Friday, May 31, 2013

So, this Sunday morning, if you're bored and hungry in central Maine, you might drop by Stutzmans' farmstand and cafe in Sangerville. They'll be serving brunch from 10 to 2, and String Field Theory will be performing several short sets. We'll be playing songs we know by heart along with songs we've hardly ever played before, and if you ever wanted to hear a classically trained violinist attempt to cover Jimi Hendrix's "Fire," this is your chance.

And now, to celebrate Obscure Poet Friday, I offer you a sample from Maria White Lowell (1821-1953), wife of somewhat-less-obscure poet James Russell Lowell (pal of Thoreau, ancestor of Amy and Robert). The opening words of Maria's Wikipedia article are quite riveting: "Maria was born in Watertown, Massachusetts to a middle-class intellectual family. She was raised under a strict ascetic discipline at an Ursuline Convent which was later burned by a mob in 1834." She started her married life overflowing with Transcendentalist enthusiasms, which dwindled into ill-health and dead babies, and she herself died at the age of 32. Her poems were "privately printed after her death," presumably by her husband, and they include the following. I'm assuming, given the state of both her health and the nineteenth-century medical profession, that she had considerable knowledge of the subject matter.

An Opium Fantasy

Maria White Lowell

Soft hangs the opiate in the brain,
And lulling soothes the edge of pain,
Till harshest sound, far off or near,
Sings floating in its mellow sphere.

What wakes me from my heavy dream?
Or am I still asleep?
Those long and soft vibrations seem
A slumberous charm to keep.

The graceful play, a moment stopt,
Distance again unrolls,
Like silver balls, that, softly dropt,
Ring into golden bowls.

I question of the poppies red,
The fairy flaunting band,
While I, a weed with drooping head,
Within their phalanx stand:--

"Some airy one, with scarlet cap,
The name unfold to me
Of this new minstrel who can lap
Sleep in his melody!"

Bright grow their scarlet-kerchief'd heads,
As freshening winds had blown,
And from their gently-swaying beds
They sang in undertone:--

"Oh he is but a little owl,
The smallest of his kin
Who sits beneath the midnight's cowl
And makes this airy din."

"Deceitful tongues of fiery tints!
Far more than this ye know,
That he is your enchanted prince
Doom'd as an owl to go;--

"Nor his fond play for years hath stopt,
But nightly he unrolls
His silver balls, that, softly dropt,
Ring into golden bowls."

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Mill Hunky (1964)

Dawn Potter

Raised in a coal patch flaunts his mustache survives
on pierogis and Coca-Cola splashes liquid steel into girder molds
plays the squeezebox plucks the guitar gulps dago red from a pint bottle
sleeps it off in the Ford bets on the dog races carries a switchblade
cheats at cards curves his rough palm round the hip of a big Slovene girl
from Johnstown sings In Heaven There Is No Beer sings I’ve Got a Wife at Home
swears at the umpire dreams of victory staggers into a church
at two in the morning loves his brother as himself ignores advice
spends his pay on a gold tooth

this bent old man with no teeth left a shabby dog
and five grandbabies Beloved Be Faithful he sings
and curves his rough palm over the dog’s
narrow head.

[From Chestnut Ridge, my verse-history-in-perpetual-progress, which centers on the people and the landscape of southwestern Pennsylvania. For a synopsis explanation of hunky culture, look here.]

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

I bravely planted corn and beans yesterday. Today a little more rain is forecast, and then we're supposed to get sun and heat and sun and heat, which is pretty much impossible to imagine, given the fact that we had a frost on Monday night. On the good side, the blackflies are flummoxed by the weather, and not a single one has bitten me yet.

So far I've spent the morning solving the problems of my worked-up older son, who thought he had a well-paying summer construction job for the summer . . . until yesterday, when his boss fell off the roof and J had to drive him to the emergency room. Things could have been worse (our friend only cracked a couple of vertebrae), but J's money-making plans were dashed. Fortunately, I have some pizza-making connections among my band members, so he's not entirely out of luck.

For his part, my worked-up younger son is consumed by track-and-field nerves, soccer-camp nerves, going-to-a-rock-show nerves, piano-recital nerves, etc., etc. It seems that the exigencies of Boy Land will be thriving this summer. And yet
                        Whatever we do,
Desiring, loving, possessing, suffering,
Is always only meanwhile.
says Milosz, and I sigh.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I'm still fighting this cold, which has now dwindled into an up-all-night cough, and I was out of the house for most of yesterday, a combination of factors that accounts for no Monday letter to you. First, I watched my son run a 4 x 800 relay at the Penobscot Valley Conference track-and-field championships, and then I bought a dozen duck eggs and a pickling-cucumber plant, and then I came home and did battle with the field that was once a lawn, and then, finally, after I was inside and had made dinner and had celebrated with the boy about his team's victory ("Mom! I haven't been on a winning team since second grade!"), I lay on the couch and watched a chunk of Sergei Bondarchuk's 1965 Russian version of War and Peace, which is rather like a giant Burton-Taylor extravaganza shot in slow motion under water. Also, there is something very odd about the translation approach. Sometimes the dialogue is dubbed into English, sometimes there are subtitles, and sometimes there's no translation at all . . . and these shifts frequently happen in the middle of a single character's speech. In other words, the movie is perfect for a head cold. It was either that or 70s A-Team reruns.

Today I'm back to editing, and the house will be emptied of boys, which will be a novelty. These days there's a lot of action in my cottage, and a lot of food consumption. Two loaves of bread last a day and a half, if I'm lucky. Just call me the Constant Baker.

Christopher's comments on Sunday's quotation post are interesting. There's a scene in A. S. Byatt's Possession that, in certain ways, mirrors the tale he posits about the missing books. I've often suspected that Byatt borrowed Emily Dickinson as a model for certain angles of her character Christabel LaMotte, though there are also many elements of Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett . . . and Randolph Ash is quite Browning-like.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Miss Anna practices "Sit" in the Mondrian kitchen.
from the miscellaneous notebook jottings of William Blake
Every thing which is in harmony with me I call In harmony--But there may be things which are Not in harmony with Me & yet are in a More perfect Harmony

from Emily Dickinson's Poem 1290
The most pathetic thing I do
Is play I hear from you--

from A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson
On the the tenth of February, 1675, came the Indians with great number upon Lancaster. Their first coming was about Sun-rising. Hearing the noise of some Guns, we looked out; several Houses were burning, and the Smoke ascending to Heaven. There were five Persons taken in one House, the Father, the Mother, and a sucking Child they knock'd on the head; the other two they took, and carried away alive.

from Denise Levertov's The Sack Full of Wings
When my father was a little boy in Russia an old pedlar used to come by from time to time, carrying a big sack over his shoulder. Sometimes he would be seen in the streets and outlying districts of the town of Orsha, my father's home; sometimes when my father was taken to the larger city of Vitepsk to visit his grandparents and uncles, there again he would glimpse the pedlar, trudging along, always carrying his bulky sack. My father did not wonder what was in the sack, for he believed he knew: it was full of wings, wings which would enable people to fly like birds.

from Robert Frost's notebook 19
Your Fist in your hand. A great force strongly held. Poetry is neither the force nor the check. It is the tremor of the deadlock.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

I woke up this morning with a head cold and a splitting headache. On the bright side I have a house full of boys. James's best friend spent the night, and it was just like old times here, except that now I keep plaintively thinking, "Will this ever happen again?" whereas in the real old times I  just got distracted by filthy boots and late-night stereo thumps.

Today I plan to make a cake. Of course it is still raining, and of course I haven't planted half of what I ought to have planted by Memorial Day weekend. But the weather is still so cold. No beans or corn would care to sprout in such conditions. I lit a fire in the wood stove this morning, which will make the dog so happy when she comes downstairs.

The headache is beginning to abate, though my IQ still feels low. If I write anything stupid this morning, blame it on the head cold. The bird feeder at the kitchen window is packed with enthusiasts: a red-breasted grosbeak, a purple finch, a mourning dove. On the other side of the house a hummingbird is braving roof drips as big as her head. The daylight is moss-green. A small wind is gusting among the water-logged lilacs. This is the kind of weather my mother calls "raw."

I see that I am still rambling on, so now I will tell you about something nice that just happened to me. I was in the grocery store yesterday, and I was accosted by a man who said, "Are you the fiddle player?" Turns out the man was Dave Mallett.

Now I'll tell you another nice thing that happened to me. I was invited to be the headline act at the Stonington Opera House's annual poetry event. Last year Wes McNair was the headliner, so I am feeling rather pleased about this.

In less exciting news, my carpal tunnel problems are flaring up, I still can't find a real job, and somebody spilled rhubarb-pie juice all over the bottom shelf of the refrigerator.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Mrs. Dickinson Waits in the Car

Dawn Potter

          My Mother does not care for thought—
                                    Emily Dickinson

A few meager stars, a hazy moon
brighter than old Kentuck,
and a bulge of frost spooned
across the windshield like a plucked,

flash-frozen chick. Into this arctic
chariot, the heater chafes and spouts
its idiot vows. Yes, I lied about Kentuck.
No doubt, it’s glowing like all get-out,

like a pair of gibbous moons, like molten
honey dripped into a summer lake.
Blame art, then: I’ve been soaking up Bolton’s
poems, and now I’m acting like a fake

southerner, which is to say gothically
depressed while making love to every rum-
soaked predicate I meet. Treat gothically
as a ringer for New England numb.

Today a friendly rube lauded my skill
at prosy contemplation, but what a crock.
Call a heart a spade: call me a fading, moody kill-
joy with a romance eye for loss and schlock.

The car fan chatters hopelessly; newsmen
chant wind-chill rates and hockey stats.
Like any hausfrau I fret over loaves in the oven,
socks on the line, carboys of milk, and ruinous vats

of soup. There they burn or boil.
Here I dally in this wrapper-strewn capsule,
this (laugh with me!) bell jar. Can I stand loyal
to her, cruel queen of diction, and also rule

my roost, my squat piratical outpost?
I shiver; I prop my tome of poems
against the cruiser’s plastic wheel. I boast
that they age for me: these jeroboams

of syntax, these sherry cups of rage.
Yet these tired hands; yet these cold feet.
Go ahead: remind me to shut up, to flip the page,
to change the station, to bleat

            of Mother’s lonely vigil.
I’m not proud of my idle arrogance.
Meanwhile, the rye loaf chars and the milk spills.
            They’re out of my ken, for a hatful of minutes.

                        Let me claim to be oracular.
“Poetry is not like reasoning,” urges Shelley.
And I reply: “nothing in particular”
            is the maiden speech of every tragedy.

[I know I posted this a while ago, but I was in the mood for it again today. Must be the empty refrigerator and the pouring rain. The poem is forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014).]

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Poems of Milly Jourdain

Dawn Potter

As soon as I opened the flimsy paper cover of Unfulfilment, Joan Arden’s tiny volume of poems, out fell the publisher’s original review request: “Mr Basil Blackwell has pleasure in submitting the accompanying book for review. He will be glad to receive a copy when it appears.” Clearly this was a message from the past that I needed to take seriously, especially since, as far as I can tell, no one else has ever reviewed this book. In fact, hardly anyone seems to have read it. Published in 1924, the collection appeared in the “Adventurers All” series, which Blackwell advertised rather poignantly as “a series of young poets unknown to fame.” Several of these young poets did eventually become known to fame, including Dorothy L. Sayers, Aldous Huxley, and Sacheverell Sitwell. Joan Arden, however, did not.
The author’s published name was a pseudonym. Her real name was Melicent Jourdain, known to her family as Milly; and I first came across Milly’s poems as I was reading Hilary Spurling’s 1984 biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett, whose longtime companion, Margaret Jourdain, was Milly’s older sister. In addition to Margaret, an expert on furniture and the decorative arts, there were other fairly well known Jourdains in this large family: Philip, a mathematician and philosopher; Frank, a pioneering ornithologist; and Eleanor, who with a friend wrote a peculiar book in which they claimed to have seen the ghost of Marie Antoinette at Versailles.
            Milly was the baby of the family and, like Philip, suffered from a hereditary disease known as Friedrich’s ataxia, a rapidly advancing form of multiple sclerosis, characteristically revealing itself in childhood and killing its victims in their twenties. Both Milly and Philip managed to hang on longer than expected, but they were crippled for most of their lives. Philip was dead by age forty, while Milly lived slightly longer, dying at forty-four, which is, oddly enough, my own age as I write these words. To a degree, this coincidence accounts for my interest in her, but only as an afterthought. For as soon as I stumbled across the scraps of poems in Spurling’s biography, I recognized that Milly was a real poet. Here, for instance, is “Watching the Meet,” a poem that Spurling does not quote in her book but that struck me on first reading as a nearly perfect rendering of a fluid moment:
The air is still so new and fresh and cold,
It makes a warm excitement in our hearts
To drive beside the sad and lonely fields.
And now we see a wider space of road
Where groups of horsemen moving restlessly
Are waiting for the quiet-footed hounds.
The hounds come swiftly, covering the way
Like foaming water surging round our feet.
And then with cries and sound of cracking whips
All, all are gone: the distant beat of hoofs
Like trailing smoke of dreams, comes fitfully
To tell how near they were a moment past.
But we see only winter trees again,
And turning homewards meet a drifting rain.

Spurling had also recognized Milly’s stature. Unfulfilment, she writes, “records with singular terseness and clarity its author’s decline into paralysis and death.”
The height of delight in Milly’s poems is a single celandine or crocus in the grass, the feel of cold stream water, thin sunlight on glittering frost-covered hills. Perhaps she had learnt from Hardy or Wordsworth, perhaps simply from her own constricted life, the deceptive simplicity that matches an unobtrusive verse form with an equally unassuming truthfulness. . . .
            There is no way of dating Milly’s poems. Some clearly gather intensity from being written in retrospect, after the Jourdains left Dorset in 1919, but all of them have a musicality, a concentration of thought and feeling, a desolate clarity.

Spurling’s words are as close to a review of Milly’s work as I can find. The book has more or less vanished from human memory; and when I did an Internet search, only one copy seemed to be available anywhere for purchase. I bought it; and thus did Blackwell’s review request come into my hands, tucked inside a frail forest-green volume, the cover so thin it might be construction paper, with title, author’s name, and publisher’s information printed on cream-colored paper and pasted austerely onto the green. The cheap, sad, scrapbook effect of the cover became even more noticeable once I caught sight of the glossy bookplate pasted inside; for, yes, someone else once owned this book: “Arthur Melville Clark of Herriotshall and Oxton,” whose name reposes elegantly beneath a heraldic insignia topped with the fighting Scots motto “blaw for blaw.”
Clark, at least career-wise, turns out to be less aggressive than his bookplate would indicate. He wrote several scholarly tomes, including studies of Sir Walter Scott and the playwright Thomas Heywood. In 1922 Blackwell published his book The Realistic Revolt in Modern Poetry, and Clark is described on the title page as “M.A. (Edin.)” and “sometime lecturer in English at University College, Reading.” Perhaps Blackwell had entertained hopes that Clark would review Milly’s book, but he doesn’t appear to have done so. Nonetheless, someone, presumably Clark, read it, and his rare pencil marks in the margins can be illuminating, in a melancholy sort of way.
Style-wise at least, Clark’s book on modern poetry is the usual sort of clotted, scholarly bombast. “It is,” he declares, “perhaps, unfair to emphasise the activities of the extremists—Messrs. Sassoon, Osbert Sitwell, T. S. Eliot, Edgar Lee Masters—but their very extravagance is instructive, as displaying in a greater degree the tendency more happily, if less obviously, illustrated by others.” Whatever his statement might mean, it doesn’t have much relevance to Milly Jourdain’s poems, which are so distinctly unextravagant as to be nearly invisible to her book’s marginal commentator. He marks only two poems in the collection. One is “Watching the Meet,” where he pencils an unexplained X beside two lines. The other is “The Leap over the Wall”:
Now in my narrow room, my memory hears
The waves break on the shore:
I think of all the pleasant things behind
That soon will be no more.

I think of new-mown hay and summer days
And slowly fading light
And fields of white and shining snow that made
Me breathless with delight.

Of running water slipping through my hands
            And little pools most clear;
Yet all these things have only made me sad
            And brought me close to fear.

But could I rest at length on some great hill
            Watching the fading sky,
Then I might know that peace above the earth’s.
            And only wish to die.

This is by no means the strongest poem in the collection. Jourdain is at her worst when she incorporates rhyme, at which point the poems tend to slip into a singsong periodically jolted by uneven meter. Nonetheless, even these lesser poems reveal her pure diction, her clear eye, and her strange and straightforward communion with sorrow, an honest hopelessness that she balances so eloquently with her love for life. But what the pencil jotter says is “Morbid for no reason.”
On the whole, it seems we should be relieved that Clark never got around to reviewing Unfulfilment. Obscurity is a better fate than disdain, and Jourdain’s poems are, at least superficially, easy to docket as old-fashioned poetess pieces about flowers and sheep and fog and sadness. Yet they bear, in their simplicity and their unflinching gaze, a resemblance to some of John Haines’s tiny poems about the natural world. They are, as a friend said to me after reading a few excerpts, “a figure in three dimensions.” And when Jourdain allows herself to relinquish her stultifying rhyme schemes, her lines blossom, becoming, as in “The Floods Are Risen . . . ,” deft and idiosyncratic statements on the link between external awareness and the inner life:
The great white sea has flooded all the land,
And little waves are blown against the path
With tiny sounds like dry and restless throbs:
A white-sailed boat skims like a frightened moth
Into the dusk: the grey clouds grow darker
And dim the yellow light; we turn and leave
The cold wind blowing on the ruffled sea.

Occasionally she goes even further: “From a Road” layers unlineated stanzas of varying density to create a mélange in which the white space of the stanzas functions as the most delicate of line breaks:
Across the green valley the great hill raises its worn head through the pattern of fields which lie on its warm sides, brown in the summer sun.

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

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

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

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

Unfulfilment was published two years before Milly’s death in 1926. I don’t know how many copies Blackwell printed or how many were sold. I don’t know whether Milly paid for the printing herself. I don’t know whether seeing her poems in print made her feel better or worse about the worth of her life and her imminent death. But the poems themselves . . . ah, they have not died. Just barely, their spark flickers. Cup your hands round that guttering spark, and it burns. A good-enough fate, most poets might say.

[First published in The Reader, no. 48 (2013). I gleaned biographical information about Milly Jourdain and her family from Hilary Spurling’s Ivy: The Life of I. Compton-Burnett (New York: Knopf, 1984), passim.]

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Who's the Most Important Character?

Dawn Potter

Today, most of us automatically equate narrative with prose: stories, novels, memoirs, plays, and biographies that depend on skillful narrative control. This is understandable because many successful poems ride on the strength of their word choice, imagery, or cadence rather than their superior character development or plot construction. Nonetheless, as a narrative form, poetry predates prose by thousands of years. Poetry and storytelling are synonymous in the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, the Beowulf poet, Chaucer, and many, many others. Even by the nineteenth century, when the novel began to dominate European and American literature, narrative poets such as Coleridge, Tennyson, Longfellow, and Browning remained enormously popular with a reading public hungry for stories.
            A few contemporary narrative poets, such as Anne Carson and Rick Mullin, carry on this ancient storytelling tradition. But more often poets seem to turn to anecdotes, or brief narrative vignettes, rather than long, complex, plot-driven tales. Character development—particularly the first-person I character—is the linchpin of many of these anecdotal poems, which, in the guise of memoir scraps, informal conversations, or journal entries, lure a reader’s attention toward the I.
Sometimes everything in an anecdotal poem seems to circle that central focus. In “The Quest,” for instance, Sharon Olds recounts the horror of briefly losing track of a child in the city. Yet even though the poem is filled with references to the daughter, the I character is its emotional core. The poem is constructed around how I feels, not how the daughter feels.
This is my quest, to know where it is,
the evil in the human heart. As I walk home I
look in face after face for it, I
see the dark beauty, the rage, the
grown-up children of the city she walks as a
child, a raw target.

“The Quest” blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. Is the I really Olds herself? Or has Olds invented an I who is disguised as herself? In “Self-Portrait as Van Gogh,” Peter Cooley plays more explicitly with these questions of character identity:
Before a mirror at midnight I compose myself,
donning the gold straw hat I tilt at just his angle
to assure the vision will stay caged.
I squint, ruffle my beard, henna the tips.

Cooley’s poem serves as a good reminder: although poems have the unique ability to make us believe in them as truth, we should never assume that the I in a poem is anything other than the poet’s invention. Even the intimate, eloquent, heartbreaking I in Keats’s “Bright Star” is a character framed within a work of art. He’s not the poet but the poet’s creation.
Thus, characters, like so many other elements of poetry, can seem solid and simple even as they lead a poet to explore strange territory and make unanticipated disclosures. Like her relationships with real people, a poet’s relationship with her characters can be confusing, resentful, admiring, even dangerous. Yet she is also their creator and manipulator and thus remains separate and, to a certain degree, ambivalent about their behaviors and motivations.
In an essay about Shakespeare, Auden wrote about this necessary detachment: “A dramatist’s characters are, normally, men-of-action, but he himself is a maker, not a doer, concerned not with disclosing himself to others in the moment, but with making a work which, unlike himself, will endure, if possible forever. . . . What a man does is irrevocable for good or ill; what he makes, he can always modify or destroy.”   
In other words, as my sons used to say with exasperation when they discovered that once again I’d borrowed bits and pieces from our shared lives to create characters and a situation, “Mom! You exaggerate everything!” For when she’s creating characters, a poet ruthlessly borrows from all the material she has at hand: her own internal motivations, her family’s actions, her neighbor’s peccadilloes. Sometimes the characters that emerge closely resemble the borrowed material. Sometimes the borrowed material becomes imaginative fodder for an invented persona.
Yet in poetry, it’s not the character per se who charms, amuses, or repels the reader. It’s the way in which the poet uses words to construct that character. As D. H. Lawrence noted, without his “language so lovely,” even Shakespeare’s most famous creations would be intolerable company:
And Hamlet, how boring, how boring to live with,
so mean and self-conscious, blowing and snoring
his wonderful speeches, full of other folk’s whoring!

[From another chapter-under-construction for my forthcoming book The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dense fog, heavy air, deep green grass, and the lilacs tensely weighted with buds. One ray of sun, and they will explode into flower.

Yesterday I began working on my next Conversation chapter: Robert Hayden and narrative. Today, more of the same, and sourdough bread baking, and band practice, and boy driving.

Oklahoma's tornado destruction burdens my thoughts, as does the little girl found murdered in the woods a few towns away from where I sit. Here, in this very spot where I write, peace is overwhelming. The only sound I hear is a clutch of goldfinches arguing on a fir branch and my husband dropping a breakfast plate into the dishwasher. Safety is a narrow bridge over razor wire, over sharp stones, over blackened burnt pines.
The Lake Isle of Inisfree 
W. B. Yeats 
I will arise and go now, and go to Inisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade. 
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings. 
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

Monday, May 20, 2013

A new addition to the list of things I've never imagined before: Ralph Waldo Emerson as a little boy.
Boston corresponded to Plato's city, a population that was not too large to hear the voice of a single orator. The people were prepared for stirring sermons. With Faneuil Hall as their Acropolis, they were accustomed to public speaking, and oratory had filled them with exalted thoughts. At school they learned to recite the swelling strains of the Life of William Tell: "Friends of liberty, sons of sensibility, ye who know how to die for your independence!" Bombast, in a sense, but they believed it. Their fathers and uncles had fought in a similar cause, swept along by a tide of eloquence. Moreover, Plutarch was their second Bible, together with Pope's Homer. Deep in their hearts they cherished the conviction that they could emulate these heroic models and reproduce the deeds of history. The sons of William Emerson, for instance, the former minister of the First Church, who had founded the Philosophical Society, were born with these convictions in their blood, and one of them, a boy of twelve named Ralph, a chubby little spouter of Scott and Campbell, who had recently trundled his hoop about the Common, where he pastured the family cow, was to express them later in his essays. . . . He carried the Pensees of Pascal to church, to read during the sermon. At night, in his cold upper chamber, covered with woollen blankets to the chin, he read his precious Dialogues of Plato. He associated Plato, ever after, with the smell of wool.
[from Van Wyck Brooks, The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865]

"Chubby little spouter"! That phrase makes me happy.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Yesterday's rhubarb pie experiment: Put together a basic rhubarb-sugar-flour-butter filling but add a half-cup of dried cranberries to the mixture. It's delicious and it's pretty, and next time I make this I'm going to try soaking the cranberries in Cointreau first.

My house is full of boys, so I made two pies, which I fully expect to be gone by the end of the day.

It's such a pleasure to be able to write "my house is full of boys" again. Dirty floors, dirty clothes, dirty dishes. Every speck is worth it.

And now I must go feed the goat. I am an hour late, so she is out there casting evil spells on me.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

I was out late last night playing music, but this morning I'm all about housework and garden work and taking trash to the dump and making bread and making pies and mowing grass and pruning dead wood out of shrubs.

In between I might be able to keep fixing up that poem I'm working on. The title is "The Husbands," and the characters are a mystery to me. They are the blank spot inside the frame of the poem. It is an absorbing task, creating the shape of this empty space, but the poem isn't quite right yet, and I don't have time to sit on a couch and concentrate on the job. Anyway, spending a weekend moving heavy, dirty things often helps me solve poem problems, so that is what I am going to do.

Friday, May 17, 2013

No Day Is Safe from News of You

Dawn Potter

Morning breaks like glass.
I sidle through the kitchen,
naked as a hoptoad, but nary a glance
hipes my way.
My love, he loves me with an H; he feeds me
with hay and hieroglyphs. Hélas.

Cold wind blusters under a second-rate sun.
The speckled rooster hoicks his brag to heaven.
Our only news is bad news,
squawk his twelve insatiable hens.
Their feathers blow backward. In the patchy daylight
they shimmer like a straggle of dahlias.

Sing ho for the new year, croons the magazine to an empty room.
The stovepipe ticks,
but Nothing, nothing, nothing, says the clock.
My love, he loves me with an H; we breakfast
on hum-birds and humble pie,
though yesterday we ate husks.

Time flies! shouts the rooster, and the yeast agrees.
It swims in a blue bowl,
morning-glory blue, color of a blind eye.
Every headlong day my love’s heart sings,
Weariness, yes, weariness, and never enough cash.
O holy night-before-last, when it forgot the words,

when I dreamt of turrets and stairs. Only
the radio kept muttering the tune.

[first published in Poetry Salzburg, spring 2012; forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Thursday, May 16, 2013

I told you my story turned into a poem, and here's why. As I wrote the story, I became more and more detached from my characters. They started to feel like participants in a farce. All my dialogue was one-liners, which is something I recognize from past forays into the genre. The thing is: even though I like to write funny poems, I rarely feel as if I'm limiting myself to farce in them. And in this case I realized that the section of the draft I kept rereading was the least funny part of the story. What my mind wanted to do was linger on a portrait, not make something else happen. So yesterday and this morning I lingered on that portrait, and now I have a poem.

A new used book arrived in the mail yesterday: Van Wyck Brooks's 1936 The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865. It is a fine solid library edition, with an ascetic workman-like binding, vintage 1963. According to the library card, no one has ever borrowed it.

In the preface Brooks says, "My subject is the New England mind, as it has found expression in the lives and works of writers," and here's the opening of the first chapter:
At the time of the Peace of Ghent, which brought to a close the War of 1812, Gilbert Stuart, the portrait-painter, was an old inhabitant of Boston. He had lived in the town,--for it was still a town, not to become a city for almost a decade,--nine good years. The son of a Rhode Island snuff-grinder, he had made his way up in the world of art until nobody questioned his eminence. He was famous in London and Dublin, where he had been a rival of Lawrence and Beechey. In all American circles, his word was law. No one dared to praise an American poet until the Edinburgh Review had done so, but Stuart was the arbiter in painting. In his careless way, he had neglected to answer the letter from the Academy of Florence asking for a portrait of himself. He did not need these testimonials. In the capital of New England, whither he had come to live and die, everyone praised and admired him. Even John Adams, the patriarch of Quincy, who said he would not give sixpence for a Raphael, yielded to the spell of the genial artist. The old man had rejoiced, with a Puritan's fervour, that the age of painting and sculpture had not arrived to corrupt his beloved country. But Gilbert Stuart's witty anecdotes charmed away his prejudices. After his first sitting, he exclaimed that he would be glad to sit to Stuart from one year's end to another.
"The son of a Rhode Island snuff-grinder." "Not give sixpence for a Raphael." I can tell I'm going to enjoy this book.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

I spent an hour yesterday morning talking about my western Pennsylvania project with a class of high school poets. Meanwhile, I discovered that, per usual, my embryonic short story was turning into a poem. I finished the Lowell chapter for The Conversation. I picked fiddleheads and made bread and mowed grass and chopped vegetables. I hung around in the kitchen talking to James, who is back home for the summer. I glowered at the frost coating the hood of my car. I said yes to two people who want to interview me. I ran errands during Paul's piano lesson. I started reading Colm Toibin's novel Brooklyn, I stared at the massive pile of books stacked on my desk, I picked wood chips out of the poodle, I listened to a Stevie Wonder record, and I thought about Whitman. I wished I were visiting New York City. I wished I were visiting London. I sang "Shenandoah" with Paul. I sent encouraging emails to poets and teachers. I reread "There Was a Child Went Forth" and was amazed again. I lay on my bed clutching the stories of Alice Munro to my heart. I told Paul I wouldn't take him to see the movie about Gatsby until he'd finished reading the book about Gatsby. I looked at a map of arctic Canada. I learned that a book review I'd recently written "is going down [on one particular online forum] like a chorus of farts at the funeral of a respected dignitary." I was then invited to write another review for the journal. I didn't know what to make of this conundrum but did not visit the online forum and thus managed to have a good night's sleep. I watched the clouds thicken and shift, darken and glow. I listened to a thrush sing in the wet dawn.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Today, this feels like the most beautiful poem I have ever read.

There Was a Child Went Forth

            Walt Whitman

There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.

The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover,
           and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal
           and the cow’s calf,
And the noisy brood of the barnyard or by the mire of the pond-side,
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there,
           and the beautiful curious liquid,
And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads, all became part of him.

The field sprouts of Fourth-month and Fifth-month became part of him,
Winter-grain sprouts and those of the light-yellow corn, and the esculent roots
            of the garden,
And the apple-trees cover’d with blossoms and fruit afterward, and wood-berries,
            and the commonest weeds by the road,
And the old drunkard staggering home from the outhouse of the tavern
            whence he had lately risen,
And the schoolmistress that pass’d on her way to the school,
And the friendly boys that pass’d, and the quarrelsome boys,
And the tidy and fresh-cheek’d girls, and the barefoot negro boy and girl,
And all the changes of city and country wherever he went.

His own parents, he that had father’d him and she that had conceiv’d him
           in her womb and birth’d him,
They gave this child more of themselves than that,
They gave him afterward every day, they became part of him.

The mother at home quietly placing the dishes on the supper-table,
The mother with mild words, clean her cap and gown, a wholesome odor
           falling off her person and clothes as she walks by,
The father, strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger’d, unjust,
The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure,
The family usages, the language, the company, the furniture, the yearning
           and swelling heart,
Affection that will not be gainsay’d, the sense of what is real, the thought
           if after all it should prove unreal,
The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time, the curious whether and how,
Whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?
Men and women crowding so fast in the streets, if they are not flashes and specks
            what are they?
The streets themselves and the façades of houses, and goods in the windows,
Vehicles, teams, the heavy-plank’d wharves, the huge crossing at the ferries,
The village on the highland seen from afar at sunset, the river between,
Shadows, aureola and mist, the light falling on roofs and gables of white or brown
            two miles off,
The schooner nearby sleepily dropping down the tide, the little boat
            slack-tow’d astern,
The hurrying tumbling waves, quick-broken crests, slapping,
The strata of color’d clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint away solitary by itself,
            the spread of purity it lies motionless in,
The horizon’s edge, the flying sea-crow, the fragrance of salt marsh and shore mud,
These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes,
            and will always go forth every day.

Monday, May 13, 2013

I wonder if I'll ever get over being embarrassed when people try to talk to me about my poems. This is an awkward, ungracious response and one that, by now, you'd think I'd have overcome. I post poems here in large part because I'm trying to make myself more comfortable with raw exposure; but when a poem appears in a book or a magazine, I usually assume that no one's reading it so I don't have to worry. My attitude is self-defeating because, of course, I long for readers and book reviews and interviews. And I really do like to read my work in public: when I'm performing, the anxiety slips away, and I can let myself be vulnerable and love the sound of my own words. Yet I have to fight a feeling of faintness when someone starts talking to me about one of my poems, I cringe at book reviews, and I have never--not once--listened to a recorded interview of myself.

At moments I do squinch my eyes shut and do what needs to be done: that Beloit Poetry Journal forum on the long poem, for instance. But I tremble at every word I share, and I dread looking at the responses--even good ones. All of this is stupid and self-defeating, a written version of stage fright. And it's unkind to the miracle of readers. For instance, a member of my band asked me if he could have a copy of How the Crimes Happened. Horrified, I quelled my urge to insist, "Oh, you don't have to read that!" and gave him a copy. He wasn't the poetry-reading type, I assured myself. He worked long days as a contractor and wasn't going to spend his evenings toiling over my poems. Surely the book would disappear under a stack of magazines beside his recliner.

But during next week's practice, he told me that he had been slowly and carefully reading the poems. Then he told me which ones he liked and how they made him feel. The other two guys in the band sat listening thoughtfully and then suggested that they should borrow it from him and read it when he was done.

I was stunned and confused and disturbed and embarrassed and flattered. Toss in every other clumsy adolescent adjective you can think of and I was probably that too. I wish I could say forthrightly that I was overjoyed, but the pleasure was overshadowed by the sense that I was making people's lives too difficult, that they thought I was demanding praise, that they were only being polite, that they suspected I was stuck up, that they were just trying to make me feel better, and so on and so on. Toss in every other clumsy adolescent explanation you can think of and I was probably that too. But since I am pushing fifty, it's about time for this callow behavior to go away.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

I'm drinking coffee alone. Tom has been in Massachusetts for two days, helping James move out of his dorm room, and they will both be back to Maine for dinner. It has been beautifully raining all night. Peas are up, asparagus is ready to cut, and this morning, before the blackflies are fully awake, I'll walk down to the stream to pick fiddleheads. On his first night back in the sticks, the boy will get to eat a giant serving of one of his favorite foods on earth.

The other boy is still here . . . sleeping, of course. A purple finch idles at the feeder. The infant leaves are a deep wet green, and the air is heavy.

My short story has stalled, but only because I had to force myself to stop writing it. "No time, no time"--the wail of every writer on earth. I hope I will find my way back to it again. I think I will. I am constantly stopping and starting the western Pennsylvania project, and it is always waiting for me when I get back.

I am not a procrastinator. That is one thing I can say about myself. But I am always under obligation. In just over a month I'll be at the Frost Place, directing the Conference on Poetry and Teaching for the first time ever. Yes, I am a little nervous about this. Meanwhile, I slog away at The Conversation like a dwarf tunneling in a cavern. Editing projects hover, poised to drop their thousand-pound weights on my head. Grass and garden grow and grow and grow and grow. And then there's that pie-baking job I've taken on, and my daily 60-mile-round-trip chauffeur responsibilities, and . . . , well, argh. Sounds just like your life is my guess, except with different details.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Scenes from Harmony

I thought I'd share a few pictures of my yard today. Please pardon the blur and the poor composition. I am not an accomplished photographer, though I do live with one.

Above is a view of two of my gardens. Closest is the herb and perennial garden. On the terrace below is the vegetable garden. Beyond is a hedge of lilacs and a flowering plum that produces no fruit.

You can see that the daffodils are fading, but soon this bed will be filled with iris, dahlias, and delphiniums. Terraced above them is the grape vine. In the distance is the woodshed and, on the left, the old garage I use as a barn.

Two wet tulips appeared out of nowhere this year. I never planted them and they never grew in the spot before. In the upper left is our fire pit.

Tiny wood violets grow wild in the grass and in sunny patches in the forest. They are about half the size of regular purple violets.

Lulu snatches dandelion greens out of my hand. She is a crabby old lady who delights in bitterness.

My yard is hemmed in by forest. In this case the passive voice states the case more clearly than active would. The yard is the helpless recipient of hemming. The trees are enormous and encroaching and would make fine characters in a Tolkein novel.

Friday, May 10, 2013

What's the Most Important Detail?

Dawn Potter

“We know there must be consciousness in things,” writes Mark Jarman:
In bits of gravel pecked up by a hen
To grind inside her crop, and spider silk
Just as it hardens stickily in air.

Many poets might just as easily say, “We know there must be consciousness in words.” By fitting together individual bits and pieces of language, they work to create a facsimile of life, one that may reach even across centuries to touch the most unsuspecting of readers.
            A few summers ago, as I sat reading Middlemarch on the front porch of the Robert Frost Museum in Franconia, New Hampshire, a teenage boy came around the corner of the house. He was about eighteen years old—tall, curly-haired, athletic. Plopping himself down on a table, he crossed his arms and looked me in the eye. “Are you a poet?” he asked.
After I admitted that I was, he leaned back. Still holding my gaze, he announced, “‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is the bomb.”
I did what anyone would have done under the circumstances, which was to become slack-jawed and slightly dizzy. Undeterred, the boy remarked that Alfred Tennyson was his favorite poet, that he’d accidentally discovered Tennyson’s poems in a book in his grandfather’s house; also, that he hadn’t quite gotten his brain around “In Memoriam” and that other long stuff but “The Eagle” and “The Kracken” were also the bomb.
            We talked. What he liked about these poems, he explained, were the details—those particular combinations of words that pulled him directly into the poet’s imaginative world. “I like that he makes me be there.”
            Think of details as a poem’s information. The poet relays this information by choosing words and phrases that evoke specific characters, places, or situations while also advancing narrative action, lyrical intensity, and thematic unity. As Theodore Roethke explains, “The poet must have a sense not only of what words were and are, but also what they are going to be.”
In her memoir The Gift, H.D. wrote of her child self’s growing awareness of the link between observation and the urge to repeat, reframe, reinvent what one has seen : “It was not that I thought of the picture; it was that something was remembered. . . . You saw what was there, you knew that something was reminded of something. That something came true in a perspective and a dimension (though those words, of course, had no part in my mind) that was final.”
Image is the customary poetic term for a mental picture translated into words. Images are constructed of details, and precise nouns are their foundation. For instance, in the opening stanza of her poem “The Burn,” Terry Blackhawk chooses a handful of plain yet exact nouns to solidify the details of place:
I saw it once in a sycamore
at a fishing spot near the lagoon,
one of the tree’s three trunks combusting.

“Sycamore” is the accurate name of the tree. The compound noun “fishing spot” adds a casual connotation to the more exotic “lagoon.” In the last line the poet avoids repeating “sycamore,” this time allowing herself to draw back to the more general “tree,” which visually and sonically reinforces the repeated t sounds in the line. Blackhawk’s only adjective is “three.” Her only verb (until the shock of the participle “combusting) is “saw.” The imagery of this stanza depends primarily on those solid, simple nouns.
In “Christmas Eve in France,” Jessie Redmon Fauset also chooses a handful of basic nouns, but she reveals and varies her details by adding adjectives:
Oh, little Christ, why do you sigh
As you look down tonight
On breathless France, on bleeding France,
            And all her dreadful plight?
What bows your childish head so low?
            What turns your cheek so white?

Even though “On breathless France, on bleeding France” repeats the same noun twice, Fauset’s shift from “breathless” to “bleeding” entirely reconfigures the imagery. Yet the adjectives are similar in sound, so the line retains its songlike quality even as it disrupts my mental picture of the situation.
            Some poets, such as Ted Hughes, choose details of ornament that seem as weighty as the nouns they modify:
Lizard-silk of his lizard-skinny hands,
Hands never still, twist of body never still—
Bounds in for a cup of tea.

The extract’s grammar, like its subject, is jumpy. In “Lizard-silk of his lizard-skinny hands,” the hyphenated repetition shifts from compound noun to compound adjective. Hughes repeats the noun “hands,” the adverb-adjective combination “never still.” In the last line he tosses us the vivid verb “bounds,” yet we’re hardly aware that it’s the first verb in the extract. Thanks to the precise arrangement of his nouns and modifiers, Hughes has created the sensation of action from the details of a physical description.
            The details in a poem do more than create specific images. They may also advance narrative action, develop character, hint at a back story, intensify a mood, reinforce sounds, and so on and so on. In the words of Baron Wormser and David Cappella, “Details are the confluence of observant intelligence, apt feeling, and thematic sense.” For example, the details in the opening stanza of Siegfried Sassoon’s “The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still” draw together a present-tense situation and layered memories of other times and places to construct a unified moment of consciousness.
The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still,
And I remember things I’d best forget.
For now we’ve marched to a green, trenchless land
Twelve miles from battering guns: along the grass
Brown lines of tents are hives for snoring men;
Wide radiant water sways the floating sky
Below dark, shivering trees. And living-clean
Comes back with thoughts of home and hours of sleep.

[from a draft-in-progress of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

Thursday, May 9, 2013

I am so very tired. Driving three hundred miles to Portland and back, and then another sixty to pick up Paul at school. It is hard to live in the middle of nowhere.

My grandfather, as he aged, drove less and less. Finally he would drive three miles into town and back, and that was it. This could be me someday. Driving just kills me.

And now Tom is playing Stereolab, and I am sitting here at my desk, and Paul is cruising hither and yon between us. In October he will be sixteen years old. Sixteen. The last of my small ones. Gone, soon, forever.

I never thought I would grow up to be a sentimental mother. The world won't stop surprising me.
I spent all afternoon making pies at my new summer bakery job. Then I had band practice, and now this morning I am driving two hours to Portland to visit with the director of a very successful children's and community writing project. I plan to learn many things.

Yesterday I found myself dipping into Mrs. Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans. What a funny, incisive book. No wonder the Americans were so annoyed.

To doubt that talent and mental power of every kind, exist in America would be absurd; why should it not? But in taste and learning they are woefully deficient; and it is this which renders them incapable of graduating a scale by which to measure themselves. Hence arises that overweening complacency and self-esteem, both national and individual, which at once renders them so obnoxious to ridicule, and so peculiarly restive under it.

I'm tired this morning, couldn't sleep well last night, worried about a desperately ill friend, not enough rain, being the wrong kind of person, tearing pie crusts, etc. A restless night turns the world into melodrama.

So glad to see your variety of reactions to Milly Jourdain's poems. What I like is resting quietly among these differences.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

It's been close to a year since I've given you a Milly Jourdain poem. Not long ago a British journal called The Reader published my "review" of her collection Unfulfilment, and one of these days I'll post that review on the archive site. But today I'll stick with her work.

Life and Light

Milly Jourdain

The twittering of swallows in the air--
The faintly distant hum of crowded life--
The rain drops on the petal of a rose--
The fresh juice of a pale and fragrant pear,
Make up the sweet taste of this friendly life.

But when my eyes are blurred with mist and pain
And only through the choking gloom there sound
The crying needs of this poor maddened self,
Stumbling alone among the unseen rocks,
Then let me see a little of that light
Which I have seen in those remembered days.

In a Garden

Milly Jourdain

The air is dry and dead,
The swallows flying low,
When from the church beyond the wall
A bell sounds thin and slow.

Another man has died,
And lies beneath the grass.
He feels no more the heat and cold,
As changing seasons pass.

On this dead sultry day
I wish the sun would shine
On plums and pear-trees by the wall,
But that the grave were mine.

The two poems appear in this order in the collection. Once again, they seem to encapsulate Jourdain's uneasy willingness to depend on herself as a poet. When I read "Light and Life," I feel as if the poet is saying to herself, "I'm looking at my misery and remembering good things and writing down what I think I ought to be feeling because I kind of do feel it but I'm also intellectualizing and standing outside the feeling." The poem's details aren't uniformly clean and sharp, though "poor maddened self" and "stumbling alone" do work to reach beyond the ladylike "rain drops on the petal of a rose." But she doesn't do enough work to synthesize the memory and the actuality. It feels like the poem she thought she ought to write rather than the poem that only she could write.

"In a Garden" is better. The poet pulls me into the immediacy of this cemetery, the immediacy of her despair. It is constructed in simple sentences and mostly with plain nouns, and the cadence reminds me of one of those ballads in which everything goes wrong. I could sing this song. "On this dead sultry day" is a surprise and a shiver. I like this poem.

I bet you all have completely different reactions, however, which is good.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

I've got an essay about Blake in the spring 2013 issue of The Sewanee Reviewa book review in the spring/summer 2013 issue of New Walk, and this week two journals have accepted western Pennsylvania poems. All of this feels surprising because I haven't submitted anything to anyone for months, though I have a dragon's lair full of stuff that's ready to go. Most of it has already been submitted at least once before and then rejected, and for whatever reason I've never gotten around to resubmitting it. So here it sits on the shelf.

I have a friend who is obsessed with submitting work, so much so that she posts a daily Facebook status announcing every submission and rejection. I can't decide what I think about this behavior. On the one hand, it's a grit-her-teeth, make-herself-undergo-the-torture strategy; on the other hand, it bleeds desperation.

But don't think I am speaking pejoratively. We all have to find ways to keep ourselves going.

And now I will go feed the goat, and then I'll drop back into the world of Amy Lowell and her swarming details, and if I'm lucky, I'll write a paragraph or so of my story-in-progress, and then I will mow grass and water my parched garden, and then I will pick up my son after track practice and listen to sports-talk radio all the way home (sigh), and then I will make potato gnocchi with chive, butter, and lemon sauce and possibly the first rhubarb-custard pie of the season.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The world is a wilderness, in which we may indeed get our station changed, but the move will be out of one wilderness station unto another.

      --Thomas Boston, quoted by Alice Munro in her story "A Wilderness Station"

What man so wise, what earthly wit so ware,
As to descry the crafty cunning train
By which Deceit doth mask in visor fair,
And cast her colors dyed deep in grain
To seem like Truth, whose shape she well can feign.

     --Sir Edmund Spenser, from The Faerie Queen

And after pain, the calm--dark records on dark shelves:
Some notion of romance we never got over,
Some sweet past theme we kept trying to recover,
Some concept of ourselves as more than our lost selves.

     --Joe Bolton, from "Prelude: Late Twentieth-Century Piece"

Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction.

     --Flannery O'Connor, from "The Nature and Aim of Fiction"

Six years of such small preoccupations!
Six years of shuttling in and out of this place!
O my hunger! My hunger!
I could have gone around the world twice
or had new children--all boys.
It was a long trip with little days in it
and no new places.

     --Anne Sexton, from "Flee on Your Donkey"

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Up here in the frozen north, spring committals are an unpleasant ritual. Anyone who dies when the ground is frozen has to wait for burial till after thaw, and this is what happened to the family of our 13-year-old friend who died of brain cancer in January.

So yesterday morning, we all gathered round the gravesite for the committal ceremony. It was a beautiful morning: birches glowing on the stony hillside, a woodpecker rapping. I was there with my son, who was weeping, of course. "It is so terrible for her friends," said the dead girl's father to me later. "They don't have much experience with losing things yet."

Suddenly, just before the end of the ceremony, there was a scuffle in the front row, then a scream of "Call 9-1-1! She's having a heart attack!" The girl's grandmother was on the ground, the local EMT was flying down the hill in his winged work boots to fetch the ambulance, the school nurse was on the grass beside the grandmother, the crowd was shocked and scared. I looked over at my son, and he had turned a dreadful shade of green. He, too, dropped to the ground, though still under his own volition, and put his head between his knees. He did not quite pass out, but he was close.

The incident had as happy an ending as one could hope for: the grandmother had simply fainted from exhaustion and stress. However, the scene was difficult to erase from our minds, and my son was in a state of intense grief for a long time afterward.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Because I know, tomorrow morning, I won't have a chance to send you a note, I'm sending you a quick one now. The day will start off with Aliza's graveside committal service and end with a benefit show for the Aliza Jean Family Foundation in the evening. It will be another hard road all over again, but maybe I'll see one or two of you at the grange tomorrow evening.
The most surprising thing has happened to me. I have started writing a short story.

I have not written a story for 25 years. An oddly enough, Salamander, the magazine that accepted that last story, lo these many years ago, just accepted one of my western Pennsylvania poems this week. This is mere coincidence, but still it adds to the peculiarity of the moment.

Here's what happened: I was grinding away at a chapter about an Amy Lowell poem, and suddenly a line leaped into my head: "Where she lived there wasn't much choice when it came to finding a second husband." Clearly (to my ear, anyway) this line is not poetry. But it was something; it was a trigger; it made me wonder where she lived and why she wanted a second husband and what might have happened to the first. And now I am almost four pages in and just beginning to discover what's going on with this character.

We'll see if I ever manage to finish it. I am trying not to doubt my stamina, but I do doubt it. In the past I have written some truly horrible short stories.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Missionaries (1758)

Dawn Potter

We started early, took our Horses
And climbed upon a steep Hill,
Until Thomas’s beast tumbled on the Rocks,
Rolling down and down like a shattered Wheel.

We started early, boiled some Chocolate.
Our surviving Horse could not be found.
Thomas shot a Squirrel and broke his Gun.
I felt a dismal Impression grow upon me.

We started early from this barren Place
So shocking and dark on a Winter’s Morn.
Passing through thick Bushes of Briar,
Thomas muttered a slew of impure Words.

We started early, with intent to cross the River,
But in Vain, so we went Smart to Work
And built a Raft. The Wolves and Owls
Made a great Noise in the Night.

We started early, fell in with Five of the King’s Men
Who told us the disagreeable News,
That the French had infused bad Notions
Into the Minds of the Indians.

We started early, for Time seemed precarious.
Entering a Town, we learnt of Skirmishing.
Rumour declared a Captive had been burnt,
Which grieved All to a great degree, even Thomas.

We started early, again reached the River,
But I had forgot my Blanket,
And Thomas’s black Oak Raft
Sank as soon as it touched cold Water.

We started early, for the Ice was violent.
Thomas hallooed till he was Tired.
Then he cut Wood and cleared Snow,
Whilst I designed a small Cabin of Hides.

We lay by a Beaver Dam.
It snowed the whole Day.
Thomas was discontent with his Lot,
But I pulled my Belt a little tighter.

I woke early, to find the Storm had eased.
Angry boot Prints marched Town-ward.
I was thus obliged to carry
Much deserted Baggage.

[from Chestnut Ridge, a verse-history-in-progress of southwestern Pennsylvania]

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Breaking news: Teresa Carson of CavanKerry Press (and the associate director of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching) interviews me about the conference.
Yesterday evening, the following remark popped up on my Facebook wall. It was written by my 15-year-old son, and the "friend" in question is someone he's known since infancy. To say that I'm impressed is putting it mildly. Not only do I admire my son's moral conviction, but I am delighted by the clarity of his argument: the way in which he honed in on censorship and faulty logic but did so calmly and efficiently. He posted this status without talking to his parents first, without fretting over wording or approach. I had nothing at all to do with it, which makes me extraordinarily happy.

Reason #1,000 for loving my ninth grader: his fervor and his humanity. Reason #1,000 for loving his college-age brother: he was the first person to like his little brother's status. Then he sent me an email that said, "I'm proud of him."
One of my "friends" just posted a screenshot of a tweet talking about Jason Collins coming out as gay, and how the media was paying too much attention to him and didn't care that Tim Tebow was a Christian. I wrote a very long comment that he promptly deleted and then blocked me. So I'm just going to put this into a status: Christians aren't treated as second class citizens in this country. There are so many open Christians in sports that everyone is used to it. Jason Collins coming out was a huge deal. He's going to get threats for this. And yet he's doing something he believes in. No one's going to threaten Tim Tebow for being a Christian. Christians are allowed to get married. Christians aren't insulted for something they can't control. People need to start realizing that gay marriage isn't a bad thing.