Sunday, May 31, 2020

 I thought I would not write to you this morning. I haven't taken a break from this letter at least since early March. And today I'm tired and I'm tongue-tied. Yesterday's graduation was emotional but also deflating. Now this morning I'm looking at photographs of protests and looting, waiting for the daily morning call from my older son in Chicago, waiting for him to tell me what's going on around him.

So I thought I would not write to you this morning. And yet I felt I needed to offer some explanation for not writing, and then, of course, the words started oozing onto the page, and shaping themselves into sentences.

Anyway: If I stop writing, don't worry that I'm sick. I mean, I am sick with dread. But also: I am so tired of talk.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

At noon today my younger son will graduate from college. Meanwhile, rioting erupts around the nation. The so-called president foments violence. The pain and terror and cruelty that have always existed, that have always been visible, vibrate in lurid technicolor. And at noon today my younger son will graduate from college.

We stand on sand.

I love my son so much, and am so proud.

This is an impossible moment.

Friday, May 29, 2020

It will be another hot day. Sheets on the line, ice tea brewing in the red pitcher, fans whirring, cat flopped in the shade.

This evening will feature part 1 of Paul's graduation from Bennington College: an hour or so of student and faculty speeches that we were supposed to listen to during a campus dinner party but now will be watching from the couch in our back room. So I will order take-out sushi and we will attempt to enjoy ourselves. One does not attend graduation for sake of the speeches, but for love of the graduate. And we do love him.

Last night, while I watched the Maine Literary Awards (I did not win, but writers I admire did, so yay) and put together a big salad and tuna melts, Tom and Paul sat outside talking in the green evening. Later I brought out our dinner plates and we had our very first al fresco dining experience since moving to this house. It was so pleasant to finally have a place for an outside meal. The new concrete fire pit works well as a low table; the grass (such as it is) was cool on the feet; the enormous maples were a noble canopy. The white flowers I'd planted along the fences glowed in the thickening dusk.

And I'm a bit calmer about my work load this morning. After talking with the managing editor at the academic press I copyedit for, I managed to sort out a reasonable time schedule for the various projects I'm juggling. Today I'll do a bit of that editing but will try to spend more time reading residency applications and proofreading a student publication. I do feel as if my hair's on fire, and I'd like to reduce it to a smolder.

I'm trying not to waste the world's time on stupid personal anxiety.

Because the world is so fragile.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Paul and I did manage to get to the nursery and find the plants I wanted. So now the new front flower bed is anchored with euphorbia and sedum, and spreading white impatiens dot the beds along the shady back fences. I love the look of a phosphorescent white flower on a hot shadowy evening.

Before dinner we sat in the cool of the maples, and we drank rose, and Paul talked about set design and video games and dragons and the cat, and I looked at the ostrich ferns I'd found abandoned along the sidewalk ten days ago, which are now unfurling fiddleheads in my garden, and Tom blinked groggily from his nap. And then we all stopped what we were doing and marveled "What Eden is this?" because all of us are still amazed that it's actually possible to sit outside in the evening and not be consumed by blackflies and mosquitoes.

Yesterday was hot and today will be hotter. Already, at 5 a.m., it's 63 degrees outside. I ought to dig out the fans this morning, and also my box of summer of clothes, and I need to figure out how I'm going to make something-or-other for dinner while also keeping track of what's going on at the Maine Literary Awards zoom fest. It might be Tuna Melts with a Big Salad night.

I'm still feeling so overwhelmed by work: scads of editing and reading, and my nervousness about the Frost Place conference is increasing. I know I'll get the desk work done, and that the conference will be fine. But still: I'm both responsible for everything and seat-of-the-pants ignorant . . . which is, I guess, exactly the sensation the teachers at the conference have been enduring since March.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Yesterday, for the first time in months, I went into a grocery store. The experience was stressful, but doable, though I'd like to not do it again for a while. Most people did wear masks. The rare ones who didn't were (big surprise) 100-percent white men. Aisles weren't crowded. The employees were friendly and brave. I found everything on my list, though rice, flour, paper, and cleaning supplies were spotty. I'm relieved that chore is over.

I wince at the news. I cry at the news. My eyes open and close. I water the small plants and watch the ferns unfurl. This afternoon Paul and I will drive out to the plant nursery. Temperatures are rising. Summer is really on its way. I wonder how I can be happy, with such misery in the world. I wonder how I can be sad, with such a fortune on my plate. The cardinal sings and sings among the maples.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Yesterday evening devolved into drizzle and mist. I lit a fire and baked potatoes and braised a chuck roast in red wine and fresh sage and thyme. And then I fell asleep on the couch at eight.

I worked hard all weekend: first, with that compost-mulch project I already told you about and then, yesterday, breaking sod in the front yard to extend an existing flower garden (the one known as Lantern Waste). I'm going to plant low hedge along the sidewalk--cushion spurge, I hope, which is sturdy and bright and does well in non-optimal conditions such as sidewalk sand.

So today I'll go back to editing, refreshed from three days of physical labor and from plenty of associated sleep. I'm also considering taking my first trip to the grocery store, where I haven't been since early March. Now that a friend has sewn us some masks (my sewing machine is broken), I feel like I ought to be able to occasionally go into a building. I don't much want to, but I'm also out of cat food. Now may be the time.

It was also a good weekend for reading . . . a long talk with Teresa about Rilke; some revision of my own work. I managed to read a batch of residency applications, to make progress on a couple of manuscripts. What I did not do was clean the bathrooms, so I guess that will be this morning's pre-editing chore.

Such a little piece of property. So much work to keep it up. I am not complaining at all. My year of melancholy in the seaside apartment certainly taught me a lesson about labor.

Dusting the Parlor 
Dawn Potter 
I have nothing to say about anything. 
Yet I am my own mistress,
To myself.

[from A Month in Summer]

Monday, May 25, 2020

Tom and Paul went canoeing on the Muddy River in Brunswick yesterday, so I was home alone from mid-morning till dinnertime. I washed floors and a few windows; I read residency applications and a chunk of my friend's novel manuscript; I copied out Rilke poems, and revised one of my own. I watered the garden and ran the trimmer, tied up the swooning sweet peas, and sat in the chilly sunshine drinking a beer and reading Mary Karr's memoir Cherry. I picked a pan full of fresh spinach and arugula. For dinner I made calzones filled with fried cherry tomatoes, a little bacon, fresh garlic chives and basil, and provolone.

The boys are cogitating about the possibility of a family canoe trip through the Allagash. Apparently they are also taking over-under bets on how many books I will attempt to bring along.

This morning, clouds sit low over the roofs, and fingers of fog stream in from the bay. But I don't think we'll get any rain, which is unfortunate as the soil is drying out and our water bill is skyrocketing from all the irrigation I've had to do. I don't know what my plans for the day are, other than cleaning the bathrooms and talking to Teresa about Rilke. Maybe Tom and I will go for a bike ride or a walk, though I do have a giant blister on the ball of one foot. I'll cook a chuck roast for dinner, make some kind of salad that thrives on new cilantro.

This is Paul's last week of school. On Saturday he graduates from college. And then he'll begin to figure out what might happen next in this gap year that nobody wants. The future looks murky. My sentences are choppy. And so are our thoughts.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

This is what I accomplished yesterday: I hauled a mountain of semi-composted leaves, bark, and soil and spread it in a thick layer over the chaos of tree roots, invasive weeds, and embedded stones that forms the wild mess of the Hill Country. This rough coat will suppress weeds while gradually breaking down into soil, and will serve as the underlayer for a load of fresh soil that I'll spread on top. By next weekend (if the soil arrives this week) I will have this area planted with bee balm, coneflowers, and sedum.

As you can sort of glimpse, the new section joins two already-under-reclamation areas: in the distance a bed of iris and lilies; in the foreground, creeping phlox and ornamental grass. There's also a hard-to-see arch with roses and an odd little stone stairway in the middle of all this mess, which I cleaned up and planted with creeping thyme. I'll take another picture for you later today and add it to this post.

The Hill Country is a peculiar place. Somebody, once, spent a lot of time cultivating it--installing that rose arch, constructing that granite stair--and then the place went all to hell. Nobody's cared about it for decades, and horrible black swallow-wort and other such unsavory weeds have run rampant. Since we've moved here, I've done nothing but chop the growth with a trimmer, basically just keeping the slope neat-ish and not letting the weeds go to seed. The Hill Country had to wait its turn.

In the annals of landscape reclamation, each year's batch of fallen maple leaves has gone to a different project: first the beds along the backyard fence, then the lily and iris bed. Now, finally, the Hill Country mess is having its turn. Garden creation is a very slow task, unless one can afford to pay for materials and labor. In Harmony I figured out that a rough underlayer (there, it was usually semi-rotted hay and goat manure, but also sometimes sawdust) can do two jobs at once: mulch and enrich. Here, all I have in quantity are maple leaves, but they work too. Next fall's pile will go toward a new hosta bed in the shady Shed Patch.

This morning my hips and back are stiff and weary. Still, I'm proud to prove that I can shovel, fork, lug, and spread for 6 hours straight, even if I am 55 years old. I've always been clumsy and bad at sports, but I still make a pretty good mule.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Yesterday was summer. We lay in the grass, drinking ice tea and eating cherries. We sat around the (unfinished) fire pit and played cards into the evening.

I have no idea what today will be, season-wise. The forecast says "high of 57," but at 7 a.m. it's already 63 degrees. So something's askew at the weather bureau.

Now Tom's taken off on a morning bike ride while I am sitting here on the couch, listening to clothes churn in the washing machine and wishing for more coffee. Today I'll move compost, plant a second crop of radishes, and water the garden. We need a rainy day to balance out all of this sunshine.

Tom says he saw lots of motorcyclists heading out into the lakes region yesterday, just as they would on any normal Memorial Day weekend in Vacationland. This is disturbing, given that COVID cases are spiking again in southern Maine. How will we make any progress toward containing the scourge?

I am trying to stay calm, and not perseverate on this craziness. I plan to spend our three-day holiday in Vacationland working in the garden, reading manuscripts, copying out Rilke poems, washing windows, and avoid waking up at 4 a.m. I refuse to edit anything.

Here are a few garden pictures. First up: three beautiful radishes. It has been a fine spring for them.

Arugula, entering its prime.

Taking a cue from our friend Steve, who has been naming all of the ecosystems in his tiny Brooklyn yard, Paul and I have decided to name ours. I fully expect to change the names constantly. So here (for the moment) is the Lane: Shallots and garlic in the front box. Arugula, cilantro, mesclun, beets, and carrots in the rear box. Speedwell and phlox blooming to the side. Shed Patch (an undeveloped vacant lot) appears in the background.

Concord Plain: a blueberry bush, loaded with blossoms.

Eastern Terrace: Tomato stakes, arugula, fading tulips, an edging of herbs, a glimpse into the Glen.

More Eastern Terrace: Pepper plants, more fading tulips, chamomile poised to bloom

 Library Bed and the Grey Walk: Salvia and thyme in bloom.

Not pictured: the Breadbasket, the Hill Country, Lantern Waste, Parlor Bed, the Red Walk, and the currently unnamed sub-ecosystems of the Glen.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Good-Times-at-Home Edition

Fresh pineapple ice cream! It's a magical food! Among all the flavors I've tried out in the new machine, this one is everybody's favorite, made even more satisfactory (to me) because I figured out the recipe myself.
Fresh Pineapple Ice Cream 
Cut a fresh pineapple into chunks, removing the rind, all of the core, and as many eyes and tough bits as possible. Puree in a food processor; then press through a fine mesh into the bowl of an electric mixer. (Straining is important for getting rid of any remaining fibers.) You'll have roughly 2 cups of puree. 
Add 1 cup of superfine sugar and blend for about 2 minutes until the sugar has dissolved. 
Mix in 2 cups of heavy cream and a tablespoon of rum. 
Freeze in your ice cream maker according to machine instructions. 
The resulting pale-yellow confection will resemble frosting in texture.

Yesterday was so summery, and pineapple ice cream fit right in. I opened windows, wore sandals all day, remembered that the air conditioner in my car is broken (sigh), and did not even consider starting a fire in the wood stove. Today will be even warmer--into the 80s!--but then we'll drop back into Maine Climate for the weekend. That's fine: it will be easier to move the rest of that compost in cooler weather, though my tomato seedlings would prefer the heat.

The maple leaves are mostly out now; tulips are fading but lilacs are opening. I'm harvesting elegant little radishes, baby spinach, and arugula. Chives are budding; creeping thyme is flowering among the stones.

I am slowly drafting a new poem, titled "Preface to Paradise Lost." A chunk of unemployment money just showed up in my account, and Tom is making jokes about spending it on cocaine and a used party barge. In Scrabble news, I beat Paul by a hair, and then we played around the with the words on the board to invent new commercial ventures. The best was Us-Tux: two-person formal attire . . . the prom version of a tandem bicycle. We laughed so hard at our own jokes that we very nearly choked to death on the pineapple ice cream.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

from Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset, trans. Tiina Nunnally
Death and horror and suffering seemed to push people into a world without time. No more than a few weeks had passed, if the days were to be counted, and yet it already seemed as if the world that had existed before the plague and death began wandering naked through the land had disappeared from everyone's memory--the way the coastline sinks away when a ship heads out to sea on a rushing wind. It was as if no living soul dared hold on to the memory that life and the progression of workdays had once seemed close, while death was far away; nor was anyone capable of imagining that things might be that way again.

* * *

I slept so badly last night--my stomach in a roil, my brain ticking away at useless lists. I don't know why, as on the whole I've slept pretty solidly during this crisis, despite the plethora of strange dreams. And yesterday afternoon I'd hauled a bunch of heavy wheelbarrow loads of semi-composted mulch, so my body should have been happy to relax. But it wasn't.

Still, today will be my first taste of summer weather--mid-70s, bright sunshine--so I'm not sorry about morning. I've almost finished reading KL, but the fact that the main character is dying of plague is not helping me pick up the book, even though (as you can see from the excerpt) the writing and the sensibility are sublime.

Today I will not miss my yoga class. Afterward I'll work on some Frost Place planning, and do some editing, and read some residency applications, and bake bread, and pick up a grocery order, and spread more mulch among the lily and iris beds . . . and I'll try to finish the novel, despite its terrible conclusion, because the book deserves my respect. I'm 55 years old, and who knows if I'll revisit its 1,100 pages ever again? I hope I will. But maybe my time for such rereadings is running out.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

I started a poem draft, edited for several hours, picked up an order at the hardware store, read some residency applications, mowed all the grass, read several chapters in a giant famous novel, watered transplants and seedlings, went for a bike ride, harvested greens, made risotto and a salade nicoise for dinner, and lost disastrously at Yahtzee. I did miss my yoga class, but that was only because my older son telephoned just before it was supposed to start. And anyway it's the first class I've missed in eons; I've been diligent about my twice-a-week schedule.

So I'm not sure why I feel like I got nothing done. I don't know what I expect of myself. This is not just a pandemic problem, but the pandemic is exacerbating it. Ye olde Protestant work torment, perhaps, but as you know I'm also terrible at making money, so.

And now that I've managed to both begin and end a paragraph with the word so, I'll move on to some other less raspy subject . . . how about Sigrid Undset's incredible novel, Kristin Lavransdatter, which plumbs the life of a woman from young childhood to her death at age 50, while evoking the world of early-1300s Norway in intense and believable detail. I've never read anything like it: beauty and dirt, violence and peace, human error and religious fervor and sexual passion and the simple pleasure of watching a child play in the mud. It's a stunning book.

Today I'm going to attempt to be more patient with my non-accomplishments. I'll do what I do, and what gets done will get done, and in the meantime the indifferent earth will keep rolling through space.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

I made a big dent in my desk pile yesterday--finished a chapter, finished a blurb--plus I managed to bake bread, clean some floors, water the garden. In the afternoon a big fancy package arrived in the mail for Paul: a graduation gift from Bennington College . . . his mortarboard, mementos from campus, special cookies. It was all very sweet and sentimental, and he loved it. His college has been so good to him.

On May 30 he will "graduate," and it's impossible to know what will happen next. He can't get a job. Most of the internships he applied for are canceled or on hold. I get sad and anxious for him, and for everyone else in his cohort. Meanwhile, I listen to their voices on Zoom and hear them laughing and sputtering and complaining and cooing over each other's pets. Like the rest of us, they zig and they zag.

This morning I have my yoga class; then I'll go back to editing, and eventually start reading residency applications. I'm feeling a little lonesome, wishing I could sit on my couch with a cup of tea and my mother. She's fine, I'm fine, we're all fine . . . but nobody is.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Ugh. I had such a hard time waking up at 4:30 this morning. I could have slept for at least two more hours. Now, even with half a cup of coffee inside me, I'm squinty and sluggish. I don't remember having any dreams at all: it was one of those hit-with-a-brick sleeps that really ought to happen on Saturday night, not Monday morning.

Anyway: Yawn. How are you? We went to the drive-in last night and it was very fun--The Wizard of Oz was a fine choice for a sitting in a car in a scraggly field at sundown. Personally, I would root for Singin' in the Rain as the next option, or maybe Young Frankenstein. But nobody asked me.

Somehow yesterday turned out to be a day for not finishing chores. I cleaned bathrooms but not floors. Tom skim-coated only half of his fire pit. Paul procrastinated on homework. I'm not exactly sure what we were doing instead. Lollygagging, I guess. We did go for a long walk together, and I happened to stumble into some discarded ostrich fern plants lying on the curb. So I brought them home and dug them into the back garden. They are fiddlehead ferns, so they were a significant cadge. I hope I can keep them alive.

The pile of work on my desk is now exponentially fatter, as the residency applications I'm supposed to read arrived last night to swell it out. I must edit today; I must get that manuscript blurb done this week; I must finish the housework; I must wake up from my lingering stupor . . .

But the weather will be sweet. And I'm looking at an old bottle cradling three tiny-blossomed, long-stemmed, fragrant narcissi. And Kristin Lavransdatter is a stunning set of novels. (I'm 900 pages in and  can barely put the book down.)

Here's a little poem, from my diary manuscript, A Month in Summer:

Pulling Beets
 Dawn Potter
Week follows week.
I hardly know which way I am heading,
Upstream or down. 
How near lies the border-land of the unseen.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Yesterday was so lovely. I sowed cucumber seeds, planted marigold seedlings, thinned kohlrabi and arugula, transplanted cosmos and nasturtium sprouts, and cultivated all the beds, front yard and back. I talked to neighbors on all sides of the house. I picked a pan of tender greens and another of cilantro thinnings for dinner (haddock tacos with lemony mayonnaise). Meanwhile, Tom took measurements for our new kitchen countertop (!) and planed boards for a backyard bench; Paul listened sentimentally to the entire Hamilton soundtrack and deconstructed a broken canoe seat for repair; and the cat lay around under bushes and squinted at us with affection and irony.

I suppose I'll need to clean bathrooms and floors and windows today. Tom is planning to do the final coat on his concrete fire pit. I've got to finish reading a poetry manuscript and write a blurb. Paul will probably be doing a pile of laundry. We'll eat braised chicken, Yorkshire pudding, and wilted broccoli rabe with garlic. Then we'll all go to the drive-in.

One thing about this quarantine: I haven't been any less busy . .  . unlike my older son, who struggles every day to fill his time, though he is naturally an active, bustling, projecty kind of person. He's been laid off from his job, lives alone in a small apartment, has no outside area to tend, not even a cat. Every morning he calls me to laugh about his "plan for the day": say, gluing together a wooden spoon or cleaning his ceiling fans. Lately he has been able to get his bike out and ride in one of the Wisconsin forest preserves. But he is thinking seriously about driving east to be with us, maybe in a month or so, depending on CDC recommendations. We'll be thrilled to see him, of course. But little Alcott House will become exponentially busier.

It still feels so strange, this reconfiguring of the family unit . . . At first, the usual historical shift: slowly from a pair to three, then quickly to four and staying that way for close to 20 years; then a slide down to three, and then down again to the original two . . . until Crash, Bang, we're back to three and soon maybe back to four--except that now we're all adults: large in body, complex in our distractions and obligations.

I find it difficult to write poems under these circumstances.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

I just learned that my poem "In Praise of Boring Sex" is out in the new issue of The Maine Review. So that's a cheerful start to my weekend.

Last night we had thunderstorms and island fog. This morning the garden is wet and bright and vigorous; the sun is shining; the forecast promises temperatures in the 60s. My seedlings arrived, and now they are tucked safely into their cold frame. Maybe, by next weekend, I'll feel safe about planting them.

Today I'll plant cucumber seeds and marigolds, do some weeding, move a small blueberry bush. Speaking of blueberries: one of the bushes that Tom and I put in last spring is loaded with buds. I had better start thinking about bird netting, or we won't get a single berry.

And in entertainment news: (1) The local drive-in theater is showing The Wizard of Oz this weekend, a film I have seen at least 100 times. We're looking forward to making it 101 times. A drive-in movie seems about perfect right now. (2) We watched the premier of the screenplay in which my son appears, and were so impressed with how well the playwright, director, and performers managed to construct such a fluent, complex family drama amid the constraints of quarantine. These kids are our artistic future. And they are not giving up.

P.S. About that poem, "In Praise of Boring Sex": I submitted this piece repeatedly for at least two years, and it was rejected over and over again. So I was delighted when TMR finally took it. I did wonder, over the course of those rejections, if the submission readers were too young to believe that it was a love poem.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Yesterday was glorious--close to 70 degrees, sunshine and bright skies. The lilacs are budding; the birds are singing relentlessly. I ate my lunch outside as the neighbor children skateboarded and shrieked.

Today will be cloudy, showery, but still warmish. My seedlings are arriving from the homeland this morning--tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil--and I'll tuck them into the new cold frame Tom made for me last weekend.

I dreamed last night that I was chasing a bad little get-into-everything baby. He was so sweet and busy and exhausting.

Unemployment update: yesterday I received three letters from the state department of labor. Two said "You will get no money." One said "You will get a generous amount of money." Um.

Here's a little poem, from A Month in Summer--my manuscript of diary poems set in the 1860s.

Scrubbing Floors 
Dawn Potter 
We belong to the scrambling class,
Business and loathing in our nostrils. 
But I will not crouch like a cowed dog.
I have seen a vision of a white field.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

I'm allergy- and dream-ridden this morning--my head full of clogged sinuses and a disjointed narrative about being a failed poet (maybe?) or not knowing some dream-bard that everyone else in the dream knew (maybe?) . . . the storyline has vanished but the miasma remains.

Anyway, it's all moot now [what a terrible word moot is]. I'm back in the physical world, drinking black coffee and medicating a headache and looking forward to forgetting everything I ever knew about poetry dream-politics.

Today: yoga and editing and sneezing and reading manuscripts and picking up a grocery order and riding my bike and mowing grass and sneezing and making lentil soup.

That stupid dream has made me feel dissatisfied with myself . . . which is fine: I ought to be dissatisfied with a lot of things regarding myself--but none of them should involve fictional who-knows-whom and I'm-not-famous-enough garbage. Sometimes I get very annoyed with my subconscious. I mean, why waste our precious hours on this stuff? Wouldn't it be more useful to teach me a real lesson?

Well, you can't tell a subconscious anything. It's ornery as a stump.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Maine has a freeze warning this morning (though I'm pretty sure our coastal enclave will be spared), and then temperatures are supposed to rollercoaster into the high 50s. It will be one of those days that begins with a furnace, shifts to open windows, and ends with a wood stove.

Yesterday I mowed "grass" in the backyard, and it does look somewhat better out there. That patch is the David Crosby of lawns: both bald and hairy, and not the best of either. At least the front garden is presentable. Nasturtiums are sprouting in plant pots, zinnias and cosmos are up in the beds, and last night we ate a salad of arugula, spinach, violet leaves, and sorrel (tossed with store-bought cucumbers).

So far I have made two desserts in my excellent new ice-cream maker: basic chocolate chip ice cream (delicious) and kiwi sorbet (also delicious). Next up, I think, will be grapefruit sorbet. I am extremely pleased with this maker: it is easy to operate and to clean, and the ice cream/sorbet texture is sublime.

Mostly, though, I've been at my desk, elbowing my way into that stack of editing. My progress feels so slow, but I am making a dent. Today will be another desk day, punctuated with bread baking, and garden work and maybe a bike ride. A friend gave me a good writing prompt that I'd like to try, but we'll see. Probably I shouldn't indulge myself with poems. I've got another friend's ms to finish reading, yet another friend's ms to blurb, and soon I'll also have a stack of residency applications to sort. Some staycation this is.

[Real story: I'm relieved, and extremely fortunate, to be working as much as I am.]

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Yesterday was a busy work day: I was editing manuscripts or talking about poems from 7:30 in the morning till 8:30 at night, with a few breaks for meals and a walk and chats with my family. Today will be a bit less rigorous, at least zoom- and verse-wise. I do have a yoga class, but I won't have to wear my glasses or stare at anything during the session. Zoom meetings can be very tiring for bad eyes.

The forecast this week suggests that maybe, just maybe, we won't get any snow in the near future. It's still not exactly balmy, but mid-50s are way better than mid-30s. I've got scant salad greens now, and a few herbs, and baby radishes. A little warmth would do wonders.

I received a rejection letter yesterday, for a poem that is worth publishing. That sounds like hubris, but sometimes I just know: yes, this is a good piece. (Of course sometimes I also have no idea.) It's irritating to feel dependent on the yes-no magic wands of people (grad students? unpaid readers? actual editors? who knows?) who don't seem to be paying attention. On the other hand, I'm not very irritated. I've got two finished manuscripts and a sheaf of unpublished poems that are apparently going nowhere; and maybe it's the times, but I just can't seem to get upset about that. Why should my poems matter more than anyone else's? Isn't it enough to know that they matter to me? Or am I losing heart and not admitting it?

I'm going to write more about this sensation for my friend Teresa's weekly poetry letter. During our conversation yesterday, we discovered we're going through similar versions of detachment from publication. We still keep writing, as we still keeping breathing; our relation to words is kind of like our relation to air molecules. But the public urge? For both of us, that's become ambiguous.

Monday, May 11, 2020

We don't make much of a fuss about Mother's Day in this household. Still, I had a nice one. I talked to my own mother and to both of my sons. I mentioned to Tom that I was worried about the tomato and pepper seedlings scheduled to arrive next weekend (weather too cold, seedlings too delicate), and he immediately made me a cold frame out of scrap lumber and plastic sheeting. And then, in the afternoon, he and Paul went canoeing on the Presumpscot River and I was alone in the house for five hours . . . a pandemic luxury.

So I washed floors and copied out Rilke and read Undset and took a small nap, started a fire in the stove, cut fresh flowers for the vases, drank tea . . . I could have done any of this with people in the house, but the spacious quiet was like salt.

And now, on the whatever-Monday of the whatever-month of the new world order, Tom is getting ready for work, the cat is prowling through the garden, the boy is sleeping, and I am wondering if I dare risk hanging out laundry with thunderstorms in the forecast. Yesterday my brand-new splurge arrived--a 2-quart ice-cream maker--the first fun thing I've bought for months, and a good way to use the peculiar fruit available from the warehouse. Tom loves sorbet, and what else can I do with 10 kiwis? This afternoon I will christen the machine with a batch of chocolate-chip ice cream. Kiwi sorbet will be next.

In the meantime, editing editing editing. Later Teresa and I will have a Rilke phone call. This evening my poetry group is meeting. The boys are tasked with ordering pizza for dinner.

Doesn't our life sound normal?

Or maybe it doesn't sound normal at all.

Or maybe I'm avoiding the definition of normal.

Or maybe there's no such thing.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

The sunshine has returned! It may be 36 degrees out there, but I'm still going to hang towels on the line this morning because I have confidence in spring.

Yesterday I learned that Michael Simms, the founder of Autumn House Press and the online magazine Vox Populi, had been hospitalized for (probably) Covid. I'm relieved to say that he's home now, and recovering. Mike is one of five people I know personally who has most likely suffered through this scourge. One of those people is my older son, who was quite sick in February with a nasty "flu" that settled in his lungs. Meanwhile, my younger son spent a chunk of February in NYC, shoulder to shoulder with theatergoers. None of us here at the Alcott house have had symptoms, but it's completely possible that we were carriers during the early weeks of the panic. We followed instructions; we behaved as advised. Still, we did not know that we might have been exposed . . . either because that information was not available, or because it was being suppressed.

Meanwhile, the White House has become a hot spot. The reason? Vanity. Life is feeling quite Old Testament these days.

So I am hanging towels on the line because I have confidence in spring: because it feels good to have confidence in something. I also have confidence in friendship, good humor, generosity, patience, comic timing, and vigor.

Thank you for walking this earth with me.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

The forecast was spectacularly gloomy--rain, frost, snow, wind--but the reality is tame. It's a regular cold spring morning in Maine . . . rainy and dank, temperature in the low 40s . . . but no snow, nothing close to frost, a vague breeze. No reason to make a fuss. Flowers are bright; peas and spinach are cheerful; the small leaves on the maples are tender and strong.

Tom and Paul are still asleep. The cat is perched on his yellow chair, recovering from a dash into the rain. I am sitting in the shadowy living room as grey daylight blinks through the windowpanes.

I've been reading Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, a fat trilogy novel I wanted to own as a teenager but was afraid to ask my mother to buy because the cover was too sexy. As a result, I'm reading it now, for the first time. The cover is disappointingly tasteful, but the translation is much better than the one I would have waded through then. I'm actually quite impressed by this novel. Undset's father was an archeologist who studied medieval Norway, so she grew up surrounded by artifacts. Her writing is simply and clear but it's also casually immersed in the details of 14th-century Norway. Everything about the place and landscape and material culture feels real, but also not over-researched, as some historical novels can be. Yes, definitely, there's a Romance overtone, 1920s-style, but that collision between the sensibility of the author and the intense evocation of time and place has a lot of charm. Which is to say: Undset leaves Ivanhoe in the dust. It's a fine quarantine book.

So today I will hang around in old Norway, where a little spring snow doesn't upset anyone. I'll copy out some Rilke sonnets. I'll spend some time with my friend's novel manuscript. I'll walk outside in the rain. I'll cook something or other. Last night we had fish cakes with leftover Arctic char and roasted Brussel sprouts tossed with baby garden greens. Tonight, maybe I'll make macaroni and cheese. Maybe something else. I'm unorganized today, which is different from disorganized . . . less chaotic, open to whatever, willing to punt, also happy enough to fall down a rabbit hole into some unexpected project.

And now here comes a bit of sky-snow, more like thick rain, and perhaps it is thick rain, an illusion of flake. The northern garden is indifferent.
They stepped out into a fog so dense that they could only see a few steps in front of them amidst the trees. The closet trunks were black as coal; beads of moisture clung to every branch and twig. Small patches of new snow were melting on the wet soil, but beneath the bushes tiny white and yellow lilies had already sprouted flowers, and it smelled fresh and cool from the violet-grass. (Undset, KL)

Friday, May 8, 2020

I received some happy news yesterday: Chestnut Ridge is one of three finalists for the 2020 Maine Book Award in Poetry. Maine has many very good poets, so I'm excited that my book made the cut . . . not least because it's had zero publicity otherwise. [Why does no one ever review my books? This is so puzzling to me.]

Also on the accomplishment list: my Frost Place partner Kerrin and I hammered out a second draft of our teaching conference schedule. We're making all sorts of adjustments, trying to account for time-zone disparities, zoom exhaustion, loss of collegial hang-out time, and the huge gap created by our physical distance from Frost's farm. The process has been sad, but also challenging in a good way. We've had to keep asking, What is the essence of the conference? How can we feed the flame? And because we're adjusting so much in the schedule, we're also opening new spaces for interaction and experiment. So that's exciting.

Today, the usual: Editing, Rilke copying, manuscript reading. Laundry, dishes, firewood, floors. Last night I pan-fried Arctic char with fresh chives and lemon, baked spoon bread, roasted sweet potato cubes and tossed them with sorrel leaves and balsamic vinegar. Spring is creeping into the menus, though the weekend will be cold, maybe even snowy.

Things go on and on. My writer's voice is hoarse . . . I'm not sure what to say, or repeat . . . I'm struggling again with the knowledge that all I do in this diary is recycle the same-old same-old . . . which is what all diaries do, but still.

Anyway, you are kind and long-suffering about it. I appreciate that.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

It's been a long time since I've been inside any building other than this house. It's been a long time since I've traveled further than Westbrook, to pick up a warehouse grocery order. It's been a long time since anyone other than our triumvirate has set foot inside my door. And yet I've been sociable. I've also managed to keep working . . . even, at the moment, to have too much work. I'm reading a lot, writing a little, planning a conference. I'm editing manuscripts, preparing to review applications for a writing residency, slowly making my way through a friend's new novel, agreeing to write a blurb for a poetry collection. Six weeks ago, I was scared: scared of illness, of losing all of our income, of struggling to keep my family fed. Now, though I don't feel exactly safe, I do feel steadier.

Of course my preexisting hausfrau tendencies have been a big help. But so has the behavior of the people around me, both those in real space and those in distant connections. Everyone has been resourceful. My younger son is figuring out how to stay focused and upright as a student. My older son is figuring out how to enjoy the chatter of his solitude. My friend Angela is inventing a safe pipeline to move garden plants and bulk supplies from her country outpost to my city homestead. My friend Maudelle has catalyzed our online experiment at the Frost Place. My friend Teresa makes me talk about Rilke. My neighbor Valerie leaves cookies on my front stoop. This list could go on and on.

Beyond any circle of sweetness looms a tar-pit thick with disease: of mind, heart, body. But it cannot negate the good. It cannot.
Creatures of stillness thronged out of the clear
disentangled forest, from nest and lair;
and it wasn’t cunning, wasn’t heed or fright
that put such softness in their step, 
but listening. 

[from Rainer Maria Rilke, "Sonnets to Orpheus," trans. Edward Snow]

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Five o'clock in the morning. Portland, Maine. Early May. A ragged dawn is peering over the black roofs and chimneys. An invisible robin sings. A passing freight train judders and squeals and groans.

On the mantle, a green pot filled with quince branches. On the coffee table, an empty cup and saucer. A vase of tulips. A pencil. A half-done crossword puzzle. A fat paperback copy of Kristin Lavransdatter.

Manuscripts and laundry and meals and garden. Another day looms. It's impossible to know what to write in this diary-letter, what will matter to you. Do you care about sorrel leaves, pale and tender and ready for harvest? Or the squirrel that littered crushed nutshells on my front steps? Or the sight of a clean blue-striped kitchen towel whipping in the wind? Or a white cat asleep under a stand of crimson peony shoots? Or a 14th-century Norwegian heroine? Or the strange history of the Seattle Mariners? Or my son comically enacting the home life of L. L. Bean catalog models? Or the scent of minestrone?

I mistyped diary-letter as dairy-letter. The error reminds me that, as child, I loved the word cream. My father would talk about the family cemetery plot at Cream Ridge, New Jersey, and I would not picture corpses and ancestors but white fog lingering over a rocky hilltop, blond cows cropping new grass, milk bubbling into a tin pail . . .

In a dairy-letter, I could write about Wordsworth's home, Dove Cottage, in the English Lake District, with its cool, damp, stone-clad, low-ceiled dairy, a place for water to drip and cream to rise. I could write about the velvety flank of a Jersey heifer. I could write about Wallace Stevens.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers. 
[from Wallace Stevens, "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"]
I am not, in general, prone to adjusting my life to match the poems of Wallace Stevens. Still, I will promise to dawdle in such dress as I am used to wear. The boys can bring flowers or not, as they choose. But they can't have last month's newspapers. I burnt them all up in the stove.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

I first started off this note this note to you with complaints about our hiccupy internet and the wad of clothes that my son left in the washing machine. Then I was immediately appalled at myself and erased everything. Such petty problems . . . not even problems at all. Even with hiccups, the internet is better than what we had in Harmony. The son who forgot his wet laundry also made a beautiful dinner for us last night.

Also, we have a washing machine.

What is this urge to complain in ways that only emphasize my ease and privilege? It's a particularly noxious American tic--one that's certainly evident in those obscene demonstrations against the greater good ("I want to go to a bar! Therefore, I will brandish this gun and taunt science!"). I find it easy to excoriate such withering examples of selfishness. I find it less easy to admit that, I too, rest comfortably in an American funhouse, whose mirrors render riches (e.g., safe drinking water, good sewage system, plentiful food, peace) invisible while exaggerating dissatisfactions, acquisitiveness, and jealousies.

Oh, this all sounds holier-than-thou, and God knows I am not that. I love clean sheets and candles at dinner and a pretty dress and putting dishes into a dishwasher and having people tell me I'm a good poet. I just don't want to forget that none of this is a given. None of this is my right.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Monday morning: and we're back to the 4:30 a.m. alarm that I will never get used to. But already the sky is lightening, and in the gloaming the tree silhouettes are soft with flowers and new leaves. Our weekend was so lovely--the mild, warm weather, but also our light hearts. We worked hard, as a trio, and enjoyed each other's company, and in the evening we sat on our new concrete block and drank a glass of wine together as Tom and Paul excitedly planned a canoe outing for next weekend. 

I did a big housecleaning yesterday--no windows yet, but dusting and spiderweb hunting and mopping and polishing and taking everything off the mantel and washing it, and getting rid of the vase of dried winter wheat and replacing it with fresh branches of flowering quince. I do love a tidy, airy house full of flowers.

So everything feels fresh this morning, as I prepare to sink into a week of editing/curriculum writing/manuscript reading/grocery foraging.

I am so fortunate to be happy at home.


Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

Often I had gone this way before:
But now it seemed I never could be
And never had been anywhere else;
'Twas home; one nationality
We had, I and the birds that sang,
One memory.

They welcomed me. I had come back
That eve somehow from somewhere far:
The April mist, the chill, the calm,
Meant the same thing familiar
And pleasant to us, and strange too,
Yet with no bar.

The thrush on the oaktop in the lane
Sang his last song, or last but one;
And as he ended, on the elm
Another had but just begun
His last; they knew no more than I
The day was done.

Then past his dark white cottage front
A labourer went along, his tread
Slow, half with weariness, half with ease;
And, through the silence, from his shed
The sound of sawing rounded all
That silence said.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

And, indeed, yesterday was the day of dreams . . . not just for me but for everyone I could see. I spent nearly all of it outside, either planting in the garden, or digging dandelion greens, or hanging laundry, or just sitting at a table in the driveway, drinking tea and reading a novel. Meanwhile, the neighborhood kids worked out a quarantine-safe way to play together, which involved riding their bikes down the sidewalk over a series of plywood "jumps" (which is in quotation marks because the jumps were really just flat pieces of plywood that made a funny noise when ridden over). So all day long five elementary-age kids whirred back and forth--clomp, crackle, clomp--over the "jumps"; and meanwhile the rest of us worked in gardens, read books on porches, tore off siding, petted cats, poured concrete in back yards, strolled by with dogs and/or cigarettes, pushed strollers, hobbled along with canes, careened by on roller skates, or lay flat on our backs in the sunshine.

Tom and Paul will be sore today, after all of that concrete lugging, mixing, shoveling, smoothing. But now the job is done, and the block will sit untouched in the backyard for a couple of weeks until Tom decides the mix has cured enough to risk removing the wooden forms. We still won't be able to start a fire in it for at least another month. But maybe, just maybe, on the Fourth of July, we will sit outside by our own fire pit, listening to baseball. Maybe. I have more confidence in the fire pit than I do in the baseball.

Today will be another 60-degree day, but cloudier. I have a lot of housework to do, but the windows will be open, and that makes everything sweeter. For dinner: zucchini fritters and dandelion salad. Maybe an apple pie.

I did manage to apply for unemployment on Friday, after 6 hours of torture (website crashes, no info saved, stupid questions not designed for gig workers, and a broken benefits calculator that automatically told every self-employed person who made it through the site: "You qualify for $0 benefits"). It was awful, but I expected it to be awful. I suppose it's possible they'll send me a few dollars, though I'm not holding my breath.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

And finally, the Saturday we've been longing for: sunshine, blue skies, 65 degrees, the soil basking in yesterday's humid rain. Already the trees are unfolding leaves, the tulips are shimmying in the faint breeze. I will open every window in the house. 

Yesterday Paul and I went for a late afternoon walk down Lawn Street, with its beautiful flowering cherries. The above photo is vague and dim, because the air was still storm-heavy. But maybe you can see a bit of glory in this cloudy beauty.

And then we wandered to the cemetery and admired our current favorite headstones:

If only I could have so perfect a memorial.

Tom and I are drinking our coffee, and soon we will get dressed and go for an early walk up to Lawn Street to admire the cherry trees in the morning sun, and then he will wake up Paul and they will turn their thoughts to mixing cement, and I will hang laundry, and then sow sunflowers and zinnias and scarlet runners. Paul is full of cheer because he got good news about an internship he applied for. (He made it through the first round and will be interviewed.) I am full of cheer because I adore spring. Tom is full of cheer because he likes me and also he got to sleep in.

Sonnet in Search of Poems I’ve Never Written

Dawn Potter

I’ve been meaning to write about a patch of mossy
frogs’ eggs in a vernal pool, about a single contrail
chalking a blue November sky, about the glossy
covers of biographies, about the tortuous tale

of an ant city under a scarred sidewalk, about two
lazy landscapers blowing leaves into a neighbor’s yard,
about falling in half-love with someone else’s youth,
about gobbling pie without a fork, about the barbs

of terrible hedges, about the anxiety of gifts, about my feet,
about the murmur of a radio, about leftovers congealing
in a pan, about oxen, about the loneliness of husking sweet
corn under the stars, about this sad white ceiling.

            But maybe I don’t need to bother inventing.
            Maybe you’ve already imagined this ending.

[first published in Vox Populi]

Friday, May 1, 2020

This is the marquee of the Center Theater in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine. My younger son performed at this theater often, in high school plays and music events. I've performed here, when I was playing in my band. The marquee is a big sign in Piscataquis County, the least populated county in the state. Everyone keeps an eye on it.

So the director at Monson Arts had the pretty wonderful idea of  buying space on the marquee to feature some of my students' work. Here is a line composed by Eric Jacobs of Piscataquis Community High School, used as a refrain in a group poem we created. I hope he is thrilled. I know I am.

Poetry on Main Street, in central Maine. The times they are a-changin.

* * *

Yesterday was a stressful, pulled-in-all directions day. Lots of editing pressure; Frost Place planning deadlines; a very sick friend. Now, this morning, I need to apply for unemployment, as Maine has finally opened applications to the self-employed. The site opens at 8 a.m. Any guesses on how soon it will crash? Or how much time it will suck out of my day?

Anyway, I had a good night's sleep, and Eric's line on the marquee cheered me immensely. It's hard to explain how cathartic it's been, this opportunity to teach in my homeland . . . and to have the work treated as important, as vital, as worth public celebration. I spent so many years up there being scoffed at--not by students but by administrators, department heads, parents. So to see a student poet's words on the biggest sign in the county! That is a wonder and a joy.

Today, we'll have rain and wind and rain and wind. But something has turned in the weather. When I stepped outside this morning, I felt a new sort of breeze, softened air, denser humidity, though the temperature's not much warmer than it has been. Do you remember those moments in the Mary Poppins books when the world suddenly becomes odd, and everyone walking around in the park senses that a change is coming, and then suddenly Mary shows up on the end of a balloon string? That's the kind of morning this is.