Tuesday, November 26, 2019

"For some reason, no one likes to be told that they do not read enough poetry."

                                                      --Virginia Woolf, Night and Day

Five Meyer lemons sit in a porcelain bowl on a slab of bluestone on my kitchen counter. A shy spaghetti squash lurks in the corner.

* * *

I meant to take Vita out for a ride yesterday, but editing and housework got the best of me. Today, maybe. The temperature is supposed to climb into the 50s, and I am almost done with a chapter. I need to run some Thanksgiving-related errands and clean the bathrooms, and then I'll be free to slowly pedal among the graves, alongside the silent frog ponds, past massive oaks and maples.

Tomorrow we'll head west for the holiday, and I'll be intermittent here. I hope you have a day of comedy, good cheer, and comfortable digestion but also breathe a whiff of melancholy for past and future.

This will be our first Thanksgiving, since their birth, without either of our boys. Sadness has its stories to tell, and time wanders a twilight road.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Yesterday was a beautiful, cold, damp, sleety, rainy day, which I mostly spent in front of the fire reading Virginia Woolf, doing a crossword puzzle, playing cards, and wrapping Christmas presents. Other than a brief foray out to the grocery store, I went nowhere. I did wash a thousand pounds of laundry, but I did not do any housework. I took a two-hour nap. I made a batch of preserved lemons, and cooked Moroccan chicken with lemon and olives for dinner. I watched part of a 1950s sci-fi flick called The Forbidden Planet, which was a sort of Star Trek-plus-Doris-Day mashup. It featured a robot named Robbie who arranged flowers. So handy around the house.

As a result of that nice day, I am now feeling rested and energetic: ready to edit and answer emails and run errands and get all the stuff done that I didn't do yesterday. And I've just found out that a reading group in Florida is going to be focusing on Chestnut Ridge this spring, which is exciting for me. If you belong to a group that might be interested in reading it too, please know that I'd be happy to share thoughts, answer questions, etc.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

On Friday night Tom and I went to Bennington College to watch the opening performance of Sam Hunter's play Lewiston, directed by our son Paul Birtwistle. This weekend's performances are the culmination of his advanced work at Bennington--a project that's been almost a year in the making, from discovering the play to finally presenting it on stage.

It's difficult to describe how moving the experience was. In many ways the play feels as if Paul could have written it himself. Its themes revolve around land, legacy, history, loss, class, family . . . all of which are touchstone concerns for him, as they are, of course, for me. The apple don't fall far from the tree with this one, though our methods are very different; and that in itself creates all kinds of emotions: pride, recognition, self-doubt--and I mean self-doubt in the best sort of way: a perpetual wonder: how and why: staring at a map of the forest floor and suddenly remembering the canopy.

The play was beautifully staged: a gorgeous set that was stark and spacious yet homelike; really fine acting from a top-notch cast; and behind it all the eyes and ears of our son, coaxing it forth.

Bennington's drama program regularly shows up in "best of" lists, and it attracts students who often have significant prior experience in the art. Many attend arts high schools such at LaGuardia in NYC.  That wasn't the case for Paul. He went to a mediocre high school in central Maine, where theater was treated as a second-tier extracurricular pastime. He did have kind teachers who mentored him, but the school placed no particular value on the endeavor.

So naturally there was anxiety and fear. But now, four years later, he has constructed this performance, in a theater filled with friends and colleagues from so many places and backgrounds. To watch him be lauded, be so respected within this rising cohort in the art: I felt as if all of us had walked a thousand miles to get here.

And yet others have walked farther, much farther.

The Natalie Diaz excerpt above appeared on a display Paul had put up in the lobby outside the theater, and I took its picture to share with you. Because maps are ghosts. We travel them, and they are veins and arteries, and our terrors, and they are the thin wail of a gull in a winter wind.

Friday, November 22, 2019

It's a grey morning, but damp and warmish. I slept in slightly late today, until the cat began using my chest as a trampoline. Strange dreams all night, involving terrible characters from the impeachment hearings. I was implicated in everything. There's nothing like waking up with a loaf of dread on your plate.

At least coffee and daylight can wash away dream crimes.

Yesterday I took Vita out for a brief spin to the library. I went for a walk with a north-country friend. I made minestrone and tried to force myself not to work, though I did edit for a couple of hours anyway. Today I'll be on the road again, off to celebrate my college boy's directorial debut. I am full of happiness and pride, and when I see him all of the tiredness/dream dread will vanish, and everything will be good.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Yesterday was an ordeal, driving-wise. Because of bad weather on Tuesday, I ended up driving north on Wednesday morning, running into some terrible roads toward the end. Then I taught all day, and then I drove home again. So 6 hours in the car, 4 hours in the classroom. Not an ideal proportion.

Today I'm pretty tired, but at least I have a break before I get into the car again tomorrow. And of course the kids were wonderful, especially when they were talking about some poems I'd brought in for them to read. They agree and disagree, get excited about characters and metaphors: they have such strong feelings, and it's incredibly gratifying to watch them get so hepped up about what they're reading.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Last sentence of James Joyce's "The Dead":
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Never, ever tell me that adverbs are waste words. Joyce will prove you wrong every time. I mean, "swooned slowly"? Just copying it out makes my hands tremble a little. It's so strange and exact and familiar and incomprehensible.

But of course the story itself is one of the most remarkable things I've ever read: how it begins as a portrait of a family holiday party and then, almost invisibly, morphs into a dense, delicate, charted journey into marriage and loss and young love and fear and devotion and self-doubt and time. Every time I finish it I feel as if I've been to the underworld, or to church.

I've loved "The Dead" since I was a teenager. I love it just as much now. It is the best story I know.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Today is girding-my-loins day. Tomorrow I'm off to Monson; home on Wednesday; then off to Vermont on Friday for my son's senior show; home the next day; then back to Vermont on Wednesday for Thanksgiving with my family; home the following weekend; and then back to Monson. I'm sure, in reality, this traveling will involve plenty of sitting-around-doing-nothing time, but at the moment I feel as if I'm preparing for battle.

So today: class prep, editing, yoga, cleaning bathrooms, going to a meeting of my poetry group. The weather is supposed to be nasty--cold rain, freezing rain. Already the cat has given up on the outdoors and settled into his yellow chair.

By the way, I finished Mary Poppins and now I'm reading James Joyce's "The Dead." Don't ask me why one seemed to lead to the other.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Up early again, though this time I can't blame it on the cat. On the whole I like the idea of sleeping late more than I actually like sleeping late.

I finished The Ambassadors yesterday afternoon and rewarded myself by inhale-reading, of all things, P. L. Travers's Mary Poppins Comes Back, while lying under a couch blanket and drinking a giant mug of tea.

Let me clarify: I loved The Ambassadors, and certain James novels--The Portrait of a Lady, What Maisie Knew, The Spoils of Poynton--are perennially important to me. I've read all three multiple times. But I've always struggled with the late novels: The Golden Bowl, The Wings of the Dove, and the like. The sentences are so serpentine; so many words framing a shrug or a glance. They wear me out, like Proust wears me out.

Apparently, however, James was perfectly aware of this. Writing to the Duchess of Sutherland, he advised:
Take . . . The Ambassadors very easily and gently: read five pages a day--be even as deliberate as that--but don't break the thread. The thread is really stretched quite scientifically tight. Keep along with it step by step--and then the full charm will come out. . . . Besides, I find that the very most difficult thing in the art of the novelist is to give the impression and illusion of the real lapse of time, the quantity of time, represented by our poor few phrases and pages, and all the drawing-out the reader can contribute helps a little perhaps the production of that spell.
Inadvertently, it seems, I was following HJ's advice. And while his letter to the duchess is certainly smug, I think it's also wise. My slow, steady reading did spool out the thread, did contribute to the illusion of the lapse of time, did reinforce my belief in aging Lambert Strether's innocent blindness to the "sin" around him.

And I also found this, near the end of the novel, spoken by Lambert's lonely friend Maria--
What woman was ever safe?
--a question that makes my skin crawl and my eyes fill, but also makes me grateful for James's deep, strange comprehension of what women endure.

What woman was ever safe? The question is too sad to answer.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Of course the cat raked me out of bed at 5:30 on a Saturday sleep-in morning when I was in the midst of a complicated dream involving a farmhouse, some mysterious visitors, and a vegetarian who suddenly started eating meat.

Now here I am, awake in the prosaic light of day, such as it is, unable to discover why that dream kitchen was so murky and ill-lit (are there no overhead lights in dreams?) or what we were going to do with all of those onions I was chopping up.

Well, at least my real-life coffee is hot.

This weekend I must do housework, and I must start Christmas-shopping, but otherwise who knows? Yesterday it warmed up, briefly, into the 40s, so Vita and I went for a quick bike ride until my ears got too cold. Today I might have to stick to walking.

I'm thinking of making chicken paprikash and dill dumplings for dinner. I'm thinking about what I ought to read once I finish The Ambassadors. I'm thinking about how Tom and I wandered down to the docks yesterday evening, after consuming a giant delicious Greek meal, and took a gander at a hulking container ship a-glow in the harbor. I'm thinking about the cheerful Uber driver named Mohammed whose car radio was blasting Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" as he drove us home. I'm thinking about the Star Trek episode we watched after we got under the couch blanket: the one where Spock has a romance with Mariette Hartley in a sexy, red-lit Ice Age cave, and I'm like "Ew! I can't look!" because Mr. Spock kissing girls is just wrong.

Life is so funny and strange.

Friday, November 15, 2019

All of my desk plans actually came to fruition: I did finish that book review, and I finished editing a chapter as well--a surprising turn of events in this week of slow plodding. Also notable: I deposited a paycheck in the savings account. Yes, shocking but true--I earned money that we do not have to spend instantly.

Today I'm going to a morning yoga class, and then I'll turn my thoughts to a smaller editing job and then maybe to school prep. Or maybe I'll clean the house and let the school prep stew a bit longer. Or maybe I'll stare at that Descartes poem I've been working on. Or maybe I'll just take a walk.

I've got another poetry collection to read and review, and I'm on the home stretch with The Ambassadors. And this morning I'm mulling the possibility of writing an essay about Margaret Dumont, a regular Marx Brothers sidekick, famous for her repeated roles as a stately, obtuse, middle-aged moneybags with an inexplicable crush on Groucho. Her acting is reminiscent of Mr. T's--which is to say, it's not really acting at all but is ridiculously perfect for the situation at hand. I think she'd be a fine subject for a meditation.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Another cold morning. I haven't driven my car in two days, and it is still filmed with icy snow: we haven't had enough sun-power to melt even a thin layer off a windshield. But the house has been warm. Now that I'm not rationing firewood, I can light a fire earlier in the day, and keep it going into the evening. Someday we might be able to afford a better stove--e.g., one with a bigger firebox and more subtle draft control--and seriously cut down on our furnace use. For now, this tiny one lets me keep the thermostat low-ish while reprising the Harmony pleasures of winter basking. A psychological aid, one might call it.

I've barely seen anyone other than Tom all week. Instead, I've been head-down, snout-to-the-grindstone at my desk-- edit edit edit, edit edit edit. This morning, as a change, I'll be switching over to book review book review book review, in hopes that an early morning start will give me the oomph to finish the piece. The process is turning out to be a challenge--mostly, I think, because I haven't been in a prose state of mind for a very long time. I'm having to reconnect the essay synapses, and that's been slow. Still, I'm sure it's good for me, as I'm sure engaging with new poetry is good for me. So I'll keep clomping along.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Yesterday, as I was chunking through my editing hours, I got a phone call from a friend who runs a large annual poetry festival in the state. Generally the day hours of the festival feature local poets as panelists, workshops leaders, etc. Then a big-name national poet reads at night. But given that 2020 is Maine's bicentennial, she had the idea to keep the focus entirely here: on our history of poetry, our current state of letters, our hopes for the future, that kind of thing. So instead of a big gun at night, Baron Wormser, Betsy Sholl, and I will read and speak about our own histories together as well as the history of poetry more generally.

Both Baron and Betsy are former state poet laureates; I am the baby of the group (a comic note, don't you think?)--a former student of Baron's, a long-admirer of Betsy. It will be, of course, intensely sweet to share a stage with these two friends, and I hope my perspective of them, as an apprentice to their art, will be a way to celebrate everything they've done for Maine poetry. But I also feel tremulous--as if I'm trying to climb stairs while wearing someone else's unbuckled galoshes. It's a manifestation of the "who am I anyway?" question, the one that jabs me in the kidneys every time I start to get above myself. Ye olde Puritan shiv.

Enough of these maunderings: let's talk about weather. It's 14 degrees here this morning. Stoops and roofs and cars and grass are coated with a sugar-crust of snow, but the house is warm and bright. I do like winter, once I get used to the idea.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Here I am, sitting on a grey couch, wearing a thick red bathrobe, drinking black coffee from a white cup, and thinking about winter and the muscles in my back I seem to have yanked at yoga class. So far the precip is just a haze of cold rain, a few fat snowflakes, a skim of ice on the back stairs. Nonetheless, the air is cold, and will get colder, dive-bombing into the teens tonight--a sudden taste of February in November.

Not velocipede-riding weather, that's for sure.

Well, no matter what plops, drips, or flutters from the sky, I've scheduled today as a cooking day: e.g., simmering a giant pot of chicken bones and roasting a couple of whole squash to strain for pies and pumpkin bread. And maybe I'll light a fire early and move Editing Central down to the couch, where I can soak in the heat and coddle this ornery back. I've got a library book to return. I've got that book review to wrangle. I've got that draft poem to suspiciously revisit.

I'm still working my way through The Ambassadors, slowly but apparently surely. Late Henry James is such a project.

Monday, November 11, 2019

I guess we'll have some snow later today . . . or sleet, or freezing rain, or plain old rain. Nothing seems clear in the forecast other than cold mess.

It's a standard Monday in our household: work day, not holiday. I'll be grinding through an editing project; Tom will be building cabinets for a new house. Yesterday I managed to get some raking done, bagged up sticks and limbs, more or less prepped the place for winter. The garden is still producing arugula, parsley, and cilantro, but any kind of snow weight or stark temperature plunge will doom them. We're approaching the end of the line, harvest-wise.

I've been fretting about a poem draft--a piece a reader loves but that is giving me the heebie-jeebies. I understand that poets know nothing about what they're writing, but still: I'm having a hard time trusting his enthusiasm.

I need to start working on a book review this week: and prep for Monson next week: and get this editing project moving: and do the housework I ignored over the weekend: and, ugh, Christmas-shop. The next two weeks will be insanely full of driving--once up north, twice to Vermont--and I am starting to feel my jaw clench up and my teeth rattle. I need to figure out how to be a relaxed person.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

I had such a good visit with my sister . . . an uplifting one, really--those deep constants of childhood that resurface without effort. My sister and I don't have the same sorts of adult interests; we don't keep in constant contact when we're apart. But when we're together, we're happy to be together.

Well, today will be Emily Dickinson's black cake day: yes, the annual event has rolled around once more. I'll have to make some recipe adjustments as, for some reason, I couldn't find any golden raisins at the store. So I'll use dried cranberries instead, which I've done successfully before. Last year I candied my own citron, and I still have some left in the freezer, so that's one step done already. The cake itself is extravagantly full of ingredients but not difficult to put together. The most boring part is cutting parchment paper to fit the baking pans. Last year I tried to pretend that the paper wasn't necessary, but the cakes crumbled more than they should have. This year I won't skip that step.

After the cakes are done I'll rake a few leaves, and then Tom and I might try a second bike outing together. Yesterday we took the velocipedes up to the cemetery; today we are considering the loop around Back Cove. He rides much faster than I do. He never decides to walk his bike up hills. As cyclists we are not a match made in heaven, but we knew that already. Yet another marital adjustment.

Here a poem for autumn--"Canto"--set in beautiful, mournful Evergreen Cemetery, ringing changes on Dante, sending to love to my favorite headstone--"Our Darling Ralph."

Saturday, November 9, 2019

It's 20 degrees here this morning. Winter has arrived with a thud. A few days ago I was riding Vita in a sweater. Yesterday, out and about with my sister and a friend, I wore a heavy coat, a hat, a scarf, gloves. Today I might consider long underwear.

It's been such fun having my sister here. Last night we planned an Eastern European meal: a nod to our Polish roots, and heightened by chatter with our Hungarian friend and the sight of Lithuanian kielbasa at the meat market. I fried some fresh cheese pierogies I bought at the Polish deli; whipped up a casserole of sauerkraut, kielbasa, apple, onion, potato, and caraway seed; and shredded carrots and radishes for slaw. It was simple and fun, and next time I'll make the pierogies myself.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Puddles filmed with ice; leaf litter, brittle and thick; and now the day opening into brilliant blue . . . into the kind of sky Keats might call a firmament.

I'm still reading James's The Ambassadors, now adding a pair of collections I'll be reviewing for the Beloit Poetry Journal, itching to return to Dante . . .

This sky is made for poetry . . . chill and bright, cerulean, gleaming with rime and glory.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

It's November, and it feels like November. Trees stretch their bony arms into a grim sky; each dim morning portends snow. Up north the maples and birches are mostly bare now. Here, in southern Maine, the canopies have thinned, but leaves still cling. Everything is more transparent, though. Steeple glimpsed through maple limbs. Train lurching through ash twigs. Here and there are shifting. What was distant or invisible is now the landscape.

My sister arrived yesterday afternoon, and we went for a long walk into the cemetery. Later we spent the evening with Tom laughing over a hotpot meal at Sichuan Kitchen, where I also ran into one of my favorite local teachers. Portland sometimes feels like a small town masquerading as a city.

Today my sister will head off to her conference, and I will muddle around with desk work, and Tom will side a house. Rain will start to fall. We'll reconvene for dinner. I'll make steak and mushrooms, and fried kale, and maybe Yorkshire pudding. And later we'll watch the first fat wet snowflakes puff and vanish on the streaming pavement.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

My trip up north turned out to be quite unrelaxing as (1) my living quarters had no heat for much of the evening, (2) my dad ended up in the emergency room so I was teaching while monitoring updates all day, and (3) I had to drive for 3 hours in the pouring rain. The kids themselves, of course, were magnificent: no worries there. They are a dream team, for sure.

The good news is that my dad is fine. And while my parents won't be visiting after all, my sister will still be coming, so that's good too. However, I have a splitting headache and a general sense of having been buried up to my neck in an ant hill. Here's hoping a coffee/ibuprofen cocktail will soon do its work.

In other good news, Tom bought a bike while I was up north. So now Vita has a friend: a pleasant older gentleman of late-1980s vintage. Naturally, it's forecast to snow this weekend. But maybe they can squeeze in a date or two before the terrible weather really sets in.

Monday, November 4, 2019

I fell asleep on the couch at about 5, woke up at quarter to 8, ate some takeout pizza, and then went straight to bed and slept the entire night. True, I stuffed a lot of yardwork and housework and biking and walking into this weekend, but still.

Anyway, I feel well rested this morning. It's cold out there--low 30s, with a granite sunrise stretching over the roofs and chimneys. I'll be heading north later today for tomorrow's teaching gig, and I'm going to try to treat my overnight stay as a small writing residency: bring books, bring intention. I'll have a whole apartment to myself, and I may as well let myself enjoy the luxury.

In the meantime: editing, laundry, all the regular things. It will be a crammed week as my parents and sister will be arriving on Wednesday. I am trying to pretend that everything will be accomplished smoothly and cheerfully, but mostly I am just aiming for cheerfully.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

I've got a Ruckus poem out in today's Portland Press-Herald, and here is Ruckus, ready to take your applause.

Yesterday turned out to be an excellent day for getting stuff done. I picked up sticks, raked, tore out exhausted plants, coiled hoses, stacked flowerpots, brought freezables in from the shed. Tom chainsawed limbs and repaired the busted fence. Ruckus and his best friend Jack jumped cutely in leaf piles. Later I went for a bike ride with my new basket and mirror, and Tom went bike shopping, without success. We're feeling as if we were unwontedly lucky with Vita, given how hard it's been for Tom to find anything similar.

Late in the afternoon I lit a fire in the stove, and we drank stout and played cribbage; and eventually we ate tuna steaks, buttered chard, and carrot and couscous salad for dinner. And this is why I love to be home.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

It's November 2, and we've had our first frost. I'm still not accustomed-enough to southern living to know if that's normal, but it feels very late to me. I keep expecting the early-October rime of the highlands, not this long seaside idyll of late flowers and clinging leaves.

So I'll spend today tearing out the finally-withered nasturtiums and cosmos, bagging up the latest batch of fallen branches, dragging the giant limb off the collapsed fence in the backyard, and other such chores. We're supposed to have a high in the mid-40s, a jolt after yesterday's humid 60s.  Suddenly snow seems possible.

As a respite from yard work, I'll offer you a bit from Henry James's The Ambassadors--a taste of why it's worth slogging through these late novels: because you can run into a gem like this:
Gloriani showed him, in such perfect confidence, . . . a fine worn handsome face, a face that was like an open letter in a foreign tongue.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Ugh: one of those mornings when Tom forgot to set his alarm and forgot to run the dishwasher; when I forgot where I'd stored the spare parts for the coffee pot that's not in the dishwasher; when the cat was horrified by rain and kept screaming in and out of the house beneath my slippery feet as I tried to drag trash to the curb in a windstorm. Suburban angst, c'est moi. I should move back to a place with real trouble. I'm getting soft.

Anyway, here we are at Friday again: first day of November: mild and humid, windy and watery: maple leaves stuck on windshields like Post-it notes: dogs trotting by in embarrassing raincoats: half a bowl of Halloween candy playing come-hither on the kitchen counter: wet pavement and old tea leaves perfuming the air.

It feels like a day for spirits, of the Dickensian sort, or the Wrinkle in Time sort--the blowsy kind who buffet the parlor ceiling and trail scarves and shawls, who can't stop jingling their keys and clanking their shoe buckles. Their hair is rat-tails and frowst; their noses are red; they tip over tables and clonk into doorframes. Some are apologetic; some never notice their mayhem. Unromantic ghosts, with baggy trousers and shapeless house dresses and holes in their pockets. They're all over the neighborhood this morning.