Thursday, March 31, 2011

Yesterday I began writing my perhaps-a-book in earnest. The boys have been funny and observant about my new obsession. Boys: "So tell us what your book will be about." Me: "Oh, I don't know if it will be a book." Boys: "It's always a book when you start ordering tons of other people's books."

They seem to believe that it's perfectly reasonable for me to undertake a research project. Boys: "So you're writing a history of coal and steel?" Me (horrified): "No! No! I don't know how to find out anything about anything! Ack!" Boys: "So you're writing a family history?" Me: "No! Ack! My mother would hate that!"

As you can see, my plans aren't all that clear. Nonetheless, something seems to be happening. Call it, for the moment, "Coal: A Meditation."

One thing I have been thinking about is what I've been calling "the romance of the laborer," a vision of the worker that has lured many people into an ambiguous and contradictory relationship with their own roots and daily actions. Andrew Carnegie, famous strikebreaker and founder of U.S. Steel, was prone to "noble statements about the workingman to the very end of his life, seemingly untroubled by those who criticized his business and labor practices." Henry Clay Frick, on the other hand, offered "no paeans to his former brethren among the ranks and no convoluted justifications as to just how and why the rights of the workers might somehow be maintained without interfering with a steady flow of profit."

Both of these quotations are from Les Standiford's Meet You in Hell, a brief history of the fraught partnership between Carnegie and Frick, which culminated in the infamous Homestead Strike of 1892. I don't always agree with Standiford's quick guesses about the psychological motivations of these men, but they have pressed me to make my own inferences and links. And as I was reading about Carnegie and thinking about our shared "romance of the laborer" tendencies, my thoughts turned suddenly to this poem, which in a way sums up what I mean about the allures and dangers of that romance. My guess is that Carnegie, a dedicated reader of the classics, was well aware of the work of the most popular American poet of his day.

The Village Blacksmith

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate'er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.

Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low.

And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And catch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.

He goes on Sunday to the church,
And sits among his boys;
He hears the parson pray and preach,
He hears his daughter's voice,
Singing in the village choir,
And it makes his heart rejoice.

It sounds to him like her mother's voice,
Singing in Paradise!
He needs must think of her once more,
How in the grave she lies;
And with his hard, rough hand he wipes
A tear out of his eyes.

Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close;
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night's repose.

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

  • From the Library of Congress's online image catalog:


  • From 1885 until 1936, National Foundry & Pipe
  • Works Ltd. and its successor, United States Cast
  • Iron and Foundry Company manufactured cast
  • iron water and gas pipes and fittings.
  • The Duraloy Company took over the Scottdale
  • plant in 1937 after its West Virginia factory
  • burned. By 1945, it was one of the largest
  • producers of equipment for the manufacture
  • of magnesium, and a supplier for the
  • Manhattan Project.

  • (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs
  • Division, Washington, D.C. [HAER PA,
  • 65-SCOTT,1-]).

By the time I was born, my grandfather was no longer mining but had taken a job pouring steel at Duraloy in Scottdale, where he lived. I remember that he used to come home with burn holes in his work clothes. One day he also came home with presents for my sister and me: two giant steel pennies that he'd poured for us. I have no idea where the penny mold came from--I suppose someone must have made it--but he told us that the men all had fun pouring pennies on their lunch hour. My big penny has been sitting on my desk for 40 years now.

You'll notice that I haven't said anything yet about the Manhattan Project. That would be because I can't find anything corroborating this involvement anywhere else online. It does give me the horrors, of course. My granddad himself could not have been involved: in the 1940s he was still mining. In fact, though he'd been drafted into the army and even had his suitcase packed, the government changed its mind and sent him back into the pit.

Still, to think that there was a vibrating link between Scottdale and Hiroshima is appalling. On the other hand, why should this surpise me? The story of coal and steel is all about evil.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

from Dan Rottenberg, The Kingdom of Coal:
Once placed in the mines, the mules never saw the light of day again, for fear the shock would drive them mad.

According to Rottenberg, "the Connellsville coking coal basin was about thirty miles long by an average of two and a half miles wide." The area was also known as the "Pittsburgh seam." Although the names on this small map may be difficult to read, you can see how many mines were crammed into a relatively small area. What you don't see are the coking ovens, where the soft bituminous coal was cooked into coke, a coal residue that was used to fuel the blast furnaces that made steel. In the 1870s and 80s, with the exponential rise of the railroads, the Connellsville coking basin was a trove. By 1883, the district had "more than ten thousand coke ovens." Imagine breathing that air.


Dawn Potter

Beneath houses and mountains, the coal seam lurks,

snaking under markets and factories, under churches, farms,

soda fountains, and garages, under railroad tracks and the hotel

where drunk old men sleep. The woman walks over the coal,

tracing an aimless map onto the earth—trailing, cigarette to lips,

through the ragged yards and alleys to the matinee minstrel show,

where she sits alone and watches the red-lipped white men mop

their black brows, cough and sing in the rising smoke from a hundred

women’s cigarettes, thick enough to choke the light; where she waits

for the piano player to seek out the chords of a darky strut,

for two black white men to stomp their feet, one two one two,

bow, and disappear into the empty wings, into the hill-bound town

where the chimneys hide behind the smoke and the riverbank

flares like a forest, where new leaves are painted in dust that sifts

onto the woman wandering home across the yards and alleys,

under the sooty trees, up the buckled, heaving streets to home;

where soon the man also walks, swinging a lunch bucket, not fast, not slow,

but quiet, stepping one step after another to where the woman sits,

smoking and silent in the kitchen where the kettle boils on the stove,

fogging the window where the child writes her name in careful script

on each little pane, index finger black with the coal that seeps into the house

that the woman has not dusted for weeks, for months, for years:

the glass-faced cabinets, the letters sloping onto tables, the newspapers

jaundiced with age, the scarred legs of couches draped in sheets,

the end table swathed in shabby linen where a once-gilt lamp perches,

throwing a saucer of light that never reaches the dark creeping

up the streets and alleys, the yards where black clotheslines streak the shirts

black and the trees shake black pollen onto the roofs. In the quiet house

the man takes off his boots and peels down his sweat-stiffened socks;

and the child gapes at the white hairless feet, soft and puffed, cramped toes

bending and stretching helplessly under the lamplight while the woman

smokes in silence, while the little kettle coughs and sings on the fire

and the minstrel show rises like steam in her memory, a slow vapor

that bends and frays. Ghostlike, the black-faced men mouth their songs;

crimson seats fold up over wraiths; invisible hands press the silent keys

of the piano. Smoke vanishes into ceiling, and ceiling melts to sky; the clouds

dissolve to pinpoints of light, and the light fades to nothing, not even black;

night descends on a town where the smelters burn and rusty bridges

hang over the creek like mothers staring into an empty crib.

For the child has flitted away into the darkness—a moth, velvet and brief,

wings brushing the soot-stained air, her shadow painting an eyeless window.

[from Boy Land & Other Poems (Deerbrook Editions, 2004)]

Monday, March 28, 2011

from The Kingdom of Coal by Dan Rottenberg

In Pennsylvania's Monongahela Valley, commercial coal mining began in 1759. Between 1768 and 1784 the family of William Penn acquired all of western Pennsylvania's bituminous coal fields from the chiefs of the Six Nations at a total cost of $10,000, or less than a cent an acre--a transaction that ranks alongside Peter Minuit's purchase of Manhattan Island from the Algonkin Indians for trinkets worth $24 in 1626 as one of the great bargains of history.

I woke up in the middle of the night. The wind was blowing hard, as it has been for days now; and my head was full of unwritten words. But I am beginning to see how I might approach this writing project, and one of those angles deals with the fluid yet enduring confusions of class. To wit: now that you've just read that quotation about William Penn's purchase of the coal fields, what do you say to the fact that my first serious boyfriend was 11th in direct descent from William Penn and used to keep a copy of the deed to Pennsylvania taped to his dorm room wall?

I feel that this project is too large for me, yet that's exactly how I felt about the Paradise Lost project. Is it any wonder that I'm waking up in the middle of night?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Yesterday I started reading the first of what may turn out to be a stack of books about the coal industry: Dan Rottenberg's In the Kingdom of Coal, whose study deals specifically with the Leisenring family, the dynasty behind the Westmoreland Coal Company, which operated mines in Virginia, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, as well as "remote places like Connellsville, Pennsylvania"--that remote place where my grandfather went down into the pit every day.

I'm still no further into the book than the introduction, but I already see that it will make its mark on me. Consider, for instance, Rottenberg's description of a hotel that "catered to the streams of coal brokers, entertainers, and tourists who constantly passed through Pottsville," a thriving eastern Pennsylvania burg, which was home to numbers of "anthracite coal barons":

The red-brick, nine-storey Necho Allen [was] named for the hunter who discovered anthracite coal on a nearby mountain in 1790. This hotel's subterranean Coal Mine Tap Room, decorated with anthracite walls and ceilings supported by mine timbers, attracted visitors from across the country who would never set foot in an actual coal mine. In the Necho's ballroom, big bands entertained standing room-only crowds. The Necho's elegant lobby-level dining room, with its ornate chandeliers and heavy white table linens, was dominated by an enormous three-piece oil-on-canvas painting of Sistine Chapel pretentions--but the subject of this monumental triptych was not God awakening Adam, but Necho Allen arousing succeeding generations of coal miners, coal towns, and coal machines to their heroic destiny.

Meanwhile, consider Walker Evans's July 1935 "Street Scene, Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania," one of the many portraits of the Connellsville area that the artist photographed for the Farm Security Administration. I spent a fair amount of time in Mt. Pleasant during the 1970s. It did not look very different from this.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Yesterday was eventful: my older son, after much pain and trial, finally got his driver's license, and we're all so proud and relieved. And my younger son returned home, cheerful and unwashed, after a thrilling and girlfriend-acquiring week at the North Haven island school. So here we are again, our customary quartet, although three of us are still asleep and one of us underwent aggravating dreams about the governor all night.

It is still very cold here--10 degrees at dawn--and yesterday afternoon's dripping icicles have all seized up in awkward paralysis, like crooked stage knives. This is my last free weekend before the onslaught of poetry season. Next Saturday I will be mustering my forces and heading down to Portland for the Maine Festival of the Book, where I'll be doing a book signing with, among other writers, our state's new poet laureate Wesley McNair. Then, in quick succession, I'll be hoicking down to Massachusetts to visit Charlotte Gordon's creative writing class at Endicott College, driving to the seaside to read with Dave Morrison at Rockland Public Library, and trying to think of something to say during a panel discussion at the Plunkett Poetry Festival. If you're anywhere near any of these places during any of those witching hours, come and hold my hand.

Meanwhile, I will drink more of this coffee.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Yesterday's post garnered a number of responses from you, not only the beautiful comments on the post itself but also a few emails and some remarks on the Facebook link. Whether or not you've had a teacher's or parent's relationship with children, all of you shared a patience and a wistfulness that, to me, was very moving. It is hard to be human.

Things aren't going very well, humanity-wise, here in Maine. Our horrible governor continues to make the worst possible decisions. This week, in collision with the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he's ordered the state's Department of Labor to remove a mural depicting the history of Maine's working people. You've probably read about it: the national news has snapped up the story, as well it should. This version, in the Portland Press-Herald, sums up the painful stupidity of the situation.

By chance, I've been working on an essay about western Pennsylvania coal mining, thinking about the labor-worker relationship and how little I knew about it when I was the coal miner's grandchild. Not long ago, E. B. Leisenring, Jr., the man who ran the Westmoreland Coal Company, died. And when I read his obituary, I realized how much horror had been seething right under my nose . . . right then, while I was playing cards with my granddad, feeding his cows, running past the little coal tip he kept to stoke his kitchen stove. Quickly I bought a stack of books, so I'll soon be undergoing an intensive lesson in western Pennsylvania coal history. It will be strange to learn how that intersects with blithe childhood ignorance.

Here's a poem by my mother, the coal miner's daughter, that captures a different sort of childhood ignorance, and knowledge.

The Orpheus of Leisenring

Janice Miller Potter

. . . they heard the sluther of pit-boots.

--D. H. Lawrence

Often he winched his shoulders
quickly, to show he didn't know, as his calm
Sargasso eyes shifted away their troubles
with a remote expression of watery blue,
clear and unclouded but ruefully accepting
the reality that he possessed no clue to
how life had locked him in, a storm becalmed.
He'd thought and felt he knew nothing.

Was it the child, never scanting him
from her constellation of childish claims?
The lamp that rode his skull, the bright star
on the helmet he wore in the Leisenring Mine,
kept her wakeful at night, waiting for the dawn
and the sound of his Dodge. When he pulled in,
the untrellised, rambling seven-sisters rasped
that he'd come up in a cage from Leisenring.

Coal musk drenching his sunless skin,
sweat-sodden, he sluthered into the dark kitchen
where the child--up from nightmare--plundered
his dinner bucket for her wax-papered cake,
the coconut snowball he'd ferried down and back
for her to rob him of. In the half-light, whistling
"Mares Eat Oats," he knew he could assume
neither love nor delight the foil of time.

[from Psalms in Time (Finishing Line Press, 2008)]

Thursday, March 24, 2011

For me, raising children has been a surprising experience. And part of that surprise has been my deep concern and affection for the children who have grown up alongside my own. Whether or not they've turned out to be my boys' close friends, these kids have carved out a place for themselves in my own heart and history. Yet of course I have no say in their lives. The situation reminds me of the famous Theodore Roethke poem "Elegy for Jane (my student, thrown by a horse)." How often must we sit back--rueful, helpless--and watch a familiar yet unfamiliar life slip away?

The other day I asked my son about a boy whom we've known since they were in kindergarten together. Harmony has a K-8 school, but students have a choice about which local high school they'll attend. And because James and this boy chose to go to different high schools, I'd found myself losing track of him. What James told me was this: "I heard his grandmother made him drop out. She said, 'He knows the names of the cows. What more does he need to know?'"

For most of this boy's elementary-school career, I was his music teacher; and I also worked closely with him as a writing teacher. He constantly moved and startled and aggravated and cheered me. He was hard to get out of my head and so ended up featuring as a character in my poems. Today, because I am sad about him, I will reprint those two pieces here. And I will try to accept that there's absolutely nothing I can do for him, other than to smile and speak when I see him. So far, he has always eagerly smiled and spoken in return. My best hope must be that neither of us stops.


Dawn Potter

at school is against the rules,

so when a spike-haired

first grader in need

butts up against your hip,

don’t you wrap your arms

round his skinny bones, don’t you

cup his skull in your palms,

smooth a knuckle up his baby cheek:

he’s got lice, he’s got AIDS;

you kiss him, you die,

or worse: late nights, he’ll hunch up small,

stare into some laugh show

and whisper what no half-pissed dad

cares to hear from his wife’s

kid at the end of a long day

of nothing, when sleep

is the only country,

anywhere else, terror:

a father you’ve marked

before, slouching into parent night,

two hands trembling

along his thighs like birds

shot down,

black eyes wary as a bull’s:

he blinks at the butcher,

you smile, you fold

your unheld hands;

what roils in his wake is the one

you won’t teach

to beg an answer from love.

The Master

Dawn Potter

Leo’s eleven, but he still can’t write “Leo.”

He throws a pencil at me.

You write the poem,” he says.

He frowns and leans back in his chair

and shuts his eyes.

In the flat autumn light, his glasses

shed a watery glow. His freckles tremble.

Leo always likes to keep me waiting.

After a minute he growls,

“Big heifers in the corn again,

And them horses

Is hungry.”

After a minute he snarls,

“Coyote snitched the rawhide.

Grab a gun and blast him,

Then skin him up.”

Twenty other kids breathe hard,

scribble, and erase. Danyell chews

on the end of a pen and sighs gustily.

“Can I make this up?” she complains.

Leo slouches and crosses his arms

over his bony ribs. He opens his eyes

and smiles in a superior manner.

In his view, imagination sucks.

What matters in a poem

is you tell it like it happened

but you leave out the crap.

He jerks his chin up,

looks me over, slitty-eyed. He says,

I do something I do it right!”

When that bell screams,

he’s number one out the door.

[both poems appear in How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry Press, 2010)]

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Yesterday I had a comical first moment: I discovered, via Facebook, that my 13-year-old is "in a relationship." As an ex-middle schooler myself, I can't help but wince at the thought of announcing such a fluid thing as a 7th-grade-romance-with-an-out-of-town-6th-grader to my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and gossipy grown-up acquaintances. This is a relationship that seems best suited for the dim lights of an over-chaperoned dance in the school gym, perhaps combined with some note passing and giggles. But no. The boy is very pleased with himself and, by way of the comments function, has received encouraging congratulations from several Harmony girls, who sound as if they've been coaching him on the sly. Meanwhile, his older brother, who has made no such announcement, shakes his head derisively. But of course, derision is his job, no matter what technological permutations are involved. Even in the old days, my sister knew enough to answer the phone during dinner and say, loud enough for worried parents, awkward telephoning boy, and tooth-gnashing sibling to hear, "What do you want to talk to her for?"

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Here's an amusing passage from Conan Doyle's "Adventure V.--The Five Orange Pips":

The year '87 furnished us with a long series of cases of greater or lesser interest, of which I retain the records. Among my headings under this one twelve months, I find an account of the adventure of the Paradol Chamber, of the Amateur Mendicant Society, who held a luxurious club in the lower vault of a furniture warehouse, of the facts connected with the loss of the British barque Sophy Anderson, of the singular adventures of the Grice Patersons in the island of Uffa, and finally of the Camberwell poisoning case.

Who could resist a tale of the Amateur Mendicant Society, not to mention those "singular adventures" on Uffa? It is unfortunate the record remains blank.

Regarding yesterday's spontaneous literary quiz, you're right: the mystery author was Virginia Woolf, although the book cited was not The Years. It was A Room of One's Own, a work that simultaneously interests and bores me so I tend to re-dip into it rather than actually reread it.

One of these days I might expound on yet another VW strangeness: our accidental doppelganger relationship. Or perhaps I will let the noses do the talking. That will probably work just as well.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Today it will snow again, and I will sit at my desk again, and edit again, and read, and drink coffee until I switch to tea, and wander downstairs to warm up by the stove, and fold laundry, and read, and feed animals, and do all the same things I always do and which you are weary of reading about. I wish I had something new and exciting to impart. But the most exciting thing I have to share is the half-pound of picked crab in my refrigerator, which I bought in Rockland yesterday.

In book news: The supercilious private detective is investigating the mysterious murder of a hot-tempered Australian miner. The crazy ship's captain is chasing the whale. People are turning into rhinoceroses.

In hen news: Ten eggs yesterday, but one was broken.

In family-competition news: My goal in the NCAA basketball tournaments is to achieve the worst possible score. (Pitt: I'm behind you all the way.) But I can still win at Yahtzee.

In random but prescient quotation news:

One has only to think of the Elizabethan tombstones with all those children kneeling with clasped hands; and their early deaths; and to see their houses with their dark, cramped rooms, to realise that no woman could have written poetry then.

Can you guess/dredge up from the coiled recesses of your brain the name of the person who wrote that sentence? (Be brave: no Googling.)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

I am reading, of all the things, a facsimile of the original 24 Sherlock Holmes stories that Arthur Conan Doyle published in the Strand. I've owned this edition since middle school, and for several years I reread it frequently. Since then, it's gotten dusty. But you know: I'm enjoying it quite a lot. Sherlock Holmes himself is highly irritating: pompous, self-important, condescending, etc., etc. Not my ideal man. But the portrait of 1890s London is riveting: streets, characters; sounds, smells . . . all through Watson's eyes, of course, a hint that he is a far more astute observer than either he or the squelching Sherlock chooses to admit. And Sidney Paget's original illustrations also have considerable charm, although he does occasionally have problems with his foreshortening skills.

Yesterday's fiddle gig went well, if you can call a single song a gig. This was actually more than just fiddle playing: I made my debut as a backup singer, which, for a performer who has honed her harmony-singing skills on long lonely car trips, really was rather thrilling. Harmony's old grange hall has lovely soft acoustics, and I was relieved that my voice didn't shake. One never knows when the old stage-fright neurons will reassert themselves.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A quick post: our power's been out for almost 24 hours, and now I have a cartload of dishes to wash, plus a fiddle gig to practice for and a son's suitcase packing to supervise.

Still, we did have a fun candlelight game night, plus a platter full of excellent BLTs, plus the Iseley Brothers via crank-powered radio, plus a wind-torn moonlit landscape.

More anon. For now, I have electrical obligations to meet.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Well, the NCAA men's basketball tournaments started yesterday, and already my bracket is shot. Clearly choosing winners on the basis of good-looking coaches is not a viable strategy for victory. Oh well.

It's raining here on this dark Harmony morning, and the temperature is forecast to reach the mid-50s. Since my yard is still fully plastered with snow, the results won't be pretty. But the rooster is overflowing with hubris, the hens are laying again, pileated woodpeckers are romantically screeching, and my flats of onion seeds are beginning to sprout. In some circles, this would be called spring.

It is hard to fathom that my own sloppy, awkward, semi-peaceable world co-exists alongside the chaos of Libya and Japan--"this melancholy waste of hopes o'erthrown," to quote Wordsworth's Prelude entirely out of context. Yet a line such as that one is a good reminder of why Wordsworth is still a poet to be reckoned with, and also why great poetry matters . . . because somehow, even entirely out of context, even a century out of date, the words say what we don't know needs to be said: that is, until we hear the poet speak them. That combination of surprise and exactness: it is forever a tonic--sometimes almost unbearably sweet; sometimes, as now, bitter indeed.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

from The Middle Ground

Margaret Drabble

The middle years, caught between children and parents, free of neither: the past stretches back too densely, it is too thickly populated, the future has not yet thinned out. No wonder a pattern is slow to emerge from such a thick clutter of cross-references, from such trivia, from such serious but hidden connections. Everything has too much history. . . . Even the table has too much history. Everything one does is weighed down with history. The way one mixes salad dressing, or chooses a pair of socks. Pre-history. And as for committing words to paper, it is not surprising that this exercise should present problems. When one was younger, one saw patterns everywhere, for the process of selection was so simple. One simply did not notice most things, having no means of noticing them. So they selected themselves.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In a few weeks, I'm supposed to take part in a panel discussion titled "Poetry and Communication in the Digital Age." The fact that I've been asked to participate in this forum strikes me as slightly comical, though of course on the surface it makes sense. Here I am chattering away to you on this blog. I do all of my writing on a laptop. Given the increasing cost of postage, I appreciate journals' move toward online submissions. I occasionally promote my writing and teaching on group sites such as Poets at Work and SheWrites. Via Facebook and email, I keep in touch with a growing network of writers and teachers, many of them associated with the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching.

Yet despite all of this activity, I rarely publish in online-only journals (though this is changing now that so many journals have moved their operations to the web). I almost never post unpublished poems or essays on this blog. I don't participate in any of the thousands of Internet poetry-prompt and workshopping sites. The fact is that I like to see my finished work in print, a predilection that is arguably both reactionary and arrogant. But I'm leery as well about releasing online drafts because I don't want to be sucked into quick publication as a way to receive undeserved adulation from readers. I'm hard on myself as a writer: I make myself crawl on thorns: and those travels are solitary business, and slow.

I also work hard to preserve a private personal life. As I wrote to a friend yesterday, this blog has been an interesting experiment in the illusion of transparency. I pick and choose what to reveal about my feelings, my family relations, my professional discomforts. Of course this is what writers always do: we frame and distort, exaggerate and conceal. But the Internet has particular lures and dangers. It simultaneously magnifies our solitude ("Here I am, alone at my desk in my little lonely house in the wild wood") and our instantaneous connections ("But you are there, out there, at this very moment, imagining me at my desk in my little lonely house in the wild wood"). The situation is rather like those tales of people who find themselves unexpectedly creating porn videos for people they've never met. The parallels give me pause, that's for sure.

And then there's the issue of public decorum. For whatever reason, the Internet is a place that encourages people to lose their temper. Even here, on this modest blog outpost, I occasionally get vituperative comments from one-time readers who appear out of nowhere, shouting THIS IS TRUTH, DAMN IT--an opinionated explosion of ire that comes across as jittery, rationalized, vengeful self-defense rather than explanation or curiosity. Certainly there's very little sense of patience for the multiplicities of human vision and experience.

The thing is: people who read what you write believe that they know you . . . you, who barely know yourself; you, who write in order to figure out what you are seeing; to say what only you can say at this single, discrete moment in time; you, who carry the burden of children and lovers, parents and ancestors, gods and devils, forest and sea . . . whatever word or image you find yourself grasping in extremis. Whenever I happen across some Internet dog fight among writers or political adversaries, I get breathless, anxious, distressed in ways that are difficult for me to explain. Cruelty is so easy. Apology is so impossible. Saying nothing is both wise and cowardly.

I could go on at length here, but the animals are clamoring for breakfast. Anyway, if you have any thoughts about "Poetry and Communication in the Digital Age," let me know. I seem to have wandered far away from the subject already.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

So, yesterday's poem.

I wrote it last year, at about this time. It took about 6 hours to finish, and I did it in more or less one sitting. Usually, when I write, I'm holed up at a table in my bedroom; but for this poem I was sitting in the living room in front of the woodstove with the computer on my lap, and I was writing about what I was doing. It was an outburst of the tense present.

No children were home, but Tom was, working about 10 feet away from me, around the corner in his own study. Our house is so small that we have become experts at amicably ignoring one another. Each of us has a small corner of his or her own, tucked out of eye view. So I don't know why I was writing in the middle of the living room when I wasn't alone in the house. That certainly doesn't seem to be the ideal method for completing a poem in a single sitting. Nonetheless, that's what I was doing.

There's a fair amount of despair in the piece . . . despair at the uselessness of all our tasks of living. It's not a sensation I feel every day; but when I reread the poem, I'm glad to have written it down. I think it's important to remember that art isn't necessarily supposed to make either the reader or the writer feel better . . . though, as you see, I've just written the phrase "glad to have written it down." So there's a way to feel both good and bad about creating the same piece of work.

Last weekend, as I was reading Carruth's Letters to Jane, I came across this passage: "It's my kind of country: bleak, slashed, windblown, remote, rather ugly. I'd live up there if I could." I wasn't reading his book when I wrote my poem. But when I look at his words now, I see them as an explanation of sorts. Or, if not an explanation, a fellowship in ugliness and love; a fellowship in the searching sentence, in the adjectival litany.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Poem for March

Ugly Town

Dawn Potter

The sun is under no obligation to shed its optimistic beams

on the ugliest town in Maine—not now, not in March

when I’ve steeled myself for gravel-picked mud and despair,

for broken branches and a plow-scarred dooryard

rimmed with a winter’s worth of dog turds, pale and crumbled

among the pale remaindered weeds.

But it does shine, that fool’s orb, for reasons best known to itself;

and I slouch here in my yellow chair, both cold feet

parked under the woodstove, squinting into this cheerful, bossy glare,

attempting to convince myself that unbridled nature

has, for once, chosen to be a genial master instead of the flogging brute

we expect here in the ugly town, where we don’t think

ski but shovel, don’t think flowers but floods.

Maybe I’ve been reading too many books—

too much Roth and Munro, too much Blake and Carruth,

all of them driven to detail bleak empty roads

and unmown lawns; evil alleys and poisonous rivers;

the fathers, dyspeptic, misunderstood; the mothers,

wiping schmaltz and ketchup from the shabby oilcloth; and meanwhile

those thirteen angels on their magic seats, frowning and perturbed.

Of course there’s happiness too. No one denies the happiness,

but don’t count on it to carry you through. Keep your eye

steady, your irony sharp. Stay wary; it’s best to stay wary—

though not one of these writers, I can tell you right now,

has ever stayed wary enough, and they’ve paid for it in spades—

a phrase that might, for dwellers of another clime,

connote cognac and midnight whist parties

but that here, in the ugly town, where most everyone

gambles by scratch ticket and goes to bed early,

means plain old digging:

in snow, in thankless stony soil, with a bent shovel,

with a belching backhoe; tearing up asphalt,

forking out a winter’s worth of choking black shit.

You can kill yourself when you pay in spades

for a neat square cellar hole—say, when you’re fifty years married

to a woman who’s dreamed for all those heavy decades

of trading her wind-licked trailer for a house with a furnace.

No, you haven’t had time, you haven’t had money,

all you’ve had is a middle-aged kid who won’t get out of the recliner

except to grab a beer from the icebox, all you’ve had

are those cars, one after the other, falling into seizures and dismay;

and if you can’t stop eating what you shouldn’t be eating,

at least there’s salt, there’s sugar, those reliable offerings

that remind you you’re still alive, that you haven’t yet

paid out every single spade. Yet it’s a lie, and you know it,

and I know it too because I tell my own brand of lies,

such as it’s okay to be easy on myself,

such as I mean well, such as it’s good enough

to chronicle the sweetness of this sunlight,

not to force myself to keep struggling to speak

when I don’t know how to think, when I don’t know how

to find the word, the only word, trembling, naked as a rat,

when I don’t know how to lay it down, wet and mewling,

among the schmaltz and the ketchup stains.

Someone might argue that here’s where a little wariness

would do me good, and not just me but all these writers

whose books I’ve been reading too often,

and even they might agree with you, on a bad morning.

But today, according to this obstinate sun, is not a bad morning.

Brilliance leaks and flows through window smears,

patches the dour carpet. The light refuses to let up.

It insists on itself, like a mean cat does,

gliding from nowhere to bite me on the ankle.

The world is too much with us; late and soon

is what Wordsworth wrote, but it’s not what he meant.

He was trying to say we were too distracted by our lives

to notice this sunshine, and here I am borrowing his words

to explain that I am too distracted by this sunshine

to notice my life. The world overtakes me,

I’m not wary enough, and something bad will happen

if I don’t watch out. That’s the point to remember about writing.

It doesn’t solve anything.

[first published in New Walk (autumn/winter 2010-11)]

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Since Christmas, I've been writing poems almost exclusively. But last night, quite suddenly, my brain began turning over ideas for an essay, and this morning I got up and began writing it. I never will understand how the genre shift happens--though possibly, in this case, it's because I've been immersed in Carruth's Letters to Jane, which is such a beautiful book . . . funny, sad, precise, gossipy, cranky-old-mannish. I could quote something from every page. If I'm ever dying of cancer, I hope someone writes me letters like those.

This wretched time change is making me feel like I've got rocks in my head. Already I'm late for everything. According to the clock, I should be stumping through my morning-chore rounds, even though the animals still think it's only 7 a.m. and aren't yelling at me yet. It's the clock that's doing the yelling.

I did plant my onions and leeks yesterday, and cleaned a few spiderwebs out of the greenhouse. It was 40 degrees and humid in there, on a dank day, and the soil was workable. All this seems propitious, despite the stupid time change. Despite the Japanese horror.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Woke up this morning to blank distress about Japan; to a landscape smothered in fog so dense and ominous that it might be a character in a Dickens novel; and to the wincing guilt of having forgotten my nephew's birthday yesterday, which is a peccadillo in the grand scheme but which makes my sister unhappy and also makes me feel barely competent to call myself an adult.

So far I'm the only person awake in this fog-ridden cottage. The damp logs in the woodstove tick and smolder. Under this dull uncertain daylight, everything, inside and out, exudes dingy old age. The gray pines are a thousand years old. The gray automobiles have been parked in the woods to rot. The gray bananas on the gray counter were unearthed from the larders of ancient Rome.

At the window feeder, three busy chickadees root among the gray seed hulls. The feeder is mostly empty, but their optimism is a tiny spark of cheer. I wonder what the birds of Japan are doing today in their stricken landscape.

Yet now, just as I'm composing this dirge, the sun decides to break through the shroud of fog. A ridiculous televisionista ploy! What if I'm not ready to feel less gloomy yet?

Friday, March 11, 2011

This morning it is raining, raining, raining, but I must gird my loins to drive to Bangor in this mess because I have a noontime judging gig. For the past couple of weeks, I have been reading poems by Anonymous, and today is the day that I must eat bagels with my fellow judge and our very pleasant handler and muse over their future.

I've started rereading Hayden Carruth's Letters to Jane, mostly because it's thin and easy to pull out while waiting in line at parent-teacher conferences. And it's a lovely book, really. In case you haven't heard of it before, the book collects the letters that Carruth wrote to Jane Kenyon (Donald Hall's wife and also a fine poet) while she was dying of leukemia. It reminds me of this blog in a way . . . letters with no real point or prospect of an answer. Just a flow of talk.

Anyway here's a sample. For some reason, it makes me happy.

I don't know if you know Francine [Prose] and her work. Myself, I only know Francine. I've never read any of her books. And I'm pretty sure she has never read any of mine. It's strange in a way, but delightful too: two writers who haven't read each other's work and are content--more than content--to be friends on a simply human level. I like her immensely.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Four passages I read this morning. Meanwhile the snow fell.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Now, in calm weather, to swim in the open ocean is as easy to the practised swimmer as to ride in a spring-carriage ashore. But the awful lonesomeness is intolerable. The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it?

from A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
Coleridge certainly did not mean, when he said that a great mind is androgynous, that it is a mind that has any special sympathy with women; a mind that takes up their cause or devotes itself to their interpretation. Perhaps the androgynous mind is less apt to make these distinctions than the single-sexed mind. He meant, perhaps, that the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided. In fact one goes back to Shakespeare's mind as the type of the androgynous, of the man-womanly mind, though it would be impossible to say what Shakespeare thought of women.

from Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionecso (trans. by Derek Prouse)
Berenger (surfeited and pretty weary): How do I know, then? Perhaps [the rhinoceros has] been hiding under a stone? . . . Or maybe it's been nesting on some withered branch?

from Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy by Sun Ra
Proper evaluation of words and letters in their phonetic and associated sense can bring the peoples of the earth into the clear light of pure Cosmic Wisdom.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

For three days now, our trees have been coated with ice. Even yesterday's noon sunshine did no more than to lightly melt the surface so that now, on this cold morning, tiny icicles tremble on every twig and needle. It's as if some giant has sprinkled the forest with handful after handful of shiny porcupine quills.

The week moves along apace. I ought to be starting a few onion and leek seeds, but I haven't yet. I don't feel at all spring-like, though the sunlight does. I feel like a person who trudges up and down the icy paths, trying not to break her ankle in the frozen sinkholes, hoping that the hay and the firewood hold out for a few more weeks and that the chicken house won't fill up with sleety floodwater. March is the cruelest month.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sorry about no letter yesterday. Our Internet was dead, which no doubt pissed off all the Harmony school kids who had intended to spend their snow day watching YouTube videos. But surprisingly, given the amount of sleet we received and the glum condition of the trees in my yard, we never lost power, so I was forced to edit all day instead of mooning around the house with a book while trying to avoid playing Monopoly.

One interesting thing did happen during the sleet storm: I received a rejection letter that informed me I'd been a finalist for a semester-long teaching-poet-in-residence position at a small college in the south. Now, as you know, I don't have any graduate degrees and never will, which means that most colleges automatically disqualify me for such positions. Still, it's my habit to apply for fellowships, etc., that don't require me to pay an application fee, which was the case here. I figure that applying for stuff is good practice, and it makes me feel like I'm trying to be financially intelligent, and, plus, you never know who has a soft spot for poetry collections with demolition-derby cars on their covers. Nonetheless, I was bemused to learn that I'd been a finalist for this job. Either the search committee members didn't read my resume very carefully, or this school has decided that an MFA doesn't necessarily equal a writer who can teach. An intriguing development, don't you think?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

I am no longer driving through Route 95 construction sites in the rainy midnight black.

Soundtrack for rainy midnight driving: Pablo Casals, Ann Peebles, Yo La Tengo, and a surprisingly good late-night show on oldies radio about an R&B group called the Du-Droppers. (Best song: response tune to "Sixty-Minute Man" called "Can't Do Sixty No More." Ah, double entendre. You never grow old.)

I slept in my bed with the fervor of two logs and got up late and still haven't done chores.

The dog wanted to stay up kissing till dawn. But I said no.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

This will be a short post because I'm tired and headachy, again, and am meanwhile girding my loins for a long drive to Massachusetts and back . . . though of course I'm excited to see Tom's show and the various friends and relations who will be there to enjoy him and it. Probably the headache will be gone by then, as will the residue of the hours I spent last night semi-asleep on the couch, where I dreamed the ominous and shadowy plot twists of an unmemorable drama. I seem to recall that I wore gray and was either filled with foreboding or calmly shrugging off disbelief at having to substitute a piece of string for my car's steering wheel. I did not care for the preponderance of menacing invisible people who were lurking in that underlit castle ballroom, nor did I understand why the homeowners had wallpapered over all their fireplaces and then sloppily painted the paper in various bright toddler colors. But at least I didn't have to go back to high school and retake the 1982 math test I'd forgotten to turn in. Nor did I recollect that I was married to my junior prom date. So I suppose I should be grateful.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Welcome to March. This morning it's 12 below zero, with rain forecast for tomorrow night. Don't even try to explain this to me.

On the docket today, teenage driving test. As a result, hardly any breakfast was consumed. Poor boy. He's already failed test number 1, so both his pessimism and his parallel-parking nerves are cranked up to high.

So I'm copying out this little poem for my boy, which he won't read. But that's fine. Poems are for the people who need them. The poet, John Clare (1793-1864), has long been fixed with the label Minor Romantic Poet, which would make an amusing t-shirt or bumper-sticker slogan but is depressing as a sticky monicker for the ages. He was poorly educated and also crazy but was a remarkable observer of the natural world and captured what he saw in odd, compelling, but unevenly crafted poems. The sonnet below is somewhat unusual among 19th-century poems for being written as a single sentence. That's a style you often see in contemporary poems--a breathy rush that works to meld emotion, drama, and observed detail. But it wasn't so common when Clare was writing.

Schoolboys in Winter

John Clare

The schoolboys still their morning rambles take
To neighbouring village school with playing speed,
Loitering with pastimes' leisure till they quake,
Oft looking up the wild geese droves to heed,
Watching the letters which their journeys make,
Or plucking 'awes on which the fieldfares feed,
And hips and sloes--and on each shallow lake
Making glib slides where they like shadows go
Till some fresh pastimes in their minds awake
And off they start anew and hasty blow
Their numbed and clumpsing fingers till they glow,
Then races with their shadows wildly run
That stride, huge giants, o'er the shining snow
In the pale splendour of the winter sun.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

In response to yesterday's Jersey post, I received two lovely gifts from readers: (1) a track from a Titus Andronicus album and (2) a Facebook comment from my baby cousin. Merely she wrote: "I remember those memories."

There were six of us in those days: my sister and me, who were the visitors; and my four cousins, who lived in New Jersey. We saw each other two or three times a year, almost always on their turf. I was the oldest, with the rest born rapidly thereafter, in a four-year knot. We loved each other, and played hard, and then grew up to be very different people who rarely see each other, except at weddings and funerals. But when we do see each other, we are still the same six-of-us we have always been.

When our grandmother died, we were in our late teens and twenties. We were the pall bearers for the funeral, all dressed up in uncomfortable shoes and embarrassing ties. After the funeral, without conversation, we trooped back to my aunt's house, went upstairs to one of my cousin's bedrooms, and sat around silently listening to Bruce Springsteen sing "Born in the U.S.A." Nobody bothered to figure out any explanation for this or divulged any pointless chattery opinionating. Talk is not part of our relationship.

When our grandfather died, we were in our thirties and parents ourselves. After the funeral, which we'd spent hushing children, driving cars, escorting elderly relatives, etc., we all trooped back to my aunt's house, took off our uncomfortable shoes, and climbed onto the backyard trampoline. Then we started jumping up and down together, up and down, up and down: six big grownups in funeral clothes, a couple of us starting to bald, bouncing on a trampoline, no doubt looking ridiculous. Who knows why? We certainly don't. And we never plan to talk about it, which is fine with me.

Some things in this world do not require words.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I am sitting here in Maine thinking about New Jersey. This feels very strange. Not only have I started rereading Richard Ford's most recent Frank Bascombe novel, The Lay of the Land, which is set in New Jersey, but I am editing a book about the Slow Food movement in New Jersey, which will be published by the state's university press. Add to this: my own poetry publisher is located in New Jersey, my best friend died in New Jersey six years ago this week, and half my ancestral heritage is from New Jersey. Clearly I am suffering from spooky Garden State vibes.

Yesterday I received an email from a friend in New Jersey. She hoped that my "weather in the north has as strong a hint of spring as ours does today." My weather does not. Maine is eight degrees above zero and drowning in snow. Mostly I do not wish I were living in New Jersey, but March in Maine makes a person want to be anywhere but here. It is the worst month in the calendar. We imagine spring, and all we get is another foot of snow. Meanwhile, the chickadees sing their little two-note spring song. This only makes us gloomier.

Now is the moment for a pithy quotation about New Jersey, but my 1939 edition of Bartlett's has no entries for "New Jersey" in the index. It does, however, have entries for "New Deal" (Herbert Hoover makes a decimal-point joke), "New England" (the oddness of its hermits), "New Hampshire" ("Anything I can say about New Hampshire / Will serve almost as well about Vermont"--I give you three chances to guess that author), "New Niobe" (she of the "clasp-ed hands"), "New Testament" (nobody has anything interesting to say), "New World" (ditto), "New Year" (it "waits / Beyond to-morrow's mystic gates"), "New York" (James B. Dollard is sick of it), and "New Zealand" (metaphorically equals a place so dull that you might even find yourself taking an interest in the Catholic church). (In unrelated but possibly synchronous news, my copy of Bartlett's once belonged to the United Methodist Retirement Center Library, which is also not in New Jersey.) So because I cannot offer you any snappy New Jersey one-liners from the early half of the twentieth century, I will instead share a few 1970s-era memory snapshots:

Hot sun, and acres of red dust edged with poison ivy. A sweaty orthodox rabbi clings awkwardly to the back of my uncle's combine, in hopes of making sure that all of this wheat chopping is kosher. I have my doubts. His glasses look pretty dirty.

Pizza is called tomato pie. Peaches actually grow on trees, and my aunt makes ice cream from them. My cousin throws up in the hallway after we get dizzy from dancing to Village People 45s. Someone, somewhere, is smoking a cigar. I suspect my father.

Grandparents are Republicans. Parents are Democrats. I don't know what aunts and uncles are. There is arguing. Meanwhile, the kids inspect the Reader's Digest Condensed Books and wish someone would turn down the air conditioning.

Scrapple tastes bad but you have to eat it anyway.

During after-dinner card games, the Republicans and Democrats stop arguing, start drinking martinis and highballs, and energetically josh each other. The kids invent ever louder and more elaborate games in the back room until the dishes in the jelly cupboard start to rattle, an uncle appears demanding decorum and threatening to whale a few tails, and the game is temporarily reduced to hisses and giggles. Repeat till midnight.