. Though sex infiltrated my consciousness, the notion that married bliss thrives on continuous warfare remained invisible. I wasn’t ready for it, just as, at twelve, I gave up on War and Peace as soon as Natasha started to grow up.

But during my most recent reconnoiter with Jane Eyre, the novel seemed to bristle with erotic manipulation. As I read—hardcover on my lap, knees politely crisscrossed in an orthodontist’s crowded waiting room—it became clear to me that Jane and Mr. Rochester are ideal partners because neither can overpower the other. They flourish on combat; they grapple like heroes. And now that I’ve been a wife for nearly twenty years, I can see that Brontë is right: married happiness does require a shared commitment to scratching and clawing. For all its unreality, Jane Eyre shrewdly depicts the shifting and contentious balance of passion in a relationship of equals.

No doubt, Jane and Mr. Rochester’s sexual warfare has been discussed in many a journal article and master’s-degree thesis. But so what? Taking the word of a literary critic is a bit like being pregnant for the first time and listening to a friend with a two-year-old discuss the near-death experience of childbirth. You understand intellectually that it will hurt; but until you are hurt, you don’t comprehend the real depth and definition of pain. What matters to a dedicated rereader is the present-tense moment of discovery—the instant at which a forty-three-year-old “I” reading Jane Eyre for the fifteenth time uncrosses her knees in a crowded waiting room and whispers, “Oh!”


I managed to finish War and Peace sometime before I left for college. I say “finish” to imply that I traveled through its pages, for large portions of the novel continued to elude me. I had zero interest in Napoleonic war tactics or Masonic rites; I had little grasp of Russian history or geography; Orthodox ritual was a tantalizing mystery. But I now possessed my own paperback copy, less dramatically fat than my parents’ Great Book though still impressive. And I’d by now achieved a somewhat broader involvement with Tolstoy’s characters, not only Natasha but Pierre, Andrey, Nikolay, Sonya. Yet there were still large gaps in my relationship with the book. Ugly Princess Marya interested me not at all, nor did the soft-hearted Rostov parents or irascible Prince Bolkonsky or dull-eyed General Kutuzov. Adult life remained boring, but the emotional vicissitudes of youth drew me like a moth. I was twenty years old, in love with the idea of being in love, overexcited about knowledge and experience; and when I read that “in Pierre’s soul . . . a complex and laborious process of inner development was going on that revealed much to him and led him to many spiritual doubts and joys,” I recognized instantly, as I once did with the child Natasha, my second self on that page. But the epiphanic shock was different. I’d become accustomed to the pleasures of perusing exact replicas of my own sensations, but the notion that my second self could be an overweight, near-sighted, imaginary man filled me with amazement. It seemed that books could not only feed my inner life but could invent strange fantasies for it as well.

As was the case with most of the books I read at college, I never read War and Peace for a class. In truth, I have only a vague memory of what I was supposed to read for class, though I clearly remember that my father, in a burst of affection, bought me an omnibus Jane Austen at the college bookstore and that early during my freshman year I made a pact with myself to read all the novels of Dickens at least once before graduation. I did in fact read everything I set out to read (though I didn’t always manage to read class assignments), but more in the manner of absorbing cereal-box copy than as a budding scholar of the nineteenth-century novel. I read, like I kissed boys, because I couldn’t help myself, though both tendencies predicted trouble. Schools, even the socially sensitive Quaker enclave I attended, don’t tend to cater to students with a penchant for self-motivated dreaminess. “But, as so often happens with people of weak character, as it is called, Pierre was . . . overcome with such a passionate desire to enjoy once more this sort of dissipation which had become so familiar to him”; and I likewise kept returning to my extracurricular reading, aware that I was wasting time, rather embarrassed but making no effort to improve myself. The novels seemed to have relatively little pertinence to my academic affairs. What did Austen have to do with Samuel Johnson, Dickens with Thomas Carlyle? I barely knew that the authors of Our Mutual Friend (not assigned) and Past and Present (assigned) lived in the same era, let alone were personal friends.

And then one evening, in a classroom crowded with would-be lawyers and earnest future professors and a few intelligent wastrels, a teacher suddenly stood up in the somnolent fluorescence and barked, “Pay attention! Think of War and Peace, the end of the book! That’s what matters!” And he read this passage aloud:

            Natasha [now married to Pierre] did not care for society in general, but she greatly prized the society of her kinsfolk—of Countess Marya, her brother, her mother, and Sonya. She cared for the society of those persons to whom she could rush in from the nursery in a dressing-gown with her hair down; to whom she could, with a joyful face, show a baby’s napkin stained yellow instead of green, and to receive their comforting assurances that that proved that baby was now really better.

I was stunned. Here was a teacher telling a room packed with high-achieving Ivy League researchers-of-the-future that dirty diapers were what mattered in life. This was the kind of advice I might have expected from my coal-country aunts, comments that made me suspect that I really was a barefoot clod masquerading as a high-achieving researcher-of-the-future. But it was not the kind of advice I expected to get from a teacher of high achievers.

Still, this was not necessarily an unpleasant jolt. I could perceive possibilities for personal redemption in such an assertion. The greater and more horrifying shock was the fact that I had just finished rereading War and Peace on my own for the second or third time in my life—I had spent days idling over this book when I should have been taking notes on Ruskin or Carlyle—but I had absolutely no memory of having ever seen the diaper passage before. Apparently I was not only wasting time on unassigned texts; I wasn’t even able to remember the words I was reading.

Discovery of my defective reading memory was a terrible blow. In some ways I think the moment froze for years any blossom of self-confidence in my unscholarly mind. Yet the fault was not the teacher’s, who was a humane and intelligent man. “Pierre regarded Prince Andrey as a model of all perfection, because Prince Andrey possessed in the highest degree just that combination of qualities in which Pierre was deficient.” Surrounded by “better” kinds of braininess, I, like Pierre, felt I couldn’t trust my own sort of intelligence and imaginative engagement. Clearly I saw in books only what I wanted to see. But like Pierre, my innocence was at fault. I didn’t yet perceive that I saw only what I could see.


It goes without saying that close analytical reading is a valuable way to penetrate literature. But literature also does its own penetrating—in its own time, at its own pace. A reader can be at the mercy of a book. As one’s age, experience, obsessions, and fears advance or accrue or erode, so does a book’s power of influence. I was home alone with an inconsolable infant when I first read Updike’s Rabbit, Run. It was not the best time to read about a drunken and unhappy Janice accidentally drowning her baby daughter in the bathtub. The scenario was too possible: anything can happen; horrors overtake us. I realized, with a too dreadful clarity, that I could murder my child.

Even though I’ve reread the other Rabbit books many times, I have not yet brought myself to reread this one. I know that when I do venture to open Rabbit, Run again, the drowning scene will be smaller, flatter. Some other, now-unremembered aspect will loom. The story will be new. But the worry remains: why do certain vivid depictions of evil never move me, while others, such as the baby’s drowning, matter disproportionately? In The Magus, for instance, John Fowles details the carnage of a 1915 battlefield in precise and revolting detail: the rats, the torn flesh, the carrion stench. The scene disturbs and impresses me; nonetheless, I’ve read the novel many times without dreading those pages. Partly the issue is characterization: the protagonist who tells the battlefield tale is himself a cold and detached man. But partly the issue is personal. For whatever reason, I cannot as a reader walk onto that particular stage-set of fear. It’s a selfish and subjective response, but it’s nonetheless true to my flawed, individual, monocular engagement with history and emotion.

The novel itself is particularly cogent on this theme: “Why should such complete pleasure be evil? . . . You will say, Because children were starving while you played in your sunlight. But are we to never have palaces, never to have refined tastes, complex pleasures, never to let the imagination fulfill itself?” Yet as Fowles takes pains to remind us, imagination, for all its charms, is willful and capricious, leading us into drought as well as revelation. We see only what we can see, as even a twenty-year-old rereader of War and Peace may begin to comprehend: “‘Behold me, here I am!’ [Natasha] seemed to say, in response to the enthusiastic gaze with which Denisov followed her. ‘And what can she find to be so pleased at!’ Nikolay wondered, looking at his sister. ‘How is it she isn’t feeling dull and ashamed!’” Every time I read the novel, I’m at sea with him again.


I happened to be reading War and Peace when I went into labor with my second son. I had chosen it earlier in the week it because it was the book I was least likely to finish before leaving the hospital. Having already experienced, during the arrival of my first son, the bored and vicious antagonism that arises from being trapped for hours in a birthing room decorated with pink-framed photos of cute babies in sweet hats, I armed myself with a very thick distraction.

            I arrived at the hospital around nine in the evening, and Paul was born at four in the morning. The intervening hours were intense but dull, rather like being up all night with stomach flu. My husband fell asleep in a chair. Nurses whispered down the hall. The contractions became progressively more wrenching, but in the intervals I continued to read. There was a kind of clock-ticking inevitability to my alternation between worlds—one composed only of dazzling pain, the other merely my everyday self reading War and Peace in the middle of the night. It didn’t seem necessary to call a nurse or wake up my husband. The pain arrived. I squeezed my eyes shut, held my breath, gritted my teeth. The pain vanished. I opened my eyes, took a breath, and turned a page.

An hour or so into my routine, I encountered this passage:

            The little princess was lying on the pillows in her white nightcap (the agony had only a moment left her). Her black hair lay in curls about her swollen and perspiring cheeks; her rosy, charming little mouth, with the downy lip, was open and she was smiling joyfully. Prince Andrey went into the room, and stood facing her at the foot of the bed on which she lay. The glittering eyes, staring in childish terror and excitement, rested on him with no change in their expression. “I love you all, I have done no one any harm; why am I suffering? help me,” her face seemed to say. She saw her husband, but she did not take in the meaning of his appearance now before her. . . .

            His coming had nothing to do with her agony and its alleviation. The pains began again, and Marya Bogdanovna [the midwife] advised Prince Andrey to go out of the room.

            When I recall this scene—myself in the throes of childbirth reading about Tolstoy’s little princess in the throes of childbirth—the memory has a play-within-a-play quality, a staginess. It feels, in truth, like something I’ve read about in a novel. What remains tangible is a sensation of profound mutual sympathy. I was, at that instant, enduring with this familiar yet imaginary woman the dance of torment and reprieve, torment and reprieve. We were, at each paroxysm, in the talons of death; at each release seized again by life. It was an accident and a strange miracle to read it and to suffer it simultaneously.

The twist was that I had read the book before. So I knew she would die.

The door opened. The doctor with his shirt sleeves tucked up, and no coat on, came out of the room, pale, and his lower jaw twitching. Prince Andrey addressed him, but the doctor, looking at him in a distracted way, passed by without uttering a word. A woman ran out, and, seeing Prince Andrey, stopped hesitating in the door. He went into his wife’s room. She was lying dead in the same position in which he had seen her five minutes before, and in spite of the fixed gaze and white cheeks, there was the same expression still on the charming childish face with the little lip covered with fine dark hair. “I love you all, and have done no harm to any one, and what have you done to me?” said her charming, piteous, dead face. In a corner of the room was something red and tiny, squealing and grunting in the trembling white hands of Marya Bogdanovna.

            So much anguish, cohering like dust to a wet broom: the dead woman’s innocence, the simplicity of Tolstoy’s prose, my foreknowledge, my own wracked body. I remember thinking, Of course I could die as well. And then thinking, with a kind of wrenching clarity: I am learning how to grow old.

            The thought is banal. The thought is inexplicable. It’s the life-and-death conundrum, mysterious and melodramatic and plain as a dirty diaper. Tolstoy parsed the enigma in the course of writing his thousand pages, but I’ve required considerably more time. It’s humbling to be a rereader. I maunder through his well-worn tale like Hansel and Gretel following a half-eaten trail of crumbs through their own backyard. I know where I am, but where am I?

            When Pierre realizes he wants to marry Natasha, he behaves, as he usually does, both foolishly and earnestly. He tries to think, but he can’t think. He trips over his own motivations; he second-guesses himself; he leaps blindly into the future. He’s dopy and sweet, and after spending so many years with him I’ve become very fond of those qualities in his character. He’s meant so many things to me over the years—innocence, curiosity, kindness—but these days he mostly reminds me to forgive myself. I mean to be good, I mean to be thoughtful, but in the end I am whatever I happen to be.

“‘Well, what is one to do, if there’s no escaping it? What is one to do? It must be the right thing, then,’ [Pierre] said to himself.” That, in a nutshell, is why I reread War and Peace. I walk through a room and see the book sitting on the shelf. I think, “It must be the right thing, then.” So I take it down, and I read it again.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Just a reminder: if you or someone you know is interested in reviewing Tracing Paradise, please contact Carla Potts at the University of Massachusetts Press, and she'll make sure you get a review copy.
from A Glossary of Literary Terms, 4th edition

M. H. Abrams

"Persona" was the Latin word for the "mask" used by actors in the classical theater. . . . In recent literary discussion "persona" is often applied to the first-person narrator, the "I," of a narrative poem or novel, or the lyric speaker whose voice we listen to in a lyric poem. Examples of personae [include] the visionary first-person narrator of Milton's Paradise Lost (who in the opening passages of various books discourses at some length about himself). . . . By calling [such] speakers "personae" . . . we stress the fact that they are all part of the fiction, characters invented for a particular artistic purpose. That the "I" . . . is not the author as he exists in his everyday life is obvious enough in the case of Swift's Gulliver and Browning's Duke [in his narrative poem "My Last Duchess"], less obvious in the case of Milton, . . . and does not seem obvious at all to an unsophisticated reader of the lyric poems of Wordsworth and Keats, in which we seem invited to identify the speaker with the poet himself.

Stodgy definitions of this sort tend to piss me off. They feel designed to insult the "unsophisticated reader" who doesn't stop to think about the dramatic aesthetics of a work of literature but reacts swiftly, instinctively, and personally. Of course, the voice in Keats's odes does not equal the real living breathing man who wrote them. Anybody who has attempted to compose even a middle-school essay realizes that writing demands a certain artificiality of voice and point of view. But the impact of Keats's odes relies on the poet's genius in transcending that artificiality: they purposefully invite the reader "to identify the speaker with the poet himself."

So what's wrong with the fact that we do make that identification? Why do literary critics, at even this dumpy definition-of-terms level, try to make us feel ashamed for doing exactly what the poet wanted us to do? See what I mean? It pisses me off.

Now I kind of wish I'd taken up this subject more fully in Tracing Paradise. But I hope it comes through anyway. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The anxieties of marketing

Marketing is not a word I care for. It is rather like networking, both in sound and sense. The words connote hearty handshakes and toothy grins, neither of which had any relevance to my original compulsion to write Tracing Paradise. Yet here I am, after publication, grinning and vigorously shaking hands with a Willy Loman fatal desperation. Will anyone review this book? Will anyone buy this book? Must keep trying, must keep trying. 

Begging letters to reviewers, a Facebook fan page: does any of this really make any difference? I really don't know, but the sense of desperation that arises doesn't seem especially wholesome. In truth, this book has already sold far better than my previous one and has garnered a sheaf of personal accolades from readers. And as I was writing the memoir, this was exactly the communication I was imagining. Yet in the "larger" picture, the book has thus far garnered nothing.

The problem is that this so-called "larger" picture looms like an indistinct palace. No doubt when one arrives there, the palace reveals itself as a Mussolini-style office building or a prefab hurricane shelter. But that knowledge doesn't seem to influence my anxiety about never setting foot inside the door.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My son's 15th birthday today, coincident with our first real taste of summer. It's supposed to be 85 degrees here. What a shock to our damp, refrigerated systems. So not much writing will get done. Mostly I will be (1) making birthday dinner and (2) playing Monopoly.

Nonetheless, in James's honor, I will manage to post a poem I wrote a few years ago.


Dawn Potter

You fall into your window seat like a stork
spearing an alewife, my little cabbage,

and you eat so much cabbage! Chatter
harrows the fog-lit air. I wad napkins with spilt milk,

socks explode from your rat-tail shoes,
you suck two straws and snicker Farty Mart,

but when you have nothing else to say,
you say, I love you, Mom,

more times an hour than I can bear.
Oh my sweetheart, my barometer,

my wet-nose calf, my chick--
I grimace at a sudden knife of sun, you kick my chair

and bellow, What's wrong?
early-alert system, wired and ready,

grubby hackles spiked,
bitten fingernail held to the wind.

Moo a tune, you can't fool me.
I hear you:
Look out, a big one's brewing, batten the hatches,
I love you, Mom,

I'm ducking my head,
I love you, Mom, I'm ready to run.

[forthcoming in How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry Press, 2010)].

Birthday dinner menu: teriyaki steak, new potatoes and parsley, first green beans of the season, beet greens, roasted red peppers, marble layer cake with fudge frosting, raspberries, lemonade.

Monday, July 27, 2009

I posted Chapter 1 of Tracing Paradise here, in case you are wondering if you will love it or hate it.

I'm writing this morning: currently taking a brief break from sonnet revision--the first writing I've done for 10 days or so, unless you count the writing on this blog, which actually I do.

My friend Matt quotes Barthes and says maintaining a blog is like keeping a journal. I don't quote Barthes and say it's more like writing an ongoing open letter. Anyway I kind of enjoy it, and also find it helpful in a "don't-be-lazy-just-open-your-brain-and write-something-damn-it" way.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Responding to Milly Jourdain's "The Cherwell" and Edwin Ford Piper's "Big Swimming"

I've received several responses to the four water poems I posted on July 23. More people than you might think (and all of them women) dislike Thoreau, though not necessarily for stylistic reasons, while nobody has a cross word to say about Dickinson's eminence. Yet the ones who wrote to me didn't contact me because they wanted to talk about how much they loved Dickinson. Rather, they wanted to say how much they liked either the Piper or the Jourdain poem.

I think that's interesting. For clearly, neither of these poems is stunning. They take no linguistic risks, make no moral or emotional leaps, clarify nothing new. Yet both are full of charm and beauty, in large part, I'm beginning to see, because each qualifies a particular and familiar human reaction within a slightly unfamiliar frame. "Big Swimming" focuses on a weary traveler; "The Cherwell" deals with a person's simultaneous connection-disconnection with the natural world. Everyone can comprehend those themes. And neither poet goes any further with them than to make sure that we understand. Neither shoves us into unexpected corners, as Dickinson does in Poem 520, when she tyrannically manipulates our expectations of power.

Nonetheless, the poems are lovely. I particularly like how Piper gradually adjusts his stanzas, moving from 4 lines, to 6 lines, to 2 lines, to 1. It's a delicate, fluid movement; and in the final stanza, the weight of the traveler's task is stated so quietly and stoically that it took me a moment to understand exactly what the rider will have to do next. Here's the poem again, in case you want to check what I mean:
Big Swimming

Rain on the high prairies,
In dusk of autumnal hills;
Under the creaking saddle
My cheerless pony plods. . . .

Down where the obscure water
Lapping the lithe willows
Sunders the chilling plain--
Rusty-hearted and travel worn--
We set our bodies
To the November flood.

The farther shore is a cloud
Beyond midnight. . . .

Big swimming.
The Jourdain poem is one of my favorites in her book. I tend to like her non-rhyming poems better than her rhyming ones because they allow the clarity of her diction rather than a predictable pattern to control the sound of her lines. And her line breaks are exquisite: for instance, the break between lines 1 and 2. The speaker's point of view is also intriguing: it is nearly, but not quite, objective. Her early phrase "It's good" makes me imagine happiness, but her final line disabuses me of that notion, even as it reiterates happiness in "excellent." Throughout, the word choice is remarkably plain. Jourdain says what she means to say, and what she means to say is as little as possible. In a way, reticence is her favorite literary device:

The Cherwell

This bare bright day of early spring, when still
We feel the touch of winter in the wind,
It's good to watch the river's endless flow
And restless moving of the thin brown twigs;

To see the tree-trunks down in those cold depths,
To hear the rushing sound of wind-swept woods,
And see the yellow foam below the weir,
And wish our life could be as excellent.
I look forward to hearing any other thoughts you have about these poems, or the Thoreau and Dickinson pieces. I found it rather enjoyable to parse out my feelings about the four, which I chose quickly and without planning, except insofar as the Jourdain poem fit into my publishing project. Maybe I'll do this exercise again sometime.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Response to Emily Dickinson, "Poem 520"

I'm sure you're not surprised to learn that, of the four water poems I posted on July 23, the Dickinson is my favorite. But you may (or possibly you may not) be surprised to learn that I've only learned to love Dickinson within the past 5 years or so. Before that, I was respectful and humble but not attached to her poems either emotionally or intellectually. I had to grow up some before I could figure out how to like her.

For me, reading Dickinson can be like suddenly walking into a strobe-lit room after having spent the previous hour peacefully watching the night sky. For all her pretense at primness, she's sharp-edged and aggressive, and her poems shove the reader into unexpected corners. Even though Poem 520 is a well-known piece, its progress never ceases to unnerve me. I always forget how it ends: how it shifts from a pleasant dog walk to the bowing obeisance of the encroaching, erotic sea. Yes, ocean, Emily wins again.

Enough is never enough for Dickinson. She's like Plath that way--always cramming in yet one more glittering image, performing yet one more linguistic sleight-of-hand. Of the 6 stanzas of Poem 520, 4 deal with the creeping, inexorable tide: line upon line the sea climbs the speaker's body. The poet had to show great restraint in her pacing and her diction to create such slowness, such suspense; yet in this short poem she had to be simultaneously rapid and exact and shocking.

I never wish I could write like Dickinson, as I sometimes wish I could write like Plath. Dickinson so often feels barely human to me, more like the blue flame on a gas burner, all purity and rectitude in her heat. Plath is more of a regular human mess, despite her linguistic genius. But sometimes, when I wish I were less of a mess as a writer or a human being, I read a Dickinson poem. I haven't yet learn how to change anything about my own disorder, but at least I've learned to watch the real poet perform. 

Friday, July 24, 2009

My response to Thoreau's poem "I was upon thy bank, river."

Following up on the four poems I posted yesterday, I'll begin with the one I like least: Thoreau's.

Though my opinion will no doubt incur the wrath of many, I think Thoreau is a mediocre writer. (I'm speaking here of him as a stylist, not as a thinker or a doer.) Granted, he is far better known as a prose writer than a poet, yet even his prose can be clumsy, especially when it strains toward the poetic. Here's the opening of "A Winter Walk," published in Emerson's Dial in 1843:

The wind has gently murmured through the blinds, or puffed with feather softness against the windows, and occasionally sighed like a summer zephyr lifting the leaves against the livelong night. The meadow mouse has slept in his snug gallery in the sod, the owl has sat in a hollow tree in the depth of the swamp, the rabbit, the squirrel, and the fox have all been housed.

Compare this with the opening of Robert Louis Stevenson's essay "On Marriage." Stevenson was married in 1880 and died in 1894, and presumably this essay was written sometime in between.

Hope, they say, deserts us at no period of our existence. From first to last, and in the face of smarting disillusions, we continue to expect good fortune, better health, and better conduct; and that so confidently, that we judge it needless to deserve them. I think it improbable that I shall ever write like Shakespeare, conduct an army like Hannibal, or distinguish myself like Marcus Aurelius in the paths of virtue; and yet I have my by-days, hope prompting, when I am very ready to believe that I shall combine all these various excellences in my own person, and go down marching to posterity with divine honors. There is nothing so monstrous but we can believe it of ourselves.

Even though Thoreau's passage is superficially more poetic (that is, it uses more descriptive language and more imagery), Stevenson's is far more grammatically and syntactically eloquent, not to mention rhetorically rhythmic. So given Thoreau's apparent disinterest in prose melody, I find his poem's descent into cantering meter somewhat alarming. Here's the poem again, so that you can see what I mean:

I was born upon thy bank, river,
          My blood flows in thy stream,
And thou meanderest forever
          At the bottom of my dream.

Nothing much goes on here, beyond a didactic disquisition upon the speaker's link to the natural world. "Meanderest" is a horrible word, but at least it is memorable. The image of the speaker's blood flowing in the stream is also memorable, but the poet takes that image no step further. As far as I can tell, the most interesting aspect of the poem is the contrast between the meter's doggerel jauntiness and the speaker's humorless pronouncement. It's an example, in short, of how a famous name can justify a piece of writing that otherwise would be forgotten.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about the poem of the four that I like best.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Four water poems, in honor of yet another day. I've marked the authors' death dates so you can see who was more or less contemporaneous with whom. Two women, two men. Two famous writers, two not-famous writers. Three Americans (two New Englanders and a Nebraskan), one Brit. All white, all middle class. What's your conclusion about quality? Maybe I'll give you my opinion tomorrow.

The Cherwell

Milly Jourdain (d. 1926)

This bare bright day of early spring, when still
We feel the touch of winter in the wind,
It's good to watch the river's endless flow
And restless moving of the thin brown twigs;

To see the tree-trunks down in those cold depths,
To hear the rushing sound of wind-swept woods,
And see the yellow foam below the weir,
And wish our life could be as excellent.

I was born upon thy bank, river

Henry David Thoreau (d. 1862)

I was born upon thy bank, river,
          My blood flows in thy stream,
And thou meanderest forever
          At the bottom of my dream.

Big Swimming

Edwin Ford Piper (d. 1939)

Rain on the high prairies,
In dusk of autumnal hills;
Under the creaking saddle
My cheerless pony plods. . . .

Down where the obscure water
Lapping the lithe willows
Sunders the chilling plain--
Rusty-hearted and travel worn--
We set our bodies
To the November flood.

The farther shore is a cloud
Beyond midnight. . . .

Big swimming.

Poem 520

Emily Dickinson (d. 1886)

I started Early--Took my Dog--
And visited the Sea--
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me--

And Frigates--in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands--
Presuming Me to be a Mouse--
Aground--upon the Sands--

But no Man moved Me--till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe--
And past my Apron--and my Belt
And past my Bodice--too--

And made as He would eat me up
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion's Sleeve--
And then--I started--too--

And He--He followed--close behind--
I felt His Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle--Then my Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl--

Until We met the Solid Town--
No One He seemed to know--
And bowing--with a Mighty look--
At me--The Sea withdrew--

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Yesterday's Beloit Poetry Journal meeting took a rather unpleasant (though friendly and civil) turn over a set of poems that arose for discussion. The editorial board pattern is this: any poems that make it through several initial readings are then read aloud at a quarterly board meeting. The final choice does not exactly rely on consensus, though discussion often leads to some sort of agreement. Still, often enough poems get into the journal via an "I don't hate it so if you really like it" capitulation.

I am not the best editor in the world because I am impatient with what I conceive to be faddish or academic flourish, and I dislike cool remoteness. I'm also suspicious, as I've mentioned here before, of prose poems and what seems to be careless handling of line and stanza breaks--all of which contribute to a certain close-minded irritation with the so-called "new." 

The set of poems under discussion certainly did not have any of these technical flaws: they were tightly crafted and both structurally and dramatically coherent. My problem with them arose from another place: while other editors on the board saw them as ironic and even comic, I saw them as cynical. I won't go into the particulars, for the poems will appear in a future issue. I could have evoked the "over my dead body" rule that allows one editor to completely override the others. But I didn't because I might have been mistaken about the poems; I might have misunderstood their intent. Nonetheless, I came home dispirited--not because poems I don't like are going to appear in a journal I edit, but because I feel, in this task, that I can't rely on the reaction to reading that I rely on in my own private engagement with books. As a journal editor, I'm supposed to stand apart from the poem in some way, be dispassionate, yet I'm not good at dispassion. This means that I can't easily see the good in things that don't instantly move me, which is no doubt a flaw. Yet having depended for a lifetime on a close, personal, idiosyncratic response to what I read, I feel, in a way, as if I'm betraying a central creative impulse of my life.

Ah well. Back to the copyediting and the laundry and the driving-to-piano-lessons, to dry my tears.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

from The Death of the Heart

Elizabeth Bowen

"Nothing arrives on paper as it started, and so much arrives that one never started at all. To write is always to rave a little--even if one did once know what one meant. . . . There are ways and and ways of trumping a thing up: one gets more discriminating, not necessarily more honest. I should know, after all."

Monday, July 20, 2009

Today is not only my 18th wedding anniversary but also the 40th anniversary of the first moon walk. Forty years ago I was 4 years old, entirely unaware that this would be my wedding day in a couple of decades. And I have no memory of the moon walk either, though my parents say that I watched it on television with them.

Why do these accidental synchonicities seem so compelling? On October 7, 1976, my 12th birthday, Gary Gilmore was sentenced to death. That also continues to bother me, for no real discernible reason.

Off to read Beloit poems. Have a lovely hot day.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday, 6:08 p.m.

Pitting the cherries. Stemming the blueberries. Measuring the cream.

Chopping the dill. Slicing the butter. Unwrapping the salmon.

Shelling the peas. Sauteeing the garlic flowers. Halving the cherry tomatoes.

Peeling the big red onions. Slicing the portabello mushrooms.

Turning the page. Drinking the ice water. Choking on the woodsmoke.

Humming. Listening to the wind. Not thinking about much.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

In the course of drafting my sonnet exercises (the ones using the first words of Shakespeare's sonnets rather than the end rhymes), I have found myself also consulting the Psalms. My reasons arise from the fact that I have to deal with words such as "thou" and "thine," which I have decided not to simplify to "you" and "yours" but to use contextually as a way to talk about the Society of Friends. I was raised in the Meeting but have never, to this point, written about Friends or that experience. Yet all my work with Milton seems to have given me leave to mull over issues of Protestantism and dissent, and Shakespeare's "thou" is forcing me to keep that language alive.

I've been reading the Psalms in both the King James and the Revised Standard versions, so I thought I'd copy out a translation pair so that you can see how extraordinarily varied they are.

Psalm 92

King James Version

It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto thy name, O most High:
To shew forth thy lovingkindness in the morning, and thy faithfulness every night,
Upon an instrument of ten strings, and upon the psaltery; upon the harp with a solemn sound.
For thou, Lord, hast made me glad through thy work: I will triumph in the works of thy hands.
O Lord, how great are thy works! and thy thoughts are very deep.
A brutish man knoweth not; neither doth a fool understand this.
When the wicked spring as the grass, and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; it is that they shall be destroyed for ever:
But thou, Lord, art most high for evermore.
For, lo, thine enemies, O Lord, for, lo, thine enemies shall perish; all the workers of iniquity shall be scattered.
But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.
Mine eye also shall see my desire on mine enemies, and mine ears shall hear my desire of the wicked that rise up against me.
The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
Those that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God.
They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing;
To shew that the Lord is upright: he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

Revised Standard Version

It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
          to sing praises to thy name, O Most High;
to declare thy steadfast love in the morning,
          and thy faithfulness by night,
to the music of the lute and the harp,
          to the melody of the lyre.
For thou, O Lord, hast made me glad by thy work;
          at the works of thy hands I sing for joy.

How great are thy works, O Lord!
          Thy thoughts are very deep!
The dull man cannot know,
          the stupid cannot understand this:
that, though the wicked sprout like grass
           an all evildoers flourish,
they are doomed to destruction for ever,
          but thou, O Lord, art on high for ever,
For, lo, thy enemies, O Lord,
          for, lo, thy enemies shall perish;
          all evildoers shall be scattered.

But thou has exalted my horn like that of the wild ox;
          thou hast poured over me fresh oil.
My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies,
          my ears have heard the doom of my evil assailants.
The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
          and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord,
          they flourish in the courts of our God.
They still bring forth fruit in old age,
          they are ever full of sap and green,
to show that the Lord is upright;
          he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

Often the King James is lauded as the more beautiful version. I think this claim is not necessarily true, though it is undoubtedly the bossier and more vigorous version. The Revised Standard is laid out in lines and stanzas like poetry, and so in that way it is prettier; yet it is also nicer in ways that weaken it as rhetoric. It has fewer hardheaded verb constructions (all those King James "shalls") and  fewer aggressive adjectives and nouns ("brutish" versus "dull," "workers of iniquity" versus "evildoers").

And then there is the curious difference between "But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn" and "But thou hast exalted my horn like that of a wild ox"). I find myself leaning image-wise toward "wild ox," just because a unicorn seems so grossly out of place in the Bible. Yet "an unicorn," as diction alone, is hard to beat. What do you think?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Starting on Sunday, I have a three-day Beloit Poetry Journal meeting, and already I am tired of donating my brain to other people. The problem is too much copyediting, which is making me feel like a doormat. Copyeditors are the certified nursing assistants of the publishing world. We empty the bedpans. So today I will browse through a couple of poetry collections by friends of mine. I will read more of John Berryman's Bradstreet poem. I will read Henry Green's Party Going. I will work on my Shakespearean sonnet project, and I will plant lettuce and knead bread and drink coffee. Unfortunately I will also take the dogs to the vet, but no day can be perfect.

Here is a random quotation from The Golden Bough. Let's see if it is inspiring.

Unable to discriminate clearly between words and things, the savage commonly fancies that the link between a name and the person or thing denominated by it is not a mere arbitrary and ideal association, but a real and substantial bond which unites the two in such a way that magic may be wrought.

I don't see what's so crazy about that. Of course, I might feel otherwise if my name were Mabel.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I opened Berryman's poem this cloudy morning, and it said all the words that needed to be said. How many wonders there are in books.

from Homage to Mistress Bradsteet

John Berryman

Outside the New World winters in grand dark
white air lashing high thro' the virgin stands
foxes down foxholes sigh,
surely the English heart quails, stunned.
I doubt if Simon that this blast, this sea,
spares from his rigour for your poetry
more. We are on each other's hands
who care. Both of our worlds unhanded us. Lie stark. . . .

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Other than being trapped in an editing project that is sucking away my soul and reigniting my carpal tunnel symptoms, I am in a cheerful mood today, and here is why.

1. The sun is almost shining and the laundry is almost dry and it is almost 70 degrees. This marks a considerable step up for Harmony weather-wise, for this has been the coldest, wettest, worst-gardening summer in all the 15 years I've lived in this town.

2. My new friend Matt, for reasons best known to himself, sends me emails that open with the greeting "Aloha, duchess," which, at six o'clock on a Wednesday morning, as I slouch in my bathrobe at my ancient scratched-up Formica table, drinking French roast from a mug printed with "Nice Rack" and watching ants invade my kitchen, feels like a particularly amusing form of address.

3. When the goat breaks down the barnyard fence, one of my sons puts her back in the barn and the other son gets out his drill and fixes the hole. Meanwhile, I drink tea and eat cheese and crackers.

4. Even though I am not writing (because of the aforementioned soul-sucking and carpal-tunnel-aggravating editorial project), I am primed to write, which is almost as good.

5. I am devouring Henry Green novels with joy and devotion, and I suspect that Milly Jourdain's less good poems (such as the one I posted yesterday) are better than I originally thought they were. My sons are reading, respectively, Raymond Chandler and a history of the Scottish chiefs, taking breaks now and then to ride their bikes around the yard and hit each other with couch pillows. It makes me happy to see our idiosyncratic books piled in precarious columns on the so-called coffee table.

6. Tom will be home for dinner tonight. All week he has been arriving home from work and then  immediately turning around to go to Waterville to watch film-festival movies, but tonight the four of us will sit around the Formica table together and eat rib-eye steak and new peas while conversing with each other in fake dialects, etc. Family life is so comic.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

This week's Milly Jourdain poem:

The Thrush

Milly Jourdain

The pale grey light is spreading in the sky,
          And on the ground, until
I see the shining drops on grass and trees
          And all is soft and still.

The quiet earth is only half awake,
          And still breathes peacefully;
A thrush's voice fills all the waiting air
          Pure, cold as is the sea.

Not the triumphant song of spring which makes
          The wood so full of praise,
But a sweet sound, and fitful, fresh as rain,
          To lighten winter days.

Dinner tonight: lentil soup with cilantro, which I hope will cure me because I am coming down with something.

Monday, July 13, 2009

from How to Tell a Major Poet from a Minor Poet

E. B. White

All poets who, when reading from their own works, experience a choked feeling are major. For that matter, all poets who read from their own works are major, whether they choke or not. All women poets, dead or alive, who smoke cigars are major. . . . The truth is, it is fairly easy to tell the two types apart; it is only when one sets about trying to decide whether what they write is any good or not that the thing becomes complicated.

Dinner tonight: Chicken sauteed with olive oil, vermouth, and garlic flowers. A handful of tiny peas. Fresh bread. Lettuce not eaten by slugs. Strawberries and cream.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Thinking about the novelist Henry Green
In his introduction to Penguin's 1978 reprint of Henry Green's three short novels, Living (1929), Loving (1945), and Party Going (1939), John Updike wrote,

If I say that Henry Green taught me how to write it implies that I learned, and it is not a business one learns--unlearns, rather, the premature certainties and used ecstasies unravelling as one goes. . . . Green, to me, is so good a writer, such a revealer of what English prose fiction can do in this century, that I can launch myself upon this piece of homage and introduction only by falling into some sort of imitation of that liberatingly ingenious voice, that voice so full of other voices, its own interpolations amid the matchless dialogue twisted and tremulous with a precision that kept the softness of groping, of sensation, of living.

It interests me that Updike so adored Green's work, for Updike's own prose style bears almost no resemblance to Green's. Yet neither does mine, and I also adore it. Green is, like Elizabeth Bowen, like Virginia Woolf, a poet of prose; yet the artifice of his language does not obscure the humanity and sensitivity of his observations. My favorite novel is Loving, set in wartime Ireland, among English servants who are relieved to be in a neutral country yet also ashamed and worried about it. The book is both a comedy and a tragedy; the characters are both unscrupulous and delicate. Altogether it is a remarkable tale, strung together by means of Green's rhythmic, oblique, mannered, and beautiful sentences.

Here's how the novel opens:

Once upon a day an old butler called Eldon lay dying in his room attended by the head housemaid, Miss Agatha Burch. From time to time the other servants separately or in chorus gave expression to proper sentiments and then went on with what they had been doing.
         One name he uttered over and over, "Ellen."
          The pointed windows of Mr. Eldon's room were naked glass with no blinds or curtains. For this was in Eire where there is no blackout.

But such intense descriptions are always brief, for Green advances his tale primarily by way of trivial conversations among his characters. And he's so good as rendering these interactions. I love, for instance, how, merely by choosing not to use commas in his dialogue tags, he constructs a remarkable imitation of quick and casual intimacy:

At last [Edith] said quite calm,
          "Would the dinner bell have gone yet?"
          "My dinner," [Charley] cried obviously putting on an act, "holy smoke is it as late as that, and this lad of mine not taken up the nursery tray yet. Get going," he said to Bert, "look sharp." The boy rushed out. "God forgive me," he remarked, "but there's times I want to liquidate 'im. Come to father beautiful," he said.
          "Not me," she replied amused.
          "Well if you don't want I'm not one to insist. But did nobody never tell you about yourself?"
          "Aren't you just awful," she said apparently delighted.
Every time I reread Loving, I'm in love with it again.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

After spending 6 hours in the car yesterday, driving back and forth to Grand Lake Stream to fetch my boys from camp, I'll be spending 5 in the car today, driving back and forth to Boothbay for the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance book signing. It's a traveling-salesman kind of week, apparently. But if I ever get back to my desk I am going to do the following:

1. Post some initial thoughts about my next "essay about books I can't stop reading." This one seems likely to deal with the modernists: Henry Green's Loving and Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day, and possibly Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head.

2. Start writing said essay.

3. Continue with my Shakespeare's-sonnet exercise. For those of you not at the Frost Place conference watching me fall off my chair with excitement, I am undertaking to write a series of fourteen-line poems that begin with the first word of each line of Shakespeare's sonnets--his transition words, not his rhymes. There are lots of sonnets, so I don't promise to get very far. Still, these kinds of projects can snowball. Look what happened with Paradise Lost. Attempt Number 1 resulted in a draft that, of course, sucks but is nonetheless convincing me that I could learn even more from this project than I had originally guessed.

Dinner last night: extremely hungry boys, ravenously exclaiming over grilled lemon-pepper chicken and ice cream with black cherry sauce. Shouts of "fresh meat!" which gave the pleasant family scene an overtone of Jaws. 

Friday, July 10, 2009

Here's a poem from my mother's chapbook.

Psalm for Appalachia

Janice Miller Potter

Turning shifts for decades, he left a chair by the door
where he tied and untied the broken laces in his boots.

The pencil-marked white table hosts his dinner bucket
whose lid should clank it another dent, whose waxed

paper is balled up for the garbage. But he's left that.
Damp as dug coal, the night has hauled out hard scrabble.

Shirring and bounding, crickets clear weeds and grass.
A moth-eaten beam passes over the room and shatters

the table and the ladderback chair, coal-stained as a lung.
In the skillet, soot marls the sickly white bacon grease

left for a supper of fried eggs which never break.
Nobody is coming back. Nobody is ever coming back.

[from Psalms in Time (Finishing Line Press, 2008)].

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Writing again. Reading Shakespeare again.

A thrush is singing. The sun is, in fact, shining, and before my eyes this blog post is rapidly filling with "ing" words, as in "I ought to be mowing grass but instead I am sitting in a darkish room and wondering how Shakespeare came up with the line 'Making a famine where abundance lies.'"

Quote for the day, from The American Annual, 1972: An Encyclopedia of the Events of 1971, which I purchased on Tuesday at the Waterville Goodwill for $2.99, which seems rather high, don't you think?

Under the entry "Literature," subentry "British Literature," sub-sub-entry "Poetry":

British Poetry Since 1945, edited by Edward Lucie-Smith, abundantly documents the increasingly introspective nature of poetry in Great Britain. Despite its frequent display of technical adroitness and verbal wit, the volume contains little work of real interest. There is scarcely more to recommend The Young British Poets, edited by Jerome Robson. It is characterized by an odd unity--a general gloom that Peter Porter described as the natural tone of "the laureate of low spirits."

Hard to know what say to such a review, other than that I'm relieved to have been an American second-grader in 1971 rather than a representative Young British Poet.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

For a long time, I didn't know any other serious writers. But lately, as I've met more and more working writers, I've begun to realize how many of us struggle with a parallel issue: our authority to write. Our problem might be summed up like this: "Why should I, regular ignorant person, presume that I have anything to say about [insert complicated subject here]?"

The complicated subject, in my case, is the western literary canon. For other people, the subject might be anything from "men," to "the wilderness," to "Christianity." And what's at stake, I think, is the surrender of our modesty.

Of course, modesty can reveal itself in more than one way. In college, I didn't fret much about taking a work-study job as an art-class model (though I was way too bored and fidgety to be any good at it). But I wouldn't have dreamed of writing a personal essay about how much I loved the novels of Dickens. It took me 20 years even to make a first attempt.

Modesty can be a stand-in for innocence. It can also be a stand-in for fear and embarrassment. And it can also mask arrogance, which artists have in spades. But naturally, nice, well-meaning people shouldn't be arrogant, and so we don't write about the big subjects because then people will find out what jerks we really are.

So we're modest. And then what we need to write doesn't get written. So then we try to write. And then we hide our heads in our hands and say, "What have I done?" And then we peek out from behind our hands and say, "I don't know. Maybe that went okay after all."

For instance, here's Charlotte Gordon's latest blog post.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Heading to Waterville at lunchtime to meet with Elizabeth Garber. It's a first step in hammering out interview questions for our Maine Humanities Council project. As you may recall, she and I have been invited to develop a podcast script focusing on our experiences as poets who turn to writing prose. We're different kinds of poets with different kinds of prose, so the conversation should be broad, to say the least.

If you happen to have read Tracing Paradise by now, it's not too late to throw in your two cents. What questions do you have? What thoughts can you offer from your own experience as a writer or a teacher of both genres?

Dinner tonight: Steamers. This will be more affordable than usual since my shellfish-loving eleven-year-old is still at camp. He is the kind of child who finishes one lobster and then looks around for a second. He's hasn't found a second lobster yet, but he's always hoping.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Monday morning and, other than poison ivy and an ocular migraine, everything is going well.  I never even heard of an ocular migraine before, but live and learn. Kind of like LSD without the LSD. Fortunately, it lasts for 20 minutes instead of 20 hours.

Now onto a completely different subject: For the second time in my life, I, the copyeditor, have been copyedited--this time, via my upcoming CavanKerry poetry ms. The copyeditor repeatedly pointed out my attachment to hyphens and, yes, as a writer, I recognize that I am archaic about hyphenation. I just think "looking-glass" looks better than "looking glass." James Joyce, however, would have written "lookingglass," and this may be why Ulysses drives me crazy. Too many ugly compound words.

I did give in to the copyeditor once in a while since I know that's a nice thing to do. We copyeditors can get easily depressed by trumpeting, self-righteous authors who think they have the right to ignore Webster's and spell anything any damn way they please.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

We had sunshine for about 5 minutes this morning, but now it seems to have vanished. Since it has rained in Maine for a month, this is no surprise, though it's nonetheless disheartening. My herb garden is beginning to rot, the pepper and cucumber plants remain an inch high, and slugs are steadily devouring the the sunflowers and the lettuce. Perhaps if it doesn't actively rain, I'll be able to pick strawberries . . . or maybe they'll be rotten as well.

I'm beginning to return to my cooking schedule. Yesterday I made a gateau, with orange filling and icing. The icing was grainier than I would have liked, but it tasted good anyway. Sometimes icing just does not want to smooth out.

I'm still reading Mistress Bradstreet, though a weekend in the honeymoon suite (aka my house when the boys are at camp) has not been promoting studious thought. Nevertheless, T and I have managed to spend a few working hours at our respective desks, which may be a sign that we will actually continue to have a life after our children have left home.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Thinking about line in poetry
This past week at the Frost Place, one of the teachers demonstrated a method for focusing students on the richness of individual lines. Using Wislawa Symborska's poem "Rubens' Women," he had group members, one after another, read the lines of the poem. Of course, each reader took possession of his or her particular line (mine, I'm happy to say, had "cloudy piglets"), and the exercise was a great demonstration of the way in which poets can get drunk on language.

I've been thinking that Sylvia Plath poems would also respond well to this treatment. For instance, from "Lesbos":

Viciousness in the kitchen!
The potatoes hiss.
It is all Hollywood, windowless,
The fluorescent light wincing on and off like a terrible migraine,
Coy paper strips for doors--
Stage curtains, a widow's frizz.

A line-by-line reading would take group members away from the "oh, she's so messed up" distractions of Plath straight into the vigor and terror of the language, yet they could also participate in the procession of the drama, which is such an enormous part of Plath's writing.

When I'm teaching line, I often turn to a poet named Michael Casey. In 1972 Casey won the Yale Younger Poets Prize for his collection Obscenities, which is set in Vietnam, where Casey served as a military policeman during the war. Since that collection, however, he has more or less faded into obscurity. He returned to his home in Lowell, Massachusetts; spent time working in the textile mills in nearby Lawrence; and meanwhile kept writing.

Casey's tiny book Millrat, published in 1999 by Adastra Press, is, in my opinion, even better than Obscenities, though hardly anyone seems to know about it. Casey is a master of the line break, which he uses to exactly imitate the voice of his poem's speaker. Try reading one out loud, pausing at every line end, using every tab space within the lines, and you'll see what I mean.


Michael Casey

Walter walked over to Alfred
and asked him
to mix up the soap
when he got the chance
and Alfred said
sure          he'd do it
when he got the chance
but he never did it
so Walter walked over to Ronald
and said
Ron          why don't ya make the soap up
when ya through what ya doin
and Ronald said
fuck you Walter
of course
Ronald went and mixed up the soap
when he got the chance
Walter noticed it too
they didn't make Walter
the boss for nothing

And now you see, of course, that you have to buy this book.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Okay, so Charlotte Gordon and I are now charter members of each other's fan clubs, which is a thrilling novelty for me. Not that I haven't met writers who turned out to be good friends, but Charlotte (who was one of the visiting teachers at the Frost Place) and I hit it off instantly, in large part because of our shared urgency to deal with the seventeenth century in ways that speak fervently to the present.

I am in the midst of reading Charlotte's biography Mistress Bradstreet, and already I see how clearly she is focusing on one aspect of the Puritans we have forgotten: their erudition. Today we tend to associate anti-intellectualism with conservative Protestantism. But Milton and Bradstreet were more than extraordinarily intelligent; both were wide-ranging, voracious, and scholarly readers. Bradstreet is the miracle because of her sex; Milton is the miracle because of his language.

It's so exciting to find another mind focusing on such discoveries. I'm really, really happy to have met Charlotte. Not to mention that she also gave Tracing Paradise its very first Goodreads review.
Time, I think, for another Milly Jourdain poem. For those of you who haven't been following my Milly Jourdain saga, a quick search of this blog will bring you up to date. Suffice it to say that she is a forgotten British poet who was writing at the beginning of the twentieth century and that, at the behest of her only other serious reader, biographer Hilary Spurling, I am slowly publishing all of the poems in her collection Unfulfilment on this blog. I'm beginning to have some thoughts of approaching a publisher about reprinting Milly's work in book form. But who knows if I'll actually bring myself to take that leap.


Milly Jourdain

There is a finer freshness in the air
When winter days are lengthening and mild,
And notes of birds are still most pure and rare.

The yellow sun is dying in a haze
Of burning light; making the buildings blue,
And through a window by a street I gaze.

I stand no more beneath an open sky.
My life is cramped and hedged around, I see
Its narrowness, and hear the passers-by.

Yet as the window-panes grow dark and blurred,
O give me still a certainty of faith,
To know men's lives are not unseen, unheard.
I'm finally feeling resurrected enough to move beyond monosyllabic fragments.

Frequently, when at the Frost Place, I wonder why exactly I'm there. The teachers have so much to share with one another--so much important to share--that their interaction becomes the primary impetus of the week. Hanging-out-with-beer equals collegial learning. It's pretty great, and clearly one more argument for why canceling recess would be terrible for your students (not that I'm recommending beer at recess). So even though it rained for most of the week, and my flipflops now smell weird, and I had to incompetently choke out mandolin solos alongside frat-boy Jim's version of "Rambling Man," the conference was wonderful. This was the largest group of teachers we've ever had--25. We also had a very large contingent of male teachers, so clearly poetry is moving out of the realm of "nice" in the public schools into the realm of "action." This matters enormously, and not just for those resistant 11th-grade general-class boys. Now students can begin to see that poems matter to human beings across the spectrum, not simply to a stereotyped lady novel reader. Being a stereotyped lady novel reader myself, I couldn't be happier.

As for what we're having for dinner, God only knows. Over the course of the week, I evidently forgot that I lived in a house and had to do stuff like examine the contents of the refrigerator for evidence of the major food groups. Maybe I need to drink another pot of coffee before I make the attempt.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Home. Too tired to write. But this year's Frost Place conference was even better than last year's. Sorry, last-year teachers.