Tuesday, November 30, 2010

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 29, 2010

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

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

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

Sunday, November 28, 2010

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 27, 2010

from The Autumn of the Middle Ages

Johan Huizinga, trans. Ronald Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch

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

Thursday, November 25, 2010

from The Autumn of the Middle Ages

Johan Huizinga, trans. Ronald Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch

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

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

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

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

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

Monday, November 22, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

This happened about 20 more times.

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

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

Sunday, November 21, 2010

This weekend I started reading a book that my mother gave me for my birthday: Colm Toibin's Mothers and Sons, a collection of short stories. I'd never read anything by him before, and neither had my mother. But of course, given my circumstances, she found the title compelling.

So far I've read all but the final story in the book, and I have to say: I'm amazed. These are remarkable pieces, elegantly constructed, and tonally reserved, and also deeply distressing. Each story's mother-son bond is very different; sometimes nearly incidental, sometimes a key element of the plot--but always it vibrates into the story, rather like the plucking of a string into a room. This is the best collection I've read since Alice Munro's The View from Castle Rock.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Today is the day I can the sauerkraut that's been fermenting on my counter, administer a second dose of brandy to the Dickinson black cake, and finally get around to watching Fitzcarraldo.

Or it's the day I decide that the sauerkraut needs to ferment for another week, forget to brandy up the black cake, and get dragged to Skowhegan to sit through Unstoppable, a movie whose trailer hints that I will be required to squirm through 2 hours of watching handsome leading men hang death-defyingly off the side of a speeding train as the soundtrack bellows, "Whumpf!" to accompany sudden dramatic camera action. Where is Buster Keaton when I need him?

Friday, November 19, 2010

from The Prelude
William Wordsworth

. . . But who shall parcel out
His intellect by geometric rules,
Split like a province into round and square?
Who knows the individual hour in which
His habits were first sown, even as a seed?

Lines like these are why copying out all of The Prelude, word for word, has not been a waste of time.

Quarter of seven: a blank morning, and the barn dog is barking, barking, barking. Now a car murmurs past on the road; a truck bustles behind; and then a fading into the east, and then silence. Even the dog collapses to stillness. There is no wind. The trees are mute against a dishwater sky.

Yesterday afternoon I could not write one useful word.

As Wordsworth reminds me, "Hard task, vain hope, to analyse the mind, / If each most obvious and particular thought, / . . . / Hath no beginning."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

As you can see from this blog's suddenly expanding "Upcoming Appearances" section, I've gotten some invitations recently, and I've also had a few conversations with people who want to do a shared reading with me but don't yet have a place worked out. So if you have a venue--a church, or a school library, or a living room, or a street corner, or whatever--and are in need of a poet or two, just ask.

Lately I've been feeling as if my entire private life has been slotted into tiny gaps among driving boys to piano lessons, basketball practice, and tooth doctors, and washing boy clothes and cooking boy meals and sweeping boy dirt off the kitchen floor. Or maybe all this actually is my private life. Frequently it's hard to tell. In any case, should your venue require a poet, the event will be a nice change from peeling potatoes.

Here's a poem from Crimes that sums up how I'm feeling today. Chalk it up to the headache, or maybe being surrounded by people who eat all the baking chocolate and don't know how to clean hair out of a drain. Not that I don't adore them anyway. . . .


Dawn Potter

And what about the small eye, Walter?--
the leaves of grass you overlooked, winter
lichen clutching fence posts, a draggled
dead squirrel in the snowbank, the red
letters of my name, serif by slant?
It was bliss you sighed, panted,

howled for: the View from Space--
big comet Walt chasing Madam Eos
across a streaky sky, old guilty dawn
tempting another kosmic shaman
to lurch word-drunk from the rafters . . .
oh, I grieve for every morning-after

groan rising from your sallow bed
as I fire your cookstove, bake your bread.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My friend Allison, who is also one of our Moby-Dick readers, was at the library renewing her copy of the novel when the librarian recommended this event: a 25-hour Moby-Dick marathon at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Personally I think it sounds distinctly unpleasant, though I have visited the museum before, and the half-sized whaling boat mentioned in the press release is undeniably charming. I had a hard time restraining my children from swarming up the mast.

I've heard about Paradise Lost marathons too, and I don't want to go to one of those either. I mean, I love hard books and all, but I like to take a few breaks now and then, to recover my senses and breathe the fresh air. However, maybe you feel differently about spending all day and all night listening to a cast of volunteers stumble through an apparently endless work of literature. So if you're planning to rush down to New Bedford, let me know how it goes.

Don't I sound like a philistine? Actually, it's sort of refreshing to sound like one. After all, I'm usually so shamelessly book-ridden.

I don't know what the weather's like at your house, but it's pouring rain here today: and I will spend it editing and then driving a kid to the orthodontist, where I'll languish in the waiting room, attempting to read Moby-Dick while being surrounded by teenagers with crooked teeth. Meanwhile, Ishmael will wander off into a tangent about artists who draw bad pictures of whales, and a confused housefly will bonk, bonk, bonk against the ceiling, and the slumping teenagers will mutter at their iPods. C'est la bluestocking vie.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Robert Frost at Bud's Shop 'n Save

So yesterday, after I'd finished working, I drove to Dexter to see if I could track down any citron for my Dickinson black cake. Dexter is a small town with a small grocery store, but it's been occasionally known to have unexpected items such as basmati rice, and I figured that citron wasn't as long a shot as weird rice from Pakistan.

At noon on a Monday, Bud's is a peaceful place to shop. All the scornful high school checkers are still in class, so the staff consists solely of fiftyish women who lean against their un-busy cash registers and gossip mildly about the weather, and deer hunting, and so-and-so who's up to Bangor to have that balloon thing done to his heart. Nonetheless, odd things do happen at Bud's. For instance, once I was standing in the checkout line behind a very young couple in Amish dress. They couldn't have been older than 20, at least if one judges by the husband's attempt at a manly beard, which was wispy and unprepossessing, to say the least. Anyway, they were buying two items: a dozen eggs and a package of Oscar Mayer baloney. I found this purchase obscurely shocking. Baloney! Shouldn't they be home collecting eggs and hanging hams in the attic? Why were they in Bud's buying cheap lunchmeat?

But yesterday, there were no junk-food-eating Amish couples to distract me. Having, quite unusually, remembered to bring along my reusable bags, I dropped them onto the conveyer belt and started unloading my cart (and, by the way, Bud's does have citron if you're looking for some). Along the way, I happened to glance up, and then I noticed that the bagger was reading one of my bags.

Now, this was a bag I had purchased at the Frost Place last year, merely because I hate the way I look in t-shirts yet felt I should make some donation to a place I love and that is kind enough employ me. It's a black canvas bag with Frost's signature printed on one side and a very short poem on the other. (I won't reprint it here because it's still under copyright, but it's called "The Secret Sits" and is easy to find.)

Anyway, here I was, in Dexter, Maine; here I was, unloading bananas and a gallon of milk onto a conveyer belt at noon on a drizzly November Monday; and not three feet away from me a sweet-faced, middle-aged woman was not bagging my groceries because she was busy reading a Frost poem.

Eventually the woman at the cash register asked her what she was reading on the bag, and the woman who was supposed to be bagging but wasn't said, "I'm reading Robert Frost." And then the woman at the cash register nodded peaceably, as if that were a perfectly understandable thing to be doing while one works a shift at Bud's Shop 'n Save.

So, for a moment or two, we all three shared some cozy smalltalk about Frost and New Hampshire, until I said good-bye and hauled my citron et al. out to the car and went home and made Dickinson black cake.

But think of it! a little conversation about Frost with two clerks at the grocery store! Sometimes this world is more wonderful than we think.

Monday, November 15, 2010

I'll be working on a copyediting project this morning; but this afternoon, if all goes according to plan, I'll be baking my annual batch of Emily Dickinson's black cake. For those who don't know the story, my mother-in-law used to be the curator of Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst, Massachusetts. While she was there, she reworked Dickinson's original recipe into modern proportions; and I have since fiddled with it myself. Baking, like language, is changeable in all seasons.

Em's black cake is an aged, brandy-fortified fruitcake that is composed primarily of currants held together with a butter-rich batter. Usually I also add some golden raisins and chopped citron, although this year I cannot seem to track down any citron in local grocery stores so I may need to leave it out. Anyway, here's the recipe again.

And meanwhile, I'll leave you with this tiny, two-line poem scrap, undated and aptly ambiguous.

Poem 1707

Emily Dickinson

Winter under cultivation
Is as arable as Spring.

Emily Dickinson’s Black Cake

2 cups all-purpose flour

½ tablespoon baking powder

¾ teaspoon ground nutmeg

1¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1¼ teaspoon ground cloves

1¼ teaspoon ground mace

1 cup butter, softened

1¼ cups brown sugar (turbinado or demerara sugar is my preference)

5 eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla

¼ cup brandy

¼ cup molasses

2½ cups golden raisins

3 cups currants

1½ cups chopped citron

extra brandy for brushing onto the cakes

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees.

Grease 3 full-size loaf pans (or 1 full-size loaf pan and 4 mini-loaf pans) and line the bottoms and sides with parchment paper cut to fit. Grease and flour the paper-lined pans.

Sift together the flour, baking power, and spices.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until they are fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Beat in the vanilla.

With the mixer set on its lowest speed, beat in the flour mixture alternately with the brandy and molasses, beginning and ending with the flour.

With a wooden spoon (or, even better, using the dough hook of your electric mixer), beat in the dried fruit and the citron.

Divide the mixture among the prepared pans. Bake the full-size loaves for 1½ hours; check the mini-loaves after 1 hour. The tops should be firm to the touch, and the sides should have begun to pull away from the pan.

Leave the cakes in the pans to cool completely. Then remove and peel off the paper. Brush the cakes on all sides with brandy, and wrap them tightly in foil. Store the cakes in a cool place for at least 2 weeks, opening the packages after 1 week to brush them again with brandy.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

So is anyone out there still reading Moby-Dick, or am I talking to myself about the novel? That's fine: I'm not complaining: I talk to myself constantly. But nobody has responded to any of my burblings, which leads me to suspect that you aren't keeping up with the reading.

I hope I'm not sounding bossy or overbearing here. Of course you need to do whatever you need to do; and if quitting MD is necessary, then you should quit. It's not an easy book; there's no question about that.

But I'm still going to finish it. I don't think it's beyond me, not like Joyce's Ulysses or Pope's Essay on Man or anything. I might die of couplet overdose if I tried copying out all of Essay on Man.

Don't worry, though: I'm not going to wander off into another book tangent here. I have to go outside and clean the chicken house. Shoveling shit takes precedence over art.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Melville Talks to Coleridge

As any member of my family will tell you, I am often stupid. So it's taken me till chapter 51 in Moby-Dick to realize that I'm reading an alternative version of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. To wit:

from Moby-Dick (1851):

Close to our bows, strange forms in the water darted hither and thither before us; while thick in our rear flew the inscrutable sea-ravens. And every morning, perched on our stays, rows of these birds were seen; and in spite of our hootings, for a long time obstinately clung to the hemp, as though they deemed our ship some drifting, uninhabited craft; a thing appointed to desolation, and therefore fit roosting place for their homeless selves. And heaved and heaved, still unresting heaved the black sea, as if its vast tides were a conscience; and the great mundane soul were in anguish and remorse for the long sin and suffering it had bred.

from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1797-98):

At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariners' hollo!

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.

Even the first lines of these works seem to speak to each--"Call me Ishmael." "It is an Ancient Mariner" . . . perhaps Ishmael is a Youthful Mariner; perhaps Ahab is the Ancient; perhaps the white whale and the albatross are metaphorical kindred.

No doubt the scholars figured this all out long ago, but I'm not so quick.

Friday, November 12, 2010

I've just finished reading Charlotte Bronte's Villette for about the millionth time, so in honor of Charlotte (if one can call perpetual uneasiness an honor), I'm posting my essay about her novel Shirley. Meanwhile, imagine me wandering the aisles of the grocery store, blinking under the lights, examining the bananas and pondering Captain Ahab. Sounds a little like Ginsburg and a little like Bob Dylan, don't you think? But I promise to be more well behaved, at least on the outside.

Inventing Charlotte Brontë

Dawn Potter

[first published in the Sewanee Review, summer 2010]

A couple of days ago, having gotten sick of the Aeneid, I found myself fidgeting among my bookshelves looking for something to distract me from the ponderous exploits of that pious sap Aeneas (and it’s no wonder Juno keeps trying to kill him off; he’s such a pill). Fairly quickly I pulled out Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley; and just as quickly I remembered that the paperback I’d been dipping into periodically for the past twenty years had disintegrated, on last use, to a jaundiced, brittle stack of pages laced with little white spine-glue chips that sifted onto my stomach when I tried to turn a page in bed.

This discovery has not led me to toss the book sensibly into the woodstove and choose something more cohesive to read. Rather, in hopes of saving the last fragile remnants of cheap binding, I’ve taken to reading Shirley at a speed that resembles the delayed slow motion one sees in explanatory replays of baseball pitches: sitting bolt upright, preternaturally alert for a page explosion, my neck cocked stiffly at goose angle, both hands gripping the Scotch-taped cover with the sort of tension I also exhibit when I’m driving in a snowstorm.

If Charlotte Brontë were to step into my kitchen right now, she would no doubt glance briefly and without interest at my contortions over her novel, snort, and then announce that my discomfort serves me right. “You ought to suffer,” she’d say. “And what’s more, you like it.”

Oh, Charlotte. One could not exactly call her a sadist. Nonetheless, with Currer Bell for a big sister, Emily and Anne must have had their white-knuckle moments. Even her ally and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, whose tender forbearance presses me to remember how terribly the Fates battered away at Charlotte’s short life, hints at a vein of harshness in her friend’s character and expectations: “She is sterling and true; and if she is a little bitter she checks herself.”

Charlotte, in truth, is more than “a little bitter.” She is often downright vengeful—as are, at some point, all of her major and many of her minor characters, from Shirley’s tense, repressed, white-faced Caroline Helstone to Villette’s chubby, manipulative Madame Beck to Jane Eyre’s mission-besotted Saint John Rivers to, most malignantly, The Professor’s bullying schoolmaster William Crimsworth. An author is not necessarily a stand-in for her inventions, but Charlotte constantly acknowledges the pleasures of torment, whether she is inflicting pain on her characters or speaking their lines or engaging in one of the intimate author-to-reader chats that she, like so many Victorian novelists, sows liberally among her plots.

The Brontë sisters had brief and often dreadful lives, and the family’s predilection for pain comes as no surprise to any reader of their novels. Even the less skillful Anne writes well enough to make that family pattern clear. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, her bland and priggish heroine finds considerable consolation in thwarting a drunken husband’s happiness, being prone to diary jottings that regretfully admit, “I ought to sacrifice my pride, and renew my efforts once again to make his home agreeable and lead him back to the path of virtue.” And then there’s Emily, who in Wuthering Heights blithely depicts Hareton Earnshaw, one of her romantic leads, in the act of hanging a litter of puppies from the back of a chair. Even in her moments of high tragic melodrama, Emily forces me to focus not on the lovers’ passion but on specific details of cruelty, as when the dying Catherine “retained in her closed fingers a portion of [Heathcliff’s] locks she had been grasping. As to her companion, while raising himself with one hand, he had taken her arm with the other; and so inadequate was his stock of gentleness to the requirements of her condition, that on letting go I saw four distinct impressions left blue in the colourless skin.”

Charlotte’s attitude toward suffering is, at least in comparison to Emily’s, less supernatural; but it can seem even more insidious and inescapable. Often that’s because she tends to assume that the reader agrees with whatever pronouncement she happens to make on the subject. I don’t necessarily find this tendency irritating. On the whole, I like being invited personally into a novel, and I also like an opinionated author, though being talked at rather than to, especially in a novel I’ve reread many times, often has the contrary result of reinforcing my indifference to the subject, as when Charlotte veers off onto one of her laudatory Duke of Wellington tangents: “that MAN then representing England in the Peninsula,” who dispatches, “in the columns of the newspapers, documents written by Modesty to the dictation of Truth.”

But frequently her lecturing does demand my attention, even snatches it, for she is among the roughest of authors. There’s not a trace of Trollopian suavity in this novelist, and her attempts at Thackeray-style comedy are notably unfunny. She is stern, and she is deathly earnest. But when her enthusiasm or anguish overlaps my own excitement or pain, I cannot look away.

The question is whether I believe her or not. And oddly, a similar question has lately arisen between my husband and myself, with the subject being the verity of what I write. His term is self-mythology, and he’s right. The very act of compressing my thoughts and reactions into a framing handful of words requires me to separate myself from those thoughts and reactions. Before I know it, they’ve assumed a new shape on the page, one that rather resembles me but is certainly more vividly colored—my emotions hepped up, my perceptions rarefied, my comedic eyeglass buffed to a high polish.

Artists may be more or less expert at dealing with the self-mythology problem, and family members may be more or less patient about it. Charlotte herself unquestionably lurched and steered among the hazards of self-invention; and sometimes I wonder if over-immersion in her novels, or at least in her state of mind, has compromised my own powers of control. For I find it easy to take her authorial posturing for granted; I even assume that she tells the truth. Yet at the same time I know that many of the truths she proclaims are elements of a magnified self, a way of dealing with a daily reality that was not only grim but also monstrously dull. According to Mrs. Gaskell,

as far as [Charlotte] could see, her life was ordained to be lonely, and she must subdue her nature to her life, and, if possible, bring the two into harmony. When she could employ herself in fiction, all was comparatively well. The characters were her companions in the quiet hours, which she spent utterly alone, unable often to stir out of doors for many days together. The interests of the persons in her novels supplied the lack of interest in her own life; and Memory and Imagination found their appropriate work, and ceased to prey upon her vitals.

The “persons in her novels [who] supplied the lack of interest in her own life” were not just Lucy Snowe and Jane Eyre and Shirley Keeldar. The speaking author was also one of “her companions in the quiet hours”; and while this character, presented as her facsimile, no doubt really does bear some relationship to the Charlotte who nursed her dying sisters and sailed seasick on a ferry to Belgium and married that odd-looking man Mr. Nicholls, she has been distilled, tinted, spiced; her moods rarefied, her opinions sharpened. The author has stepped into her author role; she plays it to the hilt: spare, cool-eyed, hot-blooded, misanthropic, sometimes overwrought, often downright nasty.

Though I never think of Charlotte Brontë as a writer of poems, poet is her speaking author’s moniker of choice. The word seems to imply, as plain writer does not, an artistic temperament; and Charlotte clings tightly, very tightly, to the idea of herself as an artist. But built into her monologue is also her notion that I, her reader, am, if not precisely a poet, at least an excuser of poets, not so much for the crime of creating poems but for behaving like the poet character that Charlotte has invented for herself.

As another self-mythologizer who also happens to call herself a poet, I am well aware of the connotative anxiety inspired by that word. Truly, anxiety may be too kind a descriptor. Anyone who jumps up in a crowd and shouts, “I’m a poet!” risks not only her own public humiliation (what kind of arcane, stupid, useless identity is this?) but also, by publicly standing alone as an iconoclast who “understands poetry,” risks humiliating the crowd—those ordinary bystanders who at mere mention of the word poet feel themselves sinking back into high school hell, slumping behind a desk during English class, desperately avoiding the teacher’s eye, desperately hoping he won’t ask them to explicate why or how iambic pentameter has anything to do with regular talking because nothing on earth is less regular than whatever is going on in King Lear.

Nobody makes a person feel more ignorant than a poet. Merely by introducing herself with that title, a speaker can become a species of terrorist. But though I don’t find this an especially comfortable situation, Charlotte the author relishes it. A poet, she caustically avers, is no “milk and water” versifier. Her heroine Shirley may feel confident enough to declare, “Oh! uncle, there is nothing really valuable in this world, there is nothing glorious in the world to come, that is not poetry!” yet Shirley’s creator takes pains to ensure that I am not confusing such glory with either niceness or delicacy.

In our own less ladylike era, that insistence may seem trivial and self-evident. After all, even our kindest, most accessible poets ramble on fluently about suicide, homosexuality, and invasive medical procedures. Yet even when we allow for shifting fashions of subject and formality, who can deny that poetry publications remain heavily stocked with milk and water verses? Many have no doubt been written by pleasant, tender-hearted people who are fond of flowers, birds, and memories of their mother. But as Charlotte well knew, great art has not, on the whole, been produced by nice, sweet, tender-hearted people. If, even among writers who call themselves poets, that opprobrium has fastened itself to our image of the word, Charlotte, for one, is having none of it.

Fairly early on in Shirley, the author takes time away from the machinations of her plot to lecture the reader on the characteristic behaviors of a poet:

It is well that the true poet, quiet externally though he may be, has often a truculent spirit under his placidity, and is full of shrewdness in his meekness, and can measure the whole stature of those who look down on him, and correctly ascertain the weight and value of the pursuits they disdain him for not having followed. It is happy that he can have his own bliss, his own society with his great friend and goddess, Nature, quite independent of those who find little pleasure in him, and in whom he finds no pleasure at all. It is just, that while the world and circumstances often turn a dark, cold side to him—and properly, too, because he first turns a dark, cold, careless side to them—he should be able to maintain a festal brightness and cherishing glow in his bosom, which makes all bright and genial for him; while strangers, perhaps, deem his existence a Polar winter never gladdened by a sun. The true poet is not one whit to be pitied; and he is apt to laugh in his sleeve, when any misguided sympathizer whines over his wrongs. Even when utilitarians sit in judgment on him, and pronounce him and his art useless, he hears the sentence with such a hard derision, such a broad, deep, comprehensive, and merciless contempt of the unhappy Pharisees who pronounce it, that he is rather to be chidden than condoled with.

Is this really what Charlotte the poet thinks she is like? Is this really what she thinks I, her generalized poet-reader, am like?

More to the point, am I like this?

I think I’m not truculent. I’m often not quiet. I am certainly not reliably able to “measure the whole stature of those who look down on [me]”; although as a person who enjoys being chronically underemployed, I’m fairly skilled at “ascertain[ing] the weight and value of the pursuits they disdain [me] for not having followed.” I do have my “own bliss, [my] own society . . . quite independent of those who find little pleasure in [me],” although I wouldn’t exactly say that Nature is my “friend and goddess” in that pursuit: frankly, she is difficult to get along with.

But it’s Charlotte’s next assertion that really gives me pause. Certainly, judging from her own case, she had considerable reason to claim that “the world and circumstances often turn a dark, cold side to [a true poet].” But then there’s her follow-up, which she trots out with sour-faced propriety: “and properly, too, because he first turns a dark, cold, careless side to them.” At this point in her paragraph my brain stops being agreeably thoughtful and earnest and starts to bumble and reel instead. Am I misreading something, or is Charlotte Brontë the self-nominated poet primly explaining to me that regular people should shun poets because they are solitary and rude and ought to be taught a lesson?

As I mentioned earlier, Charlotte is not exactly a sadist. But she does enjoy pulling the kitchen chair out from under me; and if I break a tooth on the edge of the table as I fall to the floor, well, it serves me right for being so comfortable. Within a line, her true poet has metamorphosed from a shrewd but sympathetic hermit to a cold-hearted pariah who ought to be run out of town on a rail. No matter that the author allows him to “maintain a festal brightness and cherishing glow in his bosom.” For “the true poet is not one whit to be pitied; and he is apt to laugh in his sleeve, when any misguided sympathizer whines over his wrongs.” We true poets, Charlotte announces, have a cruel streak. Let those whining misguided sympathizers beware.

I think these assertions are not fact—not in general, not as regards Charlotte the human being, not as regards myself. Yet I can’t plausibly defend the overall character of the entire population of poets past and present nor the everyday character of the flesh-and-blood Charlotte, that woman with whom I never shelled peas or consulted the dictionary or mended stockings or walked on a moor. As for myself, I can shyly venture to think that I’m mostly patient with “utilitarians who sit in judgment on [me].” I can think that I don’t hear their opinions with “hard derision” or “broad, deep, merciless contempt” but with melancholic worry. So perhaps what my reactions imply is a different truth: the truth being that I’m not a true poet, that I’m merely an “unhappy Pharisee.”

Charlotte laughs at me. “Don’t you wish you knew?” she asks.

A reader’s self-myth is terribly susceptible to an author’s manipulation. Possibly now, as you read this, you are convinced that I am inventing your own myth before your very eyes: scissoring my pages into the blank-faced paper-doll shadow of the peruser most susceptible to my fidgety exclamations, my tender anxieties, my cozy bookish distractions. “Oh, she thinks just what I think!” cries the paper doll. “Oh, she’s so interesting, so sensitive, so amusing!”

Charlotte Brontë’s manipulation is not so saccharine. Nonetheless, it molds me, the hapless reader persona, into a currant-eyed replica of the author’s own self-myth; and if I, the living being behind that hapless reader persona, find my gingerbread image rather troublesome to chew, whose fault is that? Hers? Or my own?

The question is unanswerable, though really it’s just one more of the many confusing unanswerable questions that periodically seem to seep from between the pages of Charlotte Brontë’s books, with no apparent purpose other than to tease and pester me. Perhaps I should amend Shirley’s encomium to “Oh! uncle, there is nothing really muddled in this world that is not a poet!”

But I keep rereading Charlotte’s novels, even though I never seem to be able to predict what they’ll put me through this time. Sometimes they do indeed choose to embrace me affectionately, but even more often they jump out from behind a hedge shouting, “He shall die without knowledge,” and then shoot me full of musket balls, as happens to Shirley’s thick-headed manufacturer-hero, poor man, just as he declares he’s “taught [his] brain a new lesson, and filled [his] breast with fresh feelings.”

So if a poet “is rather to be chidden than condoled with,” then chalk me up as chidden. I may not be what I make of myself on the page, but at least I have Charlotte to slap me around, reminding me that the remorseless dead have perennial power to redefine the living, reminding me to take stock of my anxious desire to be likable, reminding me that poetry may be “gladdened by a sun” while also arising from contempt and indifference. It is a lie to assume that my intentions are good, or at least well meant. It is too facile to declare that I am an artist, too dreadful to consider the alternative. “Life is pain,” Charlotte tells me. She sits down at my kitchen table. “Now let me show it to you.”

Mrs. Gaskell closes her biography of Charlotte Brontë with an awkward, ambiguous bow toward her subject’s difficult personality. “I have little more to say,” she tells me. “If my readers find that I have not said enough, I have said too much. I cannot measure or judge of such a character as hers. I cannot map out vices, and virtues, and debateable land.”

Mrs. Gaskell was a good woman who also managed to be a good writer. I sympathize with her reticence. But even though the biographer finds herself silenced, the subject talks on and on, taking pains to map out as many vices and virtues, as much “debateable land” as she possibly can. And although her map is treacherous and unreliable and her roads sink into impassible bogs, she herself achieves an integrity of conviction that is not itself truth but a manifesto of what ought to be truth. “When utilitarians sit in judgment on [a poet], and pronounce him and his art useless,” he ought to be able to hear “the sentence with . . . a hard derision, . . . a broad, deep, comprehensive, and merciless contempt.” In real life, I can’t. In real life, Charlotte couldn’t either. She was hurt by bad reviews and burdened by sadness. “I don’t know what heaviness of spirit has beset me of late,” she wrote in a letter. “Now and then, the silence of the house, the solitude of the room, has pressed on me with a weight I found it difficult to bear.” But she knew herself well enough to add, “If I could write, I dare say I should be better.”

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I still have not recovered from yesterday's shock. I may never recover. As a friend told me, discovering that one has had such a reader is better than an award. And she's right: it is far more wonderful.

One writes as a solitary, as a prisoner forgotten in a dungeon, as a sort of communal negation; yet simultaneously one longs to speak to a reader who comprehends a particular, impelled, spoken, shared silence.

But one hopes mostly in vain--at least, that's how I feel as I sit here at my dusty desk, watching the sparse flat fingers of morning sunlight slip through the spruce branches, through my small bedroom windows.

Being me is the loneliest profession on earth. And you, all of you, are mysterious to me, all of you who read these words. Perhaps readers are a writer's most puzzling gift.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I've just learned from the journal editor that Nobel prizewinner J. M. Coetzee liked my poem "Ugly Town" in New Walk.

I'm feeling sort of dizzy.


1. My desk is dusty, disorganized, and overcrowded with stuff--some of it useful (books and books and books and a sheaf of freshly pointed Dixon-Ticonderoga #2 pencils), some of it silly (dishes of rocks; a cup with Shirley Temple's picture on it). Meanwhile, my kitchen counters are scrubbed and bare.

2. I love playing the violin but hate practicing the violin.

3. And as for Moby-Dick, I admire it but cannot seem to fall into it. I find this disturbing because I love to read as if I'm an uncontrolled practice burn: you know, those fires that the guys set on purpose--say, to get rid of an ugly deserted farmhouse overrun with rats--but that swiftly get out of hand and end up scorching 200 acres of forest? I also have a special predilection for 19th-century novels, so what's the deal here? I have reached chapter 48, but I should be much further along than I am. It pisses me off to be incompetent like this.

4. Last night I had a dream about a friend who this morning sent me an email about his recurring dreams. Curiouser and curiouser.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

I seem to have entered a cycle of vivid dreaming. Every night something peculiar happens; though, naturally, once I wake up and try to think about the characters and events, they fade into shadows. Reconstituting a dream is a Through the Looking-Glass endeavor: the harder I look, the faster it runs away. Nonetheless, I do know that two nights ago I dreamed that a character (who might have been a real friend but whom I can only recall as Someone) told me, in the kindest possible way, that it's too bad I've never been able to play the violin in tune.

I woke up horrified.

To understand why this dream was so disturbing, you'll have to also understand that I have perfect pitch and that I have been playing the violin since I was 6 years old. In other words, pitch is not only hardwired into my subconscious brain, but I have been matching finger to ear for 40 years. Telling me that my sense of pitch is bad is like telling me I don't really understand English.

But of course, this being a dream, I believed Someone, and I found myself apologizing to her for the decades of torture I've been inflicting on my unfortunate listeners. And torture it would be, at least for anyone else with perfect pitch. There is music that I can hardly bear to listen to--certain early recordings of Cajun music, for instance--because the pitch inequities make my ears hurt . . . and this is not an uppity metaphor: I mean these sounds really do cause actual physical pain.

But now my dreams are telling me that I can't trust my sense of pitch; and even though I know these dreams are lying, my faith in my ear is shaken. Why do our own brains torment us like this?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Barely daylight: a cold, windy, rain-swept morning, and I'm out of kindling for the woodstove, but at least the coffee is excellent. I had a lovely weekend with my parents and my sister, in which we did wacky things like drink prosecco at 10 a.m. and plan extravagant vacations. It was all very amusing, and the lemon cake went over well.

And now I am back home again, with much bread baking ahead of me, and work to attend to, and the dog's nerves to assuage.

I admit that I left Moby-Dick on top of the piano for the entire weekend. I promise to return to him today.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Remember, a couple of posts ago, say, around November 1, when I was mentioning the Aurorean and its sweet-tempered editor Cynthia Brackett-Vincent?

Well, today, after I arrived at my parents' house and checked my email, I found out that she'd nominated my sonnet for a Pushcart Prize.

I'm pretty happy about this.
Stuff to do this morning, so I'll be brief. But I thought you might be amused by this poem I'd forgotten I'd written. The Poets Against War website featured it about eight years ago (with strange lineation), even before I brought out my first book. Otherwise, it's never been reprinted or collected, and probably doesn't deserve to be. But it has its funny moments (if you can pardon the strange box and the non-matching type: Blogger insists on them).

Buried Alive with George W. Bush

Dawn Potter

After we cry a little more, he passes

his flask of scotch. I say,

I've heard Dick Cheney is a hologram;

and we chuckle a bit

just to kill time. Probably the miners

trapped in their cave felt like this

when the other guys ran out of things

to talk about and the only sound

left was dripping water and strange echoes

of ogres or the sea. What poems

do I know that would cheer him up, poor

man, with "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"

the only tune he can recall? The acoustics

of caves are almost worth the trip.

He's as good as Pavarotti down here,

and more generous with the drink

than you'd expect, but who knows how much

he's been sipping in-between times. I try out

"The Owl and the Pussycat," which leads GW

to make a well-known off-color joke

under his breath. Chalk it up to his essential self;

and even though I'd like to give him

the benefit of the doubt, he's probably having

similar thoughts about me, such as, What kind

of person recites poems about pussycats

in situations of grave national danger?

If we're rescued, he'll no doubt throw his arm

around my shoulders and do all the talking

to the press about how we kept our spirits up.

If we're not, then who knows

how they'll find us: corpses embraced lovingly

for warmth, or backs turned as we asphyxiate,

composing a series of private lyrics,

little cartoon samples of how

to talk without listening?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

This weekend my father turns 70, so I'll be baking a lemon cake today and then tomorrow leaving my three cake-deprived boys to their own devices while my mother, my sister, and I convene for a small surprise weekend. (Note to my father's friends: you know nothing.) Meanwhile, James will be attending a masquerade ball . . . dressed as a mustache. I cannot believe that I will be missing this and can only beg him to send pictures.

In between editing and election fretting, I've continued to work on my essay about poetry-writing states of mind, which is suddenly overflowing with famous men. So far I've introduced Thoreau, Auden, Graves, Fowles, and Coleridge, and I'm only on page 5. I'm not sure if this bodes well for my desk; already the book stack is tottering. Moreover, James has managed to get Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" stuck in my head, and who knows what effect that will have on any writing I get done? Not an effect that Thoreau, Auden, Graves, or Fowles would care for: I do know that. Coleridge, on the other hand. . . .

By the way, my mother, Janice Miller Potter, has a poem out in the new issue of Poet Lore. This is an excellent journal, and I'm really pleased for her.

Dinner tonight: oven-fried chicken and dumplings, kale, salad greens with roasted red onions, brownies (as a sop to complaining boys who won't get any of the lemon cake I'm making for my dad)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Once again, I'm posting the poem I wrote on the day after Bush won his second term. Hope it makes you feel at least slightly better about last night's results.


Dawn Potter

On the morning I left

my country, sunlight

thrust through the clouds

the way it does after a raw

autumn rain, sky stippled

with blue like a young mackerel,

leaf puddles blinking silver,

sweet western wind gusting

fresh as paint, and a flock

of giddy hens rushing pell-mell

into the mud; and I knelt

in the sodden grass and gathered

my acres close, like starched

skirts; I shook out the golden

tamaracks, and a scuffle of jays

tumbled into my spread apron;

I tucked a weary child into each coat

pocket, wrapped the quiet

garden neat as a shroud

round my lover’s warm heart,

cut the sun from its moorings

and hung it, burnished and fierce,

over my shield arm—a ponderous

weight to ferry so far across the waste—

though long nights ahead, I’ll bless

its brave and crazy fire.

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

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

My First-Ever Public Political Rant

Today is election day, and I am anxious. Maine looks to be poised to acquire an ignorant, short-sighted philistine as governor. Meanwhile, his Democratic and Independent rivals threaten to split the opposition vote. Practically nothing makes me angrier than knowing that big-business money is silently manipulating working-class and laboring citizens to vote against their own best interests, but that is what is happening, and it makes me sick.

I am a liberal voter, but I am not particularly political in any overt way. I don't put signs in my yard, and I live peaceably alongside my conservative Christian neighbors. They are the parents of my children's friends, the people who answer ambulance calls and plow out driveways and coach Farm League teams and fix chainsaws and let me visit their classrooms to read poems and sing songs with their kids. I care about them as human beings. And that's why I get so angry at the Tea Party's manipulations. How dare you lie to my neighbors about the Constitution and the nationality of our president? How dare you teach my neighbors to revoke their rights to health care and clean air?

I'll be voting for the Independent Eliot Cutler today. Usually I vote the straight Democratic ticket; but according to all the polls I've seen (not to mention the groundswell among my liberal acquaintances), Cutler clearly has a better chance to defeat Republican Paul LePage. I hate the idea of voting against rather than for, but that's the way it has to be this year.

So on this election day, when I am pessimistic and angry, I just want to say that I'm standing up for the oppressed--the people who are voting for a candidate I despise--these people who don't even know that they're oppressed. Their party of choice is teaching them to poison their own wells, and that's an appalling immorality.

Monday, November 1, 2010

1. I don't know why it got chosen, but How the Crimes Happened is a featured collection at the Poets at Work website.

2. I have a sonnet out in the new Aurorean--an example of those Shakespearean diary sonnets I was telling you about. This journal is edited by Cynthia Brackett-Vincent, one of the sweetest-tempered editors I've ever corresponded with. I bet even her rejection letters are sweet.

3. According to Lucy Snowe, the main character of Charlotte Bronte's Villette, "There is a perverse mood of the mind which is rather soothed than irritated by misconstruction; and in quarters where we can never be rightly known, we take pleasure, I think, in being consummately ignored. What honest man, on being casually taken for a housebreaker, does not feel rather tickled than vexed at the mistake." A similar sensation ensues if one is making popcorn in the school kitchen during a Harmony Elementary basketball game and meanwhile silently reciting Chaucer.

4. My friend Anne Bowman, who writes under the name Anne Britting Oleson, has just released a chapbook. If you attended the 2010 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, you'll remember that Anne was the participant who camped in the rain for the entire week. She also teaches high school English and has been introducing a poem a day to her students. You can read about both her poem project and her new chapbook on her blog.

5. Time for me to stop writing this and run downstairs to let the dog in. Bark bark bark bark. Such desperation. And in 10 minutes she'll be pacing the floors, longing with equivalent desperation to go outside again. Why are dogs always on the wrong side of the door?