Friday, March 31, 2017

Yesterday morning a journal accepted a batch of four poems from my newest manuscript, Songs about Women and Men, meaning that, as of now, nearly all of the pieces in that manuscript have been placed. That does feel good. Still, I'm not enjoying the awkwardness of juggling two manuscripts simultaneously. I can't help but compare them against each other, even though they're entirely different entities.

But at least a few editors are reading the poems, and responding to them, so that is a comfort. And today I will blunder on with my Vietnam project, hoping I will find some new rabbit hole to swallow me up. Last night I checked out two more library books: Yusef Komunyakaa's poetry collection Warhorses and John Prados's history The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War. It has become clear to me that my uncle's Special Forces group was heavily involved in covert actions to stem the flow of North Vietnamese soldiers and armaments through this trail, and indeed the book includes the first mention I've seen in print (rather than online) of the sapper attack that killed him.

I'm also going to follow up on a strange coincidence: the fact that a prominent leader of the antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society was also named Paul Potter. There's no family relationship, and I have no reason to believe that my uncle had any thoughts about him, one way or the other. Still, the overlap is odd, and I like coincidences.

That said, I am not thrilled that Vladimir Putin and I share a birthday. So please do not write a poem about us.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

I've kneaded the poem into resting shape. It may change considerably. It may settle into itself. But it exists.

Right now the piece is eight pages long, and I've laid it out as a duet for two voices. Although some of my western Pennsylvania poems also experiment with various choral patterns, this is my first extended duet; and I've arranged the voices to alternate rather than overlap--something I may change eventually. Or I may not. For now, the alternation feels necessary, a way of delineating assumptions about known and unknown.

Anyway, here it sits, the enormous problem, new-born into a body of words.

Outside my window, the tide is retreating, and the mud flats are rising up from the seabed like scrubby cold imitations of Atlantis. A strip of sunrise clings to the horizon. Stop signs twitch in the breeze. Dogs tug on their leashes. The unseen interstate growls.
I have not seen you,
I do not know your names,
I do not know
what I am talking about. 
--from Hayden Carruth, "The Birds of Vietnam"

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

In yesterday's post I bitched and moaned about how much I hate writing, and today I take it all back and admit that, after I composed that note to you, I immediately fell headfirst into the writing hole and didn't clamber back out until five o'clock in the afternoon. At the end of the day I possessed a seven-page draft, with a structure and a dramatic arc. It was a miracle. And it goes to show you that I know nothing about the creative process, so do not ask me for advice.

Today I thought I was going to the dentist, but it turns out that I read my calendar wrong (a common side-effect of falling into the writing hole, akin to driving past my own exit or forgetting to pick up my kid from his piano lesson). Instead, I have another day of "write write write," which is to say, anything could happen. Tomorrow I may have to reveal to you that I spent much of the day on the couch watching Star Trek reruns. Or that I decided to hand-wash all of the wool sweaters. Or that I accidentally brought home a puppy.

Anyway today's embarrassment is worth it. Because I have a draft.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Yesterday I wrote and wrote, and what I wrote was pretty awful, but at least it's been ejected into some version of actuality. I am definitely not in the zone: every word feels like a jackhammer to my skull. Still, I did manage to blurt out four pages of dense undigested garble, so I've got material to revise.

Like a coward, I'm yearning for distraction. Surely someone will need me to do something! Please! . . . but no: I've got another whole day to myself, and I'd better make use of it. Ugh. Writing is so awful. Why do people do it?

A few days ago, a poet-acquaintance commented on Facebook that her local coffee shop was offering free coffee to anyone who wrote a poem. "How is that a bargain?" she asked plaintively. "It's a million times easier just to pay for coffee."

No kidding.

Anyway, off I trudge to the mines. Let's hope the methane levels stay under control and the supports don't start crumbling.

Monday, March 27, 2017

from "Spin" by Tim O'Brien

You take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at the intersection of past and present. The memory-traffic feeds into a rotary up on your head, where it goes in circles for a while, then pretty soon imagination flows in and the traffic merges and shoots off down a thousand different streets. As a writer, all you can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down as they come at you. That's the real obsession. All those stories.

* * *

It's raining today, which is far better than the sleet originally forecast. The snow in the park is dwindling in streaks and clots, and on my walks I have seen a handful of crocuses, two spindly snowdrops, and a few iris and daylily spikes. Buds are beginning to swell on the trees outside my windows, and opening day for the Red Sox is next Monday. The times they are a-changing.

Suddenly the lobster boats have been busier on the bay. Flocks of eiders gather and disperse. Bluejays clang in the shrubbery below the cliff. A row of starlings decorates a ridgeline, and two prim pigeons investigate a feeder intended for some other sort of bird. On Saturday Tom brought home soft-shell crabs for dinner.

"You take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at the intersection of past and present." Yet I'm not sure what my "real obsession" is . . . stories, yes, to a degree, but also the sounds and shapes, also the unarticulated longing. Perhaps, really, the longing is the heart of the matter.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

from My Detachment by Tracy Kidder

I had mixed feelings about . . . a young Spec. 4 who improbably enough, had come across a paperback copy of The Brothers Karamozov and had wrestled with it to its end. I don't think he'd finished high school, but I never met a more ardent reader. Periodically, he'd yell, "I'm not readin' this fuckin' book anymore!" and hurl it across his hootch. Half an hour later he'd be on his hands and knees reassembling the scattered pages. . . . I thought we had a bond.

Then one night in the drinking hootch, someone was talking about the Americal Division patch, which depicted the stars of the Southern Cross, and I piped up and said that, speaking of stars, the light from many of them was so old that the stars themselves no longer existed, and that was because, in proportion to their distance from us, light didn't travel all that fast.

"It's pretty fast," the Dostoevsky reader said.

Well, I replied, we human beings couldn't reach most parts of the universe even if we could travel at the speed of light, which we couldn't.

"Oh, yeah? Why?"

"Because mass can't travel the speed of light," I said. . . . "That's Einstein's theory of relativity," I added.

"I don't give a fuck whose theory it is!" He was practically yelling. "Maybe you can't go the speed of light, but don't fuckin' tell me what I can't do!"

* * *

from "Fragging" by Michael Casey

this kind of crime
is getting to be epidemic
it must be catchy
and it's entirely
from electromagnetic disturbances
in the atmosphere
like I'm dumb he yells out
sunspots sunspots

* * *

Saturday, March 25, 2017

I may have found a way to begin writing about my uncle. Copying out Carruth helped, as it so often does . . . though for reasons that are unclear to me. Not that reasons matter. What matters is finding a frame and a sound and an open door.

Overall, yesterday was a good day. I was delighted to watch the Republicans' health-care bill crash and burn. And as I was humming over that debacle, I received an email from the editor of a very famous press, inviting me to submit a Chestnut Ridge proposal. That was an amazing moment. I doubt very much the press will end up taking the book, but getting onto its radar felt like a miracle in itself.

So this morning I will work on that proposal. And this afternoon I will teach an essay workshop. For now I am watching rainwater drip from the balcony, watching seawater crepitate under a pallid sky. Out of sight, the interstate growls and barks, an incessant rubble of noise. There is no silence here. Nonetheless, solitude remains.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Pages from a Commonplace Book

from Vermont by Hayden Carruth

Have I been too hard on Frost? Let's say I have.
Let's say he made, out of his own bad temper
and this forsaken and forsaking land,
a large part of our context. Not the whole,
not that by any means, but nevertheless
a large part. We must come to terms with him,
or find ourselves cut off completely. Frost,
whatever else you say, possessed a saving
curiosity. That's it, he got around,
he knew this people, he explored this land;
he saw, he apprehended, he perceived,
at least at his best he did, and by God that's
seven-eighths of the battle and five-eighths further
than most of us ever get.

* * *

from PFC Timothy Robinson in Vietnam, April 7, 1968, to his family in Minnesota

Im still waiting for my first letter from someone back home. It would be nice to get a package from home about once a week if you could because your son is starving over here. Some of the things you can send are: cans of fuirt, cokies, hard candy, caned meat, anything in cans our jars, hony or some strawbarry jam, joke book, comics book, hot rod books, paper's, baked food's and "kool-aid" The water over here teast like "H" apple sauce. About once a month send some stationary like Im writtin on now. Im going to try and write grandma, Nancy, and Joyce to because they always have good coked foods around but it is hard to get the time and the equip. over here.

I heat to write and ask for food like a pig, but I losing whiegt fast. Dad I would love to have that big hunting kinef with me over here Do you think you could send it to me. Dont get any cold beer or Coke any more. Maybe one or two cans a week

Haven't seen a base camp in a mounth. That's why we can't get any of that good stuff. Im still wearing the same cloth as when I got over here but they gave me new socks last week. We get a chance to swim in the ocean here but the water is to salt to get clean. We have a mud piled in front of our bunker to wash up and shave in. Got to go now

Love and miss ya all lots
Your loven son and brother Tim

P.S. I don't know what good Im doing over here but I'll keep fighting in hopes that my brother may never have to see this dam land.

["The special care packages the family had put together for Robinson were returned several weeks later. On April 19, 1968, Robinson caught his foot on the trip wire to a booby-trapped mine and, quite literally, was blown to pieces."]

* * *

from War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, trans. Constance Garnett

"Now where, your excellency?" asked the coachman.

"Where?" Pierre asked himself. "Where can I go now? Not to the club or to pay calls." All men seemed to him so pitiful, so poor in comparison with the feeling of tenderness and love in his heart, in comparison with that softened, grateful glance [Natasha] had turned upon him that last minute through her tears.

"Home," said Pierre, throwing open the bearskin coat over his broad, joyously breathing chest in spite of ten degrees of frost.

It was clear and frosty. Over the dirty, half-dark streets, over the black roofs was a dark, starlit sky. It was only looking at the sky that Pierre forgot the mortifying meanness of all things earthly in comparison with the height his soul had risen to. As he drove into Arbatsky Square, the immense expanse of dark, starlit sky lay open before Pierre's eyes. Almost in the centre of it above the Prechistensky Boulevard, surrounded on all sides by stars, but distinguished from all by its nearness to the earth, its white light and long, upturned tail, shone the huge, brilliant comet of 1812; the comet which betokened, it was said, all manner of horrors and the end of the world. But in Pierre's heart that bright comet, with its long, luminous tail, aroused no feeling of dread. On the contrary, his eyes wet with tears, Pierre looked joyously at this bright comet, which seemed as though after flying with inconceivable swiftness through infinite space in a parabola, it had suddenly, like an arrow piercing the earth, stuck fast at one chosen spot in the black sky, and stayed there, vigorously tossing up its tail, shining and playing with its white light among the countless other twinkling stars. It seemed to Pierre that it was in full harmony with what was in his softened and emboldened heart, that had gained vigour to blossom into a new life.

* * *

from Vermont by Hayden Carruth

Well, I’ve said Robert Frost had curiosity
and took the trouble and go and satisfy it,
on foot or driving that bay mare of his;
he saw the state, he met the people. Yet
my guess is that he traveled by himself.
Your typical Vermonter is a man
of, say, sufficient winters, or a woman
for that matter, walking the back roads,
the pastures, woodlots, hills, and brooks, alone
or with a dog, mostly looking down.
Curiosity? Yes, but it bears inward
as much as outward, maybe more. My dog
is Locky, a mixed-breed bitch, though shepherd
predominates, and in her eleven years
Locky and I have walked these thousand acres
ten thousand times, I reckon. Do you think
we go on sniffing the same old rabbit trail,
examining the same old yellow birch
forever? We grow stiff. We plod now, I
with my stick, Locky with her lame forepaw,
and mostly we look down. And so did Frost.
Which brings me to the “all-important question.”
What is the difference, now at last, between
the contemporary and the archaic?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

One excellent side-effect of buying a new comforter, pillows, and memory-foam pad is that the cat has been too comfortable in bed to bother to yowl-claw me awake at some ungodly hour. For three days in a row, he has been the last one up. So we've all been sleeping well here in the doll-house . . . though I did have an unpleasant dream in which I villainously stole someone's identity or possessions or invented a mountain that did not exist and then made my victim climb it or something involving all of those nefarious behaviors; and if this plot does not make sense to you, well, join the club. (Also, there was a cave involved, and some elementary-school wall decorations. And I think I might have bleached my hair blond.)

Today I have nothing to do. No editing, no classroom prep, no vacuuming. I will walk to the post office to mail cookies to Son #2, but that's about my only pressing obligation. Otherwise, I am going to read and write and practice the violin and water my plants and make cookies for Son #1. When Tom comes home from work, we will walk to the library together. Then I will come home and make dinner and watch the Michigan-Oregon game and receive terse game-time texts from my father and Son #2.

By the way, you'll be shocked to hear that the FBI seems to be finding evidence of collusion between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. I mean, shocking, right? The terrible thing is that it's not shocking. As a poet friend wrote last night, "we knew it in our bones." But what the hell? And in the meantime Trump's callow son is sending rude tweets to the mayor of London, just as the man is dealing with a terrorist attack. And in the meantime our so-called president is threatening House Republicans with retaliation if they fail to support to the party's health-care "solution." And in the meantime the guy on the Senate Intelligence Committee who's been most vociferous in his outrage about leaked FBI information just leaked some FBI information. Our government is a humiliation.

But I did see some crocuses in bloom yesterday. So that's something.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Yesterday I received word that the series editor at a well-known university press would like to read the ms of Chestnut Ridge. There's no guarantee that she will take it, of course, but my spirits are high anyway. Not many university presses have broad poetry programs, and those that do usually consider collections "by invitation only" or build their series via the typical small-press contest model. Most don't deal with poetry at all. So I feel full of good fortune, just to have gotten past this door.

I am fretting, though, over the notion that readers' resurgent interest in Chestnut Ridge may be Trump-related . . . just as my publishing opportunity at the TLS was. Such interest is not bad; I mean, it could even be good; it could even mean that readers want to learn more about individuals they've overlooked or romanticized or derided for so many years. My fretting comes more from my own fear of being seen as a voice or a spokesperson rather than as an artist with a subjective and malleable vision. I am not a journalist or a representative. I'm a neighbor and a cousin, and a writer with the avowedly selfish purpose of striving toward art, and I possess all of the usual blind eyes and gratitudes and irritations, along with the urge to frame and highlight and dramatize. This makes me unreliable as an Expert.

In "Taming the Bicycle," Mark Twain writes about learning to ride one of those old high-wheeled machines. He begins: "I thought the matter over, and concluded I could do it. So I went down and bought a barrel of Pond’s Extract and a bicycle. The Expert came home with me to instruct me. We chose the back yard, for the sake of privacy, and went to work."

Twain's version is what I think of, every time I hear the word Expert: it's the person who always gets smashed by the bicycle. "The machine was not hurt. We oiled ourselves again, and resumed. This time the Expert took up a sheltered position behind, but somehow or other we landed on him again."

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Adjunct English Teacher is standing in front of the Celebrate-the-Founding-of-Portland Monument looking bewildered. And yesterday I saw the Doddery Local Poet doing the same thing in the same place. I wonder what epiphanies or anti-epiphanies they're having in that spot. It's a very popular destination, but mostly because dog walkers are attracted by the trash can next to it. From my window I cannot discern anything out of the ordinary, but maybe there's a Certain Slant of Light or something. I should go check it out.

As I horn into their private lives, I stand comfortably here at my desk and stare north across the street, across the park, across the bay toward the water-treatment plant and the baked-bean factory. The cat sleeps on a yellow chair. On the bed behind me, sky-blue pillows and a bright white comforter are crisp and clean and fat and neat. My coffee cup is empty. Sunlight streaks the walls. The rosy buds of the begonia nod toward the light. The windowsill is lined with smooth black stones. Above my desk, a sepia ancestor stares down quizzically from the shelter of her elaborate frame. The doll-house is tidy and tiny and bright.

And now, suddenly, sentimentally, I think of Allen Ginsburg, writing in "Kaddish" of his dead mother, imagining her
looking back on the mind itself that saw an American city
a flash away, and the great dream of Me or China, or you
     and a phantom Russia, or a crumpled bed that never existed—
like a poem in the dark—

Monday, March 20, 2017

The temperature is supposed to rise into the 40s today; and if I were at home in Harmony, I would be emoting about crocuses and lettuce seedlings. To curb my longings, I have bought a bouquet of yellow tulips and a small basil plant, which is now flopping against a sunny window. I suspect it won't survive for long, but at least I can clip it into salad as it fails.

I have been unwontedly lazy all weekend, so I need to make sure I get outside at some point to walk in this balmy-ish weather. But I also have a stack of books to get through. That's the problem with doing research. The project begins to get bossy.

I did force myself to do some submitting on Friday. Chestnut Ridge has been on hiatus for a while, but I decided to start trying to convince a few editors to look at it. And thus far two out of three have quickly said yes, so that's something.

I'm at the uncomfortable stage of having two poetry mss. ready for submission, and contests are expensive, and choosing which one to submit where is difficult, and my first inclination is to say the hell with it and not submit anything anywhere, which is just dumb. And my second inclination is to tell myself that Chestnut Ridge must be bad because no one has taken it yet so I'll try to forget that it even exists. And that is just dumb too.

In the meantime, I've got who-knows-what on the unwritten-memoir burner, and that stack of books to read. And a spring day calling me.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Friday night was raucous . . . a packed bar, scads of dancing drunk people, plus guys in grease-covered insulated coveralls trying to pick me up while I was playing. ["Hey, Dawn, I love you. Did you know I was in a motorcycle gang?"] I had to ask my son's best friend (age 22) if he'd be willing to walk me to my car if the guys in coveralls got out of hand. Who knew that being a 52-year-old ex-classical violinist could be so weird?

As a result, I spent most of yesterday on the couch, slumped in a haze of torpor and basketball. But today I feel more normal. I have already written a letter-to-an-editor, and soon I am going to run all sorts of tedious errands and vacuum cat fur off the chairs and scrub the toilet and so on and so on, ad infinitum. But before I go, I'm going to give you some Tolstoy to think about . . . a passage I reread this morning, and that reignited my fear about this Vietnam project I'm undertaking. The story is so large . . . as large as history.

On the 12th of June the forces of Western Europe crossed the frontier, and the war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and all human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another so great a mass of crime--fraud, swindling, robbery, forgery, issue of counterfeit money, plunder, incendiarism, and murder--that the annals of all the criminal courts of the world could not muster such a sum of wickedness in whole centuries, though the men who committed those deeds did not at that time look on them as crimes. 
--Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Constance Garnett

Friday, March 17, 2017

Good morning from the beautiful window.

I'm heading up north this afternoon for a St. Patrick's Day gig tonight in Dover-Foxcroft. In the meantime, I have a day to myself . . . no editing, no shopping, no laundry. Last night Tom and I walked to the library, where I took out three more Vietnam-related books. I'm hoping that at least one will lead me forward. I also did some writing yesterday--the beginning of a hybrid poetry-prose draft styled in the form of a Google search. I don't think I'll maintain that structure in the long run, but it does work as an organizational strategy.

In the past week, I've gotten three separate batches of poems accepted for publication, plus been invited to do a reading. I've worked on an academic book about poetry, copyedited a forthcoming poetry manuscript, and been invited to submit my own. I know this moment is fleeting and illusory, but I do have a sense of settling down, settling into. It's been almost a year, now, since my whole moving ordeal began, and it's not over yet: Tom and I still have to make a decision about where we'll be going next.

I can't say I feel at home. But I'm not crying anymore. So that's a start.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

I am slowly, slowly figuring out how to research the incident involving my uncle's death in Vietnam, but it has been difficult to find out anything about the activities of the Special Forces group he was assigned to, other than generalized military bravado talk. (On a side note, there are far too many vets out there who brag about themselves as "former mercenaries.") The public records at the National Archives offer masses of casualty data, which are helpful but narrow. The Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress has a single oral history interview from a sergeant, a Green Beret medic, who served in the same Special Forces group and whose dates overlap my uncle's. But the transcript is not available electronically, and the sergeant seems to have been posted in different regions. Still, I'd like to see what he has to say.

This is what I do know. Paul Douglas Potter was a first lieutenant, a Green Beret, a member of the Quartermaster Corps, and a parachutist. He was a Presbyterian from Allentown, New Jersey, unmarried, the youngest of three children. He was called into active duty from the Army Reserve, and he arrived in Vietnam in December 1967.

In Vietnam, Paul served with the Fifth Special Forces Group, Command and Control Central, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Special Operations Group (MACV-SOG), which, according to Wikipedia, was "a highly classified, multi-service United States special operations unit which conducted covert unconventional warfare operations prior to and during the Vietnam War." He was involved in a number of actions during the Tet Offensive.

In August 1968 he was at a Command and Control Center in Quang Nam Province for a conference of some sort. According to an eyewitness, there were many Green Berets and other Special Forces personnel present, so the event was a big social occasion and a lot of people were drunk. My uncle took a bunk that someone else had wanted. After he went to bed, the North Vietnamese guerillas, who may or may not have previously infiltrated the compound, began tossing satchel bombs. My uncle's chest was impaled by a two-by-four. The eyewitness--the one who had wanted that bunk--saw him through the door, skewered to the bed. He did say that Paul died instantly and probably never knew what hit him.

Paul was 23 years old.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Well, that was an amazing storm. Eighteen inches of snow and 50-mile-per-hour winds; at least 20 cars stuck on our corner, including a cop car and a plow truck. Bicycle Rescue Boys enthusiastically peddling through the mess to help dig people out. Tow trucks galore. Dogs in various states of joy and dismay. And absolutely no sledding . . . the wind was so strong that it would have torn the sleds from our hands. We'll have to wait till tonight.

Today is Ruckus's fourth birthday and also the Ides of March, which seems appropriate. The street is now filled with trudgers carrying snow shovels down to the parking-ban lots and terriers getting stuck in snowbanks. Ruckus is staring balefully out the window. Tom is eating leftover pork and lentil soup for breakfast and preparing to join the trudgers. I, however, am pleasantly indifferent to the fact that the plow guy hasn't cut an entrance into our driveway yet. The longer he procrastinates, the longer I can.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

No snow yet, but the air is ominous, and a small wind is kicking up. Our forecast has been upgraded to "blizzard," which means that I ought to go wine shopping first thing this morning. Silly me for forgetting it.

And now a teaspoon of flakes floats in the glow of the streetlamps. In the distance a dog barks and barks and barks. The sky is a Blakean navy blue, a shade lighter than the navy blue sea. In a moment or two the sun will rise, and the colors will recede to gray. But for now it all impends.

I will write and read and edit today. And do laundry and think of something or other for dinner. And walk out into the storm. 

The man turns and there—
his solitary track stretched out
upon the world.

--from William Carlos Williams, "The Blizzard"

Monday, March 13, 2017

Over the weekend I learned that the journal Scoundrel Time wants to publish two of my John Doe poems, so that was good news. Stranger, more disturbing news involved the discovery online of some first-person recollections about my uncle's death in Vietnam. I'll talk about that with you eventually, but I need to organize my thoughts . . . which means not only addressing the fact that I've found an eyewitness description of his death but also exploring some questions: such as, What's the story with this Special Forces organization he was involved with? And why was he away from his own unit and with another one? I will tell you that the incident involved the war's largest number of Green Beret casualties and that it seemed to be part of a mid-year flareup (July-August 1968) of the Tet Offensive.

Like many of you, we're bracing for a March blizzard this week, though Tom and I may be the only people in Portland who are excited. Tom bought me a sled for Valentine's Day, but then we promptly got too sick to go sledding, and then all of the snow melted. So on Tuesday night, I'll be a healthy person riding a sled down a steep seaside hill into the driving snow, and I can't wait.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Tom and I went out to meet our friend Lucy for a drink last night. Lucy is 25 years old and the daughter of our north-country Wellington friends, but she has been living in Portland for the past couple of years, and she can solve many mysteries for me, such as, Is the Bubba who owns Bubba's Sulky Lounge a real person? Plus, I have known her since she was three and I love her.

Anyway, it was really cold last night, so naturally, since we were walking to the bar, I dressed for the weather. But the first thing Lucy said when she saw me was "OH MY GOD, YOU'RE WEARING SNOWPANTS! THAT IS SO CENTRAL MAINE!" And then all three of us laughed and laughed and laughed. Because of course: wearing snowpants to a city bar on Saturday night is really funny. I should note, however, that I was also wearing earrings and make-up. So I wasn't completely Central Maine.

Friday, March 10, 2017

I woke up this morning to a street full of fire trucks and flashing lights and idling diesel engines and fire fighters standing around in fire suits chit-chatting and staring at the house across from ours, which, from the outside, looked much as usual. Then, after all a while, for no discernible reason, the guys got into their trucks and the trucks drove away, and everything across the street looks just the same as it always has, except that now the cellar door is open.

As a result of the uproar, the cat decided against going outside for his morning constitutional, which is not breaking my heart, as I do not have much fun wrestling him into a harness and then standing around in the cold waiting until he tries, again, to slither under the neighbor's porch (I yank him out), or under my car (I yank him out), or inside a drainpipe (I yank him out). Taking a cat for a walk really means taking a cat for a lurk. And lurking is difficult with a leash.

Anyway, in a few hours, I'll be heading north for this afternoon's gig at the Squaw Mountain Music Festival, so the cat will have to do today's lurking entirely indoors. I've got my bag of cough drops and my bottle of ibuprofen and the remaining few pills in my penicillin dosage. I am determined to make it through all of my songs without choking. Afterward I'll spend the night with my friends who live off the grid . . . dark skies, cold air, candles, and a backhouse (aka a well-designed outhouse attached to the house so you don't have to go outside to use it: an amazing boon on a below-zero night). I love to be there.

I've starting collecting my Vietnam materials. The Portland Public Library's choices are not that broad, so I'm stuck with Stanley Karnow's 1983 history of the war, which seems both dry and dated. But at least it will help me out with the facts. The library did offer me Lorrie Goldensohn's edited anthology, American War Poetry, which is both excellent as far as content goes and a beautifully designed physical object (with the exception of a couple of misplaced footnotes). It includes poems from the colonial period through the Persian Gulf wars, but so far I've only been reading the Vietnam-era pieces. And I am interested by her introduction of them:
With the exception of the Civil War, no other war divided the American public so virulently and for so long a time--and yet the divisions that these war poems reflect is not one of politics, or of a division between support or lack of support for the war. In fact, no sophisticated or interesting prowar poetry has yet emerged from this period. Even the division in the poems between home front and battlefield ultimately gave way to a consensus of hearts and minds about stopping a war seen by nearly all those who chose to write poems as senseless and immoral.
So Vietnam has no version of Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" Or Alan Seeger's "I Have a Rendezvous with Death." No Karl Shapiro's "Troop Train."

What it has is version after version of Doug Anderson's "Infantry Assault:
The way he made that corpse dance
by emptying one magazine after another into it
and the way the corpse's face began to peel off
like a mask because the skull had been shattered, brains
spilled out, but he couldn't stop killing that corpse,
wanted to make damn sure, I thought maybe
he was killing all the ones he'd missed . . .

Thursday, March 9, 2017

I started writing an essay yesterday, which may or may not go anywhere, but at least I was writing, at least I was writing. And reading, and going to the library to hunt down more books, and singing to myself along the way. Finally, I can say that I am healthy again . . . and also cheerful, as my husband pointed out, with palpable relief. The poor man has been living with a dishrag for too long.

Tomorrow morning I'll drive north for an afternoon show at the Squaw Mountain ski lodge in Greenville, and I'm pretty confident that my voice will hold out--or at least not get any worse than a mild smoker's rasp. Today I'll edit, and maybe spend some more time with that essay, and go grocery shopping, and work on memorizing some songs, and read Vietnam war poetry, and read War and Peace.

Outside my window I see the Adjunct English Teacher walking slowly up the sidewalk. I only know that's his job because, soon after we moved here, I overheard him introduce himself that way to another walker. But I don't think he does much adjunct English teaching because he spends an awful lot of time plodding around the neighborhood in an orange down jacket and various kinds of inappropriate footwear (e.g., socks and sandals in a slush storm). I feel there is a sad story, which unfortunately for him may also be comic, behind the mask of the Adjunct English Teacher.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

It's raining lightly this morning, and I glimpse a row of eiders swimming beside the jetty. The gulls are noisier than usual, and in singles and in pairs they are muscling purposefully toward the east. Someone down on the docks must have opened a box of bait.

Last night I braised pork loin in milk, Marcella Hazan style, and served it with fresh spinach and roasted fingerlings. Today I have no cooking plans, at least not yet. I do, however, have a library plan . . . to investigate what it's got for Vietnam-era poetry and a good basic history of the war. I have been editing a scholarly book about soldier-poetry, which has given me some names and sources. And I am wondering if it's about time for me to start seriously dealing with family history and the war. For my whole life, I've pussy-footed around my uncle's death in a "I'm just a niece, I was just a baby, what do I know?" kind of way. On the other hand, I named my son after him. And I'm a poet. So clearly I've got obligations.

So we'll see. I've been wondering what my next project might need to be.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

It felt good to read new poems last night, though as soon as I opened my mouth my voice assumed a husky rasp reminiscent of Patricia Neal's in Hud. The place was packed, which was amazing, as I always expect a total of three people in a poetry-reading audience. I saw friends, and I listened to other people's poems: poems in Arabic, and poems composed by people who cannot read or write in any traditional way, poems about Labrador and Darfur and other worlds I have never entered. And then Tom and I walked home through the quiet city, and that was good too.

Now, this morning, I am thinking of potatoes and a pork roast, and of War and Peace, and of gray-green islands flattened against a reddening sky. Yesterday I found out that Chestnut Ridge was a semifinalist in a national contest, which is not as good as winning but is better than the usual sort of rejection. Who knows if the poor thing will ever see the light of publication day? That does not seem likely, at least not at the moment. But at least I know somebody out there actually read it.

Anyway, the poems are the poems, whether or not they appear in print. Writing them was the work and the reward. I used to think that successful writers invented such platitudes to make those of us in the trenches feel better about being ignored. Now I know better. Everything about writing is more complicated than I thought it was, back in the old days, when I hid under the rhododendrons and wished to be Dickens.

Monday, March 6, 2017

I'm feeling pretty good this morning--no coughing fits worth mentioning, minor mouth irritation, a reasonable amount of energy, plus the cat graciously allowed me to sleep in past six this morning. So I'm feeling refreshed, even hopeful (even though I did spend much of the night dreaming about ravenous attack foxes who break into people's homes and murder them like chickens).

I've got a reading tonight, but all of my books-to-sell are in storage. Therefore, I've decided to read only new work . . . maybe only really new work, which would mean poems from the current manuscript of Songs about Women and Men. Here's one of those pieces:

Disappointed Women

They lived in filth. Or were horribly clean.
They piled scrapple onto dark platters.
They poured milk and ignored the phone.

They arranged stones on windowsills.
They filled lists and emptied shelves.
They dyed their hair in the sink.

One stored a Bible in the bathroom.
One hoarded paper in the dining room.
One stared at Lolita and stirred the soup.

When I say emptied I mean they wanted to feel.
When I say filled I mean they wanted to jump.
When I say bathroom, dining room, soup I mean

I washed my hands.
I sat at the table.
I ate what they gave me.

[previously published in the Portland Press-Herald, November 2016]

* * *

Not all of the pieces are so glum. "John Doe's Love Letter," for instance, is not glum at all, but I can't reprint it for you yet because it's just come out in the new issue of the Beloit Poetry Journal. When it gets to be old hat over there, I can share it with you here.

Anyway, if you're able, I'd love to see you tonight, at Vinland, at 8 p.m. Tom will be there. Friends of my youth will be there. Friends who are youth will be there. It will be sweet to embrace you all in one place.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

My friend, the poet Jay Franzel, sent me the following small piece, one of a number of brief political essays he's been writing lately. Given my tooth issues, he thought it was appropriate. Or maybe he just thought it would make us all gnash our teeth.

A Gamble

Jay Franzel

I recently heard from my buddy, Wildcat Mike. I was glad to get his e-mail; usually he only writes when the University of Kentucky wins a basketball championship or is cited for recruiting violations. Mike wrote: "Dude! I had a wicked toothache and called my dentist for an emergency filling. He agreed to see me, even though it was after hours. So I’m in the waiting room reading a Field & Stream and guess who comes walking out of the dental chair?"

I replied, "John Calipari?"

"No—Mitch McConnell! I always wondered who his dentist was. And here he is, seeing my guy!"

"So did you talk to him?"
"Nah, he kept his head down and walked out. But I asked Dr. Vann about him. He said, 'Pretty good guy, doesn’t say much. 'Course it’s hard to talk while you’re getting your teeth cleaned. Every appointment he says, "What’s the damage?" and when I tell him, he whistles and shakes his head. Then he says, "Good thing I’ve got that taxpayer-funded insurance!"' Funny, huh?"

"Hilarious. So how’s your tooth?"

"Tooth’s great, but I’m out three hundred bucks. If UK doesn’t win by at least 11 next game, I’m toast."

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Last night I dreamed up a new movie for Charlie Chaplin's oeuvre, a film called The Two Fops that I was watching in my sleep, until Tom came to bed and I woke up and told him about the movie, and he laughed and said, "What is a fop?"

So I explained the definition of fop, and then this morning I googled the title, just in case there really was a movie by that name. I did not discover a movie, but the British Museum does own a Jean Louis Forain print, Les Deux Gommeux, whose title translates as The Two Fops, and it looks remarkably like a still from my imaginary silent movie. Of course I have never seen this print before.

So that is today's weird brain invention-conflation. The whole thing feels very Iris Murdoch. Perhaps I will shortly have a strange philosophical obsession with the print curator at the British Museum, who will turn out to be having an affair with my sister-in-law, who herself is involved with an odd cultish group studying the bones of Richard III, and all the women in our story will be wearing beautiful brightly colored clothes, and the men will be slightly sweaty and wear nylon undershirts beneath their business suits, and we will walk on pebble beaches in inappropriate shoes, and one of us will own an all-seeing dog who rescues someone or other from an undersea grotto, and The Two Fops will be reprinted ambiguously on the book cover.

Friday, March 3, 2017

I just returned from the North, where I managed to sing (mostly) without coughing uncontrollably. The antibiotics are kicking in, and both the abscess and my inflamed sinuses are beginning to shrink. So except for the irritation of having nothing for breakfast except for the doughnut I ate in the car (ugh, I hate doughnuts), I'm feeling reasonably chipper.

I also just received an invitation to read on Monday night, along with the poet Gary Lawless, who recently won a lifetime achievement award from the Maine Humanities Council, and the poet Ekhlas Ahmed, a teacher at a local high school who has appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to talk about her life as a Sudanese refugee and an English language learner. So that's very exciting . . . not least because this will be my inaugural appearance as a Portland resident. If you're available, I hope you can come see us.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Finally, a diagnosis!

It turns out that I have a periodontal abscess, which the sinusitis was disguising. I've never had tooth trouble before, so presumably I picked up this sideline infection while the sinus virus was battering me. Now I am swallowing penicillin pills four times a day and waiting for the abscess to shrink and/or burst . . . "unless," mused the nurse practitioner, "you want me to slit it open now with this knife, but that wouldn't be very fun."

No, really it wouldn't.

But at least I know what's wrong now, and at least I've got some prospect of cure . . . though honestly my mouth feels just as crappy today as it did yesterday. Still, I will persevere with my plans: first, a visit to the ELL kids at South Portland High, then back to the doll-house to edit, then a drive up north for band practice.

In other news: it looks like Jeff Sessions did talk to the Russians. I'm sure you're all so shocked. But of course he will remain perfectly unbiased in any DOJ investigation of Flynn et al. [Choke.]

What those guys need is a nice tooth abscess.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The fog is thick again this morning, and a 40-degree mist clings to the skin like cold spring. The cat and I were out before dawn, prowling around wet flowerbeds and tree trunks, until a woman in a hat walked past and the cat lost his mind and dashed back into the building. Now we are staring out the window into cloud punctured by headlights. I'll be going back to the doctor today, hoping that this time she'll consider a round of antibiotics. My sinusitis appears to have morphed into what now looks like a localized gum infection--presumably my resistance was down because I've never had any teeth problems before. The situation is complicated because I'm in the process of transferring records from my previous doctor and dentist and haven't yet gotten into the new-patient system with anyone. Plus, not every provider wants to take insurance backed by the ACA [thank you so much, congressional Republicans], so I'm depending on the urgent care staff to get me through this. Ugh.

Anyway, tomorrow morning I'm supposed to sit in on a poetry-teaching session for ELL high schoolers in South Portland, which I've really been looking forward to. I hope I won't have to back out. I'm also worried because I've got two singing gigs on the horizon, and I need to be well for them.

On the bright side, I'm getting a lot of editing done. I'm taking long walks by the sea. I'm playing Bach on the violin. I've got a jar of pink tulips on my kitchen table.

Eugenia Todd 
Edgar Lee Masters
Have any of you, passers-by,
Had an old tooth that was an unceasing discomfort?
Or a pain in the side that never quite left you?
Or a malignant growth that grew with time?
So that even in profoundest slumber
There was shadowy consciousness or the phantom of thought
Of the tooth, the side, the growth?
Even so thwarted love, or defeated ambition,
Or a blunder in life which mixed your life
Hopelessly to the end,
Will like a tooth, or a pain in the side,
Float through your dreams in the final sleep
Till perfect freedom from the earth-sphere
Comes to you as one who wakes
Healed and glad in the morning!