Friday, October 30, 2015

I just got word from Deerbrook Editions that my forthcoming essay collection, The Vagabond's Bookshelf, has gone into production. These essays about rereading have existed for so many years as an Unpublishable Manuscript that the idea of finally seeing them in print is startling--as if I'll be trying to sell a past version of my life as a brand-new product. On the other hand, hurray for old books, even if one of them is mine.

Meanwhile, Chestnut Ridge, my other Unpublishable Manuscript, is lurking in the bowels of several publishers' computers. I wonder what will ever happen to it.


I sit at my desk now and wonder how to end this book. Who, of all the writers on my shelves, requires the last word? I lean back in my chair and look up, and there stands Walt Whitman, leaning against his doorway, waiting for me . . . dear striding, loud-mouthed Walt, who soaks up the world like ink—its stories and music halls, its farms and harbors, its sermons and whispers and shouts: who fearlessly turns the world into the palette of himself. And Walt does have something to say to me, and to you, as I should have known he would:
I doubt it not—then more, far more;
In each old song bequeath’d—in every noble page or text,
(Different—something unreck’d before—some unsuspected author,)
In every object, mountain, tree, and star—in every birth and life,
As part of each—evolv’d from each—meaning, behind the ostent,
A mystic cipher waits infolded.

[from The Vagabond's Book: A Reader's Memoir (Deerbrook Editions, 2016)]

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Last night I sat in cold drizzle watching my son's team compete valiantly against a pack of fast mean kids who taunted and trash-talked throughout the game, flipped the bird at the visitors' coach, drew fouls by pretending to be injured, and so on, and so on . . . more or less a repeat of last year's playoff game, except that the score was much closer.

And at the end of the game, I watched every member of my son's team burst into tears, and cry and cry as they embraced each other and hugged their coaches, and sought out their parents and their friends, and then they turned back to each other with a kind of mythological despair, all the while still crying and crying. And behind me, the girls in the stands said to each other in wonder, "Look at the boys cry."

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Today is my youngest child's 18th birthday. It feels very odd to have arrived at this milestone . . . to have become the mother of two adults. I'm not sure what to say about the sensation. I'm not so much elegiac as puzzled and also, to tell the truth, tired. Two decades of childrearing suddenly seem like a long, long time.

By this evening, when I'm shivering in the Ellsworth bleachers and worrying about rain and the soccer score, I will have dropped back into the present tense. But for the moment I am existing in a kind of migraine aura, where Past, Present, Future, and Never have amalgamated into a vibrating concoction of history and curious possibility that is also a chill silence. Who would I be without these years behind me?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Advice from the Emperor of Steel (1908)

Dawn Potter

Nothing will bring promotion,
One to heaven and ten to hell
And better still, usefulness and happiness,
It does offend my heart
Than culture lending you general knowledge
Manners are not idle, but the fruit
Beyond the depths of those with whom
The last—the worst—if torture were not worse
You may shortly have to deal.
This portentous Bridge the dark Abyss
Such knowledge of the poets
The mind is lord and master
Finds a ready and profitable market
Brave men who work while others sleep
In the broad and gleaming halls of industry.
The ominous paralysis continues

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


The italicized lines quote from some of Andrew Carnegie's favorite authors. The lines in Roman type rework sentences from Carnegie's own writings. The clashes and discomforts are all mine.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Letters Written in Fall and Winter

Early this morning I read about your autumn, and all the colors you brought into your letter were changed back in my feelings and filled my mind to the brim with strength and radiance. Yesterday, while I was admiring the dissolving brightness of autumn here, you were walking through that other autumn back home, which is painted on red wood, as this one's painted on silk. And the one reaches us as much as the other; that's how deeply we are placed on the ground of all transformation, we most changeable ones who walk about with the urge to comprehend everything and (because we're unable to grasp it) reduce immensity to the action of our heart, for fear that it might destroy us.

--Rainer Maria Rilke, letter to Clara Rilke, October 13, 1907


Shall I tell you what they, my father and all of them are doing at this moment? Sprawling on the floor looking at a new rat-trap. Two pounds of butter vanished the other night out of the dairy; they had been put in a shallow pan with the water in it, and it is averred the rats ate it, and Peggy Tuite, the dairymaid, to make the thing more credible, gives the following reason for the rats' conduct. "Troth, ma'am, they were affronted at the new rat-trap, they only licked the milk off of it, and that occasioned them to run off with the butter!"

--Maria Edgeworth, letter to Mrs. Ruxton, October 13, 1814


Dearest Father,
You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking. And if I now try to give you an answer in writing, it will still be very incomplete, because, even in writing, this fear and its consequences hamper me in relation to you and because the magnitude of the subject goes far beyond the scope of my memory and power of reasoning.

--Franz Kafka, undelivered letter to Hermann Kafka, November 1919


Everything in your eyes is diminished and uglified. . . . You always focus on the faults, on what can be satirized. . . . To see only ugliness, that is what people do when they do not love. . . . You are not aware that when you paint only cruelly, underlining only faults or weaknesses, you are the loser.

---Anais Nin, letter to Gore Vidal, winter 1948

Sunday, October 25, 2015

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.
Mild rain ticks in the gutter and against the windowpanes, and the maples are shedding their last few leaves. Autumn is drawing to a close. In three days my youngest child will celebrate his 18th birthday in the same way he celebrated his 17th--by breaking his heart at a soccer game. Deja vu all over again, I fear. But then again, the gods and heroes may storm onto the field with their thunderbolts and spears. Such things do happen.
At times the war-band broke into a gallop,
letting their chestnut horses race
wherever they found the going good
on those well-known tracks. Meanwhile, a thane
of the king’s household, a carrier of tales,
a traditional singer deeply schooled
in the lore of the past, linked a new theme
to a strict metre.
Also, Spear-Danes love birthday cupcakes with sprinkles on top. So I, too, have my allotted role in the tale.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Last week, a mile or two away from my house, a barn burned, animals perished, fire engines screamed. Meanwhile, I was calmly feeding my cat. This morning, the people of Mexico are shuddering under a hurricane while I am sitting quietly at my kitchen table. Sometimes I am appalled at the ignorance of my body.

And yet years pass, and my fingers still flash across the violin strings. They'll never forget how to strip milk from an udder, how to shape pretzel dough, how to play games with a baby--"here's the church, here's the steeple, open the doors. . . . "

Memory and ignorance, hand and mind. Calm and destruction. Are they really so arbitrary?

Friday, October 23, 2015

Because Doughty Hill is performing tomorrow night at the Wayside Grange in Dexter [7 p.m.: you come too], I will miss watching my son play what might be the final soccer game of his career [mid-afternoon and far, far away]. Ah, well.

But I have my bow back! And I don't have a head cold! And we'll have a sound guy! And believe it or not, our cover of "Black Water" is really fun! And these exclamation marks prove that everything I say is true!

In other news, I've just gotten invited to appear on Between the Lines, a television interview show focusing on New England writers and publishers. I've never been on TV before, and already I am worrying more about my hair than about what dumb things I might accidentally say in front of a camera. What is wrong with me?

Anyway, about that Doughty Hill show. You should come! I promise to forget about my hair.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

"The Curtain Unseen"

Walter Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor, first published in 1819, is a melodramatic novel about a family feud and a tragic love affair, which you may know best as the trigger for Gaetano Donizetti's 1835 opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Having always thought of Scott as the giant influence behind so many budding nineteenth-century British novelists, I was surprised to learn that he released The Bride (and all of his Waverley novels) anonymously. He positioned this particular tale as local oral history and invented a narrator, Peter Pattieson, to retell it in his own words. This is how the novel opens:
By caulk and keel to win your bread,
Wi' whigmaleeries for them wha need,
Whilk is a gentle trade indeed
To carry the gaberlunzie on. 
--Old Song 
Few have been in my secret while I was compiling these narratives, nor is it probable that they will ever become public during the life of their author. Even were that event to happen, I am not ambitious of the honoured distinction, digita monstrari. I confess that, were it safe to cherish such dreams at all, I should more enjoy the thought of remaining behind the curtain unseen, like the ingenious manager of Punch and his wife Joan, and enjoying the astonishment and conjectures of my audience. Then might I, perchance, hear the productions of the obscure Peter Pattieson praised by the judicious and admired by the feeling, engrossing the young and attracting even the old; while the critic traced their fame up to some name of literary celebrity, and the question when, and by whom, these tales were written filled up the pause of conversation in a hundred circles and coteries. This I may never enjoy during my lifetime; but farther than this, I am certain, my vanity should never induce me to aspire.
Although, as I've said, Scott did publish The Bride anonymously, his authorship was a more or less open secret. By 1827 he publicly acknowledged that he'd written the Waverley novels; and in his 1830 edition of The Bride, he added a long introduction about his historical sources. Yet despite that unmasking, the layers of authorial ambiguity in this book remain intriguing, and peculiar.

An anonymous author publishes a book claiming to be an oral history of a real event. The anonymous author invents a fake author to write down this oral history in his own words. After bewildering us with a completely unhelpful song excerpt, the fake author explains his dearest wish: to eavesdrop on other people who are talking about his book, and to enjoy the fun of hearing them assume that "a literary celebrity" has written it.

In sum: real author, fake author, false fake author, shadowy chorus of oral history authors. Am I missing someone? There might be another author or two I've overlooked . . . for instance, what about the author of that so-called "Old Song"? Did the real author really write that too? Or did the fake author? Or did the shadowy chorus?

What are your thoughts about these layers of confusion? I'm thinking, as you may be too, of the popular Italian novelist who is writing under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. (I haven't read any of books yet, though I have friends who say I should.) She seems determined to keep her real identity out of the limelight, but I don't know if she's gone so far as to create novels that themselves contort the idea of narrative identity. On the whole, such coy and complicated invisibility seems distinctly unmodern. I know that plenty of contemporary writers create works that play with narrative identity, but Peter Pattieson's opening explanation of anonymity chimes a different tune--a faded echo of mysterious courtier poets and playwrights. His secrecy, like theirs, is also a bow--proud, well mannered, amused, ironic--to the exigencies of class and position, whether they be low or high.

The Bronte sisters were avid readers of Scott's novels, and they absorbed his attitudes about narrative secrecy into their own layered plots and characters. But because they were women and were dealing with not only discrimination but also geographic and social isolation, their choices constructed a feminist and intellectual complexity that I believe contemporary readers are more accustomed to recognizing. To my ear, Scott's secrecies are singing a different old song.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Senior Day

Yesterday, late afternoon, the last home soccer game of my son's career. A wide sky stretches over the playing fields and the river. Flat blue clouds glint like paint in the pale light. We parents line up at field side--sentimental or tearful or embarrassed or awkward, or a jumble of all of these feelings. One by one, our sons' names and then his parents' names crackle over the speaker. Each person follows the dance steps. The boy hugs the coach. The coach presents the boy with a rose. The boy turns toward his parents, and the parents step forward. The boy hugs his mother and then his father. Each embrace is long and fervent. The boy presents his mother with the rose. Cameras click, and the three family members step back into the line of families. Like so many ceremonies, it is laced with both silliness and the poignancy of affection and loss. Our boys love us, and we love them. Now we are acting out our love on the soccer field, in front of a straggling crowd of grandparents and little children and classmates and the strangers of the opposing team.

Later in the day, a horse arrives to watch the game. Tom and I share a bag of popcorn and a blanket, and two small gulls swirl back and forth in the darkening sky. Our boys win. We drive home.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

On Smugness

At the risk of losing friends and inciting vandalism, I'm going to announce that I dislike the New England Patriots football team. Of course, I'm not all that interested in football anyway, but there's something about the Patriots that particularly annoys me. As an organization, the Patriots are smug, and that's a quality I don't like.

Yet how does one define smugness? Rather than describing a quantifiable attribute, it frames an observer's opinion of someone else's self-love. So if I call another person smug, I'm also revealing an urge toward defensive self-protection:  e.g.,"you're so pleased with yourself that you make me feel like saying something mean about you."

I've been thinking about this quality of smugness as I've been reading Katherine Schulz's New Yorker article about Henry David Thoreau. Any long-time reader of my blog knows that I have always had grumpy mixed feelings about Thoreau. I like his naturalist writings very much, but I find Walden almost unreadable. Talk about smug! As Schulz writes, "Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one. Worse, he preached at others to live as he did not, while berating them for their own compromises and complexities."

Thoreau's I'm-purer-than-you smugness is not the same as the Patriots' we're-the-best-best-best! smugness, but both share an arrogance that makes me itch. At the same time, I would be sad but not surprised to learn that someone else has been calling me smug--maybe about the kinds of books I read or think are important, maybe about my confidence in my own ability to educate myself. "How obnoxious she is," that person mutters. "She thinks she knows everything."

The corrective here is that I, at least, am positing the notion that I might be in the wrong. Thoreau never seems to have asked himself such a question. Yet Schulz notes, "Walden Pond in 1845 was scarcely more off the grid, relative to contemporaneous society, than Prospect Park is today. The commuter train to Boston ran along its southwest side; in summer the place swarmed with picnickers and swimmers, while in winter it was frequented by ice cutters and skaters." Thoreau fictionalized his isolation and self-reliance. Apparently it was easy to forget to mention all those twenty-minute walks back to his parents' house for dinner and cookies.

But truly I can't take myself off the hook either. Like Thoreau, I wrote a book about living quietly in the woods . . . though I owned a car that could take me out of the woods whenever I felt like leaving. For many writers, part of the conundrum of modern life is dealing aesthetically with the nostalgia of solitude. We're alone, but we're never alone. Thoreau was an annoying man, and I'm glad he's not my dad, but our subject matter, our motivations, and our mistakes are not so far apart. Nonetheless, I think his cogitations on loneliness and self-reliance are far less vital than, say, Willa Cather's or Laura Ingalls Wilder's. Schulz agrees with me about Wilder's work, which she calls "an excellent corrective to 'Walden.'"
Wilder lived what Thoreau merely played at, and her books are not only more joyful and interesting than "Walden" but also, when reread, a thousand times more harrowing. Real isolation presents real risks, both emotional and mortal, and, had Thoreau truly lived at a remove from other people, he might have valued them more. Instead, his case against community rested on an ersatz experience of doing without it.
Begin with false premises and you risk reaching false conclusions. Begin with falsified premises and you forfeit your authority. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Standards of the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors (1914)

Dawn Potter

Nothing is censored in Pennsylvania but the poor mans amusement, Why?
—Anti-censorship banner, Pittsburgh Screen Club

The Board will condemn
any motion picture portraying
prostitutes, houses of ill-fame

a girl’s seduction, her confinement
for immoral purposes, or assaults upon women,
with lewd intent. Refrain from showing

childbed scenes and subtitles that describe them.
Pictures revealing the modus operandi of criminals
are suggestive and incite the weak to evil action.

We disapprove all murder, poisoning,
house-breaking, safe-robbery, pocket-picking,
the lighting and throwing of bombs,

the use of chloroform to render men
and women unconscious, also binding and gagging.
Do not illustrate the traffic in cocaine.

Gruesome and distressing scenes
are likewise forbidden. These include shootings,
stabbings, profuse bleeding, prolonged views

of corpses, lashings and whippings,
lynchings, electrocutions, surgical operations,
and views of persons in delirium.

Avoid scenes in which the human form
is shown in the nude. Do not undertake
the topics of abortion or malpractice,

eugenics, birth control, or race suicide.
The materialization of the figure of Christ
may be disapproved. We forbid

the brutal treatment of animals,
and objectionable language in subtitles.
Depictions of burning and wrecking

may degrade the morals of the young.
Gross and offensive drunkenness,
will never be tolerated

if women are present.
Do not exhibit pictures which deal at length
with gun play, and the use of knives,

and are set in the underworld.
Vulgarities of a gross kind,
such as often appear in slapstick

and may burlesque morgues, funerals,
hospitals, or insane asylums,
are disapproved, as are sensual kissing

and other indelicate situations.
Bathing scenes may pass the limits of propriety.
Avoid immodest dancing

and the needless exhibition
of women in their night dresses.
Do not show women in suggestive positions

while smoking. The argument that your story
is adapted from the finest literature or art
is not a sufficient reason for approval.

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

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Woke up this morning to our first hard frost . . . green grass sugared with white, sky a brilliant blue, yellow marigolds and red dahlias reduced to blackened pulp.

I had many vivid dreams last night, including one involving band practice, another violinist, and some kind of Catholic ritual which I can't remember and undoubtedly wasn't really Catholic but just goofy. I also dreamed that my cheap high school violin bow broke and I was grumpy about having to go shopping for a similarly cheap replacement. And for some reason I dreamed that Tom was storing food in our silverware drawer. Two of these dreams have some relationship to each other and to real life, but food in the silverware drawer?
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, "When it is evening, you say, 'It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.' And in the morning, 'It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times." 
--Matthew 16: 1-3
Yes, I opened the Bible randomly, and, yes, this was the first passage I read. Curiouser and curiouser.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Earlier this week my friend David described his morning in western Canada:
Driving in this morning to the Debussy arabesque that sounds like raindrops. The buildings black and with such clear lines against the sky in the early half light. The tiny light on the propeller plane glinting almost like a dot of sunlight. The young woman with a backpack striding along on the sidewalk, so confident and hair golden even in the early half-light. And the young man, with a backpack too and walking so tentatively.
The morning here in Harmony is a sodden red-gold over green, with a sepia tinge of decay. Yesterday I picked my first pail of honey mushrooms, and afterwards my hands smelled like the forest floor--rich, damp, rotten.
His roots dry up beneath,
and his branches wither above.
His memory perishes from the earth,
and he has no name in the street.
He is thrust from light into darkness,
and driven out of the world. 
--Job 19: 16-19

Friday, October 16, 2015

If you're a central Mainer wishing you had something to do on a Saturday night, you might consider coming to see Doughty Hill in Dexter on October 24. We are thriving again now that we've returned to being a four-piece band. Dan joined us last winter as a drummer but has quickly advanced into singing and playing bass; and it turns out that Sid, Dan, and I have a surprisingly effective vocal blend. The timbre of the whole has delighted us. We are having so much fun figuring out how to do what we do best, and it would make us very, very happy to sing and play for you.

Here we are at a house party last weekend:


Now I'm going to switch to the subject of teaching poetry. My article on the Academy of American Poets website, "Teaching Poetry: The Reading-Conversation-Writing Cycle," is getting a fair amount of airplay, especially on Twitter (which is very odd because I hate Twitter and avoid it when at all possible). My hope is that this will transfer into added exposure for the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. If you care about the conference and/or have your own circle of teachers, poets, and lovers of poetry, please consider sharing the article with them as a way to reinforce the value of what participants and faculty are doing during our week together. Let's do everything we can to keep this flame burning.


Finally, let's talk about National League baseball. Mets versus Cubs? How am I supposed to decide between them? Somebody help me out!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Whist Drive at the Fishing Club (1887)

Dawn Potter

Whist is a partnership game for four players, two against two.

Member of Congress
Owns a mining explosives supply company
Bank president
Developer of porcelain-insulated spark plugs

At the clubs and in the family circle it still finds a following.

Chief counsel for iron company
Lumber dealer
Involved with real estate

Were it not for the variety known as “Progressive Whist,” the organizing secretaries of charities might find it difficult to raise such ample funds.

Art patron
Manufacturer of steel springs for railroad cars
Established in the cracker business

As might well be expected in the case of a game with a long and honored life, the rules are many, and precise.

Attorney general
Owner of Banner Baking Powder
Window-glass millionaire

It is a universally established truth that trumps should be led when five or more are held, and none but the most expert player should ever depart from this.

Tunnel contractor
Minister plenipotentiary to Turkey
Federal judge
Brother of man who will murder Stanford White

Make sure of winning at the earliest opportunity, but take any risk if that is the only way of saving the game.

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


The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was an elite group of Pittsburgh-area financiers, industrialists, government officials, and the like. Members owned a retreat on Lake Connemaugh as well as the poorly maintained dam that kept the lake in place. On May 31, 1889, after days of heavy rain, the dam broke, and 20 tons of lake water poured downstream and into the city of Johnstown. More than two thousand people were killed. At the time, it was called the worst disaster in American history.

Chestnut Ridge features several poems that mention the Johnstown flood. "Whist Drive at the Fishing Club" features the men who controlled the destiny of the region but could not be bothered to avert tragedy.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Today I am rushing the poodle off to the groomer (an hour away), rushing through errands at the natural-food store and the farmstand, rushing back to bake bread, rushing to sit down with my son (seniors are home today because everyone else at school is having a delightful time taking the PSAT) and coaching him through more college-application stuff, rushing to cram in some editing hours, rushing up to school to drop the boy off for soccer practice, rushing to the groomer to fetch the dog, rushing home, rushing through dinner, and then rushing to band practice. After that, I will leisurely drive home again. [Don't worry: I didn't forget my kid at soccer practice. Tom will be doing that bit of rushing.]

All of this rushing has transpired because I didn't know until 24 hours ago that my son would be home today . . . which is typical of all high school scheduling. An elaborate calendar of events comes home at the beginning of the year, but nothing ever stays the same. Pity the poor instructors who never know who will be in the classes they are supposed to be teaching.

It is strange to think that, next fall, nothing will be the same in this house.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

On September 6, my bow looked like this:

On October 13, my bow looks like this:

Even under a strong light, the repair is nearly invisible. The bow's action and balance are perfect. I am overflowing with happiness and relief.

The master who accomplished this feat is D. William Halsey of Schoolcraft, Michigan, not only a restoration specialist but also a renowned bow maker in his own right. According to journalist Max Brooks, "there are probably fewer than 30 bowmakers in the entire country that can boast Halsey’s level of workmanship." Halsey himself has written, 'I think that so much character, once evident throughout this art, is sometimes lost to the pursuit of perfection over excellence. . . . One is attainable, one is not. . . . The greatest French makers whom I know didn’t spend much time grasping a caliper.” Though, as Brooks notes, Halsey "does use gauges and calipers as guides in his own bowmaking, . . .  he is a believer in what he calls 'the workmanship of risk,' in working by hand and trusting the eye over the ruler." He told Brooks, "It's not only fashioning a piece of art, it has to work too. That's where the challenge lies."

The workmanship of risk. Oh, poets, this is our story too.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Remember my poor beautiful snapped violin bow? Today is the day I fetch it home from the hospital. The good news is that the luthier told me, with a smile in his voice, "I think you'll be very pleased." The I'm-not-sure-what's-going-on news is that I haven't gotten final word on whether or not the insurance company will pay for it.

Despite my continuing insurance anxiety, I'm all a-flutter about seeing my bow again. In my six weeks without it, I've played four gigs using my high school backup bow; and yesterday, at the cafe, I was invisibly gnashing my teeth about the cheap bow's sluggish reactions and embarrassing tendency to squeak. I cannot wait to hold the real one in my hand again.

The Nurnberger family of bow makers, 1905 and 1915

Sunday, October 11, 2015

from The Great American Novel by Philip Roth
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.
So said Chaucer back in my high school days, and a' course it is as true now as then.


It's Sunday, and another cool October morning--temperature hovering at 32 degrees, a skim of frost on the windshield. I've finished reading The Cherry Orchard and started reading a musty copy of Philip Roth's The Great American Novel that I found at the Goodwill. The woodstove does not want to light but I am forcing it to behave. The coffee is hot and strong, and the poodle's stare could easily be transliterated into a window sign with "Breakfast Time Now!" flashing in curly neon wish-lights.

All week I have been working on the first draft of a long poem that I'm not at all sure I like, which is making me nervous. Nonetheless, stanza after stanza, the piece keeps rolling onto the page. I don't know what the final result will be. I might run out of gas and scrap the whole thing, or I might try carving it into smaller vignettes, or suddenly the scales might fall from my eyes and I'll figure out that I'm doing something more interesting than I thought I was. Meanwhile, I'll plod into another stanza.

The strange thing is that stuff written under these circumstances can turn out to be just as good, or even better, than stuff written in a state of authorial hypnosis when every word feels absolutely, indisputably perfect and I've lost all interest in food or children. Neither situation is a reliable indicator of quality.

But this morning I won't be writing; I'll be playing music for a few hours at Stutzmans' Cafe, and then buying a bag of potatoes and driving home in the chilly sunshine. The poem will take care of itself; and perhaps, when I dare to look at it again, it will reveal itself as an evil dragon and I'll have to quickly slay it with my bright sword. Otherwise, it is bound to eat the villagers, and then who else could the king blame but me?

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Genuine Church Music (1833)

Dawn Potter

A pernicious error one would make, to claim
That man’s free love of song may be the same
As Piety; and yet its usefulness in whetting
Our brightest blades of Faith, of vetting
Our Devotional affections—in every age,
This is the happy trust of those who do engage
To hold communion with the King of mercies.
So let us call our tuneful join├Ęd verses
Conversation, consoling and remarkable:
Let us praise our Lord in syllables
Divine. Do not forget the Master took
Much pleasant care to fill the pages of His Book
With somber odes uniting voice and heart.
He expects His singers to illuminate their part.

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


In the course of my research for this collection, I spent considerable time reading Mennonite hymns. Singing is an important element of Mennonite services: the act of singing is seen as part of the human conversation with God. . . . and conversation is the actual word early hymn-book editors chose to describe the relationship.

The poem's title borrows from the name of the Mennonite shape-note anthology, Harmonia Sacra: A Compilation of Genuine Church Music, first published in 1832.

Friday, October 9, 2015

At 7:30 a.m., a jangled friend phones to say that the woman who owns the hair salon across the street from his Brooklyn bar has committed suicide by blowing up her apartment building . . . "and just last week she came in here and introduced herself and asked if she could rent my upstairs apartment!" Digesting this strange news, I rush off to an oil-change appointment, where I slouch in a grimy chair and read a New Yorker article about conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith to the accompaniment of torque wrenches and welding fumes. An hour later I get back into the car and turn on the radio, to discover that Garrison Keillor is intoning Donald Hall's "Her Long Illness," which describes the task of watching Jane Kenyon die.
They pushed the IV pump
which she called Igor
slowly past the nurses' pods, as far
as the outside door
so that she could smell the snowy air.
By the time I reach home, the drizzle has metamorphosed into cold and steady rain. Bored and disgusted, Ruckus the cat has already begun his usual retaliations: shoving fat books onto the floor, yanking out thumbtacks with his teeth. Living with Ruckus on a rainy day is like living with a three-year-old who won't take a nap, except that you can't toss the three-year-old back out into the weather. However, you also can't distract a cat with a Ramones dance party or a book about freight trains, and you have to let him back in ten minutes after you throw him out because his histrionic wailing is an unbearable burden.

So here I stand at my desk, temporarily relieved of Ruckus but expecting another onslaught at any moment. The Hall poem echoes in my head, in Keillor's lugubrious tones. What I remember most about the salon across the street from my friend's bar is the sign advertising "HUMAN HAIR."

Thursday, October 8, 2015

from World of Wonders by Robertson Davies

You have read Spengler? No: it is not so fashionable as it once was. But Spengler talks a great deal about what he calls the Magian World View, which he says we have lost, but which was part of the Weltanschauung--you know, the world outlook--of the Middle Ages. It was a sense of the unfathomable wonder of the invisible world that existed side by side with a hard recognition of the roughness and cruelty and day-to-day demands of the tangible world. It was a readiness to see demons where nowadays we see neuroses, and to see the hand of a guardian angel in what we are apt to shrug off ungratefully as a stroke of luck. It was religion, but a religion with a thousand gods, none of them all-powerful and most of them ambiguous in their attitude toward man. It was poetry and wonder which might reveal themselves in the dunghill that lurks in poetry and wonder. It was a sense of living in what Spengler called a quivering cavern-light which is always in danger of being swallowed up in the surrounding, impenetrable darkness.


from The Wonders of the Invisible World by Cotton Mather

The New-Englanders are a People of God settled in those, which were once the Devil's Territories; and it may easily be supposed that the Devil was exceedingly disturbed when he perceived such a People here accomplishing the Promise of old made unto our Blessed Jesus, That He should have the Utmost parts of the Earth for his Possession. There was not a greater Uproar among the Ephesians, when the Gospel was first brought among them, than there was among, The Powers of the Air (after whom the Ephesians walked) when first the Silver Trumpets of the Gospel here made the Joyful Sound. The Devil thus Irritated, immediately try'd all sorts of Methods to overturn this poor Plantation.


from World of Wonders by Robertson Davies

God wants to intervene in the world, and how is he to do it except through man? I think the Devil is in the same predicament. . . . It's the moment of decision--of will--when those Two nab us, and as they both speak so compellingly it's tricky work to know who's talking. Where there's a will, there are always two ways.


from Annotations to Thornton's The Lord's Prayer, Newly Translated: London, 1827 by William Blake

I look upon this as a most Malignant & Artful attack upon the Kingdom of Jesus By the Classical Learned thro the Instrumentality of Dr Thornton          The Greek & Roman Classics is the Antichrist       I say Is & not Are as most expressive & correct too

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Today is my 51st birthday, and I am celebrating by taking care of my poor son, who is home from school with some kind of horrible virus that has attacked his entire soccer team. Every once in a while he lifts his head from the couch pillow and weakly promises, "I'll get up and make some birthday cookies for you a little bit later in the day," which is very sweet and very pathetic and makes me sigh and pat his forehead.

So far my birthday weather is overcast and cool, but the woodstove is burning briskly. The flowers that Tom brought home yesterday cast cheerful shadows on the kitchen table. I've unwrapped my parents' gifts: a history of Maine's native tribes and a Robert Pinsky poetry collection and a kitchen timer and a purple sweater.

Today I plan to finish reading Robertson Davies's World of Wonders and make headway on Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.  I will copy out a few more Jane Kenyon poems, and I will work on my own poem draft, currently titled "Eight-Track-Tape Player." I will make cups of tea for my son. I will hang laundry on the porch lines and clean out a few garden beds. I will give the dog a bath and wander into the woods, hunting for the first signs of honey mushrooms and the last signs of chanterelles. I will cogitate about next summer's Frost Place plans. I will talk to my sister and my parents and my in-laws on the phone. I will drive to band practice and on the way home listen to a few innings of the Cubs-Pirates game.

Turning 51 feels fine. I like being alive.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Purchased on the Thirtieth Anniversary of the King of Coke’s First Million Dollars (1910)

Dawn Potter

“Unique as being one of the few equestrian portraits ever done by the artist,” remarked the king, jingling the nickels in his trouser pocket.

Browns and yellows mostly. Sooty sky, sun setting
behind a slagheap, or a hill, or is this the setting

of a story too grand to tell? And a splash of red:
rider’s stout leg, crown of his hat. Sure, I’ve read

the experts: they explain he’s a Catholic knight;
yes, yes, it’s a good moral piece, but look at the night-

time shadows and the boy rider’s steady wide eyes,
staring out of the frame. And not at me. God, I

loathe those fat-face portraits that glower and pry like
death’s photogravure. Enough is enough, tho’ I do like

this whitey-brown horse, spavined and panting—
Why, my life’s as true as a cracked old painting,

now and again             now and again.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606–69), The Polish Rider, c. 1655. Oil on canvas. 46 x 53 in.

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


The Frick Collection's website will tell you more about both Rembrandt's remarkable painting and the history of Henry Clay Frick's art acquisitions . . .

. . . whereas this poster will explain how he earned the money to buy it.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The bright, thin, new moon appears,
Tipped askew in the heavens.

--from "New Moon" by Tu Fu, trans. Kenneth Rexroth


Frost last night, and a fire in the woodstove this morning. Yesterday Tom cleaned the chimney and hauled firewood; I wire-brushed the stovepipe and dug up a bed for planting garlic. Then I came inside and made borscht and listened to the last Red Sox game of the season.


Flocks of birds go fluttering under the sun's rays,
not all are fraught with meaning.

--from The Odyssey by Homer, trans. Robert Fagles


“[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

--from Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games by A. Bartlett Giamatti

Sunday, October 4, 2015

I am basking in the extreme pleasure of going nowhere this morning, a pleasure made even sweeter by the fact that I thought I was going somewhere. But then, when the alarm clock went off at 6, and I was beginning to convince myself to get out of bed and wake up Paul so that I could drive him to his 5K race, Tom got up, and Tom made the coffee, and Tom offered to drive Paul to the race. So I am sitting here in my shabby pink bathrobe, on this frosty morning, with my fresh cup of coffee and a couple of hours of kitchen-table solitude before me, grateful for the sweetness.

Over the course of this past week, I've been pondering a variety of subjects, some of them influenced by what I've been reading, some by conversations. Here are few of my disparate thoughts.

* Robertson Davies's novel The Manticore is the first-person narrative of a character named David Staunton, a middle-aged Canadian trial lawyer who is undergoing Jungian analysis in Switzerland. In the course of his analysis, David describes his two sets of grandparents, both from the same provincial town, though one is well-to-do, the other working-class poor. As he recalls them, he explodes into ire: "God, I've seen the gross self-assertion of the rich in its most sickening forms, but I swear the orgulous self-esteem of the deserving poor is every bit as bad!" Though David is, at this point in the novel, mostly a callow boor, his frustration struck me, on both a personal and a political level, as disturbingly apt.

* I have quietly listened to many different kinds of Americans talk about the pope's visit to the United States. Most influential to my thoughts were my friend Bill's comments about the way in which the pope is pressing both liberals and conservatives to face the gray areas of their own morality. Conservatives are furious about his commitment to ecological honesty, abolishing the death penalty, and dealing with the truths of poverty. Liberals are furious about his opposition to gay marriage and abortion. Both sides want to use his "nice guy" attributes to buoy their own causes. Both sides want to find a way to downplay the fact that he does not fit into a crisp political model. Few seem to be asking themselves why he should fit into such a model.

* After spending a week on the road as a poet, I am shifting into fiddle-player mode . . . except that yesterday, at our coffee-shop gig, someone told me, "You have such a beautiful voice." No one has ever said that to me before. I know I can sing in tune, but for most of my life I have not been a singer. I have not considered my voice to be anything special, to be anything more than utilitarian. The violin has overshadowed all. So I have been thinking this morning about these enormous shadows--those aspects of a life that dominate, even choke out, the seedlings below. I have been thinking about the seedlings that never grow at all, the ones that wither and die--not necessarily in my own life but in any life.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Driving the boy to SAT tests, 7:30 a.m. Playing music with Doughty Hill, 10 a.m., Center Coffee House, Dover-Foxcroft. Truly, all I want to do right now is go back to bed, but I promise to be livelier during the show than I am now.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Academy of American Poets has published one of my teaching essays. Essentially the essay is a stand-alone version of the introduction to The Conversation, and I am very, very pleased to know that the academy's education wing sees value in it.

In other news, yesterday it rained and rained and roads washed out all around the state and Portland was under water, but the fates did not make me drive in any of it. Today will be bright and breezy, and I will drive to Massachusetts and pick up my son at college and take him out to dinner, and then we will go to my poetry reading together, and I will promise not to read anything that evokes his misspent elementary-school years.