Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I'm proud to announce that the Maine edition of LocusPoint has been released, featuring the poetry of Jay Franzel, Nancy Henry, Leonore Hildebrandt, Carl Little, Anne Britting Oleson, Bruce Spang, and myself, along with a brief introductory essay about writing in Maine. It was such a pleasure to work on this project. I look forward to hearing what you think.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sorry about the lapse in posts. (1) The power lines got hit by Irene. (2) I got hit by the flu. However, both troubles have been weathered, and we are back. Our only significant hurricane event was the loss of a big maple tree, which crushed a rosebush rather than my car. This turned out to be especially fortuitous since last night James inadvertently punched a stereo speaker through the back window of his car. Baby's first car disaster. And, as car disasters go, a nice safe one.

Meanwhile, I am feeling much better: drinking coffee and wiping down counters and prompting Paul to brush his teeth just like a regular, everyday mother, rather than lying weakly on the couch and saying, "Oh, no, I'm fine," whenever some large boy face swims into my vision to ask if he can make me a cup of tea.

Meanwhile, I have been reading Woolf and Milosz and Byatt. I do a lot of reading when I'm convalescing, though I wouldn't be able to pass a test on any of it. Yet reading as hallucination is not necessarily the worst approach to literature.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

I feel silent today. The noise is all outside of me. Rain is falling, steady and straight and heavy. There's no wind yet, though the leaves rustle and rattle under the weight of the stream. I have been outside once already to feed the animals; but as soon as the wind picks up, I'll go out again to lock them all into the barn. Soon we'll lose power, I suppose. We often do, even in milder weather. I'm only hoping I get the bread baked before the oven's electric ignition becomes useless.

Today, amid the storm, I'll be reading Virginia Woolf, folding towels, drinking coffee, staring out the window. There's something about watching weather unfold that replaces thought. Just looking is good enough.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Like many of the rest of you, I'm thinking about Irene bearing down on the East Coast. And while Maine is rarely hurricane-prone, this time looks to be different, which means my corn had better ripen before Sunday. Today I should probably pick peppers and start putting away chairs and houseplants since tomorrow I have to spend all day negotiating an eighth-grade lunch date. This is what happens when your 13-year-old's girlfriend lives 2 hours plus a ferry ride away from him. Fortunately her mother is similarly amused/resigned.

In good news, however, I only have a small amount of editing work to do today, which means that I might just possibly find a brief moment to think about my own writing. I am so anxious to get back to my western Pennsylvania project; I am so anxious to get back to anything. I am only hoping that my simultaneous anxiety about having a freezer full of meat and no generator won't be too distracting.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

For many a petty king ere Arthur came
Ruled in this isle, and ever waging war
Each upon the other, wasted all the land;
And still from time to time the heathen host
Swarm'd overseas, and harried what was left.
And so there grew great tracts of wilderness,
Wherein the beast was ever more and more,
But man was less and less, till Arthur came.

The excerpt above is from Tennyson's "The Coming of Arthur," which is a section from his book-length poem Idylls of the King. And because I'm imagining that I might be the only person in the world who is, at this moment, reading the poetry of Tennyson, I thought I'd share a scrap with you. At least now I can pretend that two of us are reading it.

The book that I am copying from is a small, musty volume containing only part of Idylls. The edition, copyrighted in 1903, opens with a stuffy pedagogical discussion by "Willis Boughton, Ph.D., Teacher of English in Erasmus Hall High School, New York City," and the flyleaf is marked with "Dorothy Traxler, Wyoming Seminary, Kingston, Penna." In other words, it's a schoolbook, from the long-ago days when Tennyson was a high school staple.

Tom found this copy last week in a free-for-the-taking box outside a junk shop in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Although I already own a complete Tennyson, I was loath to drop the book back into the stack of 1970s gardening manuals and unreadable British thrillers. After all, if I didn't take it home, who would? Nonetheless, in many ways it's a dislikable little tome, stodgy and smelly; and if I were a high school student, I wouldn't be a bit excited about being assigned to read Willis Boughton, Ph.D.'s, explanation of Tennyson's scansion techniques: "Note the solemn weirdness produced in this verse by the five successive accents and the emphasis produced in the following verses by the distribution of the accents." I can never remember the names of any of the metrical forms, and my eyes roll back into my head whenever someone starts talking about dactyls. I can hear dactyls perfectly, and I like to write them too. But I don't want to talk about them. (I'm not saying this is a good attitude to take toward prosody; I'm sure yours is far more intelligent.)

But back to Tennyson. What do you think of those lines I quoted? I like them quite a lot, which surprises me because I've had a chip on my shoulder about Tennyson ever since college, when a particularly smarmy professor used to recite passages from Idylls in a mellifluous southern accent, with the expectation that his female students would swoon in admiration. Those of us who did not find ourselves automatically swooning were taken aback by a more ambitious young scholar's calculated use of swooning to achieve high classroom status. Subsequently, this same teacher recommended that I not be allowed to concentrate in creative writing because I didn't have any talent, although as far as I know he had never read anything creative I'd ever written. So you can see that my feelings about Tennyson may have been colored by exterior circumstance.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Following is my essay "The Mysteries of Millbank," which first appeared in the Southern Review.

The Mysteries of Millbank

Dawn Potter

I doubt you’ve read Millbank, or ever will. Why should you? It was never more than dime-store junk, and it’s long been supplanted by more up-to-date trash. Yet in its heyday, hundreds of thousands of readers adored this book. Published in 1871, Millbank was the fifteenth of author Mary J. Holmes’s many profitable novels, literary stilettos that she efficiently jabbed one after the other into the hearts and pocketbooks of America’s low-level feminine bourgeoisie. According to Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography, “with the possible exception of Mrs. Harriet B. Stowe, no female author of America has received so large profits from her copyrights. Some of her books attained a sale of 50,000 copies.” Millbank, apparently, was no exception to that trend. As a New York Times reviewer dryly noted, “the character of Mrs. Holmes’ fictions is well known, and her admirers will find her new book as interesting as any that have preceded it.”

Judging from where I found my own copy of the novel, I’d say that it’s not too difficult to figure out who these admirers might have been. My acquaintance with Millbank began in the mid-1970s in my grandfather’s western Pennsylvania farmhouse. This farm was not old family property: my grandfather had purchased the rundown smallholding in the late sixties from the son of a woman known to me only as “old Mrs. Springer who died in the house.” And along with her rat’s nest of tawdry 1910s furniture, broken bottles, junked horse-drawn plows, and rotting sheds, my grandfather unwittingly acquired a dark-red clothbound novel wedged into a dark corner under the cabinet radio. There Millbank languished until, on a dull rainy day when I was ten years old and trapped in a house that would still have looked familiar to Mrs. Springer—her original ancient linoleum half-heartedly flowering in the bedrooms; her stiff, prickly parlor chairs belching dust when I bounced on them; her sagging kitchen dresser stuffed with scrawls and string—I pulled her copy off the shelf and started to read:

Every window and shutter at Millbank was closed. Knots of crepe were streaming from both the bell knobs, and all around the house there was that deep hush which only the presence of death can inspire. Indoors there was a kind of twilight gloom pervading the room, and the servants spoke in whispers whenever they came near the chamber where the old squire had died three days before, and where he still lay in his handsome coffin, waiting the arrival of Roger, the son of his old age, who had been in St. Louis when his father died, and was expected home on the night when our story opens.

Knots of crepe (whatever they were) . . . deep hush . . . twilight gloom . . . whispering servants . . . old squire . . . handsome coffin . . . dead body lying around inside the house for three days! . . . the son of his old age . . . St. Louis, which sounded like it might be fancy in a French sort of way . . . not least, those portentous words “on the night when our story opens”: I don’t know how Mrs. Springer reacted when she encountered this paragraph, but I was instantly, and irrevocably, hooked. Later, in my teens, when I first read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, I recognized that same greed in novel-hungry Catherine Morland. When a friend asks how she likes Ann Radcliffe’s “horrid” Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Catherine cries, “I have been reading it ever since I woke. . . . Oh, I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it.” That’s exactly how I felt about Millbank.

I do realize that I owe you, at this point, at least a pale summary of the Millbank storyline. Easier said than done, however. As the Times reviewer pointed out, “the plot is rather complicated.”

Two wills, the latest found many years after the supposed heir has been enjoying the estate, and having the effect of ruining his earthly prospects—a foundling child, who turns out to be the daughter of a wealthy villain who has caused the death of another man’s wife and driven his own crazy—an intriguing woman, who was the cause of much trouble, having induced the will-maker to disinherit his son by her slanders on his wife, who was the unhappy victim of the villain—these, together with all the soul-harrowing incidents and complication of unexpected events which an ingenious mind could weave out of them, make up the book. It ends, of course, with the happiness of the deserving ones, after a long succession of sorrows and sufferings that turn the hair of the hero gray, and give him an interesting, care-worn appearance.

The reviewer, no doubt an aspiring Twain reduced to penurious, tormenting dependence on review-a-lady-novelist gigs, spreads the sarcasm rather thick. But I, a more innocent reader, was enraptured. In the backseat of the car, slumped on the crooked porch swing, flat on my stomach on an ancient sagging mattress: everywhere, I read Millbank. I carried it into the bathroom, and I tried to read it while drying dishes, until I got yelled at. In the kitchen someone fried baloney. Cigarette smoke curled up the dark stairwell. I didn’t care; I didn’t notice. Absently, I shelled out another pod of peas and turned a page. I could not stop reading.


As a journalist in the 1840s and 50s, Walt Whitman was attentive to the popular thirst for “blood and thunder romances with alliterative titles and plots of startling interest.” In his view, “the public for whom these tales are written require strong contrasts, broad effects and the fiercest kind of ‘intense’ writing generally. . . . [Such writing is] a power in the land, not without great significance in its way, and very deserving of more careful consideration than has hitherto been accorded it.” Twenty years later, what did he think of the moral power of Millbank, I wonder? Though Holmes pays lip service to temperance and Christian fortitude and is surprisingly tolerant of insanity, money is really what this novel is all about. When she isn’t absorbed in navigating the tortuous switchbacks of her plot, she is cataloging, in breathless detail, the trappings of wealth, documenting everything from one heroine’s “white cambric wrapper just short enough in front to show her small, trim foot and well-shaped ankle” to the mansion in which a second heroine languishes, “her white . . . fingers pressed to her eyes, and the tears . . . streaming through them.”

There were soft velvet carpets on all the floors, covered with bright bouquets, so natural that it seemed as if one had only to stoop and pick them up; mirrors and windows which came to the floor, and over the latter costly lace was falling; pictures, and books, and shells, and rare ornaments from foreign lands; handsome grounds, with winding walks, and terraced banks, and patches of flowers, and fountains, and trees, and rustic seats, and vine-wreathed arbors, and shady nooks, suggestive of quiet, delicious repose; horses and carriages, and plenty of servants at command. This was Alice’s home, and it stood upon the mountain side, overlooking the valley of the Hudson, which river could be seen at intervals winding its way to the sea.

You might think that soaking up such poison would transform nearly any unworldly farm-girl reader into an impatient Emma Bovary. But when I try to reprise my absorption with the novel, I can dredge up no memory of dissatisfaction with my grubby lot. I loved the farm—the hilly pasture with its cluster of sweet lumpish white-faced beefs; the motes of dust and seed that floated among the barn’s red shadows; above all, my gentle, sturdy, obstinate grandfather—and I longed to live there always. I never envied the “broad stone steps and . . . wide piazza and . . . handsome hall” of the glorious manse known as Millbank; and though I admired the heroine’s “pretty traveling dress of gray” with “a fresh pair of cuffs and a clean linen collar,” I was not about to give up walking barefoot in the mud, and I hated washing my hair.

Rather, Millbank was a cultural instruction manual, a window into a strange Cinderella world in which “white hands moved gracefully among the silver service” and “long . . . curls fell upon [Magdalen’s] white, plump neck.” How else would I have learned that serving coffee with the meat course is proof that a housekeeper “care[s] little for fashions”? Like Emily Post, Magdalen was able to pick her neat-footed way through the treacherous terrain of “inexcusable vulgarism.” I, however, was a cesspool of vulgarism. For me, and for the slew of American females without money or class standing who gobbled up Millbank in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the novel was, as much as anything, a how-to book. Believe it or not, even Ma Ingalls, in her Minnesota sod house, owned a copy of Millbank:

Ma said that a great girl almost eight years old should be learning to read instead of running wild on the banks of Plum Creek.

“But I can read, Ma,” Laura begged. “Please don’t make me go to school. I can read. Listen!”

She took the book named Millbank, and opened it, and looking up anxiously at Ma she read, “The doors and windows of Millbank were closed. Crape streamed from the door knob—”

“Oh, Laura,” Ma said, “you are not reading! You are only reciting what you’ve heard me read to Pa so often.”

I do wonder how long-suffering Pa managed to survive so many rereadings of Millbank. I wonder less about Ma. Like me, she probably started reading the novel simply because she didn’t have anything else to read, and she reread it because she still didn’t have anything else to read, and then suddenly rereading Millbank got to be a habit. I expect the same was true for many of its readers: those late nineteenth-century seamstresses and ex-schoolteachers who aspired to gentility and education for themselves and their children. One might see such women as the root of a new feminine vigor, literary and otherwise. Yet in the eyes of certain critics, ambition for improvement didn’t so much ennoble them as make them objects of intellectual scorn.

“Is this what the democratization of literature means?” demanded Ruth Fulton, future cultural anthropologist, in a paper she published in the March 1909 Vassar Miscellany. In her eyes, Millbank consumers were the lowest of the low, members of “the great proletariat class which buys two million volumes of Mary J. Holmes alone and which feasts itself on the dime novel of every variety.” Fulton was thunderstruck by the spectacle. I picture her smiting her forehead in dismay. “Is this the future,” she wailed, “which the great prophets of Democratic Art have seen and prophesied for the last half century?” I suppose it must be. Yes, even Millbank seems to have played its bit part in the history of literary influence.

Despite my abiding attachments to Shakespeare and Milton, Chaucer and Woolf, Lampedusa and Gaskell, I have faithfully reread Millbank at least once a year for the past thirty-five years of my life. At first, rereading the novel was a summer activity only: as soon as my family arrived at the farm for our annual three-month stay, I would hunt down Millbank and dig in. Eventually it occurred to me that no one would care in the least if I were to steal the book for myself; and since then, the novel has retired to my own bookshelf. Annually it grows shabbier: during one childhood reading haze, I managed to peel off the entire spine, and the cameo cover illustration of a frizzy-haired heroine is gradually chipping itself away. But considering that it’s an 1871 dime novel, Mrs. Springer’s edition has been remarkably hardy, as Ma Ingalls’s had to be also. For “in the dugout, Pa mended his boots while Ma read to him again the story called Millbank.


So often, my long relationships with books have taught me unexpected lessons about the shifting strengths and attractions of character. How did my twenty-year-old self love Adam Bede? How did my forty-year-old self love him? But Millbank does not have characters like Adam Bede’s. Nobody ever changes alongside me. Year in and year out, its heroes and heroines, villains and victims, faithful servants and dissolute youths play their stilted parts.

As in any melodrama, the plot of Millbank is the novel’s primary character. Bowing, it steps forward onto the spotlit stage. It declaims speeches and tears its hair and rends the bosom of its gown; and if you hate this genre, you’re not alone. The Times reviewer didn’t care for it either. “Crime, wrong, intense sorrow, insanity, tragical deaths, and all the most terrible scenes, incidents and experiences that the imagination can conceive are absolute matters of fact, existing continually in society around us,” the writer admitted. “Yet they form but a small part of the general experience, and a book made up largely of them is neither truthful in the views it gives of life, nor beneficial in the effect it has upon the mind and feelings. Such a book is [Millbank].”

Anyone who actually believes that tragedy, error, and “intense sorrow” are “but a small part of the general experience” must be either uniquely lucky or a sightless dolt. Yet Millbank’s particular mishmash of “the most terrible scenes, incidents and experiences that the imagination can conceive” is unquestionably silly, and one can hardly blame the reviewer for complaining about the overload. Still, even all these years later, the plot, ridiculous and hair-raising and histrionic as it surely is, manages to amuse and even comfort me. When Magdalen, now a rich heiress, purchases Millbank for her former guardian and would-be husband Roger and then appears in his humble New Hampshire cottage bearing the house deed that will make all of the deserving players happy and rich again, I find myself sighing with contentment at the predictable, chugging, clockwork arrival of this pat dénouement. It’s a stupid ending, and Mary J. Holmes finds space for yet another dig at me and Ma Ingalls and Mrs. Springer, reminding us that Magdalen, “in her handsome Parisian traveling dress with all the little etceteras of a Parisian outfit,” will forever look “anything but dowdy, or crumpled, or old.” But the ending also bears a certain relationship to one of those tinkling baroque sonatas, the kind that rings its thematic changes with witless regularity and then, after a sweeping ritardando, grinds itself into tonic and satisfying silence. Yes, that was the chord my ear expected. Yes, it arrived right on schedule. Thank God.

I’ve spent too many of my adult years being either embarrassed or ironic about my attachment to Millbank. But those days are over, beginning now. As Jane Austen reminds me, “Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans.” Yes, Millbank is a foolish novel. Yes, dear Times reviewer, “The book will find quite as many readers as it ought to have.” It appears to have found me, and I don’t exactly know why, except that once upon a time, on a rainy afternoon in 1975, a girl in a Pennsylvania farmhouse discovered a dark-red book tucked into the corner of a dusty shelf. Plucking it from the shelf, she held the book in her hand for a moment and then, propped on one bare foot, pressing a sharp elbow into the grime-smudged lid of Mrs. Springer’s Victrola, she opened the book and she began to read.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"For some reason, no one likes to be told that they do not read enough poetry."

This remark is from Virginia Woolf's Night and Day, an early novel and one that is not particularly Woolf-like in its language or structure. It's far more similar to a 19th-century work than a 20th-century one: a fat story with carefully observed characters and traditional plot movement. Yet its subject matter is Woolfian: the roles of women, the weight of family and class, the burdens of intellectual history. Reading it makes me want to reread Hermione Lee's biography of VW, which I love and have already read 8 or 10 times. I want to go back and remember why Woolf needed to write a novel in the manner of George Eliot. I want to reconstruct my bond with her.

VW and I have always had a je ne sais quoi relationship, founded on the similarities of our nose, which sounds like a trivial link but really: if one physically resembles a famous writer one admires, how can that relationship feel trivial? Besides, she and I also share a mixed arrogance and anxiety about our lack of scholarly credentials. Whenever I read her essays, I feel she is speaking in the voice I have been searching for within myself. Yet, of course, she is mentally unstable and a snob and a sexual prig and must have a been dreadfully irritating wife. It's not that I want to be her. More, reading about her is like catching a glimpse of my reflection in a mirrored gallery, one crowded with people moving this way and that--turning, speaking, sniffing, raising their eyeglasses, scuttling into corners, burrowing in their pocketbooks.

There I am, I think. And then I am gone.

Monday, August 22, 2011

I am in the midst of another siege of sleeplessness, and after ten days or so of patchy insomnia my brain is feeling somewhat fragile, as if it's a china cup that someone has left too close to the edge of the tea table. In other words, nothing's broken yet.

I lay awake last night listening to the wind and the rain and Tom breathing and the dog sighing and the cellphone battery beeping its plug-me-in-or-turn-me-off song, and I thought about the novel I'm reading, Virginia Woolf's Night and Day, which has the world's most annoying footnotes. VW would be incensed by this edition. Also, I thought about all the editing and lawn mowing I have to do this week, and tried to remind myself to call the dog groomer. All these thoughts were unnecessary, which is the worst thing about insomnia: only the most tedious, irritable part of my consciousness seems to be awake. Where are the flashes of insight? The stunning first lines of poems? No, I'm awake thinking about buying more vinegar before I can make bread-and-butter pickles. Blah.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Finally I am back--parked again here at my kitchen table with early-morning coffee and the pleasant melancholia of the harvest, which is another way of saying that I have far too many cucumbers in my refrigerator. In the way of most vacations, Mount Desert Island was both a soporific and a whirlwind: waking up in a quiet cottage with a view of the foggy sea overlaid by repeatedly cooking dinner for twelve people in a kitchen with six inches of counter space. But now I am home again in my own small yet well-counterspaced kitchen, pleased to be reunited with my favorite knife and a cutting board that is larger than a sandwich but regretting a lifestyle that seemed to be based entirely on taking a happy dog for walks in beautiful, insect-free forests punctuated by scenic rocky outcroppings and sudden broad portraits of the sea.

With hardly any Internet access for a week, I am only now beginning to catch up with the busy, chattery lives of the rest of you. Meanwhile, I did discover last night that the Sewanee Review has posted an excerpt from my essay "Dickens: A Love Letter," which you can read if you like.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Free-range blackberries, fog plus sun, poodle coated with grass clippings, two boat motors, one caw, the poetry of Milosz parked upside down unread, yet another caw. More later.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Rain, fog, public library, little girls with their summer dresses on backwards, elderly gentlemen wrestling with library computers, sensible shoes galore. More later.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Moderate yet impressive East Coast crags. Happy dog. An Internet connection that is vacationing elsewhere. Early morning hike up a cliff with the one I love. More later.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A whirlwind trip to Franconia and back. And today? First, Paul's piano recital; then, family-plus-poodle folds itself into the clown car and hits the road yet again, this time for a week with my parents and my sister's family on Mount Desert Island. It's a retirement party for my father, thrown by my father; and since the cottage we're staying in has wonky Internet, you may or may not hear from me very regularly. Sometimes, if you sit at one particular corner of the kitchen table and kind of lean back toward the wall, you can get a signal. But odds are that James will already be hogging that seat.

Since we never go to MDI during tourist season, this will be a strange new land. When I think of Bar Harbor, I think of February fog and the Thirsty Whale, the only place open for lunch. It's a fine place to drink beer during an ice storm while the boys play AC/DC on the jukebox, but I imagine things will be different in August.

Fortunately the cottage is not a strange new land. I already know about the view of Goose Cove from the bed.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A quick post:

I'm rereading Robertson Davies's What's Bred in the Bone and have been thinking about why I like this novel. There's plenty not to like, including an insouciant/flippant/comic/instructive attitude toward art, philosophy, and scholarship that I find rather wearing. But there's also plenty to like. For instance, he is a master at illustrating how one might almost become an artist, and he is also very good at delineating the way in which an artistic temperament can grow from a background of mediocrity. In this case, that background is a hick Ontario lumber town during the Great War. Davies and his fellow Ontarian, Alice Munro, are not much alike in their writing styles; but both are very, very good at comprehending the complications of backwaters.

Now I have to pack my suitcase. Have a lovely couple of days without me. I hope the sun shines for you (unless you'd prefer rain), and the mosquitoes look elsewhere for blood.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tomorrow I head west again, this time for a brief overnight in Vermont before heading to Franconia and the Frost Place Advanced Seminar. When I last arrived at the seminar, close to a decade ago, I was a participant with two small children and a passel of nerves. This time, I will be a visiting faculty member with two teenage boys and a passel of nerves. So strange.

But this time I'll have John Milton to keep me company, and he is more of a comfort than one might think. Just ask Wordsworth.

London, 1802

William Wordsworth

Milton! thou should'st be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men:
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

This morning I received an acceptance letter from Solstice, which wants to publish my essay "Hated by Literature" in an upcoming issue. In other words, as of today, every single chapter in my unpublishable manuscript, The Vagabond's Bookshelf, has been contracted for individual publication. Perhaps this makes no sense to you. Well, don't ask me to explain because I can't.

Still, I'm grateful to the Solstice editors; very grateful. This has been a difficult piece to place. Its primary subject is my ambiguous relationship with The Autobiography of Malcolm X. My friend Baron has posited that liberal white journal editors don't want to risk publishing a piece that might make them look less than sympathetic to the views of such a charismatic icon. Maybe that's true; I don't know. But I haven't had any more luck with "women's issues" journals, which one might think would be interested in a piece that tries to juggle fascination with the rhetoric and the ideal with disbelief at its casual cruelty to women.

I know that a few of you read versions of this piece as I was writing it, and few others heard me read a section from the essay at the Frost Place in June, so maybe you have some thoughts on the matter. As I've mentioned before, I don't tend to fall into the goddamn-publishers-are-all-against-me mire. We all get rejection letters, but I get fewer of them many writers do; I can only be grateful for that. I do, however, consistently fall into the of-course-this-deserves-to-be-rejected-because-it's-so-stupid mire, which is just as seductive and illusory as the conspiracy-theory mud hole. So when someone suggests that my work is too politically challenging to be published, as Baron did, I sit up straight and say, "What? You must be talking about someone else. I'm the person with the stupid essay, remember?" Ah, isn't easy to fall into every bog you meet?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Among the boy set in my house, Fried Fish Night is a popular occasion, and one they don't get to enjoy all that often. But because fried fish is also an excellent meal to serve in a small kitchen with a rotating and juvenile table population, that's what I'm dishing up to our friends and their three boys tonight.

My approach to Fried Fish Night is to buy firm-fleshed, inexpensive fillets, such as pollack, and cut them into serving portions. Then I make a batter of flour, egg, salt, pepper, and a tiny amount of baking powder: it's a Venetian frying batter I learned from Marcella Hazan, and it works well with vegetables too. When I'm ready to cook, I pour some peanut oil into the wok, enough to come about an inch and a half up the side of the pan. I let the fat get good and hot, which is easy and relatively safe with peanut oil; drop the fish into the batter and then into the pan; and voila. Fried Fish Night.

As long as the weather cooperates for harvesting, we'll also be having roasted green beans, arugula and cucumbers, watermelon, and blueberry and/or raspberry cake. And we'll be having some noise as well. I guarantee that.

In the meantime, I note that it's started to rain. Blueberries are beginning to seem less likely, aren't they?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The air is clouded, heavy. My bare feet stick to the humid kitchen floor. A sparrow clicks and taps at the feeder, and a small wind lifts the shadow-sprung spruce branches. Once again, my house is full of sleeping boys.

I have been reading Byron's "Darkness":

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air. . . .

Summer is sliding to its appointed end. My thoughts, unformed, begin to hazard a word or two, a phrase, a sentence. So strange how my writing pattern follows the year's. Garrulous summer overflows with chatter. But fall and winter are for invention and loneliness.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

First thing this morning we went out for hay. The fog was heavy, the newly mown grass drenched and green. Nowhere in the world could have been more beautiful than my tiny patch of earth.

But now the fog has lifted and the heat has moved in. My barn smells of grass; the crickets are screeing, the mourning doves mourning. Corn is in tassel, and cabbages are Leviathans.

A morning like this might transform anyone into a Romantic, but I already was one.

from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

George Gordon, Lord Byron

Are not the mountains, waves, and skies, a part
Of me and of my soul, as I of them?
Is not the love of these deep in my heart
With a pure passion? should I not contemn
All objects, if compared with these? and stem
A tide of suffering, rather than forego
Such feelings for the hard and worldly phlegm
Of those whose eyes are only turn'd below,
Gazing upon the ground, with thoughts which dare not glow?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Yesterday's mail brought me the Sewanee Review's summer issue, which includes my essay "Dickens: A Love Letter." I've been told that eventually the editors plan to excerpt a bit of that essay on the Sewanee website; I'll let you know when that happens.

In the meantime, here's an odd thing: my friend Nate Fisher decided to put my poem "Clockwork" to music. Nate is an MFA candidate at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, and "Clockwork" is forthcoming in the program's journal, Sou'wester. Here's the link to Nate's recording. (Perhaps I'm being fussy, but I feel bound to explain that he does add other words before starting in on the poem.)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Yes, intrepid and discerning readers, yesterday's mystery book was The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. Since speaking to you, I have not advanced much further into it, having been busy picking an extraordinary number of raspberries and dealing with various editorial snafus. (What kind of word is snafu anyway? I have an intuition that it is somehow etymologically related to moot. Whatever their connection, both words sound as if they have entered English by way of Smurf.)

I was not exactly honest yesterday when I said I thought I might never write another essay again. In fact, I'm presently writing another essay, albeit a very short one. Really, it's more of an introduction than an essay, which is why I forgot to mention it. A few months ago, the editor of LocusPoint contacted me about curating a Maine feature in his journal. As you'll see when you hit the link, LocusPoint focuses on poetry and place . . . up to this point, cities as place. (Our Maine feature will change all that.) Anyway, I'm composing the opening essay, and I'm looking forward to sharing the poetry of several Maine poets whose work I have been following for a number of years now. Most are not well known outside of Maine, so I'm excited to think that they'll get a bit of national exposure.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Probably one of these days I'll bring myself to write to you about the book I'm presently rereading for the thousandth time. It is, essentially, a very bad book, so it may take me some time to figure out a way to explain why I keep rereading it. I estimate that it's at least as bad as Millbank; and though, as you know, I did manage to write an entire essay on that novel, I feel that I may not have the stamina to repeat the experience. I'm in one of those moods in which I'm beginning to imagine that I may never write another essay again. So many words; how will I ever do it?

In any case, here are some details about the book I am presently rereading:

The jolly innkeeper is described as "mine worthy host." This is not dialogue.

The yokel-ish patrons of the inn speak in mysterious dialect: for instance, instead of saying exactly, they say 'xactly.

Aristocrats = good. Revolutionaries = bad.

Sample of actual conversation: "Afraid be demmed! Do you impugn my bravery, Madame?"

I'm sure you are on tenterhooks to learn more about this fine piece of literature. Or perhaps you, too, spent long childhood hours in dark library corners with this very book. If so, you may be interested in reading what the author says about writing it:"It was God's will that I should. And to you moderns, who perhaps do not believe as I do, I will say, 'In the chain of my life, there were so many links, all of which tended towards bringing me to the fulfillment of my destiny.'"

I suppose that's as good an explanation as any for why I reread the damn thing.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

This is a very late post because the sky is threatening thunderstorm and I had to pick raspberries before the clouds burst.

I've come to the conclusion that picking raspberries in my disorderly patch is a form of guerilla yoga. One must assume uncomfortable yet well-balanced positions, frequently semi-upside-down or leaning forward on bended knee. Calm and deep breaths are required if one is to hold such a position without tipping over sideways and smashing fruit, breaking branches, and/or spilling the loot. Likewise, the harvester must exhibit fortitude among raspy thorns and mosquitoes that choose to bite at the exact moment when one's hands are overflowing with delicate squashable berries.

Later today I will pickle beans and possibly make a raspberry pie. First, however, there must be copyediting, and then some more copyediting, and then possibly a trip to the bank.

For some reason, the phrase "supernaturally mundane" springs to mind. I wonder what my unreliable brain is up to this time.

Monday, August 1, 2011

If you glance at my "Upcoming Appearances" list, you'll notice that next April I have two central New Hampshire gigs on the same day. And because central New Hampshire is at least four hours away from Harmony and I'll already have to spend two nights away from home to accomplish even this much poetry action, I'm writing this note to let you know that I'm available to visit your classroom or whatever. We can think of it as "going on tour." Maybe I'll grow my hair out and start carrying around a furry guitar.

In other news: lawn mowing and editing. Also raspberries and a new Red Sox pitcher and quarrelsome members of Congress who ought to be dope-slapped, one and all.