Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The obligations are beginning to pile up: lots of editing, a few workshops and readings on the horizon, my continuing slog into The Conversation. Today I hope to finish a chunk of editing as well as a chunk of my Donne chapter. But I also have band practice and soccer-match driving, a thicket of raspberries to wade through, lawn mowing, bread baking, and so on and so on and so on. You must be tired of rereading this repetitive list.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have nothing to do. But I cannot sit in my chair and write all day. Then I would get fat and ill. True, yanking a bad push mower over five acres of grass counteracts the fatness and the illness, but it wastes so much time. I could be writing.

Ay yi yi: the circular comedies of the underemployed anxious poet.

Meanwhile, Donne glowers from the cover of his biography. "Quit this fretfull Complaint," he remarks. Woolf snorts and lights another cigarette, while Homer ambles down the beach and vanishes among the rocks.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

I haven't given you a Milly Jourdain poem since May, so here is another pair. The second is, I think, my favorite of all of her poems. I like it so much that I've decided to include it in The Conversation. I hope Milly would be pleased.

The Huntsman 
Milly Jourdain 
We drove along the narrow lane, all dark
With sodden leaves and mud, and paused to see
The misty vale, between the leafless trees. 
Then all at once we heard the thud of hoofs,
And close to us some horses galloped by;
With passionate strength and heaving flanks they passed. 
When they had gone, the earth seemed very still;
Only the trampled road and brambles torn,
And on the grassy side some deep hoof-marks.

Watching the Meet 
Milly Jourdain 
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.

I love the image of the hounds as surging foam, I love the dramatic leap and release of this poem, and I love the way in which the weather conditions are folded into that drama. The poem has a Doppler-effect change in intensity, which is deft and natural. It pleases me every time I read it. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

A quiet morning, dim and foggy. The heavy-headed tomato plants sag into the mulch. No birds sing. Tires hiss on the road, and slow rain drips from the eaves. Everyone else is still asleep, except for the kitten, who is stalking a helpless wind-up rat.

I will be writing about John Donne again, and baking bread. I feel as if I have become an extraordinarily dull correspondent, and I apologize. Life is repetitive. I don't do much that is new, though I did recently read someone else's essay about avant-garde poetry, and I didn't understand either the hinting tone of the article or the poetry itself. Maybe I'm stupider than a real intellectual, but I equate posturing with chicanery. Perhaps I'm wrong.

All I know is that I cannot bear artists who scoff at emotional attachment, who base their creations on cynicism and ridicule.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sorry about missing yesterday's post. I've been distracted: my parents are visiting, I had a gig last night, and I was preparing for my son's birthday, which is today. All of these things are interrelated as my parents specifically planned their visit in order to overlap with the gig and the birthday. And because they had never seen me perform anything other than classical music, I was somewhat worried about how comfortable they'd be at the show. It turned out that they were thrilled. From the stage I could see my mom beaming through the entire performance, and this was such a joy.

And now today our James is nineteen years old. I think about what he has become, and I am at a loss for words. He is so confident and capable, so patient and hilarious, so charming. This time last year I was prepping myself to endure his departure to college. Now I can say that college was exactly the step he needed to take. He is becoming an exemplary man. He doesn't need me to take care of him. But he loves me anyway.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Last night's gig at the Red Maple Inn was so much fun. To the amusement of the bass player, I revealed that this was the very first time I had ever played in a bar. The opportunity doesn't come up much for classical violinists. The rest of the band has played in bars since they were 15 and talk as if they never want to do it again. But I could tell they were having a good time. We ended up playing the blues way more than we usually do, and I've got to say: playing the blues on the violin is a seductive thrill. It's true that a large proportion of our audience was drunk, but it was still enjoyable to be performing for people who weren't 110 years old and sitting in lawn chairs. One guy even danced. And he only had one leg.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Local Death (1905)

Dawn Potter

Mary M., deaf and dumb girl, age 38 yrs,
is the victim of flames.
Parents returned home to find her
lying in the throes of death.
This is one of the most pathetic accidents
that have ever happened in Fayette County.

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

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

It's time for the summer's first canning project: I'll be putting up a batch of dilly beans, in between making a lemon layer cake for a friend who's catering a canoe-building workshop. I'll probably also be baking bread, and I know I'll be driving the kid to work and soccer camp. But I love a cooking day. I'd like think that I'll be working on a poem while the canner boils or the frosting sets, but we'll see.

I spent much of yesterday with Donne. He is very exhausting. Here's a bit of what I wrote, and I hope it's true.

Lucille Clifton’s poem “sorrows” opens with “who would believe them winged,” an unpunctuated, uncapitalized line that is a clear, straightforward question. Her sentence doesn’t require punctuation or capitalization to convey what Frost called “the sound of sense.” In contrast, John Donne relies on ornate, heavy-handed punctuation to demarcate the sentences in “The Triple Foole.” Nevertheless, at first reading I’m not always convinced that what Donne has marked out as a sentence is, in the OED’s terms, “complete in itself as the expression of a thought.”
But what is “the expression of a thought”? My own thoughts are frequently clotted, unclear, and ambiguous; and it seems that Donne may have felt the same about his, for not much in “The Triple Foole” can be called straightforward. Let’s look at the opening sentence and track how the speaker moves grammatically through his own perplexity.
I am two fooles, I know,
For loving, and for saying so
            In whining Poëtry;
But where’s that wiseman, that would not be I,
            If she would not deny?

            The sentence breaks neatly into halves. The first section, which ends at the semicolon, lays out a claim (“I am two fooles, I know”) and follows with supporting reasons. Foole 1 is foolish “For loving,” and Foole 2 is foolish “for saying so / In whining Poëtry.” Thus far, the sentence seems to express a coherent thought “complete in itself.”
            But after the semicolon, things get stranger. As the sentence shifts from a statement to a question, the speaker lays out a series of linked but incongruous phrases. “But where’s that wiseman,” he asks. Immediately he undercuts the question with the self-deprecating “that would not be I.” Or should I read this as an excuse rather than as modesty? Suddenly I find myself not entirely trusting this speaker. What is he trying to evade? The sentence continues, deepening my confusion. “If she would not deny?” Deny what? Are words missing here? The sentence feels as if it’s been chopped off mid-phrase. Typically, “deny” would be followed by a noun phrase or a dependent clause: for instance, deny my love, deny that I am a foole. As it is, the question leaves me hanging. I don’t understand what’s going on. All I know is that I am confused, suspicious of the speaker, and curious about this enigmatic “she,” this mysterious “deny.”
            “The Triple Foole” is an early seventeenth-century poem. No doubt there’s a scholarly edition that would translate its archaic sentences into contemporary English, lifting my spirits and erasing my puzzlement. But even though I honor such scholarship, I  want to argue for the value of coming to a poem as it exists, unadorned, on the page. I think it’s important to meet a difficult poem on your own ground, to rely on your own wits and reactions as you wrestle with it.

Are my reactions to this sentence “correct”? If I were faced with a multiple-choice question about “The Triple Foole,” I’d probably get the answer wrong. But when I ask myself what I’ve learned, I see that I’ve made an important discovery. Pushing myself to look closely at the structure of the sentence has also pushed me look closely at the structure of a thought. And what I’ve learned is that, for some poets, sentences really do seem to mirror thoughts. Clear or confused, simple or complex, Donne’s thoughts unwind as his sentences unwind. When I read his lines, I feel as if I am wandering along the pathways of his brain, at one moment basking in his rational neatness, at another drowning in his tortuous evasions. “Donne felt his thought as immediately as the odour of a rose,” writes A. S. Byatt. Now I know what she means.

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

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Rain and cloud today, and the air is much cooler than it's been for weeks. Yesterday I tore out peavines and planted fall crops: spinach, arugula, chard. Later this week I'll put in kale. For some reason I've been thinking of Bach's solo violin sonatas--not humming or fingering, just thinking. I wonder if that's linked to all the Donne I've been reading. Writing this book, I've found myself distracted by sound, sound, sound. "Busie old foole, unruly Sunne." The cadence of that line is so odd. Do I pronounce the stresses UN-RU-ly or un-RU-ly? Poets bewilder me.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Two band gigs this week, some catered baking projects, soccer camp every night, my parents arriving for the weekend, a birthday, fall crops to plant, a poetry collection to edit for a publisher, and of course endless lawn mowing.

In the meantime, I have to finish writing a chapter about John Donne, and I have the sensation of a poem in the works, which would be a tonic change from the instructional writing life that has been ruling me for so many months. It's not that The Conversation isn't creative. I'm thinking and constructing and writing hard every day, but inventing this book is not like inventing a poem, and I miss that.

However, as day jobs go, it's a pretty good one. And maybe I should mention that I got an exciting if nebulous phone call--one that hints at growing enthusiasm for the teaching conference among the powers-that-be, great satisfaction with the job that Teresa and I did this summer, and cogitations for expansion. We'll see, we'll see, we'll see.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

What's the Most Important Sentence?

Dawn Potter
In many ways, “what’s the most important sentence?” is the linchpin question of the book I've been writing. Individual words, punctuation, and sounds cohere into the grammatical unity of a sentence. Details accumulate among these words and sounds. Lines and stanzas fracture or link burgeoning sentences. The sentences collectively construct characters and images.
Theodore Roethke wrote that “the poem . . . means an entity, a unity has been achieved that transcends by far the organization of the lecture, the essay, even the great speech.” The sentence is key to reaching such poetic unity. It’s a blueprint for working out what and how the poet thinks and feels. It’s a conduit for curiosity, a path into mystery.
But sentences in poetry are not simply blocks of meaning. As I discussed in my chapter about Joe Bolton's poem "In Memory of the Boys of Dexter, Kentucky," they also exist as patterns of sound. A sentence is supple and musical and physical; and more than one poet can recall a childhood moment in which she experienced that viscerality. Carolyn Forché writes:
The world hummed, and my own speech rose above the humming and was measured by it. I didn’t know what metered verse was, but I remember knowing that language rose and fell, and that it occurred most pleasurably in utterances of similar length. One could recite for hours the flow of language in patterns. My early musical and rhythmic training derived from the Latin liturgy, most especially from litany recitations and Gregorian plainsong. Rhythm, however, is of the body, and it was during walks in childhood that I first sensed the relation between breath, phrase, and heart. I spoke to the pounding.
            How does a poet write the kinds of sentences that create a response like Forché’s? The answer is more flexible than you might imagine. Because grammar books tend to treat sentences as recipes requiring precise ingredients, many students think of a sentence as correct or incorrect, not as a personal exploration. In contrast, The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition focuses on the individuality of articulation rather than the rules of the game: “[a sentence is] a series of words complete in itself as the expression of a thought, containing or implying a subject and predicate, and conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command.”
In other words, sentences comprise a large variety of language patterns, many of which don’t follow official grammar-book prescriptions. So when I talk about sentences in poetry, I’m not celebrating tidy subject-predicate combos and snarling about fragments and comma splices. Rather, I’m thinking about the way in which a poet arranges words to express a thought. In an effective sentence, the arrangement of words is “complete in itself.” That is, the articulation has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In addition, an effective sentence displays a particular pattern of language: “a statement, question, exclamation, or command.”
The variations are as individual as the poets who invent them. For instance, sentences may be identical to lines of poetry, as they are in Jeanne Marie Beaumont’s “Afraid So”:
Is it starting to rain?
Did the check bounce?
Are we out of coffee?
Is this going to hurt?
A sentence can fill up an entire stanza, as it does in Maxine Kumin’s “Rehearsing for the Final Reckoning in Boston”:
During the Berlioz Requiem in Symphony Hall
which takes even longer than extra innings
in big league baseball, this restless Jewish agnostic
waits to be pounced on, jarred by the massive fanfare
of trombones and trumpets assembling now in the second
balcony, left side, right side, and at the rear.
A sentence may cross stanzas, as it does in Alexander Pope’s “Ode on Solitude”:
Blest, who can unconcern’dly find
            Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
                        Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
            Together mixt; sweet recreation;
And Innocence, which most does please
                        With meditation.
Sentence boundaries may be ambiguous, as they are in Lynn Emmanuel’s “Dressing the Parts”:
So, here we are,
I am a kind of diction
Despite their many differences, all of these examples maintain allegiance to what Forché has called “the flow of language in patterns.” Robert Frost named this flow the “sentence-sound,” defining a sentence as “a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung.” By this, he didn’t mean any random clump of words. “You may string words together without a sentence-sound to string them on just as you may tie clothes together by the sleeves and stretch them without a clothes-line between two trees but—it is bad for the clothes.” Thus, dog buttermilk the in is not a sentence-sound. But rearrange the words as dog in the buttermilk and suddenly “the sound of sense” is “apprehended by the ear.”

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

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Today is my 22nd wedding anniversary. I will spend most of it alone as Tom has gone camping with Paul and James will be working, but that is fine. Wedding anniversaries are something we mostly forget in this family. Birthdays, on the other hand, are high holidays.

Next weekend James will turn 19. Oy.

Oy is a tremendously useful interjection. In fact Yiddish in general is a tremendously useful interjection.

This week I have been reading John Donne's poetry, Joe Bolton's poetry, a biography of Donne, several grammar manuals, Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark, A. S. Byatt's Still Life, Barbara Pym's Some Tame Gazelle, and probably a bunch of other things I can't remember now.
Last night's dinner was chicken sauteed with a boatload of chanterelles I found in our woods, followed by ice cream with freshly picked raspberries. Maine summertime food is a reason for being.

Here's a bit from The Song of the Lark:
One morning, as [Thea] was standing upright in the pool, splashing water between her shoulder-blades with a big sponge, something flashed through her mind that made her draw herself up and stand still until the water had quite dried upon her flushed skin. The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself,--life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose?

Friday, July 19, 2013

The heat and humidity and thunderstorms have been relentless. It will be a wonderful afternoon to take the cat to the vet, a wonderful morning to bake bread. Blah. On the other hand I picked my first two cherry tomatoes this week, raspberries and cucumbers are coming in, the beet greens and carrots tops flow luxuriously over the black soil, and my kitchen smells like cilantro.

Yesterday's post garnered nearly a hundred readers, a record for this blog. I was expecting an argumentative comment or two, but no one volunteered. I'm not sure what my next step will be with this article pitch. I'm leery of the professional education journals because I don't think or write in that language; but if one of you teachers wanted to take on the project, that would be delightful. I will think about what I should do. But in the meantime I suppose I must turn my thoughts to John Donne, who will feature in the final chapter in the first section of The Conversation.

The Triple Foole

            John Donne

I am two fooles, I know,
For loving, and for saying so
            In whining Poëtry;
But where’s that wiseman, that would not be I,
            If she would not deny?
Then as th’earths inward narrow crooked lanes
Do purge sea waters fretfull salt away,
            I thought, if I could draw my paines,
Through Rimes vexation, I should them allay.
Griefe brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For, he tames it, that fetters it in verse.
            But when I have done so,
Some man, his art and voice to show,
            Doth Set and sing my paine,
And, by delighting many frees againe
            Griefe, which verse did restraine.
To Love, and Griefe tribute of Verse belongs,
But not of such as pleases when ’tis read,
            Both are increased by such songs:
For both their triumphs so are published,
And I, which was two fooles, do so grow three;
Who are a little wise, the best fooles bee.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Teachers and Poetry and Rejection Letters: A Rant

Every summer, going to the Frost Place fires me up again about teachers and teaching and poetry and the world. So this year, riding that storm of enthusiasm, I pitched an article idea to a major poetry magazine. Here's the email I wrote:
Dear ____: 
I direct the Frost Place Conference on Poetry & Teaching, which draws teachers from all over the continuum (K-12, urban/rural, community college/Ivy League . . . ), and I'm interested in writing a piece about the state of poetry in the classroom--in terms of how teachers are struggling with administrative and political mandates as well as how they are managing to keep it vital within their students and themselves.  
As a bit of background about myself: I have written essays for the Sewanee Review, the Threepenny Review, the Southern Review, etc. I've been associated with the Frost Place conference since 2009, and I work as a visiting writer in the schools. My third book of poetry is forthcoming from CavanKerry Press next spring. My blog has more details about my books and work. 
Looking forward to hearing from you!
Here's the email I received in return:
Dawn, my apologies for the delay in response, but I'm afraid this won't work for me.
Now, like most writers, I have received many hundreds of rejection letters. Most are blanket form letters; some are rude; a few are personal and helpful. This note was neither rote nor rude, yet it still managed to piss me off royally. I've simmered about it for a few days, partly because I've been too busy making pies to think coherently but also because I wanted to make sure that I wasn't simply grouchy about being rejected. That's a major danger with the acceptance-rejection process: it opens a door to a miasma of spite, victimized squealing, and generalized conspiracy-theory gloom that I particularly loathe in both myself and other writers.

But I've come to realize that this rejection is rankling for a different reason. After all, this was an article pitch. I wasn't turned down because my writing didn't attract the editor. I was turned down because the article idea didn't attract the editor. The more I think about this, the more shocked I get.

This particular famous poetry magazine is the organ of a rather well heeled foundation that spends considerable time headlining "education," "young people," "poetry in the schools," "reading resources," etcetera, etcetera. So why would an editor flatly dismiss an essay about poetry and education? As an article writer, I have a reputable-enough vita. The Frost Place is not a fly-by-night outfit: we have a long history of attracting faculty members whose work has appeared in the pages of this esteemed poetry journal, and I have published essays, articles, and poems in journals that are as well esteemed as this one.

In other words, I can't chalk up this rejection to a sulky (1) "the Frost Place is nobody" or (2) "Dawn is nobody." That leaves the subject of the pitch--the teachers--and this is what makes me so angry. If a foundation is going to spend millions of dollars promoting poetry in the schools, it damn well ought to take some time to figure out what's going on in the heads and hearts of the teachers who devote their lives to these students. "I'm afraid this won't work for me" is dismissive, patronizing, even derisive. "Why should these people matter to poets?" is what I hear in that phrase.

The students, spotlit on stage, young and eager, reciting Rita Dove or Emily Dickinson: that is what this foundation adores. And they are lovely; there's no question about that. But how the hell do you think those students manage to climb onto that stage? All the foundation money in the world can't replace the tired middle-aged teacher who, year after year after year, keeps cogitating about how to light a Beowulf fire in his tenth graders. Or the veteran teacher who gives her fifth graders the structure and the freedom to write poems from the point of view of igneous rocks. Or the young ambitious vocational teacher who offers future car mechanics a year-long immersion in love poetry.

I could go on and on about these teachers, and I would have in the article that will not appear in this esteemed poetry journal. Of course I want to be fair about the rejection. Perhaps by "I'm afraid this won't work for me," the editor really meant "We've recently published an article on a very similar topic" or "I'd like to broaden, narrow, or tweak the scope of your proposal." For if I'm correct--if the editor was really saying, "Why should these people matter to poets?"--then something has gone very wrong. The teachers I would have featured in my unacceptable article are fascinating and dedicated and confused and idealistic and doomed. As poets, parents, citizens, and fellow strivers and idealists, we need to celebrate them and support them and listen to them. They are heroic: and by choosing to ignore them, esteemed poetry journal, you have made an ugly and unforgivable mistake.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Chariot

Dawn Potter

Hooves pounding on bronze; a long, wild, whinnying chorus,
and the horses were airborne, eight enormous wings
beating, swishing, beating. Without warning, wind
crammed a fist into Phaeton’s mouth, jabbed knives
into his nose, his ears. Legs churning, wings flailing,
the steeds cut through cloud, through hissing vapors
that melted under their fiery breath. The driver, careening
from side to side in the clattering chariot, clung to the reins.

His father’s instructions flashed through his mind:
“Hold back the horses.” Phaeton dragged at the reins,
but his wrists were unsteady, his weight was light;
he was a fly compared to the god; and the giddy horses,
unchecked by any master, lunged and galloped.
Traces tangled with reins, the yoke twisted,
a sharp hoof sliced a flank, a spray of bloody foam
whipped Phaeton’s parched eyes.

In a panic, the child threw the whole weight of his rigid body
against the reins, jerking them left, then right,
trying to find the middle road, to guide the plunging horses
into their familiar wheel tracks. But he had no clear idea
of where the road might lie. Beyond the horses’ flaming breath,
he glimpsed cloud and rippled patches of sky, of Dawn
hastily folding her lustrous cloak, and now, to his horror,
bright-zoned Orion leaping away from the hurtling chariot.

Phaeton no longer knew if he gripped the reins.
Terrified of the reeling heavens, of the Crab scuttling crazily
toward the Archer, of the wakened Bear, snarling, furious,
he looked down, far down, at puddle lakes, groves of grass blades,
tine-scratched fields no bigger than eggs.
The heat . . . this unrelenting glare . . .
His fiery crown oppressed him, his knees gave way:
Oh, why had he wished for such a father?

Now his birth seemed worse than nothing.
If only he had been the son of Vulcan,
contentedly chipping nymphs from stone,
mapping Ocean with a chisel, patiently mopping
a mild sweat from his uncrowned brow.
If only that happy boy chasing goats
away from his mother’s grapevine
had never stared into the sky and desired the Sun.

Dazzled, stricken, Phaeton cowered against the chariot floor.
The reins slipped from his fingers and slid away,
falling loosely over the horses’ backs. Now wholly free,
they bolted ahead, then veered to the side, then galloped forward again,
the chariot crashing and buckling in their wake.
High, higher, they raced into the scattering stars and then plunged
wildly toward Earth, and whatever they touched, they destroyed.
Clouds scorched and withered; great Parnassus burst into flame,

and on the mountaintops, snow dissolved to rivers of steam.
In a moment entire forests burned like tinder.
A house, a loom, a woman. Gone.
Cities vanished in walls of fire; even Ocean gaped.
Trapped in a hot waste of sand, the sea nymphs screamed;
Neptune, lifting his trident to heaven, bellowed for aid,
the winds were choked with ash; Earth burned, burned;
and on Olympus Zeus stood watching, in silence.

[forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

And today: more pies and another scorcher. It seems that pie weather is rather like hay-making weather and tomato-canning weather. But at least I am making this set at home. Tomorrow I'm back up to the farmstand for another strawberry-rhubarb binge, but today's are blueberry and they're going to my friend's birchbark-canoe-making students. Paul helps make lunch for the canoe guys, and I help make pies for them. It's a 2-week class, so we'll have to see how much pie they'll ultimately require.

It is interesting to be on the food-production side of things. Of course I've always been a cook, but this summer is the first time I've ever cooked for groups outside my family circle. People look at a person respectfully when she's standing in a bakery rolling out dough. I suppose that's because they love home-baked goods, but for some reason that reaction surprised me: I guess I assumed that customers would be dismissive and rude. And oddly the farmstand is actually quite an easy place to feel like a poet, though not to invent poems, because people are always interrupting me to get into the knife drawer and help them find a measuring cup and ask if I can bake 6 pies instead of 4 and so on and so on.

Monday, July 15, 2013

This is a late post, and it will also be a brief one. I have been up at the farmstand constructing strawberry-rhubarb pies since 8 a.m., and in a few moments I have to go pick up Paul at work, drive him to a piano lesson, drive him to a soccer game, and this will all take hours to accomplish and it's 90 degrees out there and I am already feeling limp.

Talk to you tomorrow, unless I get melted down for scrap.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Donald Justice, from his introduction to The Last Nostalgia by Joe Bolton

The early death of a writer tempts us to imagine what unfulfilled promise the future would have seen realized. We perhaps discover signs, real or illusory, of the maturing of some early brilliance. But in this poet's work I would find it hard to make a case for this kind of progress. The charm of the poems--and ultimately their worth--depends on a certain blazing youthful freshness allied with the doomed romantic spirit which haunts and drives them. The work may change over time but it does not change very much. Of his own poems Bolton said, "The scene is twilit, the mood existential, the outlook tragic." And this did not change, except perhaps to darken and grow weary. But there is all along a tangle of wonder and despair, a tangle which strikes me as indeed a mark of youth, but not rare either and certainly very sympathetic. Bolton in the end came to embody and give voice to a certain mixed attitude toward life--his attitude was, amidst all the deep despairs and despondencies, still the most intensely responsive, the most keenly appreciative imaginable.

Joe Bolton, from "The Seasons: A Quartet"

The best days of summer are the days of summer gone:
Something cooking, a wash of light on the water. . . .
The music dies, and what I hold is the world.
One leaf falling would break the spell. It falls.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Driving Lesson

Dawn Potter

Neither son nor father slept that night.
Tangled in sheets, the wide-eyed boy
stared into the chamber’s pearly dark.
He twitched his hands on the pillows,
guiding the heads of invisible horses.
From the apex of heaven, he saluted
his awestruck mother as her neighbors
sank to their knees in tardy admiration.

His father made no pretense of dreaming.
Late into the night, he sat in his throne room
watching the stars wander the heavens—
braggart Orion cinching his belt, the clumsy Bull
pawing at a black meadow. But toward morning,
before Dawn could arise from her bed in the east,
the god was in the stable, running practiced hands
over wheels and axle, checking hooves for stones.

When Phaeton appeared, crumpled and shining,
the Sun was leading his winged horses from their stalls.
Rested, well-fed, they tugged against their halters,
and at each breath, fire flared from their nostrils.
Through the stable gate, the god and his son glimpsed
Dawn unfolding her rosy sash on the horizon.
The Moon’s curl had vanished, and far below the palace,
Earth’s blue outline trembled under coils of mist.

As the Sun harnessed the stamping horses,
backing them four abreast, snorting and dancing,
into the chariot’s jeweled yoke, he advised Phaeton
on how best to manage the unruly team.
Though his voice was steady, his gestures calm,
his heart was heavy with foreboding.
After each caution, the boy nodded.
His eyes glowed. Perhaps he was listening.

“Leave the whip alone,” said the god.
“Keep your weight on the reins.
Holding back is your hardest task.
Earth and sky need equal magnitudes of heat.
Follow the middle road; my wheel tracks are clear.
And there is still time, plenty of time, to change your mind.
Give me the reins; go, eat something,
and we will sit together under the Moon tonight.”

But the boy had already climbed into the chariot.
There he stood, tense as a hare, clutching the reins—
joyful, oblivious, smiling up at his father.
Where was the terror that yesterday
had burdened him like a barrow of slag?
The horses snorted, snapped their gilded wings,
rang their hooves against the bronze bars of the gate.
The chariot trembled on its gleaming wheels.

Leaning into the car, the Sun kissed his child.
Then he lifted the fiery crown from his head,
tightened it, and slipped it over Phaeton’s curls.
“You see, it doesn’t burn me!” cried the boy,
proudly tossing his cumbered hair. “Father,
watch me at noon! Watch me wave to you!”
But the time for talk was gone. Dawn’s gaudy robe
blanketed the sky, and the Sun heaved open the gate.

[forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Friday, July 12, 2013

Yesterday, by odd coincidence, I received two reviews of A Poet's Sourcebook, one by an anonymous Amazon reader, the other posted on Poets' Quarterly, an online review journal. Both reviewers seemed to like the book, and neither one is an acquaintance, so I'm pleased.

This morning I'm undergoing an interview for a forthcoming CavanKerry Press podcast, and then I will turn my thoughts to lawn mowing. My yard and garden, like the rest of the yards and gardens of northern New England, are slug-draped and unruly. I will never regain control of the weeds. Ah, well. On the bright side, my raspberry bushes are loaded with green berries, the tiger lilies are waving bravely from the roadside ditches, the delphiniums are as blue as eyes, and Terry at the garage finally solved the brake problem in my car. Also, last night, at band practice, we played like angels . . . which isn't to claim that we sounded like angels, only that we heard each other in an intense and rapid and delicate way. Playing in an ensemble can feel like magic; it really can.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Today's Poem Discovery

I found this beautiful poem this morning as I was creating some writing activities related to vowel sounds in poetry. Emily Pauline Johnson grew up on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario and was a student of both English literature and Mohawk history and culture.


Emily Pauline Johnson (1861–1913)

A thin wet sky, that yellows at the rim,
And meets with sun-lost lip the marsh’s brim.

The pools low lying, dank with moss and mould,
Glint through their mildews like large cups of gold.

Among the wild rice in the still lagoon,
In monotone the lizard shrills his tune.

The wild goose, homing, seeks a sheltering,
Where rushes grow, and oozing lichens cling.

Late cranes with heavy wing, and lazy flight,
Sail up the silence with the nearing night.

And like a spirit, swathed in some soft veil,
Steals twilight and its shadows o’er the swale.

Hushed lie the sedges, and the vapours creep,
Thick, grey and humid, while the marshes sleep.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Harmony Annotations

I wondered if you might enjoy a few recent snapshots of household activities. I'll begin with cooking because pride goeth before a fall.

This khaki-colored mystery is really a platter of stuffed grape leaves that took all of one hot afternoon to make. First, I cut sheaves of grapevine. Then I stripped the leaves from the vine and fed the leftovers to the goat. Then I washed, scalded, and cooled the leaves. Then I picked a bundle of mint, dill, and green onions. Then I washed and chopped the greens and lightly heated them in olive oil. Then I mixed the herbs into leftover basmati rice and some soaked and drained bulgur wheat. Then I added lemon juice and salt and pepper. Then I made Paul come out of his room and help me fill the leaves. And voila. As accompaniment, I mixed up some yogurt with a tablespoon of tahini. There were no leftovers.

This is a strawberry-rhubarb pie with a walnut-crumb topping. I invented this recipe as a way to circumvent the irritating juiciness of rhubarb without turning the filling texture into paste. The result was beautiful but ineffective. The pie was as annoyingly juicy as ever. However, the crispy walnuts were good.

This not very well composed photograph demonstrates my compact herb-drying facilities: a string, some clothespins, and a narrow wall. The short stuff is thyme. The long stuff is peppermint.

And here is Horrible, disguised as Good Little Ben, sitting sweetly on Paul's lap.

And here is Horrible showing his true colors. As you can see, after wantonly confiscating my chair, he decided to eat me. However, at this time he is still too small to swallow me in one gulp, and I tend to notice when he starts trying to gnaw the flesh from my bones. So I am still alive.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

On today's schedule: a quick visit to the seashore for lunch with a Frost Place friend and then back to the forestlands to drive a kid to a soccer game. I've been working hard on the next chapter in The Conversation, which deals with sound elements in Joe Bolton's "In Memory of the Boys of Dexter, Kentucky." I feel as if I've made some sort of enormous discovery about the way in which sound, sight, and sense accrue in the course of a sonnet, but I expect there are a thousand scholars slavering in the corner, ready to burst my balloon. (O, mixed metaphor, how I love thee.) In the meantime, Paul and I are inventing a fairy tale that stars our household animals (Once upon a time there were three little children, and their names were Princess Lulu, Princess Anna, and Horrible . . . ), and I have been working out the details of a two-day writing workshop I plan to lead this fall at the Barred Owl Retreat in Leicester, Massachusetts. I'm calling it “'Fitted to the Matter': Turning to Verse, Turning to Prose." Suggested readings are Richard III and My Antonia. Doesn't that sound like a delightful combination? I am so excited.

Also, String Field Theory is playing on Saturday evening at the annual Strawberry Festival at Stutzmans' Farm. Come hang out with the mosquitoes and me.

Monday, July 8, 2013


I was dreaming of a dusky room and my aunt, and a looming event--now I remember; it was a poetry reading, and I had forgotten all of my books and had chosen all of the wrong poems, but I was calm, even resigned, though I had parked my car in front of a pair of tiny gateposts and would never be able to get out of the space, but I wasn't worried about that now, what I was thinking was "Yes, this is the exact word that sums up all of the poems," and I was so confident of the supremacy of this word that even when I said to myself, "Wake up now and write it down," I told myself, "How silly. Who could forget such a basic fact?" but of course I did forget it, and now all I can recall is that the word began with t and I'm thinking that it was either twitch or tether, probably tether, because I've talked myself into imagining that I can remember two syllables, and now the problem is: how do I reconcile all of the poems with twitch or tether, and don't ask me, "What exactly do you mean by 'all of the poems'?" because I was hoping you'd be able to help me out with that since my dream never gave me any clue, and all I remember is that I was practice-reading a poem for my aunt and she told me I should choose a better one which was a surprise because as far as I know she's never had any sort of opinion about any poem at all and would be embarrassed to be in the same room with an orated poem unless she was at a funeral, when poets leap out of the woodwork and everyone is kind to them and no one suggests that they should choose a better poem (and I thought of putting a period here and ending this sentence but I still haven't gotten anywhere with tether and twitch): for I can see how one might draw tedious connotative squiggles around tether but the idea that twitch could sum up all of the poems is startling, as if the messenger's "Anglo-Saxon attitudes" had come to life in prosody (see quotation from Alice below), and, damn it, if only twitch had two syllables! because I am positive that the dream-word had two syllables, and do you think I could have dreamt twitching?

All this was lost on Alice, who was still looking intently along the road, shading her eyes with one hand. "I see somebody now!" she exclaimed at last. "But he's coming very slowly--and what curious attitudes he goes into!" (For the messenger kept skipping up and down, and wriggling like an eel, as he came along, with his great hands spread out like fans on each side.)

"Not at all," said the King. "He's an Anglo-Saxon Messenger-- and those are Anglo-Saxon attitudes. He only does them when he's happy. His name is Haigha." (He pronounced it so as to rhyme with "mayor.")

Sunday, July 7, 2013


Mourning dove in the lilacs, a hummingbird by my ear, and along the edge of the clearing a screaming unknown--a young hawk perhaps?

Black coffee, two quarts of shelled peas scalding for the freezer, and the Irrepressible flirting his kitten whiskers as he races up and down the cellar stairs.

Stabs of sunshine through the tamaracks, raspberry briars loaded with green berries, a bed of sweet corn that was not knee-high-by-the-fourth-of-July, a load of towels quivering on the line.

Bright red reading glasses, Jane Austen, and three tiny vases loaded with white rosebuds.

Ticking clock, a restless poodle on guard, the Irrepressible shot from his own cannon.

The gaze incomplete, the curious stammer, the new-washed sky.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Jane Austen explains "the misfortune of poetry"

[Captain Benwick] was evidently a young man of considerable taste in reading, though principally in poetry; and besides the persuasion of having given him at least an evening's indulgence in the discussion of subjects which his usual companions had probably no concern in, she had the hope of being of real use to him in some suggestions as to the duty and benefit of struggling against affliction, which had naturally grown out of their conversation. For, though shy, he did not seem reserved: it had rather the appearance of feelings glad to burst their usual restraints; and having talked of poetry, the richness of the present age, and gone through a brief comparison of opinion as to the first-rate poets, trying to ascertain whether [Scott's] Marmion or The Lady of the Lake were to be preferred, and how ranked [Byron's] the Giaour and The Bride of Abydos, and, moreover, how the Giaour was to be pronounced, he showed himself so intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet, and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other; he repeated with such tremulous feeling the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry, and to say that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.

[from Persuasion (1817)]

Friday, July 5, 2013

What's the Most Important Sound?

Dawn Potter

Sound may be our deepest and most instinctive connection to poetry, not only as individuals but also as members of the human community and inheritors of its ancient traditions. “The hearing knowledge we bring to a line of poetry,” writes Robert Pinsky, “is a knowledge of patterns of speech we have known to hear since we were infants.” But that childhood comfort stretches beyond the confines of our private selves, back through the history of language and our species.
In “The Hymn to Earth,” a Greek poem dating from about 650 b.c., the speaker reaches out to his listeners, coaxing them to recognize their agency in his creations:

but if you liked what I sang here
give me this life too
                                    in my other poems
                                                                        I will remember you 

No page lay between this poet and his first listeners. Sound was the primary element of communication, and poet and listeners shared a direct physical experience.
Today poetry has become as much a visual as a sonic art. Yet the sound of a poem still transmits an intensely emotional message, even in those moments before a reader begins to engage with the poem’s narrative or thematic threads.
            Take the opening couplet of Donald Justice’s “Psalm and Lament”:

The clocks are sorry, the clocks are very sad.
One stops, one goes on striking the wrong hours.

The poem doesn’t rhyme, nor does it scan as blank verse. Except for its couplet format, it looks rather like plain spoken English. Yet if you study these two modest lines, you will see that Justice makes extravagant use of sound: he repeats individual k and s sounds; he repeats entire words and phrases; he uses commas as silent beats within the cadence. Try reading the couplet out loud, and you will feel, too, how his syntax and word choice force you to modify your pacing. It would be almost impossible to read this poem quickly.
            For contrast, look at the opening of  Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famous “Recuerdo.”

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.

In certain ways the lines look very similar to Justice’s. The two poems share a simple subject/predicate nominative construction: “The clocks are very sad,” “We were very tired.” Both use comma splices as musical devices. But while Justice’s poem moves slowly and heavily, almost to the point of exhaustion, Millay’s speeds across the page. Her rhymes sparkle; her commas denote breathlessness rather than weighty moments of silence. Like the ferry, her lines go “back and forth,” hustling between the rhymes, riding the alliterative vowels: short e’s, long i’s, the repetition of We.

            In other words, as I hope this comparison has shown, a poet’s sound devices are intimate elements of a poem’s essential being. From the very first moments of creation, a poet begins to hear her poem take shape. In my own case, I often feel the pressure of a metrical stress or a letter sound before I begin to consider what words I might choose to try out next in a line. This is true whether I am writing formal or free verse. The sounds in my ear lead me to pursue the sense of what I am trying to articulate.

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

Thursday, July 4, 2013


I had made no holiday plans because I'd assumed that Tom would be working today. But no, in fact he will be home and to all appearances in the mood for an easeful summer day. So we have decided to marinate chicken in lemon juice and garlic and grill it over the firepit, and we have also decided to make stuffed grapeleaves. This morning I will go harvest the leaves and the various herbs, and then I will spend a peaceful few hours rolling up the leaves around their dots of rice while listening to the baseball game on the radio and drinking quarts of ice tea. Yesterday Paul and I went strawberry picking, so I might also make a strawberry-rhubarb pie, if the kitchen hasn't gotten too hot. Otherwise, we will be forced to subsist on strawberries and whipped cream, a fate that I imagine we will be able to suffer through.

Frequently, like Willa Cather's character Jim Burden, I wonder about the contentments of marriage: "This was a fine life, certainly, but it wasn't the kind of life he had wanted to live. I wondered whether the life that was right for one was ever right for two!"

But there are some moments when the why-are-we-here? slips away, and the here-we-are rises up like some small tidal island--and then, yes, here we are, celebrating the gulls and the wet stones and the earnest rosy snails. Happy independence day.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Rereading "My Antonia"

As I've already mentioned, I've been rereading Willa Cather's My Antonia, and once again arriving at the conclusion I so often arrive at when I reread a great book: the conviction that "I never noticed this part before, but it's exactly what I need to hear, right now, at this exact moment in time, at this exact place on earth." Here are a few of those trigger passages, which may trigger nothing in you, or everything.

As I remember them, what unprotected faces they were; their very roughness and violence made them defenseless. These boys had no practised manner behind which they could retreat and hold people at a distance. They only had their hard fists to batter at the world with.

Yet the summer which was to change everything was coming nearer every day. When boys and girls are growing up, life can't stand still, not even in the quietest of country towns; and they have to grow up, whether they will or no. That is what their elders are always forgetting.

I propped my book open and stared listlessly at the page of [Virgil's] Georgics where to-morrow's lesson began. It opened with the melancholy reflection that, in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee. "Optima dies . . . prima fugit." I turned back to the beginning of the third book, which we had read in class that morning. "Primus ego in patriam mecum . . . deducam Musas"; "for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country." [Professor] Cleric had explained to us that "patria" here meant, not a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighbourhood on the Mincio where the poet was born. This was not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains) not to the capital, the palatial Romana, but to his own little "country"; to his father's fields, "sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops." 
Cleric said he thought Virgil, when he was dying at Brindisi, must have remembered that passage. After he had faced the bitter fact that he was to leave the Aeneid unfinished, and had decreed that the great canvas, crowded with figures of gods and men, should be burned rather than survive him unperfected, then his mind must have gone back to the perfect utterance of the Georgics, where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow; and he must have said to himself, with the thankfulness of a good man, "I was the first to bring the Muse into my country."

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


I'm having a difficult time concentrating, ensconced as I am amid kitten-poodle frenzy. Yesterday, distracted and excited by such peppy cuteness, the dog tore a hole in the couch. This morning the peppy cuteness is racing around my bedroom eating slippers, attacking cords, biting my feet, and yowling. The excitement is nonstop, and I can see how it might drive anyone to tearing a hole in a couch.

Anyway. Weather report: pouring rain, as usual. Will I ever be able to pick strawberries? It seems unlikely. Desk report: one book to edit, one book to write, one poem on the burner. Kitchen report: something without strawberries. Garden report: slugs.

I've been rereading Willa Cather's My Antonia, and you should too. Lord, what beautiful writing. And today I'll be ordering the selected poems of Donald Justice, several of which we were studying with Baron last week. "Psalm and Lament" . . . talk about a poem I wish I'd written. Goodness gracious.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The White Bear

One afternoon last week, as we were hanging out on Frost's front porch, my friend Teresa mentioned that her favorite poem from Same Old Story (my forthcoming CavanKerry Press collection, due out next spring) was "The White Bear," an 18-page fairy tale that arose, in part, from the classic Scandinavian fairy tale "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." She suggested that I include a section of the tale in my Wednesday night reading, something that had never occurred to me because (1) even in sections the poem is long and (2) the lines are dense and bristling and (3) for some reason I never imagined that anyone would enjoy listening to it. But the Frost Place is a place for taking chances, so I did read the opening section of the poem, and, to my relief, people seemed to like it. I know I've posted it here before, but several listeners wanted to look at the poem in its entirety. I apologize for the ridiculous length, but in fact it used to be even longer.

[Sections of the poem have also appeared in the Green Mountains Review (23), no. 1.]

The White Bear

Dawn Potter


Late autumn, day nearly gone, and weather so wild
that bare tree limbs tore rents in the racing storm clouds,
and shreds of cloud trembled in the dank air like monstrous
phantasmagoric rags. Rain hammered the shutters;
the roof groaned; the fire spattered and smoked.
The sullen kettle muttered but refused to boil.
Father, mother, daughter, unspeaking, crowded into the hearth’s
fitful, flickering shadow, parents bent forward on their stools,
fingers stretched toward the guttering flame;
the girl kneeling on the uneven bricks, poker in hand,
stirring the half-charred logs into braver action.

At each strike of metal, the red sparks leaped up
like a swarm of maddened flies, gilding the swell of a cheek,
the bridge of a nose; casting copper over a dark sweep of hair.
“Stop,” said the mother, not snappish but tired, blank-eyed,
her complaint as rote as the kettle’s; and the girl,
crushing logs to sticks, sticks to coals, coals to cinders, barely listened,
as she barely listened to the storm beyond the door. For a moment,
the syllable spun in the draught. Then it vanished, instantly forgotten,
like a dropped matchstick. Rain hammered the roof; the fire spat;
a rogue twist of smoke sent the father into a spasm of coughing,
the girl dabbing soot and tears with the frayed edge of a sleeve.

Now the poker clattered onto the bricks, and the mother said,
“Is it the shutter that’s banging?” For something was beating,
beating against the cottage; or was it banging against the door?
The windows quivered in their frames, and something
was rapping the panes—first one and then another,
as if all the trees in the wood were begging to be let inside.
The girl rocked back on her heels, palms pressed to her hot cheeks.
The father, still coughing, rose from his stool and the mother,
without thought, lay a hand on her daughter’s shoulder,
which trembled, not with fear but with a tense anticipation,
as a pointer trembles at sight of her master’s gun.

Yet the knocking was only the white bear, come back again.
            “May I walk in?” he asked; and meanwhile, water
roiled from the roof-edge, plashing his dense fur, which glimmered
            like pear blossoms before dawn, even amid the gale
and the rain and the darkening autumn night; meanwhile,
            his two broad paws, caked with muck, and his stout forelegs,
sullied to the elbow with leaf-mold and fir needles,
            barred the doorway, as if the bear were wary of his welcome—
or too sure of it. “Walk in,” murmured the father, uneasy and shy,
            while the mother, rising from her stool, cried, “Oh, the mud!”
But already the daughter had run to fetch blankets, towels, a brush,

and the white bear had padded forward into the crescent of firelight.
            How can I explain his beauty? Even soiled with travel and storm
the bear shone in the half-dark room, glowing as a painting
glows in the dusty corner of a church, as if once, long ago,
the canvas had swallowed all the light of the world.
            Tall as an elk, burly as an ox, he stood quietly, watchfully,
his enormous paws staining the shabby rug, his strange blue eyes
dilating to black—though if he were beautiful,
he was also terrible. When the girl knelt before him on the rug,
            lifting a paw onto the towel in her lap, the mud-streaked claws,
falcon-sharp and heavy as cant hooks, flashed ominously.

In haste, the parents retreated to the fire, which on the bear’s entrance,
had roared to life. Now it burned briskly, diligent kettle
steaming on the hob, draughty room suddenly purring with heat.
            But not with comfort. The father turned toward the flame,
his eyes carefully avoiding the bear. Less resolute, his wife
rattled and shifted on her stool, peeping at her silent husband,
glancing at the girl kneeling on the rain-sodden rug,
toweling and brushing each huge white leg; then rising to her feet
to rub the massive shoulders, the muscled back, and finally the great head,
pale muzzle thick as a man’s arm, the tender ears rimmed with down,
and below them that terrible, unblinking, blue-black gaze.

Only after the girl had dried and brushed him, had spread a nest
of blankets beside the busy fire, had swept away the leaves
and fir needles and hung the dripping rug to dry, did the bear, reclining,
choose to speak. “Will you give me your daughter?” he asked.
On her stool, the mother looked nervously from beast to man
“I’m sorry,” she stammered, glancing at the black-haired girl,
once again crouched on the hearth, once again beating sparks from the logs.
“Last time you came,” whispered the woman, “she did say no.”
Shifting her stool closer to her husband’s, the wife touched his arm,
            but still the man was silent, eyes fixed on the flames.
 “And what does she say this time?” asked the white bear. His teeth glittered.

Swarms of sparks—violet, gold, red as witch blood—whirled in the draught.
            Blue shadows, copper shadows fingered the girl’s bowed head.
“I shall not ask again,” said the bear, stretching a forepaw to the fire,
flexing his hooked and heavy claws. “You will see me no more.”
And at this warning, the girl swiftly, quietly, laid the poker on the bricks,
            and rose. Now she was taller than the reclining bear,
who lifted his white muzzle and waited, his strange eyes watchful,
            self-contained. Dangerous eyes, thought the mother.
Again she turned toward her husband, now bent forward on his stool,
elbows on his knees, rough hands clasped. Waiting.
What will she say? thought the woman. But I know what she will say.

The white bear gazed up at the girl. The girl gazed down on the bear.
            When finally she spoke, her voice was hoarse, hurried,
almost brusque, her words pitched low. “I suppose I will go,” she said.
The father groaned and closed his eyes, and “Oh!” cried the mother,
hugging herself, suddenly cold in that overheated room.
The bear gazed up at the girl, and his white teeth glittered.
“Fetch your things,” he told her, “for we travel at moonrise.”
            And while the girl was bundling her comb and her locket,
two petticoats and her winter stockings, the white bear said to her parents,
            “When your money runs low, dip the brass ladle into the well.”
But the father only groaned, and the mother only hugged herself and wept.


The bear must have swallowed the storm; for now, tangled in the naked trees,
the risen moon rocked peaceably. The rain had dwindled to a frail
feathery mist, and fragments of cloud drifted in the idle air.
            Water dripped from every needle and stalk. The brook—roaring, boastful—
charged over sedge and stone like a newborn sea. Seated on the white bear’s back,
            swaying among unseen trees, down an unseen forest track,
the girl pushed back the hood of her cloak. One by one, giant raindrops, cold as fish,
fell from the boughs and trickled slowly down her scalp.
Tightening her grip on the bear’s pulsing shoulder, she stretched her free hand
            into the darkness and let her fingers brush the soft, sodden fir branches
sweeping the shadow margins of the path. All her life she had lived in this wood,

hunted its berries, trodden its tracks—but never at night, never so far, never
at mercy of the wild. Never so alone. For since leaving the cottage,
the white bear had not spoken. First, he rested silently in the clearing,
waiting for the girl to tuck up her skirts, to straddle his broad back,
to wedge her scanty bundle of goods beneath her cloak.
Then he rose to his feet and padded forward into the darkness.
Behind her, framed in the bright doorway, stood her parents,
frightened and grieving; but when she turned to call farewell,
her twisted hood smothered her words. “Good-bye,” she cried, too late.
            The white bear padded forward; the swollen brook drowned her cry.
Her father and mother might never hear their child’s voice again.

Tears blotched the girl’s cheeks and snaked beneath her collar.
Her feet, dangling along the bear’s flanks, ached with cold.
She was wet and afraid and lost in a lonely wood, yet somehow
she could not regret her resolve. Under her loose cloak
and crumpled skirts, the white bear’s fur—rabbit-soft, blood-warm—
rippled and flowed against her stockings . . .
but no, it was the sliver of bare thigh above her stockings
            that the fur seemed to kiss, to cradle.
Clinging to his pacing shoulder, she trailed a blind hand
            through the dripping boughs that lined the path,
licked the salt rain from her lips. She tightened her grip on the bear.


Time passed. The moon, freckled and calm, had floated away
from the clutching trees, and now her pale torch
shone down on the faint, beaten track beneath the bear’s silent feet
            while the bear himself seemed to reflect the moon’s light like a mirror
and cast his own watery beam into the vague and branchy wilderness.
            Presently he spoke. “Are you well?”
 “I am,” replied the girl on his back. But some change had come over the beast—
            a new, nervous excitement rippled from his stride;
and the terrain had shifted as well, become steeper and stonier,
            the underbrush dwindling to what might have been
clumps of lichen or moss, even heaps of pebbles.

Raindrops no longer pattered from the trees; but a dry, mild wind
            had sprung up, lifting the hem of the girl’s cloak,
toying with a strand of hair. “Where are we?” she wondered aloud,
            and the white bear answered, “Nearly home.”
Yet what could home mean? Not a cottage in the forest. Surely not a cave.
            And whose home would it be? This, the girl realized, with a clarity
that shocked her, was the question that mattered. For she had never,
            not even in anger or fantasy, been homeless. Now here she was—
foreign, adrift; and though she would not allow herself to believe
            that the bear meant to kill her, still, she had no key to any door,
and no escape, if the bear chose to bar his gates behind her.

When he reached the palace door, the white bear sank to his haunches,
            and the girl, clutching cloak and bundle, slid awkwardly to the ground,
her feet so numb that she circled and staggered like a sick horse.
Eyes bright, breath quick, the bear rested on the silver flagstones
till she found her footing. His silence was nothing but kind;
yet the girl, flushed with embarrassment, felt, for the first time,
a heartsick wave rise in her throat. “Oh,” she cried,
            “I am so thirsty!” And indeed her throat was dry, her tongue parched,
her lips sore and split, though she had not noticed them before—
            and though she wished, instantly, that she had not complained
so babyishly, or stumbled so clumsily, or worn such thick boots.

For even as she entered the hall, this cottage girl knew
she was at odds with the bear’s palace. She might learn
to love it or fear it, but she would never roam its galleries, its lavish
forgotten bedrooms, its roaring kitchens, its secret courtyards,
with a native’s homely, ignorant abandon. Always
she and the house would be divided. At first, she might rattle
among its stairs and winding corridors like a lentil in a sieve,
perch on brocade with a thief’s false valor.
After a dozen years, she might gain greed, custom, or disguise.
But the language of the house—its echoes, creaks, and sighs:
that was a tongue she would never learn to speak.

Here she stood, however:
inside a palace that was more than half mountain,
with great vaulted ceilings of granite; with winding stairways
            coiling down into the earth and up into the misty peak;
glowing with the glare of an enormous roaring fire.
            The white bear threw himself, with pleasure and abandonment,
onto a crimson carpet, stretching his paws to the flames;
            and after a few moments, the girl allowed herself to rest
on the edge of a satin ottoman. She folded her trembling hands
over the bundle in her lap. The grandness of the room
oppressed her, and, not for the first time, she was afraid of the bear.

He seemed, at once, too glad in his surroundings
and too indifferent to them. But what she feared,
the girl was quick to admit, for she strove to be honest with herself,
was that the bear did not care about her fear.
She had believed, during their long journey, and especially
at each secret, delicious touch of fur and skin,
that now and for always the white bear would understand her heart.
            But though all women make the same mistake about their lovers,
the truth is ever a shock, ever a terror.
We convince ourselves that love will banish our loneliness.
So why, asked the girl, do I feel so alone?


It is fortunate, for all the world, that dinner assuages
a multitude of griefs. Just as the girl felt
with a full heart that she would never be joyful again,
            a table appeared before her—one laden with scarlet linen
and white china; with spoons rubbed bright as new pennies;
            with crystal glasses and flasks; and on the plates curled
little fish fried in crumbs, alongside slivers of orange,
and new-made butter, and potatoes split and steaming
in their jackets, and beside them a bowl of wild greens and a hot rye loaf.
            Now the white bear rose from his bed on the hearth,
and, suddenly famished, the girl also stood, dropping her bundle,

ruefully rubbing her dusty hands on her muddy skirt,
            except that, when she looked down,
the skirt was a silken gown, clean and blue as a spring sky
            and on her finger was a ring with a blue stone.
She smiled at the white bear, and the bear said,
            “Perhaps you would lift my plate to the floor.”
So the girl set a plate of fish and potatoes before the bear,
            and then she sat herself down and ate.
And once the wonderful dinner was finished, a silver cake appeared.
            So the girl cut a slice for the bear and one for herself
and then, holding her slice in her hand, knelt beside him on the hearth.

Almost, now, she felt at home. The white bear licked first one paw,
then the other. The girl brushed the crumbs from her blue dress
and said shyly, “I forgot I was hungry.”
The bear paused in his licking and turned to look at her.
As her eyes met that strange, unblinking gaze, the girl shivered;
but this time she knew she was neither cold nor afraid.
Or perhaps she was afraid, but with a species of fear
she did not recognize as fear. For his gaze was a stream of light,
devouring and stern, yet also (and this was the marvel) a plea.
            “And are you tired?” asked the bear softly.
The girl looked down at her hands, then into his eyes. “I am,” she said.


She has forgotten the room, forgotten the firelight, forgotten
            the cool ironed sham beneath her cheek,
forgotten the shadows under the bed, forgotten the wind at the window,
            the stars burning, an owl snatching a wayward rabbit,
the rabbit’s shriek; she has forgotten her mother, her father,
            her cottage under moonlight; forgotten the rain,
forgotten the brook that wept like a river.
Only now only now only now.
For dreaming and the act of love are mirrors;
            and tonight the girl knows also; but where is her breath,
where is the tender shivering flesh below the ridge of her shoulder?

Where? For she has lost herself, she has lost the white bear,
            who is not a bear, but what has he become?
What has she become? Both have cast off their skins, both
            grown larger than giants, and each new and solitary cell
undergoes its ruthless joy. Who is the bear, who the woman;
who the air, who the fire; who the knife,
who the wound? How terrible they are;
how near to hate and dreaming is love,
its fury of nail and claw; and how time
narrows and slows, till now there is only
yes and no and yes.


But such interludes are finite.
            Though at night the beast cast off the form of a bear,
he reappeared as a beast in the morning,
            day after day, week after week,
and meanwhile winter came to the mountain palace.
            The fires roared high and the snow fell,
and when the girl breathed on the frosted mullions
            and rubbed away her breath, she saw only white stones
against white sky. Inside the palace she possessed all
            that an intelligent young woman is prone to desire—
galleries and libraries, hothouses and kitchens,

and a fierce and tireless lover. Yet the palace oppressed her,
as it had oppressed her from the first.
Perhaps, she thought, as she idled in the window seat,
scratching small patterns on the frost panes,
I am tired of having everything chosen for me.
Or perhaps I am merely a discontented woman.
And she thought of the tales she had read,
            of greedy sisters and unhappy queens
and meek, obedient goose-girls; and she sighed
            and leaned her cheek against the cold glass,
and let the heavy book on her lap slip to the floor.

That evening, as she knelt before the fire,
tilting the dregs of dark wine back and forth,
back and forth in her glass, she said to the white bear
            who lay stretched beside her,
“I wonder what my mother and father are doing now.”
            The white bear rolled over and lifted his head.
“What do you want?” he asked.
            The girl tilted her wineglass back and forth,
and the dregs flashed and darkened,
            flashed and darkened.
“Oh,” she said, and paused. And then:

“My hours in this palace trickle away so slowly.
            Perhaps I am dull; perhaps winter
is lonely. But at home, they needed me—
to carry firewood, to cook breakfast, to wash clothes.”
Quietly the bear replied, “This is your home, and I need you.”
Though his words were gentle, his pale eyes
sharpened. The girl dropped her gaze.
He was wrong: his home was not her home.
She knew she would always be a stranger in his vast, stony palace.
Nonetheless, she loved him, she loved him terribly;
and she needed him to love her.
This the bear understood. And after their months together,
the white bear was learning (or beginning to learn)
that he, too, must bend. “Dear one,” he said,
            and his voice was calm,
“I will send you to visit your parents,
            but you must make me a promise,
and you must keep your word.”
            The girl turned toward him and laid a hand
on his broad shoulder. Now she wrapped both arms
            around him and pressed her nose into his warm neck.
The bear repeated, more softly yet, “You must keep your word.”

The girl said quickly, her tumbled words muffled
against the bear’s heavy fur, “I will keep my word, of course.”
Only then did she remember that she did not know
            what she was promising.
She raised her head. “But why?” she said. “What must I do?”
            “It is what you must not do that matters,” replied the bear.
“You must not allow your mother to lead you away from your father
and speak of me. You must not,
or both you and I will suffer.” Cupping her two hands
            around the white bear’s muzzle, the girl bent
to kiss its bridge. “That will not happen,” she said.


And in less than a moment
            she stood before her parents’ forest cottage
at winter’s bare end. All around her
            heaved boot-riven mud. The snow, half-melted,
was soiled with blackened leaves and gnawed pinecones;
            chips and sawdust littered the dooryard. And yet
smoke threaded so joyously from the chimney; a chickadee
whistled his high-low spring song; sunlight
fingered the barren trees; and a small, soft wind tugged at her cloak.
The very window-glass seem to blink at her with pleasure.
The girl was so swiftly, so deeply happy that she hesitated to knock.

But she took a breath and, tears prickling her eyes, tapped at the door.
            Inside, a thump and a flurry: her mother
dropping the rolling pin and now scraping flour paste
from her hands, and now the thud of her clogs
as she bustled to the door, and now
            such crying and kissing and embracing;
and “oh, how beautiful she is, my lost child;
            how brightly her dress gleams under the velvet cloak;
how the little blue ring sparkles on her finger!”
            Now the father stamps his boots at the back door;
his daughter flies into his arms, spilling his bucket of twigs,
nearly cracking his head on the doorframe: more cries and kissing,
            and then, at long last, three heads round the kitchen table,
cups in hand, kettle steaming on the hob; and the mother saying,
            “Tell us everything, my love.”
So the girl set down her teacup and retold the tale of her travels—
            her long ride on the white bear’s back, her arrival at the palace
in the mountain, the kindness of the bear, the wonderful dinners
            and kitchens and libraries of her new home.
Her father listened in wide-eyed wonder, and when he brought himself
            to question his daughter, he spoke like the craftsman he was.
So she detailed the marble floors, the oaken shelves, the smooth slate counters.

But her mother had other curiosities. “My love,” she said,
            clasping her daughter’s hand between her own,
“tell us about your husband. Is he kind to you?”
            At mention of the white bear, the girl found herself
longing to speak of him. But she remembered his warning
            and turned the conversation into other routes—
speaking of the fine thick carpet on the cottage floor
            and the silver tankards twinkling on the shelf;
for the bear had been as good as his word. Whenever
            the parents were in need, they dipped the brass ladle
into the well and brought forth a dipper full of coins.

And since they were not extravagant, they lived snugly enough,
            lamenting their daughter but day by day regaining
a certain sweet content in themselves, as parents must do.
            Indeed, as the weeks of her visit passed,
the girl began to see herself as an imposition to their comfort—
            not that her parents promoted this view;
but three stools crowded the hearth,
            the coat pegs no longer held space for her cloak,
and the apple tart divided awkwardly for three.
            Once three had been the most natural of numbers.
Could she blame them for making the best of two,
especially now that she had become half of two herself?
            For oh, how she missed the white bear!
Each night, as she lay wrapped in her blanket by the fire,
            her thoughts returned to the palace fireside,
to the bear’s great paws curling on the flagstones,
to the heat of his breath on her breast;
and she turned and tossed, trapped in the peculiar despair
of unsubstantiated desire, angry at her ingratitude—
to her lover, whom she had willingly deserted;
to her parents, who fussed and fidgeted from morning till night.
If only she could speak of the bear to someone, anyone!

The girl took to wandering away of an afternoon, far down the forest track,
merely for the chance to lie among the broken remnants
of last year’s bracken ferns and whisper the bear’s name. Her parents,
puzzled and sad, watched her disappear into the woods;
yet they were not more puzzled than their daughter, nor more sad.
She did not think to ponder, “So what, after all, does home mean?”
as she lay in her damp cot and watched the finches, garbed in their winter drab,
flicker from bough to bough; but the question nonetheless
dangled before her in the listless air; and when finally she sat up, stiff with cold,
and gathered strength for her mother’s too-cheerful greeting,
her father’s anxious frown, she had advanced not a step toward contentment.


And it was in this low state that she made her error.
            The day had opened in wet fog, and as the morning passed,
rain began to fall steadily. With no hope of escape into the forest,
            the girl sat moodily at the table sorting sprouted onions for the pig—
a simple-enough task in itself yet wretchedly tedious
if one is the lovesick queen of an enchanted palace.
Her mother sat on a stool by the fire, mending a shirt; but her father,
braving the rain, had walked into the village, his pocket
stuffed with coins from the well, the vision of a little mare filling his thoughts.
            Surely a little mare would cheer his daughter, give her a new care.
Somehow he never allowed himself to consider that she might leave again.

Nor, it seems, had his wife. Early that morning, still abed,
he had broached the idea, and she, all smiles, had eagerly agreed.
“The blacksmith has a horse he would sell—a beautiful mare,
spotted, with a long black tail. Walk down to the forge, my dear;
offer him a good price; and meanwhile, I will speak to our daughter alone.
Perhaps I may discover what the bear has done to create such misery.”
The plan was kind, and the woman meant well indeed.
But it may be that every loving parent has made a similar mistake.
For we have been so long trained to defend our children’s joy
that we are too liable to hate the pains of that joy
and distrust the thieving lover who has coaxed them forth.

So as the daughter sorted onions, the mother spoke to her gently
            but with a mother’s expectation of obedience.
“You must tell me, now, about the white bear. You are so unhappy,
            yet how can I help you if I know nothing?”
Though a mother’s aid was no use in this matter, this was a fact
that neither mother nor daughter recognized.
And after all, the girl was so very tired of silence.
            She would say a few words, no more than a few,
just to satisfy her mother’s curiosity. There could be no harm.
            Surely the bear knew how much she loved him; surely
he had never meant her to relinquish all mention of his name.

The girl sighed, straightened her shoulders, shook the papery fragments
of onionskin from her skirts. Then she turned toward her mother
and, folding her dusty hands in her lap, opened her mouth to speak.
            But as soon as the word bear fell from her lips,
the whole tale of their love burst forth. Weeping, she told her mother
            that every night the bear came to her bed and that perhaps,
in truth, he was not a bear—she wasn’t sure, she couldn’t explain,
            he might have been a man, yet she never saw him in the darkness;
oh, but he was kind, very kind, and she loved him dearly;
            nothing was wrong, only she was lonely and out of sorts;
the bear had never hurt her, never really hurt her. He was very kind.

The mother listened to this tale of woe with a kind of open-eyed horror
            melding embarrassment with fear. But it was also
(though this she only vaguely admitted to herself) tinged with envy.
            A faithful husband is a lifetime’s comfort, but who among us
grows immune to dreams of a mysterious ardent lover?
            And yet her child, her child, in the grip of such confusion!
“My darling,” cried the mother, rising so violently from her seat
            that her basket of sewing toppled, and thimble and spools
clattered onto the floor and rolled away, forgotten, into the corners.
            “What if your husband is a troll?”
“Oh, mother,” wept the girl, “you’re wrong. It can’t be true.”

Yet once the words had been spoken, she could not forget them,
            especially after her father returned from the village
leading the spotted mare. Stroking the mare’s soft nose,
the girl discovered, tied to the bridle, a long red ribbon;
and on it, printed in gold, these instructions:
            “Ride into the forest, and I will meet you.”
“What shall I do?” she cried; but already, as her stricken parents
            begged her to stay, she had snatched up her cloak,
flung it over her shoulders, and mounted the dancing mare,
            who galloped headlong into the fog and vanished
before the father could gather strength or wits to hold her.


There was no sign of the white bear. Nonetheless,
            the little mare trotted briskly along the path,
her pace so confident and surefooted that the girl
soon dropped the reins and let them lie untended in her lap.
At first she had peered ahead anxiously into the fog,
            quick to spy any glimmer of white among the trees;
but as the hours passed and no bear appeared,
            she found her attention wavering, her eyes beginning to close;
felt herself falling forward, cheek pillowed against the mare’s
sweet-scented mane, as the horse, unchecked, trotted on
and the scent, rising and falling like breath, became a dream.

And this is what she dreamed—
            a door opening into a dark room,
one she had never seen before, a room cavernous with shadows
            yet here was the little bed she had slept in last night
before her parents’ fire. Why was it here, in this strange room,
            and who was sleeping in it? A guttering stub of candle
appeared in her hand; she lifted it high over the bed;
            and there lay a man, fair as snow,
fast asleep beneath a white bearskin. She leaned over him,
            thinking she must faint if she did not
brush her lips against his bare shoulder;

but as she bent over him, three drops of wax fell,
            searing three scars like tears into his pale skin.
Starting up suddenly from sleep, he cried out,
“What have you done? What have you done?”
“Oh, oh,” sobbed the girl, for she knew, now, who he was.
“You have spoken to your mother,” he replied, and the three scars
pulsed like starlight in the black room. “Let our misery begin.”
            At these words, the girl wailed and wept; she threw herself into his arms,
she kissed his wrists, his hands, begging for mercy . . .
            But at this moment she awoke and found herself clutching
the mare’s black mane and the mare galloping full tilt into the darkness.

“Stop!” shrieked the girl.
            Instantly the mare halted, with such force that the girl
tumbled forward into the ferns. There she sat, dizzy and breathless,
            as the mare idly nibbled a dry leaf.
“Where are you running to, little mare?” stammered the girl,
            her voice choking in her throat;
for she knew now that the horse was no common village hack.
Perhaps, like her own white bear, the mare could speak;
perhaps she was the bear, in new form;
and at this thought, the girl leaped to her feet
and put her two arms round the horse’s slender neck.

“Dear mare,” she asked, “who are you?”
The mare only snorted and flicked her ears.
As she did so, an acorn fell into the girl’s lap,
            then split cleanly at the cap, as acorns will;
and inside the cap was printed the word East in fine gold script,
            but around the nut marched the word West in silver capitals.
“What does it mean?” wailed the girl, flinging cap and nut
            into the bracken. “I don’t believe it means anything at all.”
The white bear, hidden in the bracken and watching her,
            may have thought twice about his choice of wife—
this angry, tear-stained, red-faced girl, her cloak checkered with leaf-mold,

shouting fruitlessly at the spotted mare,
            though, in truth, the mare seemed indifferent to the clamor,
merely lifting a hind hoof to scratch the back of a front knee.
            The girl hid her face in her hands, tried to breathe deeply,
tried to think. East, west; east, west . . . with such instructions,
she might just as well dig her own barrow,
here, under these twigs, this bracken; leave the mare to find her way home,
            or wherever it was she might be heading.
And at this thought, the girl lifted her face from her hands.
            “Where were you going? Who were you running to?” she asked.
In response, the mare whinnied and pranced and flung her head,

from which actions the girl took a bit of comfort—
not happiness, to be sure, nor even confidence;
more as if the cloud on her heart had shifted its shape.
At least the horse claimed to know which road to travel.
Wearily, she clambered to her feet; wearily, she remounted.
            “Go where you are going,” she said,
and instantly the mare darted forward into the forest,
            the girl bobbing listlessly on her back.
Tears welled from her swollen eyes and spilled down her blotchy cheeks.
            She wiped her nose on the edge of her cloak.
What have I become? wondered the girl, but only briefly.

For she had entered that strange realm of selfishness
            that arises only in moments of great misery,
when despair becomes a kind of spell,
            and sorrow creates its own walled castle.
Everything outside the girl seemed vaporous and indistinct.
            No longer did she scan the forest for sight of the white bear.
He would not come. No one would come.
            Clinging to the back of this jogging beast,
she would ride through the night, and then through another night.
            One by one, the stars would flare and fade and flicker out,
and the moon would turn her face to the wall.


Here is where my tale becomes difficult to write,
            where it swells and dissipates and trails away to mist.
For not only do my characters refuse to behave admirably;
            they also—and this is the crux—
they refuse to behave with resolve.
            The bear, of course, was angry with his wife;
and for a time his anger overtopped his loneliness.
            He lay hidden in the brush as she tumbled into the ferns.
He watched her fling the acorn message into the dark,
            and he felt a certain satisfaction at sight of her harridan misery.
But don’t think that the white bear was, at heart, a cruel husband.

Words came hard to him. He was, after all, more beast than man;
            and though he loved his wife, and longed for her return,
her angers and fears were nothing to his own.
            In his eyes, they were petty, staged for display,
overrun with tears and fine speeches, while his own—
            ah, his animal flame ran wordless and deep, like molten stone.
Or so he believed. The bear’s wife, who loved him fiercely,
            might have chosen “chill” instead of “flame,”
“claw” instead of “stone,” “prideful” instead of “deep.”
            Who, if not a wife, sees a man more clearly than he sees himself?
Or so she believes.

The little mare, insouciant, trotted away into the dark.
            The bear, hidden and silent among the bracken,
lay glowering at the girl on the horse’s back.
            The girl rubbed a knuckle into her swollen eyes
and, with her other hand, tightened her grip on the horse.
She felt obliged, suddenly, to make a decision,
any decision, one would be as good as the next,
            she was exhausted by love, by anger,
she hated love, she would go home to her parents
            and tell them nothing, she would lie, day and night,
tearless on her bed. The white bear had betrayed her,

or she had betrayed him, and there was no use
            in trying to recover what they had lost.
“East, west,” she said to the horse.
            And then suddenly she said, “Go north.”
At those words, the mare turned suddenly
            and plunged into the thicket.
The tree branches leaned forward, scratching and plucking at the girl,
            who screamed, covering her head with her arms
as the mare swerved among the terrible trees.
            And the white bear, who lay hidden among the bracken
and brush to the south of the path, silently got to his feet.

For a moment he stood motionless,
shimmering like the moon on this moonless night.
Then he turned his back to the trail, and he padded away.