Monday, August 31, 2009

I spent a good portion of the weekend sorting through my books, weeding out things to discard, and reorganizing their order on the shelves--a tidying frenzy that has created a mess, for now my bedroom floor is stacked with homeless volumes. But the books on the shelves look happier. And not only did I find my long-vanished and -lamented copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but I've also gained a certain hardhearted pleasure in getting rid of books, especially poetry collections. There is something cathartic about announcing, "I WILL NEVER READ THIS AGAIN," and pitching a prize-winning, celestially blurbed volume of contemporary dreck into the giveaway box.

from If on a winter's night a traveler

Italo Calvino

The professor is there at his desk; in the cone of light from a desk lamp his hands surface, suspended, or barely resting on the closed volume, as if in a sad caress.
     "Reading," he says, "is always this: there is a thing that is there, a thing made of writing, a solid, material object, which cannot be changed, and through this thing we measure ourselves against something else that is not present, something else that belongs to the immaterial, invisible world, because it can only be thought, imagined, or because it was once and is no longer, past, lost, unattainable, in the land of the dead. . . . "

Sunday, August 30, 2009

My friend David, who is Canadian, sent me this bit from Philip Marchand's review of Alice Munro's most recent story collection, Too Much Happiness:

If Alice Munro had never existed, part of the soul of Canada would have remained inarticulate, forgotten, submerged.  The locus of this Canadian scene rendered so powerfully in her fiction is rural Southwestern Ontario, settled by Scotch Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Methodists from the north of England. . . . But everything in her world comes back to that small-town milieu of pokey little stores, dull Sunday-afternoon dinners with aunts and uncles, a mentality made up of respect for hard work, resentment of show-offs and dim memories of Calvinist terrors.

Alice Munro may be my favorite contemporary writer, and I think that Marchand cogently sums up why she is so important to writers such as myself. We live unremarkable lives in what seem to be dull and unremarkable places among what seem to be dull and unremarkable people. Yet whether we like it or not, this milieu is our subject, and one that requires our moral honesty, not scorn or cynicism or sentimentality or wishful thinking. We have a responsibility to it; and as writers, our responsibility requires articulation. I may have small hope of writing as well as Alice Munro, but that doesn't let me off the hook. If I don't write about Harmony, Maine, who will?

Friday, August 28, 2009

A recent review of Boy Land & Other Poems, courtesy of Nate Fisher and his grandma

"Often when I read poetry to my grandma, I see a whole costume trunk of reactions---the facebillow frown, the what-the-hell-is-this eyebrow lift, the ever-so-common 'I don't get it' pout, the silent but sour face, and my personal favorite: 'that's not poetry.' 

"I can't say that I expected anything but the usual when I read her a few selections from
Boy Land last night, seeing how anything (a) I'm a fan of and (b) has been published in the past 70 years seems not appeal to her whatsoever. 

"But oh, oh, the shock and awe! She was raving on how 'fantastic' it was, asked me to borrow it, and returned it to me a few hours later commenting that you were 'like a painter, but with words.' Yes! You inspired her to attempt a metaphor of her own! 

So, you've charmed my grandmother, Dawn. To understand the immensity of this achievement, let me just tell you that this is the woman that read an issue of the
Beloit Poetry Journal and called the poets featured 'a bunch of weirdos.'"

I finished Sense and Sensibility today. I hadn't read it for a while because it hasn't traditionally been one of my favorite Austen novels. But this time I liked it, especially the depiction of Elinor Dashwood, who, if not a charmer like Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet, is self-aware and incisive in a way that seems unique among Austen's heroines. Both Emma and Elizabeth deceive themselves; Fanny Price is self-aware but meek; Catherine Norland is a gauche innocent. Elinor, however, is different from all of them. She is no more intelligent than Emma, Elizabeth, or Fanny, but she is wise and discreet, a good manager, a handler of crises. She has a great appeal, far greater than her sister Marianne, who is a twit. Whatever can Colonel Brandon see in her?

One of the weakness of this novel is its wordiness. At her height Austen was so concise that it's rather shocking to watch her sentences run on so flabbily. But her comic eye is wonderful. I think my favorite silly characters are rude Mr. Palmer and his nitwit wife, who invariably laughs when her husband insults her and says, "Mr. Palmer is so droll!"

20 minutes later, an unrelated addendum: I just finished copying out Keats's "Ode on Melancholy," the greatest poem I've ever read about the joys of being depressed. I love it, I love it, I love it.

Ode on Melancholy

            John Keats


No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist

            Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;

Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d

            By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;

Make not your rosary of yew-berries,

            Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be

                        Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl

A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;

            For shade to shade will come too drowsily,

                        And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.



But when the melancholy fit shall fall

            Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,

            And hides the green hill in an April shroud;

Then glut they sorrow on a morning rose,

            Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,

                        Or on the wealth of globed peonies;

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,

            Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,

                        And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.



She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;

            And Joy whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,

            Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight

            Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,

                        Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue

Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;

            His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,

                        And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

I've recently received notice of a few places that publish student work; so if you're a teacher or the parent of a young writer, you may want to check them out. First is a new blog started by the Telling Room, a writing center based in Portland, Maine.  And second is a list of publications compiled by the editors of NewPages, a web-based writing resource that you may find useful in other ways as well.

I offer these links with some trepidation because I am leery of anything that reinforces a writer's conviction that publication is the point of writing. Already, too many adults believe this. I frequently believe it myself. But it's a poisonous misconception, especially for ambitious apprentice-level writers. The act of writing has to be its own best reward.

Nonetheless, there is undoubtedly great pleasure--and relief--in finding a reader, and that happens most obviously with publication. So all I can say is, Use these resources as you see fit. Just don't forget the ambiguities.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

August 15 was the one-year anniversary of this blog, and  I can't decide if I feel like I've just started the project or have been writing these posts forever. So in honor of the blog's birthday, and of the Harmony Free Fair--which at this time of year infects the citizens of Harmony like typhoid--I will once again post "The Skillet Toss," a poem from Boy Land that appeared in my first post.

But I also have some questions for you. Is this blog interesting? Should I keep writing it? Should I make changes? And if so, what? Writers are, by their nature, self-involved; yet they also want to communicate, to converse, to share. I want this blog (have I mentioned how much I hate the word blog?) to be an open letter to you, newsy yet not self-indulgent. So if I can do better, please let me know.

The Skillet Toss

Dawn Potter

Harmony Fair, September 2002

A loose, laughing huddle of women

gathers alongside a swath of packed dirt,

hot children milling underfoot

clutching half-empty cans of soda;

and now husbands drift over, and we

arrive, who don’t throw skillets,


ready to cheer on our friend Tina,

who baby-sits our kids and doesn’t take shit.

Ask the contestants what they’re aiming at

this year, they’ll all say husbands.

Men are proud to have a wife who can

fracture skulls, if she thinks it’s worth her while.


They watch, amused but unsurprised—

married too long to doubt the plain lack

of vanity a high school sweetheart

acquires by forty. Tina practices her swing,

all knees and elbows under the sun;

the crowd watches, relaxed


and easy-tempered in the heat,

last hurrah of a Maine summer:

such weather can’t last; frost on the way:

in this town we never forget January;

so oh, the pleasure now of watching

sweat run down a brown arm,


first arc of a skillet in the heavy air

and the slow rise of dust when it lands:

Applause, laughter; Tina wipes

her forehead and takes aim for the next,

all eyes on her target: invisible Everyman

in the haze, asking for it, his voice


a low grumble of content, like oxen

flicking their tails in the barn—

and just fool enough to turn his back,

bare elbows propped on the fence,

watching a couple of ponies drag

their burden of concrete across the ring.

[from Boy Land & Other Poems (Deerbrook Editions, 2004)].

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

School starts tomorrow for my 6th grader, Friday for my 10th grader. Summer winds to an end. There is a chill in the air this morning, and my thoughts are turning to firewood. Outside a mourning dove is wailing its dull wail, a pileated woodpecker is laughing its loon-laugh. I should get dressed and go feed the barn animals, but I'm idling here still, thinking about the first day of school and how I can exactly remember the tremble in my gut on those first-day mornings: walking in jittery circles in the street sand; staring self-consciously and with some anxiety at my new shoes, as the school bus choked around the corner.

The Master

Dawn Potter

Leo’s eleven, but he still can’t write “Leo.”

He throws a pencil at me.

You write the poem,” he says.

He frowns and leans back in his chair


and shuts his eyes.

In the flat autumn light, his glasses

shed a watery glow. His freckles tremble.

Leo always likes to keep me waiting.


After a minute he growls,

“Big heifers in the corn again,

And them horses

Is hungry.”


After a minute he snarls,

“Coyote snitched the rawhide.

Grab a gun and blast him,

Then skin him up.”


Twenty other kids breathe hard,

scribble, and erase. Danyell chews

on the end of a pen and sighs gustily.

“Can I make this up?” she complains.


Leo slouches and crosses his arms

over his bony ribs.  He opens his eyes

and smiles in a superior manner.

In his view, imagination sucks.


What matters in a poem

is you tell it like it happened

but you leave out the crap.

He jerks his chin up,


looks me over, slitty-eyed.  He says,

I do something I do it right!”

When that bell screams,

he’s number one out the door.

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

Monday, August 24, 2009

On John Keats and the Struggle to Write

This morning I copied out Keats's "Ode to Indolence," least well known of the poet's odes and, according to his biographer, Walter Jackson Bate, "far below the standard of the other odes; . . . its value is primarily biographical." Yet for someone who is struggling to write (or to stop caring about trying to write), the ode may have a great deal of power.

Following is the poem and, after it, a quotation from the Bate biography . . . which is, as I have already told many people, the greatest literary biography that I have ever read.

Ode on Indolence

John Keats

“They toil not, neither do they spin.”


One morn before me were three figures seen,

            With bowed necks, and join’d hands, side-faced;

And one behind the other stepp’d serene,

            In placid sandals, and in white robes graced;

They pass’d, like figures on a marble urn,

            When shifted round to see the other side;

                        They came again; as when the urn once more

Is shifted round, the first seen shades return;

            And they were strange to me, as may betide

                        With vases, to one deep in Phidian lore.



How is it, Shadows! that I knew ye not?

            How came ye muffled in so hush a mask?

Was it a silent deep-disguised plot

            To steal away, and leave without a task

My idle days? Ripe was the drowsy hour;

            The blissful cloud of summer-indolence

                        Benumbed my eyes; my pulse grew less and less;

Pain had no sting, and pleasure’s wreath no flower:

            O, why did ye not melt, and leave my sense

                        Unhaunted quite of all but—nothingness?



A third time came they by;--alas! wherefore?

            My sleep had been embroider’d with dim dreams;

My soul had been a lawn besprinkled o’er

            With flowers, and stirring shades, and baffled beams:

The morn was clouded, but no shower fell,

            Tho’ in her lids hung the sweet tears of May;

                        The open casement press’d a new-leav’d vine,

Let in the budding warmth and throstle’s lay;

            O Shadows! ’twas a time to bid farewell!

                        Upon your skirts had fallen no tear of mine.



A third time pass’d they by, and, passing, turn’d

            Each one the face a moment whiles to me;

Then faded, and to follow them I burn’d

            And ached for wings because I knew the three;

The first was a fair Maid, and Love her name;

            The second was Ambition, pale of cheek,

                        And ever watchful with fatigued eye;

The last, whom I love more, the more of blame

            Is heap’d upon her, maiden most unmeek,--

                        I knew to be my demon Poesy.



They faded, and, forsooth! I wanted wings:

            O folly! What is Love! and where is it?

And for that poor Ambition! it springs

            From a man’s little heart’s short fever-fit;

For Poesy!—no,--she has not a joy,--

            At least for me,--so sweet as drowsy noons,

                        And evenings steep’d in honied indolence;

O, for an age so shelter’d from annoy,

            That I may never know how change the moons,

                        Or hear the voice of busy common-sense!



So, ye three Ghosts, adieu! Ye cannot raise

            My head cool-bedded in the flowery grass;

For I would not be dieted with praise,

            A pet lamb in a sentimental farce!

Fade softly from my eyes, and be once more

            In masque-like figures on the dreamy urn;

                        Farewell! I yet have visions for the night,

And for the day faint visions there is store;

            Vanish, ye Phantoms! from my idle spright,

                        Into the clouds, and never more return!

from John Keats: A Biography

Walter Jackson Bate

The interest of the poem lies in the unexpected confessions that emerge in the last two stanzas. . . . Throughout the autumn he had been able to take the reviews of Endymion in his stride, partly because of the daily anxiety about [his tubercular, dying brother] Tom and partly because he was so preoccupied with Hyperion, which was then going forward rapidly. But in the months that followed the death of Tom, moments of misgiving and self-uncertainty had multiplied. . . . It was not only the need to earn a livelihood, sharp as it was, that was creating such a hurdle of discouragement. What had the months brought otherwise since he had returned from the north? The odes had indeed reawakened some of his confidence, more than he knew at the time. But the really large effort of Hyperion . . . had trailed off into nothing. It, or "some grand Poem," was the essential thing. When he said (June 9) that he had "been very idle lately, very averse to writing," partly because of "the overpowering idea of our dead poets," he was not speaking of the two or three weeks that had passed since the odes of early May. He was thinking of all the months that had passed since the bulk of Hyperion was written.

It's hard to believe that Keats could have overlooked the great odes as an accomplishment. Yet he was lamenting, in his troubles with Hyperion, his inability to be another Milton. Heartbreaking this is and yet, for a poet and a reader, so simple to recognize.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

New Goodwill acquisitions:
Sue Kaufman's Diary of a Mad Housewife, in an early book club edition, with dust jacket and peculiar author's photo.
Not dedicated to Betty Friedan.
Price: $1.99.
First 3 sentences: "It is nine-fifteen on this hot September morn, hotter than any summer day we had. All the windows are open and soot, like fallout, is drifting in and settling everywhere. Outside this bedroom door, which I've locked, the apartment is empty and unpleasantly still."

Italo Calvino's, If on a winter night a traveler, in a grubby but still cohesive paperback edition.
Book epigraph contains a translator's note explaining that "in Chapter Eight the passage from Crime and Punishment is quoted in the beloved translation of Constance Garnett," thus intensifying the curious translator layers while lifting my spirits [see my War and Peace essay for more on my Constance Garnett habit].
Price: $1.99--far too expensive when compared with the fine Kaufman edition above.
First 3 sentences plus interrupting imperatives, which sort of count as sentences: "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade."

The question is, What do I read first? Or do I go back to the Dosteovsky I bought a few weeks ago at a yard sale, which the Crime and Punishment explanation hints might be the best plan? Of course I am already reading Sense and Sensibility and Keats's odes, so possibly I ought not to add another volume quite yet. . . .

Deciding what to read can be so alarming. Without irony, I say that it will affect the entire tenor of my daily life, let alone what I might end up writing about. This is my major reason for avoiding graduate school: I cannot take the risk of anyone else's reading list. Possibly something good would happen, but more likely not.

My son said to me yesterday, as I was gaping in horror at the lunchtime ambience of the Texas Roadhouse, "Mom, you're a poet, and poets are so not open-minded." I exclaimed at this as unreasonable. I myself might not be open-minded, but surely some other poet. . . . At which point my husband said, "Name one." 

Saturday, August 22, 2009

1. School shopping at the Bangor Mall today.

2. Blah.

3. I will spend some anthropological time studying the elderly men who populate the benches while their wives shop. 

4. The smell of Hollister makes me lightheaded.

5. Are there any poems about the mall? Surely there must be.

6. I actually do need some new pants. Good thing I'm going to the mall.

7. What would it be like to be trapped all night at Spencer's?

8. I once knew a little boy who wanted to move to the mall because the trees and waterfalls were so beautiful. But the Bangor Mall doesn't have any waterfalls.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Spent some time with Keats's "To Autumn" yesterday. I've copied it out before, but I decided to do it again and, as I did, found myself thinking about his left-margin indents. Clearly they're intended to support the rhyme scheme, but do they also serve other functions? I found them rather difficult to type: I kept making mistakes, which leads me to believe that the pattern is more than merely a rhyme mirror. But what?

In any case, I adore this poem. 

To Autumn

 John Keats


Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

            Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

            With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,

            And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

            Until they think warm days will never cease,

                        For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.



Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

            Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

            Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,

            Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

                        Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

            Steady thy laden head across a brook;

            Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

                        Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.



Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?

            Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

            And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

            Among the river sallows, borne aloft

                        Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

            Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

            The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

                        And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


Dessert last night: angel cake, sugared blueberries and peaches, whipped cream. (I made the angel cake using the leftover egg whites I'd accrued in the freezer. They whip up quite well, even after several cryogenic months.)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

My friend Jen and I spent an hour last night clumsily attempting to create a Facebook group for the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, which, thanks to advice from a 15-year-old, we were finally able to do. Jen is a teacher from Chicago who attended the conference in 2008 and has wanted to create a place for teachers to easily discuss lesson plans, post videos, etc. It's an open group; you don't have to have attended the conference to participate. So if you have a Facebook account, check it out. Jen is a great teacher, and a great person: the group couldn't have a better administrator. And the Man (aka conference director Baron Wormser) has given it his blessing.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Great news! . . . not only am I once again unemployed, but school starts next week, meaning that I will finally be home alone while not copyediting anyone else's book. The problem with this scenario is that I won't be getting paid, but unemployment is worth it, at least temporarily.

I really cannot speak too highly for unemployment. Although careers do bring you salaries and power and give you someone to talk to at coffee break, they take up an awful lot of time. But I would not have written a thing if I didn't have all these empty hours to fill.

Of course I second-guess my position all the time, particularly when I realize how very little money I make. When that happens, the declarations of John Fowles can be helpful. These are some bits from his "I Write, Therefore I Am," one of the essays collected in Wormholes. I find them comforting, partly because Fowles is far more of a hard-ass than I am. He sticks to his guns, whereas I flutter about wondering if I've misunderstood what the writing life is all about.

"I had been deliberately living in the wilderness; that is, doing work I could never really love, precisely because I was afraid that I might fall in love with my work and then forever afterwards be one of those sad, faded myriads among the intelligentsia who have always had vague literary ambitions but have never quite made it."

"I am surrounded by people who have not chosen themselves . . . but who have let themselves be chosen--by money, by status symbols, by jobs--and I don't know which are sadder, those who know this or those who don't. This is why I feel isolated from most people--just isolated, most of the time. Occasionally content to be so."

"Money makes me happy to the extent that it brings me more time to write. But it also brings me proportionately sharper doubts about my ability to write; existentialist doubts about whether I have really earned the freedom to write."

"Writing has always been with me a semireligious occupation, by which I certainly don't mean that I regard it with pious awe, but rather that I can't regard it simply as a craft, a job. I know when I am writing well that I am writing with more than the sum of my acquired knowledge, skill, and experience; with something from outside myself."

"Writing is active, and the kind of writing I have always admired, and shall always want to achieve, makes reading active too--the book reads the reader, as radar reads the unknown. And the unknown ones, the readers, feel this."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Milly Jourdain

The gentle earth is waking from her sleep
And mist of early dawn is on the grass,
When through the apples' wintry boughs I see
Beyond the wall a mass of buildings rise.

O could these helpless hands but make a space
To see the distant hills and misty fields,
Where blackbirds sing among the nearer trees,
Like sunlit rivers running over stones.

The earth is stirring in her winter sleep,
Touching the secret life in waking things,
Till flowering trees and singing birds and grass
Shall make the country fresh with youth and hope.

Oh! all this bursting sweetness of the Spring,
And softly pushing life of little things,
And coloured crocus, and the faint fresh scents,
Are so much greater than my heart's dry pain.

Yet still my heart's uneasy when I think
The earth is stirring and I cannot stir,
But only watch the life that surges past,
And lie quite still, and hear the far off sounds.

Monday, August 17, 2009

My friend Adam has recently started a blog about his attempts to live a more sustainable life in the Boston suburbs. I could sidetrack myself here and start ragging on the jargon word "sustainable" (aren't we all living sustainable lives merely by managing to stay alive?), but I do understand that we are lacking a concise vocabulary for the attempt to become more conscious of our individual influence on the planet at large. In any case, I respect Adam's decision to chronicle his attempts because, as he immediately makes clear, we're all fuck-ups in this regard.

I was pleased, if surprised, to discover that, Adam lists Tracing Paradise in his bibliography of influential books on the subject. Yes, there I sit, right next to Michael Pollan and Bill McKibben. Who would have thought? I am certainly no guru of green: like everyone else, I throw too many things away and buy grocery-store fruit from California. But I ponder the problem, which, if not a solution, is at least an awareness of error. In other words, I think I'm not complacent, even if I am wicked. One of TP's chapters, "Clear-Cuts," focuses specifically on ambiguities of sustainability; and I'm planning to read sections from it in October, when I participate in a reading on's Climate Awareness Day. Once again, Milton (and Satan) are pertinent in the so-called real world.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

It's very hot, already. Every farmer in central Maine is haying, along with their gaggle of teenage laborers and middle-aged brothers-in-law and elderly fathers who have to be boosted onto the tractor . . . not to mention their get-in-the-way younger kids who ride on the hay wagon or steer the pickup into groundhog holes.

Here's a bit from Hayden Carruth's "Emergency Haying," which is a great, great poem. It's a few pages long, and you should read all of it.

We mow, rake, bale, and draw the bales
to the barn, these late, half-green,
improperly cured bales; some weigh 150 pounds

or more, yet must be lugged by the twine
across the field, tossed on the load, and then
at the barn unloaded on the conveyor

and distributed in the loft. I help--
I, the desk-servant, word-worker--
and hold up my end pretty well too; but God,

the close of day, how I fall down then. . . .

I've already mowed grass this morning, shoving the push mower up and down the hill and sweating like a marathoner. Now, after cold water and restorative coffee, I'm off to pick beans. Oh, we desk-servants, we hold up our ends pretty well; but God, the close of day, how we fall down then.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

My friend David sent me this line by A. E. Housman. Can it be true?

"Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act."

Taking chickens to the slaughterhouse this morning, then going to my son's piano recital. There's variety for you.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Presently, having escaped from Roth's My Life As a Man, I am reading Kenneth Roberts's Northwest Passage, a historical novel first published in 1937, which centers on the exploits of Rogers's Rangers during and after the French and Indian War. As I mentioned in a previous post, I started reading this with my son after we visited Fort Ticonderoga, but he has since gotten distracted by Will and Abe's Guide to the Universe, leaving me to continue on alone.

Although Northwest Passage remains an excellent novel to read while wilting on an old bench seat at the repair shop as the guys avoid getting around to changing the oil in my car, I must say that it is not as good as it was when I first read it as a teenager. Langdon, the non-historical main character, a would-be artist from Kittery, Maine, who joins the army to avoid going to jail for his seditous yet moral comments about the New Hampshire government, is thus far rather priggish and irritating, although his attractively lumpish pals, Hunk and Cap, continue to maintain their charm. Nonetheless, I fully expect all the forest escapes and Ticonderoga scenes to be just as exciting as they ever were, and I'm on the whole pleased to be reading this book again.

But the cover blurbs are giving me pause. I should mention that my edition is a 1966 Fawcett Crest pulp paperback, yellowed and crumbling, purchased, if I remember correctly, for a dime from a willowy middle-aged guy in black-plastic-rimmed glasses who was hovering in the doorway of a farmhouse crammed with used paperbacks somewhere on a back hill in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania. The year might have been 1978. Now let me quote you some of the cover text:

"The Greatest Novel of America Ever Written"

"A thundering novel of the men and women who risked their lives to forge a new country. Through these exciting pages sweeps the grand panorama of America in the making."

"GENUINE MAGNIFICENCE . . . moves on a plane of understanding and perception that only the best kind of historical fiction achieves. --Bernard DeVoto, Saturday Review"


All I can say is that it's a little embarrassing to carry around this book in public, so it's a good thing I'm spending the morning at an auto shop where they don't ask, "What are you reading?"

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Going blueberry picking as soon as I can pitchfork my son out of bed.

Someday I may write again. Meanwhile, I am not.

The Philip Roth novel is almost over, thank God. How I hate this book. Let us hope that it at least has medicinal value.

from Lycidas

John Milton

I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forc'd fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.

Apparently there is a Milton quotation for everything.

Dinner tonight: New red potatoes for sure. Maybe sausage. Maybe beet greens. I'll decide when I get out there.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

from In Defense of Harriet Shelley and Other Essays

Mark Twain

[also the book epigraph for Kenneth Roberts's Northwest Passage]

I have no special regard for Satan; but I can at least claim that I have no prejudice against him. It may even be that I lean a little his way, on account of his not having a fair show. All religions issue bibles against him, but we never hear his side. We have none but the evidence for the prosecution, and yet we have rendered the verdict. To my mind, this is irregular. It is un-English; it is un-American; it is French. . . . Of course Satan has some kind of a case, it goes without saying. It may be a poor one, but that is nothing; that can be said about any of us.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dinner tonight: Rare tenderloin; saffron rice; zucchini julienne with basil and garlic; salad of mesclun, tiny green beans, pink and red radishes, a yellow carrot, and a bonsai cucumber; a handful of raspberries and a bowl of whipped cream.

I really am not liking this Philip Roth novel I'm reading, which has now descended into being one of those 60s novels about Freudian analysis. Of course Roth is much cleverer than that, but the cleverness palls. I tire of the main character's obsession with himself and begin to long for a leisurely 19th-century novel about everyone in town, where the author sits up in the sky next to God and makes large-hearted observations about her creations. I expect that Roth doesn't care for those kinds of novels.

On another, possibly related note: a friend of mine has recently been reading more Robert Lowell poems than any regular reader could digest, which has prompted my recollection of this comment from Ian Hamilton's biography of Lowell:

Back in Boston, the Sunday Globe proclaimed him MOST PROMISING POET IN 100 YEARS . . . MAY BE GREATER THAN JAMES AND AMY. And the paper carried a comment from "Robert Traill Spence Lowell, Annapolis graduate, retired navy officer and stockbroker"; "Poets," Lowell's father said, "seem to see more in his work than most other people."

Ah, family life.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

This part of Vermont is so postcard pretty that it seems slightly fake, but maybe that's just because I live in unscenic central Maine. In Tracing Paradise I write about how much I love Harmony, but there's no getting around the fact that it's not beautiful. There are beautiful things there, but one has to concentrate to find them. They don't fall out of the sky, like they do here in the Champlain Valley.

Went for a walk yesterday and looked at Fort Ticonderoga across the lake. Ticonderoga is one of my favorite words to say. And Dixon Ticonderoga Number 2 pencils are my favorite writing instruments. When I was a teenager, I was attached to Kenneth Roberts's historical novels about Rogers's Rangers and Crown Point and Ticonderoga. There is also a large paper mill puffing and smoking in Ticonderoga, which takes the edge off of Vermont's prettiness and gives me that homey polluted Kennebec River feeling.

Reading tonight, in a tiny tiny cute brick library. My sister has bought the wine and is arranging a cheese plate. She is such a hostess. Nobody has ever arranged a cheese plate for any of my readings before.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Leaving for Vermont today, so my posts will be sporadic for the next few days. We will be in boy land deluxe: my sister has a 4- and a 6-year-old to add to the mix, meaning that my own children will come home exhausted after a weekend of enforced and adoring little-kid playtime.

The drive takes 7 hours over secondary roads, pretty but endless. I am packing the tunafish sandwiches and the iced tea and the blueberry muffins and the juicy nectarines, and we will eat a picnic somewhere along the river. The trip would be more fun in a gypsy caravan like the one in The Wind in the Willows, but we will have to make do with a car.

In New Hampshire, we pass the turnoff for the Frost Place, where at this very moment all kinds of poetry is happening to many people, including my mother. I am looking forward to getting the lowdown later this weekend. Apparently it hasn't rained all week for the poets like it did for the teachers in June.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why do I feel compelled to mow all the grass (and there is a lot of grass, and all I have is a push mower) before going away for the weekend . . . meaning that I won't even be here to look at the result, which is not much of a lawn anyway but more of a shortish patchy meadow interrupted by gardens?

The gardens, however, are somewhat more fruitful than I expected, given our horrible summer. The red potatoes are late yet mysteriously perfect: not a scab on them. The carrots are strong and straight, despite my stony soil; and the green beans are weighing down the vines. But no tomatoes, no cucumbers. Alas, no gazpacho.

Because I ought to stop wasting time with this writing stuff and go feed goats and make bread, I will give you a Milly poem.

Spring Sickness

Milly Jourdain

The starlings clustered on the trees
Are gurgling in the rain;
From garden beds the white snow slips,
Leaving them bare again.

When shines the sun upon the earth,
And spring is everywhere;
Like Paradise, the apple trees
Are fresh and scent the air.

The spring will come to this gray town,
That stretches to the brink
Of rivers where the trees grow green
And almonds flush with pink.

A wish is mine, so fierce and vain,
A sudden wish to run
Where thrushes sing, and near the hedge
Are celandines in the sun.

To me, this poem is not one of her better efforts. Not only does it lean clumsily on its rhyme scheme, but it's also far more sentimental than her poems usually are. But maybe you like it and can show me why.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Words I Hate

Signage. What is wrong with "signs," I ask you?

Utilize. Used when "use" is just not fancy enough.

Deployment. Among academic writers, routinely utilized as a synonym for "employment." I am not joking.

Gazillion. As in "If you publish my book, we'll sell gazillions of copies."

Prior to. Theodore Bernstein, author of The Careful Writer, asks: "Would you say posterior to in place of after?

And now that I have revealed myself as a spleeny crank, I feel much better and am off to feed the goats.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I am suspicious of the genre (or should I say market?) known as the young-adult novel. Of course, as a niche, it is exceedingly popular and has made many an author wealthy, but it is a new niche, canonically speaking, and I am prone to be conservative. "In the old days, sonny, young adults read Sir Walter Scott, and they liked it. They didn't need a special genre." Moreover, so much young-adult literature is badly written. The Harry Potter books have some of the worst dialogue I've ever read; and all of Rowlings's cute fantasy references just aren't going to cover up the fact that, as attempts at art, they're clumsy and bland.

Yet I am the parent of an 11-year-old boy who loves young-adult fantasy--his current favorites being Percy Jackson and Eragon. And he's not alone: the 4th and 5th graders at the Harmony Elementary School are fearsome readers, trading novels like Pokemon cards and competing to see who can belong to the most number of reading groups. I don't have to tell you that, in a town such as Harmony, where only a tiny percentage of adults have college experience let alone a college degree, this is an educational coup.

So I've been toying with submitting my long narrative poem "The Story of Phaeton" to a young-adult publisher: partly as way to undercut my own prejudices about the market, partly because the popularity of the Percy Jackson series proves, once again, that the lure of the Greek myths is eternal, partly because my poem is better written than a lot of the crap that gets published. 

Of course, on the down side, it is a poem, even if it is an easy-to-comprehend story about a boy and his dad. That will probably do it in immediately.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Reading Middle English is like not quite understanding a foreign language. Yet something comprehensible trickles through, even when I don't know exactly what the words mean. And saying it aloud feels like singing with a mouthful of pebbles. Which, as a sensation, is more delightful than you might think.

from Ubi Sunt Qui Ante Nos Fuerunt? [translated by the first line, if that's any help]

Anonymous (c. 1275)

Where beth they beforen us weren,
houndes ladden and havekes beren,
and hadden field and wode?
The riche levedies in their bower,
that werenden gold in their tressour,
with their brighte rode?

Eten and drunken and maden them glad;
their life was all with gamen i-lad;
men keneleden them beforen;
they bearen them well swithe high.
And in the twinkling of an eye
their soules weren forloren.

Where is that laughing and that song,
that trailing and that proude yong,
those havekes and those houndes?
All that joy is went away,
that weal is comen to weylaway,
to manye harde stoundes.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

In the henhouse a baby rooster is crowing. The fog is just beginning to lift, and the air is very still. Already, in early August, the maples are reddening. On the road beyond the trees, a car advances and retreats. Somewhere, among the tamaracks, a sparrow cries, "Oh! Canada, Canada, Canada," and falls silent.

I'm sitting at my desk thinking about how much I love to play with prepositional phrases: to move them from place to place in a sentence, to substitute synonyms with slightly different sonic force (under, below, beneath; on, upon). The sparrow sings again. Now I look down at the cover of the book I've just pulled off my to-read pile. It's Philip Roth's My Life As a Man, which I bought for 25 cents last weekend at a yard sale. I'm not exactly a fan of Roth. In fact, I rather dislike him. Yet his work feels important to me. It reveals, painfully, a segment of a world that I must come to grips with, yet how would one define that world? It's one in which women are a torment to their men, in which intellect is a torment to the mind. There's great cruelty in Roth, yet kindness is not art, and I think he is an artist. But I'm loathe to say anything about where that artistry lies, for Roth is a writer who makes me feel less confident about my ideas. He makes me feel that I may have no ideas at all.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

On this sunny day we are off to be tourists at the Rockland Lobster Festival. Harmony is a 2-hour drive from the coast and, when it comes to cheery seaside celebrations, might as well be located in a separate universe. So even though our license plate might fool people into thinking we are locals, we will in fact be gawking strangers, prone to sunburn and easily impressed by Coast Guard cutters and Rod Stewart tribute bands.

Dinner tonight: well, guess.