Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sent an email to Alice Munro today, care of her publishers, who may or may not decide to forward it to her. Granted, she probably gets 1,000 times more fan mail than I do, but even famous people get lonesome and melancholy; and there's nothing like mail from a reader to make a writer feel better. At least sometimes it makes the writer feel better. Sometimes it makes the writer feel guilty and inconsequential and like she's been barking up the wrong tree for her entire life. But I took the risk and sent the email to Alice anyway.

Back to Blake today, plus making bread and washing soccer clothes. Thank goodness I'm a writer. Otherwise, when asked about my job, I would have to say, "Scullery maid."

Dinner tonight: sausage with fresh sage, garlic, and hot pepper; parsley risotto; new bread; chard with olive oil and sherry vinegar; radishes; something or other for dessert because it's piano-lesson night and I probably won't have time to make anything.

I am feeling quite driven about the writing, like some internal tyrant is compelling me, with a whip. Ah, the glories of art. At every turn it's dreadful and wonderful and then dreadful again.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I'm off to Farmington today to read Beloit Poetry Journal submissions. Although I'm not necessarily opposed to getting out of the house, I'm a bit regretful about leaving my Blake essay. Yesterday I wrote 3 first-draft pages in a delirious rush, and of course they ended up dealing with an aspect of Blake that had never before occurred to me. That is almost the best thing about writing: the surprises that happen when you let yourself go.

Here's a snatch of Blake for you, something I read at random yesterday:

from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790)

As I was walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity, I collected some of their Proverbs: thinking that as the sayings used in a nation mark its character, so the Proverbs of Hell shew the nature of Infernal wisdom better than any description of buildings or garments.

Blake is so crazy. I just cannot ever seem to get over him. I ask you: (1) what is the antecedent of "their" in the phrase "I collected some of their Proverbs"; and (2) does his capitalization have a rationale? For me, any attempt to answer either question adds all kinds of strange and unsettling complexity to this passage.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A little article I wrote for the Haverford College alumni magazine. The PDF took forever to load on my computer, so I hope yours is faster. The piece is on the second-to-last page.
On Saturday I received a gift in the mail: a complimentary copy of Michael Casey's 2004 collection Raiding a Whorehouse. As I've written before, I like Casey's poetry very much, but I don't know him personally. So a few days ago, when I received a letter from him, I was surprised and happy. Apparently he had seen me make mention of him here and wrote to say he was having the publisher forward me another book. I haven't yet been able to finish it, however, because my husband plucked it off the coffee table and started reading it first. Since Tom and I don't often read the same books, this in itself is saying something.

(Sample: what Tom's reading: Casey and Herodotus; what I'm reading: Blake and Alice Munro.)

Today I think I will attempt to write a few words about William Blake. I also plan to take a walk in the woods and attend an elementary school soccer game, as well as feed animals, do laundry, and rip out frost-nipped cucumber plants. I have not been employed for a few weeks, which worries yet delights me.

Dinner tonight (if the chickens thaw in time): bantam rooster stew with dill-and-cottage-cheese dumplings; arugula, radish, and Jerusalem artichoke salad; something or other for dessert.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I have been trying to figure out what I am doing with my writing life. So I am making lists, hoping that they will lead me somewhere. 

Within the past several years, I have written pieces on Tolstoy's War and Peace, Austen's Mansfield Park, Bowen's The Heat of the Day, Bronte's Shirley, and Dickens's David Copperfield. I have written what may be related essays on Dickens and inspiration; du Maurier, Baldwin, Woolf, and reading clutter; and family stories and the vagaries of memory. I have written a long review of the new Norton sonnet anthology and a shorter review of Milly Jourdain's forgotten collection Unfulfilment. Some of this stuff has been or will be published. In addition, I have written a short essay on being a college fuck-up for the Haverford alumni magazine. I have plans to write more obsessive-rereading essays on Eliot's Mill on the Floss, Mary J. Holmes's Victorian pulp novel Millbank, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I am also thinking of writing about Blake, though I don't obsessively reread his poems.

I have written a long narrative poem called "The Myth of Phaeton" and am working on an even longer one called "The White Bear." I have written ten or twenty sonnets of varying quality, a poem about a Custer-era massacre, and a few lyrics about marriage and frustration. Very little of this material has been published. Since my Milton overload, my ability to compose lyric poetry seems to have been severely compromised. Too early to tell if this is a good thing or not.

Sometimes I feel as if I get nothing done, as if I am the world's biggest time waster. Clearly these lists show that this is not true, yet in my daily life I still see myself as hugely unproductive. 

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Because they seem pertinent to the comments on yesterday's post, I thought I would quote a few lines today from the great Alice Munro. What she talks about here is something that writers have to face up to all the time . . . even before they know they are writers.

from "No Advantages," in the story collection The View from Castle Rock

Self-dramatization got short shrift in our family. Though now that I come to think of it, it wasn't exactly that word they used. They spoke of calling attention. Calling attention to yourself. The opposite of which was not exactly modesty but a strenuous dignity and control, a sort of refusal. The refusal to feel any need to turn your life into a story, either for other people or for yourself. And when I study the people I know about in the family, it does seem that some of us have that need in large and irresistible measure--enough so as to make the others cringe with embarrassment and apprehension. That's why the judgment or warning had to be given out so frequently.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Such a lovely evening with Elizabeth last night. The event went more smoothly than I could have imagined. Not only did I manage to avoid coughing while being recorded, but we also had a good-sized and apparently very attentive audience. Elizabeth and I started out by answering the questions that I posted here yesterday, and then each of us read for about 15 minutes. Afterwards, audience members asked their own questions about craft, emotional engagement, the risks of writing, and so on, all of which were very interesting to me because Elizabeth and I answered them in both very similar and very different ways. Clearly our ways of writing and tapping into our imaginations are unique to us as individuals, yet we share similar perceptions about how we've learned to structure prose and to follow the prose thought process, which is so different from the poetic thought process. I do hope that nothing goes wrong with the recording so that I can post a link to the podcast for you.

Frost warning for tonight. Last hurrah of the cucumbers and green beans. Oh well. I'm tired of gardening anyway. Let firewood season begin.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reading tonight with Elizabeth Garber, Belfast Free Library, Belfast, Maine, at 6:30 p.m., under the auspices of the Maine Humanities Council, which will be recording our reading as well as a preliminary discussion of why and how poets might turn to writing memoir. These are the general topics:

1. Tell us about your history as poets.
2. How did you come to write a memoir?
3. What has been exciting for you about writing prose as compared to poetry?
4. What has been challenging for you?
5. What is your next project?

I am hoping not to choke on my residual head cold and thus destroy the podcast. I am also hoping that I can figure out when to stop talking, as I can natter on indefinitely when I am excited. In addition, I plan to be wearing my new Franco Sarto heels for the very first time, and I hope I will not be distracted by the novelty. When I was little, I used to find new school shoes extremely distracting. With luck, however, all will turn out well, and I can post a link to the podcast expeditiously.

I now possess a first draft of my Elizabeth Bowen essay. Since I have been writing the essay for five years, this feel like a major accomplishment. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I have just returned from one of those errand-running mornings that gel around the "Why is this happening?" question: as in "Why do the lenses keep falling out of my son's new glasses?" and "Why is my blood test weird when I'm not sick?" and "Why has the drugstore instituted a new check-writing policy in which you don't have to actually write on the check but you still have to tear it out of your checkbook so the clerk can scan it?"

Needless to say, I have done no writing, but I have, on the bright side, visited an apple orchard and gotten a good laugh from a sober NPR radio commentator's mention of the tent that Libya's President Qaddafi has pitched in White Plains, New York.

I'd like to pitch a tent in White Plains myself, especially if it were the sort that features in Son of the Sheik, which is a silent movie starring Rudolph Valentino, and now I'm sure you're starting to picture just what his tent might look like. Whatever you're imagining, it's all true.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

One interesting thing about writing essays is how often, during the production of a first draft, cutting and pasting entire paragraphs or chunks of paragraphs stimulates further creative thought. For me, at least, this is not the case in first-draft poems. Often those poems don't turn out to have begun at the place where I originally started writing; that is, they seem to involve a certain amount of prewriting before I get to the heart of the matter. But once I fall into a groove, the poem expands on its momentum. Naturally I revise and revise, add and cut. But the train of thought remains cohesive. 

So perhaps, when choosing whether to write in prose or verse, I'm focusing not so much on subject matter as the process of thought.  I might bring up this topic on Thursday evening, when I take part in the "Poets Writing Memoir" discussion with Elizabeth Garber.

If you feel like reading "Eclogue" and comparing it with Tracing Paradise, chapter 4, "The Undefiled Bed," maybe you'll see what I mean. Both pieces are dealing with the history of marriage, but the poem's thought process is very different from the chapter's. I've posted both of them here.


Dawn Potter

A marriage worth of minutes we’ve stood

side by side, staring into the hooded depths

of your 1984 Dodge Ram pickup truck,

watching the engine chitter and die

for no apparent reason. I feel a crazy,

ignorant joy: here we go again, sweetheart,

struggling in harness over yet another

crappy mystery. Do you? I can’t say I’ll ever

know one way or the other what your thoughts

will do, though twenty years ago I made you cry

when I dumped you for the jerk down the hall,

and I’ll never get over it, the sight of you,

cool autocrat, in tears for a dumb girl

who happened to be me.


Now I’m the one who cries all the time,

you’re the one not walking away from me

down the hall.  Just the same, you imagine

walking away, I’m sure of it; maybe when you’re

dragging another snow-sopped log to the chainsaw

pile, or we’re curled in bed waiting for a barred owl

to stammer in the pines, the barn dog shouting back

like a madwoman. It’s not that being here

is misery; it’s more like marriage is too much

and not enough at the same time: the trees crowd us

like children, our bodies betray a fatal longing.

What’s left for us, at forty, but dismay

till labor shakes us back into our yoke.


Work, work, that puritan duty—yet

how beautiful the set of your shoulders

when you heave a scrap of metal siding

into the trash heap. Our bodies linger

this side of lovely, like flowers under glass.

We drive ourselves to endure; on my knees

in the hay mow, stifled and panting,

I plant bale after bale in place: you toss,

you toss, I shove, I shove. We keep pace,

patient and wordless; the goats in their pen

blat irritably. In the yard our sons quarrel.

Mourning doves groan in the eaves.

Long hours ahead, till our job is done

and another begins.

Hunting scattered chickens in the bug-infested dew:

I watch you crouch along the scrubby poplar edge,

then circle back between the apple trees,

white hen skittering ahead, luminescent in the shabby

dark. Suddenly she drops her head and sits,

submissive as a girl. You’ve got her now; tuck up her feet

and carry her back home, then squat to mend the ragged fence.

A breath of sweat rises from your sunburnt neck,

salt and sweet. My love. Marry me, I say. You cast

an eye askance and shrug, I did. How odd it seems

that this is where we’ve landed: chasing chickens

through the woods at twilight, humid thunder rumpling

the summer sky, dishes washed, a slice of berry pie left

cooling on the counter. I’ve been saving it for you.

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


The Undefiled Bed

Dawn Potter

Hail wedded Love, mysterious Law, true source

Of human offspring, sole propriety

In Paradise of all things common else.

Though by now we’ve been married for nearly sixteen years, more than once Tom and I have announced over a beer that we’d never do it again. As far as I can tell, neither one of us is hinting at divorce. And as far as I can tell, our declaration isn’t one of those conversational ice chunks that occasionally float up from the marital iceberg: those double-edged couple-ish remarks like “She doesn’t eat parsnips, so I don’t cook parsnips” or “I’ve always left the decorating up to you” or “He’s never enjoyed talking on the phone.” We in fact have an easygoing friendship, don’t argue about child raising, admire each other’s artwork, and can stack hay without quarrelling. So on the surface, it’s strange that we’ve come to this conclusion about what appears to be a flourishing partnership.

I think one source of our antipathy is getting married. This, in itself, is odd because I (and even Tom—though being the skinny, silent type, he winces at the prospect of all overwrought public gatherings) actually enjoy attending weddings. My cousin celebrated his marriage to a remarkably large-breasted girl in a New Jersey firehouse, and that was very fun. My generally self-contained mother drank cheap wine and danced recklessly to “Love Shack.” The bride’s satin skirt ripped out at the waistband during “YMCA” and had to be safety-pinned with much fuss and flurry, while the bride was screeching at Tom, crouched in a corner with his camera, “Hey! Are you taking any good photos of this?” The Presbyterian groom’s family was confused by the ziti and sauce (“Who eats macaroni at a wedding?”), which the bride’s Italian family insisted was de rigueur (“Everybody eats macaroni at a wedding!”).

A wedding is one of the few celebrations in which people of all ages dress up in fancy outfits, consume ridiculous food, pace solemnly up and down aisles, cry in public, sing comic songs, hold hands with their fathers, and do the limbo. What can be wrong with an occasion that jumbles together high ceremony and cheerful absurdity to celebrate a new bond? It seems, in some ways, an ideal amalgam of human social relations.

            Yet when I’m chipping away at Paradise Lost and happen across lines like these, where Adam and Eve are getting ready for bed, I feel a twinge of regret:

                                    Other Rites

Observing none, but adoration pure

Which God likes best, into thir inmost bower

Handed they went; and eas’d the putting off

These troublesome disguises which wee wear,

Straight side by side were laid.

For a poet so addicted to syntactic contortion and celestial formality (especially in matters of battle: how he loves a stately clash), Milton’s thoughts about marriage are notably modest, even austere. To begin with, he equates lapsarian marriage with clothes, and he cannot stand “these troublesome disguises.” He’s so vehement, in so many places, about how awful they are that I frivolously begin to wonder if he had a wool allergy, or maybe a mole on the back of his neck that chafed against his collar, or perhaps was married to an inept seamstress. Trivializing is unfair, however, because his diatribes against clothing are, beneath their bluster, some of the most poignant passages in the poem. For to Milton, in our naked glory, humanity most nearly replicates the beauty of the angels:

Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,

Godlike erect, with native Honor clad

In naked Majesty seem’d Lords of all,

And worthy seem’d, for in thir looks Divine

The image of thir glorious Maker shone,

Truth, Wisdom, Sanctitude severe and pure.

In our fallen world, this vision of humanity is not only patently false but even embarrassing. The rare beautiful bodies among us are more renowned for stupidity than for “Truth, Wisdom, Sanctitude severe and pure.” As for the rest of us aging grunts, our flabby, bony, pasty shells seem evidence of both physical and metaphorical ineptitude—a frail, imploding carapace, a monstrous rhinoceros suit, a winding sheet.

Milton’s vision of human beauty charms me, and makes me sad, because unlike our present conceptions of beauty, which are so often narcissistic and self-flagellating and victimized and mob-controlled, his depends on a shared, equivalent gaze. “Straight side by side were laid” may be the starkest description of a marriage bed I’ve ever read, an image more akin to a double funeral than a honeymoon suite. But its starkness is also simplicity, and innocence, and, perhaps most movingly, concentration. Look only at me, my love, and I will look only at you.

Marriage is indeed a concentration: both an unswerving attention to another human being and the distillation, day by day, year by year, of what matters in a shared life. Since a wedding is a sloppy froth of cousins, ribbons, parents, pomp, cake, bad photos, and mishap, it seems like a silly way to begin such an enterprise. But I don’t have anything against silliness, though clearly Milton didn’t care to picture our noble First Parents as gigglers. What I hate is the idea of being looked at by all those wedding guests.

            A wedding is a story with lots of characters. A marriage is a story with two. No matter how tightly it intersects with other family divisions—children, parents, cousins, ancestors—marriage itself is a separate world, remote as an island. Scanning the crowd of couples at a local basketball game, I note strange alliances and ponder unanswerable questions: “What does she see in that jerk?” or “How does it feel to wake up every morning next to such an enormous woman?” But I’ll never know. Even children, those greedy observers, never in all their lives understand the secret links and fissures in their parents’ union.

            “Straight side by side were laid.” This is what it feels like, marriage, on fine days and on bad days. Lately I tried to have a conversation with Tom on this very subject, as we paused together in the kitchen. The kettle hissed on the woodstove, and he was holding a wet dishtowel. I had propped a basket of folded shirts against my hip. Our sons had shot off into their own orbits, sorting through Legos or listening to Lone Ranger episodes or folding paper airplanes. It was a regular winter evening, cold and dark, and we were pleased to be together, though not talking about it. And then I tried to talk about it and found there was nothing to say. “Of course weddings are nothing like being married,” he said.

            “But that’s what I’m trying to write about,” I explained.

            “But weddings are nothing like being married,” he said.

I went up to bed feeling confused and disappointed. Had I expected some clarification, some revelation? Was I trying to articulate something too obvious to mention? Or was I misunderstanding some larger, more vital conceit? And then, unexpectedly, Tom followed me to bed almost as soon as I’d gone up—Tom, who likes to haunt the house late and alone: and that was a surprise and a pleasure; for we rarely have a chance to lie awake together, feeling the night chill seep through the window at the foot of the bed, feeling our own warmth seep from one quiet body to the next. And though I still had no clarification, no revelation, what I did have was comfort, the dozy, inarticulate comfort of contiguity, which has nothing to do with passion or epiphany but is a good end to a regular day.

            Being fond of both Tom and the conjugal ideal, I find it easy to shuffle among such sentimental snapshots and pretend they render an honest portrait of marriage. Milton wasn’t such a fool. Consider the tale of Sin, the “Portress of Hell Gate,” who is Satan’s daughter, born Athena-like from his head, and also mother of his monstrous son, Death:

I pleas’d, and with attractive graces won

The most averse, thee chiefly, who full oft

Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing

Becam’st enamor’d, and such joy thou took’st

With me in secret, that my womb conceiv’d

A growing burden.

            I think Milton intends the amours of Sin and Satan to work as a lewd parody of Eve and Adam’s “bed . . . undefil’d.” But how different is the pure, absorbed, human gaze from Satan and Sin’s “Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing”? As a lapsarian wife, I find the distinction difficult to untangle, though I do see one other significant difference: modest Eve has plenty of unencumbered recreational sex, and flirty Sin instantly gets pregnant, after which everything goes downhill for her.

God intended Eve to be “our general Mother”; and in theory, Milton is all for babies: “Our Maker bids increase, who bids abstain/But our Destroyer, foe to God and Man?” But the poet is squeamish. After Sin gets knocked up, Satan instantly deserts her, and I suspect Milton doesn’t necessarily fault him for sidestepping the mess.

            Pensive here I sat

Alone, but long I sat not, till my womb

Pregnant by thee, and now excessive grown

Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes.

At last this odious offspring whom thou seest

Thine own begotten, breaking violent way

Tore through my entrails, that with fear and pain

Distorted, all my nether shape grew

Transform’d: but he my inbred enemy

Forth issu’d, brandishing his fatal Dart

Made to destroy: I fled, and cri’d out Death.

Death proceeds to rape his mother and beget a pack of “yelling Monsters,” and the original unity of two dissolves into pain and chaos and misery.

            Is this hell? Or is it family life?

I didn’t fall in love with Tom because I thought he’d make an excellent father of sons. I fell in love with the way the backs of his knees looked as he walked away from me down a dormitory corridor, the way his hair stuck straight up from his forehead in the mornings, the way he never bossed me around or made me play softball, the way he entered into the private lives of housepets, the way he stared up at the sky.

So loading children into a love affair’s two-person rowboat is indeed a kind of hell. The boat rocks dangerously; it runs up against rocks and is menaced by sea serpents. Though I treasure my sons (and got pregnant on purpose), it took me all the years of their babyhood to reconcile myself to their random, interrupting confusions, to their demands and distractions, to how they sucked away my inner life and my married life. Given his high respect for both the unity of two and the fruits of his own imagination, Milton must have found the proximity of a wailing two-year-old in the kitchen nearly unbearable—as indeed, indeed, it is. I have knelt on that kitchen floor myself, wailing alongside that child. With diapers to pin and tantrums to strangle, who has time or space to “Sleep on,/Blest pair”?

If, in my marriage, I’m grateful for our wordless moments of delight, I’m equally irritated and put-upon and distracted, willing to injure and be injured, to bitch when Tom doesn’t wipe the kitchen counters after he’s been roofing all day, to fight jealousy and feed its fires, to lie in bed and hope he’ll be the one who gets up to deal with an unhappy child or a barking dog. Every day, I’m dissatisfied with my lot—sick of sweeping up the mud our boots have dropped, sick of washing the sheets our bodies have crumpled, sick of nurturing the sons we prize.

One day I told Tom I was glad to be married to him, and he said, “If you hadn’t married me, you would have married someone else.” Can you blame me when I cringe at the thought of enduring another wedding? For yes, he’s right. I wanted a husband, and I have one. Therefore, I love him. Such an admission doesn’t do much for my credibility as a well-read woman with feminist proclivities. But how more ambiguous than politics is marriage, “mysterious Law,” “shot forth [with] peculiar graces”—a strange land, a faraway town, a garden, a shelter, a bed.

For all of Milton’s talk about male dominance and female subjection—how Adam’s “fair large Front and Eye sublime declar’d/Absolute rule,” how Eve’s “wanton ringlets . . . impli’d/Subjection”—he knew he had to deal with the biblical facts of the story: Eve talked Adam into eating the apple. “Subjection” may be “impli’d” and “Absolute rule” “declar’d”; yet even in the most autocratic of marriages, the power balance tips and sways, and a covert gesture can topple a fortress. Blame the Fall on Satan if you like, but Adam was already predisposed to please his wife. How could paradise be otherwise? Their perfect marriage was its own undoing.

Here Love his golden shafts imploys, here lights

His constant Lamp, and waves his purple wings,

Reigns here and revels; not in the bought smile

Of Harlots, loveless, joyless, unindear’d,

Casual fruition, nor in Court Amours,

Mixt Dance, and wanton Mask, or Midnight Ball,

Or Serenate, which the starv’d Lover sings

To his proud fair, best quitted with disdain.

These lull’d by Nightingales imbracing slept,

And on thir naked limbs the flow’ry roof

Show’rd Roses, which the Morn repair’d.

Even though I know better, when I read this passage, I want to believe it can be true for Tom and me, despite our lapses and angers. I’ll happily attend your next “Mixt Dance, and wanton Mask, or Midnight Ball,” but more than anything I want to be “lull’d by Nightingales” in my own narrow bed, listening to the vague thump of Tom’s stereo in the darkroom, hoping he’ll remember to stoke the woodstove before he comes up and knowing that, when he does, he’ll embrace me, even though I might be too sound asleep to notice.

            To me, the saddest word in the passage is “unindear’d.” The tragedy it implies cuts me to the heart. For it’s endearment, not romance or passion (lovely as both can be), that makes marriage a solace. On a late winter afternoon I sit on the school bleachers with my fidgety son Paul, watching the Harmony boys win their first basketball game of the season, waiting for the fourth period, when the coach will finally let my crabby, benchwarming son James snag two minutes of play. If Tom gets home from work soon enough, if he has time to change his filthy clothes and wash the sheetrock dust out of his sticking-up hair, he’ll drop in; and sure enough, there he is now in the doorway—at forty, still thin and wary as a boy—paying his one dollar, pausing to let the players rush to the other side of the court; and now he’s walking along the edge of the floor, scanning the bleachers, looking for me; and when he catches my eye, he hurries his step; he has a goal, an intention; he scoots up quickly to get out of the players’ path and sits down behind me; I lean back into his knee, and he says, settling his knee against my spine, “You shoveled out my truck.”

            And I say, “I did.”

            And he says, “They’re winning.”

            And I say, “They are.”

“Perpetual Fountain of Domestic sweets.” Why waste all that money on a wedding when this is what you get?

[from Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009)].

Monday, September 21, 2009

For those interested in the minutiae of creativity, I'll mention that the following poem incorporates all twenty words on one of my son's third-grade spelling lists.


Dawn Potter

From the barren hills a battery of men
marched and stumbled onto the muddy plain,
but the wolves, impatient for spring, mistook them
for scrawny oxen and devoured them. Now the women,
no longer the wives of heroes, hoard turnips and spoiled loaves.
Mice gnaw the empty shelves, grind their yellow teeth
against the split handles of knives and hatchets.
Children launch greening potatoes at the anxious
cattle; they throttle the last angry geese. Pale sheep wander
the bleak forest like ragged deer, tearing twigs and blackened
leaves from the stunted oaks. A sallow pair of lambs huddles
by the half-thawed pool, where a single ancient fish lives out
his cloudy hours, calm, unfixed, a pitcher of silver and lead.
At dusk he drifts into the net.

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

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A poem we cannot teach in the public schools, yet doesn't it capture that high school romance euphoria?

from Calamus

Walt Whitman

Not heat flames up and consumes,
Not sea-waves hurry in and out,
Not the air delicious and dry, the air of ripe summer, bears lightly along white down-balls of myriads of seeds,
Wafted, sailing gracefully, to drop where they may;
Not these, O none of these more than the flames of me, consuming, burning for his love whom I love,
O none more than I hurrying in and out;
Does the tide hurry, seeking something, and never give up? O I the same,
O nor down-balls nor perfumes, nor the high rain-emitting clouds, are borne through the open air,
Any more than my soul is borne through the open air,
Wafted in all directions O love, for friendship of you.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

To the best of my knowledge, Tracing Paradise has not received a single review anywhere. Should you feel like doing one in your local paper, a literary journal, a blog, or even on the Amazon or Powell's site, I would greatly appreciate it. I don't have an agent or a publicist to keep my poor book from being more or less invisible, so pardon my pleading. There's a fine line between euphoria and despair, and clearly it is time for more coffee.
This passage made me think of my own teenage son.

from The Heat of the Day

Elizabeth Bowen

So far, his heart had never moved from its place, for it had felt no pull from a moving thing. His attention, as an entirety, was yet perhaps to be daunting, to be reckoned with: up to now it had never been wholly given. His motives were too direct to be called ulterior: he liked going out to tea with families who had a brook through their garden, hypothetical snakes in their uncut grass, collections of any kind in cabinets, a haunted room, a model railway, a funny uncle, a desk with a secret drawer.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A link to Baron Wormser's Frost Place Poetry Outreach Project. Invite us to your school and we will sing and dance and put on the Frost show. Well, maybe not dance.
I am applying for various fellowships this week, all of which are too tony for me to actually get; but I seem to be otherwise unemployable and the fellowships aren't costing me anything but nerves. I do hate to pay submissions fees.

I have also received various rejection letters this week, although they have been those borderline rejections that are accompanied by friendly notes asking me to "please submit again in the future." Things could be worse. I at least have not received any rejection letters that castigate my vision of the world, or tell me that I am too self-involved, or obnoxiously encourage me to continue submitting to "reputable journals such as ourself" because my work "shows every sign of being publishable." Those are the kinds of rejections that make me want to dig out the bowie knife and go on a rampage, were I the bowie-knife type.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Even though I am fighting the sore throat that is already touring among my family members, I've already this morning made more progress on my essay than I have otherwise made in a week. Partly this is due to my friend Charlotte, who in an email yesterday flattered me with the encouraging comment: "You are one of the funniest writers I know." Instantly I realized that this essay draft I've been prodding along is not at all funny but ponderous and fake-academic and tight-lipped and paunchy. Given the fact that I'm writing about Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day, which is a sad book, I'm not sure that it will ever turn out to be funny, but it ought to turn out to be more human. So thank you, Charlotte, for reminding me to fall off my high horse.

Dinner tonight: big baked ham, mashed potatoes, sauteed savoy cabbage, tomato salad because everyone in the family has a cold and needs a stodgy comforting meal in the style of my Polish great-aunts . . . who would not have bothered with a tomato salad because fresh vegetables can give you the heartburn. They would have pressured me to consume far more than I actually wanted to eat because "you're tall; you can hide it." After lauding the benefits of all-day Crock-Pot cooking for reducing vegetables to a tasty pulp, they would have produced a large Jell-O dessert and then continued to sit around the kitchen table telling ominous tales about their youth, all of which would have contained suspicious informational gaps. With my Scotch-Irish-descendant-of-Indian-fighters great-aunts, the menu would have been identical, except without the cabbage and with a penny-ante poker game and a plastic bowl of Chex Party Mix after the Jell-O.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

from Afterthought: Pieces about Writing (1962)

Elizabeth Bowen

Easy to be wise after the event. For the writer, writing is eventful: one might say it is in itself eventfulness. . . . One may not exactly know what one has (finally) written till one has finished it, and then only after a term of time. Then begins a view of the whole, a more perceptive or comprehensive vision; but too late. However, fortunately for authors they are seldom prey to regret. They seldom look back, for they are usually engaged upon something else.

from Elizabeth Bowen (1981)

Hermione Lee

Elizabeth Bowen is one of the greatest writers of fiction in this language and in this century. She wrote ten novels, at least five of which are masterpieces: strange, original, vivid, exciting and intelligent. She is a very fine short-story writer, a brilliant technician of the form, a dazzling evoker of mood and place, . . . beautifully controlled and intensely haunting.

from "Elizabeth Bowen: The House in Paris," in Passions of the Mind (1991)

A. S. Byatt

She writes, for all her elegance, with a harshness that is unusual and pleasing. There are moments of vision and metaphor, akin both to [Henry] James and Virginia Woolf. . . . As a child I thought I was learning sensibility and fine discrimination from this novel. Now, more important, I feel that Elizabeth Bowen's description of Ivy Compton-Burnett's quality applied also her own work. She wrote of her in 1941: "Elizabethan implacability, tonic plainness of speaking, are not so strange to us as they were. This is a time for hard writers--and here is one."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Today is the second day of the boys' first full week of school. Tom has left for work. The Harmony Fair and Haystack weekends are behind me, and finally I'm beginning to feel as if my aloneness may develop a rhythm. All summer I have been writing only sporadically; reading constantly, of course, but with no chance to fall into the pattern of solitude that seems to be my trigger for real writing. Yesterday I wrote a scant half-paragraph of my Elizabeth Bowen essay, but it felt like concentration, not like grasping at shadows.

Even when I have days to myself, I'm up and down from my desk constantly. Anyone watching would think I was getting nothing done at all. Yet some thread stays unbroken when I'm hanging clothes on the line, or fetching the mail, or trimming goat hooves. I stay inside my own head, which I can't do when I have those cereal-eating, radio-listening, bike-riding lives pressed up against mine.

But there's an irony too; for without those lives, I would have nothing to write about.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The weekend at Haystack was lovely and intense. On previous visits, I've always been freezing; but this time, I slept in only one layer of clothing. The morning fogs faded quickly. I identified guillemots for the first time and amused myself by watching gulls heckle a lobster boat in the cove. I'm fond of smart, obnoxious, undelicate birds like gulls and crows and blue jays.

My class was small--four women--which was also a change. With the usual ten or twelve participants, I have to be a timekeeping martinet during discussions. But this weekend, we had plenty of space to go off on tangents; and tangents, as any loafing poet knows, are frequently more revelatory than plans.

Of course, nothing is perfect. I had a brief, 10-minute reading on Friday evening, and, afterward I was sure it was awful, that I should have chosen some funnier excerpt from Tracing Paradise, that I should have read more poetry and less prose, that I shouldn't have been so uppity and intellectual. I lay in my bed regretting everything and thinking that I should never have bothered to climb out from under my rock and take this job. Yet the next morning people kept telling me how much they liked what I'd read. So I ask you: when do people ever get smarter about themselves? Or do we always stay just as dumb as ever?

Friday, September 11, 2009

A couple of articles that may interest you: first, a review of Alice Munro's new short-story collection; and second, an essay by Fernando Perez, an outfielder for the Tampa Bay Rays and a lover of poetry.

I heard Perez interviewed on NPR yesterday evening. I was standing in the kitchen, dishtowel in hand, marveling to hear this baseball player talk about why he cares about Ashbery and Creeley. And in walks my younger son.

He stops; he listens. He turns to me and puts his arms around me and looks into my eyes and smiles. We stand there together for a moment, enlaced. And then he releases himself and wanders off to his room.

My son doesn't care about Ashbery and Creeley, and neither do I. But something made sense to us. I'm not sure what it was, but something did.
I will be teaching in Deer Isle for the next couple of days and thus electronically incommunicado. Think of me in my tiny frigid cabin by the sea, wrapped in blankets and reading Virginia Woolf's The Years as the waves lap the rocks.

As an inlander, I am still always surprised by the sea, always taken aback by it. The sight of that movement is a shock; the sound is a cradle. 

from To the Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf

 At that season those who had gone down to pace the beach and ask of the sea and sky what message they reported or what vision they affirmed had to consider among the the usual tokens of divine bounty--the sunset on the sea, the pallor of dawn, the moon rising, fishing-boats against the moon, and children making mud pies or pelting each other with handfuls of grass, something out of harmony with this jocundity and this serenity. There was the silent apparition of an ashen-coloured ship for instance, come, gone; there was a purplish stain upon the bland surface of the sea as if something had boiled and bled, invisibly, beneath. This intrusion into a scene calculated to stir the most sublime reflections and lead to the most comfortable conclusions stayed their pacing. It was difficult blandly to overlook them; to abolish their significance in the landscape; to continue, as one walked by the sea, to marvel how beauty outside mirrored beauty within.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

I think this poem is one of Milly's best and that the third stanza is the secret to its success. My question is, Does the stanza also contain a dangling modifier? Or is it grammatically accurate?

Spring in February

Milly Jourdain

A damp wind blew from the west over the frozen ground, and for days a cold mist lay on the earth;

Then the sun shone out on little drifts of snow-drops in the gardens, and a pleasant wind dried the roads.

Coming up the long gray village in the late afternoon, the sound of thrushes singing all round me before the dark fell was like pure water.

And I was made more happy than I can say; and my happiness was like their song.

Now off to feed the greedy little goats and to pickle peppers. I have never pickled peppers before, and I am looking forward to it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Home alone again, finally. Perhaps I will be able to work on the Bowen-Green-Murdoch essay, but I also need to prepare for the weekend workshop I'm teaching for the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. So I'll be sorting through useful poem-exemplars, while also figuring out what I want to present from my work at Friday's faculty reading. I will be the only poet, so I hate to spend too much time on the memoir. Nonetheless, here it sits, longing to be read aloud.

I made a lemony apple pie yesterday, and now I want to make one every day. I won't, but maybe you should. Early yellow apples (I used Ginger Golds) produce a lovely delicate filling . . . excellent with lemon, ginger, and nutmeg. Just go easy on the sugar and cinnamon, and use a butter crust.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I did very little reading during fair weekend, but every once in a while, during some hiatus between events, I sat quietly in my lawn chair and read James Joyce's story "The Dead." This is one of my favorite, favorite, favorite pieces of literature; and since I don't really like Ulysses or even Portrait of the Artist, it also makes me feel sad . . . as if Joyce needed to abandon such beauties for other, more progressive adventures.

It's rather difficult to quote brief passages from "The Dead." The story is so interwoven between present-moment action and lyrical thought that separating them seems to deaden the brilliance. So I think I won't try, just now, to search out a quotable paragraph. I'll only say, Go read it again, when you next get a chance.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Harmony Fair, Day 4

This morning I feel barely literate, so I will be terse.

Young woman with long blond hair and high heels shows up after church with magnificent apple pie that wins raves from the judges of the Maine State Apple Pie Contest (Harmony edition).

No matter what I do, the Exhibit Hall has flies.

My son has carried around a chicken for 3 days.

Today: parade. We hope, as always, for Shriners in little cars. Fire engines for sure. Possibly incomprehensible floats.

Then I'm on hall duty for the rest of the day, as people gradually remove their exhibits and the fair retreats into a welcome shambles, with no celebrators left on the grounds except teenage girls singing karaoke to indifferent 5th-grade boys.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Harmony Free Fair, Day 3

Yesterday's Best-in-Shows include guinea fowl eggs, which are small and round and brown and freckled and are the cutest things you'll ever see; as well as a vegetable assortment that featured, believe it or not, a Harmony-grown artichoke.

Maine State Two-Crust Apple Pie Contest.

Three judges with preconceived notions about pie but trying unsuccessfully to be objective.

Ten 8th-graders subsequently invading the Exhibit Hall and selling exorbitantly priced slices of pie to their unwary grandparents.

And then, remarkably, I have the afternoon off. Perhaps I will watch the draft horse pull. As my son remarked, those draft horses are buff.

But I am likely to be back in the evening, fetching children and watching fireworks. The fireworks are always lame, but they are the only ones we have. And there's something pleasant about shivering on the bleachers watching third-rate bluegrass under the lights of the Italian Sausage Sandwich trailer, as all the children you know run around erratically, or cluster conspiratorially in groups, or play in the third-rate bluegrass band, as their parents sit alongside us in the bleachers, not talking to us, but companionably enough. Sometimes contiguity is almost like friendship.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Harmony Free Fair, Day 2

Judging. Our new Exhibit Hall is overflowing with stuff. Who would have thought we could fill this giant building? And now a small cadre of "experts" will convene to hand out prizes for handsomest green bean, most translucent blackberry jelly, most bizarrely shaped potato, etc. This year's entries at least all look honest. Last year some cheating out-of-towner entered red grapes from the Hannaford and a baby sweater with a Gap label in it.

Sitting around in my lawn chair. I will spend most of the period between 1 and 5 saying hello to the hundreds of people I only ever talk to at the Harmony Fair. In between times I will remove the empty soda cans the visitors park among the exhibits.

Wandering around. Possibly I might get a chance to visit this afternoon's highly touted demolition derby. Derbies are enjoyable for about 5 minutes, until they start to smell bad. But I do feel like I'm witnessing an oversized sandbox duel between Matchbox and Hot Wheels.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Harmony Free Fair, Day 1

First, take my older son to the optometrist in Skowhegan. But since this means he'll be skipping school for the rest of the day, the plus side is that he'll be available as slave labor.

Stop at P.J.'s Party Store and see if she sells bunting that isn't red, white, and blue. What color of bunting might coordinate best with giant zucchinis? Mauve? Gold?

Return to town and, with my son, eviscerate the Harmony Country Store's storage shed. Debbie, the owner, offered me a rack for the Exhibit Hall, but it is hidden behind years' and years' and years' worth of Budweiser boxes. This is where the slave labor comes in handy.

Don my official blaze-orange Harmony Patriarchs Club T-shirt. (This is the town organization that runs the fair, and you may be surprised to learn that women can also be Patriarchs.) Reconnoitre with my husband, who will help me set up various warped tables and tottering display stands in the hall. We also have a nice selection of painted electric-company spools.

Pick up my younger son at school, facilitate him in his chicken-wrangling operations, haul his 3 chickens-plus-educational-poster to the small-animal barn. Start handing out money to my children so that they can begin their Friday-night fried-dough-and-soda odyssey.

Go home, collect band instruments and last-minute Exhibit Hall paraphernalia such as baling twine and staple guns. Return to the fairgrounds for the grand opening of the hall at 4 p.m., when the hordes arrive with their beets and Hubbard squashes and needlepoint Xmas ornaments and cute blurry photos of kittens.

Spend a couple of hours in a frenzy of vegetables, etc.

Hand over the hall to my substitutes because now I have to change out of the blaze-orange T-shirt. I'm damned if I'm going on stage in this ugly T-shirt. I'm too vain for that.

Sit in the audience and wince at Amplitude's bad notes and tuneless singing but cheer nonetheless: because this is my boys' rock band, and anyway I have to go on stage in the middle of the set and play a fiddle part and sing a song and play bass. Who knows what mistakes I'll make, but, like everyone, I hope for unconditional cheering.

Return to the Exhibit Hall at 7 p.m. in time to put up the closed sign and begin organizing exhibits for tomorrow's judging. Meanwhile, eat French fries.

Go home later than I meant to. Sit on the couch and drink beer.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

I've just started reading my friend Charlotte Gordon's most recent book, The Woman Who Named God, which explores the saga of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, that mythical love triangle at the root of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Too be honest, if I hadn't met and been charmed by Charlotte as a human being, I would never have picked up this book: I rarely read any nonfiction about religion. But already I'm finding her book fascinating, mostly because she's not afraid to link the religious tradition to our own approach to myth and storytelling. Here, for instance, is a bit from the introduction, which proves that Charlotte is not only perceptive but has also read all my favorite books.

Perhaps [one] reason this story is so compelling is that Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar are Biblical characters who behave like real human beings. With their jealousies and passions, doubts and anxieties, they are among the first in the western assemblage of cultural icons to be racked by such modern ailments as self-doubt and inner turmoil. In this way, their heirs are not only Jacob, Jesus, and Mohammed, but also Hamlet and Ahab, the Reverend Dimmesdale and Isabel Archer, Anna Karenina, Mrs. Dalloway, and Jane Eyre. This is especially true of Abraham, who seems more like an Updike character than an ancient as he stands at his tent, torn between duty and desire, his love for one woman and his responsibility to another, and tormented by faith in a god whose motivations he doesn't always understand.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Breadmaking today and getting my flat tire fixed and driving boys to piano lessons and soccer practice and band practice, and doing laundry, of course, and a bit of Exhibit Hall organizing; feeding goats, chickens, and dogs, and I ought to be weeding as well, although that seems unlikely: but I'm also continuing to compose my brand-new essay, which I've managed to start this week and which is so far going swimmingly.

Books discussed: A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch; Loving by Henry Green; The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen.

Thesis (if one can use such a formal word about my slapdash opinionating): That certain 20th-century prose writers carry on the narrative-poem tradition that their 20th-century poet contemporaries (Eliot, Pound, etc.) eschewed. That language and image and poetic structure are essential to these novels, as they were not for the 19th-century novelists.

In any case, this is my planned thesis. Very likely it will be derailed by my usual maundering into other as-yet-unknown avenues.

Quote of the day [shouted by Forrest, age 12, as he and his friends were judging the baked goods entered in the Harmony Fair Exhibit Hall competition]: "Argh! These biscuits are the same as last year's biscuits!"

Handy note for Exhibit Hall organizers: Always use 11- to 15-year-old boys as judges in baked-goods competitions. They will eat anything at 9 a.m., even last year's biscuits.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tracing Paradise just won me an Emerging Writers Fellowship from the Writers Center in Bethesda, Maryland! I get to fly to Washington, D.C., sometime next spring and give a reading. My children will be clamoring to come along, though I doubt it's because they love to hear me read.
This week marks the beginning of Harmony Fair Anxiety Season, culminating this weekend in Harmony Fair Proper. Anxiety Season means band practice every night, in preparation for the boys' debut on Friday night as a rock band that can play more than two songs. It means fretting over Exhibit Hall supplies such as tacks, nails, picture wire, banquet roll, and paper plates and trying to perfect the forever-imperfect bookkeeping system for entries and prizewinners. It means taking repetitive phone calls from elderly men who don't trust the written word. The fair book may say, "Bring in your entries on Friday between 4 and 7 p.m.," but a surprising number of old vegetable farmers won't believe it till they hear it from me. 

Still, despite all the exhaustions and aggravations of Harmony Fair Anxiety Season, it's more relaxing this year on one front: finally, for the first time ever, the Exhibit Hall has a building. No more tents blowing over in the wind and scattering winter squash and baby sweaters everywhere. No more floods destroying cardboard 4-H exhibits about how to shear a sheep. No more teenage vandals stealing all the prize tomatoes and throwing them at the stage. This year we have a large, waterproof, windproof, lockable building.

So when I sit in my lawn chair for three days, discussing canning techniques and weirdly shaped vegetables with my townspeople, we will all marvel at the building and wonder how we muddled through our exhibit crises for so long. At the same time we will slightly mistrust the convenient niceness of our new venue. For, on the whole, people have been remarkably patient about the annual mishaps to their belongings. In fact the only people who have ever complained about damage are people from out of town. Harmony itself expects nothing less than awkwardness. This building may be too cushy for us after all.