Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Another out-of-state teaching gig on the horizon, another giant snowstorm in the forecast . . . Sigh.

My anthology sujet du jour is Ezra Pound, also known as Not My Main Man, but one can hardly ignore his insidious influence. Simultaneously I'm attempting to read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. DFW is also Not My Main Man, a declaration that will probably garner me a viperish comment-retort from some anonymous DFW acolyte. Even my husband has announced that Infinite Jest is one of the best books ever written, so something is clearly wrong with my acumen. But you know what? I cannot stand snide as a literary device. I just can't. Also I can do without the hysterically cumulative pop-culture details a la Thomas Pynchon. A little of that goes a long way. Take a lesson from the Ramones, boys.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

In western Pennsylvania poetry project news, I discovered yesterday that, of all the paintings in his collection, Henry Clay Frick's favorite was The Polish Riderwhich according to his great-granddaughter's biography "was acquired in 1910 on the thirtieth anniversary of Frick's making his first million." She speculates that the rider's "war hammer strongly resembles a miner's pick, and the cliff in the background recalls the bluff outcroppings characteristic of the [coke-producing] landscape." I don't know what I think about this speculation, but it does happen to be my favorite painting in his collection too.

In the past couple of days I've finished two more poems in the series, after a long, long span of writing nothing (that is, nothing other than pages and pages of non-poetry) . This is a relief and an encouragement because I really do not want to lose ground with the project. Now a print of The Polish Rider is lying on my desk, and please, please, Rembrandt, let me find a way to write about it.

Monday, February 27, 2012

I have two tiny Milly Jourdain poems to share with you today. If you're a newish visitor to this blog and wonder who she might be and why I'm posting her poems, go the archive to find out. Then leave a comment here and tell me whether or not you think this is a worthwhile project. If you're not a newish visitor and already have an opinion, you can leave a comment too.

September Dawn

Milly Jourdain

The blue dark of my windows fades away
And over all a flood of colder light
Is softly spreading,
Till through the mist I see the dull red leaves.

The pure, chill air of dawn blows on my face,
And in the room the sheets grow white again.

A robin's song drops in the quiet air
So sad and fresh and incomplete.

The Sea Fog

Milly Jourdain

The fields below me are sodden and gray and the fog has blurred the line of the hills.

I sit by the hedge and think that every year the darkness will grow closer around me.

The fog has crept up and all is a sea of whiteness;
My face is wet with its gentle touch, and I can only see a few steps in front of me on the road.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

I woke up in the middle of the night with a roiling brainful of ideas about classes I could teach, but the only one I remember clearly this morning is the class I called "Growing Up," which I imagined might include a variety of poems, novels, and essays . .  possibly Elizabeth Bowen's Death of the Heart, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, Joan Didion's essay about migraines, Whitman's Paumanok, etc., etc., etc. It seemed like such a great class in my semi-waking state. I could hardly wait to get up and figure out the syllabus.

I do have a big teaching gig coming up next weekend, but it will be all poetry all the time, so no chance to experiment with long books. The weekend will be interesting, no doubt, but I always fret over how little time I ever have to get kids to read. It's a primary downside of being an itinerant teacher . . . that, and never getting to develop a long, slow relationship with my students. Of course there are advantages to itineracy as well: because I see so many different kinds of schools and teachers, I have a fairly detailed idea of what works and doesn't work in various settings, as well as an odd and possibly unwholesome view of departmental joys and despairs.

In the meantime I am beginning to do pre-production work on Same Old Story--that is, tinkering with a few poems, submitting sheaves of support copy, and, with a familiar sense of groaning embarrassment, wondering what the hell I should do about cover blurbs. In the meantime I am writing a couple of paragraphs about Virginia Woolf, and grocery-shopping for lemons and limes, and vacuuming the stairs, and helping J paint his room, and helping T write an artist's statement, and helping P remember to brush his teeth. And yesterday, finally, I began writing a poem about Henry Clay Frick. What a strange sensation it is to try to fit that man into verse.

P.S. Chicken curry. For those of you with an old stewing hen on your hands, I recommend it, especially if you also enjoy inventing and grinding your own curry powder.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

I'm copying out Virginia Woolf's essay about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, watching clumps of new snow fall off the trees, listening to the clock tick.

VW writes: "How far we are going to read a poet when we can read about a poet is a problem to lay before biographers."

EBB writes: "But how willingly I would as a poet exchange some of this lumbering, ponderous, helpless knowledge of books, for some experience of life, and man, for some . . . "

Those are her ellipses, and they make me sad.

Friday, February 24, 2012

If you were making a list of things that irritate Dawn, you might include this bright orange, quarter-page advertisement in the New York Review of Books, which Tom read aloud to me while I was rolling out pie crusts:

In two separate lectures, distinguished literary critic Harold Bloom will speak about his own impact and intellectual biography. The first lecture will focus on his readings of Whitman. The second will focus on his readings of Shakespeare.

Lecturing about one's own impact? Just a touch of hubris here, don't you think? What would we do, we mortal readers, without HB to tell us how to comprehend Whitman and Shakespeare while also explaining why he's indispensable to the functioning of our lower-order intellects? And I thought Helen Vendler was bossy.

This kind of advertising copy makes me glad to be holed up in the woods with my books, far, far away from the loud-mouthed literary critics and whomever they pay to write this stuff.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

It seems that the new book will include a lot of sonnets.

The Years

Dawn Potter

Dreamy as Tarzan, the years murmur
their old tune as we stride away from them

into our spotlit lives. Like fathers, they armor
themselves against loss, hawking phlegm

into coffee cans, scratching their scaly pates,
though a Nehi odor lingers in their cough,

faint as sour cream. Behind their rusty agate
stare slides a slow-rolling map of sloughed-

off days along the river. Scabby grapevines
grip the porch rails, courting light. A peahen

chitters in the weeds, and on the clothesline
the half-yellowed shirts of sweating men

sag like idle hands. The years hum our quavered names.
We clench our fists: panicked, ruthless, dumb, ashamed.

[first published in LocusPoint: Maine Edition (2011); forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014]

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

from Charlotte Bronte's letter to Elizabeth Gaskell, as quoted by Annie Thackeray Ritchie. I don't know the date, but I'm sure it would be easy to locate if I were upstairs next to my copy of Gaskell's life of Bronte or in the mood to Google.

Do you, who have so many friends, so large a circle of acquaintance, find it easy when you sit down to write to isolate yourself from all those ties and their sweet associations, so as to be your own woman, uninfluenced or swayed by the consciousness of how your work may affect other minds, what blame or what sympathy it may call forth; does no luminous cloud ever come between you and the severe truth in your own secret or clear-seeing soul?

I've been home for only a handful of hours, and already my living room is stacked with teenage-boy detritus because James and his friend Sam have decided to paint James's room. (Sam: Someday, James, I'm going to renovate an old house and you and I are going to bang down walls with sledgehammers while listening to Weezer. Won't that be fun?) In other words, like Elizabeth Gaskell (I suspect), I recognize that isolating myself "from all [these] ties and their sweet associations" is entirely impossible and anyhow beside the point in my writing . . . though not beside the point of Charlotte's, of course. Yet at the same time I realize that my manner of writing feels, to me, like the only possible way to do it, and no doubt that's how Charlotte's felt to her. So I wonder how Elizabeth felt when she received this letter: puzzled, half-comprehending, entirely sympathetic, self-excoriating? Or did she automatically coil her own thoughts around her own private manner of writing, like a caterpillar wraps itself around a tiny space of air?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

I woke up this morning with Whitman's phrase "Out of the cradle endlessly rocking" running through my thoughts like a brook. The sky was still dark, but the trees stood out in the blackness like darker shadows. A tiny red airplane blinked through their branches, the slowest airplane I have ever watched, doggedly swimming from left, to right, to vanishment. I was thirsty and not willing to be awake, but a car's passing headlights reminded me of childhood. Annie Thackeray Ritchie, writing in the 1890s, remarked of William Thackeray, "I have heard my father say that no author worth anything, deliberately, and as a rule, copies the subject before him." The Thackerays were close to the Stephens family, and one of the Stephens girls grew up to be Virginia Woolf. Then I read Virginia Woolf and grew up to be me, but first I read Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Everyone, it seems, is related to everyone else. Perhaps even the tiny red airplane matters in this genealogy. Out of the cradle endlessly rocking, and now daylight and the broken tips of trees and the rhododendrons shriveled with cold and the cigarette breath of the furnace. The verbs don't matter yet, and neither does the sun. Something will happen soon enough.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

I'm going to be the first feature here, on March 1, when you'll get to read my version of Ovid's "Story of Phaeton," previously rejected as "too melodramatic". . . and you know how annoying melodrama can be in myths, which are so much better if they are drily witty and anecdotal. . . . [Oh, dear, I've already forgotten Rilke's remarks about avoiding irony in uncreative moments.]

Saturday, February 18, 2012

School vacation begins this week, and I'll be taking a brief sojourn south; so if you don't hear from me assume that I am fitfully sleeping or walking in watery sunshine or talking too much, etc. This morning, while drinking my coffee, I came across this passage in Barbara Pym's novel Jane and Prudence: "The poet walked quickly away, while the young woman who had admired him, after a regretful glance after him, stood rather hopelessly at a request bus stop. Perhaps she had hoped that they might stroll to a pub together or continue their conversation--if such it had been--walking round the square. But once outside the magic circle the writers became their lonely selves, pondering on poems, observing their fellow men ruthlessly, putting people they knew into novels; no wonder they were without friends."

Bargain Shopper

Dawn Potter

I miss you, Jilline, though stuck in this frozen so-called spring
I don’t picture you regretting my grim haunts; you, the girl
Who adored high summer, sporting your cheap slinky cling-
Tight blouses, those cat-eye shades propped in your dyed curls,
Your pink-flowered skirts, and a pair of flapping tacky lamé slides
On your big sore feet. Your beau-idée of taste was a dollar sale
At Marshall’s, the two of us name-dropping Ruskin and Gide,
Stage-whispering, “There’s your boyfriend,” across the gaudy aisles
At first sight of every funny-looker we met: those goat-
Faced circus clowns, those clad-entirely-in-blue albinos—
What freaks wandered this earth! . . . and you, decked out
Like a discount drag queen, lovingly deriding my beige vinyl
    Sandals half-mended with bread ties.  Only your puff of frail hair
    Mentioned you were dying. The freaks pretended not to stare.

[first published in U.S. 1 Worksheets (2011);
forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014]

Friday, February 17, 2012

I'm tired and harried and altogether feeling like I have no life of my own, which is a silly thing to say because what other life do I possess? So I will take instruction from those who know better.

Rilke: "Irony. Do not let yourself be governed by it, especially not in uncreative moments." 
Dickinson: "The Mind is so near itself--it cannot see distinctly--"
Corso: "When I got the proofs I felt both good and sad, good because there are some very good poems in [the] book, and sad because there aren't any poems that bespeak my dream my idea my lyric, God knows what." 
Wyatt: "Dere lady, we wayte onely thy sentence." 
Wiler: "There are three good things about this town."

Thursday, February 16, 2012

After four or five band rehearsals, I'm beginning--slowly--to find a path into this (for me) new version of ensemble playing. Because I was classically trained, I was taught to use the visual cues of written music as a guide into the aural flexibilities of the orchestra or quartet or duo or whatever group I was playing in. But now I need to depend on ear, instinct, and the proprieties of pop-music structure to work out my role in these songs--most of which I've never heard before.

The violin is primarily a melodic instrument, another singing voice rather than a rhythmic or chordal foundation; but for that very reason it has a tendency to obscure the human voice. So I need to pour it around the primary melodies yet also be ready to shift quickly into leads and fiddle breaks. Last night, as I was playing, I found myself thinking about the power of emptiness, the space between the sounds, the purposeful use of holes. All of this becomes more and more important in the places where my part becomes less and less complex. I find that I must become accustomed to simplicity . . . and simplicity is not at the root of classical violin training.

All of this does also seem relevant to writing. In a way, I am training myself to play as I have already trained myself to write--to hear before knowing; to anticipate the syntactic swell of a line, a phrase, a sentence; to allow the space of the as-yet-unwritten word or -unplayed note to guide my movements and my choices. What I must not do is to allow my facility with language or my flashy finger technique to override my more mysterious, more elemental obligation to listen.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How does one write a poem about the inevitable?

Presently there's an assumption that a poem should surprise the reader in some way, and frequently some way seems to be defined as character twist, or plot twist, or another sort of fiction-writing twist. It's almost tempting to believe that, in a narrative poem, this should be a natural expectation; for most narrative poems do not use stacks of images as a structural device but depend on dramatic and grammatical movement.

Yet some stories--myths, for instance--have predictable endings that are integral to their power; and this is also true, I think, of novels such as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Knowing exactly what is about to happen only makes the tale more intense; and this sense of dread supersedes the author's tinkering with plot and characters.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is also inevitable, but it is nothing like In Cold Blood.

If these thoughts sound disjointed, that's because I am thinking them as I write. But it is too easy to imagine that, if Coleridge were to submit the Rime to a twenty-first-century literary journal, he'd get a rejection slip complaining about the poem's predictability.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Briefly, yesterday, I ran into my twenty-year-old self. I was glancing through Matthew Arnold's 1865 essay "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" and noticed a passage marked off with pen. This is what Arnold wrote in that passage:

Everything was long seen, by the young and ardent amongst us, in inseparable connection with politics and practical life. We have pretty well exhausted the benefits of seeing things in this connection, we have got all that can be got by seeing them. Let us try a more disinterested mode of seeing them; let us betake ourselves more to the serener life of the mind and spirit. This life, too, may have its excesses and dangers; but they are not for us at present.

In the margin next to Arnold's remark, I wrote:


I must say I was happy to hear the sound of my own voice--this tiny one-syllable memento of my callow youth. And I bet I didn't finish the essay.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Monday morning, and no one in this house has the flu. All the alarm clocks functioned according to their pre-set instructions. True, we did run out of hot water for showers and lettuce for sandwiches. The dryer does seem to be sluggish, and the dog does seem to have an ear infection. But no boy yelled at any other boy, even when one of the boys was responsible for using up all of the hot water and the other boy ate all of the leftover tomato soup for breakfast. (You may be surprised to hear how much teenage boys love homemade cream of tomato soup, though I'm sure their predilection for dozing in the shower will not amaze you. They also seem to enjoy squashing up under a couch blanket with their mother and chortling over grainy episodes of The Lone Ranger. Strange but true.)

I'm told that applications are starting to come in for the summer 2012 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. This makes me happy, and I hope that some of those applicants are you. Last night, while lying in bed reading Richard Holmes's biography of Shelley, I came across a reference to a man named George Ensor, who in 1811 published a book titled On National Education. "Argu[ing] that literature, and poetry in particular, had an instructive and social function," Ensor wrote: "Poetry seems to me the most powerful means of instructing youth." I believe I will spend some time today trying to track down this book.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Zero degrees this morning, after three or four days of warm March-like sloppiness. Why do my weather reports always ask to be written as sentence fragments? In real life weather is full of verbs. In real life pianos are full of dust and bathroom sinks are always decorated with hair, no matter how finicky the sink cleaner tries to be.

Our house is cold and the poodle is curled into a tight ball. She looks like the kind of fat caterpillar I always want to poke with a stick, which is odd since she is not fat. I am thinking about the fact that I need to practice the fiddle tune "Red-Haired Boy" before band rehearsal this afternoon. Also I am thinking about this second-rate coffee I am drinking, and about Tom's homemade chicken ravioli, which we had for dinner last night and which was not second-rate by any means. Also I am thinking about Eliot's The Waste Land, which I keep wanting to spell as Wasteland, a spelling that makes it look more like Portland or Ireland or Disneyland and less like Mysterious Land of Legend. This leads me to an interesting thought: if Disneyland were spelled Disney Land, would it be more like Mysterious Land of Legend and less like Foodland?

I can never decide if these kinds of frivolous distractions are useful or stupid. At my reading on Thursday night, my friend Dave said something along the lines of "I like your poems because they are funny and dark at the same time." His actual words were more nuanced than what I just wrote, but still: what he was implying was the old issue of I Can't Stop Wondering Why So Many Strange Bits of Memorabilia Turn Up Again in My Life As Bookmarks. In other words, "Look What Thoughts Will Do," which is my favorite Lefty Frizzell title of all time.

If my house were warmer, I might have more to say about this.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Today is my very last day of being the parent of a kid who plays basketball at Harmony Elementary School. It's been a long haul. Last night the boys lost their final game of the season, and they went out smiling and having fun, and what more can you ask for? Last weekend's tears were forgotten, they lost by a respectable, non-humiliating margin, and the Harmony parents were delighted. Today the indomitable girls' team plays . . . an actual posse of winners, these girls are . . . and Paul takes part in a couple of foul-shooting and all-star affairs, and then my days of biting my nails in elementary-school bleachers are over.

I will have to discover a new subject of contemplation. I wonder what it will be.

Whitman wrote, "Every existence has its idiom, everything has an idiom and tongue." I will try to keep that in mind.

Friday, February 10, 2012

I am sitting at the dining room table of what is called "the VIP suite" at Bates College but that is, in fact, a sparse, spacious, sunny apartment of the old-fashioned 1930s double-decker variety. The refrigerator is stocked with an unnerving collection of little packets of cream cheese, and the kitchen cupboards feature many, many boxes of single-serving Froot Loops. I wouldn't have thought of Froot Loops as a VIP staple, but then again, my experience with VIPs is slight.

As reading material, I brought along Richard Holmes's fat biography of Shelley. Let's see what it has to tell us this morning:

[Thomas Love] Peacock remembered Shelley in the grip of "a sudden, violent, irresistible, uncontrollable passion," torn between loyalty to [S's wife] Harriet and love for Mary [Godwin]. "His eyes were bloodshot, his hair and dress disordered. He caught up a bottle of laudanum, and said: 'I never part from this.'" He also implies that Shelley considered suicide.

Well, that wasn't exactly what I expected to alight upon randomly . . . although for some reason it does reminds me of the Vietnamese TV show I was watching yesterday during lunch, which seemed to be a very low budget soap opera about Genghis Khan. It was quite odd, especially since the restaurant's canned-music track was simultaneously playing the soundtrack to The Godfather and the man at the table next to us sounded as if he were improvising an informercial ("Well, Tom, I can't speak too highly of this new Van Halen album . . . "). Meanwhile, the wait staff sat at another table contemplatively eating Oreos.

But back to Shelley: this is what middle school girls refer to as "drama!" on their Facebook statuses, which sounds reductive though it isn't. Drama is one of the fuels of youth, and I am nostalgiac for my own, though it was a misery at the time. Boys, you know who we are.

Last night at my Bates event I read aloud my invented tale of a bad college rock band and its not-invented sensation of the furious attachment among friends and lovers. I hadn't read it for years, and I forget if I've ever posted it here. The poem appears in Boy Land (Deerbrook Editions, 2004).

Liner Notes
           from the digital re-release of The Reckless Pedestrians Walk the Dog

 Dawn Potter

   1. Empty Bed Blues

We debuted in a dorm basement
painted dirt green,
with low ceilings and dollar beers.
All our songs were covers of Carpenters tunes

that the lead singer had learned in high school chorus.
We were trapped by the past—
the effervescent desires
of Casey Kasem,

the static buzz of AM radio.
What options did we have?
You hear folks bad-mouth the Carpenters,
but try to sing like Karen

if you’re a fat nineteen-year-old boy
with glasses and a narrow range.
Nothing works out the way you hope,
as we discovered that night,

the room emptying out fast, folding chairs
parked against the walls, blank as a bus station.
It was depressing,
but we’d read enough Kafka

to accept misfortune.
Confusion is chronic;
and anyway, only the Japanese
are doing Carpenters covers these days.

    2. Seven Day Fool

In the eighties the natural place for a girl
in a band was on bass,
except if you were the Go-Gos.
We were past that Linda McCartney-and-Wings shit.

In our yellow-curtained apartment
we embraced our instruments like babies,
trying to force three chords
into the lush harmonies

of Burt Bacharach.
The cat yowled; neighbors quarrelled
far into the night.  Only
when the drummer began fiddling

morosely with the zipper on Sticky Fingers
did the answer come to us,
the last notes of “Close to You” fading
swiftly into the forgotten past,

Mick Jagger’s threat to remove his trousers on stage
rising like a phoenix—oh, we were young,
and in love, and happy to take ours off too;
and we could play all the notes!

It was like seeing Rothko for the first time,
then turning to the nearest stranger
and shouting,
What the fuck have I been doing with my life?

    3. Look What Thoughts Will Do

The guitarist stored a tattered copy
of On the Road in his case
and randomly read aloud from it
between sets.  The bass player

toiled through every break;
her fingers toughened like a farmer’s,
while the guitarist, pacing,
intoned Kerouac at the ceiling:

“ . . . arc, pop out, brake in, run. . . .
Somewhere along the line the pearl. . . .
‘Terry,’ I pleaded with all my soul. . . . ”
The roadies kept quitting,

the bathrooms smelled like puke,
and even “Freebird” can get you down
on a rainy night in March,
far out in the Amish wasteland.

It was the gulag, but we were alive:
catching the last train to the city,
dropping our cases on the stairs,
rolling into bed at dawn

with the crows outside just starting
to quarrel and the garbage men
slamming their loads
in the tender morning light.

    4. Love Is the Drug

And here we all send our thanks
to Jon Bon Jovi for his good advice
about shopping-mall acoustics,
which served us so well in the years

spent traveling from one Ground Round
to the next, bodies fueled by Coors
and dry yellow popcorn, fan club asleep
on the jukebox, the rest of us pounding out

ballads at two a.m. like this was the last
honkytonk on earth, fluorescent lights
faltering off one by one: bulldozers
could be moving in from the west

to destroy the place by morning,
and only electricity would save us—
AC bleeding through the wires,
guitar solos fervent as Jesus,

drummer hunched over, dripping with sweat,
and the lead singer taking off his glasses
to rub his eyes, calm and exalted,
like Socrates waiting for hemlock.

    5. Baby Let’s Play House

Some say Walk the Dog is the worst album we ever made.
But intonation aside, this was a record about love:
the purest, most pop-driven kind—
four happy people in a band, kissing each others’ hands

on the train, waking up at noon,
eating cornflakes without milk and playing our record collection
in alphabetical order because that kind of asceticism
would make us great.

Listen to every Boston album, and you’ll soon learn
how much eleven-year-old boys crave beauty,
in whatever surreal form.
We had the big picture in our heads—

rock-and-roll as undergraduate abstraction:
life spent cheek to jowl,
the guitarist’s head in the drummer’s lap,
King Lear parked upside-down on a speaker,

unread, hissing and muttering under his breath,
all of us singing “Sweet Jane”
as if Lou Reed had written it with us in mind—
screeching so loud that the little girl next door

banged on the wall in ecstasy
while her parents, on their knees,
begged her to think hard, honey, and please,
please, remember where she’d hidden the Moped keys.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
from Walt Whitman's Preface to the 1855 Edition of "Lyrical Ballads"

I think I love this passage because it is so ridiculous and so beautiful at the same time. The bravery of opening oneself up to ridicule should not be overlooked. Nor should the bravery of writing what overflows from our hopes. The analytical mind triumphs over us enough as it is. We never win any arguments. We are always squelched, and then we feel guilty and stupid. But no analytical mind would ever have burst out with a prayer like Whitman's. He would have thought carefully, weighed the absurdities, stopped firmly at the ends of sentences. He would not have sounded like a fool, and no one's giddy heart would have flowered foolishly at his words. How sad.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Because I'm musing over Shelley and Keats, because I miss my dead friend, because Maine is nothing like Rome, because sometimes I need to think about the poems I used to write--

Protestant Cemetery

Dawn Potter

   Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

Keats is dead, time’s swift apprentice
tramping the grimy London lanes,
pockets crammed with pencil stubs, two mice,
a half-penned letter of delight—“ah!
had I never known your kindness . . . ”

and Shelley is dead, one white hand
clutching a tinker-toy mast,
silk scarf flying, a torrent of curls
shock-whipped by wind, and the sea
tearing sheets from her bed;

and baby Severn is dead, reckless
philosopher of floors and stairwells,
founder of speech, tyrant-prince,
squawking cricket, famished
at twilight and dawn;

and here they lurk, next door to a squatty
pyramid, ten or twelve feral cats, a flea market
packed with bargain-mad nuns; and before us,
a whistling man digging a ditch. Two pear-shaped
English ladies consult a guidebook,

peering anxiously at a laurel shrub
for aid; the cheerful digger, unconsulted,
flaps a dirty hand toward the damp corner
where Keats and baby Severn hide,
not far from baby Shelley,

though Shelley himself is stuffed into denser
congress, cheek-to-jowl with Corso,
that misbegotten seeker, and a thousand other
amputated poets, Christian soldiers, wastrel
lovers of light not cited in the ladies’ guidebook

or anywhere else, for that matter,
a collection of forgotten Protestants farmed out
for eternity to this heretic Anglo-Saxon outpost
nestled at the bony knee of an ancient dump,
by far the tidiest park I’ve seen in Rome.

Compare the Aventine on Sunday morning—
parade of chubby brides and crabby mothers,
grooms dangling like haute-couture chimps
from the orange trees, high-heeled grandmas
shaking fists at pig-headed husbands who refuse

to beam, a dozen stray soccer balls, bums snoring
in the lanky grass, and beyond us, all Rome
painted under the haze like a tacky postcard.
They don’t let bums nap in the Protestant Cemetery,
though it would be a pleasant place to rest,

like sleeping in the Secret Garden, high-walled
and remote, a clipped thick lawn, green
as a golf course, smooth footpaths, and neat little
English-speaking arrows directing mourners
to “Gramsci” and “W.C.”

It’s a relief to us Protestants, this orderly
plantation, yet even here Italian chaos
creeps over the fence: Where is the “Keats” sign?
worry the English ladies, fidgeting at the edge
of the ditch. The digger lays down his spade,

waves both hands toward the corner,
smile packed with intention, but does he intend
“Keats”? The ladies retreat into their sunhats,
nod wanly, then too vigorously, then hasten
precipitously into the shade, pretending to search

for Shelley. Only when my friend and I forge
boldly over the ditch and beeline a placid trio
of stones do the ladies brake and regress, politely
hovering with cameras while I examine the earth
for traces of violets (none) and consider

the fate of baby Severn, dead of an accident,
age one year. Another predestined blunder—
tipped out of a casement, choked on marzipan,
crushed by the cart of a fruit vendor . . .
My friend, a Sicilian Catholic from New Jersey,

amiably shouts, “Grazie!” at the digger,
who murmurs, “Prego, prego,” and eyes her tits.
It’s our last day in Rome, and she is humoring me,
killing time with dead poets and babies
when we could be squatting on the hot

Pantheon steps devouring artichokes
and strawberries from a plastic bag.
She flits her false lashes knowingly
at the digger, shifts her brassy red
pocketbook to the other freckled shoulder;

and the fidgeting ladies, alarmed,
are nonetheless impressed by her sang-froid,
another trait of my hungry people—
this laborious, admiring fear of eros:
and it is lovely,

the digger’s desire, my friend’s frank
acknowledgment, though I, like the ladies,
blush and scuttle. Shelley, poor sap,
doing his Jim-Morrison dance all over town,
wasn’t, at heart, much better off;

he had to invent a sort of faith transcending
faithlessness—a house of cards
that would have crushed him in the end,
if the gulf hadn’t eaten him first.  The digger
commences his whistle, my friend and I recede,

the ladies, shy as ducks, open their Portable
Romantics and murmur a brief hymn;
the short lady sighs and closes her damp eyes:
all praise, they sing, to Keats,
bright star, alone and palely loitering.

Dying, you came staggering to Rome to live,
choking on black phlegm and gore,
dim eyes fixed on a gaudy sky.
And left behind your tired epitaph.
Nothing we make will matter.

Here it idles, scratched into the mossy
opalescent damp, embroidered with a passel
of lament you didn’t want to hear.
But too little is never enough for our people,
once we’ve been jolted to love;

and I know baby Severn’s father loved you,
dragging his nursemaid bones
down to the city limits sixty years later,
waiting out Judgment Day with you
and his child in arms, under the noon

jangle of a dozen Holy Roman church bells,
trams hissing to a stop, digger whistling an unknown
tune, my friend crossing herself, tendering
a muttered prayer for her cancer-mangled breast.
I’d light a candle, my brothers, if that were our way.

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

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

On Thursday evening I'm reading at Bates College with my dear friend Meg Kearney. We are full of anticipation because we have not read together since the night we met each other, five or six years ago. Since then Meg has moved to New Hampshire, become director of the Solstice MFA program, won the L. L. Winship Prize, and acquired a three-legged dog. But she is still the fiery, sexy, open-hearted poet she always has been; and if you can possibly manage to come listen to her read, you won't be sorry. As added inducement, the National Weather Service declares that Thursday will be mostly sunny. Imagine not driving in the snow to attend a poetry reading. What luxury!

In the meantime, I am reading Thoreau's 1852 journal. In the meantime, I am baking bread and snowshoeing and driving to piano lessons and stoking the woodstove and imagining Milton and the story goes on and on and on.

Monday, February 6, 2012

from John Keats's letter to his friend Richard Woodhouse, October 27, 1818
As to the poetical Character itself, (I mean that sort of which, if I am any thing, I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosop[h]er, delights the camelion Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures. If then he has no self, and if I am a Poet, where is the Wonder that I should say I would write no more?

from Thomas Carlyle's An Essay on Burns (1828)
To every poet, to every writer, we might say, Be true, if you would be believed. Let a man but speak forth with genuine earnestness the thought, the emotion, the actual condition of his own heart; and other men, so strangely are we all knit together by the tie of sympathy, must and will give heed to him. In culture, in extent of view, we may stand above the speaker, or below him; but in either case, his words, if they are earnest and sincere, will find some response within us; for in spite of all casual varieties in outward rank or inward, as face answers to face, so does the heart of man to man.

from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1857)

                                           Shall I fail?
The Greeks said grandly in their tragic phrase,
"Let no one be called happy till his death."
To which I add,--Let no one till his death
Be called unhappy. Measure not the work
Until the day's out and the labour done;
Then bring your gauges. If the day's work's scant,
Why, call it scant; affect no compromise;
And, in that we have nobly striven at least,
Deal with us nobly, women though we be,
And honour us with truth, if not with praise.