Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Winter's Tale, Act 2, Scene 2

What about that Paulina? How do you compare her to Camillo, the other decision maker back in act 1? And do you notice anything different about Shakespeare's language or sentence structure in this brief scene?

Update for new visitors: We're having a Shakespeare reading party. Various people from around the country, ages 11-70, are slowly making our way through A Winter's Tale. Once a week I leave a brief, open-ended discussion prompt, and they comment here. Actually what they do is talk to each other. You can scroll down through this blog to see how active and engaging their conversations are. And it's not too late to join: we're only at the beginning of act 2.

Update for old visitors: Scene 3 for next week.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Such a peculiar day yesterday, as I said to the many people who told me they'd listened to "Wednesday" on the radio. As soon as I heard my name on Garrison Keillor's lips, I started to cry. I don't know why. I rarely listen to that show, unless I happen to be in the car. I don't have a great attachment to him . . . except that he is the Big Voice on the Radio. And there was my name. I'm not sure I can explain my feelings here. All I can say is that it was strange.

I'm also not sure I'll bring myself to listen to "Lullaby" tomorrow. That was the very first poem I ever brought to a workshop. I was beyond scared. Here I was, caretaker of two babies in the woods, thinking I could write poems. The idea that it will be that poem, of all others, that will be featured on a national radio show. . . . Clearly, I probably won't be able to listen.

On top of all this, I received an email from a New York agent. A couple of months ago I sent her "Self-Portrait, with War and Peace," and now she wants to see the rest of the obsessive-rereading manuscript. Being a poet, I don't know anything about agents, but Charlotte, who does, assures me that this is an excellent development. Sheeplike, I bulge my eyes and race optimistically into the next field. (Pardon the sheep metaphor, but I'm reading Thomas Hardy. All sheep, all the time.)

So it will be good for me, in a rigorous and self-cleansing sense, to shovel out the barn, which is wretchedly in need of shoveling--except that the temperature is below zero and it's too cold for both me and the animals. Weather-enforced procrastination, once again. I think I will let Tom take me to the movies instead.

Anyway: updates: I'm hoping to post the next Winter's Tale comment cue tomorrow, so catch up with your reading. (Full disclosure: I haven't even started that scene yet.) On another note, I've got a couple of new poem recordings up on the Poetry Speaks site, if you want to hear me instead of Garrison Keillor.

Dinner tonight: Frittata? Ziti and meatballs? Ham and eggs? We seem to be overrun with leftovers, which is a rare occurrence in this household. Of course, they could all have vanished by dinnertime.

Friday, January 29, 2010

I finished Roth's Letting Go last night; today I will finish Compton-Burnett's The Last and the First. And then, perhaps, I will be ready to tackle my essay about books that I reread even though they make me feel like the wrong sort of human being.

I suppose I will take a break at 9 and listen to my poem on The Writer's Almanac. I am nervous about hearing my small words in that Big Voice, so it's possible I might not bring myself to turn on the radio.

In truth, what I really ought to be doing is copyediting an art-criticism tome. So clearly this will be a fractured day, shot through with "ought to" and "what if."

At least I have meatballs and a 4-o-clock haircut to anticipate. Also, now I can read something that I will actually enjoy reading. I am thinking about Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd.

P.S. Notice that I am not saying anything about Salinger. I might have read Catcher in the Rye once. Apparently I am one of the few literary people of my age who seems to have been entirely uninfluenced by that novel. I can barely remember it.

P.P.S. Winter's Tale readers, I love you. Read the January 25 comments, and you will see why I am so happy.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I told you I was planning to undertake a Victorian poetry-copying project. I began with Robert Browning's "Any Wife to Any Husband," which, frankly, I found difficult to love. Like many of Browning's poems, it's a dramatic monologue--this one spoken from the point of view of a wife who is wondering if it matters whether or not her husband is faithful to her. I think she's referring to fidelity after her death, but I'm not quite clear on the matter: it could also refer to fidelity during her life. In any case, she decides that their love transcends physical fidelity, and no matter what he does, she will love him anyway.

Now, this is a common-enough Victorian conception of Love and feminine duty and masculine peccadillo and guilt, etc. Yet while I want to avoid judging this poetry on the basis of its cultural preconceptions, I found this poem heavy going. My reaction was a disappointment because, as a high school student, I adored Browning's excellent and creepy "My Last Duchess." But reading "Any Wife" felt like wading through mud, only to be rewarded with stanzas such as this one, when the wife concludes:

And yet thou art the nobler of us two:
What dare I dream of, that thou canst not do,
Outstripping my ten small steps with one stride?
I'll say then, here's a trial and a task--
Is it to bear?--if easy, I'll not ask:
Though love fail, I can trust on thy pride.

This poem was disheartening, so I was not excited about the next step in my plan--to read the poetry of Browning's real-life wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But I persevered. I opened up her collection Sonnets from the Portuguese, and this--the very first sonnet in the book--is what I found:

I thought once how Theocritus had sung

Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,

Who each one in a gracious hand appears

To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:

And, as I mused it in his antique tongue,

I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,

The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years

Of my own life, who by turns had flung

A shadow across me. Straightway I was ’ware,

So weeping, how a mystic shape did move

Behind me, and drew me backwards by the hair;

And a voice said in mastery, while I strove,--

“Guess now who holds thee?”—“Death,” I said. But there,

The silver answer rang,--“Not death, but Love.”

Love hauls her away by the hair! Can you believe it?

Barrett Browning's sonnets are bizarre and amazing: delicately constructed, musical, yet packed with physical imagery and full of feeling. But they are also quintessentially Victorian. I can see why her husband must have envisioned her as ideally patient, dutiful, and pure; and the complications are exciting.

I've since read that Emily Dickinson was a fan, and I can see why. What I don't see is this: Why is Robert Browning now more famous than his wife? Why has she been slotted into the Boring Genteel Poetess category while he retains the position of Serious Intellectual Poet? What's gone wrong?

Lots of updated comments on the January 25 Winter's Tale post. I love the way this conversation is evolving.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

This morning, I'll be attending the Harmony Elementary School spelling bee. I would, in fact, prefer not to attend, but my son has made a special point of requesting my presence. This being his first spelling bee ever, he's very excited . . . even after facing his older brother across the breakfast table, who spent an enjoyable twenty minutes eating cereal and shouting, with a comedic smirk, "Are you pumped? Are you pumped?"

I am, in general, a docile attender of school activities. But the spelling bee is difficult for me. My feelings are analogous, I think, to those of ex-high school basketball stars, who spend their middle-age years flinching in the stands as their chunky sixth-graders haplessly lump up and down the court. If I had a blood pressure problem, it would get worse during a spelling bee.

Let me be blunt. I am a really good speller, with a photographic memory for words. I have always been a really good speller. I was the kind of annoying second grader who added "Yugoslavia" to the classroom words-we-want-to-know-how-to-spell list. But I have never been in a spelling bee. For some reason, none of the schools I attended had spelling bees. Nonetheless, I appear to have a lurking competitive spelling spirit, and I literally have to sit on my hands and grind my teeth during middle school spelling competitions. I find it almost unbearable to listen to the halting oral progression of spelling error: "Psychoanalysis. P-H-S-Y-C-O-A-N-N-. . . . "


Update: Came in third. Spelled "artificial" A-R-T-I-F-I-C-A-L. Thank God it's over, for this year at least.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

First off: Winter's Tale readers, don't forget to comment. It's very, very helpful for the other readers involved in the project to know that you're out there struggling alongside them. Even if you haven't finished the scene, even if you have no clear idea about what you think, push yourself to speak. Those of you who are classroom teachers know how important it is for students to strive to articulate their confusions. It's part of intellectual discovery . . . as Nick and Sheila reminded me so cogently in yesterday's post. And it's also a bond: because out there, invisible but breathing, are the other striving people who are relieved and grateful to know of your existence.

Okay, enough of this Shakespeare-reading pitch.

Today, I'm home alone again, finally, after a pleasant but noisy snow day: Paul listening to a recording of David Copperfield ("Oooh! That Uriah Heep is creepy!"), James trying to light a ballpoint pen on fire ("It's a science experiment!"), Tom eating popcorn and watching Last Year at Marienbad with the dog, me making lemon squares and wondering why I hate Last Year at Marienbad so much. It's certainly beautiful, but it's also amazingly boring. At first I thought maybe I'm just too trashy to appreciate the depths of pretentious French New Wave cinema. But then again, I do read Henry James. So what's my problem?

Anyway, back to editing and breadmaking; possibly a spate of Browning later in the afternoon, and who knows? I might write something as well.

Monday, January 25, 2010

In response to my petulant, headache-ridden post about feeling stupid, I received generous notes from reader-friends who didn't try to make me feel better so much as offer the recognition that feeling dumb is a regular element of communal learning. I think you should read Sheila's smart commentary about staff meetings (scroll down to the comments on the January 24 post) as well Nick's surprising comparison here:

As for me, all I know is that I know nothing, for when I don't know what justice is, I'll hardly know whether it is a kind of virtue or not, or whether a person who has it is happy or unhappy.

Thought of this Socratic line when I read your blog.

I truly think that feeling dumb/ignorant is the only honest state of a curious mind. It why I enjoy analyzing the capital markets--they make you feel dumb every day, even when you are making money. The supposition that someone always knows more than you do is the anchor every good trader tosses out of the boat every morning--and hopes that it catches somewhere solid.

Reading poems is like being a Wall Street trader! Think of that! Aren't you amazed?

A Winter's Tale, Act 2, Scene 1

Sans headache, I finally caught up on my own Shakespeare assignment, and I hope you found time to read as well.

A few thoughts: does Hermione's character undergo any kind of shift from the beginning to the end of the scene? What do you think of Shakespeare's handling of Mamillius's "kid talk" dialogue? Why is Leontes so pissed off at the escaped Camillo, even though he allows all kinds of backtalk from Antigonus?

For next week: scene 2.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dark morning. I am drinking black coffee because all the milk seems to have vanished while I was in Farmington reading Beloit poems.

Back I go again this morning for another session. Every time I do this job I am exhausted. Last night, while the boys were watching some crappy movie, I put my head down onto Tom's lap. He said, "How is it going, reading all those poems?" And I said, "I talk all the time. And I think people respect what I say. But I feel like, at heart, all I am is really dumb." He didn't say anything, which is just about the only response one can make to that remark. He did, however, stroke my head, which the headache appreciated. And he did, later, say something along these lines: that all we can do is point out what we notice and pay attention when other people notice stuff we didn't notice ourselves.

It sounds so sensible when he says it. But I still feel dumb.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

In response to MB, Charlotte, and Sheila, who all commented on my January 21 post: one should also never forget that getting dog licenses can be inspirational.

I walk into the town office, sit in my wait-here chair, and pass the time by reading the sex offender registry and the rules for shooting migratory game fowl. Just as Betty the town clerk is ready to begin working on my dog licenses, an elderly man stalks in and shouts, "Betty, I need a birth certificate!" She smiles nicely and tells him she'll telephone him later after she finds it, and he snaps his mouth shut and stumps away.

We work on my dog licenses, chatting about this and that. (Specifically, we shake our heads over the iniquities of elementary-school basketball coaches from other towns.)

Just as she's about to ask me for fees, another man walks in waving a map and shouting, "Betty, you have to look this up again!"

Betty puts down her pen and looks him up and down. He quails. Then she says, firmly and without irony, but with an embracing tone of weariness:

"Men are always interrupting me."

The lesson here: if I had stayed home to write I would have missed this episode. And what a shame that would have been.

Friday, January 22, 2010

My headache and I are off to Farmington to read Beloit poems today and for the foreseeable future. So I may not get to posting Winter's Tale comments this weekend. I'm sure you won't mind having a few extra reading days. I know I won't.

Love to you all, by the way.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I am feeling overwhelmed by everything in my life that doesn't involve writing. I truly don't know how other people manage to have real jobs; I can barely manage half a job. At the moment I have just finished a small editing project and am beginning a large one; I have three days of Beloit Poetry Journal meetings this weekend; I need to make bread and stew so that we have something to eat after I finish my popcorn stint at the school basketball game; I need to drive 15 miles to the bank; I need to renew the dog licenses; I need to read and write and read and write and read and write. I'll probably manage to read. But writing is always last.

Frequently I come across "helpful" advice telling me to drop everything in my life and just write. I've come to the conclusion, however, that such advice is for people who aren't really writers. For me, writing is more like drinking too much or eating all the leftover Halloween candy: strangely compelling and life-sucking. I have to forcibly hold it down and choke it. Otherwise, nothing else will get done. Nothing.

I'm only being a little bit ironic here. I guess what I'm saying is that I can see why great writers have tended to destroy their marriages and desert their children. There's a line of obsession that's too easy to cross. If you don't cross it, you think: "I won't be great." And if you do cross it, you think: "I ruin everyone I touch."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Winter's Tale, Act 1 (cont.)

For some reason, the comment form for my January 16 post has decided to prevent me from commenting. So here is my response to the most recent remarks:

Allison: I agree that, of all the challenges involved in reading Shakespeare with a middle schooler, dealing with sexual innuendo is one of the trickiest. It's everywhere: in the jokes, in the characters' inner motivations, in the plot. Paul has the ability to completely ignore anything that doesn't interest him (which currently includes R-rated Elizabethan asides), but I still feel obliged to be prepared. Which really, I suppose, is my job anyway.

Conor: I like "dullest nostril" a lot also. It sounds like someone has a head cold.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

By the way, new comments are still coming in for act 1 of A Winter's Tale. It's never too late to leave yours. Just scroll down to the January 16 post and start talking.
Writer's Almanac update: I just heard from Kathy at the program's permissions department, who tells me that my poems are now scheduled for these two dates: January 29 and January 31. If your public radio station doesn't carry this program, you can listen to them here.
Pardon those two recent but terse post-snippets, but I was both too overwhelmed and too tired to do anything other than write a couple of declarative sentences. And before I revert to the subject, I'm going to say thank you thank you thank you to my friends Weslea and Curtis, who keep offering us the use of this beautiful cottage in West Tremont. Tom says he's going to give me more pictures of the cottage to post here so that you can see why you, too, won't be able to resist visiting it someday. Weslea is a poet, Curtis is a photographer, they live by the sea, and they own a James Brown doll that sings "I Feel Good." What more can I say?

In the meantime, while I lay on my back and stared out the window at the snowy cove and drank too much wine and did no writing whatsoever, people have been reading my books. I don't know what to think, except that I feel like I had nothing to do with it . . . which is specious, I know, since after all I did write them. But books are rather like children: once they leave the nest, strange things happen, and I only hope the cops won't have to get involved.

Dinner tonight: Meatloaf. Spoon bread. Broccoli and carrot and garlic salad. Cheap Hood-brand "Fenway Fudge" ice cream.

Monday, January 18, 2010

I came home from my weekend by the sea to find this, from Nicelle Davis, who has been reading Tracing Paradise and commenting about it on her blog. If you scroll down to read her comments, you might understand why I started to cry. Thank you, Nicelle.
I just learned that two poems from Boy Land, "Wednesday and Lullaby," will be featured on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac on January 24.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Winter's Tale, Act 1 (cont.)

So now that you've reached the end of act 1, what do you think? Favorite/unfavorite words or phrases? Confusions? Predictions?

My own interest has been piqued by Camillo. All of sudden he find himself in a very sticky situation. And I think it's notable that none of our previous comments focused on him at all. He's more or less come out of nowhere, and now everything is on his shoulders. Do you have any thoughts about this character and his problems? Or what his presence reveals about other people's problems?

Comment, comment, comment. According to my site meter, your remarks got a lot of hits last week. People are interested what you have to say.

I am going to the sea this weekend and won't have Internet access until Monday, but I'm looking forward to reading what you have to say when I get back. Meanwhile, I'll be writing, I hope. Wish me luck.

For next week: Act 2, scene 1.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Here's my Poetry Speaks site, which thus far has a recording of "First Game." Soon I hope to record a few more poems. We'll see if I can overcome my various technological challenges.
I've been editing an art-criticism book and, strangely enough, have come across an endnote that mentions, of all people, Margaret Jourdain, Milly's sister, who was an expert on furniture and the decorative arts as well as being Ivy Compton-Burnett's live-in friend. The note was citing Margaret's translation of Diderot. Actually, what it was doing was paraphrasing her translation, which itself was too clunky and obscure to be quoted in full. Among jargony art critics, this says a lot.

Jourdains everywhere, I tell you; and not always showing their best sides.

In other news, you'll be thrilled to learn that the Harmony boys finally won a basketball game yesterday, though the game itself was mean and aggressive, fraught with technical fouls, crowd bitching, and coach ejection. Fortunately for our boys and coach, we not only looked (mostly) like innocent victims but also got a lot more baskets. But now the boys are a little bit afraid to play this team again. Meanwhile, I have gotten very good at making gallons and gallons of popcorn. It's a rather pleasant coma-like sensation, standing over the stove in the school kitchen, endlessly stirring kernels as the red-faced referees bumble in and out of my view, missing their various calls and driving the crowd mad.

In other news, the school's water system is frozen, broken, or otherwise nonfunctional, so now Harmony has a four-day weekend. This means that I have to record myself reading "First Game" with other people in the house. Ick. I am recording this for the Poetry Speaks website, which you might want to check out. I'll be in the PS Voices section, once I get this recording problem solved.

And don't forget to finish act 1 of A Winter's Tale. I'll be posting a discussion starter for this section tomorrow.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Okay, two Milly Jourdain poems today. Poem #1 shows why she drives me nuts. Poem #2 shows why I'm doing this copying project. Try to write a better poem than Poem #2. You could, but it would be hard.

A Dream Journey

Milly Jourdain

The rain is falling cold and grey,
But spring is in the air;
And thinking of a warmer land
I wish that I were there.

I see around me in the grass,
Like stars of tender blue,
The little crocus growing wild
And making all things new.

I lie upon a sun-warmed hill
And thundering hear the waves below,
A breath from hidden violets
Comes when the wind doth blow.

Anemones with coloured heads
And hidden deep-black eyes
Are growing near the glimpse of sea,
Whose slow noise never dies.

At last I wake in evening light
And hear the sky-larks sing
Above the fields all glistening-wet
And green with early spring.

"The Floods Are Risen . . . "

Milly Jourdain

The great white sea has flooded all the land,
And little waves are blown against the path
With tiny sounds like dry and restless throbs:
A white-sailed boat skims like a frightened moth
Into the dusk: the grey clouds grow darker
And dim the yellow light; we turn and leave
The cold wind blowing on the ruffled sea.

A poem like this second one leaves me thinking: what could she have been, this writer, if the cards had been stacked otherwise? Oh, that boat skimming like a frightened moth. I see it in my dreams.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I'm sitting here in cold central Maine, feeling glum about Haiti, which never, ever seems to get a break.

And I have a semi-sick kid home today--one of those borderline gastrointestinal illnesses that I never quite know how to prosecute. Ah well. He's happy enough, sitting under the couch blanket with his mug of mint tea and his novel about teenage basketball heroes. So what if he's not studiously multiplying and dividing fractions?

Meanwhile, I'll be editing an art-history tome, copying out a Browning poem, and thinking about Iris Murdoch and Ivy Compton-Burnett. Ivy did not care for Iris's novels. She thought Murdoch would have been better off as a hospital nurse.

So far this Browning poem seems to be recommending that wives be forever inconsolable at the loss of their beloved husbands. I say "seems" because I'm not quite sure. Browning's verse is rather difficult to parse. This poem sounds quite learned and intelligent, but it's not very easy to picture. Here's stanza 1 as an example. So far, I'm up to stanza 7, and it hasn't become much more transparent.

from Any Wife to Any Husband

Robert Browning

My love, this is the bitterest, that thou--
Who art all truth, and who dost love me now
As thine eyes say, as thy voice breaks to say--
Shouldst love so truly, and couldst love me still
A whole long life through, had but love its will,
Would death that leads me from thee brook delay.

See what I mean? As soon as I start thinking, "Aha!" I lose track of what he's saying. Why is that?

Dinner tonight: leftover chicken paprikash, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Quick notes about unfinished business

1. I started copying out a poem by Robert Browning. The title is "Any Wife to Any Husband." Pretty great title, huh? I can't wait to find out what the universal wife will say.

2. During yesterday's Harmony Elementary School basketball game, Paul made the first basket of his career, and it was a three-pointer. I was not there to witness it. Clearly I am a sports-mother manqué. And why does this note also have a strange extra line space?

3. Oh well.

4. Here's a bit from the intro to the new rereading ms. The quotation is from W. Jackson Bate's biography of Samuel Johnson:

Even as I acknowledge the gifts of rereading, I discount myself. What a dolt I am to keep returning to the same predictable tales—Nicholas Nickleby and Persuasion and Barchester Towers and their staid cohort. Get with the times; read the new books; surely a story must wear itself out eventually. And I’m not alone in self-deprecation: even Coleridge, even Samuel Johnson seemed embarrassed by their lifelong pleasure in certain books. According to Bishop Percy,

when a boy [Johnson] was immoderately fond of reading romances of chivalry, and he retained his fondness for them through life, so that . . . spending part of a summer at my parsonage-house in the country [this was when Johnson was fifty-four] he chose for his regular reading the old Spanish romance of Felixmarte of Hircania, in folio, which he read through. Yet I have heard him attribute to these extravagant fictions, that unsettled turn of mind which prevented his ever fixing in any profession.

Oh, I could make the same claim for my own scrappy, indefinite career. But just the same, I find myself, in a half-idle hour, propped over Dr. Johnson’s well-thumbed biography, imagining him, porpoise-like in his garden chair, balancing that folio on his knee. A robin hops over the sheep-cropped grass; a squirrel shrills in the hedgerow. The doctor lifts his eyes to the band of sunlight trimming the portico. He sighs. He drops his tired eyes back to the story, the same old story, blundering down its dear familiar road.

And then a line leaps forth, and it speaks to him.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Today is the day when two separate editorial projects are scheduled to come crashing down on my peacefully unemployed head. Fortunately, however, UPS never arrives in Harmony until it's too late to start working, so I have one more day to bumble around among my own books and manuscripts. The Millbank essay is done (for the moment), so now I must turn my thoughts to the next couple of essays on the list.

Topic 1: books I reread even though I don't like them
Possible authorial exemplars: Ivy Compton-Burnett, Philip Roth, Malcolm X

Topic 2: books I reread because the setting matters so much to me
Possible authorial exemplars: Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Alice Munro

I'd also like to undertake another copying project, which is a good spar to cling to when I'm drowning in other people's manuscripts. I'm thinking of a small foray into the alarming world of Victorian poetry. It's not that I haven't already read a great deal of this stuff, but it's always been secondary to the novels. Moreover, it's quite unfashionable at the moment, which is always an attraction. I think I will start with Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I'll let you know what transpires.

Finally, I learned this morning that poet Peggy Rabb has died. I studied with Peggy at one of the two Frost Place seminars I attended. Peggy was a formalist who used form in ways that seemed natural and inevitable, which is not too common among contemporary poets. Here's a link to a couple of her poems. I'm sad that she's gone.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

So far, so good with A Winter's Tale. I'm very excited to imagine so many of my friends holed up with this play in their various cupboards and burrows.

One commenter did mention that, for some reason, the blog would only let him post as Anonymous, though he didn't necessarily want to be invisible. I have no idea why this might be so; but if you are having posting problems, let me know and I'll post for you.

Today is my husband Tom's 45th birthday. It is, as it always is on January 10, extremely cold, but at least this year the electricity is working. Making birthday dinner without power can be challenging, although the snowpile outside the door does, in a pinch, work as an ice-cream freezer.

Dinner tonight: artichokes with lemon dressing; fried tiny goat chops breaded with parmesan; potatoes, garlic, and parsley; green salad with cucumbers and shiitake mushrooms, pinot noir, chocolate cake, cognac.

The Bed, from Christmas at the Ramada

Dawn Potter

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.

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

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Winter's Tale, Act 1 (cont.)

First, before I forget, I'm going to pass along this link, which my friend Jo gave me, to the Folger Shakespeare Library's teaching notes for A Winter's Tale.

Second, I'm going to say: "Look at those notes if you feel like it. But don't if you don't feel like it."

Third, I'm going to say: "Shakespeare doesn't belong to the Experts. Shakespeare belongs to you." Feel free to turn that into a bumper sticker, if you like.

Okay, back to the project at hand. I'm going to ask several open-ended, conversational questions about the first scene and a half of the play. If those questions are a helpful way of organizing your thoughts, you can answer them in the comments. If they aren't, say whatever you want to say about the reading. But please, please, please comment, either here or privately to me in an email. With your permission I'll then quote you anonymously here. Believe me, people want to hear what you have to say.

Today, and today only, I will answer my own questions myself as soon as I post them. This is only my way of jumpstarting a pattern of response. I do not want to assume the role of Expert, nor do I want to control readers' perceptions. In the future I will comment only after two or three other readers have commented.

Conversation Starters for A Winter's Tale, act 1, scene 1 through scene 2, line 108

1. What word or phrase in this section was most beautiful, or strange, or annoying, or disturbing, or in any other way particularly noteworthy? Why?

2. What surprised you about the characters or their conversation?

3. What confused you about the characters or their conversation?

4. Who's your favorite character so far, and why?

For next week: Let's finish scene 2.
I promise to write shortly about A Winter's Tale, but first I want to point you to Charlotte's comment on my January 5 post, which was about the Schneiderman article at Best American Poetry. Charlotte says what I should have said because she included actual examples instead of mere unsubstantiated grumpiness.

Now I'm off into the ten-degree morning to split kindling. . . . Shakespeare anon.

Friday, January 8, 2010

This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison

I have a crush on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was an addict, and sometimes a curmudgeon, but oh, his poems! (I also have a crush on Keats. I do not have a crush on Wordsworth, Shelley, or Byron, though I respect those who do.)

This is one of my favorite poems in all the world, and it exemplifies the glorious lack of cynicism that I crave in contemporary poetry and so rarely find. This poem is all about Love and Beauty, and yet it is innocent and intense and gorgeously made. Every time I read it, I am, for a few moments, transfigured.

Coleridge dedicates the poem to Charles Lamb. You may have heard of him: he was an essayist and, with his sister Mary, published Tales from Shakespeare, a lovely compendium of prose retellings of several Shakespeare plays. It was intended for children but remains useful for anyone who would like an elegant and comprehensible plot summary of the plays.

In the poem, Coleridge speaks directly to Lamb and refers, at one point, to the "strange calamity" he has suffered: in a fit of insanity, Mary had murdered their mother. She did not go to prison but was left for decades in Lamb's household charge. He loved her dearly, as he had loved his mother, yet the burden was terrible.

Coleridge published "Lime-Tree" with a short introduction that explains its setting and situation:

In the June of 1797 some long-expected friends paid a visit to the author's [Coleridge's] cottage; and on the morning of their arrival, he met with an accident, which disabled him from walking for the whole time of their stay. One evening, when they had left him for a few hours, he composed the following lines in the garden-bower.

And in an 1834 copy of his Poetical Works he wrote this note in the margin:

Ch. and Mary Lamb--dear to my heart, yea, as it were my Heart--S.T.C. Aet. [age] 63; 1797-1834 = 37 years!

This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison

dedicated to charles lamb

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Well, they are gone, and here I must remain,

This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost

Beauties and feelings, such as would have been

Most sweet to my remembrance even when age

Had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,

Friends, whom I never more may meet again,

On springy heath, along the hilltop edge,

Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,

To that still roaring dell, of which I told;

The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep,

And only speckled by the mid-day sun;

Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock

Flings arching like a bridge—that branchless ash,

Unsunn’d and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves

Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,

Fann’d by the water-fall! and there my friends

Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,

That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)

Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge

Of the blue clay-stone.

Now, my friends emerge

Beneath the wide wide Heaven—and view again

The many-steepled tract magnificent

Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea,

With some fair bark, perhaps, whose sails light up

The slip of smooth clear blue betwixt two Isles

Of purple shadow! Yes! They wander on

In gladness all; but thou, methinks, most glad,

My gentle-hearted Charles! for thou hast pined

And hunger’d after Nature, many a year,

In the great City pent, winning thy way

With sad yet patient soul, through evil and pain

And strange calamity! Ah! slowly sink

Behind the western ridge, thou glorious Sun!

Shine in the slant beams of the sinking orb,

Ye purple heath-flowers! richlier burn, ye clouds!

Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves!

And kindle, thou blue Ocean! So my friend

Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,

Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing round

On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem

Less gross than bodily; and of such hues

As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes

Spirits perceive his presence.

A delight

Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad

As I myself were there! Nor in this bower,

This little lime-tree bower, have I not mark’d

Much that has sooth’d me. Pale beneath the blaze

Hung the transparent foliage; and I watch’d

Some broad and sunny leaf, and lov’d to see

The shadow of the leaf and stem above

Dappling its sunshine! And that walnut-tree

Was richly ting’d, and a deep radiance lay

Full on the ancient ivy, which usurps

Those fronting elms, and now, with blackest mass

Makes their dark branches gleam a lighter hue

Through the late twilight: and though now the bat

Wheels silent by, and not a swallow twitters,

Still the solitary humble-bee

Sings in the bean-flower! Henceforth I shall know

That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure;

No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,

No waste so vacant, but may well employ

Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart

Awake to Love and Beauty! and sometimes

’Tis well to be bereft of promis’d good,

That we may lift the soul, and contemplate

With lively joy the joys we cannot share.

My gentle-hearted Charles! when the last rook

Beats its straight path along the dusky air

Homewards, I blest it! deeming its black wing

(Now a dim speck, now vanishing in light)

Had cross’d the mighty Orb’s dilated glory,

While thou stood’st gazing; or, when all was still,

Flew creeking o’er thy head, and had a charm

For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom

No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Odd as it may seem, I actually enjoy typing out endnotes for these essays I've been writing. There's something soothing yet satisfying about citation. I don't especially enjoy research, but I do like a clear and well-balanced note, with every comma and colon judiciously placed and including just enough information for clarity without the clutter of extraneous material. My pleasure in a good endnote is certainly the residue of too many years spent copyediting other people's notes. At least in academic books, notes tend to be either clotted, repetitive, and messy (every single reprint date, every single city in which the publisher has a branch office) or shot through with vital and mysterious holes (so who is the author of this piece? and when was it published? and does it have a name?). Either way, the copyeditor does a lot of cursing.

After my week of enthusiastic writing, the Millbank essay has reached the tweaking stage of revision. I've just finished the notes. Now, after I feed the chickens, take the poodle snowshoeing, mix up bread dough, eat some leftover apple pie, and read a few pages of Iris Murdoch's The Sea, the Sea, I'll sit down with the manuscript and focus not so much on content as on sentence rhythm, word repetition, noun-pronoun balance, etc. Of course, content corrections will arise in the meantime. For me, a clunky sentence is almost always a clue to bad thinking, or missing material, or extraneous information.

I like this tweaking stage: it's preoccupying, in the way a crossword puzzle is preoccupying. It requires me to be clever, not brilliant. Sometimes, during the earlier stages of creation, I feel like my brain is taunting me: "ha, ha, you're not smart enough." It's exhausting and unnerving to try to follow new, possibly idiotic, possibly not idiotic thoughts and patterns and arguments while your own brain is peppering you with buckshot. Sometimes I look back at a poem or a chapter and wonder how I survived long enough to finish it.

And then there's publication, a whole different rat's nest. Soon I'll need to start thinking about who might want to read this essay. At the moment I'm feeling rather ambivalent about submitting it to anyone. I'm not sure why. I suppose I'm making the assumption that literary journals won't necessarily be interested in a piece about a patently unliterary book. Yet another battle to fight with my brain.

Dinner tonight: spaghetti with sauce bolognese, new bread, cucumbers, lemon pudding.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sorry about this later-than-usual post, but I've been furiously distracted by my Millbank essay. I sat down at 6:30 a.m. to answer emails and ended up writing instead. Not that I'm complaining. After a procrastinating start yesterday, I managed to see the light and begin solving a major flaw in its construction, the technical problem of "too much boringness."

Maybe you remember that, a few weeks ago, I was guessing that this essay would probably be a quick and easy one to write? I take back that claim. The essay hasn't been at all easy, and certainly it hasn't been quick. Blame Christmas, yes; but also blame my own stupidity: once again, I've been trying to write around a pre-invented theme instead of figuring out my theme as I write. When will I ever learn?

Anyway, before I dive back into the murk, I'll leave you with a couple of undigested thoughts:

1. Helpful essay-revision technique: Yes, boringness can be a technical problem. When you write yourself into a dead end or fear that you're disintegrating into vapid, writer-on-high commentary, quickly chunk your paragraphs into a different order. Especially make sure that you have an entirely new opening paragraph. Don't worry about transitions. Those are easy to add later. What you want now is to open yourself up to the possibility of unexpected links between your ideas. If your first reorganization effort doesn't work, try another one. It's like playing with a Rubik's cube. You're not looking for logic here; you're looking for a coherent accident.

2. Helpful remark by Walt Whitman, useful when one is writing an essay about nineteenth-century trash literature:

The public for whom these tales are written require strong contrasts, broad effects and the fiercest kind of "intense" writing generally. . . . [Such writing] is a power in the land, not without great significance in its way, and very deserving of more careful consideration than has hitherto been accorded it.

3. A quick thought about plot: Maybe there are basically two kinds of plot-driven books. One kind: I reread and look forward to reliving every remembered nuance (e.g., Jane Austen novels). The other kind: I can reread the book 20 times and still not remember what's about to happen next (e.g., Iris Murdoch novels).

4. Literary reference to Millbank that may surprise you. I'll let you guess what book it's from: “In the dugout, Pa mended his boots while Ma read to him again the story called Millbank.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Here's a link to an article I've been mulling over lately. It's by Jason Schneiderman, a guest blogger on the Best American Poetry site, and it details his distress about the memoir phenomenon--and, particularly, about poets who turn to memoir. He seems to see this as a betrayal of the poetic mission.

Several readers (including myself) left comments on his post, though I'm not sure that I'm any happier with their arguments than I am with his. The whole topic seems specious: I mean, prose and poetry are different. They do different work. They make the writer and the reader think in different ways. And it's not a new phenomenon for poets to write in other genres: look at Coleridge, at Swift, at Sidney.

Great writing is great writing, and crappy mediocre writing is crappy mediocre writing. As far as I'm concerned, that's the dividing line.

Dinner tonight: soupe au pistou, homemade melba rounds, apple-cabbage slaw. (This soup is a good choice for piano-lesson night because I can start the vegetable base before trekking off to the north and then quickly reheat it and add the pistou finish, which is basically mashed-up garlic, Parmesan, and herbs.)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Two nights ago I dreamed that I went on vacation to 1970s Apalachicola, Florida, with someone else's dog--a large, mild-mannered German shepherd. I made part of the trip by bus, part of it by Volkswagen Beetle, and the dog lay next to me on the seat with his head in my lap. I think I may have been a child traveling with my parents, but I'm not quite sure. In any case, Apalachicola contained a number of white-framed, two-story apartment buildings as well as numerous convenience stores decorated with brown knotty paneling and low-slung swag lanterns. The interior lighting was reminiscent of a pool hall, but there were plenty of parking spaces outside the apartment buildings.

Last night, I reprised the same dream, but this time I found myself trying to construct a series of sentences that would accurately describe my memory of the previous night's episode. It was a dream about a dream, except that I was dreaming about writing about the dream, and I was also aware that I was asleep and dreaming about writing about the dream. I hate to think what a postmodern French philosopher would have to say about this confusing scenario. I do know I didn't accomplish much because I can't remember a single one of the sentences I spent all night constructing.

By the way, I've never been to Apalachicola. The only time I ever visited Florida, I contracted stomach flu and a high fever on the flight down and so spent the entire weekend in a Ramada Inn bed, where I stared in hallucinatory disbelief at reruns of "Bewitched" and "My Three Sons." I have known some very pleasant German shepherds, however. One was named Trilby and one was named Bismarck, and both were mild-mannered and dignified. And when I was about ten, I rode in the backseat of a neighbor's Beetle; and once my parents bought a swag lantern with S&H Green Stamps. I think they might have briefly installed it but then were embarrassed and took it down again.

That's about all the relevance I can dredge up, but no doubt there is an as-yet unplumbed psychological angle. Possibly, the French philosophers would have something to say about it, but I hope not. French philosophers make everything colder and more boring, and I prefer to think about that strange, swallowed-up, indoor lighting that used to be so popular in the 70s and how it contrasted with the hard daylight of summer, and the way those darkened interiors used to look and smell like cigarette smoke, and sometimes also smell like dogs--those peaceful old dogs ensconced behind counters and scratching themselves under wobbly tables. And then there is that name "Apalachicola." What an excellent word to say out loud. Who needs a psychological angle when you have a word like "Apalachicola" in your dreams?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Yesterday I spent all day in my pajamas; and though I did feed animals and do laundry and cook, etc., I also managed, finally, to start writing again . . . just a few lines of revision here and there on my Millbank essay but still: it's been a long, distracting holiday and I'm glad to have my words back.

Now the wind is blowing hard; rain is dripping off the icicles; and when I was clearing out gates this morning, the dense wet snow clumped up like paste on my shovel. But the breeze smells damp and fresh, more like a March wind than a January one, and flocks of goldfinches are squeaking among the tree limbs. The low sky is colored a kind of pure grey, like the glaze on a plate. There is no horizon, only the sea-gale roaring in the trees and a crow or two buffeting and blustering against its steady grip. My house is very small in this wild wood, yet also brave and adventurous, gripping its foundation, holding on to its hat, puffing its woodsmoke into the breeze. It is like Baba Yaga's house, with its chicken legs tucked up beneath its feathers. It could fly if it wanted to.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


Dawn Potter

Play “Sister Morphine” four or five times an hour,

sleet jittering the window, and what is it about that song

yanking the chain so tight I have to cover my eyes

before walls collapse? A lover can set bounds to love,

but then, is it still love, or some kinder emotion?

Trollope’s married ladies esteem their ample lords;

but look at crazy Bradley Headstone, he doesn’t

esteem Lizzie one bit, though he loves her

like a man from hell.

The novels say I’m reaching the prime of life

when I ought to forget about skin by firelight,

but I’ve always been a sucker for desire, I can’t stop now

just because my friends have marriageable daughters.

Girls these days, they don’t grow up watching Virginia

Woolf stir the soup, Juliet behind the barn dying for love.

What girl wants to be Virginia-thinking-of-Juliet anymore?

You’re stuck with me, dear boy, pockets full of rocks,

though at least the river’s frozen, no drownings till spring.

You’ll have to give up the ghost and let me love you;

it’s the best I can do, this dark age.

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

Friday, January 1, 2010

A Winter's Tale, Act 1

Today is the first day of a new decade, and it is snowing and snowing, and will be snowing for many hours to come. I think it's time to start reading Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. Act I contains two scenes: the first is short; the second is long. Shall we try to advance into the first half of Scene 2 by next weekend--say, up to line 108, just before the stage direction "Gives her hand to Polixenes"?

Meanwhile, here's a bit from Nabokov's memoir of growing up and becoming a writer. When Shakespeare starts scaring you, just remember that, as a reader of poetry, you must allow yourself to inhabit numberless spaces simultaneously. Don't hunt down the immediate, logical links that we are trained to expect in our everyday employments and formal interactions. That's not how poetry is written, nor can it be how poetry is understood. I plan to sit on the couch and read these speeches out loud, back and forth, with my son. The sound of the language in my ear, the feel of the language in my mouth, the gradual rise of personalities and grievances and confusions among the invented characters we'll slowly find ourselves inhabiting: this experience may itself be what this play is essentially "about."

from Speak, Memory

Vladimir Nabokov

In a sense, all poetry is positional: to try to express one’s position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness, is an immemorial urge. The arms of consciousness reach out and grope, and the longer they are the better. Tentacles, not wings, are Apollo’s natural members. Vivian Bloodmark, a philosophical friend of mine, in later years, used to say that while the scientist sees everything that happens in one point of space, the poet feels everything that happens in one point of time. Lost in thought, he taps his knee with his wandlike pencil, and at the same instant a car (New York license plate) passes along the road, a child bangs the screen door of a neighboring porch, and old man yawns in a misty Turkestan orchard, a granule of cinder-gray sand is rolled by the wind on Venus, a Docteur Jacques Hirsch in Grenoble puts on his reading glasses, and trillions of other such trifles occur—all forming an instantaneous and transparent organism of events, of which the poet (sitting in a lawn chair, at Ithaca, N.Y.) is the nucleus.