Thursday, May 31, 2012

Link Day

In April I visited North Yarmouth Academy, and here's an article the students wrote after interviewing me. As usual, I'm surprised to see what I blathered about.

Tomorrow is the first day of June, which means that Frost Place season is nearly upon us. Here's the summer's reading schedule. Remember that all readings are free and open to the public; so if you find yourself in the White Mountains this summer, swing by and listen. By the way, the teaching conference is almost full! Hurray! But that also means that you procrastinators had better hurry up and apply.

Here's an excellent job-hunting letter, composed by a callow young man named Robert Pirosh, who later wrote for the Marx Brothers. Perhaps I will try a version of it myself.

And finally here's a poem by my friend Gray Jacobik as well as an interview with her about how she wrote it. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

I started off the day with a rejection letter, and I'm glad to say I'm feeling indifferent about receiving it. Of course that might be because the journal rejected me for inclusion in a thematic issue for which I hadn't submitted. Oy.

The vast majority of literary journals make my head ache. I wish I could love them, but I just can't. I do feel fortunate at this point of my so-called career: because I now have a book trail, I don't need to publish in journals to prove to anyone that I'm a "real writer," whatever that means, so I've been sending fewer and fewer poems into the aether and limiting essay submission to journals that have already shown an interest in my writing. On the whole this has been good for both my writing and my self-confidence. Anxiety about publication darkens the creation of work; so when I read about friends who, say, focus on submitting work every single day, I feel sad. I understand why they have this compulsion, but I also understand that it damages the solitude of writing--the necessity of sitting quietly among the words, of letting them amass, instead of perpetually requiring oneself to hawk them.

There's an ambiguous line between a longing to communicate and a longing to be noticed. I daresay none of us negotiates this line as well as we might.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

I'm home again, and I'm even sort of awake. While I was gone, the remaining boys went hiking together, mowed grass, cleaned the bathroom, made hollandaise sauce for dinner . . . which is to say, they enjoyed each other's company but also went out of their way to make me happy to come home. Which I was.

Still, it was a good trip. By the end, our country mice were shooting through subway turnstiles and cruising up and down platforms like urban professionals. I was proud . . . even though, for some reason, these kids sing really loudly wherever they go: "Don't Stop Believing" on a crowded bus, "She Don't Know She's Beautiful" on a city stoop, "Happy Birthday" in a packed restaurant during a stranger's birthday, and on and on.

In the midst of all this juvenile hoo-hah, when I had forgotten I was a writer, I received an email from a poet I greatly admire. She had read the manuscript of my next collection, and she understood what it was saying, and she wrote down words about it. And my eyes filled, as I sat there on a rumpled pull-out couch in a hotel next to the airport, with my snoring son's elbow poking into my ribs.

Monday, May 28, 2012

And here I am in a hotel beside the airport. Our room is littered with middle school paraphernalia, by which I mean hair stuff, wet bathing suits, and a million socks. Girls are running down the hall. After having pretend chicken fights in the whirlpool, the children are consuming five large pizzas. One of them has borrowed the shoes off my feet and vanished. Fortunately here she comes, bouncing out of the elevator, ready to return them. But oh, look: she accidentally dropped them in the bathtub. She's very sorry. Well, not very but adequately. And now she needs to go eat more pizza.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

You may not hear from me again until Tuesday morning because tomorrow, at 4:30 a.m., I am embarking on a whirlwind trip to Boston with 10 giddy 8th graders and 7 other parents. We will be riding the Amtrak, taking the subway, exploring the science museum, going on a whale watch, eating strange food at restaurants, cramming uncomfortably into hotel rooms, and swimming in the hotel pool. My assigned task, as Person Who Understands How Urban Mass Transit Systems Work, is to figure out how to transport 18 silly country mice from one event to the next. I'll be sure to tell you how that works out. And who knows?--I may have a chance to share a few stream of consciousness observations while the giggly girls under my command are busily watching Glee or putting on nail polish or whatever it is that 8th-grade girls do in hotel rooms. Also, I'll be eating at McDonald's for the first time in at least 30 years. I'm sort of depressed to think that my long streak will be over, but even I draw the line at getting up at 3 a.m. to make breakfast for 18 people.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Two graduations looming, not to mention a middle school semiformal, four days in Boston with a herd of eighth graders, several large family-and-friends parties, and a suddenly complicated baseball schedule for which I am the only driver. Did I mention that I'm also the guest speaker at the eighth-grade graduation? Or that I'm supposed to write a book review by June 11 but haven't yet received the book? Or that I might have to figure out how to fix a girl's hair for the prom? Ay yi yi. I can't even fix my own hair.

In the meantime (I use that word too much, don't I?), I'm still sad about poet and teacher Michael Macklin, who died suddenly in Vermont this week while chaperoning students at the Breadloaf Young Writers Conference. Here's his obituary in today's Portland Press Herald, a reminder that a modest, dedicated person can matter enormously to many, many people.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

After an insomniac night followed by two hours of stunned sleep, I am feeling as if the physical world has assumed a slight transparency. A robin is singing a truncated melody outside my open window. The air is thick with almost-rain. I am sticking stamps on the envelopes and recovering from stupid boy arguments.
"Here's the deal: if you want me to drive you to school, I get the shower first every morning."
(Also I am wondering why the beginning of this blog post has such bizarre paragraph formatting. It makes me look as if I'm quoting someone else instead talking to you myself. However, repairing the problem seems to be impossible, so my inner page designer will try not to care.)

I've been reading a review of Anne Tyler's new novel and have begun another that considers Cindy Sherman's retrospective photography show at MOMA, and neither is helping me feel more at ease in this morning's world. When Joyce Carol Oates writes, "This is a spare, quiet, understated little novel, a slender autumnal tree from which most leaves have fallen. . . . It makes no great claims upon our imagination or our emotions," I can't tell if she is praising or criticizing the book. All I can say is that I  would hate a comment like that.

Likewise, when, in the first column of his review, Sanford Schwartz apologetically calls Sherman's photographs "emotionally detached, even a bit bland" and refers to the "objects in themselves" as "merely serviceable," "chiefly at the beck and call of Sherman the mime," I have no idea whether he plans to upend his opinions with a cathartic discovery of her greatness or to use the remaining pages to catalog her mediocrity. In both cases, I feel trapped in a fog. Where is the fiery grandeur that will burn it away? For now,  I'm having trouble believing it will unmask itself in the pages of this week's New York Review of Books.

Monday, May 21, 2012

I'm thinking, with sorrow, of Maine poet Michael Macklin, who died suddenly over the weekend. The following poem has nothing to do with him personally, only with the need to mourn.


Dawn Potter

[a version of this poem appeared in Sou'wester (fall 2011)]

And on her mind is all the waste
and the waiting, and the pain
of wanting someone to listen
to the pain she can’t talk about, like how her lover
is a drunk, and how she is afraid
of time and of her mind
circling its mud-wrenched, idiot track.
And meanwhile a neighbor expires
in a strange bed, little birds
flutter in the bony lilacs,
            her lover slides another blank-faced bottle
                        under the torn seat of his pickup.
Wind blunders among the empty branches,
            raking their frail tips against a livid sky.
                        Another hour lost, she thinks, but hours later,
in the medicated dark, her mind
and what’s on her mind keep ticking, ticking,
stupidly ticking on.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Yesterday I finished spading up the garden. I planted corn and sunflowers and beans. I transplanted tomatoes, peppers, and basil. I mowed grass and drove 20 miles and back to the grocery store. I did a load of laundry. I stir-fried pork and I drove a kid to a birthday party and I gossiped with some other eighth-grade mothers and I played cribbage with my husband. I read the stories of Vladimir Nabokov and listened to a baseball game. I went to bed and had night sweats and dreamed I was walking down the street with an eighteenth-century court intriguer in a place that looked like it might have been Chicago in November. I've left out all the various thoughts, memories, worries, speculations, idle curiosities, itchy obsessions, and recipe plans that flowed through my brain like a snow-melt brook. Other than sharing a Nabokov paragraph with you and doing a crossword puzzle and adding items to a grocery list, I did not write anything at all.

The temperature was in the 70s; the sky was blue and bright. For some reason the blackflies were not biting. Similarly we have had no ants in our house this spring, although we are once again battling the mice. The dandelions are glorious, and my grass is a riot of violets--deep purple, pale purple, tiny white, and, along the verge, a few tall yellow ones. Tom spent the day going to the dump and trying to ream out a clogged drain.

The poodle and I both have bad haircuts, but we are trying not to think about them. I should muck out the barn and finish mowing today. I should also play badminton and cut oregano and lovage for drying and convince a child to clean the bathroom.

This morning my pepper transplants look beautiful. When I planted the corn and the sunflowers, I mixed up the seeds with the hope that they would all come up together and the flowers would bloom among the corn. I am the kind of person who likes blooms among the vegetables. But often the idea is better in my head than in execution.

For dinner: roast chicken with fresh tarragon; mashed sorrel, potatoes, and green onions; asparagus and infant spinach salad; rhubarb pie.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

from "A Letter That Never Reached Russia," by Vladimir Nabokov

Listen: I am ideally happy. My happiness is a kind of challenge. As I wander along the streets and the squares and the paths by the canals, absently sensing the lips of dampness through my worn soles, I carry proudly my ineffable happiness. The centuries will roll by, and the schoolboys will yawn over the history of our upheavals; everything will pass, but my happiness, dear, my happiness will remain, in the moist reflection of a streetlamp, in the cautious bend of stone steps that descend into the canal's black waters, in the smiles of a dancing couple, in everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness.

Friday, May 18, 2012

I'm fighting the writing letdown, trying to keep myself preoccupied with editing and anthology making and gardening and boy projects, but of course the gloom of not writing keeps creeping through the cracks. The poem is done. Maybe I'll never write another one.

But the sun is shining again, for the second day in a row, and the rose-breasted grosbeaks are making a racket in the apple tree. Yesterday I planted dahlias and brussels sprouts. Today I will plant nettles and mow grass and invent some sort of giant room-temperature salad ready for whichever family members show up in the kitchen at whatever time. Tom is roofing, James has a track meet, Paul has baseball practice, but Dawn is making salad and not writing a poem anymore.

Here's what will be in the salad: sauteed chopped nettles from my friend Steve's garden in the woods; couscous; diced tomatoes from the store; steamed asparagus from my thriving new patch; green onions from my garden; baby arugula from my greenhouse; infant spinach thinned from my garden; possibly some tuna from a can or possibly some homemade sausage from my freezer. Etc. (which means "also some other stuff I haven't thought of yet").

If you would like to know more about handling and eating nettles, look here.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sunshine! And weeding! And laundry!

And yesterday I watched Paul pitch beautifully, and today James will be coming home after three days spent at the Model U.N. ("Mom, guess what? I represent Swaziland! We're a monarchy! Our king has 20 wives! Our principal export is AIDS!")

I'm still reading Nabokov's stories, which of course are lovely and strange. I mailed a fan letter to Anne Carson. The poodle is en route to her Day of Beauty. I get to eat dinner tonight with one of my best friends in the world.

Look at all the exclamation points in this post. I need a copyeditor.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A glance back at my recent posts proves that a poet at work may be one of the most boring people in existence. No doubt I've lost most of my eight readers during the past several days. I am sorry for feeding you so many bland and tedious sentences, but truly they were the best I could manage. The words were all funneled elsewhere.

Yesterday I revised and revised, and for now, at least, the poem is done. If I tell you that it feels like a masterpiece, I hope you will understand that what I mean is that it feels like a masterpiece in my own struggle to write. I wrote things in this poem that I have never written before (and none of it is prurient or victim-ridden, which I hope will be a relief to all). Maybe what I mean to say is that I managed to connect things (ah, that vague word things), tie them together, conceive of them as a dramatic unity in ways that I have never yet been able to do. If anything, my diction is starker than usual, though the time frame and the setting are broad and fluid. The poem is a narrative but it is also an examination. I may hate it next week, but for now I am amazed and relieved and exhausted and lonely without it.

Now I need to turn my attention to writing more interesting letters to you. I am sorry I have been so dull. Forgive me.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Well, I finished it . . . which is to say I finished the first draft. Now comes the tinkering.

The poem is (as does often happen when I'm in the zone) structurally and thematically sound. Most of the revision will involve smaller things--word choice, dramatic intensifiers, line breaks, punctuation, syntax, excision of unnecessary verbal offshoots, etc.

Eleven pages. It's been a long time since I wrote such a long poem.

I feel hungover, as if I might need to take a nap at 9 a.m. in order to get through the rest of the day.

In other words, now I have to go back to being an ordinary person who is not writing an eleven-page poem. That's not as easy as it sounds.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The poem is nine pages long, and it's not done yet. In between mowing five acres of grass in the rain, I managed to write two more sections yesterday. Funny how "in the zone" doesn't have to mean "writing at this very moment" so long as my thoughts remain trapped in the poem's fog. While I was shoving the mower up and down hills and over roots and into rocks and along the edges of gardens, I thought about what might happen next in the poem, weighed options, tied up loose ends. Everything seemed challenging yet manageable, like I was running a long-distance race that I was sure to finish. This morning I still feel confident that I'll finish the race, though I am trying very hard not to worry about everything else I'm ignoring.

Don't forget to pick up the children at school, don't forget to pick up the children at school, don't forget to pick up the children at school. . . .

Sunday, May 13, 2012

I did manage to write yesterday, but then I had to spend the rest of a rare sunny afternoon holed up at the Bangor Mall buying ties and dress shirts and dress pants for the graduates-to-be. Within a month I will be embroiled in not one, but two, graduations: one from eighth grade, the other from high school; one on June 10, one on June 11. In between we have high school Model U.N., eighth-grade class trip, eighth-grade semiformal, and numerous sporting events to dress for. (This is the royal we, as in "they have to dress and I have to dress them.") I have no idea how the parents of graduating girls maintain their sanity.

In the meantime, our basement has filled up with water again, and I can't reach the washing machine.

Really, all I wanted to do was write.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sorry. I can't compose a blog post. I'm too busy writing. I will try again later.

Friday, May 11, 2012

I spent most of yesterday writing, which means that I ought to spend most of today not writing. But I did get a lot done--three pages of a draft that seems likely to go on for a long time. Unexpectedly I am finding myself writing not only about Mr. K but also about the nature of fear. I didn't know that I needed to talk about the nature of fear, but the poem has decided to make me speak. It's so strange how the act of writing can itself take control of the subject.

Meanwhile, obligations float up and cling to the edge of my thoughts, like frogs' eggs in a vernal pool. It seems likely that they will hatch out and swim into the poem. This is a silly simile, but for lack of a finer one, I will let it stand.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

I thought, perhaps, that I would write an essay about Mr. Kowalski, but what I feel is a dreamy, migraine-aura, pre-flu sensation that does not presage essay writing. It seems that I am coming down with a poem.

To help the embryo along, I've started rereading Nabokov's Berlin stories, and also I am copying out Anne Carson's long poem about Emily Bronte, "The Glass Essay." I had never read anything by Carson until my friend Tom Rayfiel suggested her to me, and now I am enraptured by this poem. I can't believe it took me so long to discover her. Is everything else she writes this good?

Fortunately I have permission to include "The Glass Essay" in my anthology; so by copying it out, I'm preparing to write a poem and accomplishing functional work at the same time. This hardly ever happens.

I wonder if Anne Carson would answer fan letters. Alice Munro does not, but Colm Toibin does. I wonder if I can explain this rain to you. For, yes, again, forever, it is raining pouring dripping running pattering sluicing, and the maples the grasses are vibrating with wet with green, the purple-quilled azalea heaves up like a porcupine under the chokecherries, rain runs down the windowglass like tears. Yesterday a journal editor asked me to review a book about rereading. I wonder if writing that review will break my heart. I wonder if writing this poem about Mr. Kowalski will ever begin. I wonder if rain will flood our basement if rain will flood our driveway if rain will overflow the streams if the wood ducks will ever return to our brook if I will hear a thrush sing in the sodden gloaming if I will ever bring myself to leave this place.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Thirty years ago, when I was a senior in high school, my violin teacher suddenly died. His name was Henryk Kowalski, and you can read about him here. I had been studying with him for four or five years; and I believe I was his last student, his only student, at the time of his death.

He terrified me, he coddled me, he sold me the violin I still play, he told me I should marry his son, he claimed I was wasting my talent.

In Europe and Israel he had been famous, the equal of David Oistrakh, or so other musicians told me. In Providence, Rhode Island, he was a sick old man who wore shorts, brown socks, and plastic sandals and drank hot tea out of a glass. The window shades were always down.

When his wife called our house to say that he had died, I was shocked, I cried, but I was relieved, intensely relieved. He had so many wrong ideas about me. Studying with him was like stepping backward into an archaic Europe populated with with shabby emigre intellectuals, musicians, chess players, cognac drinkers. It was like living in one of Nabokov's Berlin novels. But I didn't know that until later, after I'd read those Berlin novels.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

With a convalescent on my hands, I had the chance to pull my copy of How to Cook for the Sick (1901) off the shelf and read him a few recipes. It was interesting to see his response: everything in the "Gruels and Mush" chapter made him say, "That sounds good." Everything in the "Meats" chapter made him say, "Stop reading!" Presumably "the sick" in question here aren't all recovering from the stomach flu, but did 1901 sanitarium kitchens really invest so much money in oysters and calf brains? Anyway, we came to the conclusion that what he really wanted was milk toast, one of civilization's perfect foods. And even though, when faced with the bowl, he could only consume two bites, he did get a dreamy look on his face and say that the smell of milk toast might have been all he needed.

Here, forthwith, is my recipe for milk toast. One of these days, when you come home crabby and cold-ridden, it may be the divine intervention you require. And it takes four minutes to prepare, even in a kitchen without a microwave.

Scald 1 cup of whole milk.

Toast 1 slice of good-quality bread.

Butter the toast with real butter.

Tear the toast into bite-sized pieces and put them into your prettiest soup plate or cereal bowl.

Pour the hot milk over the toast.

Sprinkle with salt, freshly ground pepper, and Hungarian paprika.

Take a deep breath of the rising steam before eating.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Nothing says "Hello, Monday" like a vomiting child. Sigh.

On the other hand, the sun is shining, and now I don't have to drive to baseball practice.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Picking fiddleheads, planting potatoes, mowing grass, hanging laundry, marinating chicken, reading the novels of Iris Murdoch, playing badminton, reading the poetry of Anne Carson, cleaning the bathroom, thinking about writings of Emily Bronte, worrying about not getting enough done.

from The Glass Essay 
Anne Carson 
It is very cold
walking into the long scraped April wind.
At this time of year there is no sunset
just some movements inside the light and then a sinking away.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Ten pounds of red potatoes are bubbling on my stove, first step in this morning's massive potato-salad project. I'll be putting it together for tonight's benefit pig roast at the Harmony School; and while I realize that no one may notice if one woman's potato salad is different from any other's, I intend to fuss over it just because I can't help myself. This is what will go into my version (in addition to the red potatoes): sliced hard-boiled eggs, large amounts of chopped fresh chives, homemade mayonnaise, thick whole-milk yogurt, a soupcon of crushed garlic, diced homemade dill beans, kosher salt, freshly ground green peppercorns. It will be pretty and it will be delicious, and I think it won't scare anyone even if it is a little strange. I say this modestly. If you're a cook, you know what I mean.

Yesterday afternoon I made my obligatory cakes: (1) an applesauce and raisin sheet cake with lemon icing and (2) a crabapple-jam bundt cake with a milk glaze. They--along with the giant potato salad, being a roadie, and playing music all evening--are the sum total of my required contribution. Fortunately I do not have to roast any pigs, and singing and playing the fiddle should get me out of a considerable amount of 8th-grader herding and greasy dishwashing.

Don't forget to drop in and see what's going on. You will be amused, possibly even entertained.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Yesterday I posted "Hated by Literature," an essay about books that make me uncomfortable but that, for whatever reason, I continue to reread. Although I did eventually manage to find a journal that was willing to take the piece, it was a difficult essay to publish--by far the most difficult of all the chapters in the manuscript I'm calling The Vagabond's Bookshelf. While a number of journal editors probably just didn't like my writing style, I suspect a certain contingent was uncomfortable with the white-girl-versus-Malcolm X premise . . . and, interestingly, that contingent included white women who are vocal activists for women's equality in publishing.

When one takes a political stance, it becomes dangerous to admit ambiguity. This is understandable, I suppose, in the context of a rally or a campaign, but it is death to art. Writers know this truth--including these women editors, who are well educated, sophisticated citizens of literature--yet the ambiguities inherent within ourselves and our histories continue to confound and threaten all of us. Is it right, is it risky, for a white woman editor to publish a white woman's old-fashioned and semi-long-winded contemplation, one that, in some ways, takes Malcolm X's hallowed name in vain; one that, in some ways, reinforces both the humiliations and the humilities of male-female relations? The piece is both non-cutting-edge in style (to employ a cliche I particularly dislike) and radical-reactionary in morals. It has no safe readership.

I am writing this small epilogue not because I am angry at these editors, not because I think my essay is groundbreaking, not because I think it's wrong to take strong political stands against racism, sexism, classism, and other cruelties. All I am saying is that sometimes we forget that there is more than one way to be brave. As a friend of mine--a musician, a working man, a Republican voter--said to me the other day, in the gentlest, kindest, humblest voice imaginable, "I guess it all depends on where we stand on this earth, doesn't it?"

Thursday, May 3, 2012

On Malcolm X, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and being female--

Hated by Literature
Dawn Potter
[first published in Solstice (fall/winter 2011-12)

I was in my early teens when I met, for the first time, a book that didn’t like me. I’d read by this point plenty of books that I didn’t like. Not that my judgment was reliable: many of these books were simply too complex for my unsophisticated brain (even the simplest Joyce story had the power to drive me to hysterical frustration), while others, such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, required more appreciation for quotidian dullness than I was able to muster at fifteen. Still, I had opinions, and I had vanity, and I had an irrepressible confidence in my love affair with literature that my infatuation with Austen and Brontë and Dickens shamelessly abetted.
            I had met all of these comrades by way of my mother; for once I’d finished clear-cutting the juvenile stacks at the public library, she became my primary source of reading material. She was adept at eyeing my emotional condition and assuaging it with the appropriate nineteenth-century novel, and I’m not sure that it would ever have occurred to either of us that I might benefit from a jolt. It did, however, occur to my father, who, rushing through the house on his way to work, paused long enough one day to hand me his paperback copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
            To understand my reaction to this book, you need to understand not only how white I was but how naïvely white. And how naïvely female. Of course I knew I was a white girl, sister of another white girl, daughter of white parents. Nonetheless, though my parents were well educated and well read, both had been born into the rural-industrial working class: into small-time farming and coal mining, steel-mill labor and truck driving. My parents had struggled to evade that fate: they’d gone to college; they’d read books; they’d attained advanced degrees. Yet although we now lived decorously on the outskirts of a city, where we patronized bookstores and listened to classical music and supported liberal causes and ate fish (a horrifying food, as far as my Appalachian relatives were concerned), my parents remained fearful of urban dangers and thin-skinned about their past. They were nervous about visitors, suspicious of outsiders’ motives, self-flagellating about their shyness.
As a child, I often and easily imagined our family of four on an island in the center of a deep lake, in a Conestoga wagon jolting across an endless prairie. We were cut off, cut adrift, dependent only on one another; yet also cherished, yet also protected. So when I return to that moment when my father handed me the autobiography, I also see now what I didn’t see then: my father’s bravery. Given his own fears, I can still hardly believe that he was the one person who encouraged me, wide-eyed and clueless, to open a book and crash face-first into cruel, brilliant, unforgiving Malcolm X.

The books that hate me may be very different from one another in most ways, but all share a particular characteristic: they ruthlessly dissect attitudes that I’ve tended to take for granted. Novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett, for instance: she’s an author whose books hate me, though on the surface her Edwardian family novels might seem to have more in common with Dickens et al. than with The Autobiography of Malcolm X. But in truth, Ivy is the meanest writer I know, and the especial target of her excoriating comedy is my humane and optimistic assumption that “we can work out this problem if we just sit down and talk about it.” Fat chance, as the opening of her novel The Last and the First makes clear:
“What an unbecoming light this is!” said Eliza Heriot, looking from the globe above the table the faces around it.
            “Are we expected to agree?” said her son, as the light fell on her own face. “Or is it a moment for silence?”
            “The effect is worse with every day. I hardly dare look at any of you.”
            “You have found the courage,” said her daughter, “and it is fair that you should show it. You appointed the breakfast hour yourself.”
            Lady Heriot did not suggest that anyone else should appoint it.
Her characters certainly do talk; in fact, talk is about all they do. But they purposely use family conversation to ridicule, to flay, to tyrannize. In a Compton-Burnett novel, nobody ever feels better after a chat. Talk equals damage, and Dame Ivy makes it clear that anyone who believes otherwise is a fool. She is a writer who takes a gleeful, amoral pleasure in identifying with her tyrants, and she is so skilled at her work that a reader quickly, and dreadfully, begins to do the same. As essayist Thomas Rayfiel has written of Dame Ivy, “one is complicit with the artist's indulgence in her vice, executed so skillfully, argued with such convincing intelligence, you find yourself nodding in unwilling agreement with rapists, torturers, murderers whose actions are justified by arguments that seem, in the context of what she has created, incontrovertible. This can't be happening, you think. This can't be happening to me.”
In a way, the same could be said of Malcolm X, who buttresses his opinions and assertions with what seem, in the context of the Autobiography, to be incontrovertible arguments. There’s no answering him. Later, away from the book, I might begin to invent some rejoinder, some defense. But with his book in my hand, his words spilling into my addled brain “like steam under pressure”: then, even when he wrong, he’s right.

“I started to be aware of the peculiar attitude of white people toward me,” wrote Malcolm. “I sensed it had to do with my father. It was an adult version of what several white children had said at school, in hints, or sometimes in the open, which really expressed what their parents had said—that the Black Legion or the Klan had killed my father.”
            I was a very fair-skinned child, not quite as pale as a redhead but close: the sort of white kid who is prone to blushes and rashes and can sunburn in half a minute. Around our house my complexion was the focus of fretting and, for my sister, annoyance: as in “We can’t go to the beach because Dawn is too white.” I’d never felt especially happy about my paleness. But until I read the Autobiography, I had never heard it so intensely and obsessively chronicled and generalized—or so reviled.
White, white, white! No longer did the word refer to my own irksome coloring. Now it had become shorthand for every member of my family, all of my teachers, all of the other writers I was reading, all of the violinists I was listening to, all of the composers I was studying. For the first time in my life, I became conscious of belonging to an unsavory subgroup that was not denoted by my relatives, or my parents’ money struggles, or my terrible performances in gym class, or any of the other worries that had heretofore beset me. I was white. That’s all it took. I was white. Therefore, I was tainted.
            If I’d been older, I might have gotten angry at Malcolm’s assertions. If I’d been a boy acclimated to heroics and grandstanding, I might have worshipped the fervor while smoothly exempting myself from blame. But I wasn’t able to exempt myself, and this speaker’s fervor, like the fervor of every overbearing man I’d encountered, terrified me into silence. What’s more, I believed he had the right to hate me. For in the same hot and scornful breath as his generalizations, he offered proof. Had my father been murdered by the Klan? No, my father was sitting peaceably in his study grading papers. I may have worried over a million unlikely events, but I had never, ever, worried—not even once—that the Klan would break down our door and murder my father. Malcolm, however, had worried, and his fears had come true.
            Thus, within the first twenty pages of his book, did Malcolm X assert his supremacy over me. No matter how unfair he was, how wrong, how hateful, he always managed to twist my arm behind my back; he always managed to win. He accused me of thinking thoughts that I never remembered thinking, of drawing conclusions I never knew I was drawing. He announced, “What I am trying to say is that it just never dawned on [white people] that I could understand, that I wasn’t a pet, but a human being. They didn’t give me credit for having the same sensitivity, intellect, and understanding that they would have been ready and willing to recognize in a white boy in my position.” He declared, “This is the sort of kindly condescension which I try to clarify today, to these integration-hungry Negroes, about their ‘liberal’ white friends, those so-called ‘good white people’—most of them anyway. I don’t care how nice one is to you; the thing you must always remember is that almost never does he really see you as he sees himself, as he sees his own kind.”

Just before I entered first grade, my family moved from Maryland to Rhode Island, into the house where we stayed until I was almost thirteen. Next door, on the other side of the peeling picket fence, lived Maynard and his parents: Judy and Maynard Senior. Maynard, who was my younger sister’s age, possessed a desirable swing-set and a dippy overactive mongrel named Choo-Choo. Despite these advantages, his yard was small, whereas our corner lot possessed a climbing tree as well as numerous good places to hide. I don’t know whether it was Maynard Senior’s or my father’s idea to remove one of the slats in the picket fence; but very soon after we moved into our house, my sister and Maynard and I were wriggling back and forth through that fence, from one yard to the next—swinging, throwing sand, chasing each other, barking at Choo-Choo, hiding under the rhododendrons.
            The year was 1970 or 1971, and Maynard’s family was black. Malcolm X’s assertions vibrated in the aether, but my six-year-old ear was oblivious. Did I give Maynard credit for “sensitivity, intellect, and understanding”? Probably not, seeing as it wouldn’t have occurred to me to give anybody credit for those attributes. Did I treat him “with kindly condescension”? Yes, I did; I certainly did. But not because he was black: because he was a four-year-old kid, the same age as my little annoying sister, whereas I was six and was thus entitled to boss him around.
As I grew older, I played with Maynard less often. He was a boy, a younger boy, veering off into boy interests that I didn’t share. But the family stayed in our lives. Judy and my mother occasionally drank coffee together; Maynard Senior kept an eye on our house when we were away. During the six years we lived next door to Maynard’s family, I have not the slightest memory of any parental conversation about skin color, no sense that my father could “never . . . really see [Maynard Senior] as he sees himself, as he sees his own kind.”
What I do remember is that, on the day young Maynard came home from school and found his heart-diseased mother dead on the kitchen floor, my mother was the person he called for help.

A touching story, but Malcolm X would have spit on it. Not a detail, not an anecdote, not even Judy’s dead body would have changed his mind about the speciousness of “‘liberal’ white friends” and the idiocy of “integration-hungry Negroes.” What’s more, simply recognizing that he wouldn’t have fallen for this version of history, knowing how much he would have scorned my so-called “innocent” reverie, makes me question it myself. Clearly, at a level beyond memory or bewildered argument, I share the guilt of my race. But that’s not the only guilt I share, and not all that the Autobiography hates about me.
For yes, it’s the book itself that hates me, and that will hate me forever. Malcolm may have been dead for more than forty years, but his chronicle never stops seething. Its words and paragraphs, its splintering yellow pages, the chipped cover with its creased, angry photograph assemble a composite life. Sometimes, as a child, I seemed to feel the paper smoldering beneath my gaze. Words leapt like portents from another planet: zoot suit, reefer, hustle, daddy-o. “A friend of mine [was] named ‘Sammy the Pimp,’” shrugged the book. “I wore my guns as today I wear my neckties,” it announced. And, dreadfully, “I believe [Uncle Tom’s Cabin is] the only novel I have ever read since I started serious reading”. . . meaning that “I—yes, this scary, in-your-face polemic—I am what equals serious reading. You, with all your novels, your idiotic poems: you know nothing about it.”
The Autobiography was first published in 1964, the year I was born. Its scorching presumptions cowed me when I was fifteen, and they continue to cow me each time I reread the book. Every single page finds a way to remind me that I am ignorant, that novels and poetry aren’t serious reading, that Bach doesn’t hold a candle to Lionel Hampton, that “marriage breakups are caused by these movie- and television-addicted women expecting some bouquets and kissing and hugging and being swept out like Cinderella for dinner and dancing—then getting mad when a poor, scraggly husband comes in tired and sweaty from working like a dog all day, looking for some food.”
This last ignorance may have been the most devastating one to discover. For at fifteen, when I first read the Autobiography, I also learned that I shared the guilt of my sex; and when I say guilt, what I really mean is that deep, habituated, anxious sense of unworthiness that so many women share. For Malcolm X is ruthless about us, and his pronouncements are austere, chilling, irrevocable.
“All women, by their nature, are fragile and weak: they are attracted to the male in whom they see strength.”
“I always had the feeling that Ella somehow admired my rebellion against the world, because she, who had so much more drive and guts than most men, often felt stymied by having been born female.”
“I’d had too much experience that women were only tricky, deceitful, untrustworthy flesh.”
“To tell a woman not to talk was like telling Jesse James not to carry a gun, or telling a hen not to cackle.”
            According to the Autobiography, when Malcolm finally does find the perfect wife, she is perfect because she is perfectly obedient to him:
Betty . . . understands me. I would even say I don’t imagine many other women might put up with the way I am. Awakening the brainwashed black man and telling this arrogant, devilish white man the truth about himself, Betty understands, is a full-time job. If I have work to do when I am home, the little time I am at home, she lets me have the quiet I need to work in. I’m rarely at home more than half of any week: I have been away as much as five months. I never get much chance to take her anywhere, and I know she likes to be with her husband.
Nevertheless, he can barely bring himself to admit that he is fond of her: “I guess by now I will say I love Betty. She’s the only woman I ever thought about loving.”
As a devotee of nineteenth-century novels, I’d already read plenty of books that tacitly agreed with such presumptions about women. Writing about Flora Finching, the middle-aged romantic chatterbox in Little Dorrit, Dickens might as well have said, “To tell a woman not to talk [is] like telling Jesse James not to carry a gun.” Writing about Mrs. Proudie, the bishop’s overbearing wife in the Barchester novels, Trollope might as well have said, “She, who had so much more drive and guts than most men, often felt stymied by having been born female.” But these stereotypes, if no less wrenching in fact, were more palatable to me because they were individualized. As a characters, Mrs. Proudie really was an obnoxious loudmouth who made unnecessary trouble for her timid husband. Beneath Flora’s silly chatter, I found a loyal, kind-hearted woman who deserved her reader’s patience and goodwill.
But the Autobiography was different. Its blanket pronouncements claimed to reveal real women, not characters; real white people, not characters; a real hero named Malcolm X, not a character. What else could I do but believe its message? I was fifteen years old. I was longing for love, and smitten with that longing. I was melancholy, overexcited, prone to outburst, vain, nervous, self-defeating, and talkative. Not only was I white, but I showed every sign of growing up to be exactly the kind of woman that Malcolm would have despised. The Autobiography hated me, and the news was appalling.

Thirty years later, I’m a different person, a different reader. I’ve aged. I’ve become better acquainted with the worlds of men and politics and polemic. By and large, I’ve learned to disconnect myself from the prejudices of the books I read. I’ve learned what not to reread: what poisons are too lethal to try twice. I’m also more aware of this book’s authorial mysteries. As the title page suggests, its creation depended on “the assistance of Alex Haley.” Though I can only guess at how much and what sort of aid Haley offered, I know he was a novelist and thus was likely to have influenced story organization and development. Clearly, Malcolm X could formulate his own speeches and polemics, so perhaps what Haley did for the book was to collaborate with the man to create the character.
And that complicated character is why I keep reading the Autobiography. Perhaps my reluctant attachment arises, at least in part, from Malcolm X’s fervent honesty to his own convictions. As my friend Nick reminds me, “he was assassinated for making [Nation of Islam leader] Elijah Muhammad's many marital infidelities known to the outside world.  So [even though] he had some truly close-minded ideas about women, . . . he understood that fidelity is an important aspect of human relationships.” That perception seems, in my case, to apply to literary relationships as well. My fidelity to the Autobiography requires, as marriage does, a certain commitment to blindness—that particular sort of blindness that is the flip side of trust. It’s dangerous, this fidelity; for it tests both self-negation and self-respect. It requires me to believe. This isn’t to say that I have to force myself to accept every one of Malcolm X’s pronouncements. But when I read, I do have to believe in his fervor; I do have to believe in his courage; I do have to believe in his rhetorical intensity and his insistent, rhythmic oration.
Oh, that sound! Really, I think that’s what lures me back and back to this difficult book. It’s like a crazy dance that won’t stop, that won’t ever stop, that will kill you on the dance floor.
If you’ve ever lindy-hopped, you’ll know what I’m talking about. With most girls, you kind of work opposite them, circling, side-stepping, leading. Whichever arm you lead with is half-bent out there, your hands are giving that little pull, that little push, touching her waist, her shoulders, her arms. She’s in, out, turning, whirling, wherever you guide her. With poor partners, you feel their weight. They’re slow and heavy. But with really good partners, all you need is just the push-pull suggestion. They guide nearly effortlessly, even off the floor and into the air, and your little solo maneuver is done on the floor before they land, when they join you, whirling, right in step.
There’s no way in the world I’d ever risk going out onto that floor with Malcolm X. Talk about poor partners: good Lord, he’d be better off trampling me under his sharkskin shoes. No, I can’t dance with this man. Everything about me is wrong. But still, I want to watch from the sidelines. I want to see him work; I want to see him shout. At least, when I’m reading his book, I get to breathe the smoke; I get to listen to the trumpets wail. I might matter less than any other character in the world, but at least I get to play my own pale and clumsy bit part.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching

May has arrived, rain is dripping from the eaves, the plum tree is in blossom, I am preparing to sit through my first middle school baseball game of the season, and director Baron Wormser has chosen his featured Frost poem for this year's Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. So you should immediately sign up for the conference to find out which poem he's picked . . . because once you watch Baron teach a poem, you will never forget it--and by "it" I mean both Baron's teaching and the poem, and by "you" I mean poets, non-poets, college teachers, preschool teachers, ex-teachers, depressed teachers, non-teachers, mothers, golfers, fathers, sons, daughters, tractor mechanics, reluctant owners of cats, people with aversions to spiders and mice, chemists, city slickers, race-car drivers, chaplains, wide-eyed Yankee fans, orphans, voters, aliens, mediocre flautists, professional scoffers, tone-deaf intellectuals, political cartoonists, dog paddlers, gardening enthusiasts, dislikers of Robert Frost, middle managers, realist painters, flatlanders, civil servants, house husbands, Whigs, unscientific cheesemakers, ham-radio operators, Catholics, atheists, flash-fiction cynics, vegans, cattle ranchers, fiscal conservatives, Romantics, people who trip over their own feet, short middle-aged consumers of gelato, baritones, etc. You know who you are.

If you've already attended the Teaching Conference, pass the word to your friends and colleagues. And if you've never attended, please consider signing up for this year's session. It's no exaggeration to say that Baron's teaching has changed lives.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

I know it seems as if I am always rereading Henry Green's short novel Loving (1945), but really I can't help it.

Raunce's Albert, Edith, Kate, the little girls and Mrs Welch's lad chose for their picnic a place just off the beach. While those children ran screaming down to where great rollers diminished to fans of milk new from the udder upon pressed sand, Albert laid himself under a hedge all over which red fuchsia bells swung without a note in the wind the sure travelling sea brought with its low heavy swell. He could watch the light blue heave between their donkey Peter's legs and his ears were crowded with the thunder of the ocean.

That passage is so exactly like being at the sea. It's as if there is no gap between the words and the experience. When will I learn to write so well?

I wish I wish I wish. Is that the end-all of being human?