Monday, August 31, 2020

 The back-splash tiling has begun, but now Tom has to go back to work, so the kitchen will be in purgatory for the week. I'd take photos of the half-finished project, but the blue painter's tape protecting the counters looks really terrible against the color of the new tile, and you wouldn't enjoy what you were looking at.

Today I'll be back to editing, and talking about Blake with Teresa, and trying to deal with the weekend's postponed housework-plus-construction dirt. It's cool outside--only 50 degrees--and September begins tomorrow. I'm beginning to imagine frost and fried green tomatoes.

Here's a poem, a little elegy for summer--



Dawn Potter


sugar maples green as monsters           burdocks 6 feet high in the ditches

every weed exploding faster than harleys & you


skating that loaded hay truck up the gravel mountain            baring your teeth

at devils           while I gobbled klondike bars like

pot roast on thanksgiving


o it was all similes and metaphors in those days          drunken

farmhands luring us into the sheep shed        peanutbutternwhitebread

3 meals a day               the stars they bit holes into the night sky 


truelove reeked of cowshit & milk      & we never learnt any better no no we’re still

spilling out of our ragged skin

[first published in Hole in the Head Review (Summer 2020)]

Sunday, August 30, 2020

We had a long day of downpour--rain sluicing from stones, puddling the grass, hissing against the windowpanes. I couldn't have asked for better weather. I froze a bushel of kale, watched the Bruins lose a hockey game, read Shadow Country, folded shirts . . . and all the while the rain spattered and sang, and the garden sighed.

Meanwhile, the other householders were distracted by saws: Tom spent so much time trying to fix a broken switch on his new table saw that he never got started on the tiling (which also involves a saw). Paul acquired a fancy new arborist's saw (for canoe trips) and enthusiastically pruned some trees in the rain. I myself did not saw anything.

Today we'll have sun and coolish temperatures. I need to grocery-shop and clean bathrooms and do some other boring things. None of it will involve sawing. I leave that to the experts.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

 No rain yet, but it's imminent . . . skies low, air still, earth at the ready.

My new strawberry bed is planted, and while I was out buying topsoil I rescued three shrubs from a Paris Farmers' Union 65%-off sale. The poor things were in sad condition--lanky and shriveling--but at $12 apiece I figured I could take a risk on rehabilitation. After pruning and coddling, they already look much better. So now I have a red hydrangea, a pink andromeda, and a white spiraea planted in the hill country along the driveway. If all goes well, they'll create a soft hedge between our property and the neighbors'.

I wanted to remind you I'll be zoom-reading next week, Wednesday, September 2, at 7 p.m., with my friend Linda Aldrich, who is a member of my poetry group here in Portland. The reading is sponsored by the Portsmouth Poet Laureate program, and it includes an open-mic segment from 8-9 p.m. If you're interested in attending/contributing, the organizers would like you to send an email RSVP to, preferably by this Sunday, August 30, with  "Zoom Hoot RSVP" in the subject line. I'm planning to read some new work, maybe the piece I wrote about the guy who knocked on my door.

This weekend my normal house routines will be in an uproar as Tom will be tiling in the kitchen. So I'm not sure where I'll be holed up, amid the rain outside and the mess in the kitchen and the boy in my study. Imagine me perched on a stool in the bedroom or stomping through puddles in the cemetery.

Friday, August 28, 2020

I took myself in hand yesterday. As that Trump-brother dream made clear, the world has been too much with me, and I needed a shake-up. So I spent the morning doing yoga, then working steadily on a poem form I'd never used before (the dizain: a strange 15th-century French form that doesn't sound that good in English but is useful insofar as it interrupts my rhythm-rhyme expectations), and then undertook a large yard renovation.

Part of my front garden wraps around the eastern side of the house. A previous owner created a terrace, but it stops abruptly, and the rest of that area has been a kind of no-man's land between the back yard and the front: dry dirt, thin weeds, a small useless slope tucked against my neighbor's lilac. Twice I've tried to plant it with myrtle, but the soil is so compacted that nothing thrives. Even the weeds are sparse.

So yesterday I began by building a small retaining wall along the property line, using various stones I'd  turned up in other digging projects. Then I laid plain newsprint down as weed suppression, and on top of that I poured six or seven wheelbarrow loads of the rough compost I made from last year's garden detritus. Then I made a small path with a few saved slates. And now the dead zone is ready for planting.

The area gets a lot of morning sun and some dappled afternoon light. So this afternoon I'm going to transplant ever-bearing strawberries along the path, move some of my larger herb plants to stand along the fence and terrace blocks, and plant sedum along the new retaining wall. This will ease up space in my garden proper and, I hope, give us a viable strawberry crop instead of just a handful now and again.

I worked hard, and was sweaty and filthy from all that stone and soil moving. But I feel considerably refreshed.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

After weeks of high summer, the temperature this morning plummeted to 49 degrees. The times they are a-changing. In more ways than one.

Last night my subconscious decided to sic the Trump boys on me:  Eric was upstairs berating me about my politics while my son James was projectile-vomiting all over the bedroom. Meanwhile, downstairs in the kitchen Junior was vandalizing my kitchen faucet and then hiding in a closet and taunting me. Good lord. Let's bake a hurricane-wildfires-police-violence-black-bodies-damaged-white-supremacist-murderers-Covid cake, frosted with Republic National Convention. The NBA players were the only gleam in a bad, bad day.

On my tiny island, I read Blake. I moved a hydrangea and a peony.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The heat broke after last night's thunderstorms: this morning there's a crisp breeze rippling among the maples, and the air smells of wet tea leaves. 

I think my day will be less harried than yesterday was, when I was bouncing from one obligation to the next. Editing is still on hold, so before the boy gets out of bed I'm hoping to copy out some Blake, go for an idle bike ride, do a little of my own writing, create the small pretense that I have a room of my own.

Still, yesterday's harriedness had many bright spots. I cooked the season's first batch of tomato sauce, baked bread, and made honey ice cream. The furnace guy said the furnace is in good shape. My Frost Place meeting was brief but exciting, as we are floating plans for expanding our offerings.

But I wish there was some way to shift the dread that crouches among the small joys.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The humidity is so thick this morning. Storms are forecast, and no wonder: you could slice this air with a breadknife.

Today the furnace guy is coming to clean the furnace, which we might want to use someday, though at the moment cold is hard to imagine. I've also got a Frost Place meeting about setting dates for next year's conference, and a yoga class, and a lot of Blake poems to read. Normally I'd be editing as well, but the project is temporarily on hold while we work out some issues about expectations and preferences. Translations can be a complex dance.

So I'll bake bread, maybe freeze kale, maybe make some tomato sauce. Maybe try writing, though that seems unlikely, with a house full of furnace guy.

I'm a bit dull for you this morning, my day riddled with soot and calendars. You may wonder why you're reading this letter. There's not much in it, beyond trudging.

But it's not as if I haven't been thinking. It's not as if this strange negative sentence opener doesn't lead me down the dark alleys. "It's not as if I'm not better/worse/sexier/more intelligent than I led you to believe". . . As rhetoric, the phrase leaps to self-defense, while clinging to self-deprecation. The words in their power manipulate speaker and listener. Language is a dangerous tool.

Monday, August 24, 2020


And here is the little tree (which Paul has named Koji, in honor of a beloved Red Sox pitcher) in his new habitat, along with some transplanted friends: a couple of yellow-green hostas, a shade-loving sedum, an ornamental creeping ginger. They've been heeled in along the fence line for a couple of years, and finally I'm able to move them to a more permanent home.

There are a few more things to move before I can buy rhododendrons for the fence hedge, so Koji's bed will expand.

It's sounds funny to say this, given that I lived for more than 20 years on a 40-acre spread, but the large size of this back yard is daunting. For a city plot it's big, and nobody has ever done anything decorative with it, not in its entire existence. Somebody, once, had a clothesline; there's a pulley buried in one of the Norway maples. But I can find no trace of walkways or previous plantings: nothing. Except for the two enormous Norways, it's a blank. 

Now it has a fire pit and Koji. Little steps.

Other than plant my new tree, the biggest thing I accomplished yesterday was to invent this fresh fig and wild blueberry tart, glazed with peach jam. Crisp short crust, neat slices, excellent flavor. I felt like Star Baker.

Sunday, August 23, 2020


Yesterday, with trepidation, I bought two expensive plants: a small ornamental maple for the back garden and a white rose-of-sharon for a sunny corner by the street. It's nerve-wracking, how pricy shrubs and trees are, given how many things can go wrong. But I had to make a start, especially in the back yard, so today Tom and I will wrangle with roots and compacted soil and create a good start for the little maple with fresh compost and plenty of water.

Late afternoon I installed the rose-of-sharon in its sunny corner, and it looks pretty happy.

The little maple will go in a mixed sun-and-shade patch, near where the deck will be (someday). Next up in my back-garden purchases will be a row of compact rhododendrons, for the deep shade along the fence line.

So that was my exciting day: big plants. Meanwhile, the boys went canoeing down the tidal Mousam River in Kennebunkport, and came home salty and sunburned, with tales of marvelous birds.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Yesterday quickly turned out to be less pedestrian than expected, as soon as the shower drain clogged and water backed up into the basement. But Tom, that sweet and competent man, after hammering and running saws all day, spent his Friday evening wrenching and snaking, and we now possess a drain that drains again.

Today the boys are planning to go canoeing, and I will be doing this and that--picking up a lobster order at the fish market, among other things, because soft-shell prices are crazy cheap at the moment. I also might wander over to the nursery and ponder some shrub possibilities for the bleak back garden. We've had marginally more rain in the past few days. Maybe, just maybe, our drought is easing and I can move ahead with some fall improvements. 

As I was reading Mantel's The Mirror and the Light yesterday, I came across this line from Chaucer's The Parliament of Fowls: "The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne."

It's been clinging to me, that line: its sadness, but also its clarity. Yes. He's right. There's no arguing. From what I can learn, The Parliament of Fowls is itself a reworking of Cicero's Dream of Scipio. Writers, for millennia, have understood the impossibility of our task.

By the way: I almost forgot to tell you that the organizer has scheduled a second session of my two-day writing retreat, "New England Bards: Discovering Voice, Discovering Place." The dates are November 14 and 15, class is limited to eight participants, and I think it may fill quickly as I have a sizable waiting list for the first session. Do let me know if you have any questions.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Call me petty, but I did spend a certain amount of yesterday savoring the image of Steve Bannon getting arrested by the post office. Now, if they can only drag Kushner into the stocks . . .

Schadenfreude aside, it was a quiet day, though not particularly productive, editing-wise. I kept getting interrupted by this-and-that obligation: bread rising, errand running, offspring chatting, Bannon gloating. Maybe today I'll be able to buckle down.

Autumn is certainly in the wind--mornings suddenly so much darker, nights suddenly knifed with coolness--yet the days retain their summertime crackle and hiss. 

Just because I adore him so, here is my beloved Keats, saying it all so beautifully--

To Autumn


            John Keats



Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

            Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

            With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,

            And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

            Until they think warm days will never cease,

                        For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.



Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

            Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

            Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,

            Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

                        Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

            Steady thy laden head across a brook;

            Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

                        Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.



Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?

            Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

            And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

            Among the river sallows, borne aloft

                        Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

            Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

            The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

                        And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


Thursday, August 20, 2020

Into the annals of strange things that happen when I answer the door, add the man who inquired, "Would you like any free oil?"

Turns out he was replacing a neighbor's heating-oil tank, which was not as empty as he'd been led to believe, so he had some fuel to drain before he could finish the job, and most everyone else close by has natural gas heat, so could he just lug it over in five-gallon cans and pour it into my fill pipe? . . .

Sometimes this place is more like Harmony than you'd expect.

In short, yesterday turned out to be fruitful. Not only did I acquire free heat, but I also put four quarts of chicken stock and four half-pints of pesto into the freezer, listened to the Red Sox break an embarrassing nine-game skid, and even got some actual paying work done.

Today will be another olio: editing a biography, running errands for Tom (e.g., picking up the tile for our kitchen backsplash), processing peppers for the freezer, copying out some Blake poems, taking a yoga class, washing towels, cleaning cured garlic for storage . . .

Here's a lyric by Thomas Wyatt. I give it to you in modern spelling, though I have been enjoying puzzling out "They fly from me that sometime did me seke / With naked fote stalking in my chamber" . . .

They Flee from Me
Sir Thomas Wyatt

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”

It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

It looks like the organizer will be running a second section of my weekend writing retreat "New England Bards," probably in November. Already I've got a fat waiting list; if you want to be added, send me a note as the spaces may fill quickly. I'm flabbergasted at the intense interest in these online classes, but so pleased also. It will be such a treat to spend a weekend quietly reading and writing with you.

Last night I roasted a chicken for dinner, and today I'll boil down the bones: stock to store, broth for tonight's soup. The freezer is beginning to fill: mostly with greens . . . collards, kale, chard . . . but the drought has slowed the harvest. My tomatoes are ripening slowly; peppers are still on the small side. I do have enough basil for walnut pesto, so maybe I'll grind some up after work today.

I'm still reading Mantel's The Mirror and the Light, still hugely impressed with the writing and the character exploration. I'm scratching my way into a new editing project--a complicated translation. I'm beginning to plot out plantings for the bleak backyard. 

In the distance, winter crooks her finger.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Autumn darkness is creeping in, despite the weighted summer air. Now, when the alarm goes off, I turn on a lamp, heave myself up out of night, trudge downstairs into a brown gloom. 

Outside, this morning, is a vague suggestion of rain. No doubt that will be all we get. I begin to think there is no such thing as a downpour.

After my flurry of creation--long poem, book review--I'm reluctantly pushing my own writing aside and going back to editing. Paul is working evenings for the foreseeable future,  which means I'll have no home-alone time for the foreseeable future. But he sleeps late, so I'm trying to channel my inner mother-of-a-baby energy: edit while the child naps. And I'm trying to hold on to the pleasure of last week's accomplishment. Opportunity is fleeting.

Monday, August 17, 2020

On *Songs from a Voice* by Baron Wormser

Anyone who knows me as a poet also knows how indebted I am to Baron Wormser, my teacher, my mentor, my dear friend. Poetry is the closest thing in my life to church, and Baron was the person who took me to the river and washed me in the water. So with that history between us, I can make no pretense of writing about his work dispassionately. Still, having read nearly every book he’s published—poetry collections, teaching texts, memoir, essays, novels—I’ve entered into a particular relationship with his canon. To a notable degree, his writings share not only an abiding authorial tone but also a deep concern with the unfolding of a mind. Sometimes the mind under study is Baron’s own; more often, it’s a student’s or a character’s or a historical figure’s. As each new book appears, I’m struck, again, by the consistency of this quest even as Baron shifts among genres and intended audience.

His most recent book, Songs from a Voice, fits into this pattern; but as its cover makes clear, Baron is also deliberately complicating matters. The book is labeled “A Novel,” but its subtitle—Being the Recollections, Stanzas, and Observations of Abe Runyan, Song Writer and Performer—feels like the sort of explanatory phrase an eighteenth-century man of letters might compose: Samuel Johnson, say, or Laurence Sterne. To my mind, its stylistic oddity instantly evokes notions about the history of the novel—the genre’s forms and conventions, certainly, but, even more importantly, its didactic roots. Plot as we know it today isn’t much of a concern in Rasselas or Tristram Shandy. Yes, characters show up, things happen, and time passes, but the driving interest lies in the narrator’s solid conviction that he’s got thoughts about a few important subjects, and you, the reader, had better pay attention to them.

Baron intensifies this already looming historical shadow by choosing a narrator who is himself a shadow: Abe Runyan is a fictional character, and the novel “evokes the circumstances of an imagination,” but “the terrain of this imagination hearkens to Bob Dylan, and Abe “traces Dylan’s roots and early arc.” Thus, we have a double blurring: a character who is and is not a facsimile of an actual human being, and a novel that seems to be addressing the definition and purpose of its own genre.

Didacticism gets a bad rap these days. I think many of us tend to confuse it with polemic or dogma, and few humanists want to be told what or how to think. In truth, though, the didactic urge tends to arise from an overwhelming desire to explain, or at least come to terms with, ambiguity, faith, the private journeys of the self. This is certainly the urge that the character of Abe Runyan reveals, from beginning to end of the novel.

Songs from a Voice makes no pretense of having a plot. Instead, Baron has created a text that serves as Abe’s public outlet for emotional memory, a place to relive his discovery of himself. Public is a key word here: these are not private musings, though they do muse about private matters. Imagined Abe is speaking to an imagined audience that has preexisting notions about him. It’s a celebrity memoir in which the celebrity traces not his rise to fame but his rise into art. “People would say what they would say, but the skein of my circumstances was my particular skein.”

The prose is packed with this sort of casual epigram. In the midst of an early memory of his mother’s singing, Abe inserts, “If you go about bent on hearing and overhearing, you can lose yourself.” At the end of a section about the people who frequented the local pool hall, he warns, “You better watch out what you pity.” The you in Abe’s chronicle is, by turns, his audience, his fellow artists, young men, a generalized humanity, and himself, but it nonetheless enhances the sense of the text as instruction. Just as often, though, these directives bleed into intricate descriptions of moments of change or discovery, as in: “I started to be inside the music and not outside it. Every artist understands how this works, how there comes a time when you begin to feel how you are part of what you are learning and how it makes sense to you, a sense that is yours and not the teacher’s.”

These moments are notable, and not just because they trigger recognition in any artist who may be reading them. For me, they helped clarify why Baron chose to run with a didactic tone that, in other contexts, might become irritating. Importantly, a central element of Songs from a Voice is its emphasis on the vitality, and the validity, of artistic arrogance. Baron doesn’t shy away from the truth that being faithful to one’s art involves a ruthlessness of purpose. Like Gulley Jimson, the painter–con man in Joyce Cary’s 1944 novel The Horse’s Mouth, Abe leaves detritus in his wake: lovers, wives, children, parents; sometimes even reality. And here’s where, I think, the Dylan shadow becomes particularly interesting: if Abe is an imaginative exploration of the kind of mind that might be Bob’s, then we are presented with the possibility that the persona of a great artist is more closely linked to the art than to actual existence in the world. In Abe’s terms: “the songs may be solid, but the person who made the songs is not. . . . You could say the songs are about that conflict: our trying to be solid and all the not-solid stuff that goes with life, beginning with love.” From the point of view of the detritus (the lovers, wives, children, parents, and such), this is a pretty aggravating excuse for being unreliable and self-absorbed. But arrogance and a certain hidebound indifference are the dance partners of obsession.

Not once in this putative novel about a great songwriter and musician does Baron discuss the actual work of learning to make music. He does include snippets of lyrics, and Abe offers some general comments about guitars and practicing alone in his bedroom, but we learn nothing about the physical training that, in real life, is the backbone of a musician’s days. I expect this is partly because Baron isn’t a musician himself, but also it’s not the point of the book. There’s an analogy here to the way in which apprentice writers can find themselves distracted by craft talks. The fact is that almost any would-be poet can analyze the bits and pieces of the sonnet form and enact a version of her own. A great artist’s absorption of form—as Keats, for instance, did: transforming structure into the sublime—is another matter entirely. The sublime is what Baron is tracing in this novel; and as Abe says, “You’re bound to be consumed and subsumed.”

Songs from a Voice by Baron Wormser
Woodhall Press, 2019 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

 I slept past 7 a.m. this morning, and now I am groggy and dream-ridden . . . a globe showing that it's snowing everywhere in the world, a train ride through an industrial landscape, trying to play the violin while standing on the windy Russian steppe, writing an elegy for a friend who is not dead . . . somehow these vignettes all flickered through my dreams his morning, and I don't know how they were linked together, though at the time I felt as if I might finally be figuring something out.

In retrospect they sort of sound like an Akhmatova poem.

Yesterday I worked in the garden, mostly cutting and pulling out fading flowers. I am more ruthless than I used to be about getting rid of plants that are still in bloom but clearly fading. I try to take a certain botanical-garden approach to the front yard--draw the eye toward beauty--and I'm finding I don't miss the flopping faded coneflowers or the drying dianthus, even though neither was exactly dead. I also went on a bike ride and a very long walk, and I think maybe I'm recovering some of the vigor that went on hiatus during our long heat spell.

So, body and mind. Both seem to be convalescing, which leads me to believe that they've both been ill . . . not "I've got a disease" ill, but definitely under the weather somehow . . . and isn't under the weather an evocative idiom?

Saturday, August 15, 2020

I accomplished a lot, writer-wise, yesterday. I finished (I think) the poem about my visitor, and I wrote the opening page of my review of Baron's novel, and I spent a fair amount of time with the poems of Blake and Thomas Wyatt, and I read a chunk of Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light (which is just as good as the previous books in the trilogy). Altogether, I'm starting to feel more like myself again.

And I'm surprised, and pleased, to report that my October online writing retreat is completely full. I don't yet have access to the class list, so I don't know who's on it (unless they've told me directly). But if you meant to sign up and didn't, please send me an email so that I can create a waiting list, or possibly suggest to the organizer that we schedule a second session.

Today I'll mostly be doing yard and garden chores, but maybe I'll get a chance to work on the book review too. I can't explain how good it feels to be actively writing again. I mean: it always feels good to come back to the work after a drought, but somehow, in this dreadful historical moment, retrieving my powers feels especially rich.

Here's a passage from The Mirror and the Light that I love and wish I'd written. The main character, Thomas Cromwell, is half-asleep and dreaming of his home--

Now Austin Friars begins to shape like the house of a great man, its front lit by oriel windows, its small town garden expanding into orchards. He has bought up the parcels of land that adjoin it, some from the friars and some from the Italian merchants who are his friends and live in this quarter. He owns the neighborhood, and in his chests . . . he keeps the deeds that have divided, valued and named it. Here are his freedoms and titles, the ancient seals and signatures of the dead, witnessed by city wardens and sergeants, by aldermen and sheriffs whose chains of office are melted for coin, whose corpses rest under stone. Citizen tailors, citizen skinners have plied their trades here, Broad Street and Swan Alley and London Wall. Two sisters have inherited a garden; before their husbands sell it to the friars, they stroll under the fruit trees together, skins fresh in the apple-scented evenings, fingers of Isabella resting on Margaret's arm: through the braided pattern of branches they look into the sky, and their feet in pattens leave bruises on the grass. . . . History inks the skin: it writes on the hide of sheep long slaughtered, or calves who never breathed; the dead cut away the ground beneath us, so that when he descends a stair at Austin Friars, the tread falls away under his foot, and below him there is another stair, no longer visible except in the mind's eye; and down it goes, to the city where the legions of Rome left their ashes beneath the earth, their glass in the soil, their bones in the river. And down it plunges and down, into the subsoil of himself, through France and Italy and the pays bas, through the lowlands and the quicksands, by the marshes and meadows estuarine, through the floodplains of his dreams to where he wakes, shocked into a new day: the clang of the anvil from the smithy shakes the sunlight in a room where, a helpless child, he lies swaddled, startled from sleep, feeling as if for the first time the beat of his own heart.

Friday, August 14, 2020

 I finished a solid second draft of the poem I've been trying to write about my visitor. I think it's almost there, but I've got some tweaking to do today, primarily involving how I present the complex banality of moral assumptions . . . for it's too easy for someone like the speaker of the poem to draw a neat circle around "problem" and "solution," yet it's also the only way in which she can frame the issue, given her observer status. There's an analogy, here, I think, between trying to imagine pain one hasn't experienced and actually experiencing that excruciating pain. No amount of sympathy is going to teach you what pain feels like. Only the pain itself can do that.

As I stand back from this whole situation--by which I mean the visit, the anecdote of the visit, the poeticizing of the visit, and the moral entanglements of actual response and storytelling response--I begin to feel as if I've been presented with a sort of gift-challenge: one that has forced me into dual action--in the moment, after the moment. Something out there is telling me, "You need subject matter? I'll give you subject matter." And also: "This is why poetry matters. So don't do a shitty job."

Thursday, August 13, 2020

 I roughed out the draft of a poem yesterday morning, and then I finished one editing project and had a Zoom meeting about an upcoming other. Somehow, I'm still working. Last night Tom and I were talking about how strangely fortuitous this is: that he and I are managing to weather this pandemic work-wise, though he continues to worry about the construction bubble and I continue to believe that it's only a matter of time till cash-strapped institutions cut funding to their presses. Still, in the present tense, we're doing okay and thus, when the doorbell rang two nights ago, and I opened it to find a shabby man standing on my front walk--drunk or high; I couldn't tell--my thoughts immediately turned to money: I need to find some for him; that must be what he wants.

I recognized this man. He walks by the house often, and waves, and always calls out something friendly about my peas or beans. Clearly, there was a garden in his past, and he enjoys mine. But this moment was strange, and it was hard to tell what was going to happen next.

Eventually, after some awkward fumbling on both of our parts, he blurted out that he wanted a flower from the garden. And then he said: "She overdosed."

The upshot was: that I came outside with a pair of scissors, and he picked out which flowers he liked best, and I filled his arms with them. In the course of this, he managed to say: "She didn't make it." And "The beer." And "Heroin." He didn't explain, he couldn't, he was in no shape to. I don't know who she was. And the flowers may have ended up in the gutter. It doesn't matter.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

My plan, this morning, was to write a small personal review of Baron Wormser's new novel; and I will write that. First, though, I have to attend to the story that stepped in. Yesterday, while I was making dinner, the doorbell rang, and as a result I had a strange and moving interaction involving a sad drunk man and my flower garden. I'm not detailing it here, yet, because I want to try to shape a draft around it this morning, and I don't want to write myself away from the poem. But the moment was so unexpected, and I will say that it required a sort of humanity from me that I always hope I am capable of, always fearful that I am not.

Citizen-wise, I am feeling a little more hopeful this morning. I am pleased and relieved by Joe Biden's choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate. My sons point out the various blots in her history as California attorney general, and I don't deny them. I certainly don't love everything she's ever done. But my progressive predilections are not going to get the Trump plague out of the White House, and that has to be our number-one focus. Harris is smart and powerful and charismatic. Maybe, just maybe, we can turn the page.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

 The hot weather goes on and on. Already, at 6 a.m., the air is thick and steamy. My hair is a perpetual tangle of humidity curls; my face flushes at every exertion. I may never be dry again, though the soil certainly is. We did get a spatter of rain yesterday, but it left only a skim of moisture on the leaves; nothing reached the roots. The gardens are desperately in need of a three-day soaker.

Today's big event will be a visit to the vet. Ruckus hates to ride in the car, and yowls non-stop during every drive. He is not a pleasant traveling companion. Fortunately, even though he dislikes travel, he is easy to catch, as he cannot resist climbing into an open pet carrier. He's dumb that way.

So the cat circus will swallow up most of the morning. I'm getting close to finishing an editing project, and I'd like to get it off my desk and move on to the next stack. Today probably won't be the day. Maybe, instead, I'll just relax and let myself consider the poem draft I brought to my group last night. The poets seemed to like it quite a bit, but also had some suggestions about title changes that I'd like to experiment with.

I'm almost finished with Baron's novel, almost finished with my Blake self-assignment. I think those couple of home-alone days last week really helped me regain some sense of myself as a productive reader-thinker-writer. A small circle of space in the midst of no space at all. I figured out how to do it when the boys were young. It's got to be possible again.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Already, I hear that a few people have signed up for my October writing retreat. I'm so pleased. There's no question that the Zoom option does make it possible to attract people who would otherwise not be able to travel . . . and that not paying for food and lodging keeps everything cheaper. If you have questions about how the sessions will work, please let me know. Be assured that it is open to everyone: you can be a serious practicing poet, or someone who rarely writes or reads poetry. We'll share the gift of deep conversation: as a group, but also within ourselves. And by "deep" I don't mean "hard to understand." I mean "open, vulnerable, emotional, precise, and wide-ranging." This is a conversation we all need, and that we can all take part in as equals.

I hope you'll pardon me for launching into this sales pitch for the retreat. But as I began writing this morning's post, I was struck with a sudden fervor for the kind of work I do . . . which is work I can no longer do in a traditional classroom setting. I am passionate about teaching. Mine is an odd, rarefied, non-prime-time approach, but still, it's not nothing. I think opening these wormholes between art and individual is one small way to preserve our humanity. It's not the only way, but it's the door I'm reaching for.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Body as solace for the mind: I'm no athlete, but I do know that physical chores can trigger an emotional reset. So yesterday morning I yanked out the faded sunflowers, and pruned the wandering cucumber, and mowed grass, and hand-trimmed the edges, and in the afternoon I went for a long sweaty walk with my neighbor. And by the end of the day I felt a lot better.

This morning I need to grocery-shop, and probably I'll clean the house in the afternoon, if Tom isn't clogging up the kitchen with his pre-tiling planning. Because, yes, we've got yet another exciting renovation stage looming: backsplash tile is on the way . . . a beautiful frosted blue reminiscent of sea glass.

In the meantime, I'll keep reading Baron Wormser's Song for a Voice, which I'll write about more when I've finished it. I just got Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light out of the library, so that's the next novel on the list. I'm copying out Blake, and getting a poem draft ready for my poetry-group meeting tomorrow evening.

Here's the announcement for my upcoming online October writing retreat: New England Bards: Discovering Voice, Discovering Place. We're keeping the cost low--only $150--and limiting numbers to eight participants. I hope you'll consider joining me. And please be assured this it is virtual; the ad in its current manifestation does not make that quite clear.

And here's a photograph of an okra blossom.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

As it turned out, I had two poems accepted yesterday, at two different journals. But my lucky Friday isn't quite taking the edge off the horrible early-morning dream I just woke up from, in which I was summoned to a hotel in Amsterdam to stand at the deathbed of one of my oldest friends. Now I'm sitting on my grey couch, with my cup and saucer, trying to recover from the grief of a death that hasn't happened, in a place I've never been. The subconscious can be cruel.

Outside, a pair of cardinals is singing, and the dry grass shimmers in first light. We need rain so badly. I've got some fall sowing to do today: cilantro, radishes, that sort of thing. And I should mow the brittle grass and tear out the weeds along the curb.

I had another day alone yesterday, and I worked on a revision. Slowly, slowly, I'm trying to reinstate myself as a poet in my own life.

Friday, August 7, 2020

A few minutes ago, I discovered a poem acceptance in my spam folder, so that was a welcome surprise. It's a piece I wrote last summer, one I like quite a lot, but to this point no journal editors were falling for it. An acceptance is a nice way to start a Friday morning.

I want to give you a head's up about a couple of forthcoming Zoom poetry events. First, I'll be a featured reader at the Hoot--a long-established poets' gathering sponsored by the Portsmouth (NH) Poetry Laureate Program--which is usually held in person but this time will be online. Organizers haven't yet posted details on their website, but the date is September 2, 7-8 p.m., EST. Usually they also have an open-mic segment, so maybe you can read with me.

Second, I will be leading "New England Bards: Discovering Voice, Discovering Place," a weekend online poetry retreat to be held on October 3 and 4. The organizer and I are working out the details of the schedule, but I can tell you that it will focus on the poems of Jane Kenyon and Hayden Carruth and will encompass conversation, writing prompts, and revision thoughts. I can't tell you what the cost will be, though I did ask the organizer to please make it as affordable as possible. We're planning to cap the class at eight participants. While I miss in-person events, I do like the fact that people from anywhere can come together on Zoom. I was so nervous about holding the Frost Place conference online, but it did work pretty well. I'm excited to have a chance to spend time with you and these great poets. 

Thursday, August 6, 2020

I've been feeling slightly under the weather--kind of lightheaded, vaguely achy--nothing important, but every twinge is ominous these days. Still, I went for a bike ride, and Paul and I cleaned up storm damage, and I did my desk work and my kitchen work, and I acted like it was a regular day, which it turned out to be.

P announced that today and tomorrow he'll be working the dayshift, so unexpectedly I have a pair of 9-to-4 house-to-myself sessions. I do have a lot of editing to wade through, and some workshop/consultant stuff to figure out, but I should be able to find reading time, and maybe writing time as well. I've almost finished Speak, Memory and plan to start Baron Wormser's new novel next. It's titled Songs from a Voice, and the protagonist is a Bob Dylan-ish character, and my friend Teresa says it's beautifully lyrical, and she's a person who can't stand Bob Dylan, so I'm looking forward to finding out what's what.

But I continue to feel oppressed and angry over what my teacher friends are enduring as states and school boards force them back into the classroom. Signs already point to disaster: this is so clearly a huge mistake. Why not begin the year remotely and reevaluate for the second semester? That seems so obvious to me, but instead teachers and children are being shoveled directly into the abyss.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Good morning, post-storm. Isaias arrived in a flurry . . . a wild churn of cloud, twists of downpour, trees whipping, air wailing . . . and then he vanished into Canada. In his wake: not too much damage, at least in my yard--a litter of twigs and small branches, a few broken flower stems, but the tomato stakes held strong and the sunflowers are still smiling. Our power didn't even flicker, though many people outside of Portland lost electricity. On the coast we got more wind than rain, and I'm wondering how inlanders fared, who got more rain than wind. I had to drive across town in the midst of the gale, to fetch Paul home from work, and only saw one tree down, though smaller branches were everywhere. [In case you were wondering: apparently people do not stop ordering pizza during a tropical storm. Paul had a busy night.]

Today: a quick bike ride this morning to see how the neighborhood's holding up after the storm; then home to edit and do some manuscript-consultation prep; then storm cleanup in the afternoon. Paul is cooking chicken wings for dinner tonight, so I'll have company in the kitchen. I'm still reading Blake and Nabokov, still not writing new poems, still never home alone. But the sweep came yesterday, so I have a clean chimney and wood stove. And the humidity has broken, so I don't feel as if my lungs are packed with wet paper.

Here's the opening of Jack Gilbert's poem "Burning (Andante non Trope)":

We are all burning in time, but each is consumed

at his own speed. Each is the product

of his spirit’s refraction, of the inflection

of that mind. It is the pace of our living

that makes the world available.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

For the moment, everything outside is quiet, and still, and deeply humid. But like everyone else on the eastern seaboard, we're under a tropical storm warning here in coastal Maine. Our version of Isaias will arrive tonight, just when Paul would typically be walking home from work, so I'm already jangled about picking him up in horrible tree-collapsing street-flooding weather. 

This morning the sweep is coming to clean the chimney, and I'm a little worried about that as well--stranger in the house and whatnot. These days it doesn't take much for my anxiety to spike. Besides, prepping for winter feels so pointless in the midst of this heat--though of course I know better, which is why I've been ordering firewood and sending winter coats to the dry cleaner and washing hats and gloves and trying to imagine the future. 

Trying to imagine the future. As I fidget among my domestic tasks, I wince at that deadly phrase. Or is it a hopeful one? So much of Now is just Staying Afloat, paddling and kicking and holding my breath and gasping for air.

Here's a poem that makes me feel better--a poem about staying home, and about friendship

This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison


dedicated to charles lamb


Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Well, they are gone, and here I must remain,

This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost

Beauties and feelings, such as would have been

Most sweet to my remembrance even when age

Had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,

Friends, whom I never more may meet again,

On springy heath, along the hilltop edge,

Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,

To that still roaring dell, of which I told;

The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep,

And only speckled by the mid-day sun;

Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock

Flings arching like a bridge—that branchless ash,

Unsunn’d and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves

Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,

Fann’d by the water-fall! and there my friends

Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,

That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)

Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge

Of the blue clay-stone.


                                    Now, my friends emerge

Beneath the wide wide Heaven—and view again

The many-steepled tract magnificent

Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea,

With some fair bark, perhaps, whose sails light up

The slip of smooth clear blue betwixt two Isles

Of purple shadow! Yes! They wander on

In gladness all; but thou, methinks, most glad,

My gentle-hearted Charles! for thou hast pined

And hunger’d after Nature, many a year,

In the great City pent, winning thy way

With sad yet patient soul, through evil and pain

And strange calamity! Ah! slowly sink

Behind the western ridge, thou glorious Sun!

Shine in the slant beams of the sinking orb,

Ye purple heath-flowers! richlier burn, ye clouds!

Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves!

And kindle, thou blue Ocean! So my friend

Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,

Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing round

On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem

Less gross than bodily; and of such hues

As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes

Spirits perceive his presence.


                                    A delight

Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad

As I myself were there! Nor in this bower,

This little lime-tree bower, have I not mark’d

Much that has sooth’d me. Pale beneath the blaze

Hung the transparent foliage; and I watch’d

Some broad and sunny leaf, and lov’d to see

The shadow of the leaf and stem above

Dappling its sunshine! And that walnut-tree

Was richly ting’d, and a deep radiance lay

Full on the ancient ivy, which usurps

Those fronting elms, and now, with blackest mass

Makes their dark branches gleam a lighter hue

Through the late twilight: and though now the bat

Wheels silent by, and not a swallow twitters,

Still the solitary humble-bee

Sings in the bean-flower! Henceforth I shall know

That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure;

No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,

No waste so vacant, but may well employ

Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart

Awake to Love and Beauty! and sometimes

’Tis well to be bereft of promis’d good,

That we may lift the soul, and contemplate

With lively joy the joys we cannot share.

My gentle-hearted Charles! when the last rook

Beats its straight path along the dusky air

Homewards, I blest it! deeming its black wing

(Now a dim speck, now vanishing in light)

Had cross’d the mighty Orb’s dilated glory,

While thou stood’st gazing; or, when all was still,

Flew creeking o’er thy head, and had a charm

For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom

No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Carrots, peppers, and cucumbers are coming in strong right now. Every day I pick a handful of strawberries and blueberries, and green beans are opening a second wave of blossoms. Nonetheless, the weather remains difficult. We're readying for another brutal day, heat-wise, and now the weather service has just put us under a tropical-storm watch. I am exhausted by the endless humidity, the twilight sleep; and while we need the rain desperately, a torrential windstorm is not just what I'm hoping for. Oh, well.

Anyway: Monday again. The house is clean and neat. I'm starting a new editing project this morning.  For some reason the state department of labor has decided to start issuing me unemployment checks again, after refusing to do so for six weeks, so I guess we'll be able to afford to pay for some new wiring. I'll be talking to Teresa this afternoon about Blake. I'm working on curriculum for an online writing retreat focusing on the work of Jane Kenyon and Hayden Carruth. At 3 a.m. a possum was sitting on our front stoop.

Here's some Shelley for you, to stoke your anger and frustration. Two hundred years later, what's changed?

England in 1819

Percy Bysshe Shelley

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th' untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

I mowed grass yesterday, and froze kale, and went for a long walk with a friend whose husband has just died of Covid. 

My son left for work, and Tom and I drove down to the waterfront and had a small date at a picnic table. We ate sushi and good cheese and played cards. We wore masks. Dogs barked in the surf.

Back home on the couch, we listened to baseball and ate homemade lemon frozen yogurt. The radio crew noted that this might be baseball's last weekend, as the commissioner is talking about canceling the season, given that so many players are getting sick. But, hey, let's open the schools.

I've been reading Nabokov's memoir of his lush childhood in Russia. So much privilege. Such beloved parents. He hasn't yet mentioned that his father was later assassinated in Berlin.

I keep forgetting to answer emails, acknowledge mail, and all of the other good-manners things I should be doing. I am distracted all day long.

Copying out Blake's poems is a way to focus. Sleep is a drug. 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

A few things:

First, I've got a new poem up a Vox Populi, a sad politically tinged sonnet titled "Confused Prayer."

Second, the CavanKerry Press blog has reprinted Teresa Carson's discussion of my pandemic-response poem "Concord Street Hymn," along with some thoughts about the difficulties of writing during this time.

Third, Hole in the Head Review has published two new poems--"August" and "Preface to Paradise Lost"-- along with the work of several of my dear poet-friends, including Baron Wormser and Betsy Sholl.

Fourth, the poet Kerrin McCadden, who is also the associate director of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, has written an impassioned editorial about why schools should not be reopening this fall. It's important, and it should be shared widely.