Thursday, March 31, 2016

Day 2: The Trip to California

I write this sitting in the shelter of a short prickly plant next to the Los Angeles Convention Center. In front of me is a plaque celebrating the construction of this center. You may not know that members of the Executive Committee (1960-1969) of Greater Los Angeles Plans, Inc., included Oscar A. Trippet and  A. J. Cock.

Around me huddles a scattering of AWP attendees sitting alone at small cafe tables eating bananas and not making eye contact. Clearly this prickly bush spot is the designated introvert area. Their ages span "college magazine intern" through "full professor."

The temperature is about 10 degrees lower than balmy.

Next to the convention center is the Staples Center, home of the Los Angeles Lakers. They are a basketball team. You might have heard of them.

I have not yet brought myself to walk through the book fair and look for people I know. That will come later, after I finish my stint here with the introverts.

You'll be glad to hear, however, that my hotel bed is possibly the most comfortable bed ever made. It is astonishing. Also, no cats woke me in the night. I am living in the lap of luxury, if you don't count the sad people on the street corners.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Day 1: The Trip to California

Yesterday's gale dropped a fir tree smack in the middle of my raspberry patch. Now the air is very still, and there's a silver glitter to the sky. The Harmony temperature is forecast to rise precipitously this week, maybe into the sixties. All the crocuses will open their eyes, but I won't be here to watch them.

In my backpack are Trollope's Ralph the Heir, Fowles's The Magus, a collection of crossword puzzles, and a new purple notebook. I haven't chosen my book of travel poetry yet. I like poetry to be last-minute. 

Already I feel lonely, like dandelion fluff wafting over a meadow of dandelions. Here we all are, all by ourselves.

Tom tells me I should make sure to go do something fun in Los Angeles. It seems like a good idea, in theory. The question is, What counts as fun? 

Probably I should go choose that poetry book now. I'm tempted to pick something crabbed and difficult, like Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen, except that the binding is a wreck and all the pages are falling out. Still, I like the idea of reading The Faerie Queen in an airport. Once I copied out a lot of Paradise Lost in an airport, and that worked out well.
If I were practical, though, I would just choose something thin and modern. And maybe I ought to be practical. The hardcover copy of The Magus that I've already packed is ridiculously fat and heavy, and it smells like basement. Ralph the Heir is a Dover Thrift Edition that's seen better days. Adding the Flying Pages of Spenser is just asking for trouble.

I'll keep you posted. I'll have a lot of time to kill today. Also you should be glad I'm talking about books. It could be worse: I almost started talking about shoes.

* * *

Bangor "International" Airport resembles an old Walmart building that Walmart moved out of because it was too small. Nonetheless, it houses at least a dozen balding men in Homeland Security vests. Some of them are playing with the bomb-sniffing dog.

The glowering woman who checks my ID is convinced that I am up to no good. However, the guy who makes me take my boots off is jolly. Is this a good cop/bad cop thing?

Everyone waiting at the gate is meek and studious. It is like we are waiting for someone to pass out the SAT test forms. Meanwhile, on the TV around the corner, an anchorwoman discusses the terrorist attacks in Brussels.

I am surprised I haven't met any acquaintances here yet. Going to this airport can resemble going to the grocery store.

Talk to you again when I get to Philadelphia.

P.S. My flight is delayed. My flight is oversold. Everyone wants to ride a teeny-tiny plane to Philly.

* * *

Okay, the Philadelphia airport. What can I say about it?

First, the American Airlines terminal is very, very blue. Second, none of the people waiting for the flight to LA seem to have gotten dressed this morning with southern California on their minds. Third, striding around a giant airport in pale pink pointy-toed shoes with stiletto heels: why? and ow. [See, I did manage to talk about shoes.] Fourth, I chose the poetry of George Herbert in a sweet little 1960-era Oxford U. hardback with original spellings. Fifth, is the lady next to me a nun or just someone who wears a lot of navy blue broadcloth and sensible black shoes? [More shoes.] Six, I am glad I am not still the person who changes diapers in public places. Seven, some of these people sitting around me are probably poets, but they all look like fluorescently lit Americans. Eight, I myself am disguised as a fluorescently lit American. Nine, there's nothing like a happy toddler. Ten, there's nothing like a miserable toddler. Eleven, overheard conversation between the nun[?] and her friend: "The science fiction was surprisingly outrageous."

Monday, March 28, 2016

Yesterday I mixed up potting soil in the greenhouse, spread ashes on the thawing vegetable garden, shook fresh shavings onto the herb-garden paths. I baked hot cross buns and goat cheese lasagna and a sponge cake. I read a Trollope novel and scrubbed the bathtub and listened to a Velvet Underground record and vacuumed the living room.

The crocuses are beginning to open. Rhubarb is thrusting red knobs through leaf mulch. The cat stalks two fat mourning doves.

I open the collected poems of Jack Gilbert and read, "How astonishing it is that language can almost mean, / and frightening that it does not quite."

In an hour or so I will drive south, into rain. At dusk I will turn north again, into rain. "When the storm hit," writes Gilbert, "I was fording the river / and thinking of Doctor Johnson."

For the moment, though, crows still wheel and shout in the empty sky. It is not raining yet.

* * *

Tu Fu readers: Because I'll be on the road for most of this week, I'm going to ask you to take the lead on discussions of the most recent assignment (poems XXIV through XXX). Here are few possible prompts; but if you'd have something else you'd like to discuss, by all means bring it up. The first question is pretty straightforward; the last one is the most speculative. Follow whichever path you prefer.
What images do you like best and why? 
Do the images seem to extend across the poems? 
Does imagery do different work in different poems? 
How does the choice of images help the poet balance the weight of the tangible against the intangible?

Sunday, March 27, 2016

As you know, I have, as yet, been unable to find a publisher for Chestnut Ridge. My state of mind about the collection shuttles back and forth between confidence and despair . . . confidence because whenever I read these poems in public, audience members--many of them fine writers themselves--respond to the work intensely and intimately; despair because no publisher has shown any sign of responding in a parallel way. Regarding this collection, I have lapsed into a state of suspended animation: I cannot figure out what to do next.

Meanwhile, this past week has been a kind of apex of crushing poetry disappointment. So today, when I received a long email from a friend who, several months ago, had asked to read the manuscript, I was reluctant to open it. I knew he would be kind, but I just did not want to keep kicking the bruise that the manuscript has become.

What he did for me, though, was to resurrect a modicum of joy. It seems that, by chance, I had found one reader who was able to respond to the collection in the spirit in which I had constructed it. He was not focusing on individual pieces but reacting vividly to the arc of the book. It was, in a way, an Easter gift, a private resurgence of hope . . . not hope for publication necessarily; rather, hope in the collection as a coherent conversation.

I wish you all such a moment today, in whatever realm you most need.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

This is the quiet before the stampede. On Monday I'll be working in Portland all day. Then, on Wednesday, I fly to Los Angeles, where I'll be staffing the CavanKerry Press table at the AWP bookfair. I have not been to LA for 30 years, and I'll be spending the bulk of this visit inside a convention center. Nonetheless, it seems likely that I'll take in a few bursts of California warmth, or even glance at a flowering tree now and again.

I wonder what book I should bring along to read.

Last year, when I was at AWP in Minneapolis, a nice young woman very seriously asked if Tom and I were a power couple.

Um, no.

My bird feeder, however, seems to be loaded with power couples--mostly goldfinches. They spend a lot of time making threatening beak faces and pushing each other off perches.

Friday, March 25, 2016


Robert Frost

We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone really find us out.

'Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.

[from A Boy's Will, 1913]

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Spring in central Maine has gone haywire, as is its wont. Snow rain sleet rain snow, interrupted by heart-stopping blue skies and a raw wind, interrupted by snow rain sleet rain snow. Etcetera. Today, however, the forecast is meek. A perfect day for driving back and forth and back and forth doing dumb stuff like taking the smelly poodle to the groomer.

Now, in the new morning, two crows are shouting at each other as they careen among the tree tops. The washing machine churns a load of towels. The poems of Tu Fu trickle through my thoughts.

Last night my friend David sent me this remark from a biography of Marcel Proust:
"[There's] a kind of law of literary biography: someone who plays a walk-on part in real life may become an important character in a book, because an image, which coincides with one's secret expectations, may resound in the imagination for a long time; in contrast, old friends, brothers, even lovers, may disappear without trace."

The poignancy of memory . . . Who is important in a life, and who is not? . . . Who ranks that importance--the life itself or its after-the-fact collator? History is a melancholy business.

I've been mourning the chaos in Brussels, of course; mourning also the hideousness of our national politics. The poignancy of memory sandwiched against the brutality of lived experience . . . it's no wonder people pretend that the old times were better. "Pull the blankets over your head," the voice urges. "Go back to dreaming."

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

from Ralph the Heir by Anthony Trollope

Sir Thomas Underwood . . . was one of those who are not able to make themselves known intimately to any. I am speaking now of a man of sixty, and I am speaking also of one who had never yet made a close friend,--who had never by unconscious and slow degrees of affection fallen into that kind of intimacy with another man which justifies and renders necessary mutual freedom of intercourse in all the affairs of life. And yet he was possessed of warm affections, was by no means misanthropic in his nature, and would, in truth, have given much to be able to be free and jocund as are other men. He lacked the power that way, rather than the will. To himself it seemed to be a weakness in him rather than a strength that he should always be silent, always guarded, always secret and dark. He had lamented it as an acknowledged infirmity;--as a man grieves that he should be short-sighted, or dull of hearing; but at the age of sixty he had taken no efficient steps towards curing himself of the evil, and had now abandoned all idea of any such cure.

* * *

Descriptions such as this one are why I return to the novels of Anthony Trollope. Despite their clutter of middle-class Victoriana, they offer as precise and as sympathetic a delineation of everyday character as I have ever read. How many Sir Thomas Underwoods have you met? Or perhaps you are a Sir Thomas yourself . . . the one who grieves, as Chu Shu Chen does, "Tonight as always / There is no one to share my thoughts."

Monday, March 21, 2016

A thin snow is sifting through the dark air--sugaring the strips and tussocks of bare ground; muting the spikes of chives and daffodils, the crooked scallions, the folded sorrel leaves. No blossoms anywhere yet; just these tough greens muscling through the frostbitten soil.

In the yellow kitchen, an earthenware jar of deep pink tulips rests on the elderly chrome and formica table. In the blue living room, a bowl of scarlet begonias glimmers against window glass. The woodstove murmurs. The white cat washes his feet on the black hearthrug.

Color, so brave and bright, battling this dour northern spring . . . every year it lifts my heart.

Tu Fu readers: Let's move on to poems XXIV through XXX.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Saturday Night at the Motor Lodge

A vast pitted parking lot spreads across a small rise topped by a long row of dark rooms. Each room window is half-covered with what appear to be drapes made from chocolate-brown vinyl shower curtains. The office/lounge is positioned in the exact center of this building. "Open" says the neon sign. However, upon entering the empty lobby, a visitor immediately confronts a front desk with a sign that reads "I'm not here." Simultaneously she is overwhelmed by the scent of chlorine. And sure enough, she notes the presence of large tarp-covered swimming pool. The mixed signals are confusing (chlorine suggests "swim"? tarp suggests "don't swim"? wide-open doors between lounge and pool suggest incipient chaos?).

The lounge itself is a cavernous low-ceilinged room finished in knotty-pine paneling and heavily decorated with giant Twisted Tea bottles, reproductions of catchy 1950s-ish drinking comedy ("Beer is why I wake up in the afternoon!"), as well as a Dustin Pedroia® baseball glove signed in Sharpie by someone whose initials are clearly not Dustin Pedroia's. There is an Austin Powers-themed pinball machine and a video game in which you can pretend to hunt bunnies. The bulletin board advertises an upcoming gun show/potluck supper. Four large TVs hang over the bar. When I arrived one was showing Fox News, one was showing the Kentucky-Indiana game, and two were showing UFC fighting. Over the course of the evening the channel choices simplified into three showing UFC fighting and one showing motocross racing.

As soon as I walked in, the barmaid said, "Do you know what you want to eat or can I go back outside and finish my cigarette?" I assured her that I was very happy to let her finish smoking and looked around for my band members. They were setting up equipment over by the back door, in front of a putative dance floor marked out with safety tape. Later, after we started playing, the owner turned on a few disco lights. During the course of our show only one couple and a dog were ever seen using this dance floor.

Interestingly the acoustics of the motor lodge were quite good, and this also meant that we could hear each other very well. Thus, our rhythm was tight and we played confidently. The six customers who arrived early in the evening enjoyed the music very much. However, after our fans left, the remaining fifteen patrons paid almost no attention at all for the subsequent two and a half hours. Their attention was absorbed by (1) UFC fighting, (2) cigarette breaks out back, and (3) something furtive going on in the unlit Event Room next door, which at one point required a mop.

At the end of the show, while we were packing up our equipment, the owner assured us that he had enjoyed the music. This was unclear but it was nice of him to say so. Then we started carting our stuff to the van, which required us to go out back, where all the cigarette activity had been happening. Here we came across the barmaid, who was sitting on a picnic table and smoking. She said in a friendly manner, "Too bad nobody came."

The out-back area consisted of a long concrete strip running along the backside of some of the motel rooms. It featured a number of rough tables and benches that might have been quickly assembled with the aid of a chainsaw. In the center was a rusty brazier filled with strips of chipboard, all ready for a cozy fire. The concrete itself was ominously smeared with dark red stains, which probably weren't old blood since the dog was paying no attention to them. At the very end of this concrete pad hulked an enormous logger-sized brush pile clearly dragged and dumped by a skidder, though the choice of position did seem odd as it was blocking the entrance to the parking lot. It complicated our van-loading project; we had to be careful not to overlook any of the amps we had stacked behind the pine boughs.

All in all, it was a memorable evening and we all enjoyed it. Compared to many poetry readings, our "audience" was almost a crowd. There were no brawls, and no one tried to pick me up, which I guess is a good argument for the existence of three TVs tuned to UFC fighting. Also the dog was very good looking.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

I've had to do a crazy amount of speaking, singing, editing, note writing, and project judging over the past couple of days; and as a result I'm now raspy and word-drunk . . . which is to say, I'm not sure what to write to you this morning. So perhaps I will tell you about the strange intersection of former-student news. Teachers, I know you'll recognize the odd sensation that arises when you suddenly discover that something you worked on in the classroom might have mattered to a student you didn't know was taking much interest in what you were doing. Well, I had a version of that three times this week. First, I learned that a former Harmony student, whom I remember best as a Little League first baseman, has decided to become a high school English teacher. Then I got a note from a university professor I don't know, who mentioned that another former Harmony student had written a long and enthusiastic personal narrative about how much she loved learning music and poetry from me in elementary school. And last night, a third former Harmony student sent me this note:
I saw one of your books in our library!!!!!!!! I was looking at some poetry and i just was scanning and then i saw your name and i thought nah that can't be her... and when i looked at the picture in the back my eyes were as wide as dinner plates. i thought it was so awesome
So along with feeling raspy and word-drunk, I'm feeling a bit weepy this morning. As a traveling teacher, I rarely get the opportunity to experience this kind of delayed teaching gratification. But for seven years, I experimented once a week with this clutch of kids in Harmony. I was neither an accomplished teacher nor an accomplished poet, and I made a million mistakes on the job. It seems, though, that a couple of things we did together stuck.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Spring. The gravel roads are dissolving into mire. The tar roads have buckled into badlands. Every afternoon I sweep bushels of grit out of the house. Oblivious to the drizzle, the white cat stares into a mud puddle. The poodle, festooned with twigs and leafmeal, celebrates the thawing compost pile.

Last night at band practice, after we ran through the song "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover" (made famous by Bo Diddley), our bass player mused, "You know, you really can't judge a book by its cover. It's so true!" And then, not ten minutes later, the guitar player sighed and pointed out, "You can only get as perfect as you can get." At this point we did start to laugh, and I suggested that perhaps we should begin selling copies of Doughty Hill Aphorisms at our shows.

Still, I've been thinking since about the way in which music so often makes complex use of what, in poetry, would be rank cliche. And I've also been thinking about the sweetness of listening to a person earnestly work to figure out something essential about being alive.

"You know, you really can't judge a book by its cover. It's so true!"

"You can only get as perfect as you can get."

Today, as I page through my poems to get ready for tonight's reading, I'm might try to let these two remarks guide my choices. I'll be interested to see how that set list turns out.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Tomorrow evening I'll be reading at Common Street Arts in Waterville, 5:30 p.m., along with novelist Ron Currie, Jr. Ron is a Waterville native who received the Young Lions Fiction Award from the New York Public Library a few years ago and whose books have gotten considerable attention from the New York Times, NPR, and the New Yorker. I'd love to see you there and eat dinner with you afterward, so please do come hang out if you're in the mood.

On Friday I'll be leading an all-day professional development workshop, right here at the Harmony School, on "Teaching Writing As Art and Practice." This is a big deal for me, and I'm kind of nervous. I began my association with the school as the naive parent of a chatterbox kindergartener. I morphed into a volunteer who taught poems and songs to K-1 students. Then I was tapped to replace the part-time K-8 music teacher, so I taught at the school once a week for seven years . . . mostly singing but with a bit of poetry slipped in. My title was "long-term sub," and I was definitely in apprentice mode--absorbing teaching skills on the fly, watching the professionals around me, trying out new things and failing every day.

My tenure at the school ended when the state began enforcing certification, even for such an extremely part-time position in such a remote, difficult-to-staff location. I continued to occasionally volunteer as a writer in my sons' classes, but the school was immersed in administrative turmoil for a few years, and no one was at all focused on taking me seriously as a writing specialist.

Years passed. And then suddenly, without warning: "We have a grant. Would you be willing to come in and lead an inservice workshop and a student writing day?" The last time I saw most of these teachers, I was sitting in a parent-teacher meeting or maybe helping the nurse with the eye exams. To be invited in as the expert is a very, very strange sensation.

But wait, there's more: after that's over, there's Saturday, when I'll be playing my first-ever gig at a motor lodge. I can't wait to give you the lowdown on this one.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Yesterday I received the pleasant news that Green Mountains Review will publish "Eight-Track-Tape Player," one of the clutch of new poems that I wrote this past winter. It's a narrative vignette that follows a more or less predictable dramatic pattern until the end, when there's a kind of denouement hiccup that (I hope) refracts the poem in time and adds uncertainty to the trajectory of the characters' future relationship. As I worked on the poem, I kept thinking about the variations in how a piece of music ends. Sometimes there's a very satisfying, utterly expected stride into the tonic, but sometimes, at the very end, the composer or the performers lead our ears elsewhere--into a hanging dissonance, perhaps, or maybe into a companion key, such as a relative minor, that entirely shifts the listener's mood. Anyway, "Eight-Track-Tape Player" is a poem with an ending that slips suddenly into a relative minor. It should appear online within a few months, so you can tell me then about whether or not you think that move works.

I also want to talk to you this morning about a book I've just finished: Tom Rayfiel's new novel, Genius. You might remember how much I liked his previous novel, In Pinelight, and in between reading that one and this one, I've also had the privilege of looking at a draft of a novel in progress. So one thing I'm beginning to realize is that Tom is really, really good at channeling voices, even though the quality of those voices varies wildly from book to book. I find myself imagining his characters as earworms: personalities, tones, presences that he cannot get out of his thoughts but that take over his creative life in spite of whatever else he thought he was doing.

The back cover tells me that Genius was "written with the careening effervescence of Barbara Pym on crack," but the parallel that comes to my mind is Larry McMurtry--particularly novels such as Texasville and Duane's Depressed, in which the characters, major and minor, thrash through their small-town lives like branches in a gale--taking down power lines, right and left. Yet they treat themselves and their behavior--whether that be (in the case of of Tom's characters) dealing meth, or getting knocked up by a priest, or breaking the neck of an attacking pitbull, or recovering from cancer--as nearly comprehensible, as almost neighborly. My adverbs are important caveats here. Nearly and almost reinforce Tom's point that we can never actually understand anything; yet, like McMurtry's, most of his characters accept such ignorance as simple common sense. Even his central character, Kara, the brainy philosophy major, eventually allows herself to relax into that communal anti-knowledge.
I try thinking things through at the counter of Kreski's, our local luncheonette. Sometimes it helps to have a low-level murmur in the background. I am hoping that by placing myself between a discussion of hysterectomies ("They took something out of her as big as a grapefruit!") and what threatens to become a physical altercation concerning steel-belted radial tires, I will be able to arrive at an appropriate course of action. What I really need is a push. I should be calling clinics, figuring a way to scrape together money, arranging for transportation . . . Frankly, though, considering my circumstances, all that seems laughable. I pour sugar in my coffee and do not bother to stop, marveling at how the white waterfall dissolves in the sludgy brown liquid without raising the level one bit. It dispels the laws of physics and so invalidates, in advance, any attempt I might make to employ logic in solving my problems.
As a person who cannot write plots, I am always amazed and impressed by people who can. I do love those hairpin turns, those comic melodramas, and that special readerly feeling of being the passenger in a car that may or may not spin off the road and hit a tree. Genius is a very funny novel that is also a very sad and ambiguous one. Most of the characters don't find resolution or higher love, and it seems likely they will continue to murder nursing home patients or seduce Mormon missionaries or whatever it was that they were doing already. In many ways, the book is an old-fashioned Dickensian romp/social document, except that Tom doesn't wrap up anything neatly.  Yet as Kara says about the sensation of getting a tattoo, the novel "puts my senses on high alert, sharpens them. I am aware, even if it is an awareness of damage being done."

Monday, March 14, 2016

Last night I dreamed that a college friend was really a 1917-era Communist revolutionary. This morning, the shreds and tatters of that dream still haunt me--glimpses of the phantasmagoric city where he revealed his secret life . . . cobblestones, candlelight, the shadows of passersby . . . a world enveloped in a brown Dostoyevskian twilight. Do any of these images have relevance to the historical realities of 1917? They seem more like Victorian London in a coal-induced fog, but my brain enjoyed borrowing them for a different movie. In any case, none of them seems at all relevant to waking up in early-twenty-first-century rural Maine, this fabled place where trucks grumble in the forests and airplanes soar among the stars, where people build outhouses and wake to the cries of a barred owl. where they milk cows and shoot deer and overdose on heroin.

In such moods--which you might liken to the sensation of catching my fingers in a pretend-mousetrap--I'm liable to hear Hayden Carruth's voice in my head--not necessarily a specific poem, more like some version of his point of view, the way he clashes civilizations and chaos. Or maybe I find myself bumping against his sharp, sardonic, sad northernness.

In "They Accuse Me of Not Talking," he writes: "But take / notice please of what happens. Winter on the brain. / You're literate, so words are what you feel."

Yes, I think, trying not remember how the poem ends:
Then you're struck dumb. To which love can you speak
the words that mean dying and going insane
and the relentless futility of the real?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The yellow kitchen is shadowy now . . . a square of light above the stove, a blue burner flame under a steel kettle, glimmers of reflection in the glass cupboard doors. Outside a gale blunders and roars through the trees. Here, under this lamplight, in this howling half-dark, I might be living in a cottage in the Grimms' brothers' forest.

Specters are everywhere. The ghosts of apple trees glow in the wood stove; the ghosts of ancestors spin among the gusts and draughts; the ghosts of myself sneeze in the dusty corners of cupboards. I listen. . . . Sometimes I believe what they tell me.

Still, the wild geese are flying: I watched a clutch of them yesterday battling their way north.

Instructions for Foreigners (1912) 
Dawn Potter 
Eloquence is not required;
we explain every word that you say.
There is no charge to enter,
merely a charge to stay.

A nail in a hoof is worth two in a hand.
Thoughts are like men in a boat.
If a sentence is trapped on a sandbar,
only its bones will float.

As melodies flit, you should count them
before you prepare to cry.
For lack of a nail, your horse was shot.
Burn the barn, and your eyes will dry. 
[from Chestnut Ridge]

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Why Troubles Come, or "And the Brook Dried Up"

As Tom sorted through his records yesterday, he came across this one, acquired in some bargain bin or other when he was in his stage of bringing home 70s-era gospel albums, mostly for the sake of their remarkable covers.

Nearly all of these albums feature groups no one has ever heard of--say, the Singing Sigrist Family (We've Come Too Far To Ever Turn Back), and Free Spirit (They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love), and Sing With Young America! (The Newest Adventure In Sacred Music). Many are family bands. A number feature elaborate homemade costumes. A few are disguised as hip.

Troubles, however, is an undated LP recording of a sermon by "Dr. Jerry Falwell, Pastor, Thomas Road Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Virginia." Above is a photograph of the front cover, but the back cover shows that the jacket was also designed to serve as a mailing envelope. It features space for a mailing address,  a printed prepaid postage mark, and alarmist handling instructions: "PHONOGRAPH RECORD / DO NOT DROP OR CRUSH / KEEP AWAY FROM / EXCESSIVE HEAT." The back cover also informs me that "The Thomas Road Baptist Church . . . was established June 21, 1956. Christian Life Magazine, September 1971 issue, stated that Thomas Road Church 'is the fastest growing church in America.'" The church's address is printed twice on the back cover so that no one will overlook it.

But the most notable feature of the back cover is the Falwell family portrait: "Dr. Falwell, (wife) Macel / Jerry Jr., Jeannie, Jonathan." The family seems to be posing in front of a large, shadowy Christmas tree. Dr. Falwell, looking a bit like Ted Cruz but with less hair, is natty in a blue suit jacket and dark red tie. (Wife) Macel, smiling but slightly haggard, as if she's been up all night crying, wears a red sweater dress. Jeannie and Jonathan, standing in front of their mother, look like regular third graders in 1970s church clothes. But Jerry Jr. is a different story. He appears to be 12 or 13 in this picture. He stands in front of his father, whose hand is gripping his shoulder, yet he is leaning away from the rest of the family. His mouth is tight. He is the only unsmiling Falwell.

Let's return to the front cover. In the bottom photo, we see "Doug Oldham" posed with "Jerry [Sr.]" "on the Mount of Olives." Behind them is a blurry collection of buildings that is apparently "the Old City of Jerusalem." Doug and Jerry are both wearing suits and trenchcoats and seem to be competing with a stiff wind. They look like car salesmen on vacation. In fact, however, Oldham was a singer who performed frequently on Falwell's television program The Old-Time Gospel Hour and on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's show The PTO Club. (Remember Jim and Tammy Faye?)

The top photo shows "Jerry, Sr. and Jerry, Jr. in the wilderness near the Dead Sea." Once again Jerry, Sr., is gripping his kid, this time clasping his child's chest and staring (reverently?) into the blurry beige landscape. Jerry, Jr., looks happier than he does on the back cover, but maybe that's because he's holding a large camera of the sort that few children ever got to hold in the 1970s. Still there's something odd about the photo. Is this love, or is Jerry, Sr., planning to throttle Jerry, Jr., and push him off the cliff?

Though this album is undated, I suspect it slightly predates the meteoric rise of the Moral Majority, which Falwell founded in 1979 as "God's Own Party" and which became the evangelical blueprint for how to interfere in government, social, and cultural affairs. Falwell himself died in 2007, but the family business lives on. Little Jonathan Falwell is now the senior pastor at Thomas Road Baptist Church. Jerry, Jr., is the chancellor of Liberty University, founded by his father. Jeannie, intriguingly, is now chief of surgery at a Virginia medical center. (Wife) Macel, who, according to her obituary, "described herself as a prim and proper lady who'd been raised in the arms of a protective Christian family," died in 2015. "Throughout our marriage," she once wrote, "I was shy, fearful, and even certain that none of Jerry's wild ideas would work."

All of this has led me to mull over the curious the fact that Jerry, Jr., recently endorsed Donald Trump for the presidency . . . not Ted Cruz, as his family background might have led one to guess. How does a little prince of the Moral Majority decide to back a candidate with none of that coalition's touted values? It's easy to be cynical about his rationale, and perhaps the cynical answer is the true one. But when I look at the photos on Why Troubles Come, I have to wonder about that child, about his relationship with his father, about the thoughts running through in his middle-school mind. I wonder what else he was doing in the Holy Land while his father was posing on the Mount of Olives?

Friday, March 11, 2016

A dim grey morning. It rained last night and, now, in the circle of yard between the house and the sheds, I can see that much of the sodden snow has melted away into grassy mud. Beneath the big apple tree, the tips of daffodils spear through wet leaf litter. A vague green shimmers in the dead grass. But snow still blankets the gardens, the raspberry patch; it still fills the ridges and rills of the forest.

I am drinking black coffee in a yellow and white kitchen. The empty counters shine. The plates smile on their shelves.

Snowmelt drips from the eaves; I hear the wood stove click, the dog sigh. Yesterday I bought plane tickets for Los Angeles, but right now it is hard to imagine that Los Angeles exists.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

My yard and the woods are still filled with snow, but the temperature yesterday rose to nearly 60 degrees, and in the soft mud near the apple tree, I spotted the first crocus leaves of the season. I don't think I've ever seen spring shoots appear here so early. But before long, of course, we'll get smacked with a giant snowstorm, and that will be the end of spring till May.

Tu Fu readers, there are new comments about the most recent reading assignment, so check them out and add your own.

Lately I've had the pleasure of copyediting Gray Jacobik's manuscript of new and selected poems, which won the William Meredith Foundation's Meredith Award and is forthcoming later this year. If you don't know Gray's work, you should make a point of looking for it. In The Conversation, I excerpted a set of poems from her verse-memoir, Little Boy Blue; and now I am in love with so many of these newer poems, which I'd never seen before.  Here's a bit from "The Laundromat":
Never has she dared more than the commonest of dreams,
only what is likely, or what can be hers for a few dollars.
What she desires is unclear, unimagined, 
though she senses how vast and terrifying it is,
that it is filled with a softness as dark as the hemlocks on the ridge,
their branches bent like the enveloping wings of a crow
who descends suddenly above her,
lands, and tosses down snow.
I would like to hear Gray's thoughts on Tu Fu's poems because I sense a commonality, though I haven't yet parsed my ideas on the matter. Certainly she is able to inhabit, even in third person, the past-present-future of this character . . . and that, I think, is what I long for, and so often don't find, in poems: the ability to surrender oneself into another being. I've read poems lately in which the narrative voices dance and describe and gesticulate--often very beautifully--without convincing me that the poets are living inside what they describe so intensely. The character under discussion has become a mirror, a fetish, an object of desire or despair. This is not so with Gray's poems, or Tu Fu's.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

A Message for the Candidates

The Owl

Edward Thomas

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.


* * *

This poem was written by a British poet and army officer who was killed in the Great War. He had been Robert Frost's beloved friend-in-the-art in before either became famous, and in all his long life Frost never had another such intimacy.

Neither Donald J. Trump nor Ted Cruz will ever read this poem. I doubt that, in real life, either would even notice the voice of an owl, let alone speculate about it. For their part, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders may have read it at some point in the past, but they probably don't reserve much time for poetry these days. Both are bright enough to comprehend a version of its point, but could they press themselves into its impossibilities? I suspect not.

I like this poem for many reasons, not least because it forces me to face the moral ambiguities of comfort. The poet's food and rest are "salted" by the owl's voice, yet the owl speaks "for all who lay under the stars, / . . . unable to rejoice." The inclusion of "sobered" doesn't take away from the starkness of that "salted" . . . just as knowing that others are miserable does not altogether dampen our deep, civilizing delight in physical ease. I say "civilizing" but I might have said "animal comfort." Is it possible that they are the same?

In other words: what are the costs when people fail to imagine?

* * *

I thank A. E. Stallings for reminding me of this poem today, and for her continuing advocacy for the Syrian and Afghan families "who [lie] under the stars, / . . . unable to rejoice," yet who do rejoice, because they are human and alive.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Well, last night's Twitter chat went better than expected! Lots of North American teachers talking and listening, many new acquaintances exposed to our Frost Place ideas: I was really pleased, and also grateful for the support of conference alums Amy and Jean, who contributed greatly to the conversation.

Today, I will trudge onward into my stacks of editing; and also will have a confab about AWP in Los Angeles, where I'll be working for CavanKerry Press; and also will have the fun of putting plates and glasses back into newly painted cupboards. Strange as it may seem, I am enjoying housework these days.

But next week will be different: a project due on Tuesday, a reading on Thursday, a workshop on Friday, a gig on Saturday. . . . I'm trying to project a facsimile of calm. Everything will be fine. Not much housework will get done.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Tu Fu readers: Check out Peg's compelling speculation on the theme of drunkenness in Tu Fu's poetry. I'd love to hear your reactions before I share my own.

NCTE #poetrychat with me: Tonight, 8 p.m. (EST). Be there and/or be square.

Must go work. Must go work. Must go work. Talk to you later.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

I spent yesterday painting in the kitchen, then scouring counters, cleaning out cupboards, weeding out unnecessary stuff, piling it in the Goodwill basket. Midafternoon, the dog and I went for a walk on the icy trail and puzzled over what I think might be bobcat scat. Tom worked on the stereo cabinet he's building for the living room. We ate steamed mussels and potato-rice salad for dinner. I slept hard all night and dreamed of other people's children.

I spent yesterday editing back-cover copy for The Vagabond's Bookshelf. I read a passage from the Aeneid and stared at the dark pink blossoms of the begonia blooming at the window.

I spent yesterday laughing with Tom: over the relentless optimism of the Village People, over the cat slithering into a roll of paper and then punching his paw through it.

I spent yesterday thinking about the sadness of time, about loneliness, about neglect and anger, about the horrors of the Republican presidential candidates, about unwritten, unreadable poems, about dismay and disgust, about sweetness.

I spent yesterday sitting in a yellow chair in a blue room in a patch of sunlight in Maine in early March in the young millennium in peace in worry in love.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Because I have friends who are sad, I thought I'd share this.
from Czeslaw Milosz, Abecadlo Milosza (Milosz's ABCs), translated from the Polish by Madeline G. Levine 
Time. . . . To think about time means to think about human life, and this is such a broad topic that to consider it means to think in general. The differences that divide us--sex, race, skin color, customs, beliefs, ideas--pale in comparison with the fact that we are all woven out of time, that we are born and we die, mayflies who live but a day. The inconceivable "now" escapes backward or inclines forward, it is already a memory or an aspiration. Speech, in which we communicate, is modulated time, just like music. And do not painting and architecture translate rhythm into space? 
I am filled with the memory of people who lived and died. I write about them, conscious all the while that in a moment, I, too, will be gone. Together we are like a cloud or a nebula among the human constellations of the twentieth century. . . .
Edgar Allan Poe referred to the melancholy of transience as the most poetic of tonalities. We read poems written thousands of years ago, and everywhere there is the same lament, a meditation on the river's current, on our appearance and disappearance.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Ten below zero this morning. This has been the strangest winter I've ever experienced. One day it's 40 degrees and raining; the next, we've dropped into the deep freeze. Meanwhile, the chickadees are singing their spring songs, and the barred owls are carousing in the icy woods. Little by little the days lengthen their twilights. Golden squares of sunlight carpet the floors.

Though I could not reach any of my high notes, I did manage to sing at band practice yesterday. I did manage to sleep all night long and to wake in the morning without feeling like I should be fed to the dog. Convalescence is sweet. I wrote a poem about it once . . . a paean to Robert Louis Stevenson (dying of consumption but pretending that he wasn't) and his beloved wife Fanny.


Dawn Potter

Bright morning in a garden chair
on the esplanade, mummified, half-prone,
amid shawls and thick rugs,
pleased to watch the steady wavelets

chink among the stones of the shingle,
the rain-dark weed; couples sprinkled
athwart the plage in rational pairings,
small ones crouched at the margin

of the tongued sea, white-frocked mothers
paused above them, parasols bowing
under the clean wind like cormorants.
And we helpless, not unhappy ones

also take the air—infants, fragile parents,
consumptive collectors of nature—
our rôle in the seaside schema clear
as looking-glass to any novelist

or digging child: we are the audience,
safely tucked beyond a cavernous
proscenium: no change, no dénouement;
our part mere endless, watchful pause.

Even I could pencil volumes in the room
of this eternal morning, placid time arrested,
every actor idle now, except my wife.
Fifty paces lonely, down the gravel walk,

she ducks the crown of her hat
gravely into wind—so thin, so spare,
yet she presses forward and away,
eager ship bound for passage,

fruit of the Indies sweet as her mind’s eye,
though her only voyage is this solitary
foray to the jetty, servant of wind and salt,
gull-compass, adrift in the northern sea.

How simply she recedes.
A gust lifts the hem of her dress: and half
my heart cries desolation,
half croons its own brief hymn to solitude.

Even ardent sentinels require space
for love, a narrowed lens,
each elastic link of habit tense
and re-invigoured by our loneliness.

Tide splinters over pebbles, a rampant gust
seizes heedless gulls; the mothers on the beach
cling to parasols; and on the esplanade,
we invalids rustle in our chairs,

alarmed by autumn’s deadly kiss.
Far down the jetty, my doll-wife pauses,
then turns, landward, hands to her hat,
brim bent, dark ribbons flying.

Now is the season of departure,
rich kick of wings into the east wind,
an avian ecstasy of sinew and speed.
Nothing seems less likely than return,

and yet her lips shape a query.
What rights have the earthbound
to answer nay? I raise my book aloft,
air drums between us like a harp-string,

and she begins to laugh, one glove
clutching her hat, the other
her fluttered skirt: the wind tears
at her hair; and laughing still,

she flings up both hands to me,
to the gull-current, sky
awash with ribbons, with silk;
and she runs.

[from How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry Press, 2004)]

Thursday, March 3, 2016

My post is late this morning because I was helping Tom paint the kitchen.

Sunshine is flooding through the dusty windows. Branches and treetops whip in the bitter breeze.

Onward, onward.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Nasty weather, and the morning thus far has been squandered in a community flurry of "do we send our kids to school if the roads are [in the words of one father] 'a bottle'"? The end result of our dithering is that not many Harmony kids will appear at high school today. Few hearts are broken, I suspect.

Downstairs Tom is removing cabinet doors for painting. Upstairs the cat is crouched on a windowsill, switching his tail and glowering at the sleet. Fir branches bend wearily under their ice loads.

I have begun copying out Ted Hughes's translation of Ferenc Juhasz's "The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets." Juhasz was a Hungarian poet, born in 1928, who died this past December. Here's the opening of his remarkable long poem:
The mother called after her son
from the far distance.
The mother called after her son
from the far distance,
she went out in front of the house, calling
and she loosened her hair’s thick knot
which the dusk wove to a dense, stirring veil,
a valuable robe sweeping the earth,
wove to a stiff and heavily-flaring mantle,
a banner for the wind with ten black tassels,
a shroud, in the fire-slashed blood-heavy twilight.
She twisted her fingers among the fine tendrils
of the stars, the moon’s suds bleached her features,
and she called after her son shrilly
as she called him long ago, a small child,
she went out from the house talking to the wind,
and spoke to the song-birds, her words overtaking
the wild geese going in couples,
to the shivering bulrushes,
to the potato flower in its pallor,
to the clench-balled bulls rooted so deeply,
to the fragrant shadowy mulch,
she spoke to the fish where they leaped playfully,
to the momentary oil-rings, mauve and fleeting.
The repetitions; the metaphors--unexpected, dense, gothic--which my mind accepts as precision and truth; the crowd of images, a world of images, unified into the narrative drama of the unfolding tale . . . already I can see that this poem is a lesson in storytelling that I need to learn.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

I'm slowly, slowly crawling out of my sickness hole, but this has been a very unpleasant week. I still feel as if I ought to take four or five naps a day, though I actually did get a useful amount of work done yesterday, and I even took a small walk in the woods. I wonder if I've had some kind of flu/head cold combination. My level of exhaustion seems ridiculous for a plain old cold.

Anyway, here I am, awake and upright and more or less eager to greet the morning. Tom plans to begin painting the kitchen today. I plan to edit footnotes in an academic ms, begin work on another poet's new-and-selected ms, and perhaps copy out a few of Ted Hughes's translations, if I can find the energy. Or I may sit in a sunny corner and do a crossword puzzle.

Here's my charming new sunny corner. You can see why it's so difficult to resist.