Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Eve wishes to you all. One son is going to a real party; the other is hanging around with his parents. Here in Harmony, shrimp will be eaten, and guacamole, and some sort of fried tofu thing I have yet to invent. Cards will be played, and temperatures will plummet. Sentences will eventually stop being constructed in the obnoxious passive voice by me. [Isn't that about the ugliest sentence you ever saw? But wait a minute: I just figured out how to make it worse: Sentences will eventually stop being twerked in the obnoxious passive voice by me during a webinar. Ay yi yi.]

Monday, December 30, 2013

Friday, December 27, 2013

Book Review

Alan Jenkins
Clutag Press, 2013
ISBN 978-0-9565432-7-1
66 pages

Dawn Potter
Alan Jenkins is a major voice in contemporary English poetry, but that doesn’t make him a household name among American poets. For whatever reason, we remain peculiarly distracted by ourselves; and though we allot a certain amount of reverence to poets in translation, we are, on the whole, remarkably ignorant of poets from around the world who are writing new work in our own language.
            Not surprisingly, devotion to the old is eroding in American literature classrooms, yet the traditional English canon is still their bedrock; and it seems to me that a poet such as Alan Jenkins could be a sturdy bridge between our interactions with that past and our immersion in the present. Jenkins, as Clive James writes, “really does have an unusual degree of authority, at least partly derived from his determination to back up even the most anarchic thematic boldness with a scrupulously formal structure.” This scrupulous formality can be breath-taking, not least because it is so often disguised as modesty. By this I mean that Jenkins doesn’t necessarily use his technical prowess as an opportunity for singing. Yet he is in no way an accidental poet: he goes out of his way to direct his dazzling formal powers into poems that purposely collapse into themselves, both structurally and emotionally.
In “The Death of the Moth,” for instance, he creates a ten-line rhyme scheme that, over the course of its four stanzas, eases into three alternative patterns that are also a sort of disintegration. The poem (which ponders a dead moth shut between the pages of a book) shares none of the rich musicality that I so often hear in the lines of Richard Wilbur and other master rhymers. There is something painful, difficult, acid about these lines. They are tormented.
The wall of light that teacher, clerk
Or housewife in their reading hour
Held open, and that drew it on
From its furred world to theirs
Was closed and put back on the shelf,
And every sign of it was gone
Until now, as I browse Sons and Heirs:
Families of England in this shop,
Who have none of those myself,
And don’t know when my life will stop.

            Jenkins is perpetually grappling with the past, whether through narrative, style, or influence. There are many echoes here—Thomas, Larkin, Housman, Dante, Stevens, Kipling, Tennyson. He veers toward them and away, toward them and away. His subject matter is often nostalgic, often classically male—war, duty, sports, family, country, sexual agonies and satisfactions. But the poems themselves arise from some other source: a place of cracked mirrors and wavery Victrolas, a place where humor or affection may also be the everyday eruption of evil.  In “Some Version of the Pastoral,” Jenkins layers transparencies: memory, a debauched England, a verse tradition. In “Sisters,” a chirpy speaker invents the stereotyped history of a pair of spinster sisters, and in their very predictability the preconceptions become ominous, terrifying, disastrous. Jenkins insistently pushes a reader past the anecdotes into discomfort, into questions of morality and culpability, into the knowledge that some blithe errors can never be repaired.
            It’s interesting that what to me feels like the centerpiece poem of this collection, “Vainglory,” is mentioned in the acknowledgments as a translation, though I didn’t discover this until I’d finished reading the book. I’d just automatically assumed that Jenkins could write as effectively in Anglo-Saxon syllables as he could in terza rima: this is how convincing he is as a formalist. Moreover, “Vainglory” seems to encapsulate the moral contortions of the human condition that have so fascinated me throughout Revenants:
He twists and turns            outwits truth-traps
shoots his arrow-showers            shafts of hatred
shame does not            shield him from harm
he sheds about him            hates his betters
virtue vexes him            envy’s volleys
break down battlements            breach the bastion
God once bade him            guard with his life.

            Writing of the American poet Hayden Carruth, Shaun Griffin says, “His poetry was varied and difficult to label. He wanted to create the most meaningful art he could. . . . His primary reason for writing was the reader. That was an uncommon threshold with which to begin a poem. . . . Carruth’s forms were designed to let the reader in, to avoid separation between poet, poem, and reader.” It seems to me that Alan Jenkins has taken on a similar task, and in Revenants he has largely succeeded. The collection is gnarled and blunt, plain and ambiguous. The book demands my attention. Like the best conversations, it is urgent and personal. As the poet writes in “Ladbroke Grove,”
These airless nights
The eyes of strangers
Catch me out
As I haunt myself
On streets I knew in life,
Now inhabited
Only by the dead . . .
Whose is that cry
Of encouragement
Or release
From an open window
On an attic floor,
Whose the laughter
Breaking from
A dark pub door?
And those notes
On a saxophone, who
Are they yearning for?

[A version of this review first appeared in New Walk (autumn/winter 2013-14).]

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Small Poem about Eating Polish Food

Gołąbki (1979)

Dawn Potter

which the aunts pronounced gowumkee you know cabbage rolls honey
and packed into a crockpot pasted all over with pictures
of happy brown daisies and then balanced them on the plush backseat

of a cream-colored Delta 88 bought used off the lot from a dealer
that Uncle Boy played accordion with in the beer garden up to Dunbar
and drove them down nice and hot to the farmhouse for Sunday dinner

even though our mother had already slapped together a bean casserole
and our father had picked a thousand ears of corn from the garden
and we were as stuffed as rats but the aunts ignored all signs of a previous meal

and said oh go ahead you’re tall you can hide it so we went ahead and swallowed
three or four tomato-sopped beef-stuffed toothpick-riddled cabbage socks
because we knew that good table manners means eating every single thing

old ladies cook for you no exceptions and then saying thank you afterward
and offering to scrub the crockpot and at least eating gołąbki was like eating
heaven that is if heaven was located in a coal-grimed empty five-and-dime

between what the aunts called that laundry mat and a Mennonite bookstore
which amazingly stocked all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels so as the dryers
growled and trembled and we seemed to be slumped in plastic bucket chairs

guarding the towels and undershirts really we were running and skipping
among the fresh prairie grasses in bare feet sun bonnets hanging down our backs
Jack the brindle bulldog frisking over the sod house as Pa’s fiddle sang the tale

of the wild plains as the dryer whipped the sopped blankets our tight-lipped mother
had unpinched from the line poked savagely through the ringer in the basement
hauled into town in the trunk of the pie-eyed Plymouth our father had once upon a time

bought brand-new making damn sure Uncle Boy had nothing to do with it
four doors a miracle of convenience and even an AM radio pulsing disco
under the foglit sky under the wet shriek of the mill whistle and O those gołąbki

we ate them and they were a heaven just as sloppy and leaking as ours

[first published in Salamander (2014) 19, no. 1]

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

from Christmas at the Ramada

Part  4: The TV

Dawn Potter

It’s been Christmas at the Vatican
for hours already; but midnight mass
flickers into their ten p.m. motel room

like an accident. What’s more,
the announcer is busily translating
every Latin phrase into rich

and obfuscating Spanish.
The pope looks terrible.
Under his golden robes and mitre,

he sags to one side like a cat
stuffed into fancy pajamas.
The camera can hardly bear to film him;

it keeps switching to a chanting
Salvadoran priest, dark and beautiful,
voice a thin angelic tenor,

though he is horribly nervous,
his shadowy chin trembling
between each honeyed line.

At home in San Salvador, his mother
is prostrate with fear of God,
O thinks, pressing her cheek into K’s

bare arm. Now the camera shifts
to pan a row of old ladies draped in black
furry coats and orange lipstick;

they glare, outraged;
they look exactly like the old ladies
who instigate fender benders

on Elmwood Avenue, carelessly shooting
homeward after a day spent
plotting dominion; yet thank Heaven,

they’re also the sentimental type
who adore enchanting priests.
How good of the holy church

to meet their needs with such pity
and take the heat off this poor pope
slumping unfilmed beneath his foreign

vault, his cold sky, a few brisk lights
scattered across the black. Not far off,
the faithful sleep, safe as milk.

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

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Central Maine driving conditions can be seen above. But we managed to arrive at our destination, and now the poodle and I are comfortably making coffee and watching squirrels. My situation is nothing like the situation of the Frost poem that follows. But this was my very first experiential Frost poem at the Frost Place, and I'm feeling sentimental, and a little bit cold.

An Old Man’s Winter Night

Robert Frost

All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping here, he scared it once again
In clomping off—and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon—such as she was,
So late-arising—to the broken moon,
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall the keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man—one man—can’t keep a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Well, for the moment the electricity's still on, but the weather is frightful. Thick sleet is noisily coating a glaze of frozen rain and several inches of new snow. My bathtub is full of buckets of emergency water, and the kitchen counter is lined with more. In the meantime I am doing laundry like crazy. Ostensibly we leave for Massachusetts tomorrow, and it would be nice to arrive clean . . . if we arrive at all.

I've received a number of notes about my poem "Coal Act (1969)," which I posted a couple of days ago. People seem to like the mixture of primary source and invented voice, a reaction that continues to give me hope that the western Pennsylvania collection will eventually come to some sort of complicated fruition. But it is such a slow project; I've never undertaken a writing task that's taken so long to finish. I am nowhere close to being done: all I see are more gaps to fill.

So it seems I will spend my Christmas holiday reading an eye-squint history of the Whiskey Rebellion. Fortunately I also have Baron's new novel to read, which is not only interesting but also printed in regular-sized type. [Dear Oxford University Press: Who prints an entire history book in type the size of a footnote? Is this some kind of attempt at a David Foster Wallace joke, or were you really short of paper or perhaps trying to discourage near-sighted poets, or do whiskey fans in England write in and say, "Dear Oxford University Press: I would buy more copies of your books if they were printed in 6-point type so that my friends and family who drink whiskey could imagine they were reading a book about whiskey instead of a book about taxes"?]

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Greetings from the Christmas Monster, who is greedily anticipating this weekend's ice storm. If you don't hear from me, assume that the power lines are down and we are hunkered around the wood stove eating cheese and crackers and playing Yahtzee.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Coal Act (1969)

Dawn Potter

For instance:
If a miner is suffering [e.g., Employees 1 & 4]
or suffered [e.g., Employees 2 & 3]

from a chronic dust disease of the lung
which (A),
when diagnosed by chest roentgenogram [Employee 1],

yields one or more large opacities
(greater than one centimeter in diameter)
and would be classified

in category a, b, or c
of the International Classification
of Radiographs of the Pneumoconioses

by the International Labor Organization,
(B) when diagnosed by biopsy [Employee 2]
or autopsy [Employee 3],

yields massive lesions in or on the lung,
or (C) when diagnosis is made by other means
[e.g., Employee 4 hacks up black spittle

and struggles to breathe
during hobbles to the mailbox],
would be a condition

which could reasonably be expected
to yield results described
in clause (A) or (B)

if diagnosis had been made
in the manner prescribed
in clause (A) or (B)

[though Employee 4 should have got off his ass
and fetched up a doctor’s certificate],
then there shall be an irrebuttable presumption

that he [Employee 1] is totally disabled due to pneumoconiosis
or that his death was due to pneumoconiosis [Employee 3]
or that at the time of his death

he was totally disabled by pneumoconiosis [Employee 2,
but Employee 4 says, “I ain’t going up to Pittsburgh
just to spit and get talked at, if they want me

they can take me out a here on a plank,
I know a thing or two about bosses
and their goddamn lawyer talk,

ain’t nobody can pull wool over my eyes,
I’ve heard, up to Pittsburgh, soon’s you walk in,
a nurse sticks a needle in your arm,

then two three days later
you get sent home in a coffin, God’s truth
them doctors is only in it for the money,

I ain’t going nowheres near ’em,
I’m a stay right here
and listen to that Puerto Rican kid

hammer the ball out of the park,
he’s the only kind of Pittsburgh I care for”],
as the case may be.

[first published in the Bellevue Literary Review (fall 2013)]

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Having finished two editing projects this week, I decided to start working on an essay that, a page into the first draft, suddenly morphed into a poem that has nothing to do with western Pennsylvania. Between wrapping Christmas presents and making bread and drinking coffee with James, I spent a luxurious afternoon adding and subtracting words, re-breaking lines, and so on and so on. Though this poem is not altogether pleasant, the activity was absorbing and it felt so necessary. At the same time, space seemed to be endless and enveloping: I wasn't snatching at moments but working inside them. Do you know what I mean? I'm trying to describe that sense of working effectively and intensely, but without anxiety? And why is it so rare?

Interestingly, at band practice last night, the same aura seemed to enfold all four of us. The others kept saying, "We sound so focused and tight tonight," but we hadn't practiced together for two weeks, and we really should have been sloppy.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

I got an email yesterday from Starr Troup, managing editor of CavanKerry Press, who was very excited because several people have already contacted her about getting PDF galleys of Same Old Story. She tells me that she's eager to hear from more people, so, please, do write to her if you're at all interested in reviewing the book, interviewing me, sharing it with a book group, buying a classroom set, etc., etc. The book is due for release in March, which is actually all of a sudden kind of close. And I don't mean to sound obnoxiously anxious [note: I've just written two xious words in a row], but thus far my books have rarely received reviews; and even if you hate this one, at least I would know about it instead of feeling like I've fallen down a well.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Okay, what's going on here? The thermometer reads fifteen-below this morning, and we haven't even reached the winter solstice. Ruckus spent a total of ten seconds outside this morning, and the poodle still declines to consider the outdoors. Only Paul has headed into the cold, lustily singing, "Livin' on a Prayer," as if a Bon Jovi song has ever helped anyone at any time. Anyway, that band's from New Jersey: what do they know about waiting for the schoolbus at fifteen-below?
The threat of freezing to death in the ancient world permeated ancient thought. It was a giant concern, so the mythmakers made the deities who personified cold giants themselves. Throughout the cold months, these winter giants waged war against the summer and won battle after battle. They lived in the frigid north and they cast icy death spells on victims struggling to recapture the warmth of summer and to protect the fields from the giants' death grip. The Norsemen believed that a plumed giant named Hraesvlegr sat at the extreme north of the heavens and raised his arms to send icy north winds over the earth. Some North American tribes envisioned the winter giant as an old man with a beard of icicles who also lived in the north, in a teepee on a snowy mountaintop. When people visited him and smoked a pipe with him in his teepee, the Winter Giant cast his freezing spell on his visitor and froze him to death. 
[from Dictionary of Nature Myths: Legends of the Earth, Sea, and Sky by Tamra Andrews]

Monday, December 16, 2013

Three degrees above zero and a foot of new snow on the ground. I spent the day baking cookies, wine biscuits, and lasagna and intermittently removing Ruckus from the Christmas boxes. World's easiest cat to mail. Don't be surprised if he shows up in your UPS delivery.

In addition to mailing Christmas boxes and picking up my son at the bus station,  I'll be copyediting Teresa Carson's forthcoming collection My Crooked House, which CavanKerry is releasing this spring. I'm pretty happy to think that we both have books coming out this spring, and I'm pretty happy to be reading these poems, which manage to be both elegantly constructed and brutal, not to mention dramatically precise. As in:

Me and Mom, 1961

Teresa Carson

It’s her room,                                                               Yes, my room,
not mine.                                                                      not yours.
Her girly-pink walls, her jumble of junk,                        The only space that’s mine, all mine.
her dirty sheers.                                                            Don’t tell a soul.
There’s no drawer                                                         My bureau,
for me.                                                                         not yours.
I dig through a clump of underpants                               Why bother separating ours?
to find a pair of mine.                                                    Stop wanting more.
My uniform’s thrown on the chair,                                 This closet, those hangers, mine,
topped by her girdle and slip.                                         not yours.
The lit Virgin Mary centered on sill.                               Blessed art thou . . .
Polish can’t save my saddle shoes.                                  Don’t press your luck.
Every night, when she goes to bed,                                 I’m tired,
I must go, too.                                                               you must be, too.
Even if I’m reading                                                        (Yawn.)                                   
or playing tic-tac-toe or . . .                                            Stop what you’re doing.
My mother’s fat,                                                            My comfort matters most,
good thing I’m small.                                                     not yours.
Just one wool army blanket                                             (Lifts arm in invitation.)
to cover two. No pillows.                                                Don’t think you’re better than me.
I press between her arm and breast.                                  This is the way it always was.
What’s that noise? And that?                                           This is the way it always should be.
I inhabit nightmares.                                                       Always will be.
Her unwashed female stink takes over me.                        Stop making up tall tales.
I can’t breathe.                                                                Mine,
No room to move.                                                           not yours.
Where else could I go?                                                    Yes.
Who else would hold me?                                                Mine alone.
Don’t want to.                                                                 Everybody knows
It’s all I’ve ever known.                                                   you’re mine.

[The righthand column is supposed to be flush-left all the way down, but stupid Blogger loves to mess with poetry formatting and I can't seem to fix it. You'll have to wait till spring to see this poem in its true glory.]

Sunday, December 15, 2013

It's snowing hard here--several inches accumulated and more to come. I just got off the phone with my older son, who was supposed to come home from college today and now isn't, which makes the rest of us sad but relieved. Parents do not like to imagine their sons sleeping in the Boston bus station or trapped on the Piscataqua River Bridge in an overturned, ice-coated bus. We prefer to imagine them chortling to episodes of Jersey Shore and drinking grocery-store egg nog from the carton as they kill time in their dorm room.

I'll get back to finishing my chocolate pepper cookies today. They're all baked but now require a chocolate drizzle, which didn't happen yesterday because some male member of my family ate all of the semisweet baking chocolate and then put the empty box back on the shelf, which you'd think he/they would know by now absolutely guarantees that I'm going to screech and flail.

In other events: I have to prod my younger son through his paper on A Tale of Two Cities and piano practicing and laundry sorting, etcetera. I have to deal with a non-draining washing machine. And I have to shovel a lot of snow.

On the bright side, nothing beats driving around at night with a sixteen-year-old boy, both of you admiring the "reindeer farm" Christmas-light setup across the river, both of you singing songs from Rent at the top of your lungs.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The final two paragraphs of "Winter in the Abruzzi" by Natalia Ginzburg

There is a kind of uniform monotony in the fate of man. Our lives unfold according to ancient, unchangeable laws, according to an invariable and ancient rhythm. Our dreams are never realized and as soon as we see them betrayed we realize that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality. No sooner do we see them betrayed than we are consumed with regret for the time when they glowed within us. And in this succession of hopes and regrets our life slips by.

My husband died in Rome, in the prison of Regina Coeli, a few months after we left the Abruzzi. Faced with the horror of his solitary death, and faced with the anguish which preceded his death, I ask myself if this happened to us--to us, who bought oranges at Giro's and went for walks in the snow. At that time I believed in a simple and happy future, rich with hopes that were fulfilled, with experiences and plans that were shared. But that was the best time of my life, and only now that it has gone from me forever--only now do I realize it.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Ugh. Ten below zero this morning, and the stove is gobbling firewood. At least this means I was able to talk Tom out of going to work. Yesterday, when I went for a walk with my friend Linda, the temperature was a cheery four degrees and the birches were postcard portraits against a cerulean sky. Today I can't see the sky because the windows are coated in ice. Perhaps I will pretend I live in Norway with the Frost Giants and the Ice Cows and so on, but where are the fjords?

I must say that it's a relief not to have animals in the barn--not for my own sake (I still have to plod outside and deal with firewood) but I was always heavy-hearted about leaving them in the cold. No matter how snug I tried to make them, they were still living in an unheated, uninsulated shack. Ruckus may be offended by the weather, but at least he can come inside and eat the corners off all the Christmas packages in 80-degree comfort.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Today's best Margaret Atwood quotation (from The Blind Assassin):
The French are connoisseurs of sadness, they know all the kinds. This is why they have bidets.
That remark makes me laugh and laugh, and I don't even know what it means.

I've just been invited to judge the Maine state finals of the 2014 Poetry Out Loud competition, which will be held on February 26 at the Waterville Opera House--practically local! It is always a blessing to get a gig that does not involve hours and hours of driving in a nighttime snowstorm. So, Maine teachers, sign your kids up, so I can admire them on stage.

In other news, Teresa, Baron, and I might maybe, possibly, if it all works out, be going to Detroit this winter for a Frost on the Road professional development job. I'm pretty happy about this: it would be a huge opportunity for us to watch another arts organization at work and to make contact with a swath of teachers and teaching artists.

The Frost Place is getting ready to publicly reveal the 2014 teaching conference faculty. We've also got a couple of new Teacher-Consultants to announce, and we will be introducing our inaugural Teaching Fellow. There will be a big marketing push with NCTE this year, and I've got high hopes for a bustling success. Already I've heard from a number of interested newcomers, including more than one from outside the United States, which is wonderful.

Teresa and I realized, after doing a careful cross-comparison with several other teaching programs, that the Conference on Poetry and Teaching is unique in its broad applicability. Unlike the others, which are strictly focused on high school teachers, we serve K-12 teachers, university professors, MFA students, workshop leaders, lifelong learners, eager readers, poets--in other words, everyone. Plus, we have the Frost Place, which is one of the most beautiful settings in the world. So please come spend a week with us this summer.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The thermometer reads zero this morning, and Ruckus hates his life. Every morning I notice that deer have gnawed another inch off the brussels sprout stalks that are still poking up out of the garden spot. Deer routinely gobble up apple trees and raspberry canes, so those stalks must be frozen solid.

For a change I don't have to drive anywhere to pick up sweaty teenagers, but on the flip side one of my headlights is burnt out, which foretells a slow ramble among the logging accessories while the guys at the garage decide they don't have a replacement to fit my car. In the basement, the washing machine objects to draining: another distraction for the day. "We sit indoors and talk of the cold outside," remarks smug Robert Frost as Tom suits up for his bitter day on the roof of a cow barn.

And now here is Ruckus, as smug as Frost, yowling sweetly and barging under my elbow as I write. And there, from the yard, rise the cough and groan of Tom's unhappy truck motor: and the basement silence of the washing machine is ominous. R.F. sniffs, scratches his nose, scribbles an illegible line in his notebook. The permutations of cold may interest him, but washing machines have never been his concern.
Grief may have thought it was grief.
Care may have thought it was care.
They were welcome to their belief,
The overimportant pair.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Same Old Story: Prepublication Notes

Last week CavanKerry Press's new managing editor told me that the press has some marketing plans for my third poetry collection, Same Old Story, which is due out this spring. I am in the odd situation of juggling three 2014 releases, so I'm feeling schizophrenic and somewhat perplexed--trying to read proofs, think about design, and plan for sales for three different but overlapping books.

Anyway, CavanKerry has decided that Same Old Story, which has many links to myth and fairy tales (not to mention regular everyday life), might be a suitable text for convincing readers that poetry isn't poisonous. So teachers: if you are considering classroom adoption and would be interested in acquiring a desk copy, please contact Starr Troup at the press. Likewise, if you belong to a book group, Starr would love to hear from you.

Finally, if you are interested in writing a prepublication review, the press would be glad to send you an electronic version of the collection. Starr will even suggest places to submit your review. This would be a huge help, not only to me but also to the press, which designs and publishes beautiful books and is working hard to hold its own in the small-press crush.

And thank you, as always, for your kindness.

New from CavanKerry Press in 2014

“Driving” is the presiding conceit that shapes Dawn Potter’s new collection, Same Old Story, and what an exhilarating ride this is! From the mythos of antiquity, to fairytales, to nineteenth-century novels, to relief when “the plow guy” shows up on Valentine’s Day, in a world where “newsmen / chant wind-chill rates and hockey stats,” Potter marries the quotidian and the sublime pretty much line by line. That pairing is dictional, syntactical, rhythmical, and often conceptional as well, but always, always, the scope is sweeping and the affect—in this reader’s experience—unparalleled.  In her “Notes from a Traffic Jam,” the poet exclaims, “Oh, sometimes I fear I’ve lost the will to imagine / this comedy, this ugly beauty, this moving-picture world,” but Potter doesn’t have to imagine it. She sees it clearly, and how brilliantly she has shaped her craft to capture it and give it back to her readers illuminated and writ large.  Potter’s sustained acts of synthesis and transformation are an astonishing achievement.

Gray Jacobik

Monday, December 9, 2013

I've been struggling with a major preoccupation this fall: anxiety over the fact that Autumn House Press made the sudden decision not to publish The Conversation. That, as you can imagine, was a blow. However, I'm happy--and very relieved--to tell you that Deerbrook Editions has not only committed to publishing the manuscript but plans to expedite the process so that the book will be ready for the 2014 teaching conference. These past few months have featured a Wile E. Kafka-Coyote-ish string of events, though, fortunately, my conclusion was better than his ever is. Last week the publisher began designing the book, so I'm thinking I'm safe now. But good cheer has been difficult, and I haven't wanted to talk to you about the strange vicissitudes of my book and my self-esteem.

So let's stop talking about them now and move on to more interesting fodder, such as whether or not we're getting a snowstorm today. Tom has made the executive decision not to drive 30 miles to climb onto the roof of the cattle barn he's building and instead will stay home and endure the vicissitudes of healthcare.gov. It seems that we are signature members of the fabled Ten Percent of Users Still Experiencing Problems club.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

New Books by My Friends

A couple of months ago I wrote here about Tom Rayfiel's most recent novel, In Pinelight. If my praise wasn't enough to encourage you to read this book, then check out this beautiful, precise review on Bookforum.

Baron Wormser, my friend, teacher, and colleague at the Frost Place, has just published his first novel, Teach Us That Peace. I haven't read it yet, but I have read some of his new poems, which are stunning. So there's no doubt he's writing well these days. I'll have more to say about the specifics of this book eventually; but seeing as a bunch of you already know Baron's work very well, I wanted to let you know that it's available.

Meg Kearney, who will be guest faculty at the 2014 Conference on Poetry and Teaching, has just released her picture book Trouper, a fictionalized version of the story of her own dog. I've met this dog, and he is without doubt on the top-ten list of Nicest Dogs I Have Ever Met. Moreover, the book is illustrated by Caldecott Honer-winner E. B. Lewis. It's a lovely, understated tale with pictures that are both hyper-realistic and oddly atmospheric.

And now I'm off to play music at Stutzman's Cafe in Sangerville. Come by for breakfast and/or wish me luck with my brand-new-replacement-string wonky-pitch troubles.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Because of Ruckus's exuberant good spirits and arborial enthusiasms, we will need to curtail Christmas this year. So I've cut a teeny-tiny spruce tree that I hope I'll be able perch on top of a high shelf that he hasn't gotten around to scaling yet. Presently the teeny-tiny tree is sitting on the porch in a milk pail filled with snow. If I don't have to take the dog to the vet, I may find some time today to play with it. But unlike Ruckus, Anna is not glowing with health. I suspect a vestibular disorder, but maybe she's just got dog flu.

Pets. What a distraction. And I thought retiring from livestock would make my life emptier.

Friday, December 6, 2013

On his Facebook page, my 16-year-old wrote, "R.I.P Nelson Mandela. You were one of the greatest civil rights activists the world has ever seen." This, I thought, was a fine thing for an American teenager to recognize. Yet in the kitchen, when I continued the conversation with him and happened to use the word apartheid, he looked at me, puzzled, and asked, "What is that?"

I suppose one could say: this is how much Mandela changed the world. He changed it so much that today's concerned, intelligent, American teenagers have never had to hear the word apartheid battered around on the evening news. On the other hand, I was appalled. In my son's lifetime, Mandela has only been a respected public figure. But in my lifetime he underwent an unthinkable transformation: from state-reviled prisoner to president of that very same nation. It's not that my son is ignorant of Mandela's particular brand of greatness. He just didn't hear that racist label splashed day after day among Iran Contra embarrassments and Michael Jackson hits. Of course he didn't. But even though I know this, time never stops being a surprise.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Today is the birthday of Amy Lake, daughter of my friends Linda and Ralph, murdered by her husband, along with her two children in June 2011. And here is a poem that borrows from the officials' chilling psychological autopsy of the case. Sometimes I include the piece among my western Pennsylvania poems and pretend that it happened there. But it didn't, though it could have, because it could have happened anywhere. And it does.

According to Our Sources

Dawn Potter

The man owned “maybe twenty, twenty-one
firearms” and had bought, “I don’t know,
seven or eight BB guns” for his ten-year-old.

That boy “was the apple of his eye, no question.”
The girl, “well, not so much.” Still, he was “a good feller,”
“a go-getter,” “he’d always been a doer not a thinker,”

he just needed “to relax now and again, nothing serious.”
“Some people can’t take a joke, you know what I mean?”
or else “things might of ended up different.”

It was “weird but also a little bit crazy funny, you know,”
when he sat in the La-Z-Boy and shot the ornaments
off the family Christmas tree, and, “oh, sure,

sometimes he did dumb stuff,” not like “pills or booze,”
more like “laughing too much when his daughter cried.”
It was “common knowledge” he kept a loaded pistol

holstered on his bedpost, and “he could be mouthy”
at “kind of the wrong moment”—for instance, that party
when he told his friends he’d be “dragging the wife home”

to give her a “hate fuck.” “A couple two, three times”
he threatened to use her dad as “knife practice.”
 And “what some heard” is, after he “kep a gun on em”

for an entire summer night, and she “broke down”
and called in the cops, “well, soon’s he seen the blue lights,”
he swiveled round to his son and told him “real calm,”

“Now your mother’s done it.” Which is to say
“most folks agreed the man had his angers,”
but “who’d a thought he’d turn out so dangerous?”

[first published in 5AM, no. 37 (2013)]

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Yesterday I started reading proofs for Same Old Story, a task that is both exciting and nerve-wracking. What if my concentration flags and the printed book ends up containing some big stupid mistake? On the other hand, who wrote these interesting poems? I know that sounds hubristic, but typeset pages look so different from manuscript pages. That visual shift makes the work seem brand-new to me, as if I've never read these poems before, let alone composed them.

So far, I haven't experienced any "Oh, my God, this sucks" heart seizures. This may, of course, change at any moment. I still have a lot more proof-checking to accomplish.

In other news, I'm editing a book about sex, and it's a good read too: a sociological study of women's generational and life-course attitudes and full of verbatim transcripts and individual voices. A holiday gift for the academic copyeditor, apparently.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Signed Books for the Holidays

If anyone is interested in personalized, signed books as holiday gifts, please let me know. I have copies of the poetry collections Boy Land ($12) and How the Crimes Happened ($15), the memoir Tracing Paradise ($20), and the anthology A Poet's Sourcebook ($30). I'll sign and inscribe them, wrap them if need be, and mail them to you or a gift recipient. My contact information is on the "Teaching & Editing" page.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Snow and snow and snow. No more running in the woods, it seems. I will have to switch to snowshoeing today.

I went looking for a snow poem, and I found this 1922 piece by Claude McKay, along with many others, including poems by Longfellow, Emerson, and Bryant. At a quick glance, I noted an interesting shared feature of snow poems: many of them seem to be too long, by which I mean that one of the stanzas feels much stronger than the rest of the poem. The McKay poem is relatively even, I think, though I'm not sure that I love it. Still, it has its charms.

The Snow Fairy

Claude McKay

Throughout the afternoon I watched them there,
Snow-fairies falling, falling from the sky,
Whirling fantastic in the misty air,
Contending fierce for space supremacy.
And they flew down a mightier force at night,
As though in heaven there was revolt and riot,
And they, frail things had taken panic flight
Down to the calm earth seeking peace and quiet.
I went to bed and rose at early dawn
To see them huddled together in a heap,
Each merged into the other upon the lawn,
Worn out by the sharp struggle, fast asleep.
The sun shone brightly on them half the day,
By night they stealthily had stol’n away.

And suddenly my thoughts then turned to you
Who came to me upon a winter’s night,
When snow-sprites round my attic window flew,
Your hair disheveled, eyes aglow with light.
My heart was like the weather when you came,
The wanton winds were blowing loud and long;
But you, with joy and passion all aflame,
You danced and sang a lilting summer song.
I made room for you in my little bed,
Took covers from the closet fresh and warm,
A downful pillow for your scented head,
And lay down with you resting in my arm.
You went with Dawn. You left me ere the day,
The lonely actor of a dreamy play.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Despite spending five days in the clink, Ruckus is surprisingly pleasant this morning. Perhaps he benefited from pre-release counseling. Our house, however, is less pleasant, though it is now better than it was yesterday evening, when the kitchen thermometer read 32 degrees. Wood heat is charming until no one is around to stoke the stove.

I hope you all had a reasonably calm and collected Thanksgiving recess. Barring some snow squalls and dog squabbles, ours went smoothly. Number One Son arrived by railroad and enthusiastically consumed large amounts of my mother's cooking, Number Two Son efficiently entertained his small cousins and even managed to finish his homework, and the poodle did not have any accidents on the floor.

In the interstices of baking, eating, drying dishes, playing Scrabble, and hiking over snowy fields, I read a small amount of Philip Roth's American Pastoral. At the last moment of packing, I found I could not face carrying along a history of the crusades. American Pastoral is not much more relaxing than the crusades, but at least it offers some mulled-over regret between the battles.
And then there's this, which struck me as a reasonably apt:
Writing turns you into somebody who's always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. What else could? As pathological phenomena go, it doesn't completely wreck your life.