Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Yesterday felt like a first step back into normality for me, at least insofar as doing productive work. I edited most of a chapter, finished judging a poetry contest, and spent an hour on the phone with my friend Teresa, conning over various translations of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo." Teresa and I used to have a telephone-talk about poems once a month, but now we're tightening our schedule to every two weeks. We're both craving more intensity, not just for the sake of the poems we're studying together but for the sake of our own writing. Self-motivation is not something I've struggled with before. Since I first figured out I needed to be a poet, I've driven myself forward into my vocation. But this crisis has upended me: my worry spirals into anxious household management, and I need to find some way to rediscover my private voice.

This morning's aid: yoga at 9 a.m.. Last night my yoga teacher sent me a note saying that she is starting regular Tuesday-Thursday classes via Zoom. I have to say I hate the way life is shifting to video. But apparently that is going to be the only way to do lots of things for a long time, so I am trying to adjust. Tom has even figured out a small studio-ish arrangement for me so that I can take part without seizing up in horror at how terrible I look. That's the big problem: video triggers my vanity in the worst possible way. There's no way to avoid the fact that I'm 55 years old and look like it. When I can't see myself, then I don't care. When I can, all I can focus on is ugliness. 

Apparently this post is exuding stress. I apologize for that. What calm can I share instead? How about:

I looked out the window yesterday and saw a turkey in my back yard. I have never seen a turkey in Portland before. It was large and perplexed and seemed to enjoy pecking up something or other along our fence line.

Cafe Quarantine served split-pea soup last night, which is a most delightful comfort on a rainy evening. (Side dishes: toasted leftover cornbread, raw beet slaw.) Tonight: penne with shrimp, grapefruit salad.

My son is a trash-talking Scrabble player who loves to trounce me. The flip version of this: I raised a good speller who knows a lot of words. Success!

Tom and I have always been solid partners in bad times. He is the prince of my heart. I am grateful for his patience, his kindness, his wit, his resourcefulness, his stamina, in every hour of every day. 

Here's a poem from Chestnut Ridge, a small paean to everyone who manages to keep loving one another in these dark hours.

Saturday Night in Connellsville

Dawn Potter

Because, across a crowded table,
the man you have loved for twenty-five years
catches your eye and breaks into a smile
so bright it could light up the Yukon;

because, as you smile back through the candle flame,
your lanky fifteen-year-old leans all his wiry,
vibrating weight against your shoulder,
and your chair shudders and your neighbors laugh;

because when you put your arms around your boy
and press your cheek into his bristly hair,
he reaches for your hand and holds it against his own cheek
and doesn’t let you go;

because the man on the tiny stage dances
over the guitar strings as if his fat hands
are as fragile as the snowflakes
that sift slowly from the unseen sky; 

because the crowd breathes alongside you
in easy patience, in careful, quiet joy;
because even time has paused
to shift its flanks and listen,

you say to yourself:
I will remember this.
I will remember this forever. 

[from Chestnut Ridge (Deerbrook Editions, 2019)]

Monday, March 30, 2020

Today, the classic Monday-morning scenario that everyone hates: Tom forgets to set his alarm, we oversleep by an hour, the next 45 minutes are a flurry and a panic with lunch slapped together and breakfast wolfed and T rushing out the door . . .

But now it is quiet.

I fell asleep last night to the sounds of thunder and lightning and the rattle of sleet, a strange but strangely soothing combination. Now there's a steady drizzle, and in the gray first light I can see my cat digging a hole in my garden, a rain-coated neighbor stepping out for a double-dog walk, the sodden grass greening.

In a few minutes, I'll gather myself together: start a load of laundry, wash breakfast dishes, make the bed, take a shower, open a manuscript file, and begin the picky prissy rigamarole of copyediting. Paul's classes start this morning, so our daily schedules will change--I hope for the better. I've had such a hard time concentrating on my work, both paying and personal. That's in no way his fault. But maybe the knowledge that both of us have exterior obligations will help me use his class time constructively for myself.

The news is bad. The news is worse. But the wet air is full of bird song--cardinals, mockingbirds, robins, a white-throated sparrow--and yesterday, before the rain, I discovered that my peas are up.


Gerard Manley Hopkins

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

I slept late again this morning . . . not with the hammer-to-the-head effect of Friday night's coma, but still much better and longer than usual. Outside, the sky is drear. We're forecast to get rain and sleet by late morning, with the storm lasting all day and night and into tomorrow. It will be the sort of day for a troupe of high-spirited aristocrats to clatter into the yard of a snug inn, to the joy of the innkeeper's widow and the consternation of the local drinkers. who are all sitting around the roaring fire telling weak jokes like 19th-century versions of Midsummer's Rude Mechanicals. 

Unfortunately, with social distancing, the inn is closed. The local drinkers are dozing at home in front of their own fires, and the aristocrats have all been hospitalized after catching the virus at a society ball, and the innkeeper's widow, who thought she'd finally managed to wriggle out from under the load of crushing debt her husband had bequeathed her, is now crouching over her sputtering laptop and typing poorhouse.com into her web browser by the light of a single tallow candle.

Here, at the Alcott House, things are not so dire. In fact, I've been feeling pretty fortunate. Yesterday I went for a 6-feet-apart-at-all-times walk with an old friend, who, on top of everything else, is scheduled for cancer surgery later this week. What do I have to complain about? Nothing. We still have a little income. We still have food. Our house is rain-proof. Our tempers are easy.

Speaking of food, I think I forgot to update you on Cafe Quarantine's menu. Last night we had potato gratin (shredded potatoes, sautéed onions, sage, red pepper flakes, parmesan, eggs, milk), a tomato and cucumber salad, and angel cake with blueberry sauce and sweetened yogurt. I made the angel cake from my freezer stash of leftover egg whites, which I've been collecting over the course of the year. Usually I save our annual angel cake for strawberry season, but my boys needed a treat and I needed the freezer space.

Tonight: a small ham, cornbread, roasted Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes (yes, we're back to the root vegetable stash), another serving of angel cake.

Today, I suppose I'll do some maintenance housework: bathrooms at least, and some cat-fur vacuuming. I'm not going overboard. I want this weekend to feel like a break in the pattern. The three of us are planning to watch a movie together: maybe Pietro Germi's 1961 Divorce Italian-Style; maybe footage of the 1912 or 1964 Olympics (the Criterion Channel mysteriously features coverage of many old Olympic Games). The boy is in charge of choosing something that will entertain us all.

Here's a pantoum about weather and love. 

Epithalamion for Grendel

Dawn Potter

Cordgrass slashes rents into the wind, 
but I am waiting for my lover at the river. 
Close the floodgates: the tide is high 
and the one I love is mud and reeds, 

yet I am waiting for my lover at the river.
He strides into storms, he wades into pools of silt,
for the one I love is mud and reeds
and my hands long to cup his jagged face.

He strides into storms, he wades into pools of silt.
A scatter of fishes gathers in his wake. 
My hands long to cup his jagged face 
as herons bow to him in the saltmarsh,

as a scatter of fishes gathers in his wake.
Close the floodgates. The tide is high. 
Herons, bow to him in the saltmarsh.
Cordgrass, slash rents into the wind.

[first published in Vox Populi]

Saturday, March 28, 2020

I fell asleep on the couch at 8:30 last night, woke up and dragged myself to bed, then woke up for real at quarter to 7, in full daylight. It seems that I was exhausted.

So much high-pitch managing: household, desk, emotions. Plus my longest bike ride yet: five miles, much of it gasping into a boisterous headwind. I guess it's no wonder I was tired.

But look at this challah my son made! It is bakery-level beautiful. And he coaxed me through our hard bike ride, and afterward we sat on the couch watching a hilarious documentary about the woes of the Seattle Mariners. He is a quarantine prince.

Tom is home today, thank goodness. Every workday glitters with anxiety, as much as we all try to pretend otherwise. Weekends loom as a kind of tree shadow, narrow respites from the glare.

The other day my friend, the novelist Tom Rayfiel, sent me a small essay of his that will appear in the Table Talk section of the forthcoming Threepenny Review. It's not yet available online, unfortunately, because I wish you could read the whole thing. And this is why:
[T]here is a world, not the quotidian series of negotiations and compromises that compose our day, but a sensationally other world we are more intimately in tune with than we are willing to admit. Lines of poems, perhaps for others sections of paintings, snatches of music (I can’t be alone in this, can I?), seem to provide jagged openings to this parallel, coincident state of being. They wink in and out of our spiritual perception, stars, not always visible, whole constellations, if we are lucky.
To know that humanity is out there, beyond my physical ken, creating work of this caliber; thinking so hard, so deeply, so sympathetically; wielding the tools of language with such delicacy and vigor; establishing the conversation between reader and writer; delighting in it . . . 

My hope for us thrives.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Good morning from early-spring Portland, Maine, where the breeze is sharp and the crocuses are beautiful. This is my third spring at Alcott House, and I've never seen them so bright and thick and crisp.

Here, in my inadequate rendering, you can see the spartan garden with its cheerful bouquets. Already, dog walkers and wagon-pulling young parents are stopping to admire the blooms and to inquire about my gardening state of mind. Everyone is so eager for simple sensory happiness. A crocus. A cardinal. My front-yard farm might be a community service this year.

Yesterday our college friend from Brooklyn called with an update on the NYC debacle. As he was talking, the distributor's truck was picking up unopened cases of beer from from his shuttered bar. My friend feels like it's inevitable that he'll get the virus, given his work environment. Plus, he's just put all of his savings toward paying his employees. Yet he didn't sound down and out. He spent much of the phone call telling me about the fun he and his husband were having, making one elaborate meal after another.

And it's true: there is pleasure in all of this, amid the fear and loathing. These bike rides I'm taking with my son: when would we ever do that otherwise? Yet when we shoot back up the driveway after a ride, both of us are beaming and red-cheeked, drunk on wind and sunshine.

It will be another sunny day today. I'll lug trash to the curb, hang clothes on the line, simmer a giant batch of chicken stock, edit a manuscript, mend a comforter. I've started rereading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale, set along the Kennebec River in the years just after the American Revolution. I admire Ulrich as a historian of domestic life, and also as a prose stylist; and I know the Kennebec region well. It feels right to consider the past, at this moment when we're terrified about the future.

During our walk through the cemetery the other day, Paul was telling me about the Battle of Fredericksburg, a Union debacle, in which soldiers were stupidly deployed up a cliff face, where they were picked off by the Confederates. In Paul's telling, the surviving Union soldiers spent a cold December night clinging to those terrible heights. But strangely, miraculously, the Northern Lights were visible in Virginia. And so the soldiers spent their night of horror beneath that beautiful, unearthly glow.

I'm probably remembering this story all wrong. But the image clings, don't you think?

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Well, Tom has received his work instructions. For now, the four-man crew will continue to frame at the renovation site, but all traveling subcontractors (plumbers, electricians, etc.) will be barred. According to T, the four are already dispersed around the house; they're not working on top of one another. The plan is that once they get to a point that requires subcontractors, they'll close down the job. Tom's not sure when that will be: a week, maybe more.

I'm trying not to focus on how nervous this makes me, both working and not working.

Still, yesterday was a banner day because I went for a walk with my neighbor. Yes, you read that correctly. We walked together for a couple of miles and carried on a pleasant conversation, all while easily staying at least six feet apart,  It can be done!

My older son tells me that Chicago smells like weed, which I guess is not surprising. People gotta pass the time.

Today will be sunny and 50 degrees. I'll hang laundry on the line and maybe sow some lettuce seeds. I'll finish editing a chapter. I'll go for a bike ride. I'll bake bread. Yesterday I picked up my meat order and broke most of it down into freezer packages. Thus, tonight at Cafe Quarantine: roast chicken, farro, a spinach salad.

Here's a poem that's not at all seasonal. But when I reread it this morning, I felt as if it might be enacting a version of our current moment: sitting alone, walking alone, thinking alone; and meanwhile the sounds of others, beating on the door. Both metaphor and not metaphor. Creation and disappointment. The inventions of loneliness. The world, inside.

A Listener Sends Six Letters to God, in Autumn

Dawn Potter

Dear Sir, he wrote at dawn,

I am requesting your kind attention
to a perplexity, which is this:
that I believe I may be hearing
what otherwise cannot be heard,
and I am finding it necessary to become
a vessel for pouring this sound into the atmosphere,
if only I may have your assistance in the matter.
Dear Sir,
I pray you, accept this request
with all seriousness and haste.
Yours most truly,

and, with great care, he signed 

A Friend.


Dear Sir, he wrote at dawn,

Today I trudged down the muddy lanes
that snake alongside the sluggish canal
or suddenly veer away, to writhe
among the narrow houses and shops
elbowing one another against the dingy

He paused. On his pen, a bubble of ink trembled.

You see I am avoiding
what I need to say.
Despite undue haste, I remain

The bubble fell, and blotted.

Your Servant.


Dear Sir, he wrote at dawn,

For three days now I have been writing letters
to you. I trust you know that they are always
the same letters, though my words are different.
I am practicing my scales, and my hands are dirty,
and the piano keys stick in the humid air.
Nonetheless, I am

Here a fingerprint appeared.


Dear Sir, he wrote at dawn,

Last evening, I walked, again,
along the canal and I felt
the crackle of my letter to you
as it lay inside my hat, I felt
the snag of the letter’s fold against
my hair, which, I admit,
is neither clean nor combed.
It was necessary to mail the missive.
The question was:
where were you most likely to receive it?
I chose to drop the paper into a farrier’s mossy well,
and perhaps you now hold it
in your dry, your supple hand.
Reveal to me a sign.
My landlady is importunate.
I am your humble

Here a small hole appeared.


Dear Sir, he wrote at dawn,

In truth I am becoming weary of this chore.
I distrust myself.
Last night, while I was at the piano,
my landlady pounded the butt end of a rusty musket
against my chamber door.
To all appearances, she hates my sonata.
Perhaps you, with your finer ear,
will despise it also. I cannot pinpoint,
in these waning days, what, if anything,
I trust.
Yours, in difficulty,

and now the handwriting became a broad scrawl

One Who Attempts Clarity.


Dear Sir, he wrote at dawn,

Persistence is a reckless master.
This will not be my final missive, it will not.
Maintain your vigilance. Hunt for notes
tied to the highest twigs of trees.
I have torn the sonata into shreds
and floated them in the canal. They
are not the letter I meant to write.
I believe you understand.
A breeze blows across the piano strings
and the machine strums its private tunes.
They are not mine. Perhaps they are yours.

I do not hear my own in any gale.

[first published in Vox Populi]

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Portland now has a shelter-in-place order, starting at 5 p.m. So Tom will be going to work today; after that, who knows? Construction is still listed as an essential service, but, clearly, renovating an empty vacation home is not one, though as today's definitions go it's also not particularly dangerous--not like bagging groceries. One friend's wife, a doctor, suits up every day in hazmat gear and runs coronavirus tests in a tent. Another friend works long hours in a group home, where social distancing is impossible. Tom's biggest danger is cutting off his hand with a table saw. Why should I worry?

That's one of the strangest elements of this crisis: the reconfiguration of risk. Today, logging is probably one of the "safest" jobs around. Out in the woods alone, just you and your chainsaw. Nothing to fear, except for dropping a tree on your head, or amputating a leg.

Yesterday I did manage, finally, to get some paying work accomplished. I finished up one editing project and shipped it to the press, then got a chunk done on another. I managed to start working my way through the stack of "read this, friend" items in my inbox . . . items I welcome, that I want to spend time with--poems, essays, family histories--but they all arrived at once, and I've been distracted by "survival," whatever that means. So many definitions are in flux.

Meanwhile, Paul has been watching online performances of Greek plays, trying to get through a week of "vacation" before his classes start again on Monday. Together we shoveled some snow and went for a walk and admired a toddler who was happily jumping up and down in slush. Alone in his Chicago apartment, James cooked a stew and went for an evening walk and cleaned both of his bikes thoroughly and mulled over new ways to attach his window blinds. Tom drove home from work and along the way stopped at five different grocery stores, none of which had even a single bag of flour. I did some mending. A mourning dove sang.

This afternoon I'll bake some bread, and tonight I'll make roasted butternut-squash soup (not sweet, but with garlic and sage), black-pepper croutons, and a big composed salad (canned tuna, hard-boiled eggs, capers, anchovy paste, greens, cherry tomatoes).

I'm thinking of you, in your own turmoil and tedium. Isolation is easy to achieve, nurturing solitude not so much. Yesterday, I shared the following poem with two friends who are struggling with deep fear and loss. Though I'm not a particularly religious person, I turn to George Herbert's poems--especially this one--as a stay and a solace in times of misery. It's a prayer, so maybe try saying it aloud. To me, Herbert's words in my mouth do feel like a gift from God. 

Prayer (I)

            George Herbert

Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
            Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
            The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinners towre,
            Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
            The six-daies world transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
            Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
            Heaven in ordinarie, Man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

            Church-bels beyond the starres heard, the souls bloud,
            The land of spices; something understood.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Snow like sticky sugar-paste: a shock of white in the black morning, dragging at limbs and twigs, tumbling into boulders as the plow scrapes past.

Having just spent the past hour texting back and forth with a friend who's in emotional extremis, I'm already feeling like I need a vacation day, even before the day's begun. But I can't take one, as I wasted a chunk of yesterday at the grocery store, which was hellish and stressful and felt actively dangerous. Yes, I bought toilet paper, but there was no white flour of any sort; shortages of butter and cheese; people shopping in masks and rubber gloves; exhausted staff; an overall miasma of doom. One good thing: I was able to order freezer meat from the local butcher shop: a couple of whole chickens, chuck roast, stew--which will be ready for curbside pickup on Thursday morning. So that was a relief.

I could have lasted at home much longer without going to the store, but I was beginning to worry: What if we get the virus? Now, when we're not sick, is the moment when I should be padding out our supplies.

I came home, jangled and distracted, to learn that my friend Teresa had to cancel our Rilke phone chat because her husband wasn't feeling well. Anxiety everywhere. It's only just beginning, dear ones.

Anyway: good news. I video-conferenced with my poetry group last night, and that went well, though of course there was also much sadness and a fair amount of Internet freezing and stuttering. I shared a poem that is pretty chaotic: a wild-ride, crazy-youth piece that was veering off the road in a few places. They were helpful with identifying those points, and I'm ready to play around with revisions. We've got a date to meet again in three weeks, so that is something to look forward to.

Monson Arts has posted one of my students' group poems, along with a recording of me reading it. If you're interested but can't access this link to the Facebook page, let me know and I'll send the poem to you directly.

Tonight, at Cafe Quarantine: salmon risotto, broiled grapefruit, salad greens, root beer floats. In mending updates: I've got the new casing ironed and pinned and ready to sew onto the the torn edge of the comforter. In editing updates: Jeez, get some work done, Dawn. In reading updates: Le Carre is the limit of what I've been able to read for pleasure. Surely that in itself is a sign of the apocalypse.

Love to you.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Monday: 4:30 alarm: Groan, get up, find my glasses, put on my bathrobe, grope my way downstairs, turn up the heat, make coffee, speed-tidy the common rooms, empty the dishwasher, change the kitchen towels . . . I'll stop with the litany; you get the idea.

Now Tom is in the kitchen fixing his lunch, and I'm beginning to think about my day. First thing, I'm going to make that poem recording for Monson Arts because otherwise I'll find some way to procrastinate. I do dislike recording myself. Then I've got some letters to answer and some Rilke to read. And then editing. And then a phone call with Teresa to talk about Rilke. And then mending and bike riding. And then an evening video conference with my poetry group.

What is Cafe Quarantine serving, you ask? I don't know. Actually, I think we're probably having corn beef hash and a salad, but the boys are on dinner patrol tonight because I'll be talking about poems. Today's heavy dose of poetry talk feels like a little holiday. I've been ridiculously busy with house management. Suddenly shifting from a two-adult to a three-adult household means the dirt factor has increased proportionately. More dishes, more boot tracks, more gunk in the drains, more random stuff parked in annoying places. Tiny little Alcott House does not thrive in an uproar. The mess gets out of hand quickly, and I get disoriented and gloomy. I do hate working in chaos.

Tom had the sweet idea of making a quarantine card to mail to family and friends. So he spent some time doing that yesterday while I was mopping, etc. Paul is writing a play. He tells me it's awful but he's got nothing better to do and maybe powering through the awful will teach him how to be less awful. That's a reasonable summary of apprenticeship.

Tonight we're supposed to get some snow: nothing alarming; an inch or two; it should melt quickly. At some point this week I'll need to venture out for supplies, and I'm already dreading it. I've still got plenty of meat (shrimp, ham, salt cod, salmon), and lots of storage vegetables, rice, pasta, flour, and dry legumes. But our stock of fruit is dwindling (Tom packs it in his lunches); I could use more onions (the ones at the store were soft and sprouted last week, so I didn't buy any); I'd like to get hold of several whole chickens (each one equals at least three meals, plus several quarts of broth).

Who knows what I'll find when I finally talk myself into shopping? Undoubtedly not what I'm hoping for.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Today will be sunny but cold, with the last blue sky we'll see for a while: there's a week of spring rain ahead. I woke up late again, after 6, but still got downstairs before the cat, who has fallen in love with dorm life and now spends considerable time in the college boy's bed. Yesterday he hung out with Paul's friends, flirting into the camera as the kids Zoom-chattered and expostulated and compared quarantine notes. He is entirely delighted with the turn of events.

I finished raking flowerbeds. Crocuses are coming up in places I've never seen them before, especially in the side yard that divides our driveway from the neighbors'. That strip of land was an overgrown mess, and still needs considerable work. For the past two gardening seasons I've mostly focused on keeping the weeds trimmed, while slowly, using heaps of composted maple leaves, creating new beds planted with lilies and iris, which should eventually spread and serve as weed control. In the meantime, however, bits of someone else's long-ago garden are reemerging, probably because my trimming regimen has allowed dormant bulbs to gain some traction again. So there they are: specks of brightness against the leafmold--pale yellow, dark yellow, cream, deep violet, lavender.

Meanwhile, Tom rode his bike to the hardware store, where he bought me some new garden gloves and the fittings for his compressor. I wrote some letters to friends. I received a note, from my mentor Baron Wormser. He'd asked me to send him some recent work, and then celebrated the two poems I shared in a way that made me weep. He talked about their "muscularity," their "physical clang," the beauty of their endings. I share my pleasure in his words with considerable embarrassment because, to paraphrase Alice Munro, "who do I think I am anyway?" But Baron's recognition of the physicality in these pieces is a happiness to me. I've been trying so hard to create poems that are there: that aren't only cerebral or emotional explorations but elbow themselves into a time and a place. I'm not sure why this matters so much to me, but it does.

Anyway: The happiness of having a reader of his caliber. The happiness of unexpected crocuses. Two good things about yesterday.

Today I'll mostly be housecleaning--dusting, vacuuming, mopping, scouring bathrooms--and continuing on to the next stage of my giant mending project. Maybe I'll be able to squeeze in a bike ride among the encroaching chores.  Cafe Quarantine is serving brisket and potatoes tonight, along with home-canned pickles and a salad of roasted Brussels sprouts and grated kohlrabi. I expect you've noticed that my root vegetables are beginning to repeat, but I am working on creating a variety of combinations. We've also got plenty of  leftover olive-oil cake, which I'll top with a touch of maple-sweetened Greek yogurt.

I haven't shared a poem with you lately. So here's one, from Chestnut Ridge, that was triggered by obituary language in the era of the Spanish flu. It's not uplifting, so don't read it if you're already overwhelmed. On the other hand, you could think of it as a small paean to the forgotten. When I wrote it, I certainly had the sense of being the only mourner these people had left.

Daily Courier


Influenza resulted in the loss
of Raymond A., 18 years, residing
in Dunbar until this morning.
Also Miss Grace B. age 15, of Liberty,
died early Thursday, as did David C.,
age 1 year, of North Union Township.
Mary D., small daughter, will be
interred in the Greek Cemetery.
Miss Ora E., spinster, died at her home;
likewise Mrs. Ada F., her husband
being located there with a sawmill.
Dr. Tobias G., Worshipful Master
of King Solomon’s Lodge No. 346,
now sings with the angels. On Tuesday
patient H. smiled before expiring.
Tax collector Lewis I. has lost his infant boy.
David K., president of Pioneer Gas,
rose to be with His Lord.
Cecil L., 13 years old, died after a brief illness.
Joseph M., miner (age unknown), collapsed.
Felix N., bachelor, age 35, perished
at the emergency hospital. The funeral
of Mrs. Catherine O. is open to all friends
tomorrow morning at 11 o’clock.
Mrs. Anna P., a young bride, has left us.
William Q., 15 years old, of So. Connellsville,
died peacefully last night. His father, John Q.,
died two weeks ago of the same malady.
Mrs. Marguerita R., 26 years of age,
is now among the elect,
though one of her sons survives.
Robert S., a well-known farmer,
crossed over this morning, as did Eli T.,
who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg
and was a pit boss. Mrs. Mary U.,
age 18, relapsed after a brief recovery.
Mrs. Nancy V., age 80, had a long life
cut short. Melvin W., infant,
slumbers in the loving arms of Jesus.
Frank X., 52 years old and born in Italy,
has left a widow and a family of children.
Rev. Charles Y. served as our priest for 16 years,
which a few may recall.

In related news,
Lieut. Arthur Z., age 23, late of Uniontown,
succumbed to his wounds.

[from Chestnut Ridge (Deerbrook Editions, 2019)]

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The cat and I slept till 6 a.m. this morning--a luxurious change after a week of 4:30 alarms. The boys are still sleeping, but I am sitting in the dusky living room watching first light open among the roofs and trees. A steady breeze roars in the branches. Chimneys pose against sky. Sunshine is on the way, and I will wash sheets today and hang them outside in the cold spring wind.

I have not stepped inside a store of any sort since last Sunday morning. When Tom told me, last night, that he needs to go the hardware store today (the fittings are shot on his compressor, which he needs for his nail gun, which he needs for his job), fear spread through me like a blush. Go to the store! I had a sudden image of myself as a prairie dog, peering out of the family hole, then diving back into our burrow.

A trip to the hardware store: that is today's giant risky venture. This life barely seems real.

Yesterday, I read an announcement from the Harmony selectmen. To protect the town's 900 residents, they are closing the transfer station and the town office. There's a comic sadness in making sure that two people in pickups, 50 feet away from each other, can't toss a few sticks of rusty old rebar into the dump's metal pile. But of course the major meeting places--Morrison's Garage and the C&R store--aren't closed, and maybe, at this very moment, 90 percent of the current guys-hanging-around-doing-nothing are blaming COVID on Hillary Clinton. I hope not. I hope they understand that this emergency is real.

In the afternoon Paul and I rode bicycles up into the cemetery and then around the neighborhood streets. This was the first time P had been on a bike for a while (his vanished at college a couple of years ago), and it was lovely to watch him speeding and looping, hair flying and face lit up with happiness. Bicycle riding is sheer physical joy: an instant return to childhood . . . the brilliancy of air and speed, the texture of road shuddering up into hands and seat and legs. The three of us are lucky, lucky to be stuck in this loop with our two fine bikes. But we are worried about our James, alone in Chicago, antsy and cranky and not handling solitude or confinement well. He's a social being, used to working long hours in the midst of a crowd of colleagues. I wish he could be here too, with his bike and his chatter.

Tonight's Cafe Quarantine menu will feature vegetarian minestrone alongside a salad of beets, pecans, and sorrel sprouts. I might make some sort of dessert: maybe an Italian olive-oil cake, to save butter and calories.

And today, if the backyard isn't too muddy, I'll rake some flowerbeds. I might organize my garden tools and clean the snow-equipment out of the shed. The comforter on our bed requires some serious mending. One end got caught under the washing machine agitator, and the fabric has basically shredded. So I need to cut a new strip from whatever spare fabric I can find in the attic, make a casing, and sew it over the shredded end. Because I don't have a working sewing machine, this will be a long hand-sewing job: at least two movies' worth. Fortunately, the Criterion Channel has a Rita Hayworth special.

I do hope to read some Rilke and Blake, and I need to video myself reading one of my students' group poems (Monson Arts is going to feature some of our classroom voices online: I'll keep you posted about that), but I have no plans to edit anything. I don't want my weekends and workdays to become indistinguishable.

Lifting a glass of clean water to you, dear friends.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Rain and drizzle all day yesterday. When Paul and I went out for a walk around Back Cove, spring came out to greet us: cool, humid, the breeze a mild hand in our hair. My glasses were spattered with rain. The tide was out; we smelled sea-mud and salt. Gulls prodded the briny rivulets, and the bare-armed linden trees along the gravel path glittered in the mist.

More rain on the way today. The garden is glad. Everywhere, green is spiking and uncurling. For dinner last night, I cut a handful of new sorrel, some infant chive shoots. Blue scylla is beginning to open; yellow and violet crocuses gleam. So far I've planted peas, radishes, arugula, spinach, and every day I run out to see if they've sprouted yet.

Now, in the dark hour, Tom is making a sandwich for work. Paul is sleeping. The cat is licking a catnip mouse. I am not hauling the trash to the curb, though I should be. Within an hour, after I start laundry and wash breakfast dishes, I'll read some Rilke and Blake and begin working on a student poetry contest I've been asked to judge. Eventually I'll get to my editing-du-jour: a book about community organizing in Boston Chinatown; a new translation of a 1980s Brazilian novel.

Tonight's menu at Cafe Quarantine: falafel, whole-wheat pita, carrot-kohlrabi slaw, yogurt-tahini sauce. I'm making the falafel from my father's home-grown dried baby limas. The carrots are also my father's, from last fall's storage crop. The kohlrabi I bought on Sunday--the last day I was inside any sort of store. The boy and I might make the pitas together. Probably I'll slice up some oranges for dessert, unless P is in a cookie-baking mood.

In the evenings, we've been playing cards, reading books, listening to music. We drift off to our own rooms and back together into the common ones. We have candles at dinner, and cloth napkins, and pretty dishes. We sit by the fire and watch idiotic YouTube videos. We complain when we learn that the Red Sox ace needs Tommy John surgery, as if he had any chance of pitching this year anyway. We argue about whether or not unicycles are the world's stupidest form of transportation. Tempers are reasonably serene, though gloom settles upon us and we're all strangely exhausted, as if we've been up all night in a bus station.

I call my parents often. I talk to my older son every afternoon. I text my sister. I talk to my Monson and Frost Place teams. I chat with the managing editors at UMass Press. I check in with friends. I push myself to be sociable. It feels important.

Thankfully today is Friday, so tomorrow Tom can stay home for two days in row.

Thankfully we all love each other.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

These days Tom is leaving for work shortly after 6 a.m. He may continue to work, even if the governor puts us under a shelter-in-place order, because apparently construction workers are considered "essential." This is good and bad for us. I am trying hard not to think about the bad.

Meanwhile, Paul and I continue to hole up here at the Alcott House. Cafe Quarantine will be serving clam chowder and yeast rolls, along with a salad of roasted Brussels sprouts and diced purple sweet potatoes. Laundry is exquisitely folded. Beds are made and floors are mopped. It's like I've spent my whole underpaid life practicing for this.

Still, things are looking more positive for me, job-wise. The managing editor at UMass Press (my primary copyediting employer) tells me that publication schedules have not changed. The editor of an academic journal tells me that she, too, will be sending me ongoing work. So my manuscript stack still teeters, at least for the time being.

I also had a long phone call with the executive director at the Frost Place. In her view, my conference has an excellent chance of running this summer, even if the quarantine continues. Our format makes distance sharing possible, as long as we spend some time beforehand getting acquainted with Zoom conference platforms and such. We also cogitated about ways in which the Frost Place can contribute to maintaining community among artists and teachers. Our thought is to construct a kind of online center for sharing: not just poets but creators from multiple genres; not just established artists but an olio of students, apprentices, emerging, and career practitioners, unknown and well known. As our idea takes shape, I may be reaching out  and asking if you'd be willing to contribute a brief essay, a photograph, a quarantine diary, a song recommendation, a video of your cat . . .

In the meantime: Reading. Editing. Talking to my beloveds. Riding Vita in a chill spring wind. Planting spinach and arugula seeds.

I think of you all, so physically distant. I hope you are well. And I hope you are not dropping into silence. Keep updating your blogs. Keep telephoning your friends. Keep commenting on posts. Keep sending texts to your neighbors and emails to your mom. Keep sharing photos of your meals and your pets. Silly or serious, we need each other.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

It rained all day yesterday, so I started a fire in the wood stove early. Through the window I watched the doughty green shoots thrusting upward through the wet soil, so brave and tough under the cold drizzle.

Mostly the day was peaceful and manageable: editing, reading Rilke, compiling Monson student work, talking to my son, baking a cake. I don't have much of an urge to write poems, but that doesn't feel especially disturbing. Like you,  I'm disoriented and periodically despondent, and very tired. But as a long-time freelancer, I'm used to home schedules. I'm more concerned that Tom is still working out of the house, that my Chicago son is alone and edgy in his apartment, that my parents and in-laws are so vulnerable . . .

Here's my tiny new cubbyhole, a strange little space jutting off our bedroom where we used to keep the laundry basket. Tom keeps asking me if I'm sharpening my elbows on the walls: that's how tight it is. But I've got a window and a lamp; my standing desk tucks into it neatly, and a couple of utility shelves fit underneath. A Virus-Room of One's Own. Meanwhile, Paul, across the landing in my ex-study, is laying out his belongings, arranging pillows, playing his music. The delighted cat has moved into his bed.

This evening's quarantine meal: spaghetti amatriciana with my final quart of frozen sauce (from last summer's garden) and a couple of strips of bacon that I need to use up; a salad of grapefruit and lettuce; marble layer cake with chocolate buttercream frosting (yesterday's baking distraction). Tomorrow I'll move on to clam chowder (a pint of frozen clams, milk that won't stay fresh forever, padded out with plenty of potatoes). I'm actually not terrible at meal planning for hermits.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Overall our first Monday of the apocalypse was manageable. Though the day was poisoned by the amount of time I had to spend on the phone with insurance companies, I did finish editing a chapter. I talked with the Monson administrator about plans for our high schoolers. Members of my poetry group are cogitating about a Zoom-based meeting to share our ongoing work. Paul and I went for a long walk and ran into most of our neighbors, also out on the street, walking and running and coping. So, keeping our six-foot distance, we were even sociable. For dinner I sautéed a huge slab of Faroe Island salmon and made Yorkshire pudding and a cherry-tomato salad. The leftover salmon (not as much as I'd hoped, thanks to my giant boy) went into the freezer to round out some future meal. I soaked dry beans for tonight's dinner (spicy beans with cornmeal dumplings).

Our new mayor, whom I used to know as a friendly member of my yoga class, has suddenly become an emergency manager. The city of Portland has instituted a curfew for restaurants and bars. I expect full-bore closures are imminent. Tom is continuing to work, for the moment. Maybe he'll finish out this week; I can't imagine it will be longer.

I've been thinking about disaster reading. So far my list includes Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter and Samuel Pepys's plague diaries. I don't know that I'll actually bring myself to open either book. Right now I seem to be gravitating toward 1940s British wartime fiction and Cold War spy novels.

My son chose Fleetwood Mac's Rumors as dinner music. Everyone is looking for coziness. You may ask why a 22-year-old would find that album cozy: his explanation is that his friends play it a lot at parties because they grew up listening to it with their parents. (Of course his own parents don't even own a copy of Rumors. They made him listen to the Ramones.)

Tom's new job is requiring him to get up and out of the house a full two hours earlier than he used to. So the alarm is going off at 4:30 every morning. With the boy still asleep and Tom on the road, this will give me time alone, first thing, so I'll be trying to make use of it. Today, after I tidy up the kitchen and take a shower and get the laundry started, I'll copy out some Rilke and some Blake. I'll look at a poem draft. Then I'll get started on editing. I hope beginning the day with my own work will be strengthening. My usual pattern has been to fit it into the interstices of everything else. But all usual patterns have changed.

Thinking of you, friends.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Paul and Tom got home last night, and Paul has started moving into his new space. He's behaving like  a cheerful kid who is pleased to see his parents, though of course he isn't actually cheerful at all. Likewise, his parents are delighted to see him but wish we weren't seeing him. Still, he's making the best of the matter: decorating his room with his knickknacks, setting up his computer on my empty desk, showing us his collection of playbills, hauling around his giant bags of dirty laundry, cooing at the cat, and otherwise being the facsimile of a charming son. It all helps.

This morning I'll be having a phone conference about the future of the Monson high school program. I'll be calling the insurance company to complain (again) about a billing mistake. I'll be trying to buckle down to editing.

And Tom will be venturing out into the world to begin a new job. Who knows how long that will last, but at least it looks like he'll have something to go back to if he's put on hiatus this week, as I suspect he will and should be. Our older son called yesterday to say that his TV show has been shut down for the season. They're giving him two weeks of severance pay, but after that he's out of work. The financial chaos of this pandemic is hard to reckon with.

I feel like my control of syntax and style is going all to hell. Pardon me for these clumsy sentences.

People keep telling me: you should write about this moment in history, and maybe I will, eventually. Maybe all of us will, eventually. For the moment, all I can focus on is trudging forward. We have enough food. I have an editing job to get done. I don't know if anything else will be coming down the pipeline. I don't know what will happen to my summer conferences. I can't think about that now.

My backyard neighbor has a cute new husky puppy. My sideyard neighbor has a lovely garden. My across-the-street neighbor has two skipping, shouting, basketball-bouncing, imaginary-sword-fight-playing children. All of these things are soothing to watch.

I have a bike and a cat and an ocean. I apparently do not have the ability to sleep, but maybe that will come.

Are you doing as well as can be expected? I worry about you too.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Spring is grace. After Friday night's rain, these beauties opened in my front garden, and yesterday afternoon I planted green onions and radishes and peas. That's my pea fence, in the photo below, set up along our front walk so that peas blossoms will spill over to greet imaginary visitors. Sorrel and dandelions are greening; new chives are spiking through last year's dried-up clumps. In the gloaming, Tom strung clothesline in the backyard as the cat, drunk with excitement, chased the end of the line round and round the trees.

In an hour or so I will venture out into the terrible land of grocery stores. I have no idea what I'll find, but I have a list of long-lasting staples: root vegetables, salt cod. Surely the whole city won't be buying up salt cod.

Meanwhile, Tom is going to Vermont this morning to fetch Paul home. T is supposed to start his new job tomorrow. God knows how long that will last: I assume that the building industry, too, will soon grind to a halt. But maybe he'll earn a bit of money first.

While he's gone today, I'll clean house and finishing setting up P's new room--and my tiny new cubbyhole--and then I'll turn my attention to my Monson kids' work. Maybe, at the very least, we can make a book of their best pieces.

I'll read some Rilke too. I'll stare out the window into the cold March sunshine. I'll listen to the cardinal serenade his mate.

Here we are, in this bizarre new world. I am grateful for a snug house and a garden to plant and books to read. I am glad I've got at least a few skills to cope with isolation and shortages.

But I'm weary. I've spent much of the late winter serving as a caregiver and support to friends and family members undergoing various emergencies. Now there's this. Is it wrong to say: I wish, just for an hour, that the small stars would align and I could rest in their clear light?

Saturday, March 14, 2020

On Sunday Tom will head to Vermont to fetch the boy home. Today I'm moving out of my study and creating a small work station for myself in our bedroom. That way P can have a pleasant room with a mattress, desk, and chair--a facsimile of a dorm room for continuing his education online: a space to call his own. Now that we're all going to be living together indefinitely, we've got to find a way to reconfigure this tiny house-for-two into a rational balance of social and private space for three adults.

This week I lost close to $1,000 in gig money, thanks to cancelations. And last night the director at Monson Arts called to tell me that my beloved high school writing class is also on the ropes. We're starting to brainstorm ideas for distance learning. But I think that will work only if the kids are still in school. If [when] they get sent home, the vagaries of rural Internet connection will be a big problem, and so will rounding them up into any kind of virtual gathering.

Here in Portland, the first cases of COVID are starting to emerge. City hall has closed; the art museum has closed; the library system is about to close. But let me share some happiness.

A long spring rain, followed by sun.

Plenty of garden seeds.

On a local sports talk radio station: no sports to talk about, so callers are asking for book recommendations.

Ruckus and his best friend Jack are not practicing social distance. Instead, they are rolling around in a ball on the driveway and chasing each other up trees.

We're planning a camping trip.

We have running water, heat, electricity, a sewer system, internet connection, firewood, and trash service. This is the cushiest emergency I've ever experienced. And if the toilet paper runs out, well, I know a thing or two about rags and buckets.

A full at-home library of fascinating and challenging books.

Living with two of my very favorite people in the world.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Things are pretty stressful around here. I know they are for you as well.

Our primary stress at the moment is my younger son, who is hunkered down at college waiting to find out when he'll be sent home. This is the last semester of his senior year, and he's devastated.

Of course being "sent home" really means that the students' parents will have drive out to pick up their children, which in our case means that Tom will have to go to Vermont with his work truck because all of Paul's stuff can't possibly fit into my car. But Tom is supposed to start a new job on Monday . . . and anyway, how will Paul graduate this spring if he can't take his performance classes online? How does one take an online acting class?

I suppose by later today we'll have some idea of what to expect--at least as far as the college closure goes. But I was up most of the night worrying about his distress. It's a horrible situation for this cohort of young people.

Anyway. Soldier on, friends.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Life in the visiting artist lane is feeling pretty shaky right now. Yesterday, two of my upcoming events--Saturday's revision workshop at the Wheaton Writing Academy, my reading at the Yarmouth library on March 26--were postponed until the fall. I wait for other shoes to drop.

For me, losing or postponing these kinds of gigs is more than an annoyance. I'm a freelancer; traveling gigs are how I make a large portion of my income. So I'm very worried about what's to come, cancelation-wise.  Halting school-related work will be a big blow.

Thank goodness I've still got editing work; at least some money will still be coming in.

But it's looking more and more like we can't see our children for the foreseeable future. My parents are terrified. Our national leadership is deeply incompetent.

So I'm sending you a link to Dolly Parton's "Here You Come Again." Even now, listening to it makes me so happy. You try it too.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

These are a just few samples from the sidewalk-chalk installation that my Monson kids wrote all over the parking lot of our classroom building. It was a fun project, and so pleasing to see their words glinting in the pale sunshine. The director of the residency program suggested that we extend it to a whole-town installation . . . spread the kids' words up and down Main Street. Poetry takes over central Maine. Who would have believed such a thing could happen?

Down here in the southlands, crocuses are beginning to open in my garden, and the future is worrisome. My son's college is hunkering down: no visitors are allowed into programs or shows, and students are being asked to stay on campus during break. What will this mean for his graduation? Who knows? Meanwhile, Tom is supposed to fly to Chicago in two weeks to visit our other son. Will he still be able to? Who knows?

This note to you is full of questions that neither of us can answer. I'm sure you have parallel anxieties: about aging parents, about work, about basic grocery shopping.

Anyway, I'm finding my students' chalk words strangely prescient:

I can see the smoke
I listen

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

I would do much for a full night's sleep: this wake-doze-wake-doze cycle of restlessness has gone on for way too long, and the time change is not helping.

On the bright side, it was 60 degrees when I got back to Portland late yesterday afternoon. And I had a good day with the kids . . . they came up with a batch of excellent writing prompts, had some sensible group conversation about revision, and then gamboled outside with couplets and sidewalk chalk in the thin northern sunshine. We've only got four more sessions together, and we're all starting to feel melancholy about parting.

Today I've got some classroom projects to wrap up, and then I'll be back to editing for the rest of the week. On Saturday I'll be leading a revision workshop in Dover, New Hampshire. I'm told we've got enough participants to run, but I believe there's still room for a few more poets. If you're interested, let me know and I'll send you the details. Cost is $50.

There are few other events coming up as well:
Reading in the Women Poets Series, Merrill Memorial Library, Yarmouth, ME, March 26, 7 p.m. (with the fine poets Ellen Taylor and Elizabeth Tibbetts) 
Reading with Stuart Kestenbaum, Maine's current poet laureate, Thompson Free Library, Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, April 7 (time TBA, but plan on early evening) 
Keynote speaker (with former Maine poets laureate Baron Wormser and Betsy Sholl), Plunkett Poetry Festival, April 17, 7 p.m.

Of course everything could be canceled over coronavirus worries. Every day the news is worse, and William Blake's "America: A Prophecy" (1793) feels ever more terrible and true:
The mariners of Boston drop their anchors and unlade;
The scribe of Pennsylvania casts his pen upon the earth;
The builder of Virginia throws his hammer down in fear.
Then had America been lost, o’erwhelm’d by the Atlantic,
And Earth had lost another portion of the infinite,
But all rush together in the night in wrath and raging fire.
The red fires rag’d! the plagues recoil’d! then rolld they back with fury.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

This afternoon I'll be heading north into the homeland for tomorrow's class, with a quick stop-off in Harmony to visit a friend and check out mud season. The morning's time change has already thrown me off. I feel like I'm running late for everything, and I imagine the teenagers will be a wreck tomorrow. Ah, well: we'll bumble through.

I did get the housework done yesterday, and went for a walk with Tom, and even attached my Christmas-present bicycle bell to Vita's handlebars and took her out for our first spin of the season. The day was cold and windy, but the sky was bright and crocuses were blooming in a neighbor's front yard.

Now I'm listening to a cardinal sing and sass outside in the chilly morning air. I've been reading Zora Neale Hurston's short stories, mostly set in Florida, where spring is a riot of growth. Maine is so stingy in comparison. I fall on my knees in front of a single pale blossom.

So much to love. And yet:

Dawn Potter 
There were mistakes There were lives lost
There were speeches delivered and
speeches heard There were men who
explained the speeches There were lies
for a reason There were lies
There were mistakes that were lies
There were men who explained
There were speeches that no one heard
There were reasons There were lives
There were men There were no mistakes

[first published in A Dangerous New World: Maine Voices on the Climate Crisis]