Thursday, September 29, 2016

Finally I spent some time last night editing the poems in my fledgling Song Book collection. The manuscript has been lying on a table in the living room for days now, and I have persevered in ignoring it. For some reason I have not had even the slightest wish to read my own work. Every time I glance at it, I wince. It's not that I dislike the poems or the task of editing them, but there's something in my head that is driving me away from creative work. I blame this stupid house-selling mess, along with its stupid house-selling vocabulary: escrow, walk-through, price point. I am being transformed into a jargon-bot.

Tonight I have band practice, and for two hours nobody in the room will use the words "priced to sell" or "desirable neighborhood" or "cute as a button, just needs your finishing touch." I can't wait.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

It's a dark morning, overcast and cool. I have not mowed grass for days now. I think I may have reached the end of the season, when suddenly the damp sway of green becomes a dear notion of spring, not a beckoning chore. A few autumn mushrooms are springing up in the forest leaf litter. The maples are beginning to redden, and the dahlias and asters are blossoming hysterically.

My little cat and I went for a walk yesterday evening. Everywhere we found signs of deer, most notably in my garden, where they've reduced the kale and chard to bare stems. One deer has taken to lingering close to the house, and she doesn't flinch from her apple eating when I stand close to the window or open the door.

It is impossible to imagine never seeing this autumn again.

Last weekend Tom and I walked along a small city pier. Above us the Casco Bay Bridge rumbled as cars shunted back and forth between Portland and South Portland. Under our feet seawater tumbled and glimmered; the wind whistled in our ears and blew back our coats. Sailboats rocked on their moorings and a jet slid down toward its runway. Everything followed a pattern, except for me.

Perhaps that is the essence of the difficulty: the thought that I have no pattern yet.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

I did not watch the debates last night. I was not even tempted to watch them. I am, of course, terrified that Trump will win, but he is unbearable to contemplate in the flesh, pixilated or otherwise. So instead I lit a small fire in the woodstove, and I cooked chicken and tomatoes, and I listened to a recording of Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding live at the Monterey Pop Festival. I took some notes on what I was hearing. A few of them go like this:
Jimi talks to the audience, pleads, in a nerdy way, “O don’t be mad,” and then quickly tries to disguise it as hippie cool.

Much of the intro to his version of Wild Thing depends on his need to forget that he’s nerdy, which he’s very successful at because his Wild Thing ends up being one of the most erotic versions ever. 
Otis was glad to learn new things, like figuring out what it would be like to play for the hippie crowd. And Jimi had class anxiety, afraid he couldn’t fit into Otis’s cool. I find this very touching and would like to make dinner for both of these boys. 
But both of them were dead before I ever heard their first notes.

Monday, September 26, 2016

I have returned from my long weekend of driving, son-visiting, driving, house-hunting, and driving. Little Ruckus was pleased to see me, and this was the first time I've ever returned from a cool autumn trip to an empty house that is warm and comfortable. O the miracle of fossil fuels.

We still haven't found any houses that make us happy, though . . . or at least none that we can afford. Perhaps they don't exist.

And now I will stride off to begin the week: editing, laundry, eye doctor, lawn mowing. Perhaps a few poems will trickle into the hours.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Discussing Geoffrey Hill's Poem "The White Ship"

Guest post by Ruth Harlow

"The White Ship" is seemingly about a naval tragedy in 1120, when William Adelin, the only legitimate son of Henry I of England, died during a storm. There are various theories about why this ship sank. Those who drowned included Adelin,  his half-sister Matilda, and his half-brother Richard. Adelin's death led to a succession crisis and a period of civil war in England known as the Anarchy.

Many of the early lines appear to be rather straightforward in telling about the naval tragedy; however, the last lines have puzzled me and intrigued me, as I believe they are meant to tell us more. The punctuation is especially noteworthy.
Silences all who would interfere; 
Retains, still, what it might give
As casually as it took away:
Creatures passed through the wet sieve
Without enrichment or decay.
What are your thoughts?

* * *

Note from Dawn: I will be on the road this weekend, so you may or may not hear from me before Monday. In the meantime, Hill readers can focus on commenting on Ruth's post.

Thursday, September 22, 2016


I slept till 8 this morning, which is bizarrely late for me, but I was fighting with a dream that I could not shake. It was one of those dreams that the dreamer believes is true, and in this case I was being confronted by Mary, who runs the town transfer station, about throwing piles of garbage into the road in front of my house instead of bagging it up and bringing it to the dump. I knew I was guilty, I knew I had done it, I couldn't explain why, and now I was a public pariah, and in my dream I was horrified at myself and deeply, deeply ashamed. Even now I am still so entrapped in that scenario that I can almost remember emptying all my trash onto the pavement.

Now, in the forgiving sunlight, I could let myself assume that all that shame and garbage were symbols for some interior distress. Or I could assume that the garbage imagery is related to all the stuff I'm shedding as I get ready to leave this house. Or I could assume that my dream was some version of my anger and helplessness as I read about the continuing violence against black Americans; the poisoning of young Muslim men; truckloads of food for starving Syrians being deliberately destroyed in airstrikes; the insouciant inanity of that gargoyle who thinks he wants to be president.

I sit here in my placid kitchen, and I think about the young woman's body, found a few hundred yards from her house in Fairfield, Maine, and her husband, arrested yesterday for her murder . . . a husband who earlier in the week had been giving television interviews about how much he missed her: "O please come home, honey!"

I feel sick.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Geoffrey Hill readers: Our next poem will be "The White Ship," and in a few days Ruth will offer some opening thoughts and questions about the piece.

* * *

I find that I can't stop thinking about the phrase from the John Fowles passage I posted yesterday. "Solitary obstinacy" is such an exact description of what it feels like to be an aging person who keeps doggedly trying to make art.

* * *

Yesterday I printed out a sheaf of post-Chestnut Ridge poems and began reading through them. I may or may not have a complete manuscript. But I have something, and oddly it seems to require very little editing.

* * *

"By all means let us appease the terse gods."

--Geoffrey Hill, from "Ode on the Loss of the 'Titanic'"

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

[There is a pretense] that genius, making it, is arrived at by overnight experiment, histrionics, instead of endless years of solitary obstinacy.

--John Fowles, "The Ebony Tower"

* * *

What has twisted us around like this, so that
no matter what we do, we are in the posture
of someone going away?

--Rainer Maria Rilke, "The Eighth Elegy," trans. Stephen Mitchell

Monday, September 19, 2016

Lately I've had some correspondence with a friend about a few political/representational issues that have arisen in the Maine poetry world. In the course of that correspondence, she referred to me (kindly, without pejorative intent) as a member of the state's poetry establishment. I was startled by the label, and immediately uneasy, and without further examination I forced myself to slot the phrase into the back parlor of my mind, where it would, I hoped, dissolve into dust. I have enough other things keeping me up at nights. I did not want to think about this label.

But this morning I find that I am still thinking about it, which means, I guess, that I need to address it forthrightly. What does it mean to be part of a literary establishment? Am I overreacting? Does it simply mean that I've published books? Does it mean I've become predictable, arrogant, and old? Establishment can sometimes be synonymous with the academy. Clearly, that's not true in my case . . . unless the academy implies a serious engagement with the past, which I also don't think is true, not at this point in time. Then again, as a self-taught engager with the past, do I seem to be wrapping myself in the mantle of snobbish oldster? Does my Virginia Woolf nose imply a Woolfian aloofness? Am I an inverse hipster?

Let me say up front that my friend probably only meant "writers in Maine know who you are." And she is right; I think many of them do. My reaction to the term is simply my reaction to the term. But having spent 20 years feeling like a badger in my den, the mere idea of being part of the establishment (whatever it means) is shocking to me, and not in a good way.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

I was on the road all day yesterday: I left here at 7:30 a.m. to drive south to Portland, where I looked at houses for much of the day, then drove north to Dover-Foxcroft for a gig, and then finally crawled home at 11 p.m.

I can't say that I fell in love with anything in Portland, though I did see one place that might be tolerable.

I hope we won't get ourselves boxed into buying a house that's just tolerable.

Friday, September 16, 2016

I had such a pleasant evening in Waterville--sitting around a restaurant table with poets and novelists and academics and local government officials, all personable and intelligent and eager to be friendly. Every once in a while, I remember that a social life might not be a bad thing.

Now, this morning, back in my hermitage, I note that the temperature came close to a frost last night. Even through my warm red bathrobe, I feel the chill of the unheated house. Summer is over.

Yesterday the Frost Place publicly announced my big news: Kerrin McCadden will be joining me as the new associate director of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. She worked with us last year as a guest faculty member, and I think she'll be a wonderful addition to the staff. Not only is she an accomplished poet, but she's also been a full-time teacher for many years, which will add a whole new coloration to the work we do as directors. I'm excited about the change, even as I'm sentimental about saying goodbye to Teresa Carson. But Teresa loves Kerrin as a successor, and the program, I think, will continue to grow and thrive.

So time skitters on, and the leaves redden and sift down through the cool air. I am thinking about cooking borscht tonight, even though I'll be the only one at the table to admire its jeweled shimmer in a white bowl. But a solitary pleasure is still pleasure.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

I came back from band practice last night to see a porcupine waddling away among the trees. The air was scented with skunk, and Ruckus was perched jauntily on the stoop. He smelled strange--not exactly like he'd been sprayed, more like he'd just returned from a friendly dinner party with his striped friends down the street. At least there were no porcupine quills involved. But I did have to give him a bath, an activity that has never been on my list of "things I wish I could do at 10 p.m." However, he and I both survived, sort of unscathed; and this morning he doesn't smell too bad.

* * *

There are new comments on the Geoffrey Hill thread, so check them out and add your own. Do I have a volunteer to choose the next Hill poem to discuss? Come on; you know you want to.

* * *

Tonight I'll be helping Adrian Blevins host Two Cent Talks, a reading series in Waterville, which will be featuring Arielle Greenberg and Bill Roorbach. The reading starts at 5:30 p.m., with dinner afterward. Please come sit with me.

* * *

Do any of my local friends want (1) pink lupine seeds or (2) dahlia tubers [(a) dark red with flat petals or (b) light pink with spiky petals]? I doubt I will be able to fit lupines into my new yard, and I have enough dahlia tubers to fill an acre.

* * *

What is it with these mean bluejays? Now there's one poking at the window screen like he's trying to break into the house.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A thin mist vibrates in the still air. The temperature is cool, autumnal.

This has been a quiet week. I've been alone, editing, mowing, sorting. Now I have run out of packing boxes and need to haul trash to the dump. Tonight I'll go to band practice. It will be pleasant to add a few blips to the solitude meter.

Yesterday morning I copied out some Rilke and began drafting a new poem--a small nod to the making life. Under the afternoon sun I sat in thick grass and played with the cat. For some reason those accomplishments seem parallel. I wonder why.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Geoffrey Hill readers: There are new comments on the "Genesis" discussion, so please do join the conversation. In a few days I'll call for a volunteer to choose the next Hill poem and compose a few starter questions about it. Remember, one goal here is to not make Dawn do all the talking. The other is to push yourself to take risks with difficult, unfamiliar material. Do not be afraid to ask a simple question, as Tom did about "Genesis." Those are the kinds of curiosities that can lure us down surprising paths.

* * *

On Saturday, October 1, I'll be leading an essay workshop at the Rockland Public Library. The focus will be on writing about one's passions, and I'm considering using Cotton Mather as an example. It may be that I'll reconsider the wisdom of that idea. But you'll never know if you don't show up.

* * *

Two bluejays are having a violent argument outside my window . . . one of those midair wings-flapping, beaks-ripping, "I want to scratch out your heart" kind of fights. The air vibrates with screechiness.

* * *

This coffee is delicious. And reading last night's Red Sox score has also been pleasant.

Monday, September 12, 2016

I spent yesterday packing packing packing . . . mostly books and kitchen equipment. I am finding it fairly easy to figure out which dishes, pots, and pans I won't need to use for the next two months, but books are harder. Given the way my mind works, I could require anything at a moment's notice. Also, as soon as I take a book off the shelf, I think, Oh, maybe I should read that one again. Because this reaction happens repeatedly, I have to keep overriding the urge: No, no, Dawn, put that in the box, do not open it.

Next Saturday morning I will drive down to Portland to meet Tom and look at houses. We still have no idea where we will end up, but we do seem to be drawn toward 1920s-era bungalows. They are small, usually with one bathroom, but most have three bedrooms and a dining room, and a lot of them still have original woodwork; a few even have original kitchens. This is the advantage of being married to a good carpenter. He would rather buy a house without updates so that he can be in control of the aesthetics. Likewise, I would rather buy a house with a yard that hasn't already been landscaped so that I can design the garden myself. Conveniently, a shabby old kitchen and a dull yard mean a cheaper house, so we're hopeful that something good will come our way.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Ever wonder what central Maine guys of all ages can small-talk about? Last night I discovered the secret. One man starts out with "Let me tell you about the time I jacked up that building and tried to move it. . . . " and then every other guy in earshot moseys over and starts chiming in with his own version. Women, you may find it alarming to discover how many men in your life have believed, at one time or another, that driving your existing structure down Main Street and accidentally ripping out everyone else's power lines could be best possible answer to all house problems. (To be fair, those guys seem pretty rueful now.)

But it was a good night, hanging around with the house-movers, eating pulled pork and blueberry tarts, talking about music and farming, sitting in lawn chairs under a giant maple tree and listening to the Mallet Brothers play while the rain changed its mind and didn't rain after all. Another sweet elegy in my homeland.

* * *

So Geoffrey Hill readers: let's start talking. As I know from Facebook remarks, a few of you already have something to say about "Genesis." I've responded to Tom's post about the poem, and I hope you chime in too.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Thanks to last night's long, deep sleep, I have now returned to myself. Plus, I have a haircut, which is always cheering.

My band, Doughty Hill, will be opening for the Mallet Brothers tonight at a big farm-to-table dinner and rock show at Spruce Mill Farm in Dover-Foxcroft.  I've really been looking forward to this show but am now hoping that NOAA is completely wrong about its thunderstorm forecast. A wet violin is not a good thing.

Tomorrow, I plan to return to the Geoffrey Hill reading project, so anyone involved should mull over "Genesis" before then.

My son phoned me yesterday to tell me about reading Aristotle's Poetics, Plutarch's history of Caesar, and Sophocles' Oedipus Rex; and also to regale me with the exciting tale of accidentally auditioning in front of the dance collective and instantly getting cast in a student's senior dance project and feeling like "I'm not sure but maybe, just maybe, I could be good at this," which is exactly how I felt when Baron pulled me aside after a beginner's workshop and said, "You could be a poet." Immediately after I stopped talking to my son, my sister phoned me to say that she was in the middle of playing tennis when the florist delivered a monster bouquet of birthday flowers from me, and she felt like she'd just won the U.S. Open, and it was so lovely and thank you thank you thank you. It would be hard to beat such an enjoyable pair of phone calls.

Friday, September 9, 2016

I've given up on the illusion of sleeping and am downstairs drinking black coffee. It is now 5 a.m., and Mr. Sunshine (aka Ruckus) has eaten his breakfast and is washing noisily in an easy chair. The humming refrigerator is drowning out the sound of the strange bird-frog sound that I've been listening to for the past several hours. It bears some resemblance to a bittern's call [un-ka-chunk, un-ka-chunk] and some resemblance to a bullfrog's belch [brap, brap, brap] and some resemblance to a grouse's drumbeat [visual replication suggestions welcome] but is more timid and delicate, rather like a frail lawnmower engine with rhythmic choke problems.

After spending a few hours listening to the bird-frog, I turned on the light and read the ending of Murder on the Orient Express, which was completely predictable, and thus here I am: writing to you in the dregs of the night. After I pour the rest of this pot of coffee into my digestive system, I believe I will go study some poems . . . a little Rilke, a little Hill. I may as well make use of this ridiculous hour. Later, after the sun rises, I will edit a book about George McGovern and go get my hair cut. Undoubtedly, at some point, I will collapse onto a flat surface in a delayed reaction to my sleepless night. Here's hoping that the bird-frog has moseyed into someone else's yard.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The weather is suddenly sultry again, yet the light is autumn light . . . dusky mornings and early sunsets, and now the maples are beginning to turn red, the garden flowers beginning to fade. The yard looks like October but feels like August.

Yesterday I carted a bunch of musical instruments to the high school, as donations for the music program--two guitars, a banjo, an amp, all of which I used extensively when I was a school music teacher but haven't touched since. Clearly the violin is the only instrument I will ever be serious about. I thought I would be ashamed of myself, but really I was relieved.

In similar news, I have started reading an Agatha Christie novel that I found on my son's bookshelf when I was packing up his stuff. I haven't read a Christie mystery for 30 years or so, and I am finding it strangely soothing, despite the fact that the characters are irritating stereotypes (the coarse, violent Italian man; the prim governess; the stupid voluble middle-aged American woman . . . ). I'm pretty sure that this is not a good book in the disguise of a friendly mystery novel. I think it really is trash and that that I am too distracted right now to be a good reader of real books. Thus, a silly plot-driven train story is easier to manage than the great Penelope Fitzgerald novel I pulled off the shelf to reread. I'm also having problems with my book of Australian history, which I was so excited about. It has begun to self-destruct, and I'm finding it hard to manage a 700-page paperback when all of the pages are falling out. I think I will have to acquire a new copy after we move.

All this is to say: I wonder what kind of participant I will be in our communal Geoffrey Hill poetry-reading project. Overall, I feel quite stupid.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Discussing Geoffrey Hill's Poem "Genesis"

Guest post by Thomas Juvan

The coincidence of Geoffrey Hill’s death this summer with Dawn’s call for suggestions for a poet to read together was irresistible for me. I’ve dipped in and out of his work for years now, and the results have been equally bewildering and marvelous, so I jumped at the idea of a group reading in which to sustain some of my attention on some of Hill’s poems and to bounce ideas off the members of this lovely and thoughtful group of readers and writers. Approaching a poet as allusive and formidably learned as Geoffrey Hill is always intimidating to me (I lapse back into panicked academic mode), but one of the helpful by-products of my own time at the Frost Place under Dawn’s and Baron’s guidance there has been a greater willingness on my part to proceed from the ground floor and open up the poem with less worry about “getting it right” (thank you, Dawn and Baron!). So thanks to you all for joining in to explore Hill’s work together!

I thought it appropriate to begin with “Genesis,” the first poem in Hill’s first book, For the Unfallen. After all, it even announces itself as a beginning! I think it’s interesting, too, as a poem in which Hill uses the first person, which his poems often seem to avoid. He’s often engaging with historical figures or is speaking from a kind of quasi-omniscient, metaphysical point of view, which I think some can find a bit too grandiose or overweening.

But it’s also a poem that raises a question I often ask myself when reading poems: Why do poets break poems into sections? To get the discussion rolling, I’d ask you to think about this question in relation to “Genesis,” and also perhaps to reflect on your own writing as poets. What seems to be the sense of the divisions in “Genesis”? Do you divide poems into parts? What’s your motive in doing so, and does that shed light on why and how Hill is dividing up the parts of “Genesis”?

* * *
Note from Dawn: With Tom's questions in mind, we'll take a few days to read and mull over the poem. In the meantime, do leave comments here as you begin to develop your own questions and ideas.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

We spent most of yesterday reaming out the attic. Then I went to the fair to judge the talent show, and Tom stuffed grape leaves and made corn pudding. The winner of the talent show was a tiny scrap of a girl, maybe nine years old, who sang Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay" as if it had been written for her. I felt like I was listening to a baby version of Dusty Springfield. Believe me: you never know what will turn up at the Harmony Fair.

And now, on Tuesday morning, I will return to doing the usual: e.g., editing a manuscript and hauling a load of detritus to the Goodwill. How did we manage to accumulate so much useless stuff? Some of it, though, was pleasant to revisit--for instance, toddler Paul's crayon drawing of "a happy piece of toast."

* * *

On Wednesday I'll initiate our next group poetry-reading project. The featured poet, as you know, will be Geoffrey Hill; and our featured reader will be Tom--not the one who cleaned out the attic with me but an excellent high school English teacher from Connecticut. Because it was he who first suggested that we consider looking at Hill's work, I thought it was appropriate to invite him to open the conversation. The first poem we'll be looking at will be "Genesis," and tomorrow he'll share some of his thoughts and questions about the poem.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Route 9

Dawn Potter

“Precious Memories!” screams
the backlit sign in the lot across from the animal
shelter in the autumn of my life.

A sudden wind whips a spatter of hard rain
through gas-station plazas and funeral-home porticos.
I motor sedately, transliterating billboards and neon coils.

“Be kind to the wicked,” whispers each virtuous advertiser,
each quaintly brutal heart.
Heart, I know, connotes oleo and a diamond.

Define kind and wicked for yourselves.

[first published in Across the Margin (June 2016)]

Sunday, September 4, 2016

I decided to take yesterday off from being a writer. Instead, I canned tomatoes and went to the demolition derby at the Harmony Fair. I have not attended the derby for 15 years or so, though I have often listened to it from inside the Exhibition Hall, where I've usually been stationed. But because this may be our last Harmony Fair, Tom and I decided that we should take in the spectacle.

The fair is always packed on derby day. We threaded our way through the folding chairs and the bodies draped on the dry hillside and found a patch of grass. The day was hot and bright, an afternoon for sunscreen and a big hat, though almost everyone except for me seemed content to fry. First, we watched the pretty car contest, which is judged via audience applause. The winner was a minivan painted with "Save the Boobies" and breast cancer emblems and had a cardboard marriage proposal illegibly affixed to its hood. Next was the ugly car contest, won by a Plymouth Satellite-like 70s sedan painted mud-yellow and decorated with purple polka-dots. Everyone cheered for that one, so Stan the announcer declared that the victor had been chosen "Anonymously." It took me a beat or so to realize that he meant "Unanimously."

Then the derby proper began. We watched two heats, each of which happened to feature one of my former students. The pit is gravel, so in addition to hunks of loose metal and engine fires and such, there are also flying rocks and a whole lot of dust. Also, during the second heat, there were hornets, whose nest had been disturbed by a flailing tire. What with all this chaotic mashing and destruction, the event pulses with danger for both the crowd and the drivers, but it happens so quickly and is so bizarrely toy-like that it's hard to detach a sense of terror from a sense of comic wonder.

I felt sentimental when my former student won the second heat. I remember attending a  facsimile demolition derby that he and my older son had devised when they were in first grade. A corner of the classroom was roped off with plastic chain. Parents and classmates sat safely on their tiny chairs, while the boys in the pit made car noises and crashed their Matchboxes into Lego barriers. As in real life, it was difficult to tell what was going on.

Friday, September 2, 2016

On the whole, I am feeling better about the house situation this morning. I talked to lots of friends and family members. I walked in the woods. I started packing up a few things in my son's room. I thought about making a new little garden somewhere else. I think my melancholy will ease when we actually acquire another place to live. For the moment, I don't have any solid image of what a new home might look like. I will feel better when I have a room to picture.

I also spent an hour on the phone with my younger son, who, like his mother, can be nostalgiac and overemotional. And I think he and I are more or less in the same place: shifting from sadness, to acceptance, to anticipation, to sadness again. Right now, though, he is also immersed in the enormous transition from high school to college . . . in particular, the way in which the social life one creates may become both an emotional and an intellectual adventure. He and his roommate are intensely discussing their love for Faulkner's novels and the film Killer of Sheep. "I'm learning about new ways to think about the way rap artists layer their music!" he tells me. "My friend who wants to be a chemistry major also loves Keats!" All of this makes me so happy.

Today the Harmony Fair begins, and I will work what I presume will be my last stint at the exhibition hall. Tom and I are planning to go to the demolition derby tomorrow, just for old time's sake. Maybe you'd like to look at some of his derby pictures and his Harmony art, to see what we are leaving.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Last night we signed a sales-and-purchase agreement for the house. If all goes well with inspections, etc., we will be gone by the end of October. I feel terrible. I also feel excited. I also feel terrible.