Monday, October 31, 2011

I'm not ignoring you: I was just busy boiling homemade dog food. Sigh.

On the bright side, Mathilde is sitting up on her chest and barking every time she hears a gunshot. This is the opening week of deer season, so she is hearing many gunshots, a fortunate state of affairs for a convalescent dog who needs a hobby.

And now I am off to copyedit, and perhaps later I will write a brief disquisition about Shakespeare. Apparently that word is defined as "a long or elaborate essay or discussion on a particular subject," but I'll be writing a short one anyway, despite the dictionary's bossy assumptions.

Here's what I'll be writing about. It's from A Midsummer Night's Dream: a

ct 5, scene 1, lines 4–22. Theseus is speaking.

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

Are of imagination all compact.

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;

That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing

A local habitation and a name.

Such tricks hath strong imagination,

That if it would but apprehend some joy,

It comprehends some bringer of that joy;

Or in the night, imagining some fear,

How easy is a bush suppos’d a bear!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

This morning I was sure we'd have no electricity, but I was wrong: the water continues to run, and the freezers continue to freeze. Still, lying in bed listening to the peaceful sound of snow-weighted trees crashing down in our yard did give me the idea that I ought not expect too much from Central Maine Power.

Sorry I didn't write you a note yesterday. I was (1) up at 6 a.m. making a four-layer cake for a birthday party; (2) loading a flock of chickens into the back of a truck; and (3) fetching a 100-pound Great Pyrenees back from the vet, where she'd been parked overnight because she can't walk. And, yes, on Friday I did have to load that staggering 100-pound dog into the car by myself. Turns out she has an ear infection that is making her dizzy and nauseated; but since she is 14 years old, even an ear infection can be a delicate situation. So for the next several days I am going to have to syringe-feed an elderly dog with a stomach ache who weighs almost as much as I do. If last night's dinner is any predictor, this will involve both of us being liberally smeared with liquefied canned dog food. The bouncy and enthusiastic poodle is the only family member who finds this situation charming.

Between the above activities and my cleaning out the now-empty chicken house/getting ready for snow by splitting as much firewood as possible activities, I didn't get too much reading done yesterday. So I have no interesting quotations for you. You may or may not be relieved.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Today is my son Paul's fourteenth birthday, and in honor of his birth I will give you a glimpse into our shared comic storytelling. My mother and I had a similar riff when I was young: in that case our central character was our cat Twerp, whose mother (Mrs. Erp) lived on Pointyhead Street in Fall River, Massachusetts, where she worshipped at the Church of the Trap Door (if you didn't donate during collection, you got dropped into the basement), and whose ne'er-do-well father (Wyatt Erp) had last been seen in Wacko, Texas.

The story that Paul and I share came into being thanks to his fourth- and fifth-grade spelling homework. Over breakfast, as I fed him words to spell aloud, I developed the habit of using each word in a ridiculous sentence. The words accrued into unexpectedly comic combinations, we morphed into math-homework word problems without answers, and voila: we had a setting and a cast of characters.

One thing you should know is that the fourth- and fifth-grade teacher chooses his spelling words from the kids' journals, so the lists are particularly rich for ridiculous invention.

The town is Jinx. The central character is Mr. Tacklebox, a hapless ninny. Mr. Tacklebox is the nephew of Great-Aunt Yolanda, owner of the world's most fearsome cat, Ulgy (yes, the spelling is correct). Ulgy hangs around with a lazy disreputable cousin-cat named Ratt. Great-Aunt Yolanda's next-door neighbor is Police Sergeant Kinkelhoffer, uncle of Jinx's leading citizen, Mayor Kinkelhoffer. Great-Aunt Yolanda's husband, Great-Uncle Bill, lives at the nursing home with his girlfriend, Nurse.

Important things to know about Jinx: It has a restaurant called the Happy Sibling that features not only Turf 'n' Turf but also (I'm sorry to say) the popular Tortured Chicken Sandwich and a drink special known as the Chattering Disaster. The restaurant is a watering hole for members of the local baseball team (the Jinx Cement), managed by the mysterious Mr. Velocipede, a team so starved for opponents that it's forced to play games against cats.

Important thing to know about Mr. Tacklebox: While he does like the 80s hair band Plaque, his overall favorite musician is Suspicious Junior, an old bluesman who crossed over into punk in an attempt to jumpstart his sagging career. SJ's most recent retrospective album is Suspicious Junior: The Rank Years.

Important thing to know about Great-Aunt Yolanda: Her life is entirely controlled by her fascist cat Ulgy, and she depends on a cleaning product known as Substitute Neighbor. Her relationship with Police Sergeant Kinkelhoffer is ambiguous.

Important thing to know about the nursing home: It serves a wholesome beverage known as Delicious System Action and permits Great-Uncle Bill to keep an assortment of power tools under his bed.

So there you have it: this is how Paul and I while away our foolish hours. And by the way, for his birthday, among other gifts, he received a badly counterfeited $14 bill from Ratt.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A fine poem about the anxieties of publication and revision--

The Author to her Book

Anne Bradstreet (1612-72)

Thou ill-form'd offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did'st by my side remain,
Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad expos'd to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th' press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call.
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
Thy Visage was so irksome in my sight,
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I wash'd thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretcht thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run'st more hobbling than is meet.
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun Cloth, i' th' house I find.
In this array, 'mongst Vulgars mayst thou roam.
In Critics' hands, beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known.
If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst none;
And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,
Which caus'd her thus to send thee out of door.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How long will I be able to keep writing this letter to you every day?

Recently I heard another writer complain that she could never keep a blog because blogs "give away writing for free"--a complaint that is understandable, I suppose, if one is used to getting paid for every word. But of course that is not my problem. My problem is more the burgeoning sense that I am a bore. Really I do nothing exciting. I feed animals and people. I read unpopular books. I garden and hang laundry. I write. Occasionally I play music. My rants are rare and mostly involve grammar. I don't pick fights. I don't have a mission of instruction. I'm not a regular book reviewer. I don't publicize prurient details about my or anyone else's private life. Mornings like today I do feel that I have nothing to offer you but tedium, and I apologize for that. Apparently the life of a poet is dull, despite all Shelleyean evidence to the contrary.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Yesterday I received the current issue of New Walk, a British literary journal that has published one of two recent essays I've written about William Blake. As I paged through the journal, I came across poet Paul Driver's translations of three Verlaine poems, which were lovely and made me stop and think about French poetry--which I rarely do. I've always found Baudelaire, Apollinaire, et al. distasteful, so these pieces were a welcome discovery. I think American writers would do well to check out what's going on in the British journals . . . lots of poets we've never heard of who are writing intelligent, intelligible, musical poems. And New Walk doesn't charge extra for overseas shipping.

Autumn House Press's Coal Hill Review chapbook contest closes on November 1. I don't ordinarily promote book contests; but all my interactions with Autumn House Press have been delightful, so perhaps yours will be as well.

I guess that's all the professional-sounding news I have to share today. In nonprofessional news, I'm still afraid of mousetraps and can't get the woodstove to light. In weather news, snow is forecast for Thursday night, and middle schoolers don't believe in the efficacy of winter coats. In reading news, I recommend the lais of Marie de France and a comic/horrifying Wikipedia article about the year Rome was inflicted with four emperors. I read it aloud to my son while he was washing dishes (his idea: both the dishes and the reading). The article ends with my current favorite deathbed quotation: "Vespasian did not meet any direct threat to his imperial power after the death of Vitellius. He became the founder of the stable Flavian dynasty that succeeded the Julio-Claudians and died of natural causes as emperor in 79, with the famous last words, 'Vae, puto deus fio' ('Dear me, I must be turning into a god')."

Monday, October 24, 2011

Reading poem proofs, beginning a new copyediting job, researching the unknown life of Marie de France.

Vacuuming the hopeless living room rug, yanking out frost-fried cosmos and bachelors' buttons, washing boy clothes.

Splitting firewood, stacking firewood, listening to woodpeckers and squirrels, picking burrs out of the poodle's ears.

Writing, worrying about my writing, not worrying about my writing, reading about mosquitoes in the Everglades, drinking coffee, fruitlessly hunting for a stamp.

Drinking red wine, eating tomato pie, watching baseball, discussing Hemingway and/or starting pitchers, not driving to Portland to see the Flaming Lips concert but waving good-bye to those who are.

Listening to wind and coyotes, dreaming strange dreams.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

I have been so immersed in other people's work that I have almost forgotten how to read my own. So when I got a note on Friday from CavanKerry Press I was afraid to open it. The subject was my forthcoming collection; the note included pre-press comments from the manuscript editor on the state of the ms.

I didn't want to know what anyone thought; I just didn't want to know. This reaction had nothing to do with defensiveness, or distrust of criticism, or lack of respect for the editor's eye, or anything of the sort. Maybe fear is the word--fear that nothing I've written will make sense to me when I look at it again, that the poems will have lost all power to speak. It's stupid to stay so raw about one's creations. But how can anyone help it?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Things I discovered yesterday:

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was Dante's first American translator, and his version is gorgeous.

The historian Suetonius writes about Virgil's revision process: "it is said to have been his custom to dictate each day a large number of verses which he had composed in the morning and then to spend the rest of the day in reducing them to a very small number, wittily remarking that he fashioned his poem after the manner of a she-bear, and gradually licked it into shape."

Middle school dances are hotbeds of unsubstantiated rumor and the rampant consumption of salty snacks. Also, one of the songs on the request list was Foreigner's "Hot Blooded." My son claims he did not request it just to drive me crazy. He claims to have had nothing at all to do with it because he was too busy strutting around beneath the strobe lights with a gold-painted box on his head.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Read yesterday's comments, and you'll find a snatch of Ovid's poetry, gorgeously translated into sixteenth-century English. But what follows is the Ovid that I've been reading lately: a prose translation of one of his Epistolae ex Ponto, a series of desperate and despairing verse letters written from the shores of the Black Sea, where, in 8 A.D., Emperor Augustus banished the poet for reasons that are still unclear. The only explanation that Ovid himself offers is carmen et error--a poem and a mistake.

Why then do I write, you wonder? I too wonder, and with you I often ask what I seek from it. Or do the people say true that poets are not sane and am I the strongest proof of this maxim, I, who though so many times deceived by the barrenness of the soil, persist in sowing my seed in ground that ruins me? Clearly each man shows a passion for his own pursuits, taking pleasure in devoting time to his familiar art. The wounded gladiator forswears the fight, yet forgetting his former wound he dons his arms. The shipwrecked man declares that he will have nothing to do with the waves of the sea, yet plies the oar in the water in which but recently he swam. In the same way I continually hold to a profitless pursuit, returning to the goddesses whom I would I had not worshipped.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Last night I dreamed about Ovid, but I don't know what I was dreaming. Outside my open window the quiet rain was falling, falling; I woke with a crick in my neck and then I was dreaming, tossing, crumpling my pillow, waking, dreaming.

There is a voice in my head that will not be stilled, but I cannot hear it or remember what it says. The voice is like a song with no words or tune; it is like the clicking of an iron stove expanding in the heat; it is like the drumming of a grouse--a dull pulse, endless, an almost-silence.

The rain is falling, falling; and now the light is creeping through the empty maples, the skeletal arms of the birches. Last night I dreamed about Ovid, but I don't know what I was dreaming. I want, I don't want, to invent a tale to replace the truth. I remember nothing, but I could make you believe me.

I could.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I've been reading Horace's Ars Poetica, composed during Rome's Augustan Age, alongside Peter Matthiessen's Shadow Country, set in the Everglades at the turn of the twentieth century. I've been thinking about Ben Jonson and Lord Byron and gold spray paint for my son's Halloween costume. I've been masterminding the other son's doctor's appointment and forking over gas money and baking pumpkins. I've been unable to compose a Facebook status. I've been watching late-afternoon clouds, navy blue and ominous, bullying their way across a pallid sky. I've been thinking about Borges and the World Series and forgetting to write "mustard" on the grocery list. I've been letting the dog in and letting the dog out and letting the dog in and sweeping up ashes from the hearth and thinking about the King James Version versus the Revised Standard Version. I've been sitting in the Dexter library's reading room listening to a fat cat wash its feet. I've been pondering my son's remark, "The best place to see strange people is at the grocery store," and countering with "What about a hospital waiting room? Or a bus station?" I've been feeding old freezer-burnt tortillas to greedy chickens and ineffectually coaxing the poodle to swallow a pill. I've been finishing crossword puzzles while ignoring the sudoku. I've been imagining a poem about a 1940s baseball star from Donora, Pennsylvania, and dreaming early-morning dreams that I can't remember once I wake up. I've been digging up a garden bed for garlic; I've been reading the local obituaries; I've been nagging my son to brush his teeth; I've been reading the poetry of Alexander Pope. I've been sitting here in my raggedy bathrobe typing this note to you instead of filling the woodbox and hauling water for the goat. Therefore, as the shouting goat reminds me, I must stop doing this job and go do hers instead.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Yesterday I was reading Aristotle (dry) and Sappho (not dry). Here is Sir Philip Sidney's lovely, lovely translation of a Sappho fragment. This same fragment has also been translated by Catullus, Tennyson, T. S. Eliot, W. C. Williams, Robert Lowell, and many others. But I like Sidney's best.

Fragment 31

Sappho (c. 615–c. 550 b.c.e.), trans. Sir Philip Sidney (1554–86)

My muse, what ails this ardour?
Mine eys be dym, my lymbs shake,
My voice is hoarse, my throte scorcht,
My tong to this roofe cleaves,
My fancy amazde, my thoughtes dull’d,
My head doth ake, my life faints
My sowle begins to take leave,
So greate a passion all feele,
To think a soare so deadly
I should so rashly ripp up.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Over the course of this two-day weekend, my eighth-grade son read Conrad Richter's A Light in the Forest, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Lewis Robinson's "Puckheads," and a chunk of Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica. He's always been an enthusiastic reader, but except for our Shakespeare projects, he hasn't challenged himself beyond youth literature. All of a sudden that seems to have changed: he just could not stop reading this weekend, and the Hemingway in particular amazed him. He kept wandering out of his room to read sentences aloud to me.

My older son is a perfectly competent reader, but he has never been a reader. It is strange how small our club is.

For my part, I will be undertaking Aristotle today, although I am still recovering from Plato. "Poetry is an outrage on the understanding," declares Socrates, and I think he may be right.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

I meant to post this earlier but forgot. Here is Tom's snapshots-while-driving slideshow. (Just to clarify: I was driving while he snapped.)

Sunday morning melancholy: awake too early with Homer and Plato and Aristotle and Sappho, and now I'm getting that old the-past-is-too-much-with-me feeling again.

Accident Report

Dawn Potter

You know how it is:

tires devouring the coiled road,

one hand on the wheel, bending left,

bending right, slick as a seal; one of those

dawns when grains of fog spatter your windshield

like handfuls of sand, when a monstrous owl drifts

from the invisible forest with a rat writhing in his claws;

when a half-grown buck, leaf-drunk, vaults across the sopping

tarmac like a prince under enchantment; and “Whoso list to hunt,

I know where is an hind!” you cry, but silently, of course, because . . .

because you’re ashamed to mouth a greater poet’s borrowed trappings;

you, with no rights in the matter, mere remote control in fog, ambivalent,

wishful, and cold as well; for all the heat’s in words you were afraid to sing

in earshot of these phantoms—Wyatt, Milton—floating in the vinyl shade,

ready to taunt your match-struck quavering flame. You, not man enough

to warble to an empty car; they, so long dead, still young: still flashing

their brash “So help me, God, an immortality of fame.” They played

their necessary cards: not only intellect and drudgery and grief,

wordy sleight-of-hand and rage and loving, probing curiosity,

but plain obnoxious gall. A poem, a stiletto in the back.

And you, alone and lonely, in your blundering car,

afraid of some fool prince with the temerity

to leap into your high-beam’s timid dark.

As if that murky light could be his star.

[first appeared in Locuspoint (2011); forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2013)].

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son is a sad and beautiful book. That was my reaction when I first read it a decade ago, and still it makes me weep. Reading these stories on a bouncing school bus, when slightly motion sick and entirely noise-overloaded, is probably ideal. All the drug-hazed plot switches make perfect sense, and each sentence is as tearstained as a sentimental drunk. I wanted to cry along with them, but I had to behave like a chaperon who cared which kid was kicking which other kid's seat. Meanwhile, this is what Johnson was saying to me:

The last time I'd been in the Savoy, it had been in Omaha. I hadn't been anywhere near it in over a year, but I was just getting sicker. When I coughed I saw fireflies.

Everything down there but the curtain was red. It was like a movie of something that was actually happening. Black pimps in fur coats. The women were blank, shining areas with photographs of sad girls floating in them. "I'll just take your money and go upstairs," somebody said to me.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Yes, I'd rather be reading Plato's Republic today. No, I would rather not be going on a field trip to a transportation museum with 40 middle school students. Guess which one I'll be doing.

Tom is still one-eyed, the dog is still scratching, and the rain is still falling. Plato is still dissing the poets, and the boys are still pretending they don't have to get out of bed this morning. The dishwasher is still making that strange sound, as if it would like to crunch up spoons but is refraining--for the moment.

What is the best reading material for a long school bus ride? Not Plato, clearly.

Update: I've chosen Denis Johnson's story collection Jesus' Son. Rationale: It's thin enough to carry around a transportation museum and appropriately pie-eyed for a road trip with crazy people.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sorry I'm so late with this post. I spent the morning in the emergency room with poor Tom, who roughed up his eye at work yesterday. It's just a scratched cornea and will heal, but for the moment he is miserable and incapacitated. At least now he has the eye properly patched and is asleep downstairs on the couch rather than wandering through Dover-Foxcroft like a pathetic yet wild-eyed (singular) landlocked pirate who has been forced to walk the plank with his wife's scarf and a wad of tissue wrapped around his head.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

I've been thinking about the Woolf remark that I copied out for you yesterday: "I spent an hour looking at pots and carpets in the museum the other day, until the desire to describe them became like the desire for the lusts of the flesh." In other words, Woolf claims that her need to describe is not like passion but like a desire for passion. For some reason I can't stop thinking about this statement, and I can't decide whether it simply makes me sad or whether it proves to me that she was a canny and ironic observer of art's revisionist powers. There is something terrible in this sentence's detachment from the roots of desire, yet its focus and commitment is nonetheless obsessive and alluring. However I read it, the comment disturbs me--which is not bad, which is probably good, which is undoubtedly tonic--yet I found it by accident yesterday. I didn't mean to read it. I wasn't even waiting for it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Another holiday weekend has passed away, and once again I am home alone. A volume of Virginia Woolf's letters sits on my desk, watching me. I have much to do and nothing to do.

The trees glow in the mist--reds, yellows, oranges, flashes of green. Outside my window a fir tree sways beneath its burden of cones--tiny, fragile, no larger than Christmas lights but demure, darkened. They withhold; they refuse the sun.

The words I am writing pour out easily but are hard to recognize when they reach the air. A scab is not simply a memory of blood. It also hardens and thwarts.

I open Virginia's volume of letters. She tells Roger Fry, "I spent an hour looking at pots and carpets in the museum the other day, until the desire to describe them became like the desire for the lusts of the flesh." The year was 1918. She was 36 years old. Across the sea, in the Allegheny foothills, my grandfather was an infant lying across his mother's knees. After his death his daughter discovered that he had kept his eighth-grade penmanship certificate as a treasured relic. That was his last year of school. He was the age that my second son is now. But Virginia never went to school.

All of these incidents are bound together in me, but they mean nothing to any of the players. Neither Virginia nor my grandfather ever imagined the existence of the other. My son has heard their names but has no vision of either. The penmanship certificate is hidden away among my mother's papers, and someday I will find it and forget that I have written about it here. Or perhaps I will never find it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Very early this morning, just before light, I heard an owl cry--so close to my window that it might have been perched on the roof above me. Three times it cried, and then it was silent, as streaks of day began sifting down among the maple branches like tiny birds do, with their brief drops and flutters.

Tom asked yesterday, in a comment, what my Tom ended up making me for birthday dinner. The answer is ravioli filled with picked crab and sorrel, topped with lemon butter. They were lovely. And we were even so fortunate as to have leftover crab, which last night I mixed with homemade mayonnaise and served with a composed salad of red and yellow beets, sliced potato, orzo and garlic, spinach and arugula, topped with cilantro. Tonight's menu: chili spiced with many, many tiny hot peppers harvested before the frost.

Today I plan to look at the new book I've acquired: Patch/Work Voices: The Culture and Lore of a Mining People, a compilation of the recollections of southwestern Pennsylvania miners and their families. Already I can see that the book will be both instructive and clumsily nostalgiac, as such things generally are, and that it will be at odds with the other book I'm reading, Compton-Burnett's A House and Its Heritage, which is stylish and brutal and not at all heartwarming. I hope the clash will be enlightening and not just confusing. Now that I am involved in two research projects simultaneously--my Chestnut Ridge poetry collection and my Poets' Sourcebook anthology--such clashes are bound to keep arising. Yet Compton-Burnett has nothing to do with either project. She's just looming there, like a Macbethian witch. Either she's making trouble or predicting it.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

9 a.m. on a Sunday, and the air is filled with the sound of a bucket loader: beeping in reverse, rumbling forward, beeping, rumbling, beeping, rumbling. Also, the washing machine is growling in the basement, Tom is crashing a frying pan on the stove, and the dog is scratching. Why is it, amid all this sound, that the dog noise is most annoying? I just hate to listen to a dog scratch.

I wish I had something exciting to tell you, but I don't. One boy is asleep; the other is probably asleep also, but he's at his friend's house, where he tells me they plan to spend the day Bondo-ing his car but where I suspect they'll actually spend the day sleeping, cooking and consuming enormous numbers of pancakes, and intermittently watching YouTube videos of strange activities such as "how to dress up in a kangaroo suit and hop destructively through the French countryside." At least that's what they do when they're at my house.

No, I have nothing interesting to share today. I could talk about vacuuming and cleaning the bathroom; I could talk about tearing out frostbitten bean plants; I could tell you about prepping myself for the elementary school's parent-student soccer game; I could tell you about the mouse noises in the wall; I could tell you about my latest woodsplitting defeat. But none of this necessarily seems worthy of transcription. The bucket loader is still beeping and rumbling, and the washing machine is still growling. The dog, however, has stopped scratching, so already the day has improved.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Presently it's 35 degrees here, but the forecast is for 80 degrees later today. That seems too strange to think about. I will be sitting on a soccer field in Dover-Foxcroft, fighting midges and sunburn when I ought to be wearing mittens and wishing for coffee. Sideline seasonal confusion will reign, yet the ice-cream stand has stupidly closed for the winter.

Meanwhile Tom will be making my birthday dinner. I have no idea what he's planned, other than Julia Child's cream of mushroom soup (which is suitable, she writes, "for grand occasions"). I have a feeling that I'll also be picking the mushrooms for this soup since mycological scavenging is not one of Tom's preoccupations, although he enjoys the results.

When I'm not soccer watching or mushroom hunting or sitting on the couch waiting for Verlander to start pitching, I may be tearing out my frostbitten cucumbers and scarlet runners, or I may be finishing the snarky Muriel Spark novel I spent most of yesterday reading. Snarky is not a word I generally find myself using, but I can't think of a better one to describe Spark.

Or, depending on Tom's dinner plans, I may be drinking slightly too much wine at the wrong time of the day. When it comes to birthday dinner, I am in the hands of fate, which always treats me royally but sometimes gives me a headache the next day.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Today is my 47th birthday. As often happens on my birthday, we've had our first killing frost. As occasionally happens on my birthday, the baseball team I'm rooting for (this year, the Tigers) has gotten into the playoffs. Otherwise, my day will be quiet: mushroom hunting, chard freezing, book reading, tea drinking, firewood stacking. And then, in the late afternoon, we will all go to Rockland to Tom's opening, and then we will all go out to dinner, and then we will drive home home.

I thought, because it's my birthday and because I've lately been poring over so many books and passages that I haven't read for a long time, that I'd share some of the words that have risen up to me from the past, like yeast or soap bubbles or prosecco or birds. I quote them in no particular order and with no particular intention. Merely, they rise up.

The average man is so crisp and so confident
That I ought to be miserable
Going on and on like the sea,
Drifting nowhere.
All these people are making their mark in the world,
While I, pig-headed, awkward,
Different from the rest,
Am only a glorious infant still nursing at the breast.
[Lao Tzu, The Way of Life, trans. Witter Bynner]

The years are passing, my dear, and presently nobody will know what you and I know.
[Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory]

Whoever has received knowledge
and eloquence in speech from God
should not be silent or secretive
but demonstrate it willingly.
When a great good is widely heard of,
then, and only then, does it bloom,
and when that good is praised by many,
it has spread its blossoms.
[Marie de France, prologue to the Lais, trans. Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante]

Strangely enough I long to write, but do not know what or to whom. This inexorable passion has such a hold upon me that pen, ink, and paper, and work prolonged far into the night, are more to my liking than repose and sleep. In short, I find myself always in a sad and languishing state when I am not writing, and anomalous though it seems, I labour when I rest, and find my rest in labour.
[Francesco Petrarch, letter to the abbot of Saint Benigno, trans. James Harvey Robinson]

Fun I love but too much Fun is of all things the most loathsom. Mirth is better than Fun & Happiness is better than Mirth--I feel that a Man may be happy in This World. And I know that This World Is a World of Imagination & Vision I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike.
[William Blake, letter to the Rev. Dr. Trusler]

Thursday, October 6, 2011

As you see, Milton is still the man. If you are seeking to hone your skills in vituperative ironic brilliance, look no further.

from Areopagitica, a Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc'd Printing, to the Parlament of England.

I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how Bookes demeane themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors: For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet on the other hand, unlesse warinesse be us'd, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm'd and treasur'd up on purpose to a life beyond life. 'Tis true, no age can restore a life, whereof perhaps there is no great losse; and revolutions of ages do not oft recover the losse of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole Nations fare the worse. We should be wary therefore what persecution we raise against the living labours of publick men, how we spill that season'd life of man preserv'd and stor'd up in Books; since we see a kinde of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdome, and if it extend to the whole impression, a kinde of massacre, whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elementall life, but strikes at that ethereall and fift essence, the breath of reason it selfe, slaies an immortality rather then a life.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Overheard at breakfast:

Son Number 1: Did you just wipe old milk on your pants?

Son Number 2: It wasn't old milk.


And now, onward and upward. I am excited to tell you about a gift that has fallen into my lap. Autumn House Press has, out of the blue, invited me to edit an anthology of writings about poetry: not contorted critical theory but real literature--Plato, Horace, Wordsworth, Shelley, Pater . . . in short, the work I love and believe in. About two-thirds of the book will be older, classic works about poetry; the last third will be more contemporary, including, I hope, writers such as Nabokov and Woolf and Adrienne Rich. The intended audience will be undergraduate and graduate writing and English classes, but the publisher and I have some hopes that it will also be useful for high-achieving high school students.

If you have thoughts about essays, interviews, or even ars poetica poems that have influenced you or your students, please do share them with me. I would love to expand my list of Asian, African, Latino, native and black American, feminist, and gay/lesbian/transgender sources. But I'm not necessarily looking for brand-new voices, though I'm happy to consider them for inclusion. Part of the point of this book will be to introduce students (and, I'm sorry to say, their teachers) to the wealth of the past. And I must admit that it's thrilling to have suddenly been offered a project that gives me a tiny bit of pedagogical power. "Yes, kids, you do have to read all of Shelley's 'Defence of Poetry' by this time next week because it's in the textbook so it must be important." Hah!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

It's hard to know what to write today as I recover from yesterday morning's burst of silliness. Harmony does nothing but rain. I'm longing to go out into the woods and look for more honey mushrooms, but the soaking-wet batch I picked on Sunday afternoon is still drying out over the woodstove. The thing about honey mushrooms is: you find one, you find a hundred. They grow in large overlapping clusters, meaning that I can fill a gallon pail in five minutes or less. Chanterelles are more delicious though also more discreet, but the honey mushrooms I pick and dry will last till next fall.

I've been reading a junky novel that my friend Angela found for me somewhere or other. It's by Frances Hodgson Burnett, best known as the author of The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and The Little Princess. But this novel was written for adults; and while in many ways it's a standard American-girl-meets-English-lord romance, Burnett was clearly trying to do more. She's very interested in issues such as feminine independence, marital violence, the ambiguities of wealth and poverty, and (as in The Secret Garden) the eloquence of a lovingly cultivated landscape. It's not a good novel, but I'm enjoying it anyway, and I'm sympathetic with Burnett's sense of feminist urgency. Yes, her heroine is unbelievably gorgeous, but she also has a head for business and dislikes crying and walks twelve miles in a day and stands up to her brutish brother-in-law and isn't afraid of mice and rescues screaming passengers during a steamer accident, etc., etc.--all while wearing a whalebone corset. How impressive is that?

Monday, October 3, 2011

24 hours in Bangor, Maine

Today's post is all about my recent whirlwind trip to Bangor as a featured reader at the Bangor Book Festival. Seeing as I live only an hour away from this town, I am unlikely ever to spend the night there again. However, we made the most of our opportunity. According to Tom, we did everything in Bangor that could be done, so here's the review, just in case you ever find yourself in the Queen City with 24 hours to kill.

The Bangor Book Festival mostly takes place at the public library, which is quite a nice building, though the bathrooms can be difficult to locate. Unfortunately, the poets didn't get to read at the library; we got to read at the bagel shop, which is closed every Saturday for the Sabbath (though that doesn't stop the employees from coming in to bang on the kitchen equipment). As the first reader of the morning, I merely struggled against rain noise and a cavernous echo. But subsequent readers also dealt with the Hobart mixer and what sounded like fifty galvanized trashcans being whacked against a dumpster. Nonetheless, the poets persevered; and of the 20 or so people who attended, only a few were our relatives and I heard some beautiful work. So all in all, the morning went well.

After selling a book, I tracked down Tom in the library reading room, where he was examining a photograph of Shackleton's final birthday dinner. (Did you know that Antarctic exploration requires not only stemware but also two soda siphons?) We decided to go out to lunch and accordingly stepped into what the National Weather Service had advertised as scattered showers but was turning out to be more like constant showers mixed with scattered downpours.

In addition to the book festival, Bangor was hosting Oktoberfest, which, we noticed, didn't seem to be going very well. In the roped-off side street between the "Irish" bar and the "Caribbean" bar, two vendors of something indeterminate were dejectedly folding their tents, and the only person under the jaunty Red Stripe umbrellas was a smoking bus boy. Nonetheless, we were hungry; and since almost every other restaurant in town appeared to be closed, we went into the "Caribbean" bar. Inside, the place was crowded, mostly with young men who had probably spent the morning doing bong hits in their living rooms and had now ventured out to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon and argue about sunglasses. More notable were the waitresses, whom the management had forcibly dressed for Oktoberfest. All of them wore facsimiles of the Saint Pauli girl outfit, constructed of the cheapest possible material in the most lurid of colors. The women were attempting to make the best of their thigh-high ruffled white stockings and their distressing stretchy green stomachers, but their best was not good enough. It was a sad situation.

"Caribbean" turned out to mean coconut-flavored mayonnaise, which made ordering lunch difficult. Eventually we were reduced to asking for hamburgers, which we ate while speculating about the elderly man in ill-fitting velour leiderhosen who had suddenly appeared at the bar. We came to no finite conclusions.

After lunch, back outside in the rain, we toiled up the hill past the Greyhound station. What should we do next? we wondered. Ahead in the distance loomed Hollywood Slots. "Video poker?" suggested Tom, but I couldn't face the prospect. So we turned around, crossed the street, and went to the Antiques Marketplace, although it did not seem promising. From the street the store looked like one of those shoppes that features reproduction Pepsi thermometers afixed to painted pegboard. But once we were inside, we realized that our luck had turned . . . which, in Dawn-and-Tom language translates as "cheap used books and records in quantity and of an eccentric variety." After an hour or two at the Antiques Marketplace, we emerged with the following: a pocket-sized Oxford Classics edition of the poems of George Herbert, Muriel Spark's novel Reality and Dreams, Ivy Compton-Burnett's novel A Heritage and Its History; albums by Ike and Tina Turner, the Box Tops, Curtis Mayfield, and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs; and a Rickey Henderson baseball card. I could have purchased a John Berryman novel about being an alcoholic, a miniscule copy of School for Scandal, and any number of Alan Trammell cards, but I refrained. Still, now you have an idea of the merchandise available.

Having killed more time than we expected, we discovered that we had now reached check-in time at our hotel. Being a featured author at the book festival meant that I got a free overnight stay at a place located conveniently next door to the "Caribbean" bar. From the outside, the inn looks like a rundown 1880s city hotel, while from the inside it looks like a rundown 1980s city hotel: khaki-colored paint, broken locks, fat TVs, no one ever at the front desk, etc. As advertised on its website, it also boasts a large art collection; and large is no exaggeration. The narrow hallway outside our room was lined shoulder to shoulder with remarkable paintings. Our favorite was undoubtedly "Electrocuted Terrier" (not its real name).

After falling into a brief doze and then telephoning home ("Mom, you should go to Hollywood Slots! They have video poker!"), we discovered that we were both suffering from the leaden after-effects of our indigestible "Caribbean" hamburgers. Exercise was called for. Therefore, we tracked down our automobile and took it bowling.

Our games followed their usual erratic trajectories; the only notable difference was that I got a strike and my bowling shoes matched my dress. Fortunately we had mysterious neighbors in lane 5: two large women, a short man with a hairy back, and a happy twenty-year-old girl who said she had never been bowling before, did not seem to know the other three people very well, and took numerous cell-phone photos of the score.

The hairy man and the happy girl were both abysmal bowlers of the bounce-the-ball-down-the-lane variety, but they were delighted to cheer on the other two, who, according to the spares and strikes flashing on their scoring screen, were named Thelma and Louise. These may or may not have been pseudonyms; all I know is that the hairy man addressed them by name without irony.

Louise was my sort of bowler: prone to getting a gutter ball followed by a spare followed by a gutter ball. Thelma, however, was serious about her game, though she had a peculiar windup. First, she perched on her toes, with the ball dangling between her knees and her back slightly hunched. After a long pause, she then began tiptoeing toward the lane, ball still dangling. Then, finally, at the last moment, she screeched to a halt at the foul line and flung the ball at the pins. The approach was remarkably successful: she was especially good at getting those buck-toothed spares. But she maintained a dour, lemon-eating look, no matter how much jollity ensued among her comrades, and she never cast an eye our way.

Two games was our boredom limit; and with the hamburgers now a distant memory, we returned to the hotel, took another nap, and then went outside to see how Oktoberfest was coming along. Now two people were smoking under the dripping Red Stripe umbrellas, a three-piece band had crammed itself against the front window of the "Caribbean" bar, and a single girl was dancing to Rolling Stones covers with an empty pint glass raised over her head and her eyes shut. We decided against investigating further and continued up the street to a "Cosmopolitan" bar, the sort with 20 German beers on tap and one of those bartenders who, when you order, tells you that what you asked for is not what you really want. Thankfully, however, the wait staff merely wore jaunty hats, not full Saint Pauli girl regalia, and the beer that we really did want was really good.

Earlier in the week, Tom had studied our options and had decided that, for dinner, the Italian restaurant owned by a man who had previously owned an Italian restaurant in New Jersey was our best hope. And indeed, if the seasoning chef had been able to stem his or her enthusiasm, we would have had a beautifully fresh and well-cooked meal. As it was, we had a salty one. But by 9:30 the restaurant was closing down for the night, Oktoberfest was petering out in the gutters, and we had no choice but to return to the hotel.

When we walked in, three people sat at the bar in the lobby. Though there were signs of an incipient band, the only action was a four-year-old girl who was running up and down the hallway. The question became: What's on TV? But no sooner did we settle ourselves in bed and discover that the answer was David Lynch's Blue Velvet than a firestorm of Willie Dixonesque blues exploded in the lobby. Peeking out the door into the haze beyond "Electrocuted Terrier," Tom reported that the place was packed. Perhaps the revelers had all entered by means of a secret underground hatch. In any case, the sound was cranked to frat-boy level--loud enough to obscure most of the Blue Velvet soundtrack, which, seeing as a David Lynch movie makes no sense anyway, was completely fine and possibly even an improvement on the original. Fortunately we didn't care about going to sleep anytime soon. And strangely, when I did fall asleep at 2 a.m. or whatever, I slept well, which never happens, even in nice quiet hotel rooms.

The next morning we rose, walked out into the perpetual rain, and returned to the bagel shop, which was now open for business. As our 24 hours in Bangor petered out, I drank weak coffee and read "Dear Abby." (What do you think? At a wake, is it good manners to allow a young niece to put stickers on grandma's corpse?) Sitting at the table behind us was a man who bore an uncanny resemblance to King Edward VII, if Edward had ever worn polar fleece and a bike helmet. He seemed to be ecstatic about his breakfast sandwich.

And thus ended our 24 hours in Bangor, Maine. All in all, we had a fine time, though I am still having dark thoughts about the man in the velour leiderhosen.