Saturday, October 31, 2009

And now, at long last, I venture to say something about Robert Lowell. To quote my friend David, "Ah, Mr. Lowell, I am no great fan generally, but sometimes . . . you were better than very fine." David's particular favorite is "For the Union Dead"; I lean toward others in that same collection, especially "The Old Flame." But frequently, when reading Lowell, I remain unmoved. So often he seems to interlace whining with self-conscious academic pomposity, a combination I find dull at best and repellant at worst. Still, he had a brilliant mind and a brave ear and an overflowing heart. So for this week's project, I decided to copy out some of the late, messy poems--the ones written after his break with Elizabeth Hardwick and then his yearning return to her. I thought it might be interesting to look at Lowell at his least controlled, even his most embarrassing. For indeed,  poetry is a messy business; and if nothing else, the confessional poets (however one might choose to define the term) are united in their need to wallow in emotional chaos.

And the late Lowell poems are touching in their distress. They are not always, not even often, very good poems. He seems to have shed his metrical ear and his intellectual precision, but the poems retain a sad, plaintive, indecisive vulnerability. They maunder on almost unintelligibly and then, as in "Shadow," suddenly reveal an aphoristic nakedness:

I have watched the shadow of the crow,
a Roman omen,
cross my shaking hand,
an enigma even for us to read,
a crowsfoot scribble--
when I was with my friend,
I never knew that I had hands.

A man without a wife
is like a turtle without a shell--

Ah, well. Poor Lowell. Poor Bolton. Poor Sexton and Plath. Possibly I should take up joy for next week's project. For the moment I will resign my critical duties and go mix up birthday-party cake.

Friday, October 30, 2009

1. Okay, this is crazy, but the Maine Humanities Council reports that there have already been more than 300 downloads of the "Poets Writing Memoir" podcast. Who are all these people? Elizabeth and I are mystified. 

2. My husband, Thomas Birtwistle, will be featured in an NYC photo show, which opens on November 4. Stop by and check out his large strange pictures. (Strange in a good way, of course.)

3. I plan to spend the morning copying out some Robert Lowell poems. Stay tuned for updates.

4. Over the past 11 days, I have completed four new poems, at least two of which seem like real poems. Completed. This is thanks to the magical mix of unemployment, kids in school, intense conversation with a friend, insomnia, overwrought emotions, and Joe-Bolton-as-gateway-drug. Poetry writing is so unhealthy.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

For some reason I am having a hard time coming up with anything coherent to say about Anne Sexton's work. This is not because I dislike it: "For My Lover, Returning to His Wife" is one of my current Favorite Poems of All Time. But her work is so varied--so formal, so sloppy, so bad, so transcendent--that any assertion about it seems instantly questionable.

So perhaps I will merely say that this is the most generous poem about adultery I have ever read and that it works so well, I think, because Sexton steps into the wife's life as if it were her own. Such bravery, to risk becoming the person one has injured . . . a dreadful courage that makes my skin crawl and makes me cry, all in the same moment.

I thought I might quote a bit of "For My Lover" here, but excision seems to reduce the poem's power. So you should go to the link and read it as it should be read.

Instead, I will quote from E. M. Forster's novel Howards End, which I'm reading over breakfast and in waiting rooms, etc.:

Some closing of the gates is inevitable after thirty, if the mind itself is to become a creative power.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I'm going to postpone my Sexton-Lowell peroration because today is my son Paul's 12th birthday and I have to grocery shop, cook, and drive him to piano lessons instead. There will be no poetry. Instead, there will be Paul's Ideal Meal (and I quote, with spelling silently corrected): 

Course 1: honeydew melon and prosciutto, sparkling cider
Course 2: lobster, butter sauce, sparkling cider
Course 3: tomato and mozzarella salad, sparkling cider
Course 4: lime meringue pie, green tea

The pie is the time-consuming and time-sensitive part of this meal, and I can only hope the filling will set expeditiously and that it won't be lime meringue ooze.

In other headline news, the Emily Dickinson House, former home of my in-laws, has made the front webpage of the New York Times. Probably it's good they've moved out and don't have to become overwrought about this current event.

Here's a poem I wrote about Paul, a few years ago. And even though he's now twice as old, it's still entirely pertinent:

There’s no denying him

announced the old lady at Bud’s Shop ’n Save,

grabbing your father’s coat sleeve, eyeing you

up and down like post-office criminals.

Flat cheekbones, shock of hair, same aloof,

thin-hipped stride, same touch-me-not scowl:

six years old, already the masked man.

What have I done to deserve lover and son

so beautiful, both remote as trout in green shallows?

I fritter my squirrel antics on the bank, swing

head-first from a cedar bough: Notice me, notice me!

You cock his cool stare and flit into shadow, my slippery fish.

But dangle the lure, the words—

up you flash, sun bronzing your quick scales.

“Away went Alice like the wind!” you cry; “In Lear I love the Fool!”

Feathers sprout from my worldly paws, your gills suckle air.

New born, we flee open-eyed into the east,

bright wingbeats carving cloud, below us the unfolding sea—

white chop, clean spray.

You know the story.

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I've been, for whatever reason, reading confessional poetry lately, and I've noticed that the great confessors are not at all similarly confessional, unless one is looking only at their subject matter. Yesterday, as a break from Joe Bolton, I started copying out Sylvia Plath's Ariel and was startled, almost shocked, by the difference in style. Here are a couple of comparative samples:

from Autumn Fugue

Joe Bolton

There was something greater to the sadness
Than simply the going away of your lover,
Or even our own past failure at love.
What sadness there was carried with it the weight
Of something intensely formal, and which would not
Be overcome by anything so commonplace.

from Sheep in Fog

Sylvia Plath

The hills step off into whiteness.
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.

Bolton's stanza is composed of two complex sentences, which carve out an explanation. Yet though it is heavily weighted with abstractions, it mysteriously does not seem abstract. The lines, ostensibly free verse, are conjoined rhythmically: his words have a pulse, and, in a way, that sound is the solidity behind the abstraction. Try reading it aloud, and perhaps you will have a reaction similar to mine. "Intensely formal," that glorious phrase, here suits not only Bolton's intellectual and emotional examinations but also his diction, syntax, and grammar.

But Plath's stanza inverts almost everything I've said about Bolton's. She chooses solid nouns--hills, people, stars--and makes them seem unreal, primarily by pairing them with unexpected verbs ("hills step off") or subtly strange conjunctions ("people or stars"?). The lines are short, jagged; the sentence structure is bald and repetitive: subject, verb; subject, verb; subject, verb. As a result, the comma splice in line 3 feels almost like a blow. Given the ascetism of her syntax, that grammatically incorrect comma carries vast emotional weight. Something must be really wrong, I think to myself, if a poet this controlled doesn't use a period here.

By the way, today is Sylvia's birthday. She would have been 77. I did not plan to talk about her on her birthday, but these things happen.

Maybe tomorrow I'll write a bit about Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, I received a note from a student at Oklahoma State University, who told me that her literature class would be studying Tracing Paradise this year. Naturally I was thrilled, but I was also puzzled because (1) I don't know anyone in Oklahoma and (2) I was wondering what (a) Milton and (b) hauling firewood in the cold northeast might have to say to miscellaneous undergraduates from the arid west.

The United States is so large and geographically varied that even strip malls and freeways and housing developments can't entirely erase my sense of regional isolation. I know nothing about Oklahoma, except for scraps of specious information gleaned from novels, social studies books, and movies. Maine surely seems just as mythical to those Oklahoma college students, and I wonder whether that distance will make my book matter more or less to them. Will reading it be like watching a Sergio Leone western? Or maybe like trying to follow the plot of one of those Icelandic sagas where there are two farms named Mork and men spend their entire lives skating around on the tundra thwacking off each others' arms and legs with ice axes? Or will most students prefer to use TP as a beer coaster? It's also just about the right thickness for shoving under a wiggly table leg.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Bangor reading went very well--an interesting and accomplished variety of readers and even a sizable crowd. Interestingly, ours was not the only event at the Bangor Public Library yesterday. Somebody was getting married there as well. I have never once thought of getting married at a library, but, really, why not. It was a rainy day. Bums were sleeping peacefully in the stacks, toddlers were screeching in the children's room, and poets were reciting in the basement. A wedding was an entirely suitable addition, in a mish-mash Canterbury Tales kind of way.

After I got home I saw, on the New York Times website, that the actions were headline news around the world. And I see I have forgotten to mention that even we, in podunk Bangor, were on the map: organizer Bill McKibben's brother Tom made a surprise appearance, disguised as a regular-guy-with-a-kid-at-a-poetry-reading until the end of the show. This was exciting; and as I looked at the photo in the Times, I also realized that I have not been involved in a big action since my Greenpeace days of yore. So in honor of activists everywhere, I will post my Greenpeace poem, which is also the first poem I ever wrote in a male voice.

Manilow Fan

Dawn Potter

“Is it true?—is it really true? Is Barry

huge back east?” begs the twelve-year-old

girl in the “Barry” hat answering the knock


of an earnestly hungover Greenpeace canvasser

originally planning to tap into his standard

manifesto on harp seals, Monsanto, and the awesome


bullying powers of the Rainbow Warrior; now trapped,

thunderstruck and tongue-tied, on this freezing

doorstep in Edina, Minnesota, overcome by vibrations


that might be the fault of last night’s tequila

but feel like a fireworks blast of unsubstantiated news:

a vision of the northeast decked out as Gargantua’s


Copa, rhinestones glittering from fire escapes, golden

showgirls high-stepping through glitter-lit trails in the dirty

snow; and there, rubbing shoulders with the Empire State


like a smooth King Kong, it’s Barry the Man himself,

stretching forth a slim white hand, tossing his shiny hair,

ready to belt out the song that makes the whole world sing,


even, for a second, this part-time do-gooder

emerging from his daze on a stoop in Minnesota,

still primed to tell Barry’s little fan, “Hey,


Manilow’s the greatest; he’s a sensation everywhere!”

though he suspects the right thing to do

is to break the news that “this is the 80s, kid.


Punk rockers drink in the bar around the corner.

Get with the times”; and the truth is that “Mandy”

is, like, his least favorite song ever; so the question is,


What’s the spirit of Barry doing here, stuck in a time warp

on this grim suburban plain?  No doubt, the girl could

explain it all; he’d like to plunk down on her shoveled steps


and let her show him exactly how the Barry magic

works; but something stops him, a sort of awkward

muzzling of wonder, like when smack in the middle


of a long wet kiss, you sneeze: and instantly

every trace of romance bursts like a blister

and the angel you’d been about to die for


tucks in her shirt and decides to go to class;

and what he ends up doing in Edina

is to rub his cold nose against his splintery


clipboard, scuff his Sandanista boots

on the Vikings welcome mat, and mutter,

“Uh, I don’t know. . . . Is your mom home?”


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

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Remember that recording session I did with Elizabeth Garber for the Maine Humanities Council? Well, our podcast, "Poets Writing Memoir," is now available. Being squeamish, I have not listened to it, but you can if you like. And then you can tell me what you think.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Thank goodness: the Threepenny Review has finally taken another essay, my new Elizabeth Bowen one, which will appear in the spring 2010 issue. I was beginning to worry that the editor would never again like anything I write.
Tomorrow I will slosh through the rain to the Bangor Public Library to take part in a poetry-reading event for's International Day of Climate Action. While I don't quite see how driving an hour to Bangor and reading 6 pages from a book will help stop global warming, the reading itself stuffs 13 poets, a chemist, a jazz combo, and snacks into a scant 3 hours and consequently will certainly be a bash. 

I'm planning to read from chapter 7 of Tracing Paradise, the one titled "Clear-Cuts." I hope it goes over okay with this crowd because, while it certainly does deal with environmental degradation, it also avers that humans (or least this human) are not only complicit but likely to remain so. As I was rereading the chapter this morning, I was glad, once again, that I'd quoted Thomas Hardy's dry comment: "it is only the old story that progress and picturesqueness do not harmonise."

The old story indeed.

Dinner tonight: pot au feu, I'm thrilled to say. And maybe apple pie.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

from the Wikipedia article about Joe Bolton

Bolton's work is regional in that the southern locales of the poems, his upbringing and education in Kentucky, and its rather southern gothic quality add a Faulkneresque quality that is absolutely authentic.

Bolton's long-lasting value, however, is not in his free-verse or regional influences, but rather, a quality that was fresh in his work and the by-product of his times, the 1980s. This "certain mixed-attitude toward life," as one critic described it, may be described as post-modern, or even late-Imperial American. If Bolton were writing in New York City, he might have been marked as an all-American poet, but Bolton extrapolated from the American South, not Whitmanic Brooklyn. Bolton was writing about the south, but really, America, and doing it with a vision more akin to punk-rock, sub-pop, and indie-rock than high-academia.

Perhaps this commentator has a point, but I'm not sure. Do those of us who grew up in the 80s uniquely possess a "mixed-attitude toward life"? I always kind of thought Shakespeare had one too.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

There is a sense of deflation after writing a good poem: as if, why bother to keep trying? As if, the next thing I write can only be mediocre. As if, mediocrity is the poison of one's life. It's one of the ironies--the way in which transcendence and disappointment constantly entwine--and I'm sure it's why great artists have tended to be so self-destructive. There's a terrible balance to maintain. If one has committed, as a writer, to a preternatural sensitivity to language and feeling, then how does one un-commit to that?

Here's a bit from the last poem Joe Bolton wrote before he killed himself. It makes me very sad. (And the ellipses are his, not mine.)

from Page

Reliance upon language was its undoing. . . .

But someday it will be all that is left of me.
Death bothers its margins like gulls along some shore.

But today looks to be a beautiful mid-October day, warm and blue-eyed. And I have nothing to do for 8 hours except to read and write and feed animals and hang laundry and yank frost-bitten sunflowers out of the gardens. I'm sorry that Joe didn't manage hang on long enough to see a day like this.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Believe it or not, dear commenting friends from yesterday's post, I had to WORK this morning. Yes, at 8 a.m. I was putting on the Poet Show for a class of eleventh-graders at Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine. Their teacher was an attendee at last summer's Frost Place Conference, but I knew her before that because this is my son's high school. Therefore, of course, I tiptoe on eggs where he is concerned because that is the mannerly thing to do with a 15-year-old boy. After our perfectly amicable drive to school, he made sure to walk into the building alone, as if he didn't even know he had a mother. The students in my class similarly pretended they had no idea I was his mother, even though everyone knows everything about everybody. It was sort of like Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief" in action.

The kids were excellent, however. They read aloud, they listened to me read, they laughed at the funny parts. I was unexpectedly paid. I went home at 9:30. What more could one ask for? 

Monday, October 19, 2009

Living in the poetry-writing zone feels like running a fever, or maybe being drunk but not quite sick. I want to say it's almost like the before-and-after of a migraine, but that doesn't capture the recklessness. It feels dangerous, and stupid, and euphoric, and almost transcendent, though the stupid takes the edge off the transcendence, perhaps because words are such clunky tools. I lurch among them, feeling around for the one I need, except that I have double vision and I keep bumping into doors and tripping over coffee tables and dropping loaded paintbrushes behind the couch. All the while I'm convinced I'm groping for the key that unlocks some treasure, something exact and magnificent . . . which on the next hung-over morning looks, as often as not, like shit . . . though once in a while, once in a very great while, it doesn't look like shit at all.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

from The Circumstances

Joe Bolton

Dying, what we remembered of our lives
Was nothing more or less than simply talking
About nothing in particular, walking
Nowhere down dark streets with other men's wives.
This weekend I wrote a poem that I'm sure is good, and alongside this intense invention and revision I've been copying out so many Joe Bolton poems that I feel like I've stepped inside his skin, which is assuredly unsafe . . . but now that I've managed to make a real poem, it's hard to care about safety.

What a run-on sentence that was.

I cannot tell you what it means to make something that you know--you know--is right.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Because the link seems weird for next Saturday's Bangor Public Library event, here are the details:


International Day for Climate Action



Reading for Carbon Reduction

The Poetry of Earth is never dead.

John Keats, 1816

Program of Events

11:45 am Come early & meet the poets,

browse books& enjoy live jazz:

12:15 pm WelcomeKathleen EllisCoordinatorStory Room








2:30 pm Receptionbook sales& signings

I have been immersing myself in the poems of Joe Bolton, which is a hard thing to do because it is a hard place to live. His work is stunning, a combination of great formal and linguistic gifts and tremendous emotional vulnerability. It's hard to fathom that he wrote everything he would ever write before he was 30 years old.

When I need to find my way back to the lyric, I read Joe's work. Here's a link to a few examples.

Friday, October 16, 2009

from The Mill on the Floss

George Eliot

[Maggie] turned away and hurried home, feeling that in the hour since she had trodden this road before, a new era had begun for her. The tissue of vague dreams must now get narrower and narrower, and all the threads of thought and emotion be gradually absorbed in the woof of her daily life.

The Mill on the Floss is, in a few ways, an earlier version of Middlemarch, especially, I think, in the depiction of heroines. Both Mill's Maggie Tulliver and Middlemarch's Dorothea Brooke wrestle with the conundrum of passion versus duty, but Maggie has far less self-control, far more innocence, than Dorothea does. She is in no way a prig, whereas Dorothea has always struck me as irritatingly prissy.

This theme of self-abnegation and repression is a common one in Victorian literature; and oddly, one of the best writers on the matter was a man: Anthony Trollope. But I find Eliot's delineation of Maggie particularly touching because she is not afraid to deal open-heartedly with the delicacies of vanity. Maggie longs to be admired as clever and charming--not in a Madame Bovary way but because she sees admiration as a response to her own full-hearted love and admiration for the people--especially the men--around her. It's a quintessentially teenage desire, and I'm not sure that some of us ever quite get over it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Here is a poem from Boy Land that is all about college romance, by which I mean, as much as anything else, those intense small-group friendships that are their own kind of love affair. Possibly this is something that other people get over, but my particular intense group has endured, even though most of us live far apart and have very different adult lives.

Nonetheless, the poem is an invention. We never played in a band. We only played the stereo. The characters are not physical representations of real people. But that's a miraculous side-effect of writing: that invention can sometimes capture the sensation of reality. For me, this poem may have been the first time I realized how much power a writer acquires through fictionalization: in this case, how an artificial frame allowed me to concentrate on dramatizing the emotional attachment rather than banal historical details.

Liner Notes

 from the digital re-release of The Reckless Pedestrians Walk the Dog

 Dawn Potter

    1. Empty Bed Blues

We debuted in a dorm basement

painted dirt green,

with low ceilings and dollar beers.

All our songs were covers of Carpenters tunes


that the lead singer had learned in high school chorus.

We were trapped by the past—

the effervescent desires

of Casey Kasem,


the static buzz of AM radio.

What options did we have?

You hear folks bad-mouth the Carpenters,

but try to sing like Karen


if you’re a fat nineteen-year-old boy

with glasses and a narrow range.

Nothing works out the way you hope,

as we discovered that night,


the room emptying out fast, folding chairs

parked against the walls, blank as a bus station.

It was depressing,

but we’d read enough Kafka


to accept misfortune.

Confusion is chronic;

and anyway, only the Japanese

are doing Carpenters covers these days.


    2. Seven Day Fool

In the eighties the natural place for a girl

in a band was on bass,

except if you were the Go-Gos.

We were past that Linda McCartney-and-Wings shit.


In our yellow-curtained apartment

we embraced our instruments like babies,

trying to force three chords

into the lush harmonies

of Burt Bacharach.

The cat yowled; neighbors quarrelled

far into the night.  Only

when the drummer began fiddling


morosely with the zipper on Sticky Fingers

did the answer come to us,

the last notes of “Close to You” fading

swiftly into the forgotten past,


Mick Jagger’s threat to remove his trousers on stage

rising like a phoenix—oh, we were young,

and in love, and happy to take ours off too;

and we could play all the notes!


It was like seeing Rothko for the first time,

then turning to the nearest stranger

and shouting,

What the fuck have I been doing with my life?


    3. Look What Thoughts Will Do

The guitarist stored a tattered copy

of On the Road in his case

and randomly read aloud from it

between sets.  The bass player


toiled through every break;

her fingers toughened like a farmer’s,

while the guitarist, pacing,

intoned Kerouac at the ceiling:


“ . . . arc, pop out, brake in, run. . . .

Somewhere along the line the pearl. . . .

‘Terry,’ I pleaded with all my soul. . . . ”

The roadies kept quitting,


the bathrooms smelled like puke,

and even “Freebird” can get you down

on a rainy night in March,

far out in the Amish wasteland.


It was the gulag, but we were alive:

catching the last train to the city,

dropping our cases on the stairs,

rolling into bed at dawn

with the crows outside just starting

to quarrel and the garbage men

slamming their loads

in the tender morning light.


    4. Love Is the Drug

And here we all send our thanks

to Jon Bon Jovi for his good advice

about shopping-mall acoustics,

which served us so well in the years


spent traveling from one Ground Round

to the next, bodies fueled by Coors

and dry yellow popcorn, fan club asleep

on the jukebox, the rest of us pounding out


ballads at two a.m. like this was the last

honkytonk on earth, fluorescent lights

faltering off one by one: bulldozers

could be moving in from the west


to destroy the place by morning,

and only electricity would save us—

AC bleeding through the wires,

guitar solos fervent as Jesus,


drummer hunched over, dripping with sweat,

and the lead singer taking off his glasses

to rub his eyes, calm and exalted,

like Socrates waiting for hemlock.


    5. Baby Let’s Play House

Some say Walk the Dog is the worst album we ever made.

But intonation aside, this was a record about love:

the purest, most pop-driven kind—

four happy people in a band, kissing each others’ hands


on the train, waking up at noon,

eating cornflakes without milk and playing our record collection

in alphabetical order because that kind of asceticism

would make us great.

Listen to every Boston album, and you’ll soon learn

how much eleven-year-old boys crave beauty,

in whatever surreal form.

We had the big picture in our heads—


rock-and-roll as undergraduate abstraction:

life spent cheek to jowl,

the guitarist’s head in the drummer’s lap,

King Lear parked upside-down on a speaker,


unread, hissing and muttering under his breath,

all of us singing “Sweet Jane”

as if Lou Reed had written it with us in mind—

screeching so loud that the little girl next door


banged on the wall in ecstasy

while her parents, on their knees,

begged her to think hard, honey, and please,

please, remember where she’d hidden the Moped keys.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Leaving shortly for another 10-hour bus ride.

Reading last night was pleasant, with a tiny nice crowd, which was good because there were hardly any chairs. I met a man named Thomas Rayfiel who has written an admirable essay on Ivy Compton-Burnett, and I went out for dinner at a restaurant called Rosewater. Jeannie Beaumont, my co-reader, subsequently tasted Jagermeister for the first time. Then I stayed up till 3:30 with my friend Ray. We listened to Merle Haggard drinking songs and reminisced about our chequered past, which I prefer to spell with a q.

Earlier in the day I went to the Pierpont Morgan Library, which had a Blake exhibit. I enjoyed the Blakes, but then I walked into a large velvet-hung book room of the sort that might have been designed by an early 20th-century robber baron, and there, sitting quietly in a corner, was a portrait of John Milton at the age of 10.

Amazing to imagine that Milton was ever age 10.  Yet here he sits, round-faced and serious in his scratchy collar.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

For various reasons such as schedule changes and the Columbus Day parade, I decided not to go to Manhattan during the day and walked to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden instead. It's a rather long, mostly uphill walk through Park Slope and then all the way across Prospect Park to Flatbush Avenue. Seeing as it was a school holiday, the park was full of parents busily trying to have a great time with their kids. I believe that I was the only non-jogging single woman in sight. 

When I arrived at the botanic garden, the ticket taker laughed incredulously and said, "You want to buy a ticket?" I said yes, and she relented and sold me one.

As in the park, most of the people at the garden were organized into pairs or groups. For a while I thought I saw a young woman with a crutch walking around by herself, but it turns out that she was just avoiding her parents. Visitors tended to be over 60 and enthusiastic. They wore polar fleece and carried cameras with large lenses, which I thought might be impractical for flowers.

You may find it strange that a person from the country enjoys visiting city gardens, but in fact botanic gardens are nothing at all like the country. Everything is so tidy and well shaped, although autumn can become too much even for fancy gardeners. Acorns do litter the ground, and giant greedy squirrels do dig holes in the turf. Leaves turn brown and spotty. The scenic ponds become murky, and the oversized goldfish look put-upon as they heave up from the depths. There were, however, some fabulous fall berries. My favorite was the beautyberry bush, which had glowing violet-colored clusters rather similar to the shade of purple you might see on a Jimi Hendrix album cover.

I put some acorns in my pocket, and I would have like to steal a bright-pink, good-smelling rose also, but I refrained. I don't intend to plant the acorns because I already have too many trees. I do like to find them in my pockets, however.

After a while I got tired of walking and went to the cafe and bought a cup of coffee. As I sat down at a table next to two women, one of the woman was saying, ". . . is what Brooke Astor told me, and when I saw her daughter-in-law's picture in the paper, I thought Brooke was absolutely right, her head is shaped like that." I couldn't believe I'd sat down at such an inopportune moment. A few seconds earlier, and I would have learned exactly what Brooke Astor thought her daughter-in-law's head looked like, but now I'll never know.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Yesterday was a lot of bus riding. And then to step off a bus onto 42d Street was rather a shock. In Harmony one forgets that Times Square exists. 

I passed 10 hours on the bus reading The Mill on the Floss and copying out random poems from Kenneth Rexroth's 100 Poems from the Chinese. I have some doubts about how accurate these translations might be, but I do enjoy knowing that a poem written before the Norman Conquest can be as swift and present-tense as a poem written in Maine last week. I would copy out an example for you, but once again I am trying to respect copyright. The Rexroth translations are from 1971, in a New Directions edition, if you're interested in looking for them. In addition to being quite helpful for poets, they are excellent fodder for teachers.

Today I am off to Manhattan for lunch with someone I haven't seen for 20 years. And then, I'm not sure. Possibly a botanical garden, possibly a museum, possibly some aimless wandering. . . . I'm feeling remarkably unfettered, which makes me realize how fettered I usually am.

I realize I haven't yet told you about the bus ride, so here are my written-on-the-bus notes:

The bus driver bites his nails, snatches at the top of his head, and now and again leans over to wildly shake out his left ear. More than once he mutters, “Friggin crap.” When the bus stalls out on the railroad tracks, he says, “Holy friggin crap.”

 Across the aisle from me sleeps a very fat woman. According to her tote bag, her name is “Leslye.” When she got on the bus, the driver had to push her up the stairs from behind. Meanwhile, she laughed merrily.

 The driver hasn’t said anything about friggin crap for five or ten miles. Maybe he feels better now that he has yelled at the Asian guy in the row behind me. “Stop talking on the phone, or you’re off this bus,” said the bus driver. “Somebody translate that for him.”

I eventually stopped taking notes, but bus and driver continued to behave badly. Fortunately we received a new mechanically sound bus in Boston. But it was also very crowded, and I had to sit behind the world's loudest kissers. They weren't exactly making out; it was more like frequent loud pecks, but each peck resembled a quick slurp of water going down a semi-clogged drain. This went on intermittently for 5 hours.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

News flash: The Sewanee Review has decided to publish my essay on Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley. I am so relieved. The poor thing is footsore, having crossed the Atlantic twice, loitered in California, and been spurned in Texas. It will enjoy retiring quietly to Tennessee.
This morning I got an email from a friend who compared reading Tracing Paradise to reading a travel narrative, which struck me as comic since the book is all about staying in one dull place. Of course, he has a point . . . traveling through Milton is like traveling through awareness, etc. Still, I wasn't focused at all on that theme as I constructed the book.

When I'm writing an essay, I always think that I'm thinking. But later somebody else generally notices points about the piece that never occurred to me. Scholars can make entire careers out of finding literary synchronicities that the authors never pay any attention to creating. 

When I'm writing a poem, I rarely think that I'm thinking. The experience is, initially, far more like drunkenly transcribing what happens at a particular intersection of emotion, sensory awareness, and memory. Sometimes it really does feel like that moment in the movie Amadeus when Mozart just pulls the Requiem out of the air. And then, with a cooler head and a more purposeful focus on drama (by which I mean frame and suspense and sentence control), I revise and revise and revise and revise, ad infinitum.

Probably I've posted all this stuff before, but they interest me, these varied ways in which the mind needs to function in order to create different kinds of art at different points in the process.

Time to go out into the dripping world and feed those screeching goats and chickens and fill the gaping woodbox. There will be only screeching brakes in Brooklyn. But they are just as difficult to ignore.

Friday, October 9, 2009

I have never written a poem about New York City.

Can one write poems in a Greyhound bus? I hope so. Prose seems rather more unlikely, unless I were in a confessional mood.

Of course I might be in a confessional mood. Being in Brooklyn is always like being twenty years old again.

I am thinking of walking up to the botanic gardens, where I've never been in the autumn. Have the trees been planted to encourage elegant decaying leaf patterns on the grass?

My father's Dutch ancestors once owned and farmed a large tract of Brooklyn. Unfortunately, they sold it.

Eventually Walt Whitman's family moved in. As Walt says, "I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine."

The hill in Park Slope is ample. The mothers have to hold tight to the baby strollers.

At the top of the hill is Prospect Park. At the bottom of the hill is the Home Depot. I have never seen them mingle.

My friend Ray lives closer to the bottom of the hill. His street is sleazier than some streets but not the sleaziest.

The exhaust fan from the Peruvian restaurant next door makes his bathroom smell like fried chicken. I have eaten that fried chicken, and it's pretty good.

I never cook anything in Brooklyn because Ray's kitchen is nasty. According to Walt, "Appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are!"

But Thoreau complains, "By his heartiness & broad generalities he puts me into a liberal frame of mind prepared to see wonders--as it were sets me upon a hill or in the midst of a plain--stirs me up well, and then--throws in a thousand of brick."

When Bronson Alcott visited Brooklyn, Walt Whitman's mother cooked a roast for him, but he wouldn't eat it. The Whitmans were surprised. They had never heard of vegetarians before.

Meanwhile, Thoreau helped himself to cake from the oven without asking.

According to Walt, "Thoreau's great fault was disdain: . . . [an] inability to appreciate the common life."

He liked cake, however. And I, too, have eaten cake in Brooklyn.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thank you for all the birthday wishes. By the middle of yesterday afternoon I did manage to add about 5 words to my long poem, which is more than I expected to accomplish. And then Tom brought me flowers, which hardly ever happens and made me very happy.

Tom is planning to cook a full-scale birthday dinner on Saturday, when he hasn't been renovating houses all day. But I shall be spending my time getting ready to catch an early-morning bus from Waterville to New York City. I have never taken a 10-hour bus ride before, nor have I ever gone to the city with so much empty time on my hands. I wonder what I will do. I'm a little frightened at the idea, but I suppose I will get into the swing of aloneness.

I'll be reading on Tuesday evening with Jeannie Beaumont, who lives in Manhattan and directs the advanced poetry seminar at the Frost Place. The last time I saw Jeannie, we spent an hour or so wandering among the enormous Richard Serra sculptures in the new Museum of Modern Art. Meanwhile, my younger son, who must have been 8 or 9, ran in and out every opening, hooting about secret hiding places. Afterwards, we ate gelato.

Today, unfortunately, there will be neither art nor gelato. There will be hooting children, however, for scheduled this afternoon is the Harmony School's annual parent-student soccer game. So at 5 p.m. I will don the cleats that Paul grew out of last year and assume my position on the field, where I will spend a breathless hour being kicked in the shins by fifth graders. Two years ago, believe it or not, I did manage to score a goal. It was almost as exciting as having a book accepted for publication.