Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I am not, on the whole, a devotee of cute. Nor am I very interested in needlework or fussy home decoration. But yesterday my friend Angela unexpectedly sent me a present: this little embroidered chicken cloth. It's very small, the wrong shape for a handkerchief; possibly it's a miniscule dresser scarf. I haven't yet learned from Angela how she acquired it--a yard sale, the Goodwill, a dead family member. All I know is that it arrived in the mail, folded into an envelope like a letter; and unfolding it felt like opening a letter, exactly the sort of letter I needed.

So I asked James to take its picture, so that I could show you my letter. The rooster bears a vague resemblance to my own rooster, but the chick looks like no chick that ever lived. They reside together at the bottom of a wrinkled world that is the color of morning glories and is surrounded by a short white fence. All day long they converse, standing beak to beak in a patch of white grass. You might imagine that the chick is looking up respectfully at the rooster and that the enigmatic rooster is staring into the white horizon. But if you think about chicken eye placement, you see that really they are both looking at you.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Another day of pouring rain, but it's warmer, at least; and anyway I like the sound of rain and wind and screeching pileated woodpeckers. Perhaps the woodpeckers are mating: all I know is that this time of year they scream and shout, and occasionally shoulder their way through the wet air, flying from dead tree to dead tree across the clearing of our yard. Pileated woodpeckers are very odd birds; they both look and sound like semi-civilized pterodactyls.

In other bird news: the goldfinches are beginning to lose their winter drab and turn yellow again, so they appear at the feeder looking quite disreputable, with their ratty jackets and bandit masks. Juncos, of course, are always well groomed, but the robins have beer guts and the chickens are muddy up to their eyes.

Meanwhile, I am reading Trollope and Raymond Carver, still editing the art book, still fighting an ant invasion, and now beginning to think about all the things I have to do in April . . . beginning with this reading in Orono on Thursday afternoon. Don't ask me why it's not listed on the English department's schedule of events, but it is indeed happening. Maybe you can come.

By the way, Tom's in a photo show that opens in Falmouth, Maine, on Friday.

Monday, March 29, 2010

I spent most of the weekend reading poem submissions for the Beloit Poetry Journal; and during that session I embroiled myself in two lengthy disputes. The first involved a poem that I found supremely, almost unbearably, boring but that everyone else liked very much. The second involved a set of poems that some of us admired and that others of us believed were, among other things, "old-fashioned."

All the poems under argument eventually won their way into the journal. But that's not what I'm here to talk about.

Manifesto: What Dawn Wants from a Poem, As of March 29, 2009

I want grace of language and syntax, along with deliberate, sinuous grammar.

I want music.

I want images that matter to one another and to the thematic arc of the poem. I do not want a list of fractured visual details.

I want dramatic progression: of action, thought, and emotional discovery.

I want a moral commitment to revelation, to saying what is nearly unbearable to say. This does not mean that I require victim narrative, sexual innuendo, hallucination, or war crimes, though of course any one of those topics could be the basis of a good poem. It means that I want the poet to put his heart into my hands. That metaphor sounds both nasty and banal. But there you have it. I want the heart.

Surely I've left something out of this manifesto, but you can remind me of it.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Winter's Tale, Act 4, Scene 4, Lines 1-180

This scene is gigantic, and Paul and I only managed to make our way up to line 180. Being a 12-year-old boy, he is already fed up with the romantic banter, though he does like the idea that Florizel and his father are both wearing disguises. He says to tell you that his favorite lines are "But come, our dance, I pray. Your hand, my Perdita. So turtles pair that never mean to part." He was disappointed to learn that turtles means turtledoves because the image of inseparable dancing turtles definitely improved the love stuff.

What I'm thinking of as I read this scene are the varying definitions of nobility, of high and low, of pure and bastard. This focus on rank and order reminds me of Leontes' downfall--how behaving like the Lord of All ruined his life. Yet of course, we know that Perdita really is his daughter--a princess, not a shepherdess. So even as he toys with the supposition, Shakespeare is not denying the power of rank. Or is he? He's a very slippery writer.

2010 Poets' Tea

You are cordially invited to the annual Poets' Tea held each year at Blaine House, the governor's mansion in Augusta, Maine. The date is Thursday, April 15, 2:30-4 p.m.

Maine's poet laureate Betsy Sholl is organizing the event, and First Lady Karen Baldacci will be hosting it. I'll be one of three poets reading that afternoon.

Everyone is welcome to attend, but please R.S.V.P. to Blaine House at the address below.

Hope to see you there!

Blaine House
192 State Street
Augusta, ME 04330-6406
(207) 287-2121

Friday, March 26, 2010

I finished the Malcolm X essay, got myself caught up on the editing project, fought the ant invasion in my house, and now am girding my loins for a weekend of Beloit Poetry Journal board meetings. Tonight it is forecast to be 8 degrees, which, at the end of March, is not fair. Tonight I also have to make brownies for a baseball-benefit dinner, but who wants to benefit baseball when it's 8 degrees? Blah.

By the way, I took Ruth's advice and read some Barbara Pym at the science fair. The novel opened with a great deal of comfortable chat about knitting and boiled chicken, all of which could be easily interrupted, and was.

Someday I will get back to writing this letter, and maybe that day will be tomorrow. If not, don't hold it against me.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

O Do Not Love Too Long

William Butler Yeats

Sweetheart, do not love too long:
I loved long and long,
And grew to be out of fashion
Like an old song.

All through the years of our youth
Neither could have known
Their own thought from the other's,
We were so much at one.

But O, in a minute she changed--
O do not love too long,
Or you will grow out of fashion
Like an old song.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

1. I apologize for the postponed Winter's Tale prompt, but the boys have had a crazy week, and Paul has not yet had a chance to sit down with me and read the scene. And tonight is the high school science fair, meaning that I'll be roaming hallways rather than sitting on my couch with Shakespeare, so don't expect a prompt tomorrow either.

2. My friend Scott sent me a lesson plan for the NCAA-style poetry tournament he holds with his high school English students. It looks like an excellent idea: fun and competitive, but not at the expense of the poetry. I bet he wouldn't mind if I showed you the plan, so let me know if you're interested, and I'll ask him.

3. We are out of good coffee, and the rain has turned into snow.

4. What book is best for blocking out the boringness of science fair while keeping me available for sudden hysterical son-interruption and parental small talk? I'm thinking of a Trollope novel, but let me know if you have a better idea.

Dinner tonight: pepperoni pizza and soda with an overwrought fifteen-year-old who is haranguing me about the aggravations of PowerPoint. Ick.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Pouring rain here this morning, and I am glad because we have had such a dry winter. Slowly the snow piles are melting away. The brown weeds are tinged with green. Coltsfoot and crocuses are blooming, though today, in this cold rain, they will fold in on themselves, barely visible, like a clutch of sleeping partridges. The chickens are the ones who love this weather. They run through the wet leaves, scratching up grubs, jumping on earthworms. That cliché "madder than a wet hen" has nothing to do with anything. "Busier than a wet hen" would be more like it.

Yesterday I read several articles in the New York Review of Books about fiction that I have no interest in reading. Sometimes periodicals are a real waste of time. On the bright side, however, I did pick up Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter, which Paul had just reread for the 50th time. And it's good; it's really good. If you can eradicate the poisonous memory of the Little House on the Prairie TV show, you should take a look at this series with a fresh eye. The writing is plain and strong, and the portrait of the family always moves me. Moreover, it is full of information about how to do things: how to sew a sheet, how to make a pie from green pumpkin, how to fill a hay wagon, how to smoke a pig. Wilder doesn't purvey this information nostalgically or condescendingly, not even quite in a how-to kind of way, but weaves it into the pattern of her narrative. She makes it clear that the task, whatever it might be at the moment, just happens to be what life is.

They all sat waiting in the tidy shanty. Mary was busily knitting to finish warm stockings for Carrie before the cold weather. Laura was sewing two long breadths of muslin together to make a sheet. She pinned the edges together carefully and fastened them with a pin to her dress at the knee. Carefully holding the edges even, she whipped them together with even, tiny stitches.

The stitches must be close and small and firm and they must be deep enough but not too deep, for the sheet must lie smooth, with not the tiniest ridge down its middle. And all the stitches must be so exactly alike that you could not tell them apart, because that was the way to sew.

Mary had liked such work, but now she was blind and could not do it. Sewing made Laura feel like flying to pieces. She wanted to scream. The back of her neck ached and the thread twisted and knotted. She had to pick out almost as many stitches as she put in.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Because I must return to editing the academic art-criticism book today, I slept badly last night. I was filled with fruitless worries that I would forget to work instead of write, and I was also worrying about the plot of the novel I'm reading--Kate O'Brien's That Lady--which I've already read a number of times but which still manages to disturb me. It's a fictional retelling, in the vein of Ford Madox Ford's The Fifth Queen, of the story of beautiful, one-eyed Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli during the reign of Philip II of Spain (the conquistador-and-armada king). She has an affair with Philip's secretary of state and pays for it. The plot is both more and less sensational than that sentence implies--more sensational in its intrigue and Spanish trappings; less sensational in its heroine, who is described as a kind, well-behaved, middle-aged widow and mother who makes a sudden last stand in favor of her own pleasure. It's a good book--not as extravagantly good as The Fifth Queen, which is a fictionalized tale of Katherine Howard, who married Henry VIII and was beheaded. But in addition to their Tudor-Spanish-Elizabethan settings and highborn troubles, both novels share extremely interesting heroines who think they are making good decisions about men and their own individuality but come to bad ends anyway. So I was up all night worrying about Ana's bad end, and about editing, and about remembering to buy my nephew a birthday present; and I was listening to a mouse race through the walls, and I was wondering if it might be raining and if I would ever fall asleep. You know how it is: those nights when you can't turn off your brain. They are very exasperating.

I didn't have much of a post yesterday because my computer has been co-opted for (1) a three-D project for high science fair and (2) live streaming of the NCAA basketball tournaments. Instead of writing to you, I was pruning rosebushes and a very dry and unwholesome-looking grapevine; cleaning the chicken house; planting flats of zinnia, sunflower, pumpkin, cucumber, and basil seeds; and vacuuming my bedroom. All so I could concentrate on the editing work that I am not now doing.

Here is a small random quotation from Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" that exactly fits the my state of mind:

The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats tho' unseen amongst us.

It certainly does, and I wish it would stop keeping me awake.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

I love Lucy's comment on the March 14 Winter's Tale post.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

My friend Nick is getting married this weekend, so I'd like to write something encouraging about marriage to help him along. But even though I've been married for almost 20 years to a man I met when I was 19, I always find it difficult to pass along advice of any sort. After all, marriage is not like I expected it would be. Who knew how fluid the definition of dull was? Or how interesting dull was? Or what immaterial behaviors can drive a person to distraction? Or what heartbreaking actions can be borne? Or how how much you can love the unchanging shape of the back of a man's head?

Anyway, all I can think to do is to quote the lyrics to my favorite Big Star song:

I'm in love with a girl,
Finest girl in the world.
I didn't know
This could happen to me.

Friday, March 19, 2010

from The History of England

Jane Austen [age 15]

Henry the 5th: This Prince after he succeeded to the throne grew quite reformed and amiable, forsaking all his dissipated Companions, & never thrashing Sir William again. During his reign, Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for. His Majesty then turned his thoughts to France, where he went & fought the Battle of Agincourt. He afterwards married the King's daughter Catherine, a very agreable Woman by Shakespear's account. Inspite of all this however, he died, and was succeeded by his son Henry.

Edward the 4th: This Monarch was famous only for his Beauty & his Courage, of which the Picture we have here given of him, & his undaunted Behavior in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another, are sufficient proofs. His Wife was Elizabeth Woodville, a Widow who, poor Woman! was afterwards confined in a Convent by that Monster of Iniquity & Avarice Henry the 7th. One of Edward's Mistresses was Jane Shore, who has had a play written about her, but it is a tragedy & therefore not worth reading. Having performed all these noble actions, his Majesty died, & was succeeded by his son.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I'm taking the morning off from Malcolm X and driving to Farmington to drink coffee with my friend Nate. Nate will tell me gossipy horror stories about applying to grad school, and perhaps we will toast the memory of Alex Chilton. Meanwhile, I leave you a Milly Jourdain poem to read. I'm sorry this is such a dull poem. I hesitated even to copy it out for you, but I've committed myself to taking the bad along with the good in Milly's work. Nonetheless, it's difficult to overlook the horrible metric bloopers in these stanzas.

I will try to cheer myself by thinking of it as the inverse of Malcolm X.


Milly Jourdain

In the sweet quiet of the early spring
When winds are blowing chill,
I wander, hearing all the songs of the birds
Which once were nearly still.

For then the dull pain had filled my mind, but now
The difference unseen!
The sweet sounds of the birds are sweeter for
The silence that has been.

Randomly chosen passage from The Autobiography of Malcolm X

If you've ever lindy-hopped, you'll know what I'm talking about. With most girls, you kind of work opposite them, circling, side-stepping, leading. Whichever arm you lead with is half-bent out there, your hands are giving that little pull, touching her waist, her shoulders, her arms, She's in, out, turning, whirling, wherever you guide her. With poor partners, you feel their weight. They're slow and heavy. But with really good partners, all you need is just the push-pull suggestion. They guide nearly effortlessly, even off the floor and into the air, and your little solo maneuver is done on the floor before they land, when they join you, whirling, right in step.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I've re-immersed myself in the toils of Malcolm X and am making incremental progress on the essay-chapter that is presently titled "Hated by Literature." Now that I've started, I'm finding it's no harder to write about Malcolm than it was to write about John Milton or William Blake, which is to say that it's no easier either. I admit to ignorance, I try to pay attention, I acknowledge superiority, I speak up. The result (beyond this shitload of comma splices) is humility but also, for some reason, an ease of discourse--imaginary discourse, of course. Which leads me to a question: can a memoir be called a memoir when the writer is inventing her conversations with books, speculating about her link with her subject, recollecting the lifetime she's spent pretending to be inside something outside of herself? I don't know what else to call it, but fact doesn't seem to have much to do with this work of so-called nonfiction.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On my March 14 post, Lucy left a thoughtful comment about rereading. As I said in my reply, I think, in my case, it's a quirk of character. But I'm always interested to hear what any of you have to say about rereading, obsessive or otherwise.

A Winter's Tale, Act 3, Scene 3

This is an extremely silly scene. Formerly sadistic clown gets duped. Pickpocket sings "tra la la" ditties. Can you figure out exactly what kind of dessert the clown is shopping for? It sounds vaguely like Emily Dickinson's Black Cake to me.

Anyway, my favorite phrase is "snapper up of un-considere'd trifles," which exactly describes the actions of my son James and his best friend Sam whenever they're at a yard sale. What's your favorite?

For next week: scene 4. ("Ugh. Romance," says Paul.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Monday again. I like Mondays. Everyone leaps out of bed, rushes around the kitchen making sandwiches, snatches up his belongings, and leaves. The resulting peace is so extremely peaceful.

The March issue of the Reader is out, and I think I have an essay called "On Junk and the Common Reader" in it. If you live in England, you could go to the library and look, and then you could tell me if it really is in there.

I don't quite know what I'll be writing about today: either Roth/Compton-Burnett/Malcolm X or Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist. I did recently read that novel, but I haven't talked about it here because I'm supposed to be writing a 750-word review of it for the Beloit Poetry Journal. That's not very many words, and I've been afraid of using them all up. I'd be interested in hearing what you thought about it, though, if you happened to have read it.

P.S. No Winter's Tale discussion prompt yet because Paul was too snarled in math homework to read Shakespeare. Maybe we'll get a chance after the piano lesson. Or maybe math will still be cracking the whip.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

This is the introduction to the rereading memoir-in-progress. Several months ago, I posted the beginning of it, but this is the whole thing.

That Unsettled Turn of Mind
[introduction to The Vagabond's Bookshelf:
A Reader's Memoir]
Dawn Potter

My kind may exist only in books. At least, books are the only place where we seem to meet. We are more than merely readers; we are obsessive readers. And we go further yet: we are obsessive re­readers, choosing to visit the same volume ten, twenty, fifty times—not because we are scholars or teachers but because the book itself has become necessary to us, like a cigarette habit.

And like a cigarette habit, our obsession with certain books can be a public sign that some aspect of life has slipped from our control. We are in the clutch of books and, at moments of stress or need, we behave badly about them. Rising from the page, my fellows speak to me ruefully about their adoration; like me, they are the first to wince at their own behavior. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for instance, recalling his early passion for a handful of books, allows his small self no quarter.

My father was very fond of me, and I was my mother’s darling: in consequence I was very miserable. . . . So I became fretful and timorous, and a tell-tale; and . . . read incessantly. My father’s sister kept an everything shop at Crediton, and there I read through all the gilt-covered little books that could be had at that time, and likewise all the uncovered tales of Tom Hickathrift, Jack the Giant-killer, etc., etc., etc., etc. And I used to lie by the wall and mope, and my spirits used to come upon me suddenly; and in a flood of them I was accustomed to race up and down the churchyard, and act over all I had been reading, on the docks, the nettles, and the rank grass. At six years old I remember to have read Belisarius, Robinson Crusoe, and Philip Quarles; and then I found the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, one tale of which (the tale of a man who was compelled to seek for a pure virgin) made so deep an impression on me (I had read it in the evening while my mother was mending stockings), that I was haunted by specters, whenever I was in the dark: and I distinctly remember the anxious and fearful eagerness with which I used to watch the window in which the books lay, and whenever the sun lay upon them, I would seize it, carry it by the wall, and bask and read. My father found out the effect which these books had produced, and burnt them.

Such loving, hopeful parents! Confronted by an incorrigible rereader, what else could they have done? I say this with only slight irony. Even I, an obsessive reader myself, am frustrated by the readers around me. When I ask my twelve-year-old son to help me rake leaves, and he, in response, glances up from his book, smiles sweetly, and tells me, “But Mom, I’m yearning for knowledge,” I feel that pricking, eye-narrowing frustration that must have eventually driven Coleridge’s father to hurl his son’s fairy stories into the fire.

Parents dream of raising strong, lithe children who hit home runs and race across green meadows, not pallid hunchbacks coiled speechlessly over a page. The image of lonely little Charles Dickens huddled for hours over Roderick Random is not charming. It’s pathetic. And if we can barely stand to recall ourselves as pathetic, how can we wish it for our children?

For there is a weakness about us—an inability to break away from a nonexistent world, from our passion for patterns and repetition. The desire to reread is so engrained among my literary habits that I sometimes panic at the thought of beginning an unknown book. Instead of immediately cracking open a birthday-gift volume, I’m as likely to drop the bright new paperback into my lap and stare down at its golden “Pulitzer Prize Winner” label, overwhelmed by a kind of horror. There’s no rational explanation for this reaction; it’s perfectly possible that I might actually like the book, and in fact I often do. More, I have a sense of being invaded from the outside, as if I risk toppling the wall I’ve constructed around myself and my familiars. For here we go again, wandering down the pages of our same old story: yes, it’s Lizzie Hexam who rows me down the blackened Thames, Kitty and Levin who skate past me at the rink, the March girls who act The Pickwick Papers in my chilly attic. I know these characters, these settings, these writers as well as I know myself.

Yet what is knowing myself? The question hangs in the air, spectral, among these flitting literary ghosts—Heathcliff and Gabriel Oak, Dorothea Brooke and the Cheshire Cat. Like Isabel Archer, heroine of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, I’ve spent my hours pondering the vague permutations of self-knowledge, the soft borders between self and the imagined self. I don’t make much headway, and neither does Isabel; indeed, we mislead ourselves constantly. Yet suddenly, one day, it occurs to Isabel “that her mind was a good deal of a vagabond, and she had spent much ingenuity in training it to a military step, and teaching it to advance, to halt, to retread, to perform ever more complicated manoeuvres, at the word of command.” And as soon as I read this sentence, I realize: “Isabel is thinking for me.” The moment feels like a miracle.

Clearly, this is, from one point of view, a baldly unsophisticated reaction to a work of literature. Isabel is the invention of her author, brought to me by means of an invented narrative persona. Yet from another point of view, this is exactly the magic of literature. Isabel lives inside my imagination; therefore, she is indeed myself. So when she puzzles over her vagabond brain, the free-thinking, unpredictable intelligence that she has so cleverly fettered and restricted, she puzzles over mine as well.

Why then, on my previous dozen readings of the novel, have I never noticed this thought? Perhaps the answer is that I don’t notice it till I need to notice it. Perhaps such accidental collusions are a version of that changeable, many-colored cloak we call self-knowledge. And for me, at least, such flashes of insight—those moments when my vagabond mind sees itself as itself—arise most often as I reread a book I’ve already read countless times, a book I may believe I nearly know by heart.

Yet 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.

The novels and stories I write about in this memoir are not, by any means, the only books I regularly reread; but all have triggered my need, sometimes a desperation, to offer up an articulate response—to converse with their authors, their characters, their words. Early into the project, I began jotting down a shortlist of the novels that mattered most to me. Making that list was easy enough, yet once I began purposefully rereading them for the tenth or thirtieth time, I found I could not predict which ones I would actually be able to write about. A few—for instance, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss—had, over the course of many readings, begun to evoke so much sadness from me that I could not manage to speak cogently about them. Though I continue to reread the novel, I find I can no longer finish it because I cannot bear to keep facing Maggie’s doomed and accidental romance, which leads so inexorably to her death by drowning. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a similar case: in many ways I love it more than War and Peace, but watching Anna abandon her bewildered son for that idiot Vronsky, only to end up throwing herself under a train, has gotten to be too much for me.

Other novels posed different problems. Iris Murdoch’s, for instance, have consistently eluded my pen. First, I couldn’t settle on a favorite; then I couldn’t seem find anything to say. I was intimidated by her philosophizing, which I didn’t know how to penetrate; yet I found that I had nothing very interesting to posit about her handling of melodrama, which is, for me, the primary attraction of her novels. Apparently, despite my long affection for Murdoch’s books, I have not yet figured out how to talk to them.

My glibness of speech was another unpredictable variable. As I wrote about the novels that have ended up in this memoir, a few chapters—for instance, the one on War and Peace—almost seemed to invent themselves. As soon as I opened my laptop, words would leap from my fingertips, sentences transform into paragraphs, paragraphs metamorphose into pages. The voyage from first word to final draft lasted an incandescent two days, and afterward I felt purged and weak, as if I were recovering from brain fever (which, as any devoted Victorian-novel reader knows, is a mysterious illness that temporarily incapacitates heroines while making them more beautiful than before). In contrast, the chapter on Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day took me five years to write. I started draft after draft, deleted draft after draft, despaired, reread the novel, began again. Unlike my Iris Murdoch trouble, my difficulties with Bowen’s novel never stemmed from philosophical vagueness or any uncertainty about which book to choose. Rather, I could not seem to zero in on the essence of my bond with it. But in retrospect, I think that, despite my long acquaintance with the novel, I needed those five years to educate myself, to become more aware of Bowen’s language and my own, more attuned to our shared and divided subtleties of grammar and syntax. She required a sophistication, a technical severity; she forced me to search myself for a grown-up reaction. I could not, as I did with War and Peace, ride the wind of my emotional attachments.

In other words, writing this memoir has not been at all equivalent to rereading the books. Like Isabel Archer, and Coleridge, and Dr. Johnson, my mind is “a good deal of a vagabond,” accustomed to wander its byways, to bask along the riverbanks, to nod fleetingly at its familiars. Rereading a well-loved novel suits this “unsettled turn of mind” because I can dip in and out of the world of the book without fretting overmuch about my destination. I know the plot, I know the characters, so what takes me by surprise is now most often myself. The sensation is comparable to living on the same five acres of land for fifteen years and then suddenly spotting an oak tree you’d swear you’d never seen before. Noticing the tree doesn’t change the landscape, but it does adjust your relationship to that landscape. Moreover, it adjusts your conception of yourself. “Why didn’t I see that tree?” you wonder. “What was I looking at instead?”

As a rereader, I often advance no further than to note the existence of such questions, but writing this memoir has pressed me to hunt for answers—as Isabel would say, “to advance, to halt, to retread, to perform ever more complicated manoeuvres, at the word of command.” This is a fairly alarming undertaking for a vagabond mind, yet I have discovered that the simple act of talking back to my books has become, curiously enough, its own version of an answer. As writer Wendy Lesser notes, “nothing demonstrates how personal reading is more clearly than rereading does.” These novels I love—these public fora, these open dollhouses—are the story of my own most private life: a world so hidden that my rereading self unwraps it only word by word, line by line, year by year by year. In talking to my books, in writing about my books, I am forced to collect these scraps, to position them on the page, to link one perception to the other. I stand back, then, and discover that the books have drawn a portrait of me.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Wrote a poem yesterday that took me about 8 hours to finish, beginning to end. It was a marathon, no doubt, but it also felt miraculous to invent and intensively revise a complete poem in more or less a single sitting. That's happened with two or three other poems, all of which I continue to like. Certainly I can't depend on it as a creation strategy, but I can't overlook the importance of staying with the intensity of a piece at the moment when I'm most excited about it.

One must find 8 empty hours, however.

By the way: as I think you'll remember, I have 2 sons, Paul and James. Paul, the younger, comes up most often in this blog because he is the literary one. But I'm all for non-literary sons as well. Just letting you know that having a fast-talking comedic 15-year-old around the house, pouncing on me and making me arm-wrestle with him, fixing the loose screw on my sunglasses, lying on the floor with the dog's head in his lap, playing Nirvana songs really loud, and walking insouciantly into the kitchen to eat out of the salad bowl with his hands is exactly what I need every single day. He just doesn't happen to care about Shakespeare.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Anyone who's been reading this blog for a while knows that I have a love-hate relationship with the novels of Philip Roth. Nonetheless, every time I see one for sale at the Goodwill for $1.99, I buy it, and eventually find myself reading it, which is presently the case with his 1997 Pulitzer Prize winner American Pastoral. As I've also mentioned, I tend to be allergic to prize winners--not for any sensible reason but more because I'm always steeling myself for disappointment. There are warehouses crammed with mediocre, easy-answers fiction, much of it well reviewed and laden with prizes. I'm a lover of great novels, so the situation makes me glum and misanthropic; and if there's one thing I hate to be, it's misanthropic (though glum is fine, in moderation). But I am getting off track here. What I really wanted to write about today was John Tunis's 1940 baseball novel The Kid from Tomkinsville.

I had never heard of this novel until the Christmas, a couple of years ago, when my father (who is a little younger than Philip Roth) gave it to my baseball- and book-mad son Paul. Apparently my dad had loved the book when he was young. Later, when my father-in-law (also a little younger than Philip Roth) saw Paul reading it, he mentioned that he, too, had loved the book. Paul, following his grandfathers' pattern, sucked up the novel, and then every other Tunis novel we came across at the Goodwill. But I slotted them away in my mind as "Hardy Boys, the Baseball Version" and never took the matter further.

Then, yesterday, housed within the first few pages of Roth's American Pastoral, I encountered what was essentially a three-page essay on The Kid from Tomkinsville. It's too long to legally extract here, but it's a wondrous piece of writing. So I read it aloud to Paul, who is now twelve and has been reading these Tunis novels since he was about ten. Here is a taste of Roth's writing. The "I" is his character Nathan Zuckerman, recalling his first encounter with Tunis's book:

On the last day of the season, in a game against the Giants, who are in first place by only half a game, the Kid kindles the Dodgers' hitting attack, and in the bottom of the fourteenth . . . he makes the final game-saving play, a running catch smack up against the right center-field wall. That tremendous daredevil feat sends the Dodgers into the World Series and leaves him "writhing in agony on the green turf of deep right center." Tunis concludes like this: "Dusk descended upon a mass of players, on a huge crowd pouring onto the field, on a couple of men carrying an inert form through the mob on a stretcher. . . . There was a clap of thunder. Rain descended upon the Polo Grounds." Descended, descended, a clap of thunder, and thus ends the boys' Book of Job.

I was ten and I had never read anything like it. The cruelty of life. The injustice of it. I could not believe it. The reprehensible member of the Dodgers is Razzle Nugent, a great pitcher but a drunk and a hothead, a violent bully fiercely jealous of the Kid. And yet it is not Razzle carried off "inert" on a stretcher but the best of them all, the farm orphan called the Kid, modest, serious, chaste, loyal, naive, undiscourageable, hard-working, soft-spoken, courageous, a brilliant athlete, a beautiful, austere boy.

I looked up from reading this aloud to Paul. He looked back at me for a moment without speaking. Then he said, very quietly, "Wow."

I asked, "Is the book really like this?"

He said, "Yes." And then he walked off into his room and shut the door.

There are so many things that move me about this passage, not least the recognition that generations of men and boys have privately loved this novel. But I suppose, merely because I'm his mother, watching Paul react so austerely (to borrow Roth's word) yet so fervently to a book that has been a staple of his private life. . . . Well, what does one say?

Wordsworth tried to find his own words for that experience, many times. In his "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" he writes, of children,

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy soul's immensity.

They're not my words, exactly, but I'll borrow them for the moment, along with Roth's. I've never been so grateful to be reading a Roth novel as I am today.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Well, I finished my commissioned Blake essay yesterday and launched it out into the aether. We'll see what the editors say when they get around to reading it. All I can say is that it was a beast to write, a growling and slavering beast. In the meantime, I received two giant fellowship rejections, one right after the other, neither of which I'd actually expected to get but that doesn't mean I'm not disappointed anyway. It's really not possible to apply for this stuff without clinging to a measure of optimism. And since I never apply for any fellowship that costs me money, I haven't had the chance to build up those tough mental calluses that I find so indispensable when I'm submitting unfashionable poems to literary journals.

On the bright side, I got invited to read a poem at the governor's house, and I've been immersed in the bound galleys of a really interesting novel: Time among the Dead, by Thomas Rayfiel, whose essay on Compton-Burnett is the one I wish I'd written. The book is short and entertaining, with a very appealing central character, the dying, cantankerous, and accidentally charming Lord Upton. But what I enjoyed most was how Tom's prose and imagination entwine so elegantly. He's a very good stylist, not spare but concise, with a main character who asks lovely, blind-sided questions about the future such as "[Will you] float in your aeroship to some distant galaxy for tea?"

This is not Tom's only novel. According to the cover copy, his previous novels have been reviewed favorably in not only the New Yorker but People Magazine. Think of that! (Although the more I do think of it, the more I notice how similar those magazines are, at least in terms of where I read them: other people's bathrooms, dentist-office waiting rooms. . . . )

Dinner tonight: hamburgers, fresh bread, roasted onions, potato and caper salad, radishes. Possibly you thought I'd stopped eating for the past several months, but I continue to be well fed. Merely I have been bored with my cooking, a common late-winter, sated-with-dull-grocery-store-vegetables sensation.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Here's an interesting anomaly.

1. How I feel this week about my writing: slow, distracted, pained, impatient, clumsy, incompetent, unintelligent, ungrammatical, etc.

2. How readers are responding to this week's blog posts: "Lately it seems so many of your entries are just excellent. 'At the moment I'm defining it as "like an overcast morning in a bare forest."' Wow. You must be hitting some kind of stride. Anyway, it's the voice of a real poet speaking, all right. Without pretensions or affectation."

If you can overlook the fact that posting this friend's comment looks like "pretensions or affectation," perhaps you can allow yourself to pause in wonder over the peculiarities of perception. Of course, part of my problem is that I've been writing about William Blake, who in the margins of the books he's reading scrawls comments such as "Severity of judgment is a great virtue" and "damn sneerers" and "Is not this Very Very Contemptible Contempt is the Element of the Contemptible," and so on and so on. And in this commissioned essay I'm laboring over, I'm supposed to be pretending that this man is reading and commenting on one of my poems. No wonder I feel like a croaking frog.

Meanwhile, the sun has decided to shine, and there's a hen squawking in the chicken house. Meanwhile, I'm in the mood to drink too much coffee and play all my Clash records in a row, one right after another and rowdy enough to make the hypothetical neighbors shout.

But the hen needs to be fed.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Before we drank the margaritas, my friend Tony handed me a photocopy of Walter Pater's essay on Coleridge. And now, a week later, I have finally opened it . . . to this remark:

But on Coleridge lies the whole weight of the sad reflection that has since come into the world, with which for us the air is full, which "the children in the marketplace" repeat to each other.

I have no idea what this sentence is trying to tell me; but despite the two "which" clauses, it's beautiful and it feels true, whatever true means. At the moment I'm defining it as "like an overcast morning in a bare forest."

Monday, March 8, 2010

Rejection letters, a sick dog, mud, a grey sky. Boys vanished into the land of school. Two mourning doves hogging the empty feeder. Blake splayed open on my desk, arguing. A depressed sense of wonder. "Depressed" means "pressed down." "Melancholy" is a more beautiful word for "bile." Anyway, I am not really gloomy. More, I'm separated from myself. Like taking a helicopter photograph of the inside of my head.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Winter's Tale, Act 4, Scenes 1 and 2

Scene 1: spoken entirely by Time. Are you annoyed? Or convinced? What do you think of the rhymes? Scene 2: Camillo plans to ditch Polixenes until he finds out he can wear a disguise and spy on teenage Florizel. Is the idea of spying on your kid funny or creepy or just stage mechanics? And does Leontes' past behavior to his family seem to be influencing Polixenes' present behavior?

For next week: scene 3.
Another sad violin story. Myself, I was never a prodigy, only very promising. But I have a clue to what being a prodigy might feel like. I also have a clue to why a concert pianist in her 20s, speaking on NPR the other day, decided to tell the appalled interviewer that she didn't really enjoy playing the piano. Being young and frighteningly talented can make life a burden.

Winter's Tale anon.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Beautifully sunny here, and I am going to plant leeks today and maybe move my onion seedlings into the greenhouse. It feels like spring, but it's far too early for spring in central Maine, so my planting fever is very confusing, in a way that is possibly akin to reverse jet lag.

Here's a link to the local newspaper article about last night's Poetry Out Loud state championships in Waterville. POL has been a long haul this year: judging all three of the Maine competitions was exhausting. But it also allowed the three of us who were permanent judges--Lee Sharkey, Leonore Hildebrandt, and myself--to get attached to this set of high school students. They were all such delightful human beings, so earnest and sweet and excited. It was a pleasure to listen to them.

Friday, March 5, 2010

This afternoon I'm off to Waterville, a mere 45 minutes away from my own home, to judge the last of my three 2010 Poetry Out Loud gigs. This time it's the finals, and there will be hoopla and nerves. Also, snacks. In any kind of high school activity, free-range snacks are extremely important. Nobody needs food more than a worked-up eleventh grader. Myself, I find it difficult to perform on stage after having eaten several doughnuts. This is not true for an eleventh grader.

But before I leave for Waterville, I have the whole rest of the day to get through. I'll be copyediting Robert Cording's poetry manuscript; I'll be transcribing Blake's America: A Prophecy; I'll be hammering out a few sentences on one or another of my essays in progress; I'll be collecting eggs and feeding the goat and wrapping a birthday gift for my nephew. I'd like to write a poem. I have the amorphous sensation that poetry may be lurking behind my eyes and beneath my fingers, but who knows when it will decide to leap? As I'm sure I've said before, for me writing a poem is rather like running a high fever: I might feel it coming on for a week. Once it arrives, I'm done for.

P.S. There's a new comment on the March 1 Winter's Tale post.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

So, Winter's Tale readers: let us now face the facts. Most of you aren't reading anymore. And I'm sure you all have many reasons for slowing down and losing interest. Shakespeare is difficult. Daily life is distracting. I may feel sad about this, but I'm not surprised. In fact, what really surprises me is not so much the people that have stopped reading but the people who have persevered. So now I'm going to tell you a bit about the two who have managed to hold on to this task. They may not be the kind of people you would have expected to cling to the project.

First, let me tell you about Ruth. I met her last summer at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. But she isn't a high school English teacher: she teaches fifth grade, and has taught elementary school for many, many years. Ruth is old enough to retire, but it's hard to imagine that she's ready to do so. She is one of the most excited and committed teachers I've ever met; and she does funny things, like invite bikers to her classroom and then ride off with them on a motorcycle as a way to open her students' eyes to the varieties of interesting people in this world. Ruth is also a singer, with an otherworldly voice reminiscent of Sacred Harp singers or the Carter Family. As a reader, her intensity and curiosity is infectious: she is so eager to be infatuated with words. Her students must love her.

And now let me tell you about Paul. Paul is my 12-year-old son. He is a 6th grader at Harmony Elementary School and loves history and fantasy novels and sports and playing keyboard in a rock band. You might think that, since he's my son, I must have browbeat him into keeping up with this project. But no: in addition to his other devotions, he loves Shakespeare. We frequently watch DVDs of various plays, and he is always excited by them. Meanwhile, my other son could care less. Reading A Winter's Tale has thrilled Paul. On weekends, he's liable to stick his head around a corner and say to me in a come-hither voice, "Time for Shakespeare?" It is an honor to be his mother.

Ruth and Paul have never met each other. But they've been the backbone of this conversation about Shakespeare, and I think that's an accomplishment.

Now on to another subject (sort of): here's a link to Scott Hill's blog, where he sweetly mentions my rereading memoir in the course of writing his own brief rereading memoir about George Eliot. I think that Scott ran out of time to keep up with A Winter's Tale because he was too busy keeping up with A Mill on the Floss. I would be the last person to complain about such a distraction.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Machias reading was wonderful. Everyone I met seemed to be so pleasantly overexcited by life, in one way or another. And there is something miraculous about driving through dark, bleak Washington County and simultaneously conversing happily about Wordsworth. To think that people do that! For some reason, I still can hardly believe that other people on this planet actually love these writers so ardently. And then to find them in Machias. (If you were ever in Machias, you would know why this is especially strange. Suffice it to say that Washington County is kind of like my own Somerset County, except that, last I heard, it ranks higher on the prescription-drug-abuse scale and lower on the domestic violence scale.)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

I just fetched in the mail and discovered that my essay about Elizabeth Bowen appears in the spring 2010 issue of the Threepenny Review. It's a beautiful issue, featuring Breughel reproductions throughout, and includes C. K. Williams on Whitman, a symposium on Breughel, poetry by Kay Ryan, a long story by Elizabeth Tallent, and much else.

P.S. Add your Winter's Tale comments to yesterday's post. Don't make me nag.
I have a reading this evening at the University of Maine at Machias, which is on the coast, an hour or so downeast of Acadia National Park. ("Downeast" is the Maine word for "coastal, winding, easterly north.") So I'll be driving all afternoon, bumping my way over the frost heaves and giant potholes that have begun their annual road infestation. Still, unpleasant as they are, frost heaves are our first sign of spring. They arrive just before the sap begins to run and linger with us until May, when they settle down into plain old bad roads.

I'm the only reader tonight, so I have lots of time; and I'm thinking of borrowing a chunk from chapter 10 of Tracing Paradise . . . maybe not this exact chunk but something along these lines. My friend Adam says he quoted the "discontent" part in a sermon the other day. This makes me feel embarrassed: though, of course, Adam is the sort of minister who knows the lyrics to Sex Pistols songs, so that takes the edge off.

from "What Harmony or True Delight?

[chapter 10 of Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton; and for those visitors unfamiliar with my memoir, suffice it to say that the quotations are transcriptions from Milton's Paradise Lost]
Tell me, how may I know him, how adore,
From whom I have that thus I move and live,
And feel that I am happier than I know.

Even here in central Maine—country of junked trailers and gravel pits, tattoo parlors and poisoned rivers; this “conflagrant mass” blotting the white man’s biography of success—I live in an Eden of sorts. Perhaps it’s true that “some Blood more precious must be paid for Man,” but my neighbors and I nonetheless believe that no one will chop off our hands at dawn or disembowel our babies before our eyes. Never in memory has our town succumbed to smallpox or plague; and though our wells sometimes go dry in August, they always replenish in the autumn rains. “In mean estate [we] live moderate.” We possess, according to the lessons of history, happy lives.

Yet if one assumes happiness to imply a quiescent awareness of felicity and contentment, none of us is particularly happy. I’m not the only person who plans ahead for a wonderful Christmas—baking brandy-laced fruitcakes, decorating the piano with miniature snowy houses, purchasing magic tricks and fake mustaches for my sons—but spends the holiday shuffling from window to window, staring into the bleached landscape of a bare-ground December, burdened with that heavy, napless brooding common to a day without purpose. I don’t know what I want, but I know I don’t have it.

Myself I then perus’d, and Limb by Limb

Survey’d, and sometimes went, and sometimes ran

With supple joints, as lively vigor led;

But who I was, or where, or from what cause,

Knew not.

Discontent: it’s one more stupid, obstinate failing of humanity, as anyone who’s read Madame Bovary or “Dear Abby” can verify. But for the most part, stories of other people’s unhappiness are strikingly useless paths to self-improvement. How many readers become happier and more contented after spending an evening with Heathcliff or the Ancient Mariner? Not one, I daresay. Yet I don’t think that transmitting effective lessons in self-improvement mattered much to either Brontë or Coleridge, who wrote to explicate their own internal hells rather than to save humankind. The man who concocted Paradise Lost had a more suasive string of fish to fry.

“To speak I tri’d, and forthwith spake.” Milton, that tireless student of the human condition, surely recognized by middle age that exhorting people to be happy or good or obedient was like spitting into a stiff wind. But as a missionary poet, he nonetheless found himself wading into the noxious puddles of pedantic argument, a class of writing I’ve always found difficult to stomach. I can’t imagine that aligning himself with such “hideous gabble” was good for his temper. As he himself once complained, “what pleasure can there possibly be in the petty disputations of sour old men. . . . Many a time, when the duties of tracing out these petty subtleties for a while has been laid upon me, when my mind has been dulled and my sight blurred by continued reading . . . how often have I wished that instead of having these fooleries forced upon me, I had been set to clean out the stable of Augeas again.”

“But the voice of God/To mortal ear is dreadful”; and though I agree that mucking out a barn can often seem more instructive, and certainly more refreshing, than combing through “the petty disputations” of this particular sour old man, I sympathize with Milton nonetheless, mostly because his hope that a giant bossy poem might repair the errors of human nature seems so brave and loony.

O goodness infinite, goodness immense!

That all this good of evil shall produce,

And evil turn to good; more wonderful

Than that which by creation first brought forth

Light out of darkness! full of doubt I stand,

Whether I should repent me now of sin

By mee done and occasion’d, or rejoice

Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring,

To God more glory, more good to Men

From God, and over wrath grace shall abound.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Winter's Tale, Act 3, Scene 3

This scene is so crazy that I don't even know where to begin: descriptions of the weather? the man-eating bear? the wacky sadistic clown? the ancient mariner? According to 12-year-old Paul, it's the best scene in the play. What do you think?

For next week: Act 4, scenes 1 & 2.