Sunday, November 30, 2014

An agreeable romance might begin to take on the appearance.
That is the fortune I found in a Brooklyn-baked Chinese cookie served to me at a Vietnamese restaurant in Portland, Maine. Perhaps the fortune's peripatetic history accounts for its obscurity.

Since returning to Harmony, I have not encountered any new agreeable romances, but the old ones appear to be extant. After cold-shouldering me for 45 minutes, Ruckus relented and allowed himself to be kissed. Anna held no grudge whatsoever, though the accidental jingle of car keys made her worry that we were leaving again. The yard is blanketed with what looks like permanent winter, and this morning I woke to the sound of Sunday morning snowmobiles on the other side of the stream.

I haven't yet ventured out to do my chores, but here's a photo of what the snow looked like over the reservoir in Amherst on Thanksgiving Day. In Harmony we have roughly twice as much, without the beautifying reflection.

And here's a photo of three brave Amherst Thanksgiving turkeys. We probably have some of these lurking in the Harmony woods, but they know better than to show themselves on the last weekend of deer-hunting season.

An agreeable romance might begin to take on the appearance
  1. [of not being eaten for a national holiday].
  2. [of an old dog and a warm woodstove].
  3. [of dirt-cheap Vietnamese pho].
  4. [of an Anthony Trollope novel I haven't opened for a decade, only to discover that it's much more psychologically subtle than I had remembered].
  5. [of sitting on the couch with Tom watching Boogie Nights and being relieved/disappointed that I was safely walled up in elementary school during the seventies].

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The 2015 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching faculty members have been announced! Our guests will be Marcus Jackson and Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, and you can learn more about them on the FP website. I'm on the road again today, so I need to stop chattering and get busy. For now, let me say I couldn't be happier about the prospects for this year's conference.

And it's a sunny day!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Here in western Massachusetts, the trees are bowed with snow, heavy as cake frosting. As the male cardinal at the bird feeder poses like a Christmas-card model, we stand at the window making personal comments about his wife's tangerine beak as we steadily consume all the coffee in the house. Everyone under the age of 21 is still asleep.

Today is one of those days when no one has anything to do but feels the necessity of inventing a plan. Such situations often lead families inexorably into bowling alleys. The rancor of yesterday's Monopoly game has probably faded by now. Still, no one has the stamina to repeat that experience more than once a year.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Saturday Night

Dawn Potter

Because, across a crowded table,
the man you have loved for twenty-five years
catches your eye and breaks into a smile
so bright it could light up the Yukon;

because, as you smile back through the candle flame,
your lanky fifteen-year-old leans all his wiry,
vibrating weight against your shoulder,
and your chair shudders and your neighbors laugh;

because when you put your arms around your boy
and press your cheek into his bristly hair,
he reaches for your hand and holds it against his own cheek
and doesn’t let you go;

because the man on the tiny stage dances
over the guitar strings as if his fat hands
are as fragile as the snowflakes
that sift slowly from the unseen sky;

because the crowd breathes alongside you
in easy patience, in careful, quiet joy;
because even time has paused
to shift its flanks and listen,

you say to yourself:
I will remember this.
I will remember this forever.


This poem, which has undergone numerous title changes, is included in Vocation, my most recent poetry manuscript. Though it was not originally composed as part of the western Pennsylvania series, I have at times reconfigured it to fit into that chronology. For the moment, however, I've let it slip more naturally into the music themes of Vocation. The collection, as it now stands, includes a number of poems that center on playing or listening to music--experiences that are not necessarily easy or delightful. But sometimes music and love do come together, and that is what I was trying to describe in "Saturday Night."

Happy Thanksgiving to you and to everyone you love. May you have warm hands and someone to hold them.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

You won't hear from me on Wednesday because I will be getting up at 3 a.m. in order to drive to Massachusetts in a snowstorm. Ugh.

The Death of the Heart

Following are three status posts that appeared on my Facebook wall this morning, responses to the grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot a young black man named Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri:
150 years ago, whites went to war to free the slaves. Fifty years ago, whites marched together with blacks to Washington to demand an end to segregation. We need to stand united once again. We need to show that this decision to not press charges [and] letting Wilson off was unacceptable. As a country, we are better than this. As people, we are better than this. We need to demand change. We need to use this as a rallying point to stand up not just for what we believe in, but what is right.
      --17-year-old white male, rural central Maine

Really disgusted with America right now. Darren Wilson deserved at least some form of punishment for killing an innocent teenager. Has society come to the point where killing someone doesn't matter if you're a white policeman? Is it a coincidence that the majority of votes needed was nine, and out of the twelve jury members, nine were white? When will race issues ever end?
    --17-year-old white female, rural central Maine

I am appalled and saddened by a society that allows a man to shoot an unarmed African American teenager and get away with it. Or all the other terrible murders/shooting that people have gotten away with because the victim was colored. I cannot wait for the day when the US is officially the land of freedom and equality for everybody regardless of gender, race, sexual preference, sexual orientation, gender identification, religion, rich or poor or whatever else you can think of. We are all human and we all should be treated equally and strive to treat others equally. Live by the Golden Rule; Treat people the way you want to be treated. 
      --19-year-old mixed-race male, rural central Maine
I think it's safe to say that, like most Americans, these three teenagers did not comb through witness testimony, watch hours of video footage, or conduct interviews with law enforcement and family members. They watched or listened to news highlights, glanced at Internet updates, saw selected photographs or video clips. What they (and I, and most likely you) absorbed was the bare bones of the situation, buffed up for generalized public consumption. Nonetheless, facts emerged from that disclarity: A police officer shot and killed a young man. The officer was white. The officer did not first attempt to subdue the young man with a taser or pepper spray or anything less than deadly force. The young man was unarmed. The young man was black.

Meanwhile, administrators at the University of Virginia are dealing with allegations of gang rape at a fraternity and tales of a longstanding rape culture at the university. Though the story that broke in Rolling Stone doesn't specifically describe the perpetrators, the student body portrayed in the article reeks of privilege. This issue doesn't end with UVA, of course: it's endemic, and it's not going away. In 1960 my mother was kidnapped by a fellow student at a small Christian college, driven to the town dump, and threatened with rape. In 2013, according to the Rolling Stone article, a Dartmouth University student posted a "how-to-rape guide" online. This weekend, you, too, can watch frat boys reeling through the college-town streets closest to you--drunk, rowdy, predatory, and mostly white. Will police officers shoot any of them? I'd say it's highly unlikely.

I went to college with a young man who grew up to become a prominent human-rights lawyer. He recently visited Ferguson, where I'm sure he did comb through witness testimony and watch hours of video footage and do all of the things that the rest of us have not. Yet this was his Facebook status after the grand-jury decision was announced:
This empty feeling in your stomach right now happens when justice is sorely lacking . . .
His reaction to the decision in the Ferguson case was not so different from the reactions of the three rural Maine teenagers. Something, somewhere, somehow, had gone wrong. Or had stayed wrong. Once again, a young black man had paid the price for being a young black man. Rather than giving him the benefit of the doubt--perhaps paternally remarking, "Aw, he's just being a regular kid," or, in a more hopeful scenario, asking, "I wonder if that kid's had too much to drink and ought to go the hospital," the officer killed him.

So now a young man is dead, for no particular reason, other than being foolish in public. Meanwhile, another foolish young man on the street has broken a beer bottle against the face of the young woman who dared to tell a reporter that she had been raped at a frat party. As far as I know, he's still alive and partying.

This morning, in a comment on one of the teenagers' posts about the grand-jury decision, someone wrote, "You're too young become a cynic." That remark made me as angry as anything else I'd been reading. Sure, all three kids simplified the current situation, simplified history, simplified justice and morality. Yet they are not cynics but idealists, and their idealism has been crushed. The same goes for the woman who had the bottle broken against her face. She thought she was going on a date with a handsome, friendly guy. It never occurred to her that he was purposely setting her up for a gang rape. Would it have occurred to you?
Two weeks after Jackie's rape, she ran into Drew during her lifeguard shift at the UVA pool. "Hey, Jackie," Drew said, startling her. "Are you ignoring me?" She'd switched her shift in the hopes of never seeing him again. Since the Phi Kappa Psi party, she'd barely left her dorm room, fearful of glimpsing one of her attackers. Jackie stared at Drew, unable to speak. "I wanted to thank you for the other night," Drew said. "I had a great time."
After the decision not to indict, Michael Brown's parents released a statement through their lawyers:
We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions. While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen. Join with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera. We respectfully ask that you please keep your protests peaceful. Answering violence with violence is not the appropriate reaction. Let's not just make noise, let's make a difference.
Idealism is not dead, at least not insofar as public statements go. Brown's parents are maintaining their dignity; they are trying to help the rest of us angry onlookers maintain ours. But their lives have been ruined. How could they not be? Their child, scarcely older than the three teenagers I have quoted, was murdered. Nothing will stanch that wound. Jackie, thank goodness, is still alive. But I wonder how her parents felt when they read the description of her rape, when they saw the "blood-red bruise around her eye," relic of that broken bottle. The heart is fragile, and death isn't the only way to kill it.

Monday, November 24, 2014


The only good thing about this adventure will be the TEENAGER. But he will be hungry, so we will have to eat MALL FOOD.


See you on the other side.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Letter from the 142nd Pennsylvania Infantry (1862)

Dawn Potter

I received the sad intelligence
Of Juliet’s demise.
That sweet good girl now peaceful sleeps,
At rest in Paradise.

We lay last night in Snickers Gap,
Endured a foul brass band.
Midst sharps and flats, I wrote to Jane;
My friends and I shook hands.

We hope that we shall meet again
As victors on the field.
Without a faith in God above
What thorns this life would yield.

Our cavalcade has halted
In a meadow by a stream.
Two drovers work to drown a mule.
We listen to it scream.


This is one of the "Chestnut Ridge" poems I've included in my new manuscript, Vocation. Along with incorporating mid-nineteenth-century-esque rhythm, rhyme, and themes, the poem borrows incidents from a collection of Civil War-era letters:  Extracts from the Letters of Alfred B. McCalmont, Late Lt.-Col., 142d Regt., Col. 208th Regt., and Brev. Brig.-Gen. Pennsylvania Volunteers, from the Front during the War of the Rebellion, which were privately published by McCalmont's family in 1908. I have not been able to ascertain where McCalmont himself was from, but the regiment drew recruits from many western Pennsylvania counties, among them Fayette, Somerset, and Westmoreland. McCalmont took command of the regiment at Gettysburg, after the colonel fell, and led the men through many terrible battles, including those at Spotsylvania and the Wilderness. The regiment was present at Appomattox, when Lee surrendered.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Eight degrees outside this morning, but the house is warm and the coffee is strong and hot. Paul's school is closed all next week, so the holiday starts today--not that I'm doing anything special this morning other than getting my hair cut. Still, I have a warm happy feeling about not getting up at 5:30 a.m., starting a fire, waking the boy, heating up his breakfast, packing his lunch, and rushing around the house with him as he helplessly hunts down his phonerunningshoeslatinhomeworkmandolinpickipadwintercoatetcetera.

I invented a pie yesterday that turned out rather well--a pumpkin-ricotta pie, though I used winter squash instead of pumpkin because that's what was sitting on the counter asking to be eaten. Basically, after baking and straining the squash, I followed a regular pumpkin pie recipe but substituted 1 cup of ricotta and 1/2 cup of milk for the usual 1 1/2 cups of milk. I also made sure to whip the ricotta, squash, and sugar thoroughly with an electric mixer before adding the eggs, milk, and spices. This gets rid of the cottage-cheesy lumps and turns the mixture into something resembling cannoli filling, which is a much more delightful texture. I pour the filling into an unbaked pie shell and baked it as I would any other pumpkin pie. The result was a delicate amalgam of custard and cheesecake, pumpkin-flavored and not at all heavy.

In other news: I am recovering from complex and vivid dreams involving New Jersey, a motel room, outlaws wearing thick plastic-rimmed glasses, four oddly shaped personal watercraft, a cocktail party, and the high seas.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Lately I've had a few people ask me to write up proposals for a possible lyric essay workshop. I led one a couple of years ago in Portland, under the auspices of the Maine Writers and Publisher Alliance; and I am now booked to lead another--in early June, way, way downeast at the Cobscook Community Learning Center in Trescott.

I enjoy teaching this class: for me, it's a way to examine the distinctions and connections between my urge to write poetry and my urge to write prose. However, most of the people who sign up for it do not think of themselves as poets, which is to say they tend to come to lyric prose from informational prose, whereas I am coming to lyric prose from narrative-lyric poetry. So the conversations are interesting . . . as is the fact that a poet keeps getting hired to teach prose. I think that's a financial decision, at least to a certain extent. In Maine, prose writers are more likely than poets to sign up for writing workshops. Are there more prose writers? Or are poets just too poor or iconoclastic to consider signing up?

Anyway: if you're interested in having me lead an lyric essay workshop (in or outside of school) or you have access to a venue that might host one, let me know because I am on a proposal-writing roll.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

This morning I'm headed south to visit a university English class--reading some poems, answering some questions, that sort of thing. Apparently a number of the students are under the impression that all of my poems are deeply coded symbols for SEX!SEX!SEX! so the visit should be interesting.

[P.S. When I mentioned the class's assumptions to my husband, he said, "Well, aren't they?"]

We played with her cat and it fell asleep. We
seem very mild. It's humid out. (Are they spelled "dikes"?)
People say they are Bacchantes, but if they are 
we must be the survivors of Thermopylae. 
--from "Poem" by Frank O'Hara]

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ten degrees this morning, but nothing daunts Ruckus. He bounces into the house after his morning constitutional, blue-eyed and beaming, his white pelt as fluffed and dense as an ermine's--a cat who has lucked into the best of all possible worlds: shrews and songbirds in the forest, wood heat and a homemade cardboard-box playhouse (with windows and a front porch!) in the living room. He runs over to me, puts up his paws to be carried, rubs his ears into my hair to warm them up, wriggles down again, rushes over to Anna's breakfast dish and licks up her leftover gravy (while carefully avoiding the carrots), whizzes upstairs to jump on my keyboard while I'm typing, gets pushed off, sharpens his claws on my violin case, gets yelled at and chased down the stairs, which is exactly his goal, because now I'm going to let him outside again so that he can go back to prowling around among the shrubs and stones doing Top Secret Cat Stuff. This will all be repeated in about 45 minutes.

Writing of his cat Jeoffry, eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart said: "For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life"; "For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he's a good Cat." This is blatant cat propaganda; I daresay mole- or chickadee-centered poetry would tell a different story. Nonetheless, like Smart, I am susceptible to the way Ruckus "brisk[s] about the life."
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
It is good to imagine an eighteenth-century man, on his knees in a flagged, rushlit kitchen, tossing a cork to his cat, and laughing, and tossing it again. His poem is like a cat video in words. "Spraggle upon waggle"! Ruckus can do that too!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

It's amazing how much time and energy the satellite tasks of being a writer can absorb. With a bit of an editing hiatus this week, I've finally been able to turn my attention to stuff such as submitting proposals for workshops, setting up readings, consulting with Tom about new author photos, submitting Same Old Story to contests, doing Frost Place paperwork, finishing up last-minute permissions issues with The Conversation, making an index for The Conversation, and so on and so on. This is the stuff that writers who earn money hand over to their assistants, but I am my own assistant, which is kind of like being my own grandpa insofar as I feel like I am churning around in circles instead of advancing into stately professionalism.

Ah, well. At least my desk is a lot cleaner than it was two days ago.

Monday, November 17, 2014

For close to 20 years I've been an active member of our local food coop. I even have a job title: mailing and truck coordinator. Thus, four times a year, I drive over to the Wellington Fire Station to meet the distributor's truck and unload boxes of food. This means that every three months, in blizzard and in flood, the driver and I hang out together for 15 minutes. So we have gotten quite friendly while knowing absolutely nothing about each other.

Last Friday, as we were unloading boxes, I asked him how often he drove up to Maine from the distributor's headquarters in southern New Hampshire. "Once a week," he said. "Every week I head to a different region."

"That's a lot of driving around on bleak Maine roads," I said.

"But it's okay," he assured me, "because I have a good audiobook."

It turns out that recently, while driving along the glowering seacoast and desolate blueberry barrens of Washington County, he'd started listening to a history of the Comanches, "and now I can't wait to get back into the truck and learn more, like for instance, let me tell you about how they got their horses. . . . "

For the rest of the day, I felt downright jubilant. The next long-haul driver you pass on Route 95, that guy sitting up there in the cab? Well, that guy, he could be dreaming of the Comanches. Doesn't the picture make you happy?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

I've spent the past two evenings sitting on a plastic chair in a high school gym watching my son swagger around the stage in a fedora, enacting his role as sexy 20s crime boss in this year's school musical. It is a bemusing position to be in, and I suspect the parents of the girl who played the demimonde vamp had similar feelings. Here we are, sitting in an audience, watching our children perform roles in which they are dolled up to entice. With his long curls and his smoldering glare, his pinstriped suit and his fur-trimmed overcoat, my son looked like some sort of hybrid Johnny Depp/Red Hot Chili Peppers version of a gangster. But in real life he's a 17-year-old junior at a rural high school who coos over cats, hugs his mother every day, and still forgets to brush his teeth. He's also the same boy who paced around the kitchen in his bathrobe yesterday afternoon, orating an impassioned defense of nineteenth-century Kentucky senator Henry Clay along with a grouchy diatribe against present-day Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell. I said, "Honey, you write that all down, and I will publish it." My guess is that he'll get distracted by cat videos and cross-country running in the rain. But we can hope.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Eighteen degrees here this morning. There's no escaping winter now.

I spent most of yesterday working on a longer essay that fleshes out some of the thoughts in my recent posts about heroes and American individualism and the kinds of people we keep voting into office. I rather doubt anyone will publish such an amalgam of literature, political history, and personal reaction. But I seem to be on a roll with the topic; so I suppose I really ought to say, "Thank you, dear Maine governor, for chasing this bee into my bonnet."

Bad politics as a writing trigger: and why not? Try to imagine what Twain's books would have looked like if he hadn't spent most of his life being pissed off at public officials. Maybe we would have been stuck with a thousand versions of Tom whitewashing a fence. But fortunately we have this:
Sometimes, in the beginning of an insane and shabby political upheaval, [a citizen] is strongly moved to revolt, but he doesn't do it--he knows better. He knows that his maker would find out--the maker of his Patriotism, the windy and incoherent six-dollar sub-editor of his village newspaper--and would bray out in print and call him a Traitor. And how dreadful that would be. It makes him tuck his tail between his legs and shiver. We all know--the reader knows it quite well--that two or three years ago nine-tenths of the human tails in England and America performed just that act. Which is to say, nine-tenths of the Patriots in England and America turned Traitor to keep from being called Traitor. Isn't it true? You know it to be true. Isn't it curious? 
Yet it was not a thing to be very seriously ashamed of. 
--from Mark Twain's essay "As Regards Patriotism" (ca. 1900)

Friday, November 14, 2014

                                                   Quite swiftly
we move through our lives; swiftly, steadily the train
rocks and bounces onward through sleeping fields,
our unknown stillness
holding level as water sealed in a glass.

--from Denise Levertov's "Evening Train"

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Nationalism and Civility

The comments on yesterday's post as well as the private emails I have received make it clear that numbers of us are uncomfortable about the way in which words such as hero are reduced and commodified. I focused on Veterans Day, but I could have written a parallel essay about, say, football. Yet despite its absurdity and greed, the sports industry is at least forthrightly focused on entertainment. Manipulating language as a way to promote military prowess while masking its actuality is a darker endeavor.

The marketing of nationalism is not unique to either the United States or to our era in history. Look at any military culture at any time, and you'll find it: Bismarck's Germany, the Napoleonic wars, Saladin versus Richard the Lionheart, the Mongol invasions. . . . The list goes on and on. Still, Americans have a particular bent for jingoism and catchphrases, and this has been an element of our national personality since colonial days. Numbers of writers, from Horatio Alger, to Mark Twain, to Louisa May Alcott, to Walt Whitman, have captured the joy, cynicism, and naivete of the fast-talking, self-satisfied American striver; and visitors from other countries have been downright caustic about that persona. Consider the central character of Charles Dickens's novel Martin Chuzzlewit, a young Englishman who spends much of the book traveling around the United States. These scenes are comic syntheses of Dickens's own travels, which he chronicled in his journals and published as American Notes; and they are often painful to read. Dickens gleefully caricatures our national temperament, cramming the book with a chaos of carpetbaggers, tobacco chewers, suffragettes, and evangelical ministers, all of them trumpeting America's get-ahead pioneer spirit and scorning lily-livered, slowpoke, old Europe.

Dickens may have been mocking Americans, but he didn't lack models. As a nation, we still hang on to our foot-stomping, pioneer delusions, and outfits such as the National Rifle Association thrive on manipulating that image. This is nothing new; it's not even a secret. So why did I, and many of you, feel such diffidence about publicly discussing our misgivings about Veterans Day? For me, I think it comes down, in the end, to the simple fear of hurting someone else's feelings. Is that a cowardly response? A kind one? Or merely a weak one?

In a way my dilemma goes back to the split that Dickens describes in Martin Chuzzlewit: a pack of get-ahead, speak-your-mind Americans versus one thoughtful, well-mannered, somewhat bewildered English gentleman. Dickens would be the last person to claim that every Briton is a model citizen. But I think his point in this novel is to highlight the difficult tension between thoughtless nationalism and individual civility. Those of us who feel driven to chronicle what we see must contend with the fact that what we see is constantly contradicting itself. Those crowds of gun-toting, Obama-bashing anti-intellectuals break down into real people: into the man who responded to the car accident on the Ripley Road; into the neighbor whose child died of cancer; into the night-shift factory worker who drove my son home after theater practice.

Truth has so many faces. We must deal with the both/and, not the either/or, and this makes every word more dangerous--a destroyer, a divider, a knife--whether or not we believe in, or trust, its altruistic urgency.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Who Are the Heroes?

The date that we now call Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day. In other words, a holiday that was founded to mark the end of a war has somehow been co-opted into a day of military propaganda. This makes me angry, and I wonder why it doesn't seem to make other people angry as well.

Contrary to popular belief, I don't think that every person who has served in the military is a hero. Signing up for the army because you can't afford to pay for college, or because your parents say, "The discipline will shape you up, and you can learn some work skills and get good insurance," does not make you a hero. It does suggest that you are a young person who is trying to figure out how to become an adult, and that, as far as I am concerned, is an honorable and fascinating and sympathetic and eminently human position to be in. Nor does killing a swath of government enemies on someone else's order make you a hero, though it does dramatically complicate your moral, emotional, and intellectual obligations and impulses. Yes, sometimes individuals in the military do undertake specific heroic actions. Some may become longterm models and sources of support for those around them, and that is heroic work too. But they aren't heroes because they have served in the military. They are heroes because their acts of physical or social bravery specifically helped others who desperately needed that aid.

One might argue that military personnel face the possibility and presence of death in ways that make them uniquely heroic. But even if I set aside the fact that most career service members have non-combat jobs, a focus on military service as the ultimate heroism gives us latitude to ignore the perilous work of, say, public health doctors, not to mention the contributions of coal miners and uranium millers, who die every day so that we can keep our refrigerators cold.

Heroes live all kinds of lives. Some are poets, and some are clerks, and some are homeless people, and some are teachers, and some are social workers, and some are sisters, and some are soldiers, and some are ambulance drivers, and some are cartoonists, and some are ministers, and some are atheists, and some are kids on a playground. Why not call the holiday Heroes Day and celebrate all of them?

I feel a lot of bitterness about the way in which the military, over the thousands of years it has existed on this planet, across so many cultures and nations, has repeatedly lured young people into sacrificing their own humanity for the sake of someone else's political and financial gain. I'm not claiming that I have a solution. I don't see how an empire the size of ours can not have an army, and I also don't believe that an American president should ignore situations of genocide beyond our borders. In moral terms, withholding aid may be worse than sending in troops.

There is no right answer because all of the answers are complex and ambiguous. The situation is not heroic.

In 1968 my father's younger brother, Paul, went to Vietnam. Paul was a regular central Jersey farm boy--blond, cheerful, not too interested in school. So when his grades at Rutgers started to slide, my exasperated grandparents pushed him to join the army. He went over as a lieutenant, and in the photos taken before he left he is nervous, chunky, baby-faced. The hat of his dress uniform looks stiff enough to rub blisters.

I was only four years old, but I remember the tears when he left, and later I remember singing songs from The Music Man into a tape recorder so that he could listen to them in the jungle. I wonder if he liked listening to them, or if playing back those tapes was too embarrassing, or distressing. Or maybe the world back home seemed so detached from his present life that he could not even push the play button.

The North Vietnamese dropped a bomb on Paul's barracks. He was killed while he was sleeping. This was not a heroic death. It was just a death--an unnecessary death, a stupid death, one that damaged his brother's relationship to his parents, one that scarred the small nieces and nephews who had learned to love him. His death was a tragedy, as the death of Hamlet's father is a tragedy: which is to say, it reconfigured the bonds of the living; and those reconfigurations created ripples of anger, guilt, grief, led to repressions and explosions, redirected the futures of every player on the family stage.

I loved my fun uncle--that big boy who teased me and played with me and held me on his lap and consumed a ridiculous amount of food at dinner. I miss him, and I honor his memory; but his death saved nobody, and calling him a hero masks rather than illuminates his life.

Yesterday Facebook overflowed with portraits of military family members along with expressions of pride and gratefulness. It was moving, yes, to feel that commonality of emotion. The photographs kindled and rekindled love, and also amazement at the youth of the faces, and also fear, and also grief. These are noble sentiments, and they cross within and beyond the uniforms those children were wearing. Why not call the holiday Admiration Day and sing out our love for all of our families and ancestors?

On October 13, 1915, Scottish poet Charles Hamilton Sorley, a captain in the British army, was shot in the head by a German sniper, years before anyone dared to think about an armistice day. According to Wikipedia, his favorite activity as a high schooler was "cross-country running in the rain," an image that makes me want to cry. In his memoir Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves spoke of Sorley as one of the three most important poets of World War I, alongside Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg.

Charles Hamilton Sorley 
Such, such is Death: no triumph: no defeat:
Only an empty pail, a slate rubbed clean,
A merciful putting away of what has been. 
And this we know: Death is not Life effete,
Life crushed, the broken pail. We who have seen
So marvellous things know well the end not yet. 
Victor and vanquished are a-one in death:
Coward and brave: friend, foe. Ghosts do not say
"Come, what was your record when you drew breath?"
But a big blot has hid each yesterday
So poor, so manifestly incomplete.
And your bright Promise, withered long and sped,
Is touched, stirs, rises, opens and grows sweet
And blossoms and is you, when you are dead.
12 June 1915 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

I woke up early this morning with this poem in my head. It's in the new manuscript, so of course I've been rereading it fervently along with the rest of the collection. But I couldn't figure out why it might be niggling at me more than the other poems were. And then I remembered that, as I was driving to Dover last night to pick up kids after theater practice, I was listening to a Fresh Air interview with an accordion player. The songs mentioned in this poem are all polkas, so perhaps that was the dream link. On the other hand, its bossiness might be linked to an acquaintance's request to send her some poems about aging that she can use in her work with nursing-home residents. I hadn't intended to send her any of my own poems, but maybe this poem was telling me that I should.

Mill Hunky

Dawn Potter

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

Last night, as I lay in the tub recovering from Firewood Weekend, I was reading a New Yorker article about a playwright I'd never heard of before and whose plays I will probably never see. I soon realized that if this article (written by Alec Wilkinson) was trying to make me very interested in Jez Butterworth's plays, then it was failing because I really couldn't quite figure out what they were about (though lying in hot water after a long day of stacking wood may have had something to do with that fog). However, it did make me very interested in Butterworth as a guy to hang out with because it was sprinkled with numerous intense remarks about other artists' struggles to make art--or to deal with not making it. For instance:
Butterworth quoted Harold Pinter, with whom he'd grown very close. Pinter, who died in 2008, once said that "when you can't write, you feel you've been banished from yourself."
And this:
He recalled watching a Miles Davis interview on YouTube, in which the jazz legend was asked how, having spent years in the seventies doing pretty much nothing, he had managed to return to work: "And he said 'Dizzy Gillespie came round my house and said "What the fuck are you doing?" and I went back to work.'" Butterworth laughed. "I just loved the idea that it's that simple."
And also this:
A few years ago, Butterworth went to an exhibition of Robert Capa photos in New York. Capa's contact sheets were on display, and you could see the pictures leading up to each famous shot. The differences between photos came down to a matter of milliseconds, yet, Butterworth said, "the one before, that is so nearly the shot that rings like a bell forever," had no resonance at all. "And it taught me something about the difference between nearly and really. Those days when you're looking at a page and thinking this is an imitation of itself--it could be as close as the frame before the actual one, and it's nothing. It's nothing."
Here's his reaction to listening to his friend, the Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance, read Ted Hughes's poem "Daffodils" aloud:
It had such a fundamental effect on the play [Butterworth was trying to write, Jerusalem], because you were suddenly aware of what this person was capable of. You knew the second that it began that what you were hearing was the poem; it was the clearest transmission. It came through on the clearest frequency, and I had never experienced anything like it in my life. It was like hearing Aretha Franklin sing.
Yet even though he seems to have spent much of his interview with Wilkinson acknowledging the power of influence, he was also able to speak precisely about its dangers, especially those that emanate from the work of an admired and well-loved mentor. For we can love our mentors too much; we can begin to pretend that their vision of the world is our own. And it never is.
He says Pinter's friendship was as important to him as Pinter's work, yet he acknowledges that he went through a Pinter "phase," something he was glad to emerge from. "Harold was such an inspiring man and guiding light, and so relentlessly himself. But a play like 'The Homecoming' is fucking horrible--what that is saying about relationships and people. It's unbelievable and brilliant, and so true. But, Christ, it is horrible."
Still, my favorite anecdote appears in the article's final paragraph, when Butterworth is shrugging about the likelihood that audiences will be disappointed by the modesty of his newest play, The River. His remarks are a good reminder that we have to stay attentive to the shifts in our creative paths. It's not our job to give the audience what it expects but to open a door and ask them to walk through it.
Quite apart from taking pride in the show, Butterworth is pleased with [the play] for reasons of perversity. He talked about Neil Young, one of his musical heroes, following up his hit album of 1972, "Harvest," with a series of more muted records, among them "Tonight's the Night." He said, "He's playing 'Tonight's the Night' to an English audience, and they're screaming at him for songs off 'Harvest' and they're all off  'Tonight's the Night,' and at the end he goes, 'I'm going to play you something you've heard before,' and they all cheer, and he played 'Tonight's the Night' again."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

It's eight o'clock on a Sunday morning, and I am sitting at the kitchen table rereading my poem "Mr. Kowalski" and thinking, My god, did I really write this?

Something about that poem feels like an out-of-body experience. I know I wrote it, I know I struggled over it, but where the hell did it come from?

Imagine me spending day 2 of Firewood Weekend stacking log after log, miming friendly commentary to deafened Tom who is running the splitter, running in and out of the house to check on the rising bread, speeding up to Dover to bring Paul home, unloading groceries, stacking wood, spelling Tom for an hour or so at the splitter, bossing Paul into stacking wood . . . and all the while wondering, My god, did I really write that?

Saturday, November 8, 2014

As I mentioned earlier this week, the new poetry manuscript I'll be submitting to my publisher includes a sheaf of western Pennsylvania poems, many of which were triggered by historical anecdotes and include details or language from those sources. So I spent much of yesterday typing out a list of source notes to include with the manuscript . . . though I do always wonder: does anybody other than me care about citations in a work of fiction?

I'm always very interested in finding out where a writer's ideas come from, but at the same time I understand that those sources aren't necessarily central to the imaginative essence of the poem or the novel. Peter Mathiessen's Shadow Country may circle an actual series of events, but the beauty and intensity of that book arise from the way in which the writer elaborated on the facts. Likewise, Ford Madox Ford's trilogy The Fifth Queen, a gorgeous and tragic evocation of the marriage of Henry VIII and Katherine Howard,  is more or less a complete lie, though the characters did exist as historical figures. Ford did not feel the need to include a list of "books I have read about the Tudors" at the end of his trilogy: but to tell the truth, I wish he had included a list so that I could search them out and read what he was reading in the months before his novels came to life, when the ideas were still fermenting in his mind.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Rain again, with a prospect of snow.

Orange flames lick at the blurred window of the wood stove. The lamps expel circles of gold into the browning air, whose color is the absence of sun in a room that stares north into a thicket of autumn olive, into crazed bare-limbed lilac. Behind their clutter, a pine forest looms like a siege.

At random, I open Milosz's Treatise on Poetry, and he tells me:
Spirits of the air, of fire, of water,
Keep close to us, but not too close.
His lines are like arrows, and he shoots to kill. The spirits waver in the northlight--masked but half-recognizable, crowding me, as lake mist crowds a solitary canoe, as guilt crowds an unremembered dream.

The Husbands

Dawn Potter

Their work boots were filmed with grease,
and their faces were weary.
They never showed up till the fourth inning.
Knees spread, they let themselves rest
on chairs beside the gravel-pocked ball field;
and when the women hollered, “Good eye, honey!”
at a tearful, trembling batter,
the men smiled like gentle but distracted strangers.

In their houses, a drawer slammed,
a kettle boiled, a hound twitched on the mat.
Televisions gabbled,
and the husbands pined for a secret world.
One drove six hours in dense fog
to a motel in Mississauga
instead of sitting down to supper.
Another stayed up till dawn
picking out “Night of the Johnstown Flood”
on his mother-in-law’s old guitar.

They fumbled with their sadness,
but nothing changed.
Women still clustered along the ball field
sharing packs of licorice, cat-calling the ump,
cheering at bloop singles and horrible throws to first.
The women behaved as if they had front-row tickets
to something magnificent and vital,
but the husbands couldn’t see, couldn’t quite see.

They raised their eyes toward the blackening sky
where swallows wheeled among the mosquitoes.
A child hacked at a pitch,
and the men’s thoughts clung to emptiness.
No one cried, “Cross out this life
that batters you down, and down, and down!”
Like chairs left in the rain for twenty years,
they sat.
Then one day their knees snapped
and they toppled into the flood.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

For months now I have been wrestling with my western Pennsylvania manuscript--organizing, reorganizing; inserting, deleting; breaking it into sections and different sections and different sections. Nothing has been right; nothing has worked. As a group, the poems are unwieldy, disjointed, clumsy; and trying to collect them into any kind of order has been an exercise in despair.

It is hard to give up on a project that has been so vital to me. But last week, I admitted to myself that these poems cannot all be in the same book. I sat at the kitchen table, staring at the stacks, and thought, What's next?

And then I thought of my chapbook manuscript, Vocation, the one that was a prize finalist earlier this year. I took it out of storage and looked through it. My organization strategy had been to alternate several Pennsylvania and non-Pennsylvania poems, following a thematic thread of work in all of its ambiguities--joy, desperation, weariness, illness, destruction, and so on. Since putting together that chapbook, I'd written a number of other non-Pennsylvania poems. So using the chapbook as a template, I began creating a longer version of that original alternating manuscript. Now I began to understand that common subject matter was crossing back and forth among both kinds of poems, despite their historical separations: music, violence, baseball, obsession, time. I began to see a book.

The upshot: I have a new poetry collection, one that I am ready to ask my publisher to read. And if any of you are interested in being thoughtful early critics of its content and order, I would be happy and grateful.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Power, Responsibility, Creation, Change

Anyone living outside Maine must think Mainers are idiots. [We are.] Anyone living outside the United States must think Americans are idiots. [We are.]

Every news outlet is bombarding us with the vengeful, gloating greed of this season's political marionettes, who (under the guidance of their billionaire string pullers) have managed to thwart and bamboozle a depressed electorate into damaging its own best interests. But that is all I will say about yesterday, because now I'm going to press myself to focus on where I do have power, hard as that is to envision this morning.

And I hope you're focusing on your own power too. I hope you're calling on your righteous role as a citizen of the world, as a person who ponders conundrums, as a person who understands both/and, not just either/or. I hope you're calling on your strength as a person who pities and embraces and forgives and gets angry and stands up and shouts and speaks the truth.

I look at myself, and I know have the power to see and hear and feel. I know I have the power to write cogently about what I have witnessed. I know I have the power to convince at least a few other people to read or listen to what I have written. So on this gloomy, heartbreaking morning, I promise that I am going to keep watching and writing and talking and listening and feeling. I promise that I will chronicle the sweetness and the terror, the decay and the beauty. I promise that I will say what needs to be said--as clearly, as sharply, as imperatively, as I possibly can.

I promise to remember what the great Audre Lorde said in her 1978 speech, "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power":
It is never easy to demand the most from ourselves, from our lives, from our work. To encourage excellence is to go beyond the encouraged mediocrity of our society. But giving in to the fear of feeling and working to capacity is a luxury only the unintentional can afford, and the unintentional are those who do not wish to guide their own destinies.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The temperature is 25 degrees this morning, and the ground is still patched with snow from Sunday's storm. My garden is done for: the wet snow has smashed the last few fall greens into pulp. The storm coincided with the clock shift, so now it really does feel like winter: darkness creeping in at four in the afternoon, a fire burning all day in the stove, lamplight glinting on snow crystals, a flock of juncos fluttering up from the driveway. It's time for me to start thinking about baking Emily Dickinson's black cake.

I am not very like Dickinson. She was tiny and I am tall. She lived in a big brick house in the middle of town. I live in a small aluminum-sided house in the middle of nowhere. She was a spider in her web, waiting for vibrations, then biting. I am more like a chipmunk running back and forth, back and forth, back forth, in and out of my hole, my cheeks crammed with sunflower seeds. Notice, however, how interested we both are in food. Also, a cat might eat either of us.
Drama's Vitallest Expression is the Common Day
That arise and set about Us--
Other Tragedy

Monday, November 3, 2014

What a bizarre storm! Wind, sleet, snow, sleet, wind; trees and power lines down everywhere, except for in our yard. We had just one power flicker and were otherwise unscathed--most likely because Tom had already cut down a couple of failing maples earlier this fall. But people all over town are still without power, and I have seen many photos of trees blocking roads. The worst story I have heard is from an acquaintance who was trapped in an ambulance between two sets of downed power lines while trying to get her son into Bangor for an emergency appendectomy. (Thankfully, they got him into surgery just in time, and he will be fine.)

I am glad we got this storm out of the way before Tuesday. We're dealing with one of those every-single-vote-counts governor's races, though why anyone would even consider voting to reelect the nation's most embarrassing governor is beyond me. Meanwhile, the Democrat and the Independent, who are more or less the same boring guy dressed in slightly different ties, risk canceling one another out, though the Independent has mentioned that his followers should feel free to vote for someone else if they think he can't win . . . which he can't. This race is like a dull headache that won't go away. I'd like to think that Governor Loudmouth's Christie-esque hijinx with that sassy Fort Kent nurse did him some damage, but an irrational fear of illness doesn't follow party lines. I have heard more than one liberal say, "Well, to give him credit, you can't be too careful," which by the way is bullshit, because you can be too careful and end up damaging not only individual lives and reputations but also the necessary and heroic response of specialists among people who really are living in terror.

I hope your state is in a better mood than mine is.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

I apologize for not writing yesterday, but I was on the road early, heading west to Farmington for a whirlwind filming session. Wes McNair, the state's poet laureate, had invited a dozen or so Maine poets to read two poems for the camera and then informally answer two questions about poetic influence. Eventually edited versions of these videos will appear on a website called Poets in Public, a project linked to Wes's Take Heart newspaper column, which is a Maine-based version of Ted Kooser's American Life in Poetry. So on a rainy Saturday morning, in the darkened halls of a mostly empty state university building, I kept running into poets I knew, who were likewise gently pacing the dim corridors, staring around in bemusement and curiosity while also worrying about their hair. It was kind of comic.

The timing of the sessions was fortuitous, weather-wise. Today we are supposed to get smacked with our first winter storm--five to nine inches of heavy slush combined with strong winds and trees that are still carrying leaves . . . a guaranteed power outage, I'd say. So if you don't hear from me tomorrow morning, be assured that the wood stove is burning brightly, the kettle is steaming on the gas range, the candles are lit, and we are spending a pleasant few hours around the kitchen table peering at the dim reflections of Scrabble tiles. Here's hoping the off-the-grid bliss doesn't devolve into no water and a warming freezer. That always takes the shine off the candle fun.

If I have power tomorrow, I might write an epistle to you about the Maine governor's race. Unless I find something better to write about.