Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I planted corn yesterday, and we ate cold sorrel soup for dinner. The weather was just like summer, except for the scent of lilacs and the swarms of blackflies and the absurdly green grass.

Today, on this last day of May 2011, I am going to begin some prep work for the Frost Place teaching conference. And, just possibly, I might start writing a poem in the voice of callow young George Washington. I wonder what I will say. If nothing else, this western Pennsylvania project may give me a better understanding of multiple-personality disorders. Every time I sit down at my desk, I am someone new. I also need to investigate the Whiskey Rebellion more thoroughly. I hear that Fayette County was a hotbed of insurrectionist whiskey drinkers, which sounds about right to me.

In case you were wondering, this is what Samuel Pepys was up to in May 1664:

[May] 3rd. Drank my morning draft in good chocolate, and slabbering my band sent home for another, and so to Mr. Coventry's chamber where I endeavoured to shew the folly and punish it as much as I could of Mr. Povy; for of all the men in the world, I never knew any man of his degree so great a coxcomb, . . . and, I doubt, not over honest, by some things which I see; and yet, for all his folly, he hath the good lucke, now and then, to speak his follies in as good words, and with as good a show, as if it were reason, and to the purpose, which is really one of the wonders of my life.

First, "slabbering" and then the Sarah-Palinish Mr. Povy: how I love this! And all I did was to open a volume at random. Clearly, research is overrated.

Monday, May 30, 2011

For the past two weeks I have been a human tractor: digging, mowing, digging, mowing, hauling manure, digging, digging, digging. T0day I am tired, tired, tired. But I still have corn to plant.

[Small digression into the memory of last night's excellent meal: swordfish steaks marinated in lime juice, garlic, hot pepper, and marjoram. Served with couscous salad. Followed by pitted cherries with whipped cream.]

Today the temperature is supposed to reach the mid-80s. Spring, we barely knew you. My drawers are still full of wool sweaters.

[Small digression into a small rant: Who the hell are these women? Do they really exist? Or am I living on the Planet of the Apes? To the best of my knowledge, I don't know anyone--anyone--who deals with aging like this. I think this is sick . . . and I speak as a woman who does wear a minor amount of makeup and does shave her legs and does worry about her looks to a certain degree. I don't color my hair, though I occasionally consider it. I don't wear nail polish because I hate the way it makes my nails feel heavy. I do feel melancholy about growing older. But perhaps I've been under the delusion that melancholy is an essential element of the human experience.]

[Small digression into poetry: As my friend Baron Wormser writes in his poem "Mulroney," these are the women who are "groomed to run the show."

As his character Mulroney remarks in reply, "How sad."]

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Yesterday I learned that this blog readership has had its first casuality: earlier this week Dana Brand, an occasional reader and commenter, died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. Dana was a professor of English at Hofstra University, a specialist on writers such as Poe, Whitman, and Hawthorne. But he was best known as a fan of one of baseball's most beleaguered teams: the New York Mets. He wrote two books about the Mets and kept an almost daily blog about them. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Michael Kimmelman called Mr. Brand “the Proust of Mets bloggers," and this, in fact, is how I first learned about Dana. Immediately I read his blog, convinced myself to comment, and bought my father-in-law his book for Christmas. And just as immediately Dana wrote back. We never spoke a word about Poe, Whitman, or Hawthorne. We talked about the task of trying to write about baseball.

During that conversation, Dana asked to read my baseball poem, "Cornville," so I posted it for him here. Today I'll post it again, in his memory. I hope the Mets realize how great a fan they've lost.


Dawn Potter

Let us discuss why poetry has lost the power of making men brave.

--E. M. Forster

In front of every third house is a for-sale lineup

not of corn but of flat-bellied pumpkins and warty

hubbards tinted that improbable robin’s-egg blue,

also butternuts, tediously beige, and turk’s-heads

that look like Turk’s heads, though the sales clincher

among these hopeful come-hithers is surely the “PUM

PKINS” sign, a squat two-line exhortation spray-painted

onto a square board and stabbed into a scruff of weeds.

But Jill’s son won’t let her stop the car, not even for pum

pkins; he claims this cheerful roadside merchandise

“might not be good enough,” though he refuses to elaborate

because he’s concentrating on Joe Castiglione, Voice

of the Boston Red Sox, who’s executing a thrilling on-air

play-by-play fit over the alacritous mouse careening

across his shoes in the Tropicana Field press box;

yet even in mid-fluster the intrepid Voice manages

to recount a few pertinent clubhouse-mouse anecdotes,

for who can forget (intones the Voice) the great Phil Rizzuto,

whose severe mouse hate occasionally tempted a bored

Yankee to park a dead rodent in his fielder’s glove?

Her son, alert and unamazed, sucks up this radio tumult

like oxygen; and if he’s more exercised by Rizzuto’s

shortstop stats than by the image of a long-suffering

Trop Field janitor stowing a poised and baited trap

between the Voice’s jittery feet, it’s merely a symptom

of his ascetic attention, the rich curiosities of discipline

he’s imposed on his brain, where details of mouse fear

are mere decorative flourishes in the noble history

of baseball—this unfurling seasonal pageant of power

and beauty and earnest fidelity among a pack of heroes

who can’t possibly blow their seven-game lead,

can they? Another pumpkin stage-set flashes past Jill

on this Cornville road where, come to think of it,

there was corn once, and not so many days ago either:

acres of it, bobbing green and ostrich-like over these mild foothills,

but now shaved close, row upon row of dun-colored stubble

fading to dirt, the harvest’s backward march to blankness,

an oracular patriarch reverting to beardless boy—

mouse heaven, no doubt, but not a modern paradise

the like of Tropicana Field, vast echoing hall of crumbs,

home of Cracker Jack galore and brisk secret scrambles

among an eternity of folding chairs. That poor radio

adventurer scampering over the Voice’s shiny feet:

he’s a goner, no question about it, bound to be trap-snapped,

maybe this at-bat or the next, for the Voice will not forebear,

no extra innings for rodents, and Jill herself cannot abide mice,

those Sisyphean wretches shoving rocks back and forth, back

and forth, all night above her bedroom ceiling; she lies awake,

rigid and furious, wishing them dead. The roadside unrolls

like a backdrop; Jill’s car swallows tarmac, smoothly, greedily;

yes, Cinderella’s godmother magicked pumpkins into coaches,

mice into footmen; but can a princess trust a mouse-man

not to steal her shiny slippers and stuff them under a garret

floorboard? Or does she lie in bed, night after night,

listening to the Voice chatter and complain on the prince’s

kitchen radio, to the mouse-man scuffle and creak

above her head? Is she wishing him dead?

Jill’s son, like any prince, is indifferent to the mouse,

though also magnanimous, though also ruthless.

The mouse doesn’t gnaw at him. A princess

is different—touchier, guiltier. Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater,

had a wife but couldn’t keep her, and no wonder—

they fret so, these wives and princesses, not like the Voice,

who takes a break from his mouse to sell a few Volvo safety tips

and discuss the fine backyard sheds available for purchase

at Home Depot. In the backseat Jill’s son chortles lustily

alongside a Kubota jingle . . . Put her in a pumpkin shell

and there he kept her very well, and what on earth

is that supposed to mean? These nursery rhymes:

they’re like the Good Book—nothing but hint, trickery, or truth.

Jill glances up at the Harley swelling into rear mirror view

and thinks about ire and anti-Peter feminists and pulpit-pounding

preachers and screaming Big Papi fans, and sighs,

not because she’s necessarily immune to energetic belief, or even

energetic hope: but it’s tiresome, this inability to gracefully

tolerate a riddle. We forget the Sphinx and gape at Oedipus;

nothing consoles our lost honor. If the Red Sox

blow the series, her son will weep noisily into his banner,

betrayed, aghast—not exactly implying that Beowulf

died in battle so why shouldn’t Manny Ramirez

brain himself with a bat instead of shrugging “Better luck

next time,” but really: what does brave require?

Not falling on your sword after losing to the Devil Rays

but maybe not “if a bully bothers you on the playground,

just walk on by,” even if the second version comforts

those son-loving mothers who aren’t Grendel’s:

though it would be easy enough to be Grendel’s mother,

Jill thinks suddenly, grieving and vengeful, loping savagely

from her hole in the fens, wretched, livid, desperately hungry

for Danes; and she’s startled at the vision, for it can be strangely

tonic to picture oneself as a monster, especially at moments

of maternal docility, child strapped safely in the backseat

of a well-airbagged automobile, robust squash glinting in the autumn

sunlight, sky as clean and blue as a morning-glory, a sedate

Harley-with-sidecar tooling up behind her. Properly blinking,

the bike passes her; and as it rumbles by her window,

she catches sight of the oversized Rottweiler

wedged into the sidecar. He looks like Stonehenge

on the run, head thick as a brick, little ears aflutter,

yawp gaping with delight and solidly drooling

into the wind. He looks, come to think of it,

like Big Papi heading home for lobster after a cheerful

ball-chasing afternoon, a man who (according to her son)

named his kid after a sub shop, surely a Rottweiler

token of happiness, for there’s a certain plain bravery in joy;

and imagine those golden-haired Geats, shields glinting,

splashing up the stony beach—late-day sun, a sea of spears

and shadows; even a mouse owns the courage

of his enchantments; and how the Voice loves his voice,

the quick syllables, the straining verbs, the fervor of the tale—

“He crushed that pitch,” exclaims the Voice; and meanwhile,

a mouse considers a peanut-laced trap; meanwhile, Jill’s car

trails a disappearing fat dog down a twisting Cornville avenue;

meanwhile, her son suddenly falls asleep against his window,

his mind blossoming with heroes, except that all of them

are himself, everything, yes, everything, depends on his quick

and powerful blow, and how these bright standards

fly in the wind as the men gather in the broad meadow,

a host of warriors, raising their heavy goblets

to salute the king.

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

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Once upon a time, in a town called Harmony, the National Weather Service forecast the possibility of "hen egg size hail." Meanwhile, the cottagers went about their business: first, washing dishes and then watching Smokey and the Bandit on Netflix. It was a terrible movie, except for the basset hound and Jerry Reed's red bell bottoms. Afterwards, when the cottagers went to bed, the storm arrived. But the hail was not hen-egg-sized, and no greenhouse windows were broken. In the morning, a thrush trilled, and a rooster crowed, just as they usually did. And one of the cottagers lay awake in her too-hot bed thinking of seven-league boots and wallets of food that are never empty. Not that she wanted to go anywhere or eat anything: merely the items struck her as something that, perhaps, she used to possess and then lost in the rain or forgot on the back corner of a cellar shelf. How sad, to lose the wallet and the seven-league boots. All she has left is the rooster; and, come September, he'll be in the stewpot.

Friday, May 27, 2011

I'm going to do something here that I very rarely do: I'm going to publish a piece of writing on my blog that I have not previously published elsewhere. This particular essay is a stand-alone version of the final chapter of The Vagabond's Bookshelf, my languishing-in-publisher-limbo collection of of memoir-essays about books I've obsessively reread over the course of my life. Nearly every other chapter has already been published or contracted for publication in major literary journals such as the Sewanee Review, the Threepenny Review, and the Southern Review.

I'm mentioning this history not for the pleasure of braggadocio but because I think there is a peculiar disconnect among the various tentacles of the publishing industry. Why is it so difficult to convince press editors to consider a nonfiction project that has already garnered a readership? Meanwhile, poetry journals reject poems that a publisher has already accepted as part of a book manuscript. I just think this is so strange. Something is going on, and it's not strictly an economic mystery.

Please don't think I'm complaining. I am immensely grateful for the good luck I've had, especially considering my invisibility in the academic writing network. Merely I'm puzzled.

Anyway, here's that essay--more of a conclusion than a full-length chapter. If you're interested in seeing anything else from the book, let me know.

"Quarreling with Nabokov" from The Vagabond's Bookshelf

Dawn Potter

For two or three years, I was working on a memoir about obsessively rereading a handful of novels, most of them nineteenth-century classics that I’ve revisited dozens of times over the course of my life without any intention of ever teaching a class about them. The project was going well: I was publishing chapters in journals, and I had high hopes for the final product. But just as I was finishing up the book, I learned—or thought I learned—that someone else had already written it.

Unfortunately for me, that someone else was Vladimir Nabokov. The book in question was his Lectures on Literature, a collection of posthumously published university lectures about famous novels. And to my dismay, one of those icons was Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, whose modest, somewhat ambiguous heroine, Fanny Price, is a major topic of my memoir.

As soon as I began to imagine what Nabokov might have to say about Fanny, I was seized with a fear that was also well salted with embarrassment. I doubt I would have dared to write about Mansfield Park myself if I’d known beforehand that he was a specialist on it, for Nabokov is one of those writers who intimidates me even at the level of his adjectives. Whatever he might have to say about Fanny would surely render my observations moot.

Oddly, at the moment I stumbled into Lectures, I was already enmeshed in Nabokov’s toils; for I’d just finished my tenth or so rereading of Lolita. I’d first encountered this book as a young teenager, when my mother, who was working on her master's degree, was assigned it in a course. The novel appalled her, for reasons she declined to explicate. I gathered, however, that sex had something to do with her creased brow, so I promptly read the book as soon as she wasn't looking. But the tale was less prurient than I’d hoped it would be, even for a girl with such modest expectations of prurience, mostly because . . . I mean, really, come on: when the chief seducer’s name is Humbert Humbert, the X-rated factor instantly assumes an entirely new algebraic significance.

Over the years, as I’ve returned to Lolita, my sympathies have shifted back and forth among the central comedic tragedies: poor stupid awkward romantic H.H.; poor grubby rude shallow Lo; poor boring infatuated Charlotte. Clare Quilty is really the only character I can wholeheartedly dislike at every reading. If anyone deserves to be murdered by a gun named Chum, it’s him.

But during this season’s pass through the book, I found myself, for the first time, almost entirely distracted by Nabokov’s idiosyncratic control of the English language, especially as he superimposes it onto the 1940s American landscape of movie magazines, midwestern motels, suburban home decor, and educational philistinism. He writes in English, certainly, and beautifully grammatical English to boot, but it’s a strange, comic, terrible version of the language. When Humbert says, “I stopped [my car] in the shelter of the trees and abolished my lights to ponder the next move quietly,” the verb abolished is both absolutely accurate and absolutely wrong. This is why I find it so difficult to come to any settled conclusion about right and wrong, love and lust in Lolita: because the sentences themselves reinforce their ambiguities with such exactness.

Thus, with the rhythms of Lolita pounding in my grammatical synapses, I opened Lectures on Literature, burdened by my overcharged awe, pop-eyed and prepared for illumination. And what happened (at first) was more gratifying than I’d expected: I was flattered. “Curiously enough,” declared Nabokov, “one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”

But despite this delightful opening gambit, my star turned out to be a meteor, and fell. “This is the worst thing a reader can do,” announced N: “he identifies himself with a character in the book.”

Well. What can I say? What can anyone possibly say? Either I decide to agree with him, or I don’t. There is nothing, at this stage of my life, that I can do. For far too long, I’ve identified myself with Fanny Price and David Copperfield, with Natasha Rostov and Pierre Bezukhov. I can’t read like Nabokov: unlike him, I don’t have the slightest interest in drawing maps of the settings in Mansfield Park, nor do I revel in his plot-summary descriptions of the novel’s structural elements. Possibly such approaches would be invaluable for a fiction writer . . . but I am merely a fiction rereader, and I don’t want to change my ways.

My friend Thomas Rayfiel, who is himself a novelist, reminds me that Nabokov’s lectures were never meant for publication and that his teaching gigs were mostly a way to pay the bills. As soon as Lolita hit the big time, he quit his job. It’s also true that these lectures can be very funny, often inadvertently. As Tom remarks, Nabokov talks about Mansfield Park “as if he’d never heard of Jane Austen before.” Consider, for instance, comments such as this one:

We had to find an approach to Jane Austen and her Mansfield Park. I think we did find it and did have some degree of fun with her delicate patterns, with her collection of eggshells in cotton wool. But the fun was forced. We had to slip into a certain mood; we had to focus our eyes in a certain way. Personally I dislike porcelain and the minor arts. . . . However, I have tried to be very objective.

The dingbat jocularity of this passage is so funny and touching that I suppose I can forgive the writer for lambasting my brain. Really, the very idea that I have just used the word dingbat to describe a writer as skilled as Vladimir Nabokov is enough to make me forgive him almost anything.

And this is the essence of my point. When Nabokov claims, “It is clear that [Austen] disapproves of” the family’s play-acting venture in Mansfield Park, I can shout, “No, no! It’s only clear that Fanny disapproves.” And when he blunders on to aver that “there is no reason to suppose that Jane Austen’s sentiments do not parallel Fanny’s,” I can snap his book shut in disgust and go outside to hang laundry. But I can’t deny my lurking pleasure in his humanity. Yes, he was a real reader, and though he was tone-deaf to Austen, he considered her earnestly and with a cogitating joy in his own discoveries.

So what if he’s wrong? So what, for that matter, if I’m wrong? As writer and editor Wendy Lesser remarks, “nothing demonstrates how personal reading is more clearly than rereading does.” We rereaders go back, and back again, to the books we love because they challenge us—not as students, but as human beings splashing boisterously in the shallows of our own brilliance . . . and our own blinkered ignorance.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Let us speak of blackflies.

Before I moved to Maine, blackflies, like scorpions and great white sharks, were merely a rumor. After nearly two decades of May, I now know better.

If you do not have blackflies in your neighborhood, you may be unaware of their habits. I will enlighten you. Blackflies are small creatures, about the size of those midges that go up your nose in late August. Unlike mosquitoes, which are surgically precise in their bloodletting, blackflies have mouths like chainsaws. Their favorite foods are roofers, toddlers in sandboxes, fans at middle-school baseball games, and crabby people who are planting beans. They will chew up any available part of these unfortunate bodies but are particularly fond of faces and the backs of ears. Signs that you have been bitten by a blackfly: crusty streams of blood and swollen eyelids. These symptoms are most likely to appear just before proms, poetry readings, graduation parties, and the visits of nervous grandparents from regions without blackflies.

One odd feature of blackflies is that they bite only in the open air. Any fly that accompanies you into your house immediately becomes disoriented and spends the rest of her life walking up and down a windowpane until the dog licks her up.

A blackfly's favorite weather is your favorite weather. Say, it's been 40 degrees and raining for 2 weeks. Then, suddenly, the sun emerges and the temperature rises to a delightful 70 degrees. Both you and the blackfly rush into the yard, eager to catch up on spring business. The blackfly's approach to business is lusty and sociable, and you soon find yourself indifferent to thinning radishes or raking gravel out of the lawn.

Yet even a blackfly's enthusiasm can wane. As soon as the heat increases to torpid summer, she shrivels and fades. At this point, the lurking deerfly becomes ascendent. That, however, is a tale for another day.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Today's head-scratching quotations (and, yes, I made the adjective mistake on purpose, so don't start crowing):

1. From Max Hastings, "War by Fops and Fools," in the New York Review of Books (9 June 2011): "I must renew my oft-made plea that clever academics concede a higher priority to accessibility and not consider it essential to their intellectual reputations that their prose plow a flight path through cumulonimbus clouds."

2. From Solon J. Buck and Elizabeth Hawthorn Buck, The Planting of Civilization in Western Pennsylvania (U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1939): "The Scotch-Irish were not the patient, painstaking people that the Germans were. They did not keep up their farms so well, partly because they were naturally slipshod."

Now, because it looks likely to be sunny, I have to go clean the barn. Otherwise, you will think that I am naturally slipshod.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Commentary on yesterday's Jourdain poems

To me, "Dovedale" feels like a fragment. It's pretty but somehow unfulfilling. Also, scabious is such a bad name for a flower, and, at least according to Wikipedia, Milly might have chosen other, more evocative common names for the referent. Or she could have played up "scabious" in a different sort of poem. I realize this sounds petty, but diction is diction, after all.

The second poem, "From a Road," is far richer than the first. I love the poet's long, paragraphed stanzas, a response that interests me because I usually dislike unlineated poetry. The contrast among the dense stanzas and the third one, which is so simple and plain, is also beautiful. But once again, she somehow blows it at the end. To understand its poignancy, a reader must understand Milly's personal history: she has Friedrich's ataxia, a particularly crippling form of multiple sclerosis, and so cannot participate in the "stooping" and "touching" she describes in the fourth stanza. But if the poem is to stand alone as a framed work of art, it can't rely on a reader's preknowledge of a writer's autobiography. And that last stanza is a drag: it breaks the spell of the negative capability she exhibits in the previous stanzas (Keats's term for a writer's ability to be intensely involved in delineating a scene that is separate from herself) and requires me to bump back into "poor Milly" mode. Even the language stiffens: "I know I cannot stir from the road" is both a dull phrase and a dull ending.

Negative capability is not only a poet's province. Novelists have it too, and Jane Austen is a prime example. Here's a bit from Emma:

Harriet, tempted by everything and swayed by half a word, was always very long at a purchase; and while she was still hanging over the muslins and changing her mind, Emma went to the door for amusement.--Much could not be hoped for the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury;--Mr. Perry walking hastily by, Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office door, Mr. Cole's carriage horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from the shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker's bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.

What I love about this passage is that Austen simultaneously demonstrates her character's absorption in what she sees and steps back authorially to consider a watcher's ability to become absorbed. Sometimes I think Austen was the smartest person who ever lived to tell about it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Here are a couple of Milly Jourdain poems for you today. Compare and contrast: what do you think? I'll tell you what I think after I hear what you have to say.

(Note to confused new readers: visit the Milly Jourdain Archive to learn about this poet and why I'm reprinting her work.)


Milly Jourdain

There comes to me remembrance like a song,
Of slopes and rocks covered with thin brown grass,
And starred with scabious; there with eager hands
Grasping the slippery tufts of weeds, I climbed
To pick the bright red leaves of fading sorrel:
Then down I lay upon a sun-warmed rock,
And heard the shadowed river sing below.

From a Road

Milly Jourdain

Across the green valley the great hill raises its worn head through the pattern of fields which lie on its warm sides, brown in the summer sun.

Above the line of dark green hedges, beech copses straggle to the top: rooks fly over it and little white clouds.

The short grass is warm and the air is very clear.

For a moment I think I am walking on the hill, stooping and touching the ground with my hands.

But the trailing smell of honeysuckle from the hedge is blown to me, and I know that I cannot stir from the road.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Where is this purported sunshine? Why are the laundry baskets so full? When will the rooster stop crowing at 4 a.m.? How many loaves can three boys consume in a week? Why can't I read a grocery list? Is adding a sprig of baby's breath to a boutonniere for a middle-school semi-formal dance really worth the 2 extra dollars? Why do my poems shift without warning between free verse and form? Isn't black far and away the best-looking color for a poodle? Why do I still remember all the lyrics to Carpenters songs that I never listen to? Does being an involved parent at school make me cheerful or depressed? When will my barnyard fence fall down? How come I keep forgetting to go to the dump? Will I ever get fat? What novel will I read next? Who will attend my funeral?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sitting here at my kitchen table in the green morning light, listening to the endless downpour, drinking French roast with milk, thinking about the persona-poem session I have to lead this morning, smelling the sopping wet grass outside the open window, trying not to think about how long the grass is and how hard it will be to mow if the storm clouds ever do blow out to sea and the sun ever does shine in the Disconsolate North.

What do you think: would that remark look better if it began with a lowercase letter and ended without punctuation?

sitting here at my kitchen table in the green morning light, listening to the endless downpour, drinking French roast with milk, thinking about the persona-poem session I have to lead this morning, smelling the sopping wet grass outside the open window, trying not to think about how long the grass is and how hard it will be to mow if the storm clouds ever do blow out to sea and the sun ever does shine in the Disconsolate North

Perhaps no caps at all?

sitting here at my kitchen table in the green morning light, listening to the endless downpour, drinking french roast with milk, thinking about the persona-poem session i have to lead this morning, smelling the sopping wet grass outside the open window, trying not to think about how long the grass is and how hard it will be to mow if the storm clouds ever do blow out to sea and the sun ever does shine in the disconsolate north

Dickinson-style lines with wacky caps 'n dashes?

Sitting here at my Kitchen table
In the green morning Light, listening to the Endless--
Downpour, drinking French roast with milk, Thinking
About the persona-poem session I have to Lead this Morning--
Smelling the sopping wet grass--outside the Open Window,
Trying not to think about how Long the grass Is
And how hard it will be to mow if the Storm-cloud
Ever do--Blow out to sea and the sun Ever does
Shine in the Disconsolate North--
Modernist brevity?

Table: green morning light: a downpour
A downpour
French roast with milk
Wet grass, open window
Storm clouds
And a Disconsolate North

As you can see, I'm having a hard time deleting "disconsolate," though I expect the Modernists would have none of it.

Friday, May 20, 2011

As I might have mentioned, these western Pennsylvania poems I'm writing seem to be accruing into a "history" of the Chestnut Ridge region of Westmoreland and Fayette counties. History is in quotation marks because this is me writing, and I just can't help framing, embroidering, reorganizing, intensifying, inventing, and putting words into people's mouths. But I am, among other activities, paying a great deal of attention to shifting styles of language expression. People in 1744 don't sound like people in 1808. At the same time I've found myself inserting these expressions into various poetic forms. Some of the poems I've written are free verse; some are not. The one I've titled "Wartime Prosperity, 1744," is, of all things, an ironic bill of sale in the form of a haiku. Most recently I've finished "Incident at Jacob's Creek, 1976," a poem that started out as a sestina in the voice of a crabby 12-year-old girl and then ended up as free verse because the sestina made her sound too syntactically controlled--not a 12-year-old characteristic. "Incident at Jacob's Creek" will be a repetitive title. I've already written another one dated 1755, in the voice of a mother terrified for her children; and I have a third percolating in my head, dated 1775, in the voice of a prissy young itinerant minister.

It just so happens that most of the poems I've written thus far are set in the 18th and early 19th centuries. I know that will change: I've already got pieces dated 1918 and 1939; I've got plans for pieces in the voices of Frick, Carnegie, and Dickens; an alcoholic Italian-immigrant miner who loves Dante; a 1950s high school football star from Dunbar, etc., etc. This project will take me years, I'm afraid. I will try not to bore you too much with it, but I may not be able to help myself.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ugh. So I had that radio interview last night, but I started coughing in the middle of it; and even though the very pleasant, interested, and easygoing interviewer assured me he could excise it from the recording, I still feel glum because I wanted to do a good job. Oh well. Onward and upward, I guess.

On Saturday I will be judging and reading (without coughing, I hope) for the the Maine Poets Society, which you can read about here. The meeting will be held at the University of Maine at Augusta--room 218 of the Richard Randall Student Technology Center--and begins at 9:30 a.m. I am the morning judge, focusing on persona poems; and the afternoon judge is Tom Carper, focusing on sonnets. I received a huge number of entries for the persona-poem contest, so I'm guessing that plenty of people will attend. Maybe I'll see you there.

In the meantime, I'll be running errands, weeding, taking the dog to the vet, editing a poetry collection, and reading a biography of Andrew Carnegie. These fabulously successful entrepreneurs mystify me. They remind me of fairy-tale magicians: the gold just falls out of their mouths. As someone who's barely able to rub two nickels together, I can only think that money making must be a weird, unexplainable talent akin to poetry writing and baseball hitting. "See the ball. Hit the ball." This is my new favorite all-purpose quotation. Thank you so much, Manny Ramirez.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Earlier this week, out of the blue, I was contacted about doing an interview for a radio show on KDHX in St. Louis. For the most part, the interviewer wants to talk about Tracing Paradise, but he'd also like me to read a few poems as well as passages from the memoir. So, imagining yourself as a listener to this broadcast (which, by the way, does stream over the Internet), what topics would you be interested in hearing me maunder on about? And are there any particular poems or bits of Tracing Paradise that you'd like to hear in the air? Each poem or excerpt should be about 3 minutes long, but I'll have a chance to read several of them.

Feel free to email me if you don't want to post a comment here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

This morning I will be immersed in other people's poems: I'm judging a contest, and I'm beginning a new copyediting job for CavanKerry. Meanwhile, the 40-degree rain will continue to fall, and our dank green spring will hover in suspended animation.

I continue to muse over the peculiar narrative voice of The Planting of Civilization in Western Pennsylvania, as in "It is doubtful if the earliest settlers were much concerned about the 'balanced rations' that play so large a part in the the food planning of the modern household." I am also continuing to think about Sunday night's reading. My friend Elizabeth (the poet and memoirist who features with me in this Maine Humanities Council podcast) sent me a note about it, which I think I'll share with you. I feel somewhat self-conscious about doing this since it looks like crowing, and I don't like to look like I'm crowing; but what I really want you to see is her comment about the improvisational link between two readers who know each other's work very well and the audience's awareness of that improvisation, though the readers themselves did not preplan any kind of interlocking performance.

The reading was rigorous, made for poets, strong well muscled lines, phenomenal leaps of imagination. Hearing the poem, "Peter Walsh," out loud was like entering someone else's dream written in a modern echo of Virginia Woolf's musings (yes, at 20, I was a addict of Virginia's prose). We were transported, the audience breathing out at the end at the same time. It was a powerful rare moment of shared dream traveling. It was also a delight to see a such a close mentor and student, now colleagues, who have written and read each other so long, that there are echoes of each other in the work.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Yesterday's reading was a treat, in more ways than one. To begin with, reading with Baron Wormser is always a pleasure and an honor. He is my teacher, my colleague, and my friend. And more recently, in a peculiar twist, I have become his copyeditor, which is a whole new way to learn from his work. In addition to the happiness of getting to read together, we had an audience of poets and old friends. So I decided to read poems that I don't usually venture to air out at readings--poems that aren't funny or necessarily easy to follow on a casual hearing. One of them was "Peter Walsh," a poem that borrows a name and a narrative and linguistic strategy from Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway but that otherwise has nothing to do with her novel. I kept thinking I was making a terrible mistake in reading this dense poem, but at the same time I wanted to hear it in my mouth. In a very real sense, it's a long poem about nothing . . . the way in which a life is composed of unremembered moments. Narrative, too, can be composed of those moments; yet, unlike life, it must frame them, accrue them, in ways that create their own version of drama. So I read this poem. Who knows?--I may never read it in public again, but I'm glad to have had the chance and, especially, to have had this listening audience . . . the kind of audience that reminds me of how grateful I am for the patience that is so crucial to poetic conversation.

Here's "Peter Walsh," if you'd like to take a look at it. The poem is long and dense, for which, on Monday morning, I should apologize. (It's also archived here, at the Beloit Poetry Journal, if you prefer a typeset version to this cranky blog formatting.)

Peter Walsh

Dawn Potter


One might make a start today, this day, to tell the story of a life.

For a life must begin somewhere. Peter Walsh was his name;

and someone had written that name in thick white ink

beneath the image of a child in short pants who looked down

at his cupped hands, and in his hands sat an egg;

a goose egg, was it? or perhaps the egg of a large duck,

or perhaps simply a hen’s egg in a small boy’s hands?

And behind him, was the sea rolling? or was it a field of ripe

hay? And why had someone dropped a spotted scarf at his feet?

In the doorway, his mother tormented herself with dust and disarray:

yes, look at these photographs, waxy with dirt; piano filthy

as coal. And yet there was Peter. And yet there was herself.

A mother brings forth a child and calls him by name;

but what, in the story of his life, does her travail signify?

Merely nothing, perhaps. A signpost to wander away from.

Curtains spoke to wind; a fly complained. The parlor was empty

now but not silent. The kitchen intruded: click of china, rattle of steel.

Voices. On the pianoforte the snapshots smiled, or did not,

each fenced in its solitary room: once he was this age; then

he was that tall. His mother had scattered them with no particular intent.

She rarely saw them, for she saw her child every day as he was.

He rarely saw them, for as documents they had no meaning.

They were objects only, settled on the piano as dust also

settled there. Sometimes they shivered, gently, when Peter

struck the keys. But he did not watch them tremble.


One might make a start today, this day, to tell the story of a life.

For a life must begin somewhere, birth or otherwise,

and Peter’s life (as much as he thought of it) might thus far

have never begun at all, except as explained by its regalia

of framed smiles and comic punch lines, the shabby

trousers and terse adventures trapped in the snapshots

lining the dusty pianoforte (the soft-loud, he named it in his mind,

and sometimes he struck out the words, soft-loud-soft-loud

on the stained keys, like a password or an incantation,

for no one else seemed to notice them at all, these sounds

distracting him, sucking him away from the nothingness

of childhood: of chewing rhubarb and running haywire

across a stubbled field, of pissing against a tree and watching

his own hot stain leak down the bark runnels, quenching the dirt).

One might call life a tale of noticing: a span of intensities,

moments when we suddenly attend to eye or hand or ear;

more, they exact our attention, like an internal command:

Now you are alive. On the pianoforte Peter struck out the words

soft-loud-soft-loud in a sort of dream idleness,

fingertips against keys, muscles contracting, each pitch,

each duration, a subtle, unintended chant, and all the while

bees shimmered in the bright air outside the pocked

window, motes danced in the streaks of sunlight resting

like calm hands on the chairs and carpets, and Peter

lived it all, lived everything: in the parlor, in the unseen

rooms beyond, in the long, low gardens stretching

toward field and forest; and yet he lived none of it:

for life, the richness of earth, sought him out,

claimed his open eye, his voluntary ear, as he lingered

at the piano, striking soft-loud-soft-loud on the stained keys,

idle and untutored, shirttail thrust into his frayed

belt, a smear of green willow on the seat of his shorts.

In the kitchen his mother half-heard his plink-plonk-

plink-plonk; more, she felt it, like a tremor, an emanation,

safe and dull as a drip down a drainpipe:

a comfort, in truth; for now and then she faced

the facts of tedium with a sort of satisfaction,

a release from this ever-lasting hunt for bliss

that seemed, to her surprise, to have been her task

all these years of her life: chasing down the next

thing and the next, and was it squalor or success,

her plans for dinner and the garden and the fruits

of her own mind? She half-heard Peter’s plink-plonk

and half-felt the chimes of her own future clang

in step, then out of step with his idle fingers, uneven

as a ticking clock on a crooked shelf. On the porch

rail two jays sparred; new potatoes bubbled on the stove;

she was making salad, her hands tore lettuce; her hands

were red and worn; they were her grandmother’s hands.

How strange! She watched her grandmother’s hands tear

lettuce, the jays quarreled on the railing; a sparrow

cried, Oh, Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody; Peter played

two notes on the piano, and would he ever stop, would

they ride on and on forever, two notes clanging in the summer

air? It was unbearable, and she cried out, Stop it! If you’re

going to play the piano, play a song, for God’s sake!

and at the sound of her voice, the notes crumpled up

on themselves and vanished, as if they had never lived at all,

as if there were no such notes in the history of the world.

Somewhere a screen door snapped open, and shut.


Peter never thought to love his mother less because she

interrupted these small commas, these accidental

obsessions, which were not knowledge but merely time

stopped in its tracks, no more vital than sleep. His bicycle lay

on its flank in the dooryard, dead as a shot horse; he scooped it up,

he shook it back to life; he mounted and cantered down

the ragged lawn: sedate robins burst into flight, horrified;

he drove the bicycle harder, grinding into mole-holes, through humps

of weed; wind snatched at his hair; the bicycle lurched and galloped

under his hands and the forest rose up from the distance

and became tangles and trunks and shadow, and with a flourish

of tire, Peter pulled up his horse and threw it to the ground

and threw himself onto his back beside it and stared at the clouds,

which leapt in the air like starlings and swallows, until his eyes

shut of their own accord and he stared at the magic swirls

behind his eyelids that also leapt like birds, and it was not sleep,

not at all like sleep, but like gangster movies, in a way; and also

like getting sick on the merry-go-round; but it didn’t matter,

nothing mattered: there was not one thing more important

in this world than another, unless it was his knife, which had

three dull blades and a fold-out spoon. One might make a start

today, this day, to tell the story of a life; yet a life is the story

of nothing, the story of Peter on his back in the grass,

squirming a hand into the right hip pocket of his shorts,

curling his hand around the hidden lump of knife

that his mother had given him for his tenth birthday;

and nothing ever happened because of it: he never

killed anything with this knife; he never even cut himself;

and when he was sixteen, riding a wooden roller coaster

with his cousin, it fell out of his pocket, vanished into the salty

mud, and he never missed it, not once, for the rest of his life;

but a life is also the story of noticing just now, just at this moment,

what we never notice again: and just now the knife lay curled

in Peter’s palm and he caressed it blindly, with thumb and palm

and fingertip; he lay with his eyes closed and leaf-speckled sunlight

stippling his cheeks. A life is the story of nothing, yet once a watcher

believed a moment meant something more than nothing,

believed in the story of a child named Peter Walsh. It began,

that story, and ended, and no one ever knew what became of him,

the child who carried an egg in his hands, beside the sea.

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

Sunday, May 15, 2011

I'm reading tonight with Baron Wormser. I haven't laid eyes on him since last summer, so this will be a happy reunion, so long as I'm not still coughing and sneezing. I spent yesterday evening under the couch blanket with Paul, sniffling and watching the Red Sox beat the pants off the Yankees, which may be why we're both feeling better this morning. But later I did have a night full of anxiety dreams: lost in a Los Angeles parking garage with movable floors, forgetting to read the poems I was supposed to judge for a contest, neglecting to bring any books to sell. So I'm only sort of feeling better.

Here's another of my Fiend poems, one of that set of four I wrote while copying out Paradise Lost.

The Fiend’s Soliloquy

Dawn Potter

O Hell!

The truth is I leaked tears

the instant I laid eyes on you, my idle pair

of babes, plump as pomegranates,

sporting with your lions and tigers and such:

Only clay and water, I’m sure, but so realistic!—

all those wanton ringlets and kissable folds . . .

Well, any fool might mistake you for angels,

and I, though unfoolish,

admit a penchant for pretty faces

and a miracle. How ever does He do it?

Always, my thoughts pursue that wonder,

and you, mirror of my wonder,

you also they chase:

Why conceal it?

I could love you.

So shall I say

I’m sorry the wind has shifted

and grim winter lurks in the east?

Let me be frank, my doves:

Shall I, unpitied, pity you—

gathering your melons and rosebuds,

licking up your milky dregs of delight?

Call it love, if you prefer, but I will have you.

Does it cheer you to know

that likewise you will have me?

In the evening by the fire,

how we will argue, our shabby children

scampering amok among the ashes!

Poor chucks, should I,

at your silly sweetness, melt?

Well, I do. But too bad.

[from How the Crimes Happened

(CavanKerry Press, 2010)]

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Mostly I've been pruning, digging, pruning, planting, transplanting, and digging; but I've also started reading books about western Pennsylvania again, which must be a sign that my head cold is beginning to recede. Presently I'm meandering through the opening pages of The Planting of Civilization in Western Pennsylvania, a 1939 history of the region by Solon J. Buck, director of the Historical Survey of Western Pennsylvania and eventually second Archivist of the United States, and his wife Elizabeth Hawthorn Buck, "a historical researcher and writer, and the author of several historical novels." Given the tenor of the prose in this book, I'm guessing that Dr. Buck provided the big-name stature and Mrs. Buck did the writing. For instance:

To those who learned in school the definition of a plateau as "an elevated table-land" and who consequently visualize a plateau with a top like an immensely enlarged dining-table top and with steep sides up which one would have to climb to the smooth unbroken expanse of damask, it might be difficult to think of western Pennsylvania as a part of what geographers call "the Appalachian Plateau."

For some reason, I find it difficult to believe that the dignified Dr. Buck would admit to imagining a geographical region as a dining-room table covered with a damask tablecloth. But thankfully, a historical novelist/housewife can get away with anything.

Friday, May 13, 2011

So Blogger has been incapacitated for close to 24 hours, and in the meantime its workers removed yesterday's post plus a comment from the day before's, but oh well. I have put myself into the hands of Experts and thus must make the best of it.

Before I waste time writing anything else, I'm going to see if this little note posts. Wish it luck.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Now that I'm feeling less ill, I'm also feeling more embarrassed by yesterday's rant. I do try to cultivate patience, though Tea Party politicians, moronic education policies, and stupid poetry pronouncements can easily fray it. The thing is: when the subject is writing as an art, I am as close to religious fervor as I will ever get--except possibly when I'm listening to a great musical performance. But I'm a practitioner of the writing arts whereas I'm merely a dabbler in the musical arts, so my commitment to writing is both more complex and more straightforward. I believe in the power of writing, not as a route to happiness and contentment . . . no, not that, not that by any means . . . but as my own particular way of trying to figure out what it means to be human. "Trying to figure out" is as close as anyone can ever get, I suspect; so it is the work, not the product or the public success of the product, that must be most important to the creator. Yet I think for a piece of writing to be art, even an imperfect form of art, it must trigger a "what it means to be human" reaction in the reader--not necessarily the identical reaction that the artist experienced, but surely one that has analogous power.

What does this power have to do with arguments about jargon or graduate credits? Nothing, nothing, nothing. Argh.

Still, my crankiness doesn't help anything either, so I will attempt to squelch it. And I do appreciate all of your affectionate comments on yesterday's post. At the very least, they remind me--and maybe remind you too--that being starry-eyed and idealistic is also a way of trying to figure out what it means to be who and what we are.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Dear poetry world:

I am tired of quarrels about what is and is not poetry. I am tired of snipings about the supremacy of form versus free verse. I am tired of people who sneer when someone uses the wrong word, as in "I suppose you mean verse, not poetry," or "I assume you mean meter, not rhythm."

I am tired of people who revile the poems of more publicly successful competitors. I am tired of people who emote over every bit of half-digested doggerel they read. I am tired of vicious attacks on journal editors who reject a critic's poems, and I am tired of journal editors who dismiss the unfashionable work of unfashionable people.

I am tired of sites aimed at women writers that promote snappy marketing strategies instead of excellent writing. I am tired of publishers who reject manuscripts because they are too womanish. I am tired of the phrase "chick lit" and never want to hear it again.

I am tired of grant foundations that give fellowships to people who already have plenty of money. I am tired of asking people for recommendations. I am tired of trying to figure out how to convince foundations that I'm a serious writer even though I don't have a university job or a master's degree. I am tired of people who bitch about the poisons of the MFA system, and I'm tired of having to defend my decision not to go to graduate school.

In short, I have a head cold, which is making me temporarily misanthropic. But in truth, I'm also weary, weary, weary of the poetry world's waste of communal time. As Manny Ramirez once said, "See the ball. Hit the ball." Parse the ambiguities, apply them to writing poems, and feel lucky and/or melancholy. I have to go feed the chickens.


Dawn Potter
Minor regional poet

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The new fence is finished, the chickens have been jailed, and finally I managed to plant my peas without fear of hen retaliation in my garden beds. I am glad about this, though the chickens are cranky and the dog is bored without any yackety fowls to chase into the woods.

Saw my first black fly while I was picking fiddleheads down by the stream. Then later I saw my cocky base-stealing son get picked off at third during the season's first elementary school baseball game. Fortunately he later caught a fine fly ball, his team won, and the coaches decided against taking the kids out for ice cream afterwards. We all would have frozen to the picnic tables.

Otherwise, there is no news here. I caught James's head cold so haven't written a thing since I last spoke to you. I haven't even read anything in particular except for Andrew Lang's fairy tales. I did do a crossword puzzle in 5 minutes, so I'm not entirely brain-dead. It was an absurdly easy puzzle, however, with bizarrely small print. Maybe print size was the puzzle-editor's tricky complication device, as opposed to tricky clues. If so, perhaps he or she ought to go into word searches instead of crosswords.

Maybe today I will plant carrots. Bur first I will dig up a random Bartlett's quotation for you. Here it is . . . and, what do you know?--it's a good one . . . that is, if one defines good as "refreshingly aggravating and liable to make the reader laugh and/or spit."

From "Tired Mothers" by May Riley (Mrs. Albert) Smith [1842-1927]

I wonder so that mothers ever fret
At little children clinging to their gown;
Or that the footprints, when the days are wet,
Are ever black enough to make them frown.

Ick, ick, ick. How I hate Mrs. Albert Smith. Ick. I frown plenty about those black mud tracks "when the days are wet." (Though to be honest, Tom and the dog are more to blame than the boys are. I think my helpful frowning has trained them to take off their boots before coming into the house. It has seemed to work less well with the other two.)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Such a beautiful afternoon at Fenway Park: not only did the Red Sox win and get a lot of hits, but I sat in the best seats I've ever had, next to an affectionate and concentrated 13-year-old, and we cheered and laughed and ate sausage sandwiches together, and had a wonderful and for some reason exhausting afternoon. Plus, after the game, as a Mother's Day treat, fans were invited to walk down onto the field and around the warning track, which was surprisingly wonderful . . . to get to touch the outfield wall known as the Green Monster and to see all the dings in it from the thousands of wall-ball doubles that have nailed it; to peer at the actual "phone to the bullpen"; to watch excited little kids offer to high-five the grounds-crew guys and then to watch the grounds-crew guys cheerfully high-five them back. It was all so sweet. Fenway is a reason to love baseball, even if you don't care about the sport. Just ask my older son, who could care less about baseball but kept remarking with amazement on how much fun he was having.

The long drive home was somewhat gruesome, however; and today we're all wiped out, which is unfortunate for everyone else in the family since they have to go to school and work and one of them has his own opening-day baseball game this afternoon. At least I get to stay home . . . though I do have to plant peas and muscle through a ridiculous amount of housework and grass mowing.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

I woke up early this morning because it's SAT day for my poor, cold-ridden son and I wanted to offer him a hot breakfast and good cheer, both of which seemed to go over well. He might be the sweetest kid in the world. Being his father's son, however, he is also adept at sarcasm and irony. Today, this surfaced in banter about the "totally bitchin' score" he's about to achieve and his pleasure at the thought of arriving at the the test site with a number-2 pencil heavily decorated with shiny hearts. Nothing says "I love you" like a compulsory standardized test.

So now I have about 45 minutes of quiet before I need to fork the other son out of bed. This one is less liable to be overflowing with sweetness and good cheer, despite the fact that I will be making him get up so that we can go shopping for baseball cleats that will fit his enormous feet, not so that he can participate in a career-path-controlling, college-admissions-manipulating, worried-teenager-tormenting scam. His day will come for all that, and he'll still be hard to wake up.

Tomorrow, though, everyone will get up easily. That's the morning we all go to Fenway to watch the Red Sox lose. What a horrible season. Good thing we're prepared for the worst. Paul plans to wear his Montreal Expos hat because the paraphernalia of an extinct ball club is a fan's best friend.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Yesterday I walked down into the woods in the drizzle and found a handful of fiddleheads. Now I really believe spring is here, though the weather is still so cool that we've had to light fires in the woodstove every morning.

I keep writing and writing. Yesterday's poem was set in 1755, at the height of what historian Fred Anderson calls the "cold calculus of terror" inflicted on the Pennsylvania frontier by bands of Shawnee, Delaware, and Mingo warriors." My poem is narrated by a barely literate white-woman settler in fear for her children . . . and with good reason.

How to write as if I am someone who doesn't write easily but who is overflowing with feeling: this is such a mesmerizing task. I am so excited.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

I have started writing poems about western Pennsylvania. Already they are not like poems I have written before, for they are catching up bits of language and anecdote and using them as triggers to invent miniatures of historical fiction. Thus far, I have finished three of them: "The Quartermaster, 1753," "An Elephant in Greensburg, 1808," and "Leading Citizens, 1918." In each piece I am attempting to sound like the date--that is, to borrow and imitate language that mirrors 1753, 1808, or 1918. This has been a great pleasure, and my parrot brain has been surprisingly fluent. I suspect that will soon change, but for the moment I am in immersed in the ho-hum, workaday, unromantic ease that is my usual cue that I am writing what I ought to be writing.

Meanwhile, the rain keeps raining. The dog sighs. Soup bubbles on the stove. Laundry piles up in the baskets. The grass grows and grows, and daffodils dabble their wet heads in the dirt.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Rain and rain and rain today, and I am happy about it. The red buds on the maples are fat and glowing in the mist; the daffodils are denser and more brilliant than I have ever seen them. The colors of spring--gold, green, red, purple--are such balm.

Here is a sonnet by John Clare (1793-1864)--crazy, messy, clumsy, prescient John Clare, the accidental poet, clinging to the garments of Wordsworth; trying to say what he saw, and sometimes doing it. Call him the Gregory Corso of the Romantics.

To John Clare

John Clare

Well, honest John, how fare you now at home?
The spring is come and birds are building nests,
The old cock robin to the sty is come
With olive feathers and its ruddy breast,
And the old cock with wattles and red comb
Struts with the hens and seems to like some best,
Then crows and looks about for little crumbs
Swept out by little folks an hour ago;
The pigs sleep in the sty, the book man comes,
The little boy lets home-close nesting go
And pockets tops and taws where daisies bloom
To look at the new number just laid down
With lots of pictures and good stories too
And Jack-the-giant-killer's high renown.

Dinner tonight: Chicken with lovage, garlic greens, chives, and hop shoots. Salad of mixed wild greens picked in the rain. New bread. Custard pie with today's eggs. I want to make dinners like this every day of my life.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The online literary magazine Solstice has just released its spring 2011 issue, which includes two of the poems that will appear in my forthcoming CavanKerry collection. One of these poems, "Astrolabe," is yet another Shakespearean sonnet, and I hope you're not getting sick of them. As I might have already told you, a couple of winters ago I spent a few months copying out all of Shakespeare's sonnets while simultaneously trying to keep what I was calling a "diary" of sonnets. Most were awful, but several managed to survive, and they are the ones that are beginning to trickle into publication.

The other poem in Solstice ("Spring on the Ripley Road") is somewhat older and dates from when my children were younger than they are now. I wrote it, submitted it fruitlessly to magazines, got rejections, forgot about the poem, and then recently rediscovered and overhauled it. The task of imposing more advanced revision tactics on an early-ish piece was fairly interesting and makes me think that reediting old poems might be less heartbreaking than I've assumed it would be. But possibly this one was a fluke.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Dawn Potter

So wild it was when we first settled here.

Spruce roots invaded the cellar like thieves.

Skunks bred on the doorstep, cluster flies jeered.

Ice-melt dripped shingles and screws from the eaves.

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

At dusk we heard gunshots, and wind and guitars.

We imagined a house with a faucet that ran

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

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

Dogs howled on the mainland, our cliff washed away.

We hunted for clues with a broken-backed shovel.

We drank all the wine, night dwindled to grey.

When we left, a flat sunrise was threatening snow,

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

[first published in roger (2009); forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press)]