Friday, June 30, 2017

In gratitude: The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching

I will attempt to speak coherently about this past week, but please forgive me if I splutter and spit and incorporate mixed metaphors and dangling modifiers and use unintelligible pronouns. The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching was transformative, but right now I also feel as if I have been soaring enthusiastically among the mountains and stars and have just now noticed that I have a fuel leak. Pardon me while I crash-land on your golf course.

Anyway. Kerrin McCadden, my new associate director: a queen among women, a queen among teachers. Matthew Olzmann and Matthew Lippman, our tag-team visiting writer duo: watching them was a lesson in the way in which open hearts and engaged minds allow us to channel our own crazy habits and histories into the work we do in the classroom and in the world. Kamilah Aisha Moon, this year's director of the Writing Intensive: peace and gravitas, anger and forgiveness, deep attention and patience . . . an ineffable calm, an ineffable unrest. She has changed my life as a writer.

And the participants . . . I can't even begin to untangle the web of their beauties. Career teachers speaking with so much love to young teachers. Old friends opening their arms to new friends. This sounds so corny and dumb. But it was not; it was not at all. Intellectual engagement is emotional engagement. Again and again, our beloved colleagues demonstrate this truth.

I have directed this program for half a decade now. What a privilege it has been to help preserve this home of so many souls. Forgive the sentimental language. It circles some deeper well. You could call it magic. You could call it the clear and cloudy gaze. You could call it the poem.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Everything is beautiful in the White Mountains, if slightly too cold. Two thirds of my visiting faculty is named Matthew. I read my Vietnam poem in the barn last night. Someone spotted a bear sitting across the road in a boat. However, there's been no sign of the groundhog. We are all beginning to reach a point of ecstatic exhaustion. That accounts for my sentence structure in this letter.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Here I lie, on the bed in the little downstairs room at Robert Frost's house. The curtains puff in and out, in and out. The fan flutters. Tourists squeak up and down the stairs beyond my closed door.

Siesta time, after a long day, always the hardest day: new people, a new dance. I chose a difficult poem this year, Frost's "The Master Speed," a poem that in some ways is hard to love. But the dance itself was love, and the dance was easy to love: the conversation, in and among and through, this curious artifact, the poem.

So now here I lie, on the bed in the little downstairs room. The breeze brushes my ankles, lifts the edges of my hair.

Friday, June 23, 2017

This morning I will try to figure out what to pack for the Frost Place (impossible) and this afternoon I will drive there. Google-Ann insists that Portland is only 2-1/2 hours from Franconia, which is hard to believe. The drive from Harmony took 4 hours, and I have that length of time stuck in my geographical consciousness.

So today's life will be a new drive, new scenery, a new associate director, but the same old bear bumbling among the lupines. As usual, I may or may not have time to write to you this week; and even if I do, you won't be hearing from me in the mornings. Those are the times of insanity . . . trying to deal with coffee-urn mishaps, trying to find the spare rolls of toilet paper, trying to chase the bird out of the barn. . . . Mid-afternoon is the siesta time, when all toilet-paper problems are handled by the museum docent and I can lie in my stuffy little Frost-child bedroom peacefully listening to tourists clump up and down the stairs.

I almost forgot to update you on last night's adventure, my first-ever writers' group, which was a rousing success. We did have a good time together, and the place we met was comic--a sort of pseudo-Algonquin hotel bar, populated by bald men in polo shirts, and a furtive waitress who, after showing us the specials' menu, whispered, "I wouldn't order the soup. It tastes strange."

Thursday, June 22, 2017

I woke up this morning to a flurry of Frost Place emails--all good, all good--and the forecast is filled with mist and rain, per usual, and my friend Ruth tells me there's rumored to be a 300-pound bear roaming the homestead, and my friend Andrea sends her best wishes and hopes that no mice fall on any participants this year, and I am frantically gathering poems and paperwork and trying to figure out how to drive from Portland to Franconia, which I have never done before, and in the meantime, the beautiful week awaits.

So today is haircut day, and also finishing my syllabus for July's environmental writing seminar, and checking my violin strings, and answering more Frost Place emails and phone calls, and reading some prose manuscripts in preparation for my first-ever venture into a writing group this evening. I am nervous about this writing group, for no good reason, given that it's composed of only two other people, both of whom I like and respect. And I would like to have less of a head cold. But the Fates say no.

However, you will probably be pleased to learn that I overheard someone on the street ask a friend, "How do you get the smell of patchouli out of an apartment?"

Some mysteries cannot be solved.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Rain and thunderstorms are forecast for today, and already I feel the portents of a heavy wet heat. The arugula seeds I planted three days ago are sprouting. Our local male cardinal is whisking among the locust trees, and sodden joggers amble down the sidewalk.

We looked at more houses yesterday, and I am feeling pessimistic about ever finding anything that suits us . . . or, more properly, suits Tom because he is way fussier than I am. Maybe he will find something while I am at the Frost Place, and I will come home to discover that the shopping ordeal is over. That would be the best-case scenario for me. But I doubt it will happen.

Monday, June 19, 2017

My parents drove home yesterday, and I instantly came down with a sore throat and had to take two naps. On the bright side, I did get a call from my younger son, who was bubbling over with joy: the administrators of the camp where he works have assigned him to a trip to Hudson Bay. So he'll spend 6 weeks canoeing up the Winisk River into Polar Bear Provincial Park. I am trying not to worry too much about those polar bears. But what a trip! . . . into the tundra, among the tiny Cree settlements. "And I even get paid!" he crowed.

Here's how the Ontario Park Service describes the park:
Remote, and accessible only by air, Ontario’s largest and most northerly park features unspoiled low-lying tundra. Sub-arctic conditions prevail in the park, which is the domain of woodland caribou, moose, marten, fox, beaver, goose, black bear, and polar bear. Seals, walruses, beluga and white whales frequent coastal and esturial areas. As many as 200 polar bears lumber through coastal areas at certain times. The peak period is early November. In late spring, hundreds of species of bird descend upon the region. White geese can be seen rising gracefully above the sear barren. Until roughly 4000 years ago, the mid-Silurian limestone bedrock (450 million years old) here was submerged beneath the Tyrrell Sea, a massive body of water that has retreated into the present Hudson and James Bays. Postglacial gravels and sands are overlain by a layer of sedimentary clay. The land is basically flat with a few inland ridges that indicate the location of former shorelines. It tends to flood when the ice breaks up in late spring. No longer oppressed by the weight of mega-glaciers, the land is slowly rising at a rate estimated at 1.2 m per century. Caribou lichen, reindeer and sphagnum moss grow along the tundra. This is considered the most temperately located mainland tundra in the world. The simple plant cover decomposes into the uppermost layers of the peat soils, bogs, and muskeg that carpet the terrain, much of which is given to permafrost. The treeline encircles the bays like a necklace. North of this invisible limit, no trees grow. South of the line, stunted willow, spruce and tamarack masquerade as scrub, gradually rising in height, with distance travelled south. Lapland rhododendron, crowberry, and mountain cranberry also flourish here. In early summer, the tundra becomes an exquisite heath of plants in delirious bloom. Adding to the spectacle, the many ponds that dot the landscape turn rust, yellow, green, turquoise, black, ivory, brown, and other colours, depending on the plant micro-organisms and minerals in the water. Archeologists have determined that Algonquian people lived here perhaps 1000 years ago. Their descendents are the present-day Cree who reside in the coastal settlement of Winisk. 
Park Facilities and Activities: There are no visitors’ facilities. Landing permits must be obtained in advance for each of the park’s four airstrips. The only evidence of human habitation in the park is an abandoned radar station, part of a former military defence line. It consists of squat metal buildings, oil tanks, radio towers, and a few radar dishes and a landing airstrip. Visitors to Polar Bear should be prepared for any eventuality. They should bring at least one week’s extra supplies in case their departure is delayed due to bad weather. Tents should not rise any higher than necessary, due to the possibility of strong winds. 
Location: On the western shore of Hudson Bay, above James Bay, in the far northern area of the province.
"Visitors to Polar Bear should be prepared for any eventuality." Those are not words to calm a mother's nerves. Nonetheless, I kind of wish I could go too. I'm quite taken with the idea that, "in early summer, the tundra becomes an exquisite heath of plants in delirious bloom. Adding to the spectacle, the many ponds that dot the landscape turn rust, yellow, green, turquoise, black, ivory, brown, and other colours, depending on the plant micro-organisms and minerals in the water." I can't even imagine that water.

The Cree settlement Peawanuck, at the edge of the park. That's a Catholic church in the teepee,
and those are the Northern Lights behind it.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Yesterday Tom and I took my parents on a 3-hour mailboat ride among the Casco Bay islands. And then in the evening they all came to my reading in Westbrook. I think it went well; I hope it went well. One never knows what will happen with a voice.

And now I enter the downward rush to the Frost Place. This will be a week of frantic editing, and frantic paperwork, and frantic buying of toothpaste and face cream, and frantic making sure I'm leaving Tom with enough catfood/toilet paper/bread/clean underwear, which is stupid because the man is perfectly capable of shopping and doing his laundry. But stupid is one of my character traits.

At the Frost Place I know for sure we will have 21 participants, 3 guest faculty members, 2 staff faculty members, 2 office staff members, 1 teaching fellow, and 1 groundhog. The remaining visitors are unknown, though I suspect that several will be ticks and one will be the lawnmower guy who every year drowns out a presentation and has to be chased off the premises. One year we had a phone call from a man who claimed to be the uncle of the next Yeats. But the next Yeats never showed up, though we kept an eye out for him.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Yesterday my parents and I spent the day at Winslow Homer's studio at Prout's Neck, then wandered through the Portland Museum's American art collection, and eventually met up with Tom for dinner. Today, if the fog lifts, the four of us will go on a ferry ride among the Casco Bay islands, and afterward we'll make fish chowder and drive out to my poetry reading in Westbrook (Lowry's Lodge Poetry Series, at the Continuum for Creativity, 863 Main Street).

Thus, at this moment, I am drinking black coffee and preparing to sort through poems. I'll be reading a mix of pieces from my two manuscripts, Chestnut Ridge and Songs about Women and Men, and I suspect that my co-reader, Adrian Blevins, will be also be sharing some of her Appalachian-based work. It will be a mountain evening.

Friday, June 16, 2017

From Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Look, he says: once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.

* * *

From "Iraq," by a high school senior and recent immigrant

Always when I think about my country I imagine war
or the destroyed places.
Not only the picture, the feeling too.
When I think about war and what happened it makes
strange feelings inside me--
fear, weakness, and it hurts
at the same time.
Because I was born with war and the destroyed places,
and with different religions fighting about nothing important.
It's really hard to have this feeling.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

I have another poem featured today at Vox Populi.

Many of the images/phrases in this poem were triggered by mug shots released by the Somerset County Sheriff's Office--specifically, the slogans on the t-shirts in those photos. It was also triggered by Blake's long poem "America: A Prophecy," though an editorial change makes that less clear. My original version spells the final noun "New-England," an attempt to maintain a Blakean echo. I'm going to ask the editor to reinsert the hyphen, but till then you will have to imagine it for yourself.

Update: The hyphen is back! And now that you've seen both versions, which way do you prefer it?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A male cardinal been visiting the locust tree next to my bedroom window. I have not seen his mate, so I presume she is nesting somewhere nearby. But he is out and about, whistling and preening and cocking his scarlet head.

In Harmony I rarely saw cardinals, though we did have plenty of color in the summertime--purple finches, goldfinches, rose-breasted grosbeaks, an occasional indigo bunting. We did not have any locust trees, and I am learning to love this one beside the window--all feathery foliage and delicate sweep. The cardinal looks extremely handsome in its dappled shade.

Finally the heat has broken. The air is dry and cool. A small breeze rocks the locust tree. I hear a mockingbird singing. The people on the sidewalks are running or walking or dawdling. The cars are spinning down the highways. The dogs are rolling in the dew.

A tiny vase of yellow pansies sits on my kitchen table. I grew them myself, in my tiny deck garden. That is better than no harvest at all.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Yesterday's house viewings: One decaying bungalow that needs to be stripped down to the studs and completely reconstructed. (No.) One teeny-tiny cape heavily scented with Glade, decorated with American flags, warrened with bizarre add-ons (e.g., a washer-dryer closet cut into the garage), and no visible way to access the furnace. (No.) 

This evening we get a day off from house shopping. Instead, I'm going to drive to my yoga class because I don't think I can walk four miles round trip in 90-degree heat and also manage to stay alive during the class. For some reason, this weather has squelched me. I wonder if there's some kind of coastal ozone thing that's making me limper than usual. Fortunately, after today the heat is supposed to break, and by the weekend we'll return to regular old Maine dampness.

On Saturday evening I'll be reading with Adrian Blevins in the Lowry's Lodge Poetry Series, 7 p.m., at the Continuum for Creativity on Main Street in Westbrook. Adrian is a creative writing professor at Colby and she's originally from Appalachian Virginia. So expect some mountain poems from both of us. You'll also get a chance to lay eyes on my parents, who will be visiting us over the weekend. I tried to convince them to do something more interesting than attend my reading, but they insisted.

Today: more editing, more ice tea, more torpid cats, more exhausted husbands, more dinners at 8:30 p.m. to avoid heating up the doll-house. More small winds, like blessings.
Summer Wind 
William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) 
It is a sultry day; the sun has drunk
The dew that lay upon the morning grass;
There is no rustling in the lofty elm
That canopies my dwelling, and its shade
Scarce cools me. All is silent, save the faint
And interrupted murmur of the bee,
Settling on the sick flowers, and then again
Instantly on the wing. The plants around
Feel the too potent fervors: the tall maize
Rolls up its long green leaves; the clover droops
Its tender foliage, and declines its blooms.
But far in the fierce sunshine tower the hills,
With all their growth of woods, silent and stern,
As if the scorching heat and dazzling light
Were but an element they loved. Bright clouds,
Motionless pillars of the brazen heaven–
Their bases on the mountains–their white tops
Shining in the far ether–fire the air
With a reflected radiance, and make turn
The gazer’s eye away. For me, I lie
Languidly in the shade, where the thick turf,
Yet virgin from the kisses of the sun,
Retains some freshness, and I woo the wind
That still delays his coming. Why so slow,
Gentle and voluble spirit of the air?
Oh, come and breathe upon the fainting earth
Coolness and life! Is it that in his caves
He hears me? See, on yonder woody ridge,
The pine is bending his proud top, and now
Among the nearer groves, chestnut and oak
Are tossing their green boughs about. He comes;
Lo, where the grassy meadow runs in waves!
The deep distressful silence of the scene
Breaks up with mingling of unnumbered sounds
And universal motion. He is come,
Shaking a shower of blossoms from the shrubs,
And bearing on their fragrance; and he brings
Music of birds, and rustling of young boughs,
And sound of swaying branches, and the voice
Of distant waterfalls. All the green herbs
Are stirring in his breath; a thousand flowers,
By the road-side and the borders of the brook,
Nod gayly to each other; glossy leaves
Are twinkling in the sun, as if the dew
Were on them yet, and silver waters break
Into small waves and sparkle as he comes.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Sorry I didn't write to you yesterday. We had company in the morning, and then we went to look at a house, and then we went for a walk into town and I about died from the 90-degree heat and had to lie on the couch in front of the fan to recover. And then I made spring rolls with shrimp and fresh lettuce. And then I went to bed and attempted to sleep, and eventually I sort of did.

Today looks to be more of the same, except worse, because poor Tom will have to build things in the 90-degree heat. It will not be a good day to be a laborer.

Meanwhile, I will edit a manuscript and pull things together early for a cold supper late. We are going out to look at a couple of other houses this evening. Undoubtedly it will be another exercise in futility. It is difficult to feel optimistic about house shopping, given last fall's debacles. On the other hand, it is fun to look at other people's stuff. For instance, in yesterday's house we saw a record titled How to Teach Your Parrot to Speak.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

We slept with the windows wide open, we woke up late, we drank coffee in bed and perused real estate listings, and now we are upright, watching the sun shadows and the dog walkers, trying to unplug the bathroom drain, and looking forward to the arrival of our weekend guest. Today will be warm, tomorrow will be warmer, and perhaps it is not silly to imagine that summer will visit Maine after all. Yesterday I purloined a tiny spray of beach roses from the park, and today I'm only slightly too cold in this sundress I'm wearing. I could make ice tea this morning, or ceviche, or strawberries and cream! But instead I'll focus on vacuuming the cat fur off the guest bed, meanwhile hoping the relatives of the large weird bug I killed don't show up in the bathtub looking for him. I am not especially squeamish, but that large weird bug had an awful lot of legs. Maybe if I'd been wearing my glasses, he would have looked less monstrous. But what's done is done.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Okay, I'm quite irritated with the mainstream media at the moment, and my irritation centers around the way in which reporters and editors continue to use the word leak when they discuss James Comey's shared memos about his meetings with the so-called president. Sure, the so-called president doesn't look good in those memos (when does he ever?), but the thing is: a private citizen can share unclassified information with a friend. That's not leaking. Like, say, right now, friends, I'm going to share the information that Tom said, "See ya," and kissed me good-bye this morning before he left for work. Tom, not being a treasonous bastard, comes out looking pretty good in this revelation. But I still didn't ask him if I could tell you.

Ugh. Thanks for your patience in allowing me to complain.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

We made up for Tuesday's baseball washout by sitting through a doubleheader last night. The Sea Dogs played one horrible game and one mediocre game, Tom caught a glimpse of the Akron bullpen players pretending to take at-bats with a snow shovel, we decided that Slugger the mascot is likely to be called up to the majors (he does an impressive rendition of "YMCA"), and we are doubtful that extreme pogo-sticking (the between-innings entertainment) will ever catch on with audiences.

And then, after a late night at the park, I got up at 3:30 a.m. to drive Paul to the bus station, and now my brief holiday in Boy Land is over till August.

So today I will try to get some editing done, and try not to get too distracted by the Comey testimony, and try to find someplace to stow the Boy's suitcases, and try to find an interesting way to cook chicken, and try to get used to having no children again.

* * *
three people standing about
the same distance apart,
one's hand up and waving
     as he turns,
the other two wildly waving back. 
--from Len Roberts, "Our Son Leaves His Miniature Japanese Sand Garden Behind Because There Will Be No Room in the Dorm"

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Well, the game was a washout last night, but fortunately it's been rescheduled as part of a doubleheader tonight. So we'll enjoy a long baseball evening, and then at 4 a.m. tomorrow I'll haul the Boy off to the bus station so he can embark on his Canadian idyll. Until then, the doll-house will continue to be strewn with grotty tarps, sleeping bags, dry bags, duffle bags, rope, tumpline, wool socks, headlamps . . . you have the idea. A Boy needs a lot of mangy supplies in order to spend six weeks in the river wilderness.

I've started reading Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies and thus far am pleased with it. I'd been avoiding her Tudor novels, mostly because I love Ford Madox Ford's The Fifth Queen so much and I didn't want to get myself involved in anyone else's Henry VIII fiction. But I like the way she's made Cromwell a sympathetic character, whereas Ford portrayed him as a monster. And her prose details are beautiful and evocative. In a way, her style reminds me of some of Jonathan Swift's poems. Swift, to my mind, had a matchless eye for street details, and Mantel can also conjure up place with great deftness and clarity.

A Description of the Morning

            Jonathan Swift

Now hardly here and there an hackney-coach,
Appearing, showed the ruddy morn’s approach.
Now Betty from her master’s bed had flown,
And softly stole to discompose her own.
The slipshod prentice from his master’s door
Had pared the dirt, and sprinkled round the floor.
Now Moll had whirled her mop with dextrous airs,
Prepared to scrub the entry and the stairs.
The youth with broomy stumps began to trace
The kennel-edge, where wheels had worn the place.
The small-coal man was heard with cadence deep,
Till drowned in shriller notes of chimney-sweep,
Duns at his lordship’s gate began to meet,
And Brickdust Moll had screamed through half the street.
The turnkey now his flock returning sees,
Duly let out a-nights to steal for fees;
The watchful bailiffs take their silent stands;
And schoolboys lag with satchels in their hands.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The wind is spitting rain and blustering steadily from the east. On a usual day I would enjoy this weather, but now I'm hoping it will clear out quickly because the three of us have Sea Dogs tickets for tonight. It will be our first baseball game of the season, and we've all been looking forward to laying eyes on Rafael Devers, Red Sox third-baseman-of-the-future . . . or, more likely, of the soon-to-be-present, given how horrible the current Sox third baseman is.

Yesterday I started a new editing project, which turned out to include a chapter by a poet I know, and I've also been offered the chance to edit a couple of Juniper Prize-winning books later in the summer: one in poetry, one in fiction. So that will be something to look forward to.

In the interstices between editing and boy chat, I've started experimenting with bread again. Because I can't fit my baking stone into our Easy Bake Oven, I've been struggling to produce a decent loaf of sourdough. Thus, I've decided to switch to a yeast version of focaccia, and I've added an egg to the dough (for a springier texture and better keeping qualities). So far I've made one loaf with parmesan cheese in the dough and another loaf filled with chopped kalamatas. Both were topped with coarse salt, chopped fresh herbs, red-pepper flakes, and olive oil. The parmesan version was the better of the two, but only because I should have added more olives to the second one.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Yesterday, as I was cleaning the woodwork above the windows, I felt something snag at my duster--a silver, coin-sized talisman that turned out to be Catholic medal. Not being Catholic myself, I had to do some research to discover that it was a Saint Benedict medal, also known as "the devil-chasing medal."

In addition to featuring a portrait of the saint, the medal is decorated with a useful amalgam of protective Latin phrases and abbreviations as well as a Celtic cross, always handy when one needs to tap into one's pagan roots. My favorite of the abbreviated Latin phrases translates as "May the dragon never be my overlord!" I'm also fond of "Begone Satan! Never tempt me with your vanities! What you offer me is evil. Drink the poison yourself!"

In addition to protecting me against the dragon, the medal is supposed to "destroy witchcraft and all other diabolical and haunting influences," "impart protection to persons tempted, deluded, or tormented by evil spirits," "afford protection against storms and lightning," and "serve as an efficacious remedy for bodily afflictions and a means of protection against contagious diseases." All of this seems quite useful, so I think I will hang on to it.

Hey, dragon! You're not my overlord! Drink the poison yourself!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Well, here we are again, living in Boy Land. The holiday will be fleeting as the Boy is heading off to the Canadian wilderness later this week and won't return till August. But already the fruit bowl has been sucked dry; the living room has been transformed into a staging area for online devices, couch blankets, oversized shoes, empty glasses, and a mandolin; the cat has polished up his bratty flirtations; and facts and inventions are being loudly declaimed. We are all delighted.

This morning, however, the doll-house is quiet . . . except for the exasperated cat, who is annoyed that his Boy remains firmly asleep. Tom is sitting up in bed drinking coffee and reading a book. I am at the kitchen table drinking coffee and avoiding the world's daily dose of terrible news. Fear and trembling, fear and trembling, and yet, so far, the sun continues to rise, and the unfolding beach roses nod toward the light. I don't know how to speak, but a generalized grief weights my breath and my heartbeat. Humility and humiliation. The vast and the personal. Arson and ice.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Last night a line of thunderstorms blew through, and this morning the peninsula is draped in fog. The air is wringing wet; the marshy earth is a sponge. Late yesterday afternoon a friend and I walked through the Audubon refuge in Falmouth, and in and among the field grasses I saw a field of budding peonies. This was before the storms, when the sun shone and the birds sang. But I came home with my sneakers completely sopped: every swale and dip was a delta. The soil is saturated.

Today, the car goes to the car shop, and then I go to the high school writers' shop, and then home again to pull myself together for traveling tomorrow. I'll be leaving very early, so you probably won't hear from me again till Sunday.