Sunday, October 31, 2010

Passages like this one (from "Book Second") are why Wordsworth's The Prelude is worth copying out. I think the "your" toward the end of the stanza is Coleridge, or a childhood premonition of Coleridge, but I could be wrong.

Our steeds remounted and the summons given,

With whip and spur we through the chauntry flew

In uncouth race, and left the cross-legged knight,

And the stone abbot, and that single wren

Which one day sang so sweetly in the nave

Of the old church, that—though from recent showers

The earth was comfortless, and touched by faint

Internal breezes, sobbings of the place

And respirations, from the roofless walls

The shuddering ivy dripped large drops—yet still

So sweetly ’mid the gloom the invisible bird

Sang to herself, that there I could have made

My dwelling-place, and lived for ever there

To hear such music. Through the walls we flew

And down the valley, and, a circuit made

In wantonness of heart, through rough and smooth

We scampered homewards. Oh, ye rocks and streams,

And that still spirit shed from evening air!

Even in this joyous time I sometimes felt

Your presence, when with slackened step we breathed

Along the sides of the steep hills, or when

Lighted by gleams of moonlight from the sea

We beat with thundering hoofs the level sand.

Three days ago, on Paul's birthday, the sun was shining, and my car thermometer read 60 degrees. This morning it's snowing. In the bare dawn I can see that my yard has assumed its winter prison garb--the spiky firs, shrouded with white, are posted around the clearing like a crowd of sentries; and this is what I will stare at gloomily until March, or maybe April.

Of course this early snow will undoubtedly turn to rain and melt away. But my gut is having its winter seize-up.

Today I'll be picking snowy cold kale, and freezing kale, and boiling down chicken stock, and baking buckwheat sourdough batards, and reminiscing with Paul about the thrilling Texas Rangers' closing pitcher, and doing something or other funny and unexpected with James, and wishing Tom didn't have to drive in the snow, and feeding animals, and reading snatches of Melville and Bronte and Wordsworth, and vacuuming the living room, and remembering I forgot to buy Halloween candy, and doing laundry and doing laundry and doing laundry, and wondering how I will ever fit a side of beef into our freezer. Here's hoping that you, too, will have an ambiguously busy day.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Taste of What I've Been Reading This Week, with Spontaneous Commentary

From The Dyer's Hand (1948) by W. H. Auden: "There is nothing a would-be poet knows he has to know."

How true. He does speculate, however.

From The White Goddess (1948) by Robert Graves: Though recognized as a learned profession [poetry] is the only one for the study of which no academies are open and in which there is no yard-stick, however crude, by which technical proficiency is considered measurable."


From The Prelude (1805) by William Wordsworth: "Our daily meals were frugal, Sabine fare!"

I would like this poem better if it had less boasting.

From a New York Review of Books review of Duke Ellington's America (2010) by Harvey G. Cohen: "'The ear cats loved what the schooled cats did,' [Ellington] wrote, 'and the schooled cats, with fascination, would try what the ear cats were doing.'"

After much thought, I've decided that, as a musician, I'm a schooled cat and, as a poet, I'm an ear cat.

From Moby-Dick (1851) by Herman Melville: "But as the mind does not exist unless leagued with the soul, therefore it must have been that, in Ahab's case, yielding up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose; that purpose, by its own sheer inveteracy of will, forced itself against gods and devils into a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own."

The mind does not exist unless leagued with the soul?

From Villette (1853) by Charlotte Bronte: "It will be conjectured that I was of course glad to return to the bosom of my kindred. Well! the amiable conjecture does no harm, and may therefore be safely left uncontradicted. Far from saying nay, indeed, I will permit the reader to picture me, for the next eight years, as a bark slumbering through halcyon weather, in a harbour still as glass--the steersman stretched on the little deck, his face up to heaven, his eyes closed: buried, if you will, in a long prayer. A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion; why not I with the rest?"

Sigh. Or maybe Ouch.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Now that my birthday-dinner responsibilities are over, I can return to my own idle ways--which is to say that, in between baking yet another batch of bread and washing yet another load of clothes and unloading boxes off the food-coop truck and transplanting rosemary and digging up my dahlia bulbs, I could read a little Moby-Dick or copy out a few lines of the Prelude or even keep writing something of my own. I'm expecting a new editing project next week, so I'll be back to "my real work," though I'm hoping that I'll continue to chip away at my real work. I'm feeling sort of optimistic at the moment, which is better than gloomy and demon-ridden, though, to tell the truth, gloomy and demon-ridden can be very productive.

So how are the rest of you doing with MD? Yesterday I finished that famous chapter "The Whiteness of Whale," about which so much has been written. It's certainly a very unnerving chapter. Has anyone else gotten there yet? What are your reactions?

And what about Great Expectations? I know I've told you that I've finished it, but I'm still waiting impatiently to hear what you have say.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Thirteen years and three hours ago, my second son, Paul, was born. When Tom and I brought him home from the hospital later that day, Robbie the cairn terrier mistook his peeps and wails for kitten meows and spent the next 10 hours or so leaping wildly around the Rubbermaid container we were using as a bassinet. This was merely a taste of the boy-related hijinks to come. Three-year-old James was pleased to have a brother, though disappointed that he lay around so boringly and that we had decided against using the name that James had picked out for him: Mister Penguin.

Nonetheless, like a penguin, Paul fattened rapidly. His menu schedule was as follows: pre-breakfast, breakfast, post-breakfast, midmorning snack, pre-lunch, lunch, post-lunch, midafternoon snack, pre-dinner, dinner, post-dinner, dessert, extra dessert, bedtime snack, middle of the night snacks 1, 2, and 3, repeat. As long as he ate constantly, he was a good-tempered baby; and James enjoyed shoving spoons into his ever-open mouth and caroling the song about peaches that he and I had composed in order to distract Paul from the time lapse between bites. The song went like this:

I kick up my heels when I eat peaches,
When I eat peaches, I always screeches.
I screeches and I yells,
I hoots and I howls,
'Cause somebody fed all my peaches to the owls.

James and I had a number of handy songs in our quiver for various moments of baby care, and sometimes we still sing them. There is a brief yet catchy lullaby about getting tattoos, for instance.

Although Paul refused, for as long as possible, to roll over, crawl, walk, or ride his trike, he eventually broke down and became ambulatory. Simultaneously all his fat vanished and other mothers began to ask if he were anorexic. The answer is no: he merely has his father's scrawny genes. In addition he has his father's hair, eyes, nose, mouth, scowl, and physical grace. (See the attached poem for more on this theme.)

Last night, before he went to bed, he said: "Tomorrow, when I wake up, I get to be a surly teenager!" This morning, he leaped out of bed without being prodded and threw his arms around me, meanwhile growling like a Tasmanian devil. He then explained that this was a symptom of being a surly teenager. After consuming a shocking amount of birthday-breakfast French toast, he donned a few of his birthday gifts--including a Montreal Expos cap and a short-order-cook's jacket that Tom had unearthed at Marden's--and blithely took off for school. Oy.

Tonight's dinner, at Paul's request: melon with prosciutto, boiled lobster, tiny crusty rolls, birthday-boy-made coleslaw with our own carrots, cabbage, and birthday-boy-made mayonnaise, lime meringue pie.

Here a poem from How the Crimes Happened, in honor of my dear second son and his dear father:

There’s no denying him

Dawn Potter

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

grabbing your father’s coat sleeve, eyeing you

up and down like post-office criminals.

Flat cheekbones, shock of hair, same aloof,

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

six years old, already the masked man.

What have I done to deserve lover and son

so beautiful, both remote as trout in green shallows?

I fritter my squirrel antics on the bank, swing

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

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

But dangle the lure, the words—

up you flash, sun bronzing your quick scales.

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

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

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

bright wingbeats carving cloud, below us the unfolding sea—

white chop, clean spray.

You know the story.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lately I've been writing an essay about the sensation of not writing--as my friend Baron puts it, of not being "in the zone." You may already feel that this topic is specious: clearly I'm writing at this very moment. Yet even with all evidence to the contrary, I can go for months feeling as if I'm not getting much done, as if I'm a pedestrian hack rather than an inspired artist. It's a bad feeling, yet the final product--the finished poem or essay--is not necessarily worse than work I've written in the zone. Ironically, it's often better. So I'm writing an essay as a way to puzzle over that disconnect.

Anyway, as I've fidgeted with the essay, I've been reading W. H. Auden's The Dyer's Hand, a collection of observations about poetry--primarily Shakespeare's work but also Auden's own perceptions about the process of making art. Here is one of them:

The critical opinions of a writer should always be taken with a large grain of salt. For the most part, they are manifestations of his debate with himself as to what he should do next and what he should avoid. Moreover, unlike a scientist, he is usually even more ignorant of what his colleagues are doing than is the general public. A poet over thirty may still be a voracious reader, but it is unlikely that much of what he reads is modern poetry.

As I copy out this paragraph, I feel that Auden is looking me in the eye. It is a great relief to be told that how I live my life as a poet is, in Auden's opinion, the natural way for a poet to live. At the same time, I doubt very much if this observation would be true of most poets today. It seems to me that everyone else is reading contemporary poetry, that I am a freak because I am not--really, more than a freak: an insult. People get angry at me. They really do. They presume that I am either too arrogant to read the work of my peers or that I am a tedious reactionary. Half the time I believe them; half the time I forget them. Nonetheless, like an addict, I never change my ways. Today I will go back to copying out Wordsworth's Prelude. Nothing new there. You want to know what the title of my new manuscript is? Same Old Story. Ain't it the truth? If you don't believe me, just ask Auden. Or Shakespeare. Now I'm sounding arrogant again. But if I'm a humble serf in the potato fields of poetry, those are the potatoes I'd rather be digging.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading Sheila Kohler's novel Becoming Jane Eyre. The book was an unexpected gift from a close friend, who had recently seen Kohler read and who said to me, "She isn't an idiot." This is fairly high praise from this particular friend, who is also writer, and a self-demanding one. He has not himself read Kohler's book, nor has he read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre recently. (It's possible that he's never read Jane Eyre; he's not a nineteenth-century-British-literature kind of guy.) But he knows all about my reading habits, and thus Kohler's novel arrived in my mailbox.

I have strong opinions about Charlotte Bronte's personality; and if you happen to have read "Inventing Charlotte Bronte," my essay about her in the current Sewanee Review, you'll know that I find her to be cruel, arrogant, self-dramatizing, passionate, brave, and heartbreaking. In other words, her authorial persona attracts me as much as her work itself does; and this seems to be true for Kohler as well. Probably it's true for many readers. As I write in my essay, "the Bronte sisters had brief and often dreadful lives" punctuated by emotional and physical deprivation; their brother's descent into addiction and mental illness; the deaths, one after another, of nearly everyone they loved. The terrible drama of their life stories is as compelling as the terrible drama of their invented stories.

Essentially Kohler does in her novel what I do in my essay: she wanders along the permeable boundaries of biographical fact, fictional character, and authorial persona. Naturally this similarity of intent interests me; and naturally, I suppose, it annoys me--not because I object to our parallel travels (in fact, that's what I like best) but because our invented authorial personae grate on each other. Each of us hears the Charlotte voice differently, and Kohler's Charlotte is a whole lot sweeter than mine.

I'm extremely fond of my shrill, rude, and peremptory Charlotte voice; and it disturbs me to meet this persona cloaked in Kohler's docile prose, which is nothing at all like Bronte's abrasive style. Of course I don't write like CB either, so I really don't have a leg to stand on here. But something about Kohler's self-deprecating diction bothers me. I suppose what this disconnect highlights is how personal an author-reader relationship can be. I feel offended because someone else hears an author's voice differently from how I hear it. That's an entirely illogical reaction, but logic isn't the point.

If you read the comments on yesterday's post, you'll see that something similar has happened with Shakespeare's sonnets. Readers get angry because someone else dares to interact "in the wrong way" with a work they care about. This isn't a scholarly dispute; it's far more personal--more like getting defensive because someone doesn't appreciate your husband's finer points. Our relationship with our reading is complex. Teresa comments on my October 20 post that Moby-Dick is one of her "'desert island' books whereas, although I'm very much enjoying [Great Expectations], I'm not sure I'd feel the same way about it after multiple readings." Immediately I get all bristly: I love Great Expectations; I've read it a million times; every time I pick up Moby-Dick I wish I were doing something else. . . . And now maybe Teresa's going to get all hepped up because I don't love MD as much as I should. Readerly passion is, in many ways, ridiculous. Maybe that's why scholarship was invented.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Yesterday I posted a poem from my new manuscript--a poem that you may or may not have noticed was a sonnet. When I'm reading, I frequently don't notice that poems are sonnets; and what does eventually trigger my awareness is more often length (14 lines) than it is rhyme scheme. This interests me. For some reason, despite the form's relatively short length and repetitive sound pattern, a sonnet's sound does not necessarily overwhelm (for lack of a better general term) the sense. Of course there are sonnets that emphasize rhyme, but on the whole a well-balanced sonnet rings its changes more subtly--through the grammatical and syntactical logic of its rhyme groupings rather than through the rhymes themselves.

Yesterday's poem, "Home," was one of a large number of sonnets that I wrote while I was simultaneously copying out Shakespeare's sonnets. I called the project my sonnet diary; basically I sat down and wrote a sonnet about whatever happened to pop into my head, about whatever I happened to be doing that day, about whatever I happened to be reading or overreacting about. All my sonnets were Shakespearean in form: quatrain (a b a b), quatrain (c d c d), quatrain (e f e f), couplet (g g).

As you might expect, most of my sonnets were terrible. But a few were passable, and I began to find that what worked best for me was to understate the rhymes and to focus on accretion of thought. Each quatrain needed to speak to the next quatrain and then the next, with the couplet serving as a sort of end punctuation. The project reinforced my conviction that poetic language is more than just the stacking of images--which is something I see very often in contemporary work. It's a means for thinking one's way down a page. That's how Milton wrote the enormous poem that is Paradise Lost, and that's how Shakespeare wrote the tiny poem that is Sonnet 76. He didn't preplan his thoughts. He thought them as he wrote, which is why the poem is not static but supple and fluid. He guides me, as a reader, through the small drama of his sudden discovery: that he can't stop writing the same old poem. C'est moi aussi, Mr. Bill.

Sonnet 76

William Shakespeare

Why is my verse so barren of new pride?

So far from variation or quick change?

Why with time do I not glance aside

To new-found methods and to compounds strange?

Why write I still all one, ever the same,

And keep invention in a noted weed,

That every word doth almost tell my name,

Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?

O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,

And you and love are still my argument;

So all my best is dressing old words new,

Spending again what is already spent:

For as the sun is daily new and old,

So is my love still telling what is told.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Dawn Potter

So wild it was when we first settled here.

Spruce roots invaded the cellar like thieves.

Skunks bred on the doorstep, cluster flies jeered.

Ice-melt dripped shingles and screws from the eaves.

We slept by the stove, we ate meals with our hands.

At dusk we heard gunshots, and wind and guitars.

We imagined a house with a faucet that ran

From a well that held water. We canvassed the stars.

If love is an island, what map was our hovel?

Dogs howled on the mainland, our cliff washed away.

We hunted for clues with a broken-backed shovel.

We drank all the wine, night dwindled to grey.

When we left, a flat sunrise was threatening snow,

But the frost heaves were deep. We had to drive slow.

[first published in roger, spring 2009]

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Moby-Dick comments are appearing on my October 20 post. Add yours now! before it's too late! [too late for what, I don't know; this is merely ominous peer pressure].

Can someone explain why the book is named Moby-Dick and the whale is named Moby Dick?

In baseball news: Texas Rangers! I'm finding it easy to ignore the George Bush undertones and concentrate on the Nolan Ryan overtones.

In reading news: I'm reading Bill Evans's liner notes to the 1959 Miles Davis album Kind of Blue. It's like reading a recipe from a cookbook that calls for ingredients that are only available by mail order from one small shop in an obscure town in Sweden. I love it.

Dinner tonight: pork pie.

Friday, October 22, 2010

By the way,

there's much to be said for tottery old men who arrive during breakfast, spend an hour and a half fiddling wetly with a washing machine, reveal the embarrassing dishcloth that's been clogging the pump, and diffidently charge the dishcloth's owner 20 dollars. Even if the old men do halt and delay and eventually bring themselves to remark, after many harrumphings, that the Way to a Man's Heart Is through His Stomach, at which earth-stopped moment the dishcloth owner is obliged to chuckle earnestly while feeling like an ingrate for wishing he would just leave.
Yesterday's Goodwill book selection was notably poor. The title of Moderate Drinking did catch my eye, but the only book I actually pulled off the shelf was The Jails of Lincoln County [Maine], 1761-1913. It's a local historical society publication, somberly bound in gray paper and composed by an author named Prescott Currier, which sounds like the name of an earnest small-town lawyer in a historical novel set in 1780s seaside New England. Be that as it may, The Jails of Lincoln County is dry, typo-laden reading, but it does have some amusing aspects--for instance, the table listing the categories of criminals by year of incarceration. Casting an eye down the lefthand column, this is what I read:


Saying it aloud is like chanting an alternate version of "Duck, duck, goose"--"Tramp, drunk, felon, DEBTOR!"

There's also some intriguing information about accommodations ("Sheets were not provided until 1838 and pillows didn't replace bolsters until a short time later"), personal hygiene ("A straight razor would have been a formidable weapon. . . . It is probable, however, that at the time shaving was [an] infrequent happening so that the jailer didn't have to be too concerned about arranging for his prisoners to shave"), and clothing ("Pantaloons were usually made of 'sattinet.'") My previous image of 1830s Maine prison conditions may have included shivering sheetless nights and heavy beards, but I can tell you right now that I never imagined that the felons were also wearing shiny short pants.

I also learned something about the women prisoners:

Women's crimes with one obvious exception were little different from men's, with the women committing their share of the murders, assaults, larcenies, house-burnings, even drunken[n]ess and selling liquor without a license. Even adultery and keeping a house of ill-fame were shared equally among men and women, and the punishment awarded for each was equally severe for both men and women. The only crimes which women seem not [to] have committed were counterfeiting and forgery. And of course there were few women debtors since in those days women did not usually exercise control over their financial assets. Of the some 1,800 persons committed for debt from 1811 to 1835 only ten were women, and three of those were committed with their husbands.

Now, if women didn't have control over their money, wouldn't they generally be in need of money? And wouldn't that need make counterfeiting and forgery attractive options? So why weren't any women convicted for those offenses? I find this puzzling.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

I am sorry to say that I have to go to the mall today, which means driving for an hour over bumpy roads dotted with a horrifying number of Maine Needs a Tea Party Governor signs, all for the pleasure of being stuck in the netherworld of Dick's Sporting Goods. My mall raison-d'etre is my pressing need to find something to give Paul for his 13th birthday, which is advancing rapidly. However, I'm happy to say that both of my children also love weird used crap from thrift stores and yard sales, so I'm hoping to circumvent much of the mall-rat pain by finding a lot of great stuff at the Goodwill. Also, I will be meeting my friend Donna at the Goodwill, and Donna actually enjoys shopping, as well as eating ice cream at inappropriate times of the day.

In other news, I have written two decent poems in two days. I'm feeling pretty good about this.

And now, here's a special note for teachers who have talked to me about coming into their classrooms this year: If you glance at the "Upcoming Appearances" list at the top of this blog, you'll note that my schedule is wide open. Nary a National Poetry Month engagement has yet appeared. However, if previous patterns hold true, I'll start getting calls shortly for winter and spring gigs. So if you've been toying with trying to work out a residency, now is the time to contact me before someone else takes the slot you desire.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

NewPages has posted a link to a journal called River Teeth, which has apparently published an essay by Philip Lopate that discusses, among other things, publishers' reluctance to publish essay collections. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be online, but I might buy an issue. I'd like to hear what the king of the essay anthology has to say about this gigantic problem.

Moby-Dick update

At eight o'clock yesterday morning I was sitting in a garage in Cambridge, Maine, waiting for an oil change and reading Moby-Dick. The radio was playing Devo, tools were clanking, and I kept glancing up from the page to stare at the strange items on the coffee-break table next to me. One was a gallon glass jar filled with transparent brownish liquid. At the bottom floated what were either a few onions or the remains of an unidentifiable science experiment. The jar looked as if it may have once housed a Mutter Museum exhibit, but I suspect it was really the remnants of a pickled-sausage feast. Distracted by the jar and its table mate (an official and very dirty Nascar coffeemaker) and the fact that I seem to have memorized all the lyrics of "Whip It," I had a difficult time concentrating on Ahab.

Do not think I am blaming the oil-change guys for my distraction. For some reason I find Moby-Dick a challenge. If I'd been reading Dickens, all the garage paraphernalia would have slipped comfortably into the story. But Melville's tale doesn't take kindly to external interruption, though it interrupts itself constantly.

As I'm sure you've all noticed, there's a great deal of non-story in the novel. Entire chapters perorate on details of the whaling industry, the varieties of whales, the precedence order of the crew members. I find these deviations from the plot both aggravating and interesting. Ahab looms in the background, but Melville is always turning away from him to talk about something else. Frequently these something-elses are quite interesting, but they fracture my attention and they also keep me from closing in on the characters. I'm 150 pages into the book, and I still don't have a clear vision of any of the major players.

Still, there are wonderful moments--and frequently they involve descriptions of the sea or the boat rather than the humans. Since I am a writer and a reader who loves people, my attraction to these passages surprises me and, to tell the truth, pleases me. Maybe every artist gets sick of her stuff: maybe everyone wonders, "Why do I seem to write the same old story over and over?" It is refreshing to find myself pulled into a new place.

Here's a passage that particularly struck me. Though it does concern humans, it seems almost to be shedding its human skin as it progresses. In a way, what it's shedding is exactly what Dickens's novels accrue.

The three mast-heads are kept manned from sun-rise to sun-set; the seamen taking their regular turns (as at the helm), and relieving each other every two hours. In the serene weather of the tropics it is exceedingly pleasant--the mast-head; nay, to a dreamy meditative man it is delightful. There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea, even as ships once sailed between the boots of the famous Colossus at old Rhodes. There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled but the waves. The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor. For the most part, in this tropic whaling life, a sublime uneventfulness invests you; you hear no news; read no gazettes; extras with startling accounts of commonplaces never delude you into unnecessary excitements; you hear of no domestic afflictions; bankrupt securities; fall of stocks; are never troubled with the thought of what you shall have for dinner--for all your meals for three years and more are snugly stowed in casks, and your bill of fare is immutable.

And now I am off to do chores and make sauerkraut. Wish me fermentation luck.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Great Expectations update

Once again I've finished reading Great Expectations, and once again I've remembered how much I love this novel and how much I hate the endings--for there are two endings, and both are awful. Most of you probably haven't finished the book yet, so I won't start blatting on about this topic. But inevitably they are a letdown and thus are on my mind.

Nonetheless, I will try to ignore the endings, and focus on the character of Pip. Dickens's handling of this character is masterful. He begins by making us love the child, and we continue to love the boy and the man, though we wince again and again at his errors . . . at least partly, in my case, because I recognize myself in those errors. I, too, have been painfully embarrassed by the people who have loved me best. What Pip does to Joe, I have done to my own parents and grandparents. It's a sin, and an unforgivable one, yet generation after generation of adolescent children detach themselves from their elders, assert a foolish superiority over them, forget to remember their loneliness. Perhaps it's the flip side of independence, this ignorance. Perhaps it's a necessary way to cut the ties of childhood; but if so, it's a cruel necessity.

Here's a passage from GE that I read a few days ago and have been thinking about since:

That [Miss Havisham] had done a grievous thing in taking an impressionable child to mould into the form that her wild resentment, spurned affection, and wounded pride found vengeance in, I knew full well. But that, in shutting out the light of day, she had shut out infinitely more; that, in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences; that her mind, brooding solitary, and grown diseased, as all minds do and must and will that reverse the appointed order of their Maker; I knew equally well. And could I look upon her without compassion, seeing her punishment in the ruin she was, in her profound unfitness for this earth on which she was placed, in the vanity of sorrow which had become a master mania, like the vanity of penitence, the vanity of remorse, the vanity of unworthiness, and other monstrous vanities that have been curses in the world?

I think this list of vanities is terribly moving, and apt, and delicate in its comprehension of the poisons inherent in self-examination. Unworthiness and remorse can indeed be vanities, and Miss Havisham's character is not evil so much as diseased by its own misery.

Tomorrow I'll write a little about Moby-Dick. I've reached chapter 37 and should start moving more rapidly now that Great Expectations is behind me.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, 2011

At the Frost Place, we're beginning to organize our programs for next summer, and Baron and I have made a few changes in the trajectory of the Conference on Poetry and Teaching. This year's conference dates are June 26 through June 30, and as usual we'll meet in Robert Frost's barn in Franconia, New Hampshire. But instead of inviting three visiting poets, Baron and I have decided to invite two: Teresa Carson and Martha Carlson Bradley. On the final full day of the conference, Baron and I will return as lead facilitators and spend most of that session working intensely with participants on issues of student revision. For several years, we've been experimenting with ways to intensify that piece of the program. Our major struggle has been with time, and we're hoping that a dedicated day, rather than an hour or two, will help solve the problem. As always, we welcome suggestions from future and former participants, so please do keep in touch.

Thanks to the Frost Place's interim director, Teri Bordenave, we're making real advancement in our connections with local New Hampshire schools. Teri is currently working on ideas for instituting Frost-based programs with two local high schools that would bring Baron and me into classrooms, students into the Frost Place itself, and their teachers into the summer conference. This would involve a certain amount of bathroom and heat improvement, which I'm sure we're all thrilled to imagine. Teri is also planning to reconfigure both the website and our Frost Place Facebook presence, with the goal of centralizing information and making them more interactive. So if you use either of those online resources, please stay tuned for further updates.

In light of these optimistic plans, Baron and I decided that we needed to compose a teaching statement that sums up the steps we follow in the classroom. As former participants will recall, this is precisely the pattern we use on the first day of the conference and it will also be the pattern we'll take into the Frost Place high school programs. I'm going to reprint it here and also add it as a link on my sidebar, under the title "How to Teach a Poem." Please, please feel free to copy it, share it, and try it out for yourself.

The Arc of Teaching a Poem

Baron Wormser, director

Dawn Potter, associate director

Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching

Begin by reading the poem aloud, slowly and distinctly so your students can hear the words. Poetry is an oral art and always wants to be heard.

As part of the oral reading, have your students write down the words of the poem as you read them. In other words, turn the reading into a dictation. Allow as much time as your students need to write down the words. Answer questions about punctuation and spelling as necessary. Begin with small amounts of poetry and gradually build. Two or three lines are fine to begin with.

Once the students have the words down on paper, the discussion of the poem can begin. Start by asking students what word in the poem they find most interesting and why. You can ask them all manner of questions about words, such as “what word surprises you? confuses you? stimulates you?” As the students respond, write down the words they mention on the blackboard—both specific words from the poem and key words in their responses. As this group response unfolds, start to create webs on the blackboard that connect one word with another.

A poem is a series of careful word choices. Any discussion of the words is bound to generate connections among the poem’s words that show how the poem coheres and generates meaning. Our analogy for discussing a poem is that the poem is a pebble dropped into the pond of consciousness. Like a pebble, the poem makes concentric circles that radiate outward. Those circles reach toward infinity. So the model for discussing is expansive. We want to show students how art reaches toward the infinite and how the words of the poem can demonstrate the poem’s richness. What we seek to avoid is the reductive approach—that is, narrowing the poem down to a kernel of meaning. People go to art to expand their feelings. Thus, in our discussion of a poem we seek to show the poem’s natural expansiveness and how the connections among the words are simultaneously infinite and genuine.

You can lead the word-choice discussion for as long as you deem it to be relevant; but the longer the discussion, the more likely the students will come to appreciate the care that went into making the poem. In addition, a lengthy discussion gives a greater number of students time to feel confident enough to share their thoughts and to realize that there is no single right answer. After mentioning word choice, you can ask questions about other aspects of the poem: line, metaphor, rhythm, sound, form, diction, etc. In other words, you can enrich students’ understanding of the poem by using word choice as a platform and then going further into the art of the poem.

After these sorts of discussions—word choice plus other artistic matters—students should be able to talk about the theme of the poem. We like to challenge our students to state the theme in a word or two, such as “fear,” “death,” “anxiety,” “love”—whatever large subjective or abstract words apply. Then we ask them to justify the theme by speaking or writing about the actualities of the poem: the word choices and the rest of the art used in making it.

The final stage is writing a poem based on the poem that has been discussed. The teacher can set up loose parameters for the writing assignment while still using the poem as a guide. Thus, Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods” might trigger students to write about being in a specific place and pausing to look at what is there. Every poem is a potential prompt. The cycle of writing down the original poem, discussing its actualities, and then writing a new poem helps students internalize the artistic process that went into making the original poem. They get to use their insights creatively.

In terms of dealing with the revision of student poems, we emphasize two stars and a wish. That means that we star two things in the poem that we like (word choices, for instance) and then make a wish for something that could be changed. Revision hinges on the phrase “what if?” “What if you added a metaphor in line 2?” is a typical question. The “what if” approach downplays a student’s emotional investment in the new poem, an attachment that often stifles his or her willingness to change anything. The question simply asks the student to try a specific change and see if it works. If it doesn’t work, the student can always change the poem back to the original or try out a different idea.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Home again, to discover that the boys, on their very first overnight alone in the house, actually made several hot meals for themselves plus washed all the dishes afterward. All the animals were fed, and nothing caught on fire that shouldn't have. I'm so proud.

The Belfast Poetry Festival was a real pleasure: so interesting to hear how other people tackled the problem of collaborative work. Afterwards, Tom and I drove to Rockland, ate a beautiful dinner at Primo's, and stayed in a B & B across from the ferry terminal. We drove back to Harmony this morning, making comfortable personal comments about road signs and wondering if Maine's entire population of porcupines had been run over by cars. And now, despite the porcupines, I feel refreshed and more or less ready to go back to my regular life of laundry, vacuuming, boy driving, and bread baking. But while I was away, I did not read one single word of any novel whatsoever. To tell you the truth, I didn't even care. So if you want to hear anything about books, you have to wait until tomorrow.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Tom and I are leaving home for Belfast this morning to do our poetry-photo gig at the Belfast Poetry Festival, and then we are going to spend the night in Rockland and eat oysters in a restaurant and walk around aimlessly after dark. It's my birthday present from him, and I don't even care if it pours rain because we have always had fun walking around together in the pouring rain. We have been friends since we were 19 years old, and now that we have a 16-year-old son, we feel like we have known each other practically since infancy. Years and years of splashing in rain puddles are behind us, and possible ahead of us.

Anyway, maybe you'll be in Belfast and we'll see you there. If not, I'll tell you how it went.

Friday, October 15, 2010

I know I said yesterday that I was going to talk about Milly Jourdain, and I still might, but first I can't help but exult over the acceptance letter I found in my inbox after I returned from a whirlwind afternoon of parent-teacher conferences and grocery shopping. The Southern Review, which has rejected my submissions for years, wants to publish my essay about Millbank in its upcoming special issue about Americana! Perhaps you recall my previous chatter about Millbank? It's a trashy 19th-century dime novel by Mary J. Holmes that I have reread annually since I first found it in my grandfather's farmhouse more than 30 years ago, and the essay is one of the chapters in the memoir that I'm hoping some book publisher will someday take. I'm very, very happy that the Southern Review has decided to print this piece--both because I'm excited to appear in a journal that once published a number of stories by a young unknown writer named Eudora Welty and because Millbank fills a peculiar place in my literary heart.

And now I will stop exulting and return to our regularly scheduled programming. Comments about Moby-Dick and Great Expectations are continuing to appear after my October 12 post, and Ruth's thoughts about food strike me as particularly interesting. I, too, have noticed the ways in which both novelists describe meals, and I'd love to hear what you have to say about those food references.

I also want to mention Thomas's comment on Wordsworth, which appears after my October 14 post. I think he's really on to something there, and it's a point I touched on in my Milton memoir but that is far more evident in The Prelude than in Paradise Lost. Thomas writes: "The diffuse narrative drag interrupted by the magic of certain moments of beauty perhaps echoes the lived experience of our lives--lots of slog punctuated by events that our memories can't quite shake. But maybe we don't want to re-experience that dynamic in poetry itself--we want just those luminous moments without the prose." I think this sentence is a beautiful rendering of a question that continues to haunt my reading and writing life, and I wonder what you think about this conundrum.

And yes, I have managed to come around to Milly Jourdain--whom you might call my private symbol for slog punctuated by luminosity. I haven't copied out a poem from her collection since July, and here's what she's given me to work with today. Slog or luminosity: what label would you paste onto it? (P.S. I have no idea what those dots in the poem indicate, but they do appear in her book as I've typed them here.)

A Wish

Milly Jourdain

The fog had soaked the field all day
And drops of wet hung on the trees;
Then from the west a sounding breeze
Blew all the quiet fog away.

. . . . . . .

To stand once more upon the crest
And see the earth below me lie
All dim with mist, and watch the sky
Red, as the sun drops in the west.

And in the gleam of dying light
To stretch my hands out to the rain,
And never more be touched with pain
By footsteps in the road at night.

And when I've felt again the best,
And seen the earth grow dark and chill,
To turn my footsteps down the hill
And leave it all in cold and rest.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Here's a link to the photo-essay that Tom and I recently collaborated on. The print edition includes many more of his photos, but this gives you an idea of what he was up to.
Though I haven't mentioned poetry lately, I have continued to read it, even amid the toils of Moby-Dick and Great Expectations. Specifically, I have continued to slowly copy out Wordsworth's The Prelude.

When I say "slowly," I mean "slowly." For some reason this copying project is advancing at glacial speed. Yesterday, I finally finished Book First (and what's with that wacky section title: why not Book One?), but I may be collecting Social Security by the time I reach the oh-so-distant Book Fourteenth. At this point I really can't say whether or not I like the poem, though certain lines do rise up to greet me. Nevertheless, I can say that it's an easier copying job than Paradise Lost was, if only because of the more predictable syntax and capitalization. Yet it doesn't glitter like Milton's poem does. It feels, on the whole, far more pedestrian.

This makes me sad. I want great poems to be great, and I hope this one will accrue into something significant. Wordsworth is unfashionable these days; and as an unfashionable writer myself, I like to make allowances for the ineluctable variance of literary taste. A few weeks ago, I mentioned to a very well known poet and creative-writing professor that I was copying out The Prelude, and she said, "What for? That poem's got nothing in it that's worth spending time on." I blushed and scuttled, but her comment, if anything, made me feel even more defensive of this project. I suppose it bears a certain resemblance to my defense of Milly Jourdain's oeuvre (and more on her tomorrow): I don't want to deride a body of work simply because it doesn't fit a contemporary conception of how a poet ought to handle language and reveal his or her thoughts and emotions.

As The Prelude's Book First draws to a close, Wordsworth writes:

. . . should neither I be taught
To understand myself, nor thou to know
With better knowledge how the heart was framed
Of him thou lovest; need I dread from thee
Harsh judgments . . . ?

He wrote those lines with confidence that he was loved, yet today he is not, on the whole, loved much at all. And whether or not he deserves my love, that desertion is its own tragedy.

Dinner last night, which was not quite as delicious as the pork chops and mushrooms but was still pretty good: tomato soup finished with bread crumbs, parsley, marjoram, and olive oil; cheddar-cheese wafers; kohlrabi spears; apple and cranberry clafoutis with whipped cream.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Here's how I made the best-tasting food I've eaten lately. Seeing as I tossed it together between driving one boy to a doctor's appointment and picking up the other one after soccer practice, you might call it a triumph of ingredients over planning.

Defrost 6 Harmony-grown pork chops (1/2-inch thick). Marinate them in a bath of olive oil, lemon juice, lime juice, salt, freshly ground black pepper (all randomly measured according to mood and availability), a coarsely chopped clove of garlic, and a handful of julienned fresh sage. I turned the chops often for the first 15 minutes and then forgot about them for an hour and a half. The method seemed to be effective.

Dry off the chops and brown them quickly in hot peanut oil. I used a cast-iron Dutch oven. Set chops aside as they are browned.

Discard the frying fat. Replace with 2 tablespoons of butter. Throw in a cup of chopped wild honey mushrooms, which I managed to scavenge from the forest before I had to once again drive a kid somewhere or other. (P.S. Poodles think that mushroom hunting makes for an incredibly boring walk in the woods.)

Over low heat toss the mushrooms in the butter until they have absorbed the fat and started to brown. Then scrape in whatever's left of the marinade and pour in 1/2 cup of vermouth. Turn the heat to high and, stirring often, let the marinade-wine boil down to a bubbly syrup. (Vermouth is my cooking wine of choice because I never drink it and thus accidentally run out of cooking wine.)

Return the chops to the Dutch oven, coating each with the buttery-vermouthy-citrusy-garlicy-sagey-mushroomy sauce. Put a lid on the pan and bake it in a 325-degree oven for about 40 minutes. At least once during the baking time, turn the chops in the sauce.

Throw in a handful of chopped fresh parsley. Serve the chops and their juices with rice, fresh garden greens, and either iced well water or whole milk, depending on your age and the bossiness of your parents. Follow with leftover pumpkin pie and a Star Trek episode. Avoid Nyquil, if possible.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Moby-Dick versus Great Expectations

from Moby-Dick, chapter 28

Now, it being Christmas when the ship shot from out her harbor, for a space we had biting Polar weather, though all the time running away from it to the southward; and by every degree and minute of latitude we sailed, gradually leaving that merciless winter, and all its intolerable weather behind us. It was one of those less lowering, but still grey and gloomy enough mornings of the transition, when with a fair wind the ship was rushing through the water with a vindictive sort of leaping and melancholy rapidity, that I mounted to the deck at the call of the forenoon watch, so soon as I levelled my glance towards the taffrail, foreboding shivers ran over me. Reality outran apprehension; Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck.

from Great Expectations, chapter 37

After a little further conversation to the same effect, we returned into the castle, where we found Miss Skiffins preparing tea. The responsible duty of making the toast was delegated to the Aged, and that excellent old gentleman was so intent upon it that he seemed to be in some danger of melting his eyes. It was no nominal meal that we were going to make, but a vigorous reality. The Aged prepared such a haystack of buttered toast that I could scarcely see him over it as it simmered on an iron stand hooked onto the top-bar; while Miss Skiffins brewed such a jorum of tea that the pig in the back premises became strongly excited, and repeatedly expressed his desire to participate in the entertainment.

Here's what I notice: Melville's outside world is so vivid; Dickens's contained world is so vivid. Both novelists use the word reality with particular emphasis. Melville depends considerably on his remarkable adjectives: vindictive, melancholy. Dickens depends on comic metaphor, exaggeration, personification: "melting his eyes," "haystack of buttered toast," the expressive pig. Melville's sentences begin as long, complex, grammatically challenged constructions and gradually narrow themselves down to "Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck." Dickens's sentence structure is less obviously melodramatic, but it does subtly move our attention from character to character, place to place, item to item while making sure that everything coheres as a single unified scene.

I think that both of these passages are extraordinary. I was lying in bed last night, waiting for the onset of the Nyquil stupor, when I read "vindictive sort of leaping," and I was stunned. A phrase like that can single-handedly quell sleep. And the fireside scenes in Wemmick's house are among my favorite moments in Great Expectations. I love the Aged Parent; I love the backyard pig. I love how Wemmick, and therefore Pip, regain their goodness in that setting. I love all that buttered toast.

Monday, October 11, 2010

I am tired of coughing and equally tired of cough medicine. Nyquil is a horrible concoction, in all ways: taste, texture, and temperament. It did, however, allow me to drown in an enchanted sleep for about four hours, which is better than no sleep at all, even though the dreams that accompany Nyquil-enchanted sleep are less than ideal. Mine involved (1) sitting in a car with my mother while she drove up an amazingly steep and narrow hill beside an eroding cliff; and (2) attending a summer-colony gathering of ominous rich people and their wacked-out children, all the while knowing that several of them would soon be bloodily murdered in the kitchen. Ugh. Scenarios like those would make anyone glad to get up in the morning.

Fortunately, real life, here in Harmony, involves a cool wind and a blue sky and the fun of shuffling through leaf piles while hiking across the overgrown grass in my barn boots. It's not a very exciting life but it's far better than bloody murder in the summer-colony kitchen, even after factoring in the coughing fits and the dead chickadee that the poodle is carrying around like a much-loved teddy bear. Sometimes I think sentimentality is a necessary balance to the mind's simmering evil fears, though there's something alarming in the idea that even a dead chickadee in my dog's mouth can become a sentimental item. Apparently, the lines of demarcation are not very distinct.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Yesterday afternoon, Tom and I went for a walk in our woods and came back with a dish full of honey mushrooms. Thanks to my friends Steve and Angela, I have just learned how to identify these mushrooms, and now I have also learned that my woods are full of them. Last night I baked them with olive oil and vermouth, boiled down the juices to a syrup, and served them on mixed greens with sherry vinegar. This morning Tom used a few in omelets, and I've also got a batch drying on the racks above the wood stove.

One of my favorite things about Tolstoy novels is his affection for mushroom-hunting scenes. I have always wanted to tie up my hair in a bright kerchief and drive a donkey cart into the forest for a mushroom expedition. Alas, I still have no donkey, and I'm not even sure I possess a kerchief, but finally I do have the mushrooms.

By the way, I am now up to chapter 38 in Great Expectations and chapter 26 in Moby-Dick. Where are you?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Today I removed a dead chicken from the chicken house;

which is a euphemistic way of saying that I scooped up her corpse with a horse fork, dropped it into a five-gallon joint compound bucket, locked the ghoulish poodle into the house, carried the bucket into the woods, and emptied the contents into a heap of brown bracken and red leaves;

which is a crass way of saying that my oldest hen, Wild Thing, who once was the toughest chicken alive, the rare hen who managed survive for a week in the predator-laden November woods, has gone to meet the Great Fox in the Sky;

which is a sentimental way of saying that an elderly, molting araucana died a quiet death under the grain feeder and that her body will now go some way toward keeping a few fox pups alive.

Anyway, this is how I've spent my morning so far. Maybe, in Wild Thing's honor, I will dig out E. B. White's essay "The Death of a Pig." He, too, had a ghoulish dog.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Thank you all for the birthday wishes and your sweet-tongued gifts. My favorite was, perhaps, the email that began "Happy birthday, melancholy baby." But all were assuaging to the spirit.

Here are a few quotations from what I was reading yesterday. They're not necessarily related, at least not obviously related, at least not yet.

From "A Letter from New York City" by Quincy R. Lehr, in New Walk Magazine, autumn/winter 2010:

One suspects that if a greater number of American writers--with MFAs or without--laid off the incesssant "networking," focussed on the good ideas when they came, and didn't feel they had to constantly get into print, we'd not be so deluged with near-identical poems and short stories that neither surprise nor delight and seem to constitute the necessary drudge work of "being a writer."

From Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano:

For the Nazis . . . soccer was a matter of state. A monument in the Ukraine commemorates the players of the 1942 Dynamo Kiev team. During the German occupation they committed the insane act of defeating Hitler's squad in the local stadium. Having been warned, "If you win, you die," they started out resigned to losing, trembling with fear and hunger, but in the end they could not resist the temptation of dignity. When the game was over all eleven were shot with their shirts on at the edge of a cliff.

"When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" by Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Today is my 46th birthday.

I began my life by loving my parents, my sister, my grandfather, many cats and cows, and a piece of land.

I married a mysterious and intelligent man and became the mother of two mysterious and intelligent boys.

I read books and I played the violin.

I wrote five books and managed to publish three of them.

I made a few dear friends, and only one of them has died.

I never came close to starving.

Nonetheless, I joined the ranks of the melancholy.

I suppose you, too, have also joined those ranks.

I suspect we all have.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Yesterday was one of those days that just would not end.

Rush to school to pick up Paul for a piano lesson. Rush back to school for his soccer game. Watch his team get creamed. Watch a large kid collapse on Paul's leg in front of the goal. Watch my child crumple to the ground and then get carried off the field. Rush to the emergency room. Sit around for hours and hours in a mysteriously slow yet unbusy hospital. Make cheering conversation with my brave but nervous child. Overhear why other people are also sitting around in the waiting room. (Best story: "I don't know how it happened. I just tipped back in my chair and the lit cigarette went right into my eyelid.") Overhear excoriating televised news about Fred Phelps, who is clearly protected by the First Amendment but is surely going to hell. Meet numbers of pleasant ambling hospital staff members who prod my child and make him wince. Eventually get a verdict: very bad sprain, fluid on knee, possible hairline fracture on his knee's growth plate. A nurse named Autumn wraps his knee in a brace, teaches him how to use crutches, and talks about her twin boys. We feel sad that she is a night nurse with two babies sleeping at home who are awake when she has to be sleeping. Not that she complains. Paul's spirits lift inordinately once his knee is immobilized. Now he can anticipate the glory of arriving at school on crutches and the fun to be had when he makes his brother jealous by describing his wheelchair and hospital-bed rides. Now, finally, we get to drive the 40 minutes back to our house, Paul eating a banana and chattering about learning to play Dave Brubeck songs on the piano and how he's going to attend all his soccer events anyway and how, when quarterback Tom Brady tore his ACL, he was out for the season, and on and on. And I am very tired, but happy for him to be happy and not terrified anymore, and grateful for the state health insurance that covered his visit, and hoping not to hit a deer in the road, and imagining the comfort of clean sheets on my bed. Which, as it turns out, is a dream in vain because I can't sleep and spend the night on the couch instead.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Among the stack of books I'm reading is one called Soccer in Sun and Shadow by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. I first heard about this book a couple of weeks ago, when I was at Haystack eating curry and talking about kids' soccer teams with potter Mark Shapiro, who set down his wineglass and proceeded to quote this line:
They say where [the goalkeeper] walks, the grass never grows.

Naturally I was spellbound. And now I'm delighted to report that the whole book is just as good. A stylistic cross between literary sportswriting and magical realism, it's organized into tiny chapters with titles such as "The Idol," "The Ball," "The Goal," and "From Mutilation to Splendor." These chapters are beautiful and elegiac yet also filled with irony, much of which is very funny. Here, for instance, is a paragraph from the chapter titled "The Language of Soccer Doctors," which is written in the language of soccer doctors:

It would be easy for us to evade our responsibility and attribute the home team's setback to the restrained performance of its players, but the excessive sluggishness they undeniably demonstrated in today's game each time they received the ball in no way justifies, understand me well ladies and gentlemen, in no way justifies such a generalized and therefore unjust critique. No, no, and no. Conformity is not our style, as those of you who have followed us during the long years of our career well know, not only in our beloved country but on the stages of international and even worldwide sport, wherever we have been called upon to fulfill our humble duty. So, as is our custom, we are going to pronounce all the syllables of every word: the organic potential of the game-plan pursued by this struggling team has not been crowned with success simply and plainly because the team continues to be incapable of adequately channelling its expectations for greater offensive projection in the direction of the enemy goal. We said as much only this past Sunday and we affirm it today, with our heads held high and without any hairs on our tongue, because we have always called a spade a spade and we will continue speaking the truth, though it hurts, fall who may, and no matter the cost.

Galeano's book chimes pleasantly with Dickens's and Melville's, not least because it deals with those same old themes: love and honor . . . yet more proof that there's nothing new to write about. But who cares?

And now it's time for the Garden and Cheaply Purchased Vegetables Update:

1. Having finally pulled all my carrots, I can announce that my garden has produced a substantial and often strangely shaped crop. If I weren't a Luddite and actually owned a digital camera, I would take a photo of Sexy Carrot Legs for you. As it is, you just have to fantasize.

2. At a local farmstand, I unearthed a great deal on hot red and yellow peppers: 99 cents a pound, as long as I bought at least 5 pounds. But what does one do with 5 pounds of hot peppers? I decided to pickle them, and they came out looking like jewels. If I were judging the canned goods at the Harmony Fair Exhibit Hall, I would give them a Best in Show ribbon.

3. It's been a good year for green storage cabbage. My garden is chockfull of heads as big as soccer balls. (You see? Today's disparate subjects do have a metaphoric connection.) My plan is to transform them into sauerkraut. I'm a little worried this will make my house smell bad while it's fermenting, but it can't be worse than the grilled Limburger sandwich Tom once made.

Monday, October 4, 2010

I have reached chapter 20 in both Moby-Dick and Great Expectations. It's Christmas Day, and Ishmael is about to set sail on a frightening voyage with the as-yet-unseen and mysterious Captain Ahab. Meanwhile, Pip is about to take the stagecoach to wonderful, terrifying, as-yet-unseen London and embark on his career as a gentleman, thanks to a mysterious or possibly not mysterious benefactor.

Perhaps this plot synchronicity is a structural by-product of the nineteenth-century psychological novel. Although, as far as I know, MD was not first published in magazine installments (as so much of Dickens's work was), that plot-twist pacing must surely have been nearly automatic for novelists of the era. In any case, as a reader, I know when I encounter these books that I am wading into a familiar river, though I have never read Moby-Dick before, though I have read Great Expectations dozens of times before.

I recently received a rude rejection letter, presumably written by some callow graduate underling, accusing my poems of "melodrama" and of "saying nothing new," which in light of our reading project is pretty hilarious. For neither one of these great novels says anything new. Both deal with ancient issues of love and honor. Both are jam-packed with melodrama. Both follow predictable narrative patterns. Nonetheless. And that's a big word, that nonetheless.

So my question to you is: why doesn't it matter that these novels follow a well-traveled path? Or does it matter? And for you personally, what does it feel like to wade into the great narrative river?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Off to church for the first time in 10 years because Paul has a 5-minute meditative music gig.

Patchy frost last night, but perhaps the cucumbers were spared.

Slept horribly while listening to foxes wailing in the underbrush. This meant that the dogs also slept horribly.

I have reached chapter 20 in Great Expectations. I am bringing Moby-Dick to church. This is probably wrong, but it's best to be prepared for every contingency.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Today looks to be the sort of October day--breezy, blue-eyed--that makes me feel like it's my birthday, even though my birthday doesn't happen until next week. It is, however, my friend Angela's birthday, and we and our families are going to celebrate by driving to the coast, looking at art and the sea, and going out to dinner. In short, we will do things that are impossible to do in Harmony and Wellington, where we really live, where there is no ocean (though we do have a wood chipper/mechanical leviathan parked at Morrison's Garage, and its operator and I were marveling together about this strange and complicated machine as he pumped my gas this morning), no art (except for the eclectic display at the dump), and no restaurant (except for the Breakfast Nook, which is never open, and store-made pizza, which we turn to in only in emergencies).

I forget if I've mentioned here that I've dedicated my rereading memoir to Angela because she, too, is a rereader . . . and purer one than I am: a reader who doesn't feel the urge to write herself into the story, as I do. So in honor of her birthday, I think I'll copy out what I wrote to her in the acknowledgments:

Finally, I want to thank Angela DeRosa, my dear neighbor in the woods, who borrows my old novels and then returns them tied up in pink ribbon--a love note for me, for herself, for the characters, for the writer. We're all mixed up in this story together.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Sorry this post is so late: our power's been out since last night. But it was an excellent storm, humid and gusty, and getting into bed beside the open window felt like climbing into Ahab's Pequod. Probably there were whales in our yard.

Speaking of Ahab, I have reached chapter 20 in Moby-Dick and chapter 18 in Great Expectations. Since no one is complaining and Teresa is actively clamoring to continue, I say let's keep going. When I get to chapter 25 in both books, I'll stop and see what you all have to say about what we've read.

Meanwhile, here's my current favorite MD quotation, from the very end of chapter 14:

With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.

I find the walruses hard to believe in, but I like them in the passage anyway.

And by the way, thank you, dear unknown blog reader, for the card you sent me. I was very surprised, and happy.