Monday, October 31, 2016

Yesterday we made an offer on a house. It's in a neighborhood of South Portland called Knightville--a peninsula of land that is a three-minute drive across the Casco Bay Bridge from downtown Portland. The house is a five-minute walk from the waterside, a fifteen-minute walk from a public beach. It is on a corner lot on two quiet residential streets. The houses are modest but not new; most date from the 1940s and early 1950s.

Portland and South Portland were originally connected by what was known as the Million-Dollar Bridge, which opened in 1916. The view above is from a postcard published shortly after the bridge opened. Versions of that bridge persisted until 1997, when the Casco Bay Bridge replaced it. Previously, traffic from Portland had whizzed straight through Knightville, and car-culture shopping sprang up around the highway: strip malls and auto-parts stores and fast-food restaurants. But the new bridge is positioned further east into the bay, hugging the side of the peninsula, and what was formerly just a roadway has became pleasant . . . or at least it's working on becoming pleasant. Knightville is still in flux: the car-culture stuff clings, yet there is also a town center now, with store fronts and a busy coffee shop and a place that sells Labrador retriever art (don't ask) and a persistent little dive bar and a shop that sells sew-on patches for your Boy Scout uniform or your Harley-Davidson attire and a junk store that has a copy of Boswell's Life of Johnson in the front window and a really good taco place. People walk around in the little downtown with their dogs and their plaid shirts and their strollers and their rundown shoes and their cigarettes and their phones and their girlfriends and their motorized wheelchairs loaded with a surprising amount of toilet paper. It was comfortable to sit at a formica table and eat sloppy tacos and watch them go by.

The house we made an offer on was built in 1952. It has two bedrooms upstairs, a miniscule bathroom, a long sunny living room, a dining room, a tiny 70s-renovated kitchen that is terrible but temporarily adequate. There is hardly any closet space but a fair amount of attic storage. The doors have glass knobs. The one-car garage smells pleasantly of grandparents. The basement is finished and dry and has a half-bath. The corner lot is oddly shaped and landscaped with tedious yew hedges. If I can get rid of them, there will be plenty of room for me to plan an intensive garden. The place is clean and sturdy but slightly dollhouse-like. The streets will be safe for Ruckus. Tom is formulating his kitchen reconstruction plans. I am sharpening my sword for those yew hedges. As soon as we saw it, we thought we might be able to be happy there.

In the picture below, Knightville is at the top of the photo. The house we're hoping to buy is located just where the trees begin. We'll find out later today if the seller will give us a counter-offer. Everything could fall through. But maybe it won't.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

So it seems we are on the "we're moving to Portland train" . . . again. Tomorrow morning we will rush down to look at houses together. Today we are poring over maps of neighborhoods, squinting at Google aerial views, wandering through strange wide-angle photos of interiors shot as if all the rooms are 1,000 feet long and slanted inwards like an LSD dream. Unfortunately the house with the secret bathroom hidden behind a bookshelf-door is located next to an interstate on-ramp, though I'm not too sorry that the one that appears to be furnished entirely with guitars and skateboards has already been sold. And when will Tom stop hoping that the cheapest, ugliest, dirtiest houses will turn out to be gems? Ugh.

Anyway, we're both slightly optimistic about one of the places we'll be looking at--enough so that I've been figuring out how long it will take us to walk to the beach from the house (16 minutes) and how easy it might be to remove the old-lady yew hedges from the yard (not very). I've also started thinking about the implications of the street name. We seem to have a predilection for the last names of British war-hero statesmen.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The rain is drumming down on Harmony, and I have been awake since 4:30. Yesterday morning we signed house contract number 2 and then immediately stepped back into oh-my-god-soon-we-will-have-nowhere-to-live anxiety. Please, Portland, produce a home for us.

At least Tom will be here tonight and we can be fidgety together.

In the meantime, I will have tea with a friend, and ship a manuscript to an author, and try to solve some Frost Place questions, and wash sheets and towels, and make a pie, and listen to rain and rain and rain.

The woodstove will click and sigh. The cat will wash and complain. The poems of Rilke will lie splayed open on the kitchen table.

Today is my younger son's nineteenth birthday . . . the first we have ever spent apart. At least this year he won't be losing a playoff soccer game to Ellsworth, as he has for two birthdays in a row. Instead, he'll be plotting his Halloween costume. Last I heard, he and his housemates were all planning to dress up as dads: coach dad, lumberjack dad, nerd dad, hippie dad, couch-potato dad. There are many options for a dad posse.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Andrew Lang's The Crimson Fairy Book was originally published in 1903. My Dover reprint includes reproductions of the illustrations that appeared in that original publication--you know the sort, those crowded ink drawings of girls with overflowing hair and draperies twining around their ankles, those baby-faced boys with pointed shoes and come-hither skin, and those exquisitely toothed monsters. And everyone, even the monster who is getting strangled, appears to be swooning with desire.

It is interesting that adults at the turn of the century thought these kinds of pictures were appropriate for a children's book. Not that I'm complaining. I loved them when I was young, and I love them now. Still, I mean, really . . .

In addition to being full of naked boys tied to horses, each of these illustrations has a caption, and those captions themselves are as a good as a tale. For instance:
The Faithful Servant turns to stone. 
She lived happily in her Nest. 
The Prince lets out the Hairy Man. 
The Boy who could keep a Secret. 
The Witch loses her Iron Nose. 
The Bald headed Man on the Mountain.
This would be a fine writing prompt: to invent a new tale based only on an illustration and its caption. Maybe I should try it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Poor Ruckus got beat up by his Nemesis, a giant black and white ex-tomcat who looks like a Marine and whom Ruckus hates passionately. Now he is moping on the hearthrug, trying to avoid going outside. I guess it is pretty humiliating to come home with a grass stain on the side of your head.

It's been cold here . . . not winter yet, but it feels imminent. I kept the woodstove going all day yesterday, and drank hot ginger tea, and imagined snow. The grass is covered with leaves but I have not raked them. I am trying to detach from the land, trying not to care so much. But I still woke up this morning with a clutch in my heart.

At least I don't have to deal with a Nemesis, lurking in the shrubbery, waiting to cuff me into a tree trunk.

I copied out some Rilke last night, while Ruckus and I were watching the baseball game. You might not think that Rilke and baseball would blend, but they make a rather comfortable combination. I've also been reading Andrew Lang's The Crimson Fairy Book, which I'd forgotten I'd left out on the shelf in case I found myself in an all-my-books-are-packed reading emergency. Fairy tales as the readers' version of an ambulance: it makes sense to me.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Well, we received another offer on the house yesterday . . . this time from one of my former students, a lifelong Harmony kid who is apparently ready to move out of his parents' place. It's a fair offer, and I think we will probably accept some version of it today or tomorrow. In another burst of synchronicity, I also received a phone call from the mortgage lady at the bank who, after examining Tom's detailed explanations (oh, the paperwork torments of being self-employed), has decided that we qualify for a larger mortgage. So maybe we will not have to move into a hole in the ground after all.

And here I sit, allowing myself to begin looking at Portland real estate ads again.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Family Matters

Dawn Potter
[This essay was first published in the Sewanee Review (winter 2016).]

Long after Sylvia Plath extinguished herself in a whirlpool of despair, illness, theater, and vengeance, her husband, Ted Hughes, tried to describe the ecstatic, suffering anxiety that was a central element of her personality:

Searching for yourself, in the dark, as you danced,
Floundering a little, crying softly,
Like somebody searching for somebody drowning
In dark water,
Listening for them—in panic at losing
Those listening seconds from your searching—
Then dancing wilder in the silence.

I think about him, battered relic of Plath, composing those lines so many years after the fact; still struggling against her terrible allure, against his own rash and fumbling failures as her dance partner. The powers-that-be, it seems, saw fit to inflict him with a lifetime spent facing the music—though he hobbled onward, grievously damaged yet wielding his vocation to the end. If not sustenance, poetry was at least a few scant drops of water in the wasteland.
Nonetheless, “the living, writers especially, are terrible projectionists,” wrote Adrienne Rich. “I hate the way they use the dead.” She, widow of a man “who drove to Vermont in a rented car at dawn and shot himself,” had cause to know. But despite numerous exemplars, drama is no prerequisite for household sorrow. Mere tedium will do. In an 1855 diary entry, Jane Welsh Carlyle lamented, “The evening devoted to mending; Mr C’s trousers, among other things! ‘Being an only child’ I never ‘wished’ to sew mens trousers.” Her emphases are inscrutable. “My Man-of-Genius-Husband,” she called Thomas Carlyle. And yet “we aggravate one another’s tendencies to despair.”
Standing outside, watching, is not necessarily what these writers did, for they, too, had the run of the house. Yet some inner door was always locked. Speaking of Anne Sexton, her daughter Linda said, “I always lived on that brink of fear that she was going to fall apart and really kill herself.” Meanwhile, “talking to Linda was like talking to her own soul, Sexton remarked.” On either side of a cracked window, the glass shimmered, distorting the moonlight. The mother lit another cigarette and wrote,

Oh, little girl,
my stringbean,
how do you grow?
You grow this way.
You are too many to eat.

Children and parents, parents and children. Listening to the radio, I hear a woman ready herself to climb sixteen flights of stairs to carry supplies to her elderly parents, who refuse to move down to her fourth-floor apartment, even though a storm has devastated the city’s power grid. “It is what it is,” she says, resigned. I turn off the radio and open a biography. “I hope,” writes Charles Dickens to his youngest disappointing son, “you will always be able to say in after life, that you had a kind father.” I close the book and scroll through the day’s news. Colm Tóibín points out, “You have to be a terrible monster to write. . . . Someone might have told you something they shouldn’t have told you, and you have to be prepared to use it because it will make a great story. You have to use it even though the person is identifiable. If you can’t do it then writing isn’t for you. You’ve no right to be here.”
            I often tell middle and high school students that art is power. At their age, they are usually still surprised by this idea. “Artists can possess,” I tell them. “They can manipulate; they can lie; they can extract vengeance; they can kill.” I pause. “Once, in a poem, I killed my children.” These words are half a joke. In the poem, it was more as if one son had never been born.
            “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique,” wrote James Baldwin. “All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.” And it is terrible, terrible, when what we love is also the anguish we vomit up. For how many slow hours did Rainer Maria Rilke linger in the Jardin des Plantes, suffering alongside the suffering beasts, before he began to understand how to invent “The Panther”?

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

“Writing is not therapy,” I tell my puzzled students. “Often, you feel worse after you finish a poem.” On the whole, this is not what they are expecting from art.
            Nor are they expecting the ruthlessness of creation: the melodrama, the exaggerations, the false fronts and manufactured views. Robert Lowell tried to explain its workings.

Caged in fiction’s iron bars,
I give this voice to you
with tragic diction to rebuke the stars—
it isn’t you, and yet it’s you.

Listen to the shame and hubris in his words, the helplessness, the gasping clutch at glory. But the you of the poem, sitting alone in her twilit room, no doubt heard something quite different, and perhaps it drove her to close the windows and turn up the television volume to drown out the sound.
Even when the you flits outside the margins of the work, her shadow staggers under its weight. Robert Frost imagined his wife, Elinor, as the “ideal reader” of nearly all of his poems. “Each book was written . . . ‘for love of her,’” and her death staggered him. “I’m afraid I dragged her through pretty much of a life for one as frail as she. Too many children, too many habitations, too many vicissitudes. And a faith required that would have exhausted most women. God damn me when he gets around to it.”
Yet had she stayed alive, Frost would not have thought twice about adding more stones to his wife’s load. “You have to be a terrible monster to write,” said Tóibín, for selfishness walks in monstrous tandem with guilt and invention. Infuriated by her philandering husband, exhausted and grieving, Plath nonetheless furthered her own ends, making specific, deliberate use of the crisis, ruthlessly dramatizing its characters and events.

And I, love, am a pathological liar,
And my child—look at her, face down on the floor,
Little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappear———

Forty years later that child recalled, “She used every emotional experience as if it were a scrap of material that could be pieced together to make a wonderful dress.”
Jealousy, scorn, defensiveness, bravado, indifference: all and more may drag a family of obsessives to their doom.  “There are many families in which nobody writes poems,” said Wislawa Szymborska, “but once it starts up it’s hard to quarantine.”

Sometimes poetry cascades down through the generations,
creating fatal whirlpools where family love may founder.

As Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s estranged son Hartley wrote after his father’s death,

I have been cherish’d and forgiven
    By many tender-hearted,
’Twas for the sake of one in Heaven
    Of him that is departed.

Because I bear my Father’s name
    I am not quite despised,
My little legacy of fame
    I’ve not yet realized.

And yet if you should praise myself
    I’ll tell you, I had rather
You’d give your love to me, poor elf,
    Your praise to my great father.

Despite their honor and modesty, the words do not quite hide the fatal whirlpool. But even well-loved, well-matched partners, friends, parents, children carry the burden of one another’s art. Writing to Jane Kenyon, Hayden Carruth mused, “Meanwhile, the rain falls beautifully. The murmur on the roof is musical and variable.  I am in the bedroom so I can hear it, and Joe-Anne has finally stumbled out of bed and gone to work. She’ll be back in a couple of hours. We—all of us—are burdened by history, no doubt of that, but the burden is not so great that we can’t respond to the same events when they recur in the present, the rain, the sunset, the opening of the day lilies. And I suppose that’s a boon.”
            Kenyon’s husband, Donald Hall, who watched her die of leukemia, later spoke of how he and his wife had learned to exist together. “Each member of a couple is separate,” he said; “the two come together in double attention. Lovemaking is not a third thing but two-in-one. John Keats can be a third thing, or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Dutch interiors, or Monopoly. For many couples, children are a third thing.” For these two poets, poetry was naturally a third thing, but of necessity it could not be the only one.
For years we played [ping-pong] every afternoon. Jane was assiduous, determined, vicious, and her reach was not so wide as mine. When she couldn’t reach a shot I called her “Stubbsy,” and her next slam would smash me in the groin, rage combined with harmlessness. We rallied half an hour without keeping score. Another trait we shared was hating to lose. Through bouts of ping-pong and Henry James and the church, we kept to one innovation: with rare exceptions, we remained aware of each other’s feelings. It took me half my life, more than half, to discover with Jane’s guidance that two people could live together and remain kind.
. . . though kindness is no savior.
“Dearest,” wrote Virginia Woolf, in the suicide note she left for her husband Leonard, “I want to tell you that you have given me complete happiness. No one could have done more than you have done.” But “complete happiness” is not enough to save a life. Watchers are left to evoke the ghosts. Recalling her sister Olga, Denise Levertov said, “Now as if smoke or sweetness were blown my way / I inhale a sense of her livingness in that instant.” There’s a fragrance of a pleasure in such heartbreak: “poetry,” as Frost mused, “has a vested interest in sorrow.” The will to display those sorrows, as if they “could be pieced together to make a wonderful dress”—this is what drives the sentences down the page, what drove Levertov to patch and burnish her grief. “I had flung open my arms in longing, once, by your side, stumbling over the furrows—”

Oh, in your torn stockings, with unwaved hair,
you were trudging after your anguish
over the bare fields, soberly, soberly.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Last night's dinner was casserole-roasted chicken with sage, mushroom gravy, farro, roasted brussels sprouts, and sliced tomatoes with dill and olive oil, followed by cribbage and a Cubs game. Meanwhile, the rain poured, the cat purred, the wood fire snapped. We were like a cognac advertisement without the cognac.

Today, more rain. I have finished the mediocre David Lodge novel I was reading, so here I am, on an aimless wet Sunday, with all of my books packed into boxes. I shall be driven to reading magazine articles and the telephone directory.

Or I could copy out more Rilke and try to find the missing word in my poem draft. That would be more sensible.

Don't you think using the word sensible in this context is a little bit funny?

By the way, I heard the worst--the worst-- interview question on NPR yesterday. As Tom and I were driving to the apple orchard, he turned on the radio, and one of those guys whose voice sounds like all the other guys' voices was asking the poet Anne Carson, "Do poets really find hope in hopelessness?" I immediately started making choking noises, and Tom immediately started laughing but also, thank God, turned off the radio so I didn't have to listen to poor Anne hang on to her good manners. Argh. That's the sort of question that drives a poet to laudanum.

Geoffrey Hill readers: Comments are coming in on the "Merlin" post, so join the conversation. I'll be adding my thoughts later today.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Last night I felt like I dropped ten pounds over the course of my band's three-hour show. No wonder Mick Jagger is still so skinny. By the end of the gig the fingers of my bow hand had gone numb, and the callouses on my left fingertips had blackened and split. Stringed instruments are cruel taskmasters. But the crowd was laughing and cheering and dancing and calling for encores, so the hand damage was all worthwhile. There's nothing like playing fast music for a happy crowd.

I drove home through thick fog, split by occasional flashes of lightning. And when I got here, Tom and Ruckus were asleep together on the couch. It was a good feeling to know that the house had a heartbeat.

Now, in this late October darkness, I am sitting in my kitchen with the window wide open. The air pours in, heavy and sweet with rain. Another gift.

Friday, October 21, 2016

To Brigit Pegeen Kelly, with Thanks

In "The Rain's Consort," the poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly wrote:
So, the lion, so his stiff wings, so the black moss that stains
Both his mouth and his wings, moss the color of fruit blood,
Or of pity, pity for the self that labors and labors
And spins only the wind, bride of the wind, oh foolish one.
Yesterday I learned that she has died, and her loss is enormous. I do not know another contemporary poet who was so driven by imagination. Her poems are rich and patient and dense; they handle words like jewels; and always, they move narratively and emotionally in ways that only Kelly would have seen as inevitable. The same poem, reread, surprises me again and again and again. How did she get from one place to another? It was a kind of sleight of hand; it was a kind of magic.

"We love what we love for what they are," wrote Robert Frost in "Hyla Brook." And this morning, as I listen to rain tap at the windowpanes, I am feeling the melancholy of her loss. I never met Kelly, but her poems opened a secret garden, and that in itself was an experiment in grace. It hurts to know she's gone.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Well, the realtor contacted me yesterday and said she's scheduled a house showing for Saturday morning, so that's good news. And my band is performing tomorrow night at Pastimes in Dover-Foxcroft, so that's also good news . . . at least for me, since I love playing with those guys. And Trump is still torching himself in public, so I guess that's another sort of good news, though also terrifying.

I have been picking honey mushrooms in the woods, editing a book about the LA slam and spoken word poetry scene, trying to memorize the lyrics to the Pretenders' "Don't Get Me Wrong," listening to a podcast about Jean Harlow while doing sit-ups on the living room rug, reading a mediocre David Lodge novel, eating leftover stir-fry for breakfast, waking up at 2 in the morning, yanking frost-bitten dahlias out of the flowerbeds, trying to finish a poem, hand-washing wool sweaters, not watching the presidential debates, and driving down empty country roads in the dark. I have also been meaning to remind you Geoffrey Hill readers: Don't forget to respond to Carlene's post about "Merlin."

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

I worked on a new poem last night, and copied out Rilke's "Seventh Elegy," and listened to a baseball game, and stir-fried cabbage, and thought about my friend Donna, who had swept in mid-morning for a cup of tea and thus cheered me up hugely.

Then I went to bed and slept and slept and slept. I dreamed that the actor Parker Posy had bought a farmhouse down the road and was painting strange patterns on the floors. I dreamed that I told a mean old lady that I was a Democrat so she sneered at me and refused to eat any of the brownies I'd baked.

I woke up at 4 to let the cat out, and then I went back to bed and slept and slept and slept some more. Now I am groggy and mystified. Why did I need so much unconsciousness?

Leftover rain is dripping from the tree limbs, and the grass is covered with wet red leaves. I am drinking black coffee and trying to re-enter the world of the living.

The little poem I began is not too bad, but a word is evading me. I have the sensation that there's a hole in my brain where that word should be.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The new issue of the Beloit Poetry Journal includes my long commissioned review of Christina Hutchins's recent collection Tender the Maker. As I say in the review, I had never heard of this book before; I chose it because I liked the title. The book turned out to be wonderful--filled with rich, patient language and considerable historical and emotional depth; a pleasure to discover.

* * *

Last night, as I was making dinner for myself, I started leaking tears again, in the same sudden yet slow-faucet way I was crying during the spring and early summer. Nothing in particular is wrong . . . I'm think it's just a case of too many feelings. Work will probably dry them up.

* * *

I hear no one like him. All at once I am pierced
by his darkening voice, carried on the streaming air.

--Rainer Maria Rilke, "The Sixth Elegy"

Monday, October 17, 2016

Tom has left for his work week, and in an hour or so I will drive the boy to Portland to meet his ride to college. And then I will turn around and make my way back north.

Yesterday we hiked up Borestone Mountain, clambering and panting among the rockfalls and boulders, and then we sat together on the bald granite and stared out at the mountains and lakes and trees. Except for a glimpse of a railroad bridge, there was no sign of habitation . . . no tumbledown farmhouses, no ancient trailers, no dump trucks or skidders or school buses. There were no "Crooked Hilary" or "Lock Her Up" signs. They had vanished into the unity of forest.

Last weekend Tom and I sat on a pebble beach and ate apples. This weekend we sat on a mountaintop and ate apples. Two different visions, linked by apples and stone and sky and trees and water.

Later in the afternoon, as Paul and I sat in the car, waiting for Tom to come out of the store, we stared out at the ugliness of our town: a line of parked pulp trucks, gas pumps, a metal roof patched with tar, doddering unshaven men carrying cigarettes or boxes of store-brand doughnuts. I said to Paul, "It's hard to love, which is why I love it." And he said, "I'm looking at it in case I never see it again."

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Paul and Tom are both home this weekend, and cooking for them has been a such a pleasure. On Saturday I soaked kidney beans and then made soup with a base of corn-cob broth (frozen in August during corn season), my own canned tomatoes, dried Mexican peppers that Baron gave me last time I saw him, and a topping of cilantro (which is hanging on in the garden despite the frost). Paul asked for biscuits, and I also made a salad of garden arugula, hen-in-the-woods mushrooms (picked on last week's hike), and baby peas (frozen in July).

Then yesterday I went honey-mushroom picking in my own woods and found enough to flavor lasagna. I fried them with garlic, a fat garden leek, and a handful of kale that the deer forgot to eat. Then I layered that mixture with lasagna noodles, ricotta, goat cheese, mozzarella, and a spicy tomato sauce I froze in August. For a salad I grated raw beets and raw carrots and tossed them with salt and rice vinegar. And finally I made a raspberry cobbler with the berries I'd saved from the summer.

It was lovely to cook, and lovely to have such cheerful eaters. We listened to playoff baseball and we watched a Steve McQueen movie and we teased the cat, and it was exactly like living in a happy family.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Discussing Geoffrey Hill's Poem "Merlin"

Guest post by C. M. Gadapee

Geoffrey Hill’s eight-line poem “Merlin” appeals to me for many reasons. I am enamored of the subject matter (I am currently taking a grad class in Grail Lit), and the formalist in me loves the regular rhyme and meter. That all said, however, I am intrigued by a couple of things. First, what can/should we make of the use of the word will in the first line? I see it as a decision to do something not yet done; he will do these things, consider these things. And then, who is the speaker? Is it, as the title suggests, Merlin? And us, perhaps? But to what purpose?

Ah, there’s a question: to what purpose? These mythic figures of British literature have a place both in our hearts and in the canon. But why these specific figures? Arthur, Elaine, Mordred: each name carries connotations and associations throughout literature from text to text, author to author, reader to reader, age to age, from the 1200s to present day. Arthur is a conflicted character, Elaine is the model of loyalty and unrequited love, Mordred is seen as both wronged son and betrayer . . . why these three?

I am also drawn to specific words in the poem, words like barrows, husks, bone, and pinnacled. I think in a short piece, the focus is so much tighter on each and every word. One cannot afford a misstep and still build a cohesive micro-universe. I honestly think that prose—and longer poems—may be more forgiving of vagueness or wanderings, of words that may not ring like a hammer on an anvil each and every time. In this poem, each word rings out clearly.

I also want to talk about poetic resonances and words. Hill’s use of outnumbering calls me to other works such as Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” in which he says that the dead, all of us, will join “the wise, the good,/Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,/All in one mighty sepulchre.” And Whitman also, in his prose piece “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up,” says that “we see, and ages yet may see, on monuments and gravestones, singly or in masses, to thousands or tens of thousands, the significant word Unknown.” This image of dead without number, or of the living being outnumbered, is both ennobling (as in Bryant’s view) or sobering (as in Whitman’s image). Even Thomas Gray in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” says, “And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,/Awaits alike the inevitable hour./The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Truer words are rarely found.

That all being said, my question revolves around words. What words do you find yourself drawn to? What weight do they carry?

Thanks for having me . . . Carlene

Friday, October 14, 2016

Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

Yesterday, in Portland, the first thing my husband said when he saw me was "Bob Dylan! Did you hear about Bob?"

Tom is not the sort of man who gets excited about Nobel prizes, but he was clearly tickled about this one. So was I, but lots of people--including writers, maybe especially writers--were not so pleased. I'd say my Facebook writers' feed was split about 50-50, half of them joyous, the other half appalled.

Among the appalled, a certain number just didn't like Bob Dylan's voice or his canon. Some were irritated that one more old white guy was winning a big prize. (And by the way: where are the women on the Nobel list? Not a single woman won a prize this year.) Some were convinced that the Nobel deciders were unfairly conflating song lyrics with poetry. Some saw looming chasms in the future administration of literature prizes. For instance, here's what the executive director of the Academy of American Poets wrote:
While some poems can be songs and poems can be read, spoken, chanted, recited, or sung, the Nobel Committee for Literature presented Bob Dylan with their 2016 award for "creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." Although it seems clear from this official citation that the committee is recognizing Dylan as a songwriter, it's fair for working poets to wonder whether this is in fact the case, as one member of the committee describes Dylan as a "great poet in the English tradition . . . a great sound poet. . . . " 
Few would argue with the notion that Dylan is an icon who has made a lasting impression on the many readers of his lyrics and other writing, and his listeners—perhaps especially on the generation that grew up with his music. But not all poets and critics view Dylan's primary cultural contribution to be one to American poetry. That shouldn't be controversial considering Dylan himself once said, "Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can’t sing, I call a poem. Anything I can't sing or anything that's too long to be a poem, I call a novel.” He troubled the waters between genres, but he clearly understood the difference between them, and that his work spanned several. 
Why celebrate the "American song tradition" now? Is songwriting literature? Is Dylan a poet as well as musician? 
In some senses, today's announcement by the Nobel committee is about more than Dylan. If the committee, which has awarded prizes since 1901, is expanding how it defines literature and poetry, that has possible cultural implications and/or consequences. The decisions leading institutions in a field make can influence other institutions and organizations, formal and informal. To the positive, perhaps the committee's decision might signal a greater appreciation for literature's oral tradition, and even inspire a similar embrace of spoken word, slam, and hip hop, which have too long been marginalized by literary institutions. To the possibly challenging, perhaps it could inspire other grantmaking organizations that have historically assisted individuals who focus on a particular literary genre to focus on artists who work across multiple disciplines. 
This is to say, it's understandable that poets might have strong feelings about there being even fewer opportunities for poets than there are already. And, more, it's always legitimate for poets to ask questions about institutional actions that might impact the community of working poets, and how the public views and understands poetry.
I read her statement as an acknowledgment of the insecurities of the literary world: "If a songwriter can take the pot, then there's less treasure for the rest of us." And I do feel the sadness of so many of my dear friends in the art. One has ruefully compared our labors to scrimshaw . . . outdated, outmoded, a vanishing practice. The Nobel Prize in Literature has symbolized the public value of our craft. It's been a comfort, even for those of us who know full well we'll never make the short list.

But as I wrote on my Facebook feed yesterday, literature is a big canvas, and song lyrics are certainly an art of language. I'm happy that Bob Dylan's work was honored. I look forward to the day that hip-hop, stand-up, throat singing, and so many ancient and new forms receive international honors. I say this as someone who's a fairly old-fashioned poet. I know that the world of words is bigger than I am. As it should be.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

I got new glasses yesterday, and finally this morning I am beginning to figure out how to focus again. It's funny how long eyes take to get used to something they really want.

The forecast calls for rain, and I hope that also means mushrooms. So far this fall, I have found a few honey mushrooms and cadillacs, despite the annoying deer who keeps decimating the patches overnight. But "few" is the key word; there has been no wonderful overflow. Last weekend, on Sears Island, we found our first ever hen-of-the-woods, but I don't expect to find any more of those. They only grow on oaks, which I don't have, and prefer a more temperate climate than my woods can offer them.

I'm trying to think hopefully about the mushrooms I'll be able to find on walks in southern Maine, but it does make me so sad to forsake the forage secrets of my northern forest.

Later today I'll be driving to Portland to meet the boy, who is coming home for fall break. We are very much looking forward to sitting on the couch and watching a Cubs game together. When I asked him what food he'd like me to make, he had a one-word answer: "Vegetables!" This is classic Paul. When he went to canoe camp in middle school, he used to get into the car after a wilderness trip screeching, "Fruit! Fruit! I need fruit!" Once he ate an entire watermelon on the ride home.

I will definitely remember to load up the car with the fresh Macoun apples I bought yesterday. Maybe I should also bring a few pounds of carrots.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The sky is saturated with gold. The brilliance is unsettling, a frame for the pulsing glories of leaves and grass. Autumn is a strange lurid beauty.

I woke early with a headache, so perhaps that is skewing my easy pleasure in the colors outside the windows. This morning they seem almost violent.

Here's a rather horrible thought about autumn--from Shakespeare, naturally:
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burthen of the prime,
Like widow'd wombs after their lords' decease.
--from Sonnet 97
I have been thinking about Shakespeare lately, mostly because my son is taking a course on his history plays and likes to call me up and chatter about his feelings and reactions. I will say that there is hardly anything sweeter than getting these phone calls: "Mom! Let me tell you about what I'm reading!" But he is struggling with Shakespeare . . . not because he can't understand the dramatic structure, or doesn't enjoy the language, or can't a write a paper about it, or any of those basic issues. As he describes his reactions, I see that he means that there's no respite when he reads a Shakespeare play--no chance to pull back from the experience and digest or even breathe. They are so dense and demanding. A Shakespeare play grabs the reader by the throat and won't let go. Even the comedies are inexorable, but the histories are like doom.

I understand that reaction. Really, when you read Shakespeare, you need to be prepared to fall off an ocean cliff and repeatedly smash your skull against rocks. For me, Othello is the hardest to revisit. Talk about doom. Watching Iago machinate and Othello weaken and Desdemona wander cluelessly around the room is like asking to be crushed in a garbage disposal. It's so painful.

Still, I'm glad he's undergoing the torment, and I know he is too. He seems to have discovered, at college, that demanding work can be a fascination and a joy. Every time I speak to him (and he calls home all the time; it's very funny), he's laying out his plans for self-improvement: he's going to take this or that course, he's going to attend this or that performance, he's going to take part in this or that project, he's going to read this or that play. He never bought into the expectations of high school, but he takes this college seriously. He is surrounded by artists, both masters and apprentices. He feels noticed, and he feels challenged. I am so happy for him.

Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain tops that freeze,
Bow themselves when he did sing:
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.
Every thing that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads, and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or hearing, die. 
--from Henry VIII

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

We did not climb Borestone Mountain. Instead, we drove to the coast and hiked on Sears Island, a charming shabby little preserve linked by a causeway to the town of Searsport. Searsport has a beautiful deep harbor, so for years the state government has been trying to figure out how to transform Sears Island into an industrial site. Various ideas have been mooted: nuclear power station, natural gas depot, container ship port, those sorts of things. In the 1970s E. B. White wrote an essay in the New Yorker defending the island against such encroachments, and there has been powerful local opposition to development. So in the end, none of these plans took root; and since 2009, the island has been conservation land.

It was amazing to me that on a holiday weekend, at the height of leaf tourism season, in the center of bustling midcoast Maine, Tom and I were the only people walking on this beach. But Maine can be funny that way. The wind blew, hard and steady. We watched seagulls swirl into the gusts and drop mussels onto the rocks below. We peered into caves in the cliff. In the woods behind the beach Tom discovered a cache of hen-in-the-woods mushrooms. Salt stiffened our hair. I pretended to fly.

* * *

Geoffrey Hill readers: Our next poem will be "Merlin," and later this week Carlene will post some first thoughts and questions about it. In the meantime, you might want to check out the new comments about "The White Ship."

Monday, October 10, 2016

Thus far, on this holiday morning, the sky clings to its indeterminate white. A chill breeze tugs at the leaves. Tom and I had planned to climb Borestone Mountain today, and perhaps we still will. But if the weather doesn't soften, the climb will be a cold one.

I've spent much of the weekend re-preparing my house for the view of potential buyers: i.e., trying to hide or at least streamline the boxes of books that have lumpenly overtaken every room. It's absurd, the number of books I am not giving away to the Goodwill.

But yesterday I also sat quietly in a chair and reread my poetry manuscript. In regards to that sheaf, I have now reached the stage of amazement: I wrote this! It's a normal stage, but a good one--much better than the stage of despair or the stage of cynicism. And it was pleasant to listen to the rain drip from the eaves, and drink hot ginger tea, and think not-terrible thoughts about my work.

* * *

Geoffrey Hill readers: We need a new poem to discuss. Anyone ready to step up?

Sunday, October 9, 2016

This morning I am thinking about political cowardice but also about the devastation of Haiti. It is stunning how thoroughly Trump's lewdness and sexual aggression have distracted Americans from the fact that a thousand people have been killed by a hurricane in a nation just off the shores of their own.

So what accounts for this immense and horrified response to a man whose entire life has been a document to his awfulness? We didn't learn anything new about him. All we did was overhear him framing his actions into words.

As I listen to other women react, I am beginning to recognize what's going on here. The question is: are there any women in this world who have not, in situation after situation, been targeted, derided, damaged, reduced, or labeled simply for being female? I have never met one.

Trump's words do more than "strike a chord." They eat into a soul.

That said, I am now going to donate money to the Red Cross for Haiti.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Donald Trump: Pig-in-Chief

I had hopes that, even if the Red Sox couldn't manage to win on my birthday, that at least I could say that Donald Trump had quit the presidential race. But, alas, he is still with us--though a fresh layer of hot tar is dripping into his eyes and matting up his hair.

The man is an American humiliation. He is a shame and a sinkhole. And while he has managed to say something nasty about almost everyone who doesn't look like himself, women are his constant, quotidian targets. At best, we are caged animals in rut. At worst, we are too ugly to touch. Are we married, are we celibate, do we have vocations, do we have private lives, do we have faith, do we have ambition? What does any of that matter? He reduces our worth as human beings to a single question: "Would I fuck her?"

After yesterday's disclosures, no woman in the United States should be able to vote for Donald Trump. No man who values his mother, his wife, his daughters, or his female friends and colleagues should be able to vote for Donald Trump.

My country, do not let this swine become our decision maker.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Good morning! Today is my 52nd birthday, and I am determined to enjoy it. Right now I am drinking hot black coffee and basking in the easy warmth of a brand-new propane heater. The electricity in this house is functioning beautifully, and the well water is clean and plentiful. My kitchen table is decorated with a pale blue beeswax candle, a tiny pumpkin, and a fresh notebook. The Red Sox will be playing a day game, and today is also outfielder Mookie Betts's birthday, so they are sure to win. I am going to do some paying work in the morning, and then spend the afternoon working on poems and cleaning house. I am going to take pleasure in washing the floors. I am going to open the birthday presents that my parents sent me. I am going to answer friendly birthday phone calls. I am going to welcome Tom home for dinner. I am so glad to be alive.

Yesterday I made a point to give myself some space, and that decision paid off spectacularly: I finally figured out how to construct the new poetry collection. Once I saw what had to be done, the poems floated into place and the title rose full formed into my mind. Now the collection is called Songs about Women and Men, and I have sent it to the editor who asked to see it. Maybe she'll take it; maybe she won't. But I do feel that I've finally been able to step back into myself after these months of tense distraction.

I am so glad to be alive.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

from Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard (trans. Archibald Colquhoun)

The journey had lasted more than three days and been quite appalling. The roads, the famous Sicilian roads, . . . were no more than tracks, all ruts and dust. The first night at Marineo, at the home of a notary and friend, had been more or less bearable, but the second at a little inn at Prizzi had been torture, with three of them to a bed, besieged by repellent local fauna. The third was at Bisacquino; no bugs there but to make up for that the Prince had found thirteen flies in his glass of granita, while a strong smell of excrement drifted in from the street and the privy next door, and all of this had caused him most unpleasant dreams; waking at very early dawn amid all that sweat and stink he had found himself comparing this ghastly journey with his own life, which at first moved over smiling level ground, then clambered up rocky mountains, slid over threatening passes, to emerge eventually into a landscape of interminable undulations, all the same colour, all bare as despair. These early morning fantasies were the very worst that could happen to a man of middle age; and although the Prince knew that they would vanish with the day's activities he suffered acutely all the same, as he was used enough to them by now to realise that deep inside him they left a sediment of sorrow which, accumulating day by day, would in the end be the real cause of his death.

* * *

What amazes me, as a writer, about this passage is how the sentence style and language control shift from beginning to end, so that, within a very brief frame, the author moves from a grumpy traveler's anecdote to a metaphysical disquisition on death. What amazes me, as a reader, is exactly the same thing: and this, I think, is the miracle of the art. Lampedusa's sentence transformation has created my emotional transformation.

To me, this writer-reader relationship is so clear and powerful. It's also my drug: why I go back to books, and back again, and back again. But then I step into the world, where so many people who want to be writers--even very bright ones, even very published ones--have never considered the idea that great writing might itself be the great mentor.

So I want to beg you, friends: Read. And love what you read. And examine what you love. And puzzle over what you examine. And cry over the puzzle. And love what you cry over. And read what you love.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Last night was cold, another near-miss frost. In the garden the deer have eaten the lettuce but left the arugula. A patch of infant honey mushrooms has erupted near the woodshed door. I am reading The Leopard and Rilke's elegies and the Orioles-Blue Jays baseball score and worrying about the Caribbean nations.

Our Realty by Kakfa situation has made one good thing clear: Tom and I are not breaking up over house problems. Nonetheless, we are no closer to living together, and I am trying not to imagine a winter up here alone.

Ah, well. At least we have heat and light. Our house has not been smashed in a hurricane. At least we do miss each other. As irritated as I am by those so-called buyers, I know we're happier than they are.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Dawn and Tom's Bad House-Selling Story

Once upon a time Dawn and Tom signed an agreement to sell their house. The buyers put down a deposit to be held in escrow. [Dawn and Tom's feelings = fluttery.] All month long they waited for the house inspector and the bank appraiser to arrive, but no one appeared. [Dawn and Tom's feelings = increasingly fluttery.] At the end of September the realtor announced that the buyers had missed their inspection date so they would forfeit their deposit if they decided to back out. [Dawn and Tom's feelings after receiving a few strange phone calls from the buyers = (D) cranky and exasperated, (T) grasping at optimistic straws.] Immediately thereafter the buyers sent in the inspector, who had been instructed to take many, many tests, including ones that made no sense (a lead pipe test in a house built in 1980?) but must have cost a mint. [Dawn and Tom's feelings = mystified.] Yesterday the realtor contacted Dawn and Tom to say, "The buyers have broken up: the sale is off: sign this form and you will receive their $1,000."

And now I will quote from the email that my friend Angela sent me when I told her the news:
OMG! Fuckin' shit!!! Stunning! What a kick in the ass. What a roller coaster.
OK, take a breath, have a drink or 2 or 3 and regroup.
You got an extra grand that you earned for your suffering. Jesussss!!
It is fortunate that we had Angela to say all of the things that needed to be said here.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Monday morning again, home alone again. Another trudging week ahead.

Fortunately the leaves will be red and the skies will be blue and the grass will be green and the cat will be white.

I have begun re-reading Lampedusa's The Leopard. This is not a book I read as a young person, but I have come to love it so deeply--for its evocation of place; its evocation of human-animal attachment; its episodic structure; its patient, ornate description; its massive delicate crumbling protagonist, a character who reflects his landscape in himself. As E. M. Forster wrote, "This is one of the great lonely books."

In his introduction to the Everyman translation, David Gilmour writes:
Giueseppe Tomasi, Prince of Lampedusa, died in the summer of 1957. He was sixty years old and had published nothing in his lifetime except for a handful of articles in an obscure Genoese journal. A few days before his death, a leading Italian publisher rejected the book he had been writing for the previous two years, and thus he died in ignorance that he had written the most successful novel ever to come out of Italy. The Leopard was finally published in November 1958. The following year it won the Strega prize; twenty months after its publication, it had reached its fifty-seventh printing. 
Several books and several hundred articles have been written about The Leopard and Lampedusa's other posthumous works, the short stories and the memoir of his childhood. While much of the later attention was concentrated on the author's language and use of imagery, the bulk of the earlier articles was concerned with his political attitudes and his view of history. Alarmed by the growing success of the book and the initial enthusiastic reviews, leading left-wing intellectuals took up polemical positions, attacking Lampedusa's "reactionary philosophy," his "squalid ideology," and "his mean and narrow historical vision." Alberto Moravia called the book "a success for the Right"; Leonardo Sciascia complained that it was written without a sense of history; Elio Vittorini, who as a publisher's adviser had rejected the work during its author's lifetime, claimed it was old-fashioned and ridiculed its portrayal of death.
And yet, in my eyes, a half-century later, The Leopard is anything but a "mean and narrow" vision of history. It is, as Tolstoy's novels can also be, the portrait of a person and a landscape who cannot keep up with the times. The person knows this; the landscape does not. When I think of the anti-intellectualism of our own Right, I wonder what a writer such as Moravia would make of Lampedusa's novel if he were able to re-read it today. I think he might recognize the sensation of being frozen inside history.

As for being "old-fashioned" and offering a "ridicul[ous] . . . portrayal of death": all I can say is that this is what happens when an aging Sicilian prince spends all of his days reading fiction. His translator, Archibald Colquhoun, writes:
The briefcase opened. It contains, as well as maybe a few cakes from the last cafe, books, the addictions which made him as great an object of suspicion to his fellow grandees as his great-grandfather had been with his telescopes and comet-finders. 
The books might vary, but were all in their original language; Tolstoy, Stendhal, Flaubert and Proust, Thomas Mann, Dickens, and latterly, Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster (it is pleasant to think of this admiration being reciprocated). Always, there was a volume of Shakespeare which, according to his widow, he took with him everywhere. This concentrated reading throughout the day at the cafe table . . . was in a way creative. His cousin and intimate friend, the poet Lucio Piccolo, can remember him spending an entire summer reading the novels of Richardson.
My only quibble is the phrase "in a way creative." Because, of course, there is no "in a way" about it. His reading was profoundly creative. I imagine, at times, it was desperately creative.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Yesterday's class was a good one: 10 people in a room for 3 hours, reading and talking and writing. As usual, I made them read stuff they wouldn't ordinarily read, like Plutarch and Cotton Mather and angry, thundering James Baldwin. I guess, as a teacher, this is one of my predictable behaviors: that I want my students to engage with literature as a conversation over time, not just as a conversation with their peers.

Living inside the sorrow of Plutarch as he writes to his wife about the death of their daughter . . . that sort of connection never stops feeling like a miracle to me. I never know how others will react, but I constantly feel the need to try.

Today will be a quiet one: a slow start, a slow rain. I might go to the orchard for apples. I might make a pie while I listen to baseball. I might look at that poetry manuscript. I might idly stare out the window into my browning garden. Next Friday will be my 52nd birthday. I'm beginning to feel the roll of the calendar.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

I woke up sick yesterday, which is why I didn't write to you. I feel better now, fortunately, because I have to drive to the coast later this morning to teach an essay workshop in Rockland. Writers under discussion will include Rayfiel, Galeano, Ginzburg, Woolf, Mather, Baldwin, Doerr, and Plutarch. And, yes, the Mather on the list is Cotton Mather. In a workshop that focuses on writing about one's passions, I thought it seemed important to consider writing about something one passionately fears.

On the house front, it has been a week of inspections and appraisals. The closing date is now set, and we will be able to stay here for a month longer, until mid-November. But we still don't have a place to go after our month is out. You may find me under a bridge with Ruckus and 50 cardboard boxes filled with books.