Saturday, January 31, 2015

Well, we got another foot of snow last night. That makes a total of three feet so far this week. Although Paul has had only a day and half of school this week, he supposedly does have a track meet this afternoon; and if the Plow Guy doesn't appear promptly, Tom will be reenacting a Toyota truck commercial in our driveway.

I finished an editorial project on Friday, so next week I'll have a few days to call my own. I think I'll spend some of that time rethinking the order of my newest poetry and essay manuscripts. I think I'll also spend some of that time listening to music. I think a wash of sound may help me solve some of my manuscript questions, especially as regards the poetry collection.

Lately, among many other books, I've been reading the Aeneid. Poems like this make me ask why I even bother to try to read new poetry . . . let alone write it.

the sky and the earth and the flowing fields of the sea,
the shining orb of the moon and the Titan sun, the stars:
an inner spirit feeds them, coursing through all their limbs,
mind stirs the mass and their fusion brings the world to birth.
From their union springs the human race and the wild beasts,
the winged lives of birds and the wondrous monsters bred
below the glistening surface of the sea. The seeds of life--
fiery is their force, divine their birth, but they
are weighed down by the bodies' ills or dulled
by earthly limbs and flesh that's born for death.
That is the source of all men's fears and longings,
joys and sorrows, nor can they see the heavens' light,
shut up in the body's tomb, a prison dark and deep.
[translated by Robert Fagles] 

Friday, January 30, 2015

My son said, "Dawn, you should listen to Radiolab podcasts," so I said ok and downloaded a couple onto my phone so that I could listen to them in the car instead of late-night hockey games between teams I don't follow. I had no idea what any of the podcasts would be about: I just saw a name in the title I didn't recognize and thought, Oh, I'll learn about this person.

Mystery Subject Number 1 turned out to be "John Luther Adams." You cultured city folks might have heard of him, but I had no idea who he was. Turns out he is a composer, based in Alaska, who at first listen might sound as if he writes sort of Brian Eno-esque tone poemy stuff (ick), but in actuality creates hypnotizing, extraordinarily physical evocations of landscape. He won a 2014 Pulitzer for a piece called Become Ocean, composed for three orchestras playing at the same time. It is like listening to a peaceful bay turn into a tidal wave.

His early work includes a series called SongBirdSongs. When he spoke about the process of creating these pieces, he said he started out by going into the woods and "taking dictation from birds." As all my Frost Place friends know, dictation is one of our primary tools for entering poems. So listening to Adams talk about dictation in this way was extraordinary.

The Radiolab interview was in fact a pastiche of a longer WQXR interview, "John Luther Adams: Bad Decisions and Finding Home," which I'll be listening to the next time I get into the car.

Here's a link to some samples from the SongBirdSongs. The mourning dove evocation is particularly eloquent.

In other news: I dreamed I had three beautiful little Jersey cows, clean and calm, all lined up to be milked. I checked their udders and was just getting ready to go hunt down the milking machines when the alarm clock went off and I woke up. Tom assures me that dream cows do not need to be milked on a schedule like regular cows do, but I am still a little worried about them.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Today Vox Populi is featuring "Company Town," one of the poems from my western Pennsylvania project. In fact, the epigraph that opens the poem is what triggered the entire endeavor.

In 2011 I came across this obituary in the New York Times:
E. B. Leisenring Jr., the scion of a powerful Pennsylvania coal family who led industry negotiators during a long and bitter mine workers’ strike in 1978, ignoring pleas by President Jimmy Carter and helping to win a settlement that largely favored mine owners, died on March 2 at his winter home in Aiken, S.C. He was 85.
I was shocked to discover that he had been a real man because my only connection was with the word Leisenring on a road sign. It was the name of a coal-company town close to where my grandfather had lived, on the border of Fayette and Westmoreland counties. I had never thought of the name as human but as something mythic: the Ring of Nibelung, perhaps. So when I read the obituary, I suddenly recognized the huge hole in my understanding of a place that I had loved so intensely as a child. I had lived there in the present, with a small girl's concentrated obsession on the details of the moment: the one giant step that rose up in the middle of the flat stone walkway between the house and the barn; the scent of mallow, as I sat behind the well house and crushed the weed between my palms; how my index finger felt when Daisy the cow accidentally squashed it against the fence with her horn; what it was like to fall unexpectedly through a trapdoor.

Reading the obituary turned out to be a different sort of trapdoor.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

I haven't been outside yet, but I'm guessing we have 2 feet of snow out there, and, yes, it's still snowing, and the plow guy hasn't shown up yet, and, yes, Paul had school today because this is Maine.

The sky over the town of Guilford, Monday, as the storm clouds moved in

The sky over my road, Tuesday afternoon

How Ruckus weathered the storm

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The storm may have been a bust in New York City, but it's behaving as advertised here. The winds feel hurricane-force; the tiny icy snowflakes whip into my face like porcupine quills. On the road, visibility is close to zero, and that's while I'm standing still. Anyone who tries to drive in this storm is either an idiot or desperate. I have no idea how much accumulation we'll get. Even now the drifting is considerable, and it's only been snowing since dawn.

You're not looking at camera blur here. You're looking at snow. The air is so full that I could almost mistake the flakes for smoke.

The wind in the trees sounds like a train.

Anna suggests that we should shovel now.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Love Letter to the Snowstorm

My dear enormous snowstorm--

All winter I have been waiting for you, but only your icy sisters have visited, and they are difficult guests--slippery of tongue and foot, a pretense of volubility and thaw but, in truth, a perpetual and wearisome impenetrability. Even the cat slides down the hill.

Of course you, too, will be nothing but trouble. The electrical lines will whimper, and the town plow will, once again, toss our mailbox into the ditch. But you will be a joyous trouble, concealing your sisters' tracks, concealing everything under your optimism. White, you will sigh against the window, is more beautiful than green, and you will lure me to wade into the woods, and I will stand very still under the trees as the north wind shakes up its featherbeds and you swirl and sing among the gusts.

And then, when I wade back to the house, and light the candles you require, and move all the refrigerated items onto the porch to stay cold, and melt snow to wash dishes or flush the toilet, and then pour wine or hot tea and stand at the window, watching the day fade behind you, I will be so happy. I will think, What more do I need on earth?--what more than this circle of warmth, the scent of minestrone on the stove, enough to share with any lost traveler who stumbles into the lamplight of this way station in the forest. No one will stumble in, of course. But dear enormous snowstorm, you will allow such a fairy tale to shimmer, and I will love to live in your story.

Your friend,


P.S. If you make me drive in you, I will hate you with all the hate in my heart.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday Morning: Frost, Lowell, Levertov, Milosz, Whitman

From "Robert Frost: 1875-1963" by Robert Lowell

The thinker and poet that most influenced [Frost] was Emerson. Both had something of the same highly urbane yet homemade finish and something of the same knack for verbal discovery. Both went about talking. Both leaned on and defied the colleges. A few of their poems are almost interchangeable. . . . Part of Frost was wary of Emerson. "Great is the art / Great shall be the manners of the bard." He knew better than anyone that his neighbors would find this manner boring and insufferable. He tried to make himself a man of many ruses, subtle surprises, and weathered agility. He was almost a farmer. Yet under the camouflage there was always the Brahma crouching, a Whitman, a great-mannered bard. If God had stood in his sunlight, he would have elbowed God away with a thrust or a joke.

Lines that cling: "He knew better than anyone that his neighbors would find this manner boring and insufferable." "He was almost a farmer." "If God had stood in his sunlight, he would have elbowed God away with a thrust or a joke." 
My neighbors are Frost's neighbors. I know what it is like to "make myself a [woman] of many ruses, subtle surprises, and weathered agility." I don't know what it is like to be a bard. But how many woman bards can you name? Is that a loss to the world? Or do our voices simply have a different potential for power?

From "Overland to the Islands" by Denise Levertov

Let's go--much as that dog goes,
intently haphazard.

The bard Whitman was the emperor of "intently haphazard." Was Frost? I'm less sure. Was Levertov? Perhaps she saw it as the way, but could not follow it with every cell of her body.

From "Abecadlo Milosza" by Czeslaw Milozz

No one will learn about Frost's own wounds and tragedies by reading his poetry; he left no clues. An appalling chain of misfortunes, numerous deaths in the family, madness, suicides, and silence about this, as if confirming his Puritan heritage, which demands that one conceal what is private behind a stoic facade. The worst part of all this is that in concerning oneself with him one is menaced by a sense of one's own particular existence. If the boundaries of the human personality are so fluid that we truly do not know who we are and are constantly trying on different changes of costume, how did Frost manage? It is impossible to grasp who he really was, aside from his unswerving striving toward his goal of fame, in an attempt to exact revenge for his own defeats in life.

I confess that I do not like his poetry.

"In concerning oneself with him one is menaced by a sense of one's own particular existence." I did not like Frost's poetry, until I was old enough to stare into that menace. Milosz's dislike is different: "I . . . am absolutely on Walt Whitman's side," he writes. But I don't see the two sides as entirely opposed.

From "The Most of It" by Robert Frost

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.


From "Whispers of Heavenly Death" by Walt Whitman

I need no assurances, I am a man who is pre-occupied of his own soul.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

After Robert Frost's death, Robert Lowell wrote an obituary of sorts, which appeared in the New York Review of Books in 1963 and in my mailbox yesterday. This morning, when I wrote to my friend Baron to thank him for the gift, I said, "All through it runs that sense that Lowell didn't quite know what to make of Frost, even as he identified so many details and connections. It's so interesting how the ambiguities of the man cohere with the ambiguities of the poems . . . the discomfort doesn't go away."

Here's a bit of what Lowell had to say.

The arts do not progress but move along by surges and sags. Frost, born in 1875, was our last poet who could honestly ignore the new techniques that were to shatter the crust. He understood the use of tools, often wonderful tools, that five or ten years later would be forever obsolete. . . . 
Frost had a hundred years' tradition he could accept without question, yet he had to teach himself everything. Excellence had left the old poetry. Like the New England countryside, it had run through its soil and had been dead a long time. Frost rebuilt both the soil and the poetry: by edging deeper into the country and its people, he found he was possessed by the old style. . . . Step by step he had tested his observation of places and people until his best poems had the human and seen richness of great novels. No one had helped him to learn, and now no one could because no one wrote better.

Friday, January 23, 2015

I have spent the week coddling a cold-ridden child through his exam week, and I am tired. You know how it is.

I also spent the week finishing up a new essay while ducking a barrage of rejection letters for poems that I know are good. The intersection was disheartening, and I had a hard time staying concentrated on making new work . . . not that I didn't persevere, but you know what I mean.

On the bright side, I'll be teaching my lyric essay workshop in New Hampshire this spring, so that makes three different venues. On the bright side, the dog will enjoy riding in the car on the way to getting her rabies shot, and the main roads will be clear of ice and snow, and a classic Wu-Tang Clan album has mysteriously downloaded onto my phone.

On the bright side, my child was grateful for the coddling, and the temperature outside is several degrees above zero, and my haircut is more or less okay. And the essay came out well, though it made me sad to write it, which accounts, I think, for today's residual sadness. Writing is not a way to feel better about the world, but it is a way to feel.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

from Abecadlo Milosza by Czeslaw Milosz 

My grandparents took me along once on a visit to Suryszki. The manor belonged to the Kudrewiczes. They are an old noble family, probably of Lithuanian descent, because the word kudra means "pond" in that language. I was, I think, eight years old. The old folks gossiped and entrusted me to a young girl, who was to show me the park. We walked along the paths, crossed some little bridges which had railings made of birch poles—I remember that well. Then it happened. I looked at her thin bare shoulders, the narrowness of her arms above the elbow, and an emotion I had never experienced, a tenderness, a rapture, unnamable, welled up in my throat. I had no idea that this is called love. I think she must have said something, explaining, but I said not a word, struck dumb by what had suddenly come over me.

She surely had a name, but I have no idea what it was. No doubt she, like her entire family, was deported to Siberia in 1940. What happened to her?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Lessons from Reading a Fairy Tale

For Christmas I gave Paul a copy of The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers' Grimm: The Complete First Edition, which Princeton University Press has just released. The edition includes amazingly beautiful paper-cut illustrations and is altogether delightful, and finally I couldn't resist anymore and have started reading it myself.

One thing I love about fairy tales is the complete lack of back story and character development. People make strange decisions and meet strange people. Classes mix with impunity. Punishments are dire but matter-of-fact. Yet there's so much to learn about the human mind.

Take "The Carnation," the story I read over breakfast. It's a very short tale, no more than a page and a half long, and here's the plot synopsis: A king didn't want to get married. Then he laid eyes on a good-looking woman and decided to get married after all. He sent for the woman and told her she had to marry him and she agreed. A year later she gave birth to a prince. The king, who seems to have had no friends, decided to choose the first person he met to be the child's godfather. Fortunately the poor little old man had secret powers, and he gave the prince "the gift of realizing everything he wished for."

An "evil gardener" overheard this blessing and decided to steal the prince. "So one day when the queen went for a walk and carried the child in her arm, the gardener tore it away from her, smeared her mouth with the blood of a slaughtered chicken, and accused her of killing and eating her child." Naturally the king believed this story and threw his wife in jail. Meanwhile, the gardener sent the baby off to live with a forester and the forester's beautiful daughter, Lisa. As "the two children became very fond of one another," Lisa told him about his secret powers.

So when the evil gardener showed up again, the prince was prepared. "He immediately wished the gardener to become a poodle, and his dear Lisa, a carnation." Then he took them both to the palace, got a job as a huntsman, left Lisa the Carnation sitting on a windowsill all day in a glass of water, and then at night turned her back into his girlfriend. Eventually the king got wind of the situation, the prince revealed his true identity, the king let his wife out of jail, the prince and Lisa got married, and "the godless gardener was compelled to remain a poodle for the rest of his life and was often kicked by the servants when he lay under the table." The End.

Lessons to be learned:

1. When a king tells you to marry him, you have to marry him.

2. If anyone says mean stuff about your wife, you should believe him.

3. Girls have nothing to do when men aren't looking at them, so they might as well spend the whole day sitting in a glass of water.

4. Even though you don't believe your wife when she tells you she didn't eat your child, you do believe the story of a strange young man who shows up at your palace with a poodle and a carnation and tells you that he's your long-lost son.

5. No one wants to spend the rest of his life as a poodle.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

I've been reading yet another Margaret Drabble novel (The Waterfall) and wandering through various sections of the Aeneid. I've been drinking black coffee and emptying the recycling bin. I've been editing a book about 19th-century children's magazines and choosing a Robert Frost poem to be the centerpiece for this summer's conference. I've been receiving rejection letters as well as an invitation to judge a poetry contest. I've been making corn chowder and apple-raspberry crisp. I've been staring out the window into a view of slush and mud. I've been writing an essay. I've been feeling the first burgeonings of a sad unwritten poem. I've been running in circles around my living room, trying to keep my muscles limber and my endorphins smiling. I've been playing cribbage and listening to the Basement Tapes. I've been watching the winter hawks swing low over the highways, then sweep up and vanish into the wind.

Monday, January 19, 2015

It's an ugly day in Maine: rain and sleet and snow petering into ice and slush and mud. Tom is making kitchen cabinets in his shop, Ruckus has packed himself into a small box, and meanwhile Paul and I are drinking tea and studying maps and contemplating the college-visit road trip we'll be embarking on at the end of February: a whirlwind tour through the theater programs of Amherst, Bennington, Bard, Vassar, and Wesleyan.

I am trying not to think of this as a week of driving around in bad weather in places I have never been, punctuated only by brief stops for french fry lunches and the repetitive speeches of admissions officers.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

I dreamed last night that I was writing an essay about my husband's record collection. When I woke up, I was relieved to discover that I was not. Tom has a thousand or so records, plus several hundred CDs, all alphabetized by first name (e.g., Bob Dylan before Bob Marley), and he is tyrannically opinionated on the merits of good versus bad, in the way that only non-musician stereophiles can be.

Writing about his collection? Oh my God: what a torture. So now that I'm awake and have reassured myself that I am not composing an essay about the merits of Tom's ska collection versus his Captain Beefheart collection versus his California tiny punk bad collection versus his African gospel collection versus his hatred of the Beatles (though of course he has all of the albums and has listened to them thoroughly) versus his junior high mistakes collection (e.g., Boston's Greatest Hits) versus his Bessie Smith collection, versus his giant selection of 78s (which he purchased before he owned a turntable that could play 78s, so he would stand next to it and spin it manually with his finger to replicate the speed), versus his Merle Haggard collection, versus his New York Dolls collection, versus his Stereolab collection, versus his Thirteenth Floor Elevators collection with that wretched electric jug whimpering behind every single song, etcetera, etcetera, through a hundred other overlapping subgenres  . . . so now that I'm not writing about any of them, the idea of picking hair out of the bathroom drain and hand-washing a load of sawdust-laden Pendleton wool shirts seems like a more or less fine way to spend a Sunday.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Vox Populi has reprinted my poem "Mr. Kowalski" in today's online issue. In the meantime, I am sitting up in bed in a hotel in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, listening the sound of the wind whipping at the flagpole outside my window. I wonder how cold it is at home. Rushing back to the hotel after last night's dinner, clutching Tom's hand as we craned forward into an icy Atlantic gale, I was not sure that anyone could have been colder than we were. But probably the temperature was a cozy 5 or something.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Two days ago I told you I wasn't writing many new pieces, and today I'm telling you that I have fallen headfirst into an essay about watching my child negotiate a broken heart. When I first started writing it, I thought, "Oh, maybe this will turn out to be one of those snappy New York Times 'Modern Love' essays," but I should have known better. At least in my life, there is no such thing as modern. Dido, that queen of heartbreak, has already made an appearance; history and story are creeping into the narrative; my poor son is surrounded by the ghosts of heartbreak past. And yet my essay is trying to talk about the primacy of the present, at least insofar as one suffers the grief of love.

As Denise Levertov writes, "Heart's fire breaks the chest, almost."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

If you live long enough as a parent, you discover that you have made mistakes you didn't bother to know about as well as the ones you do know about, all too well.

          --Alice Munro, "Night"

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

I am not writing many new things these days, but I am collecting and compiling. As I told you a few months ago, I've finished a fourth poetry manuscript, Vocation, which is now under review. More recently, I've put together a new essay manuscript and have sent it, too, off into the unknown. And now I am discussing a "White Bear" collaboration with a wonderful young illustrator, Morgan Cameron, who specializes in painting animals. Who knows what will come of this? I am excited about the possibilities.

It is so cold here in Maine--18 below zero this morning. But I feel almost springlike.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Clark complains about the weather

November 22, 1805
[Clark] O! how horriable is the day          waves brakeing with great violence against the Shore throwing the Water into our Camp &c.      all wet and confind to our Shelters.

December 16, 1805
[Clark] The winds violent      Trees falling in every derection, whorl winds, with gusts of rain Hail & Thunder, this kind of weather lasted all day, Certainly one of the worst days that ever was!

Lewis and Clark disagree about food

January 3, 1806
[Lewis] our party from necessaty having been obliged to subsist some lenth of time on dogs have now become extreemly fond of their flesh; it is worthy of remark that while we lived principally on the flesh of this anamal we were much more healthy strong and more fleshey than we had been since we left the Buffaloe country.      for my own part I have become so perfectly reconciled to the dog that I think it an agreeable food and would prefer it vastly to lean Venison or Elk.      a small Crow. the blue crested Corvus and the smaller corvus with a white brest, the little brown ren, a large brown sparrow, the bald Eagle and the beautiful Buzzard of the columbia still continue with us.

[Clark] as for my own part I have not become reconciled to the taste of this animal as yet.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Here are two more Milly Jourdain poems for the archive, followed by some of my thoughts about them. I would love to hear your comments about the poems and my reactions to them, especially as they link to your own approach to writing and revision.

Sheep in a Fog 
Milly Jourdain 
The day was cold and wet with fog
    And all the earth was still,
We drove along through unseen lands
    And half-way up the hill.
We heard a rapid pattering sound
    Like sudden pouring rain,
And then we saw a flock of sheep
    That stretched across the lane.
They made themselves a narrow stream
    To pass us by with fear;
We felt them push and breathe and press
    Till all the way was clear.
And now the fog came closer round
    And all was white and chill;
We heard the sounds of men and sheep
    Grow fainter down the hill.

A Breath of the Past 
Milly Jourdain 
A sudden beam shines from the dying sun
Upon a flight of russet-coloured leaves,
Making them golden birds with rustling cry,
Whirled by the wind along the bone-dry road,
The wind that ever blows from summer's heart.

These two poems exhibit a stylistic contrast that is common throughout Jourdain's collection. The first poem, with its Hardy-like rhythms, stretches back toward the nineteenth-century elegiac pastoral. The second--unrhymed, with a shifting cadence and an intense present-tense focus on a handful of images--looks forward into twentieth-century modernism. At the same time, the poems exhibit another element that is common throughout Jourdain's collection. That is, in each poem she makes a "typical mistake"--which is to say that many of the poems in her collection exhibit one or the other of the following poetry-writing tics. Please note that I am surrounding the term "typical mistake" with quotation marks to indicate that I am not speaking pejoratively but simply noticing the way in which her language slips within the context she has created in each poem.

The first of her tics is rhythmic. For instance, in "Sheep in a Fog," she opens the second stanza with a line that crams an extra syllable into the rhythm pattern. Is this a "mistake" or not? In this case, I can easily propose a rationale. The sound of "rapid pattering" imitates the chaotic, compressed, hoof-tapping noise of a herd of sheep; moreover, the two short a sounds are sonically attractive. Yet I can also easily complain about the line. In a poem that otherwise moves so smoothly, it is notably awkward in the mouth. And if replicating awkwardness was a goal, why bend only a single line instead of using a succession of rhythmic adjustments to give those two central stanzas a kind of Doppler effect of ovine anxiety?

The second tic involves both tone and observational focus. In "A Breath of the Past," Jourdain does a brilliant job of forcing me to stop and experience the exact moment she describes, which is itself a moment of vivid action. I love the image of the "bone-dry road"--the way in which it evokes the dust whirling among the leaves, though she never says the word "dust." But then there's the "mistake": the final line--a sudden sentimental lurch that might not feel so surprising in an old-fashioned poem such as "Sheep in a Fog" but is a shock in this one.

Why did she feel the need to include that squashy last line? In a way, the poem reminds me of some of Anne Sexton's late poems. In many of those pieces, the first stanza is pitch-perfect; reading it is like being jabbed with a fork. But the second stanza wanders into a kind of push-button, loose-lipped self-hatred: the feelings are real and terrible, but the poetry is is an unformed clot on the page. Jourdain's poem is not so starkly divided, but the soft-focus last line fits uneasily into the imagistic clarity of the rest of the poem.

Still, the fact is that she did decide to include it. Why? Was she purposely pulling this twentieth-century exercise back in the nineteenth? If so, she set herself a very interesting task . . . the sort of task that, say, young Virginia Woolf was also beginning to set for herself. So if I look at Jourdain's "mistake" in that light, I begin to wonder if the poem is, in truth, unfinished. It can be easy to mistake a peculiar last line for an ending, when really that line is trying to push the poet into strange new territory. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Ten below zero again here in beautiful Harmony, Maine. I still don't have a washing machine, but on the bright side I do have a new insulated coffee pot. Yesterday Paul came in third in the boys' 800-meter race, out of a competitive field of 16, so he is very happy; and Tom loved his lobster dinner, so he is very happy; and weirdly enough we spent the evening watching football together, a sport that none of us likes, and we actually enjoyed ourselves.

Here's something new for you. Just for the hell of it, my band (currently known as Doughty Hill) is submitting a video to NPR's Tiny Desk Concert contest. The video, which you can see here, may or may not be our actual submission (the audio's not bad, but the picture is kind of grainy), but I thought you might like to listen to how we're sounding as a trio. Personally, I feel as if I have improved exponentially as an ensemble player. It has been hard work to let myself take it easy.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Today is Tom's 50th birthday, which certainly deserves a party, except that we are on drive-the-kids-back-and-forth to-the-track-meet duty. So the big party will be saved for next weekend, when I take him on a whirlwind overnight date to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Tonight's celebration will be limited to an appetizer tray of Stilton, olives, and sliced dates; lobsters; some sort of pretty salad; fresh bread; lemon gelato, poached pears, and raspberry sauce . . . a meal that will be birthday-like in deliciousness but also quick to compile during the moments when I am not driving around sweaty high schoolers in subzero temperatures.

Friday, January 9, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Speech and Repression

Despite the roaring fire in the woodstove, my hands are so cold that I can hardly type. After dropping to 10 below again last night, the thermometer has risen to zero, which has made almost no difference to the essential refrigeration of the house. With such cold clamoring at all sides, a stove can only do so much, especially if no one is awake to stoke the fire every 45 minutes.

This morning, I've been thinking, as I shiver, about free speech--about its obligations and temptations as well as its rights. I've been thinking also about the people in this world who are terrified of free speech--those who call on violence to quell it, but also those whose everyday lives are dedicated to a repression of liberty: perhaps their own; perhaps their children's, their congregation's, their classroom's. People on both the right and the left may fear free speech, just as people on both the right and the left may virulently advocate for it. The Westboro Baptist Church's behavior at funerals, and the reactions of opponents to that behavior, is a clear example of the way in which liberals and conservatives can suddenly swap sides in the free-speech debate.

Lately we've had conversations on this blog about the tensions between individualism and the collective. As in so many situations in life, the issue isn't either/or but both/and. Yes, we are individuals. Yes, we are members of communities--not just a single community but many interconnected ones--and we must negotiate among these responsibilities. Too often people call on the right to free speech as justification for behaving like assholes. Too often people behave viciously when they hear or see something they don't want to see or hear.

As Thomas Paine wrote in The Rights of Man, "Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess."

Now balance that assertion with Audre Lorde's words from Sister Outsider: "What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language."

In other words, as Virginia Woolf wrote in The Voyage Out, "You cannot find peace by avoiding life."

Thursday, January 8, 2015

"As a Thief in the Night," a brand-new, never-before-published western Pennsylvania poem, is featured in today's Vox Populi.

The temperature in Harmony is 21 below zero this morning. Ruckus refuses to get out of bed. The rest of us are jealous.

I am horrified, as you all are, by the murders in Paris. However, I have conflicting feelings about satire for the sake of satire. Free speech is a legal jewel. And I agree: we should not be required to automatically respect a religion. But should we automatically disrespect it? One culture is often tone-deaf when it comes to another culture's humor. Is it right or wrong to ignore that disconnect? These perplexities are all mixed up in my mind, and I'm not sure how to write about them. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this matter.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Lingua Franca

Dawn Potter

the washing-machine repairman asks
if I’ve saddled my sons with biblical names
on purpose the plumber presses me to admire
his sculptures the electrician wonders
if I have skills in patent law the driver
of the propane truck desires geographical
wisdom the contractor inquires about the fashions
of poetry the plow guy wonders if I know
where he can buy a bag of pot
the blacksmith suggests I should join the Party
of Decency the cheerleader
is desperate for good news
my father wonders why atonal music even exists
my husband has given up believing
that I will ever get a job the old lady
shrieks, “Why are you all so mean?” a child asks,
“Does the chicken like to be eaten?”
the monster creeps between his unwashed sheets
the wrestler demands his ransom money back
the vision wishes it were God the wind
                        never stops whispering

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Things one discovers by Googling oneself:

Apparently my essay "Not Writing the Poem" (first published in the Sewanee Review)  is included in the "Notable Essays of 2012" list at the back of Best American Essays, 2013. Two years after the fact I learn this. Jeesh.

Things one discovers while editing books:

The following poem was originally published in Divine and Moral Songs for Children (1715). The author was Isaac Watts, whom Lewis Carroll later mocked so beautifully in the Alice books.

Obedience to Parents 

Let children that would fear the Lord
    Hear what their teachers say;
With rev'rence meet their parents word,
    And with delight obey.

Have you not heard what dreadful plagues
    Are threaten'd by the Lord
To him that breaks his father's law,
    Or mocks his mother's word?

What heavy guilt upon him lies!
    How cursed is his name!
The ravens shall pick out his eyes,
    And eagles eat the same.

But those who worship God, and give
    Their parents honour due;
Here on this earth they long shall live,
    And live hereafter too.

Say what you will about contemporary children's literature. At least it isn't this. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

I woke suddenly at 3 a.m. to the sound of distant roaring. What could it be? The broad moon shone like a coin behind the shivering silhouetted trees. The bright night air was dense with glowing fog. And then suddenly the distant roar shifted its haunches and began to run. Now I knew it was the wind, transforming in an instant from a steady blow into a racing gale. As it tore into our clearing, I watched the clouds begin to twist in the moonlight, the trees weep and tear their hair as if they were a Sophoclean chorus, the glimmering ground fog spiral into a veil, masking the trees that only moments earlier had been naked under the moonlight. Now the wind dashed at the veil, shredding it, and again I saw the trees moaning and tearing their hair; saw the clouds dancing like bacchantes; saw threads of mist unspooling into the restless air.

For perhaps half an hour this beautiful frenzy battered the night. And then the gale raced away.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Last night it snowed four or five inches, and some sort of sleet-rain-snow gunk is continuing to precipitate this morning. It is not an ideal morning to lug a household's worth of laundry to the laundromat, but what kind of doting mother sends her son back to college with a suitcase full of dirty clothes?

Tomorrow both boys return to school, and I go to the appliance store and buy a new washing machine. The last time I bought a washing machine, the year was 1991, Tom and I were newlyweds in a duplex in Seekonk, Massachusetts, and the Simpsons were the latest TV novelty. Certainly that cheesy, bottom-of-the-line, apartment-sized Kenmore has done its duty by our family--calmly churning through a thousand pounds of filthy cloth diapers and cow-stained work clothes, breasting the waves of several basement floods and a massively clogged floor drain.

For years, when anything went wrong with the washing machine, I called Dick, who lives down the road. Dick was a wiry little man who looked to be about 60 but was really closer to 80. After studying the breakdown du jour, Dick always sighed and predicted failure. Then he fiddled around with it for 20 minutes, went out to his truck for a piece of wire, and fixed it. The downside to Dick was that he kept trying to Bring Me to Jesus while he was standing around in the kitchen waiting to get paid. This was a pretty big downside. It was, however, balanced by the fact that he was only charging me 12 dollars.

Unfortunately, the last time I called Dick, he was so feeble that he almost pitched headfirst down the cellar stairs. Then, in the middle of his fiddling, his wife telephoned to say she'd fallen out of her wheelchair. Dick fluttered off in a panic, leaving the Kenmore in pieces on the basement floor, as Tom and I waved 20-dollar bills in distress. "Dick, what do we owe you? Take something!" It was all very sad.

Tom did manage to patch up the machine that time; but even with the enthusiastic tinkering aid of our son, this week's breakdown was beyond him. "Something's busted in the gearbox," he speculated, and then the two of them clumped upstairs to drink more coffee and forget about it.

Thus, death has finally come to the washing machine. She has had a long and active career, despite rust and ugliness, and the basement will not see her like again.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Vox Populi, an online magazine with a focus on politically progressive essays and poetry, has decided to reprint several of my previously published pieces, and they'll be appearing over the course of the next few weeks. This pleases me: not only is publication always sweet, but few magazines are willing to reprint material, even work that has had limited circulation. I've always wondered about this. Different kinds of publications have different kinds of audiences, and their overlap is bound to be minimal, so why not be open to reprints?

Today the magazine is featuring an essay that most of you have already read: "Hated by Literature," which centers around my teenage reading of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. However, it's featured alongside a 1994 documentary about Malcolm X; and if nothing else, you might want to take a long look at the photo of me staring at the photo of Malcolm. Yikes.

Friday, January 2, 2015

I've been a serious writer for two decades now, working within and around and through the distractions of babies, jobs, housework, farmwork. Yet for me this physical vigor has been an integral part of a writing life. Interruptions that might seem to impede writing--oh, no, the baby's awake and screaming; oh, no, we're out of bread and I need to bake; oh, no, the goat's busted down her fence and is standing in the garden eating a rosebush--have turned out to be indispensable to getting the work done. Yes, I've been able to reconfigure some of these incidents into subject matter. But more importantly, they have taught me that writing doesn't stop when I step away from my desk. As I wrestle with the goat or change the diaper or shape the dough into loaves, my ears and eyes are still polishing images and following cadences; disconnected thoughts are still adhering and dissolving. Not only does my cerebral curiosity cling to the task of composition, but the actions of my body seem to invigorate that curiosity.

So I can easily understand that a body's slowdown might equal a writer's slowdown. Donald Hall has chosen to stop writing poems; Philip Roth has chose to stop writing novels. I imagine that someday I, too, may choose to stop writing. Yet I do hope I will be able to shift graciously into some other joy. Adoring nothing would be a terrible end.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year's Letter

Happy New Year, dear friends and strangers. Up here in the north country, the clouds are grim and low. A fire sputters indecisively in the woodstove, and the kitchen faucet has a drip. But the beds are full of sleeping boys, and a bouquet of parsley sits in a glass of water on my counter. What could be more comforting? In pet news: Anna has accidentally fallen asleep on Ruckus's catnip mouse, and Ruckus is busily trying to learn how to turn a doorknob. In writing news: I opened my email this morning to discover one rejection letter and one acceptance letter. Balance has been maintained.

Yesterday I almost hit a deer with my car. The day before, my sons were almost sideswiped by a log truck making an illegal turn. Lives are candles.

I have been reading Margaret Drabble's The Peppered Moth, a novel I have never read before. It is full of sadness: a daughter's distress at a mother's defeat, a mother's anger at a daughter's distress, a marriage doomed to misery from the start. "Sexual attraction and pity do not mix well," warns the novelist. Her words are an ominous adage for the new year.

The clock ticks. The faucet drips. The fire in the woodstove clicks and snaps. This is the first new year of my fiftieth decade. So forgive me: let me frame the banal question. What am I doing with the candle that is my life?

I could burden you with a crowing list of accomplishments, a sentimental list of affections, a self-mutilating list of failures. But you have your own lists. You don't need mine.

What am I doing with the candle that is my life? I am watching it flicker and smoke in the draft, watching the red wax drip down the sides and pool on the white table. The scent of sulphur mixes with the clean fragrance of flame. A blue heart lurks at the root of the golden flare. Shadows caper on the wall.

A single candle; a small circle of light . . . but enough to read by. Enough to see a version of your face, and for you to see the ghost of mine.