Friday, December 31, 2010

If you're a poet with a manuscript, you might like to know that my poetry publisher, CavanKerry Press, has announced open submission dates.

If you're a non-vegetarian cook, you might like to know that Tom and I are making Venetian meatballs for New Year's Eve.

If you're the owner of a large black poodle, you might be getting tired of frozen dead moles in your driveway.

If you've ever copied out any of John Berryman's Dream Songs, you might be wondering why half of each poem you transcribe is marvelous while the other half isn't.

If you're trying to recall what went wrong in 2010, you might have loneliness and Republicans on your list.

If you're trying to remember what went right, you might consider the words of Robert Louis Stevenson. He paints a rather human-centered vision of the world. But then again, he could hardly help being human.

No man can find out the world, says Solomon, from beginning to end, because the world is in his heart; and so it is impossible for any of us to understand, from beginning to end, that agreement of harmonious circumstances that creates in us the highest pleasure of admiration, precisely because some of these circumstances are hidden from us forever in the constitution of our own bodies. After we have reckoned up all that we can see or hear or feel, there still remains to be taken into account some sensibility more delicate than usual in the nerves affected, or some exquisite refinement in the architecture of the brain, which is indeed to the sense of the beautiful as the eye or the ear to the sense of hearing or sight. We admire splendid views and great pictures; and yet what is truly admirable is rather the mind within us, that gathers together these scattered details for its delight.

[from the essay "Ordered South" (1874)]
I'm sending you all my love, and my best wishes for a New Year filled with scattered details for your delight.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

In response to yesterday's post about Shelley's "Defence of Poetry," I received a few notes that either tease me about false poetic modesty or encourage me to set aside my poetic humility. Yet while I am grateful, very grateful, to have friends and acquaintances who appreciate my writing, I do feel compelled to argue that modesty and humility aren't necessarily signs of melancholy or self-defeat. Nor is my statement about being a person who "tries to write poems" an unsubtle request for flattery.

If my long apprenticeship to the western canon has taught me nothing else, it's shown me something about greatness--its varieties and permutations, its accidents and triumphs. I may not adore Melville's Moby-Dick with the fervor that I love Dickens's Great Expectations, but each novel has proven its mettle--has shown me that the authors indeed deserve their place on the high shelf. The clutter, the distractions, the wanderings of Melville's novel are in truth inseparable from the Pequod's journey: the book itself mirrors the plot. And my recent revisit with Dickens's early novel Oliver Twist reminds me how far he had advanced in Great Expectations: here, he was able to synthesize his powers of description, of character development, of melodrama, of symbolism, of social commentary, of comedy, of tragedy with a virtuosity that rivals Shakespeare's.

In his "Defence," Shelley writes: "Even in modern times, no living poet ever arrived at the fullness of his fame; the jury which sits in judgment upon a poet, belonging as he does to all time, must be composed of his peers: it must be empanelled by time from the selectest of the wise of many generations." We, the living, are still striving: we are still trying to write the poems we long to write, are driven to write. We have no laurels to rest upon.

As you can see, humility and arrogance stroll hand in hand here. What hubris to imagine that Shelley means that he and I are peers! But then again, why else did he write, if not for me? I--a 21st-century female in a snowy New England cottage--even I, like Shelley, like Dickens, like Melville, belong "to all time." And if these are the peers who judge my work, then surely they judge it as raw and incomplete. As it is; as it is.

But I keep trying to write the poems.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Shelley's "Defence of Poetry" makes me proud to be a person who tries to write poems.

Language, colour, and religious and civil habits of action, are all the instruments and materials of poetry; they may be called poetry by that figure of speech which considers the effect as a synonyme of the cause. But poetry in a more restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are created by the imperial faculty, whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man. And this springs from the nature itself of language, which is a more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being, and is susceptible of more various and delicate combinations, than colour, form, or motion, and is more plastic and obedient to the control of that faculty of which it is the creation. For language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination, and has relation to thoughts alone.

* * *

Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.

* * *

A single word may be the spark of inextinguishable thought.

* * *

Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.

* * *

Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, "I will compose poetry." The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our nature are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.

All of this feels true to me. No doubt someone with excellent arguing powers could prove otherwise, but the creation of poetry has nothing to do with argument. I especially love the final line I've quoted: "the conscious portions of our nature are unprophetic either of [creation's] approach or its departure." I agree: any real poem I've written has crept in through an unlocked, unwatched door.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

In response to yesterday's post, I received an email from my friend Tom Rayfiel in which he highly recommends Thomas Love Peacock's novels--Nightmare Abbey, Crotchet Castle, Gryll Grange--and also pointed out that Peacock was George Meredith's father-in-law . . . which at the very least gives rise to conjectures about that non-historical personage known as Peacock's daughter.

Tom's email reminded me that I haven't mentioned his small essay on Nabokov, which appears in the "Table Talk" section of the current Threepenny Review. I love Tom's essays because they remind me of my own essays . . . which, I hope, is not as selfish and self-serving as it sounds. What I mean is that he writes about literature from a similar place in his brain: the nonscholar/serious-reader/regular-curious-human-being sphere. And even though we don't necessarily read or write about the same books, I feel as if we're puttering along parallel paths. Here, for instance, is the opening paragraph of his essay:

Six dollars, used. We never talk about this but I think it's important, how much a book costs. It certainly colors my attitude toward the work. Did I pay full price? Did I pay fifty cents at a stoop sale? Or find it left out on the street in a box? Surely most reviews are influenced by the fact (never taken into account) that the book was provided free of charge. This was a fat paperback, put together from the four-volume Bollingen Edition, containing all the notes to Nabokov's translation of Eugene Onegin but missing the text itself. An accidental genre. Perhaps that is why it was shelved in Fiction.

I should point out that I, too, have pottered among the stoop sales in Tom's neighborhood and can affirm that they're an excellent reason to visit Brooklyn in the summer.

I should also say that this paragraph reminds me of the time I found a compendium of Matt Groening's Life in Hell cartoons shelved as Religion.

Monday, December 27, 2010

I received only one book for Christmas: from Tom, a 1921 compilation of three separate essays on poetry--Thomas Love Peacock's "The Four Stages of Poetry" (1820), Percy Shelley's "A Defence of Poetry" (completed before Shelley's death in 1822 but not published until 1840), and Robert Browning's "An Essay on Percy Bysshe Shelley" (1852).

Peacock's essay is a satire on the state of contemporary poetry, and reading it feels rather like reading a satire on Mary Oliver and Billy Collins, except that the author is name-dropping Wordsworth and Coleridge. I'm still making my way through the introduction to the essays themselves, but I'm already highly amused by the Peacock quotations--for instance: "While the historian and the philosopher are advancing in, and accelerating, the progress of knowledge, the poet is wallowing in the rubbish of departed ignorance, and raking up the ashes of dead savages to find gewgaws and rattles for the grown babies of the age." Things never change, it seems.

Peacock and Shelley were friends, and Shelley knew very well that Peacock respected the Romantics and was writing a satire. But Shelley, though brilliant, didn't have much of a sense of humor and could not resist fighting for his art. So he whipped off the "Defence" with the intent of publicly responding to his friend's essay, preferably in the journal that had already published Peacock's piece.

The essay is, as this volume's introduction notes, "a great poet's confession of faith," "a very personal document" that contains "nothing coldly judicial." This is a dry paraphrase of Shelley's burning, starstruck prose: "Poetry . . . makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world; it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interlunations of life. . . . [It] redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man." But Shelley's fervent argument did not reach its intended audience: soon after completing this paean, the poet drowned in a sailing accident, the magazine folded, and the "Defence" sat in his wife Mary's desk drawer for close to 20 years until she published it, with considerable excisions, in her version of his collected works. Those excisions, according to my little volume's introduction, deleted all references to Peacock's earlier essay, which Mary thought would distract admirers from a focus on Shelley's own claims.

Thanks in large part to his wife, the cult of Shelley blossomed. From being an embarrassment, he became a god, and his works sold briskly. Thus, in 1852, someone surnamed Moxon decided to capitalize on the poet's popularity by publishing a collection of 25 of Shelley's letters with a foreword by poet Robert Browning. This turned out to be an embarrassing commission for Browning: of the letters, all but two were complete forgeries. Fortunately, however, Browning entirely ignored the contents of the book he was introducing and used his essay to "[air] opinions on Shelley's prose, and Shelley's character, which he had formed long since. . . . The work of Shelley had been the inspiration of his earliest prime, and he had consistently refused, in the face of popular rumour, to believe that there could be any ugliness in a life which produced so beautiful a flower of verse."

Oy. Browning seems to have overlooked the woman troubles, the money troubles, the dead babies, etc., etc., etc. Probably Elizabeth Barrett Browning could have set him straight on those issues, but sometimes a blind-sided lover is best left alone with his ideals. Or so it might seem at the moment.

Anyway, now you have the background of the complicated little compendium I got for Christmas. I look forward to spending some part of today's blizzard combing through its faded, deckle-edged pages. I'll let you know if anything wonderful/terrible turns up.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

In which Jane Austen outdoes Betty Friedan, plus makes a joke at her own scribbler expense, thus combining feminist outrage with comic self-deprecation plus critical acumen plus character development plus plot action insofar as Anne's erstwhile lover Captain Wentworth overhears this conversation and decides that Anne might still love him and that maybe he should ask her to marry him again:

[Captain Harville:] "I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side of the argument, and I do not think I opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman's inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of women's fickleness. But, perhaps, you will say, these were all written by men."

[Anne Elliot:] "Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything."

[from Persuasion (written in 1815-16, published posthumously in 1818)]

In which Vladimir Nabokov misses the point entirely, which is very cheering for those of us who are illogically opinionated about, say, the unpleasant experience of reading Dostoevsky or cooking pork liver.

We had to find an approach to Jane Austen. . . . I think we did find it and did have some degree of fun with her delicate patterns, with her collection of eggshells in cotton wool. But the fun was forced. We had to slip into a certain mood; we had to focus our eyes in a certain way. Personally I dislike porcelain and the minor arts.

[from Lectures on Literature (collected from VN's classroom lecture notes and published posthumously in 1980).]

Dinner tonight: leftovers, thank God.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Dinner tonight: baked Harmony-raised ham, braised homemade sauerkraut, parslied potatoes, salad greens with roasted carrots, tiny oatmeal rolls, panna cotta with raspberry and sherry sauce and topped with cashew praline.

Christmas at the Ramada

Dawn Potter

3. The Bed

It lurks round every Ramada corner,

this bed, single-minded as Sparta.

Once the door chunks shut behind them,

once they inspect all the drawers and snigger

at the Oriental-ish art screwed

to the beige wallpaper, once they suck down

a quick roach at the icy casement,

time runs out for everything but the bed

and K and O—the gravitational pull

of this motel mattress, Charlemagne-

sized, its flowered coverlet severe;

a bed royally firm yet dim as a cave

in the shadow of the light fixtures.

Sex is the heart of the matter:

and perhaps, thinks O,

there is something vital in ugliness,

this reduction to famine,

we two thrown together like phantom

Barbarellas, and all the while the ice machine

crashes in the hall, handyman snowmen

whirr and clack, the fat guys in the lounge

switch to Friars hockey and whiskey sours,

and a tow truck finally drags a smashed-up

Chevy from the parking lot.

In the distance, a siren.

K leans back against the somber headboard,

silken and shy, open-eyed.

What magic to be awaited by a man

whose every rib she must have kissed

at least once in the half-life

they’ve dreamed away.

Though this bed demands a new,

a starker obeisance—

This stripped-down polyester

battlement, this outcast star—

No shepherd awake to guard his ewe lamb.

4. The TV

It’s been Christmas at the Vatican

for hours already; but midnight mass

flickers into their ten p.m. motel room

like an accident. What’s more,

the announcer is busily translating

every Latin phrase into rich

and obfuscating Spanish.

The pope looks terrible.

Under his golden robes and mitre,

he sags to one side like a cat

stuffed into fancy pajamas.

The camera can hardly bear to film him;

it keeps switching to a chanting

Salvadoran priest, dark and beautiful,

voice a thin angelic tenor,

though he is horribly nervous,

his shadowy chin trembling

between each honeyed line.

At home in San Salvador, his mother

is prostrate with fear of God,

O thinks, pressing her cheek into K’s

bare arm. Now the camera shifts

to pan a row of old ladies draped in black

furry coats and orange lipstick;

they glare, outraged;

they look exactly like the old ladies

who instigate fender benders

on Elmwood Avenue, carelessly shooting

homeward after a day spent

plotting dominion; yet thank Heaven,

they’re also the sentimental type

who adore enchanting priests.

How good of the holy church

to meet their needs with such pity

and take the heat off this poor pope

slumping unfilmed beneath his foreign

vault, his cold sky, a few brisk lights

scattered across the black. Not far off,

the faithful sleep, safe as milk.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Parents should be here within an hour. Don't tell Paul, but I just made a giant felt shrimp for his Christmas stocking; meanwhile, Tom is going to the dump, and James is helping to split an injured friend's firewood.

Tonight's menu: corn chowder with local corn, potatoes, onions, and bacon; cheese puffs; spinach salad; hot cider and whatever baked goods my mother has brought along for the occasion.

And here's part 2 of my Christmas poem.

Christmas at the Ramada

Dawn Potter

2. The Lounge

The lounge is respectably dim,

decked out with “old” posters

and swags of plastic fir, all its little

tables and vinyl benches clustered

TV-wise. Behind the bar a lady

with the gravelly bark of a classic-

rock DJ forks over a syrupy cocktail

and returns her gaze to the televised

town meeting currently mesmerizing

herself and her five retired fat-guy

customers, and now K and O, requesting

beer. Happy O rubs a shoulder into K’s,

public-access TV displays a local

fiend in chairwoman’s clothing

shouting wild threats at the fire chief,

and everyone in the room sighs with pleasure.

Pouring out K’s Sam Adams, the bartender

cries huskily, “She’s so mean!”

Her Santa hat jiggles in sympathy.

Through the frosted window glass,

emergency vehicles in the parking lot

flash red, white, and blue like a friendly

disco ball; and down the gilt bar a bug-eyed man

in a pressed shirt catches sight of his mirror self.

He turns to O and K, he leans toward O,

eager as a schoolboy, and marvels,

“Hey. I look really nice.”

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Today's post is very late because it snowed an unexpected five or six inches last night, and Plow Boy hasn't yet appeared, though shoveling was certainly in order. My parents were supposed to arrive here this afternoon but have already called to say they're not coming till tomorrow. Nonetheless, the rest of us are planning to eat our Christmas Eve Eve dinner anyway. This what we're having:

Scallops with home-canned tomatoes and the fresh rosemary that's still thriving by my cellar window. Garden kale (via the freezer) with garlic. Couscous. Homemade eggnog alongside a variety platter of baked goods.

So here I am at home: one child still fast asleep, the other off on an all-day jaunt with his father. The wind is blowing, but snow still clings to the branches, which are bowing low under the weight. At this moment, the land where I live is extraordinarily beautiful.

In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is sitting at a desk at the White Hart Inn writing a letter to Anne Elliot, asking her again, after an eight-year rift, to marry him. In Moby-Dick, "the swift Pequod, with a fresh leading wind, was herself in chase." In The Prelude, the infant Wordsworth's mind "lay open to a more exact and close communion," though I'm not precisely sure about what it hoped to commune with because I'm too distracted by the image of an infant Wordsworth. Could there ever have been such a being?

So here's part 1 of the only Christmas poem I've ever written. Maybe I'll feed you the subsequent parts as the week progresses. The poem appears in its entirety in How the Crimes Happened.

Christmas at the Ramada

Dawn Potter

1. The Lobby

Ramada nearly rhymes with armada

a disarming coincidence, O notes,

as she shoves apart the glass doors

for lingering K and they step into

a Wonderland of holiday cheer

so cheerless she pictures just how hard

the squirrel-faced girl at the front desk

must have laughed when, the day

after Thanksgiving, a burly crew

of Portuguese teens crammed the pale

lobby with misshapen Edwardian carolers

and a giant twitching Santa with a gold-

lamé belt and a broken nose. Across the grubby

carpet, two mechanical elves lugubriously

negotiate a seesaw; the check-in counter

is bestrewn with large rats sporting Mr. and Mrs.

Claus outfits; and toward the lounge, a pair

of handyman snowmen wash and sweep

with the enthusiasm of wind-up convicts.

“Ramada/armada, ramada/armada,”

murmurs O. The air is lightly filled

with the tones of Christmas carols

so faint they might be the rustling

of bat wings. The lobby smells of dust

and industrial rug shampoo.

Beyond the night-time glass, asphalt looms.

The lights of Route 6 tout good prices

and fun. Cars stuffed with after-dinner

shoppers mutter past, tires scraping sand,

satisfaction imminent as a blizzard. O signs up

for a smoking room, a king-sized bed. K thumbs

postcards and examines a rat. In their veins,

the spirit of Christmas surges like bourbon.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

If you haven't read Thomas's comment on yesterday's post, I think you should. This is what a serious reader looks like when he's 6 years old.

When my Paul was that age, he wasn't in love with Moby-Dick; it was Shakespeare he adored. He would lug my omnibus Shakespeare down the stairs, open it up, and start laboriously sounding out the names of the characters. Frequently, that was as far as he got, but even speaking the word Hamlet or Richard III was intoxicating. We would rent Laurence Olivier versions of the plays and watch them in 20-minute spurts. Almost in spite of himself, his attention span would break: somehow his brain was unable to concentrate for very long on this material, but he kept solemnly trying to whip his concentration into shape.

My older son, James, did not care a bit about hard books. At age 6, he was busy building complicated structures out of tape and baling twine or trying to draw landscapes in perspective or making beautiful little horses out of clothespins. The varieties of child brilliance are breathtaking.

Which reminds me: my friend Ruth, who is a fifth-grade teacher, recently recounted a comment she overheard in her classroom "from a very unexpected little boy: 'If you can't write poetry, you probably can't write a good paragraph.'" Haven't I been perorating lately about sentence-driven poems? Clearly, this child did not need to read anything I had to say on the matter.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Well, we have a Moby-Dick winner!

My fellow Harmonian, Scott, has finished the novel, and this is what he has to say about it:

The book reminds me of my great-uncle and aunt's house. It was built in stages, so you are forced to take twisty passages to get from one end of the house to the other. Some rooms open (illogically) onto other rooms. I always wondered about the third set of stairs; they were walled off, and so led nowhere. Still, there are treasures: the view across the river, the rooms full of "stuff" (probably including a copy of Moby-Dick), a great place to rummage on a rainy day.

Like Moby-Dick, the first few rooms/chapters are bright and fun, but confusion sets in once you leave them.

Coincidentally, I received an email update about a new book of Barry Moser portraits, and who should be featured in the advertisement but Herman Melville, looking, as the Wall Street Journal remarks, "put-upon."

Sometimes when I read Moby-Dick, I also feel put-upon, so that makes two of us.

I do not, however, feel put-upon when I read Jane Austen's Persuasion. What a great book. It's like a frothy, sugary, creamy dessert that's actually wholesome and nutritious and moreover improves my IQ.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Today the baking party begins: (1) tiny tarts filled with dried cherries, figs, or apricots; (2) flourless pecan balls, a prosaic name for a confection that I have never made but that, according to my reading of the recipe, should taste like little crustless pecan pies glazed with lemon.

The holiday menu itself is still in a state of flux. However, the Harmony-raised ham will definitely make an appearance, and I woke up in the middle of the night with an image of lime-meringue pie rising before my eyes. For Christmas Eve I'm toying with the possibility of pierogis followed by tomato soup; but I'm also toying with fish, clam, or corn chowder.

But enough of this menu talk. A random glance at Wordsworth's The Prelude reminds me that "the Spirit of Beauty and enduring Life / Vouchsafe[s] her inspiration, and diffuse[s], / Through meagre lines and colours, and the press / Of self-destroying, transitory things, / Composure, and ennobling Harmony," which I take to mean that I should stop imagining self-destroying, transitory holiday meals and clump outside into the meager snow to feed the rooster who is presently ennobling Harmony by screaming for his breakfast.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunday morning, cold and bright: Jane Austen and French roast coffee and a scratching dog: two overweight mourning doves groaning at the feeder: me, coiled at the kitchen table playing with colon placement (and that would be the punctuation mark, not the body part); boys, all of them abed: an eternity of housework and baking ahead of me, but there could be worse eternities, such as math SATs and slippery tightrope walking and speeding down Route 95 with a student driver:

(What do you think of these colons anyway? Virginia Woolf has a habit of implementing nontraditional colons. Take a look at Mrs. Dalloway and see. And then there's Iris Murdoch and her comma splices. I find them rather difficult to swallow, but I'm working on it.)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Rest in peace (if that's the right word), Captain Beefheart. When I was in college, I thought my boyfriends were the only people in the world who owned your records. I thought Trout Mask Replica was the strangest thing I had ever heard. I wished I'd invented the pseudonyms of your band members: Zoot Horn Rollo, the Mascara Snake.

The boyfriends and I used to quote snippets of your lyrics like secret code:
Person 1: Hi, Ella.
Person 2: Hi, Ella Guru.
Person 3: Hi, yella. Hi, red. Hi, blue, she blew.
Person 1: Hi, Ella; hi, Ella Guru.
I can't say I liked your songs, but they were influential--if one thinks of influential as weirdly pervasive and/or culturally insidious. You were in the air, and we breathed you in like second-hand pot smoke. Boyfriends enjoyed playing your records at moments when I least wanted to hear them. I forgive you, and them, and I miss you all terribly. Last night, in central Maine, one of those middle-aged boys played Ice Cream for Crow while the teenager sat indifferently on the couch talking about the challenges of Photoshopping a giraffe head onto a duck body . . . not because he despises you but because you're just the regular soundtrack that parents play while they're washing dishes. A comedown. Still, no one can take away the fact that you recorded the best version of "Diddy-Wah-Diddy" ever. I think I'll go listen to it now.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Eve’s Dream

Dawn Potter

Not of your sweet wandering hands, nor even

of yesterday’s seed or tomorrow’s green pear,

but of crime and trouble, yes, offenses that never

crossed my fancy before this wretched night:

for in my dreams a quiet voice at my ear

coaxed me awake; and I thought it was you

cajoling me into the pleasant shadows,

cool and silent, save when silence yields

to cricket scratch or throaty owl,

white moon-face waxing gibbous

and all the Heavens awake in their glory

though none else to revel in them but ourselves;

and I rose and walked out into the night,

but where were you? I called your name,

then ventured, restive, into the lunar

garden I knew so well by day, yet here

I lost myself in white light and black hole,

I staggered through puddles, over stones;

and I heard, in my heartbeat,

an invisible horror, I heard it tease me,

chase me, catch me; and I ran, I ran,

weeping I ran; until, under moonglow,

I saw my own pale hands stretch before me

toward the Tree that blocked my way;

I saw my hands embrace it, caress its satin skin.

And in return, the Tree kissed my captive lips

with its feathery leaves, as if a twist of wind

had leagued us suddenly together;

for it gleamed strange and terrible,

this great rooted flower,

plying me so gently with Knowledge:

though my lips, parched and ravenous,

begged, now, for a rougher, a crueler dram.

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

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My friend Anne Britting Oleson is a poet with a day job as an English teacher at a local central Maine high school. Anne and I have an intermittent and somewhat humorous relationship, predicated as much on contiguity as on writing. Not only have our sons have played on rival Little League teams, not only has she judged pies at the Harmony Fair's two-crust apple pie contest, but she even used to be married to someone who was related by marriage to the people who own the Harmony garage where I buy my gas and leave my lawnmower for repair and perch on a stool reading War and Peace after being rescued from middle-of-the-road breakdowns and so forth. As you can see, with these sorts of connections, Anne and I are practically related ourselves.

Last summer Anne attended the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching and, as a result of that week, was determined to experiment with the idea of introducing a poem a day to her English students. She's kept track of this project on her blog, and I find her thoughts and observations about how the practice has affected her students both enlightening and heart-lifting. But that practice has done more than affect her students: it has changed her as well. As she writes in her most recent blog entry, she (with her students' encouragement) has just finished a daily project in which she wrote a response sonnet--what she calls an anti-sonnet--to every one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese.

In her post, Anne is kind enough to refer to my own Milton odyssey as an influence; but what strikes me most about her description of the experience is the way in which her high school students prompted her to keep up with the project. They began playing the role that she had taught them by example: to not only read a poem a day but to make it an active element of one's intellectual and emotional growth. To me, this is yet more proof that intense, communal classroom involvement in poetry can simultaneously expand students' intellectual reach and their ability to function as civilized, engaged, free-thinking adults.

I am extraordinarily impressed by Anne's determination to be both a teacher and a student in the classroom, and I am very much looking forward to visiting this class in February and watching her--and her students--in action.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A few days ago I wrote to you about Baron Wormser's new collection Impenitent Notes. Today I want to talk about another new CavanKerry Press release: Gray Jacobik's memoir in verse Little Boy Blue. As with Baron's collection, CavanKerry had hired me to copyedit Gray's book. But though I had met her briefly several years earlier, when she was the resident poet at the Frost Place and I was a nerve-wracked and unmemorable participant in a seminar that she wasn't teaching, we did not otherwise know one another. All I really knew was that Baron respected her work; so when the manuscript appeared on my desk, I was prepared to be intrigued.

I was not prepared to be overwhelmed.

As everyone who reads this blog with any regularity is already tired of hearing, I am an ignoramus about contemporary poetry. I recognize the famous and semi-famous names, but I have scant familiarity with their work. To a certain degree, my two-year stint on the Beloit Poetry Journal's editorial board forced me to begin recognizing extant fashions in subject and style; but that experience also reinforced my fundamental lack of interest in the poetry of my time. This attitude may be a flaw or it may be a strength; my point here is not to defend or revile it but to note that it is a characteristic. Moreover, unlike Baron's book, which was grammatically precise and punctuationally discreet, Gray's book was a hurricane: it was filled with inconsistencies--for instance, words capped in one stanza, lowercased in the next; numbers spelled out in one stanza, printed as numerals in the next--minor issues in themselves yet, as I discussed in my review of Baron's book, possibly indicative of the poet's distraction. In other words, Gray's book was not a number-1 candidate for my adoration. And yet I could not stop reading it.

Little Boy Blue is the memoir of Gray's troubled relationship with her troubled son, a love-hate affair that was nearly snuffed out at conception, when the teenager discovered that she was pregnant:

. . . I did try to find & couldn't, a back-alley

abortionist in the Negro district of Newport News,
then took thirty pills of quinine
your father's football coach gave him to give me,

leaving me in a coma for three days, pills that
didn't chase you from my body,
although years later I'd learn the tooth buds that

failed to grow in your mouth were caused by the quinine,
& who knows, maybe your bipolar disorder,
maybe your ADHD, & back then doctors thought

nothing of keeping a mother from her newborn
or a newborn from his mother. . . .

This extract quotes from the first poem in the collection, and every piece is just as mesmerizing . . . and excruciating. Imagine writing this autobiographical line: "your girlfriend/called & said I had abandoned you seventeen times,/didn't deserve a son. You'd told her this." Yet as I hope you can begin to see, this book is more, far more, than the history of a lurid family drama. The poems are not blurts onto the page but elegant, sentence-driven explorations of memory, motivation, and human character--both as individual revelation and as the duality of linked personalities, with their mutable and oddly unbreakable chains.

Look at how, in the extract, Gray moves from the abortionist to the doctors' treatment of mother-infant emotional ties. Yes: polemically and imagistically these subjects can be automatic partners, but Gray doesn't rest on such easy-to-make connections. She binds her recollections within the exact and subtle turns of a single sentence--in particular, by means of the quiet words she chooses to connect the phrases that cross both linear time and speculative distance: "then," "although," "maybe." On the surface, these are dull words, throwaways. But for the sentence-driven poet, they are the words that allow us to jumble details--the abortionist, the football coach, the quinine, the ADHD--into a seemingly informal sentence that nonetheless has a distinct and purposeful trajectory. And because Gray attends so carefully to the movement of her sentences, both their sound and their syntactic turns, she is able to create a memoir that works because it does not limit itself to familiar victim narrative but assumes the particular, private, enchanted voice that is the hallmark of real poetry.

Here's a poem in its entirety. Though it's one of the briefer pieces in the collection, the poet still takes her sentence time. Note the variation in length, the shift from simple subject-predicate forms to longer, more complex clausal forms.

Poem 7

You were a funny kid though, kept us in stitches.
You made up little rituals. Your grandfather
likes to tell of how you'd begin a left-right face,
arm-swinging goose-step march from wherever
you were into the bathroom, crying out hep-two,
hep-two. Once there you'd square off, click heels,
center yourself before the toilet, then bark out,
lid up! pants down! underpants down! then squirt!
reversing the order of your commands after the act
was done, your aim the usual aim of a four-year-
old. If your aunts & I were still laughing or
struggling not to when you marched back in,
you'd take umbrage & withdraw, for we were
to understand the seriousness of this. How I wish
I could, just once, kneel down before that boy,
as I would then, & apologize for laughing,
take you in my arms, kiss your cheek or forehead,
& hold your little body against mine.
No one was supposed to laugh at you,
but, my god, you were funny.

Little Boy Blue retells the history of error yet, in so doing, becomes a wondrous lesson in sentence control as dramatic control. I was immensely fortunate to read it. I hope you, too, will find a copy, and read it, and tell me what you think.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Yesterday at the Goodwill, despite the suicide-inducing Christmas-ditty soundtrack, I unearthed two fine books: Eudora Welty's The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays & Reviews and Robert Bernard Martin's Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart: A Biography. The Welty book includes her essays on Austen, Bowen, and Woolf, about whom I have also written, as well as on Henry Green, about whom I have also meant to write. And naturally it gives me great pleasure to imagine that I am the only person in the eastern half of the North American continent who would be thrilled to find a used biography of Alfred Lord Tennyson at the Goodwill.

Moreover, in yesterday's mail I received a copy of Gray Jacobik's new collection Little Boy Blue, another CavanKerry publication that I also happened to copyedit. This was great good fortune for me, as it is one of the best books I have read in a very long time . . . a page turner, in fact, which is not something one often says about poetry. Tomorrow I plan to write a more considered review, rather in the style of the letter I wrote about Baron Wormser's book last week. I feel that, as both a fellow poet and a hired-gun checker of minutiae, I have developed a peculiar relationship with these books, so I hope you don't mind watching me try to figure out my reactions to that connection.

Dinner last night, which Tom cooked while I was popping corn in the school gym and trying to avoid the roving eye of an icky ref: clam chowder with fresh quahogs.

Dinner tonight: teriyaki steak, spiced jasmine rice, roasted carrot salad.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Rain and driving and rain and driving and rain and driving, and then coffee with Tom at the Villager, the luncheonette that time forgot.

Christmas shopping, rain, grocery shopping, rain.

Post-office package handoff, elementary school basketball, popcorn making, uncomfortable bleacher sitting, cheers of joy, groans of despair. Rain, rain, rain, rain.

Now, today's quotation from Moby-Dick, chapter 85, "The Fountain":

And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts.

And one more, from chapter 86, "The Tail":

In man or fish, wriggling is a sign of inferiority.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Last night we went bowling and I, through some mystical synchronicity involving tepid disco lighting and the Magical Sea-Green 12-Pound Ball, earned 141--my lifetime high score, and one that left Tom groveling in the dust. This achievement was made even sweeter by the fact that he had, just previously, been making scoffing remarks about my affection for bumpers in the gutter. So to keep the record straight, I will emphasize that this was a bumper-free score. And that he himself could have used some bumpers.

(Of course, I should also mention that we did bowl three games, and my other two were dreadful.)

Now here it is, already past 8 o'clock in the morning, and I have yet to trudge outside and feed the animals, bring in firewood, empty the ash bucket, etc. The animals are none too happy about my laziness. But it's starting to snow-sleet-rain, as it's been forecast to do all day and all night; and I am unenthusiastic about Nature. I would rather sit at the kitchen table and drink coffee and relive my bowling triumph. An occasional social bowler since high school, I have spent 30 years consistently scoring below 100 and being triumphed over by whatever boys happened to have taken charge of the score sheet. Here I am, at age 46, finally winning and, what's more, being the first bowler present to figure out how to make our names show up on the little computer screen. Hah!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

I'm working on a bizarre poem that is completely unlike anything else I've ever written. But it does use my dream title, "Girls and Their Cats and Their Stories." And it does quote my friend Donna, invent a conversation with Auden, and pretend that the "person from Porlock" (i.e., the man who interrupted Coleridge when he was transcribing his dream poem "Kubla Khan") is my posthumous and none-too-favorable reviewer. Also, it occasionally mentions cats and girls.

This poem might be really bad, but I am in no position to make a judgment--not yet. But it was an interesting way to spend 10 hours.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Four degrees this dark morning, and I am already alone. Tom has rushed off to Portland; the boys have tumbled out to school. Dogs are barking, Tom's work pants are bustling in the dryer, and I am not exactly at loose ends but certainly my laces are flapping and my scarf is slipping into the snow. I think I might like to read some Wordsworth today.

A friend of mine shared the text of Mario Vargas Llosa's recent Nobel lecture. Principally the novelist talks about his life as a reader, but of course a life spent reading perforce becomes a life spent understanding that other people do not read and that not reading has political and social consequences. To tell the truth, I found this lecture difficult to take in . . . not because it is particularly complex, or because the thoughts are new to me, or even because Vargas Llosa extols books I don't care about. In fact, he speaks of Dickens with love, as I've noticed is the case with many of the great Caribbean and South American writers. Rather, I found myself shrinking from the pain of recognition--yes, here is another barely competent, distracted, obsessed reader, and what a bizarre and embarrassing world we make for ourselves, constantly falling over our own shoes. He quotes his wife as saying, "Mario, the only thing you're good for is writing." He seems proud of the rebuke, yet I wince, even though I know that his single-mindedness is, in fact, why he is delivering this Nobel lecture.

It's a conundrum to me: my helpless obsession with the canon; my helpless self-flagellation about that obsession. I'm the freak I want to be but I don't want to be that freak.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Today's letter to you concerns Baron Wormser's new poetry collection, Impenitent Notes. But before I say anything about this book, I need to explain that I am far from being a disinterested reviewer. Not only is Baron a dear friend, a colleague, and a mentor; not only do we share a publisher; not only have I listened to numbers of these poems at readings; but I was, in fact, hired by CavanKerry Press to copyedit the manuscript before it was designed and typeset. Thus, despite my lack of objectivity, I may know this collection better than any other reader does, or will.

Copyediting is a strange business. One has no say about the big picture: a collection's overarching themes, the structural or imagistic foundations of the poems, decisions about the relative strength of the pieces in a manuscript. Rather, the copyeditor concentrates on the details: the placement of an apostrophe, the italicizing of a phrase, the spelling of a name, the indentation of a line, the spacing of a dash. She spends much time weighing the value of a semicolon versus a period. She considers pronouns and their antecedents. In a way, a copyeditor's job is analogous to a hospital attendant's, that minimum-wage factotum who changes a patient's sheets and empties the bedpans. The worker may not have much decision-making power, but he ponders the accruing details that higher-ups don't have time or occasion to notice.

As a writer, I care intensely about grammar, punctuation, and syntax as tools of exploration. As a copyeditor, I am hired to impose stylistic consistency on an author's grammar, punctuation, and syntax. No matter how you look at it, you can see that I take the placement of a comma to heart. Yet this is not the case among most writers, whether they be poets or prose writers. I know this because I empty the bedpans. It is the case, however, with Baron. I think I might have suggested three corrections in his manuscript. Nearly every line, nearly every spelling, nearly every dash and semicolon and comma was pitch-perfect.

Pitch is an important word here, for punctuation is a poem's sound control; and sloppy punctuation often indicates that a poet is not paying attention to whether or not a line should pause, or sigh, or lift its voice, or stop dead in its tracks. Here's an example of Baron's punctuational skill, in the opening stanza of the poem "My Son Has a Persistent Qualitative Motor Disorder":

Oh, she was the mother of that catastrophe:
Her child a spindly hurricane, misshapen boat,
A broken spark of resolute energy
Yet a body named in Christian charity,
Yet the call of her cells, her own hard notes.

The stanza is beautiful, musical, lilting . . . but what I notice most is where Baron did not add a comma: there is no punctuation after "energy" in line 3. Instead, he allows the harshness of that line ending--"energy" / "yet"--to interrupt his phrasal elegance. The absence of a comma is notable here because he does choose to use one in his subsequent repetition of the "yet" phrase. To me this tiny technical decision has considerable consequence--not least in the way in which I begin to parse the poem's ambiguities of love and ruin.

I could go on and on here about Baron's precision, but, really, what makes his work strong is not simply that he knows how to handle a comma. Robert Frost once noted that "a poem should be a set of sentences"--an unromantic remark that nonetheless speaks directly to the power of great poetry. If you examine the work of Shakespeare, or Milton, or Shelley, or Dickinson, or Plath: if you follow a poet's grammar and syntax down the page, if you study punctuation's role in a poem's metrical hesitations and impatience, you can see that the poet is pressing his or her way into the sentence; that the writer is using the sentence as a means of intellectual, emotional, or physical discovery. Every element of the sentence must be weighed and considered in relation to the others. The poet struggles with the pieces, discards them, reorganizes them but, in the end, like a stonemason, manages to construct a wall that stands and withstands.

I'm writing this review as a copyeditor, as a person whose field of vision persistently narrows to the small. Other kinds of readers, other kinds of poets, will judge Baron's book far more comprehensively than I have. Nonetheless, I believe that a poem's details matter; I believe in the difficult art of the sentence. For me, it was both an honor and a lesson to copyedit Baron's work; and I hope he won't mind if I quote a poem in its entirety so that you, too, can follow his sentences and half-sentences down the page and come to your own conclusions about their persistent, unnerving clarity.


Baron Wormser

The sort of man always announcing plans,
Then plodding off to take a nap.
"There's worse," his wife once said without
Sullenness, as if love lay in avoidance.

Futility rises as well as anyone in the morning.
It's evenings that are brown, restless hells,
That crumble like plaster and faint like ghosts.
I see him in his tee shirt on the porch next

To our porch, a glass of ice water in his hand.
Moths swarm the yellow bulb above his head.
The TV chuckles inside. He asks me how I am
And starts talking about how much jack he could

Have made if only he'd gotten a chance.
I listen awhile, then excuse myself. He wags
A finger and asks if I'm too good for him.
I start to speak but already he's turned away.

[from Impenitent Notes (CavanKerry Press, 2010)]

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sitting in an optometrist's waiting room with Moby-Dick and People magazine and near-sighted old farmers, and imagining that I'll have to wear glasses all the time now, and worrying about how that change will affect my unquenchable vanity, and wondering when I'll ever get old enough to stop fretting about how I look, and being relieved that I don't have to drive in the snow, and complaining that I can't find my favorite red gloves, and losing the grocery list in the bottom of my purse, and dropping Moby-Dick in the banana aisle, and noting that the fish at the fish counter always looks exactly the same, and hoping that it really isn't exactly the same, and forgetting again that the store's been reorganized, and looking for wine in the toothpaste aisle, and not buying a York Peppermint Pattie at the checkout counter, and recalling the year I put one of them into James's Christmas stocking except that I changed the label so that it read Pork Peppermint Pattie, and being relieved that my children think that Christmas should be hilarious and that I'm not the sort of parent who videotapes her children while they unpack their stockings, and remembering too late that I've once more forgotten my reusable grocery bags, and retracing my 20 miles back to Harmony watching crows float over the snowy cornfields, and the clouds shudder above the pellet plant, and giant airless plastic snowmen swoon on the gravel driveways, and guys in plow trucks mutter past me, not plowing, not sanding, not doing anything but driving around, maybe hunting for snow or killing time until their shifts are over; I have no idea, but I push Etta James into the CD slot and keep going.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Nic Sebastian at Whale Sounds has made an audio recording of my poem "Touching," which you can also read in the Beloit Poetry Journal archive.
I spent yesterday trying to edit poems while various forms of uproar rose and fell beneath my feet. Today, however, everyone has vanished, and I am home alone with a washing machine and a big fidgety poodle. On my desk rests a great deal of other people's poetry, alongside one small clumsy beginning of my own. I have hopes for the awkward little thing, although they may well be crushed. But I do have some loneliness, which is a useful ingredient for a poem; and a billowing awareness of the unsaid, which is another. And also a bit of stopped time, which is a third. So we'll see what happens when all my duties are done.

Here's a sonnet . . . the one that just got the Pushcart nomination. It reminds me of how I feel today.

Dog in Winter

Dawn Potter

Up the boggy headland, frozen now, where a stone fence

Submerged in snow and earth-sink hints at pasture

So long vanished that the woods are convinced

Grassland never existed, two bodies climb—one fast,

Black, doe-agile; one slogging and foot-bound

Like a superannuated tortoise. Guess which is me.

Easy to badmouth my grace but oddly hard to expound

On the postcard beauties of our workaday scenery—

Giant pines draped with frosting, wisp of chimney cloud

Threading skyward, and behind the frosted window

A glorious wall of books, lamp-lit; a dear bowed head.

In tales, common enchantment always merits less than woe,

And perhaps I should collapse on the stoop like a starved Jane Eyre,

Pleading heat and mercy. But I earn my joy. I mean, I live here.

[first published as "Sonnet," in the Aurorean (fall/winter 2010-11)]

Dinner tonight: Rabbit pie. Coleslaw. Apple brown betty.

Monday, December 6, 2010

I'm late this morning because we're having our first snow day of the season and all of us have been too cheerful about it to slink off into our respective corners . . . except for James, who has yet to emerge from bed. Last night Tom had to drive to Rockport to pick up some photos, and ended up slipping and sliding and otherwise spending a miserable few hours on dark hilly snowy country roads. So he didn't even consider going to work today but is instead going to stay home and help me make rabbit stew.

Before I get to those rabbits, however, I'll need to get to the stack of poetry manuscripts on my desk. I also suspect I'll be overseeing Paul's cookie-baking project and drinking plenty of coffee and possibly playing board games in the middle of the day.

I woke up very early this morning with a title in my head: "Girls and Their Cats and Their Stories." I admit that, as a title, it sounded better in my dream than it does in blunt everyday type. In my dream I had written the opening paragraph of the short story that accompanied this title, a paragraph which began "Not the house that. . . . " Unfortunately my memory has failed to finish the sentence. So feel free to suggest something.

Dinner tonight: rabbit stewed with honey mushrooms, onions, and white wine. Possibly served with polenta. Followed by Christmas cookies.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Started reading Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives last night. So far this is what it has to say to me:

"We were nervous. . . . For a minute I thought something might have happened at the university, that maybe there'd been a campus shooting I hadn't heard about, or a surprise strike, or that the dean had been assassinated, or they'd kidnapped one of the philosophy professors. But nothing like that was true, and there was no reason to be nervous. No objective reason anyway. But poetry (real poetry) is like that: you can sense it, you can feel it in the air, the way they say certain highly attuned animals (snakes, worms, rats, and some birds) can detect an earthquake."

"I'd obviously never heard of the group, but my ignorance in literary matters is to blame for that (every book in the world is out there waiting to be read by me)."

And now I must drive away into the snowy morning to buy trois lapins pour le stewpot et more Christmas lights, per order of my elder son ("This year, our house is going to look tacky!").

Saturday, December 4, 2010

One of the many entertaining things about having teenage boys around the house is the surprise of watching them co-opt the household's holiday decorating scheme. To tell the truth, I am not myself much of a decorator, having an allergy to cute, which in any case doesn't really complement a hut full of books and shabby secondhand furniture. So it doesn't break my heart to relinquish the Christmas task to the boys. But even if relinquishing did matter to me, I'd be helpless.

Take yesterday, for instance: James informed me that we would need more tree lights because most of our old strings had died last year. So I came home from my errandy afternoon with two hundred little colored lights and a garish twelve-foot stretch of shiny red tinsel garland that Paul had decided would make Christmas with his grandparents even more special. I stacked the light boxes on top of the piano, looped the garland over a nail, and turned my thoughts to dinner.

Then James breezed in off the school bus. Within seconds of his arrival he had tied one end of the garland to the ceiling fan, the other to the track lighting; then he unpacked the lights and draped them rakishly across the ceiling, looped them up and down walls, whisked them behind the stereo speakers, clothes-pinned them to a drying rack over the wood stove, and finally snaked them around the corner of the stairs and tied them to the banister. The entire arrangement took about two minutes to complete, and the effect was startling.

"Is this temporary?" I asked.

"No," he said. "We need more. And more of that garland too. In all the colors you can find."

Tom walked into the room and immediately tangled his head in the low-slung lights. "This must change," he said.

"Wrong," said James, who was now on the couch, lying on his stomach and playing Suduko on his iPod.

"What happens if I turn on the fan?" asked Paul.

"Ack! Don't!" I cried, hiding my eyes in my hands.

Sniggering ensued.

Eventually, because he really is a good-hearted boy, James relented and untangled his father's head. Otherwise, everything remains exactly as he "designed" it. No doubt, however, someone will turn on the ceiling fan later today.

Dinner tonight: beef carbonnade and I'm hoping Paul will make noodles to go with the stew, a skill that Tom taught him a couple of week ago. And maybe we'll also have cole slaw with the last of my stored garden cabbage. Or maybe chard from the freezer. Or maybe pureed pumpkin with garlic and roasted red onions.

Friday, December 3, 2010

I'm pressed for time today, with an editing project that must, must, must be finished before I leap from my desk to take a kid to the dentist. Meanwhile, a stack of to-be-edited poetry manuscripts looms, and still in store are the as-yet untasted horrors of Christmas shopping. Argh.

On the good side: Christmas is at my house this year, which means no traveling, no dog kenneling, and free-range menu planning. I do love to cook a holiday meal.

Also on the good side: I had almost completely forgotten the fact that three of my poems are going to appear in a new edition of The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, due for release in March 2011. Here's a link to the current version. I have no idea how many of these first-edition poets will also be represented in the second edition; but when I received my page proofs yesterday I discovered that my work will appear just before poems by Liam Rector, Alberto Rios, Pattiann Rogers, and Kay Ryan. What thrilling alphabetical company! I am amazed.

But time presses; I cannot linger over this marvel; day is breaking, and I must away to my labors--by which I mean herding chickens and firewood and such.

Dinner tonight: ham and potato gratin, unless I change my mind and make beef stew. Perhaps you can tell I have some meat to use up in my refrigerator.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

I really enjoyed yesterday's 10th-grade ballad workshop. It was short--only an hour--but the kids, who don't have much poetry experience, began the class quietly and by the end were chatty, focused, and engaged. They were studying a Joe Bolton poem stanza by stanza, looking for repeated sounds, discovering links between those sounds and the story arc of the poem. Clearly a few of them were rather amazed to watch themselves probing the poem so effortlessly.

But why a Joe Bolton poem, you may ask? He wasn't a traditional ballad writer; why use his work? Well, the answer is that I decided to concentrate on the simplest definition of ballad I could find: a song that tells a story. In "Lord Randal" the song elements are very easy to track; the story, however, is both simple and ambiguous. In Bolton's "Party," the song elements are much more subtle, yet they, too, reinforce the narrative. Just as a rock ballad isn't a traditional sung ballad but an opportunity to slow-dance at the prom, a contemporary narrative poem isn't "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" but has evolved into a looser, more visual (as opposed to aural) form. Nonetheless, the sound-story connections exist, and I was so happy that the students immediately caught on to them.

Bolton's "Party" is under copyright and doesn't seem to appear anywhere on the web, but I'd be happy to send you a copy if you're interested. It's a pretty great poem as well as a fine way to shock 16-year-olds into poetry.

Moby-Dick update: Chapter 70. First whale caught. Blubber peeled. Head cut off. Stubb has eaten a whale steak. Weirdo from visiting ship has warned Ahab of his doom. Thanks to my friend Jamie, Paul has just acquired 3 different graphic-novel version of MD. He's reading them all so that he can tell her which one is best. So far his comments have been: "Is Queequeg a good character or a bad character?" and "Ahab is crazy!"

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Another review of How the Crimes Happened . . . but the question is: if I get reviewed in a magazine called Working Waterfront, does that make me an honorary islander? And as a result, will I get to eat more oysters? I'm certainly hoping so.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

This is a Tuesday post disguised as a Wednesday post because first thing in the morning I'll be teaching a ballad workshop to 10th graders and thus must spend my usual post time feeding chickens, fighting for the shower, and driving.

So in my stead I'll offer you this very old ballad, which I hope will, at the very least, teach you to (1) never, ever eat "eels in broo" and (2) also avoid feeding them to your dog.

Lord Randal (earliest printed date 1787, but no doubt much older)


“O where have you been, Lord Randal, my son?

O where have you been, my handsome young man?”

“I have been to the wood; mother, make my bed soon,

For I’m weary with hunting, and fain would lie down.”

“Where got you your dinner, Lord Randal, my son?

Where got ye your dinner, my handsome young man?”

“I dined with my true-love; mother, make my bed soon,

For I’m weary with hunting, and fain would lie down.”

“What had you for dinner, Lord Randal, my son?

What had you for dinner, my handsome young man?”

“I had eels boiled in broo; mother, make my bed soon,

For I’m weary with hunting, and fain would lie down.”

“What became of your bloodhounds, Lord Randal, my son?”

What became of your bloodhounds, my handsome young man?”

“O they swelled and they died; mother, make my bed soon,

For I’m weary with hunting, and fain would lie down.”

“O I fear you are poisoned, Lord Randal, my son!

I fear you are poisoned, my handsome young man!”

“O yes! I am poisoned; mother, make my bed soon,

For I’m sick at the heart, and I fain would lie down.”

Instead of watching The Jazz Singer last night, we watched Citizen Kane. And when I say "we," I include only three of us; for James, I'm sorry to say, has next to no interest in black-and-white movies that don't feature the Marx brothers or Buster Keaton. Paul, however, frequently lingers in the living room to check out the evening's feature. And so, last night, at the age of 13, he had his first meeting with Kane.

Paul is a boy who can rarely be bothered to read a clock accurately but, over breakfast, can tell me several facts about the career of William Randolph Hearst. So while he couldn't say more about the movie than "it wasn't exactly my style," he nonetheless paid intense attention to it. Every time I glanced at him, curled up in his bathrobe in the corner of the couch, his eyes were open wide. So who knows what effect Citizen Kane will ultimately have on this child of the iPod era. As Tom kept noticing, lots of lines, and even a chorus-line rhythm, turn up in at least one White Stripes song; so it's a film that keeps speaking to people, and not always the people one might expect.

Back to editing today, and to Moby-Dick. I'm up to the chapter about the giant white squid. White, white, white: that Ahab has a one-track mind. And now I notice that I've just mentioned the White Stripes. Oh, these damn interfering metaphorical inferences. . . .

Monday, November 29, 2010

Editing, bread baking, animal chores, and laundry. Snow and sunlight. Ten hens and a self-satisfied rooster. Footprints and frozen water buckets and firewood and two barking dogs. A goat scratching her back against a tipsy fence. Clean sheets and wet towels. Five lines of Wordsworth and a half-cup of Arborio rice. Ice-rimmed kale, a muddy floor, two chapters about a whale, and quiet. The mysterious disappearance of a check-engine light.

The future looms. Watching a Simpsons rerun and The Jazz Singer on the very same evening. Or watching nothing. Or playing cribbage and drinking cognac. Or forgetting to put clean sheets on the bed until I'm ready to get into bed. Or remembering to put them on and then climbing between them, clutching a book I have no intention of reading because I'll be asleep and dreaming about geese dressed as small boys, or telephones that won't telephone because the buttons are too small for my fingers, or a careening motorcycle steered by a string.

Meanwhile, the stars will shine--private, indifferent, like cows spread across a night meadow.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

This is the first day since Tuesday when I have been alone long enough to even think about writing to you. The Huizinga quotations I managed to copy out are very nearly the sum total of my reading, if one discounts the Amherst police log (man tries to get restaurant employees to rub him with a bagel; woman hurls salt and pepper shakers around dining establishment). Thanksgiving weekend involved food and food and food punctuated by games and games and games. For variety we visited an impressive beaver dam. Reading was beside the point, except insofar as it involved recipes and Monopoly disputes.

But back to those Huizinga quotations. On my way out of the house on Wednesday I snatched up his Autumn of the Middle Ages, a book I'd last read maybe a decade ago. Here's what the jacket copy says about him: "Born in 1872, [he] became professor of history at the University of Leiden in 1915 and taught there until 1942, when the Nazis closed the university and held him hostage until shortly before his death in 1945." This book was first published in Dutch in 1919; yet while "now recognized . . . for its quality and richness as history," it was initially "criticized . . . for being too 'old-fashioned' and 'too literary.'"

I am neither a scholar nor a historian, and I'm depending on an English translation rather than the original Dutch. Nonetheless, I believe in both this book's historical richness and its literary quality. The prose really is stunningly beautiful, and the links it makes between the original medieval chronicles and a twentieth-century comprehension of the mood of the people feel intuitively true, at least to me. Moreover, they make sense to me as a writer. "In the exaggeration, one can detect the underlying truth." Isn't that how fiction does its great work?

Dinner tonight: something mild-mannered and unelaborate, involving whatever staples happen to be on the canning shelf or in the cupboard, the snowy garden, or the freezer. P.S. Stay tuned for an upcoming pierogi project.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

from The Autumn of the Middle Ages

Johan Huizinga, trans. Ronald Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch

But a surplus of tears came not only from great mourning, a vigorous sermon, or the mysteries of faith. Each secular festival also unleashed a flood of tears. . . . In his description of the peace congress at Arras in 1435, Jean Germain makes the audience fall to the ground filled with emotions, speechless, sighing, sobbing and crying during the moving addresses by the delegates. This, most likely, did not happen in this manner, but the bishop of Chalons found that it had to be that way. In the exaggeration, one can detect the underlying truth.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

from The Autumn of the Middle Ages

Johan Huizinga, trans. Ronald Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch

When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have the mind of a child. Every event, every deed was defined in given and expressive forms and was in accord with the solemnity of a tight invariable life style. The great events of human life--birth, marriage, death--by virtue of the sacraments, basked in the radiance of the divine mystery. But even the lesser events--a journey, labor, a visit--were accompanied by a multitude of blessings, ceremonies, sayings, and conventions.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving weekend is upon us, and I am cooking nothing. But I do wonder what my mother-in-law is making.

Meanwhile, the boys hope that their aunt and uncle will take them to see the new Harry Potter movie because, when it comes to Harry Potter movies, their own parents metamorphose into a tagteam of sarcasm. James hopes to drive the family car down Route 95. Paul hopes to consume as much roasted fowl as possible. I hope I'll be dancing romantically to jukebox Bruce Springsteen tunes with my kindergarten nephew. Tom hopes to sleep late and drink Scotch. And the poodle hopes that we will never, ever leave her, and that no one will make her walk down any slippery staircases.

Here's hoping that you, too, have a cheerful, foolish, affectionate holiday.

Monday, November 22, 2010

We've lived in this town since 1993, and in those 17 years I've hauled what feels like an infinite amount of firewood--as freshly felled logs into the truck, as split wood into the woodshed, as fuel into the woodbox, and then log by log into the stove. I've spelled Tom at the gas-powered wood splitter we've periodically had to borrow or rent. But I haven't picked up the splitting maul and done the deed by hand.

Here in Harmony, serious wood work is by and large a man's job; but wood-handling women are not unknown. Our fire chief's daughters, for instance, are famously good with chainsaws. And plenty of my semi-hippie friends have, at least in their enthusiastic twenties and thirties, prided themselves on their ax-handling skills. I suspect, however, that novice 46-year-old female wood splitters are not so common. It's work that requires a fair amount of upper-body strength, which is not, on the whole, a middle-aged woman's best attribute.

But I do a lot of water hauling and a lot of grass cutting with a non-self-propelled mower, and each spring I dig my entire garden by hand; so I've been thinking, as I've watched Tom struggle to work full time and keep up with the firewood chore, and as I've watched my willing but not quite competent 16-year-old son get nowhere with the ax, that I really have no excuse to rest on my feminine laurels. When it comes to chainsaws or oil changes, I'm quite willing to continue resting on them. But I ought to be able to swing a splitting maul.

So yesterday afternoon, when no one was looking, I diffidently picked up the maul, arranged a smallish ash log on the raggedy giant maple log Tom has been using as his splitting base, and, with great self-consciousness, swung up the maul and let it drop.

It thunked weakly into the ash log, which then bounced off the giant maple log and rolled away.

This happened about 20 more times.

Then, finally, I managed to combine a vigorous-enough swing with a semblance of aim, and the ash log ripped cleanly down the middle. The sound and sight of that split was an amazing gratification. I could hardly believe I'd managed to do it, but I did split that log, and I split more logs after it, again and again for an hour, until I was surrounded by a messy pile of real, honest-to-god, stackable firewood.

I suppose this may not sound like a very thrilling accomplishment; but I live in a state where it's winter for most of the year, and firewood anxiety can run rife in a household that depends entirely on wood for heat. Remember, too, that I am the lone female in a family of boys. And I sunburn easily, sleep badly in a tent, like to wear dresses and high heels, always hide my eyes at the scary parts in movies, and generally behave like a girl. So even though this morning my right arm does kind of feel like rubber, I'm still amazed at myself, and also proud. Yesterday I split enough firewood to beat the cold away from my door, at least for a few days. This afternoon I might trudge out into the sleet and split a little more.