Wednesday, September 30, 2020

 There's a gale out there--rain and wind, rain and wind--and this is supposed to continue for much of the day. The cat blew in looking shocked but also completely dry, as he no doubt spent his outside time sitting in the neighbor's garage. But I'm so happy to hear the clatter on the roof, the spattering on the panes: it has been a long time since we've had the joy of a real rainstorm.

And I've had some other good news too. I can't give you any details yet, but it looks as if my book proposal is a go: I will publish a New & Selected in early 2022. In the meantime, A Month in Summer is in the hands of a several editors, and we'll see what happens.

I do feel uplifted by this. Given all of my writing struggles during the 2020 shitshow, I am so glad to step forward into a large purposeful revision project, one that I know will definitely appear in print. And yet I can do it slowly, without too much pressure for quick publication.

This morning I am feeling like a fortunate woman. Rain. A book contract. Dear friends and beloved family. Fresh coffee and a clean kitchen. Blessings amidst the dread.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

I've got a few ideas burbling about what to do with a mass of uncollected poems: essentially, whether it's time to consider a "new and selected" . . . a notion that makes me feel old but also makes me feel kind of cheerful. I'm talking to some people, thinking about querying a publisher and getting reprint permissions; I've already proposed the notion to an experienced poetry editor who could help me sort through the glut of material. It would be an undertaking, but a collaborative one, which would be a novelty. Anyway it's something to ponder, and maybe look forward to, while my NPS manuscript circles through her various rejections.

So today: back to editing, but also trying to jumpstart my poet self. I was talking to another friend yesterday, who's also having trouble focusing on new work, and she, too, is trying to take advantage of the unwanted lull by dealing with what's already been finished. It's good to know I'm not alone in this arid spell . . . also, it's good to know this weekend will be my writing retreat, and I fully intend to write alongside everyone else in the class. I'm confident their conversation will help me prime the pump.

While talking with Teresa about Byron yesterday, we found ourselves excited about his choice to use Spenserian stanzas in Childe Harold, the oddly unbalanced nine-line rhyme scheme that drives forward the narrative of The Faerie Queene: eight iambic pentameters and an alexandrine: ABABBCBCC. We are both planning to experiment with the pattern ourselves, to find out why Byron saw it as a way "to give full scope to my inclination, and be either droll or pathetic, descriptive or sentimental, tender or satirical, as the humour strikes me."

Monday, September 28, 2020

 I was wrong about the rain, I'm happy to say. I woke up at 4 a.m. to the sounds of a downpour--not a steady soaking by any means, but supposedly that's coming later in the week.

I'll be back to the editing desk this morning, then talking to Teresa about Byron in the afternoon and, I hope, staring out the window at showers and puddles.

Tom and I ate dinner in front of a movie last night: Hopscotch, a sweet and silly ex-CIA-man caper starring Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson. Just before we sat down to eat, Tom told me, "They released Trump's taxes." Immediately we both started giggling. And that was before I learned he'd deducted $70,000 for hair care.  That's what you get for $70,000?

Call me childish, but I've got to say: the giggling felt pretty good. 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Another foggy morning. Supposedly rain will be moving in this week, but I'll believe it when I see it. These fogs are closest we've gotten to wet for weeks. 

Yesterday was quiet. Paul spent the entire day in his bathrobe binge-watching a new season of some Netflix show. Tom worked at his desk. I sat on the couch and did some workshop prep and submitted my NPS manuscript to a couple of publishers; in-between times I folded laundry and baked bread and cleared out a few fading flowerbeds. For dinner I made seared tuna steaks (crusted with toasted cumin and mustard seeds, salt, and pepper; topped with fresh guacamole) alongside spoon bread and an arugula and marigold salad. We played cards and listened to our new wonderful baby Red Sox pitcher dominate the Atlanta Braves lineup--he's practically the only bright spot in a dreadful season.

Today I guess I've got to do the housework and the grocery shopping. I'm also going to take a bike ride this morning--return a library book and then tool around on the quiet cemetery roads.

I'm feeling a little melancholy today--not the never-ending dread so much as a more elegiac seasonal sadness . . . garden fading, leaves turning, nights moving in. A month from now I'll be imagining snow.

Here's a little poem.

Abandoned Country Song




Dawn Potter

My darling has left for the city,

And my heart is as bleak as a barn.

Now I blink at the pattern

Of dust that once mattered

And can’t tell which memory I mourn.

[from Chestnut Ridge (Deerbrook Editions, 2019)]

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Yesterday was all about Carruth and Kenyon, and I think I'm now ready to teach. Next weekend's writing retreat will focus on three themes: place, voice, and the bardic urge--and I spent much of the day sitting on my bed, surrounded by poetry books, working out conversational relationships among poems and composing simple writing prompts that might arise from those conversations. I try to use prompts that don't impose rigid requirements ("do this, this, and this") but allow for flexibility of reaction. It was lovely to have my son around while I was planning. I kept reading him poems, and he kept responding with smart, curious observations, particularly as regards the shift into prophet register that both poets do so well and so differently. He had a lot to say about how that tonal shift has become an inherent part of video games and sci-fi media . . . an interesting thought: that even in our largely secular, non-Bible-reading society, the bardic cadence--the lineage of Baldwin, Whitman, Bradstreet, Milton--remains powerful.

This morning a thick fog drapes the city by the sea. I am the only person out of bed, though Tom is awake, and drinking the cup of coffee I brought him. I don't have any particular plans for the day, other than to pick up my seafood order at the fish market. We'll have yellowfin tuna tonight, coho salmon tomorrow.

I'm ready for Monday's Byron chatter with Teresa; I'm caught up on editing; I've prepped for my class. I might work on some poem revisions today. I might set up the class blog, where we'll share our drafts. I might take another look at the afterword I wrote for the NPS manuscript--it used to be a preface but I decided to move it to the end of the book. In a busy talky house, I find it easier to write prose than to write verse, where the rhythms rise in my mind as I write, which are so damaged by exterior sounds: other people's music, phone calls, podcasts, chatter. Maybe that's why I wrote my prose memoirs and essays while the boys were young and at home.

What I'm doing here, at crowded little Alcott House, seems to bear no relation to the terrible news. I read and cook and clean and garden. I walk through the cemetery. And yet everything I do in this bubble is infected by dread. I know I use that word too often. But is there a synonym?

Friday, September 25, 2020

I'm taking the day off from editing . . . switching my focus to preparing for next weekend's writing retreat. First, I'll spend an hour in a yoga class; then I'll turn my attention to Carruth and Kenyon. Work but also refreshment. 

This time last year I was meeting my Monson Arts kids. That all seems so far away now.

Now, on this dark Friday morning, Paul is sleeping hard after working late slinging pizzas. Tom is rattling his coffee cup, hanging up his towel, putting on his shoes. I am girding my loins to answer a publisher's email regarding my NPS manuscript: a willingness to read it, no promises, but not chasing me away either . . . so we'll see. I hate the begging I have to do.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

After a full (mostly) night's sleep, I'm feeling less like a one-eyed catnip mouse with ears and tail chewed off and more like a regular crazy-haired person in a bathrobe who has hopes of getting dressed shortly.

Yesterday was warm, climbing into the mid-70s, a sudden change after our week of near-frosts, so I took advantage of the mildness to do a little more after-editing reclamation work in the side yard. In late August I told you about constructing a retaining wall and setting out a small strawberry bed in what had been a bare-dirt dead zone along one side of the house. That area is now thriving, so yesterday I extended my work a bit further toward the back yard, spreading a few bags of new soil, laying down a few of the path slates my neighbor gave me, transplanting some hosta and fern shoots and creeping thyme and tiny lady's-mantle plants from other beds--in other words, beginning to frame the corridor linking the front garden to the future back garden. It's a small area, a travel space rather than a place anyone is likely to sit. Still, as I'm learning to landscape, I'm realizing that such corridors are an essential element--kind of like the transitions in a poem, I guess . . . almost invisible turns; vital cues.

Inside the house, I did find a moment, between noisy son activity and paying work, to begin reading Byron's Childe Harold. I'm also immersed in David Treuer's excellent history The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, and I've just finished my friend Meg Kearney's new chapbook, a crown of sonnets titled The Ice Storm. Just as I think I'm getting nothing done, I realize that I'm getting many things done. But I also know that my activity and my state of mind are chronic, illogical reactions to the terrible flood of news--the constant awfulness . . . Breonna Taylor's murderers not charged. The monster in the White House refusing to leave. The pandemic that will not end . . . Somehow, if I dig and water and plant and cook and clean and can and freeze; if I read stacks of hard books . . . if I do all of these dutiful tasks, then surely I can keep the world from disintegrating. Call it the Rumpelstiltskin approach to staying sane. I would be the ant in that scenario.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

 . . . and now insomnia. I seem to have entered some kind of hell-cycle: first, headaches; then, awake most of the night.

Maybe it's the weather . . . a strange dry wind, fire-danger warnings posted, but also high-surf warnings because Hurricane Teddy is far out in the Gulf of Maine spinning crazy rainless gales our way.

So I spent the night trying to defuse insomniac worry scenarios such as "FOOTNOTES! HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT FOOTNOTES! DON'T FORGET FOOTNOTES!" Such a stupid waste of hours.

Anyway, there's daylight, and there's leftover lasagna for breakfast, so that's something. And I have a shiny washable kitchen in which to cook, and a new garden path to plan, and suddenly the editing project is advancing fairly quickly, and I should have a chance to sit down and read some Byron today, and maybe I'll submit the NPS manuscript someplace . . .

But writing time remains nonexistent. I just don't have any. I get up early, I try to get my paying-work done efficiently, but I have no private time and no private space. Literally, the moment Paul leaves for work, Tom comes home from work. If I have half an hour alone in the house, I'm lucky. Usually it's more like ten minutes.

I'm not complaining; honestly, I'm not complaining. We're healthy and employed and we enjoy each other's company. But it's hard to keep calling myself a poet when I'm not writing poems.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

I'm fighting a headache this morning--not the best way to get out of bed, after dreaming that Tom had decided we needed to move to another part of Portland, and this seemed to mean becoming the roommates of several unknown women in a house with a leaky roof, and I lost my cat in that strange neighborhood . . .


At least I made sizable progress on my giant editing project yesterday, and I hope to continue that onslaught today. I also started writing a preface for the NPS finalist manuscript, with the thought that grounding it historically might be a good opening gambit. I'm not sure that's true, but at least now I'll have two versions to ponder. Paul and I vacuumed; I moved some gift paving stones out of my neighbor's yard, for use as future back-garden paths. I watered my dry little shrubs. And then I spent all evening on the couch in the back room, talking about poem drafts with my poetry group while Tom and Paul made dinner and did the dishes.

The headache seems to be easing. The cat is not lost but full of breakfast, and has now buried himself in the comforter. Nobody is making me move away from my garden. Tom is in the shower, and Paul is asleep, and already the hours are rolling forward--a slow muscular crawl, like a coal-fired engine climbing an uphill grade.

Monday, September 21, 2020

The three of us spent yesterday morning out walking a section of the Eastern Trail that cuts along the salt marshes in Scarborough. Though migration has begun, plenty of birds were still around: we saw great white egrets, snowy egrets, great blue herons, and something that might have been a plover or a killdeer--it was hard to see its identifying markings. I was hoping for seals, but the tide was too low for them to be swimming in from the bay.

It's cold in the house this morning, but I can't bring myself to turn on the furnace yet. The days are sunny, rainless. Beneath the Norway maples the dry earth is cracked; the thin grass is burnt and brown. I carry pails of water to my new tree and shrubs. The drought goes on and on.

Today: editing, editing. I have a poetry group meeting tonight. I should read some Byron, I should wash some floors.

The loneliness is seeping in, through the cracks and planks. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

We had a frost advisory posted for last night, so I spent much of yesterday taking down the garden: okra, the rest of the peppers, the cherry tomato, the basil. As it turns out, we didn't get frost, so I've still got flowers, and many enthusiastic greens, and most of the herbs. But the lushness is waning.

Today the three of us are going to visit the salt marshes, before Paul goes to work this afternoon. I don't know where we'll drive to--somewhere fairly close--but even not-too-far feels like an adventure these days. I have been exactly nowhere since our Baxter trip in July . . . to the grocery store and back is the only traveling I do.

Now, on this chill morning, the sun is shining, my feet are cold, the cat has gone back to bed, and I'm thinking about what I should do with my manuscripts. Wincing about what I should do is more accurate.

You'd think this would get easier. But it doesn't.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Last night, Tom and I were quietly eating puttanesca and listening to the Red Sox game, when Joe and Will, the guys doing the call, suddenly interrupted their patter to announce that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died.

Hearing that she was gone was like having a rock thrown through the window. I put down my fork. I swallowed. All I could say, moronically, was "Fuck."

Yet the guys on the radio kept talking. Between balls and strikes, pop-ups to center and groundouts, they spoke of Ginsburg with sadness, with deep respect, recalling what she had done for the women in their lives, for the nation as a whole. They even, idealistically, tried to explain what they thought all Americans should do, on hearing the news of her death, which was: no matter what your political beliefs, pause and honor her well-lived life. They were hokey, but they were not circumspect. Here were two guys, whose lives center around a sport open only to men, who in a normal year avoid political commentary like it's the plague, paying homage to a great liberal justice, a great woman.

I say in a normal year. I say like the plague. Well, it's a plague year: and this is not the first time that Will and Joe have become newsmen this year rather than simply stats raconteurs. They've been monitoring the Covid situation; they've been monitoring the BLM protests; and in both cases they've revealed their staunch support for equality and for science. Joe is close to retirement; Will is a young father; both are white men, and they have stepped up, clearly to their own surprise, and become spokesmen for do-the-right-thing.

The loss of Ginsburg is devastating. But what she has left behind offers hope. Not only has she changed the trajectory of so many women's lives, but she has also served as a model of conviction and civility for men. I'm grateful for my twenty-six-year-old son, who called me at 7 a.m. this morning to mourn, who is currently sussing out the situation with his equally sad fifty-five-year-old father. And those baseball guys, Joe and Will, driving home after a game, sliding into bed with their sleeping wives: they're trying, we're trying, we'll keep on trying.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Since May, I've known that one of my manuscripts was in the running for a major poetry award, but I had to keep quiet during the judging. Today I'm thrilled to let you know that A Month in Summer was a finalist for the 2020 National Poetry Series. I send all sorts of congratulations to the winners and much joy as well to the other finalists, whose names have just been announced. Among them is my friend Julia Bouwsma, a fellow Maine poet, whose work is remarkable.

It feels wonderful to see my name on this list, but of course the manuscript is still floating around, unpublished. I wish someone would just call me up and say, "Hey! Submit it to us!" But that is as likely as finding two alligators in my basement playing blackjack.

Anyway, for the moment, I'm just allowing myself to take pleasure in having made the cut in such a big competition. I'll procrastinate a little longer, and then I'll start over again.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Not much new to report from the little northern city by the sea. Still no rain, and the sunlight is hazy with smoke from the western fires. I harvested a bushel of collard leaves yesterday, and made an angel food cake with egg whites saved up in the freezer. I shipped a batch of editing to an author and created some college-student-style tables and shelves out of various bits-n-pieces in the basement, in an attempt to make my writing/editing area somewhat more adequate. I am currently working at a standing desk stuffed into a corner of the bedroom so tightly that I can't easily open a book and open a laptop at the same time. I have to use the top of Tom's dresser as as a table top; there's nothing resembling a standard desk or chair, and no space to bring them in. I've got books shelved in an unfinished gap in the sheetrock . . . The only place in the room to sit down and read is the bed, but the bed is just a mattress on the floor and the bedside lamp has been set too low to aim the bulb at the page. It's all kind of pathetic, but at least now I've rearranged things so the lamp is high enough to cast a beam.

Somehow I've managed to keep working in these less-than-ideal conditions since March . . . though in the heat of summer I mostly just sat downstairs on the couch because the bedroom was an oven. Now that tolerable temperatures have returned, I'm trying to piece together some sort of semi-unaggravating setup. It's difficult. All of my poetry books are shelved in the room that used to be my study but is now Paul's bedroom, and Paul's bedroom is exactly what you'd expect from a 22-year-old: a chaos of stuff cast hither and yon. It's hard to believe that room ever belonged to me. And yet I was so excited about it, when I moved into it. My first room-of-one's-own. A short-lived joy.

In Harmony I had half-a-room-of-one's-own. Now I've sunk to a corner. So I keep reminding myself of those Bronte sisters, packed together in that parsonage sitting room, writing novels on their laps, as their brother screamed and threw furniture upstairs. I've got it easy.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

This is probably our last eggplant of the season. Last night I fried up the slices, then quartered them and tossed them in a salad. The peppers all went into the freezer: a bag of diced sweet, a bag of diced hot. 

I've still got a few more peppers in the garden, though we're definitely on the slide into fall. But the marigolds and cilantro are going strong. I love marigolds in salads: so bright and sturdy.

Earlier in the day there were two giant pots simmering on the stove, but by this point I was just down to chicken stock. I ran the cooked tomatoes through a food mill and used them as the base for cream of tomato soup. And Tom specially requested grilled-cheese sandwiches as well, because what is better with a good tomato soup?

I did end up lighting a fire in the wood stove last night. And then Tom and I sat under the couch blanket and ate homemade ice cream and garden strawberries and listened to the Red Sox actually play well. Good pitching! Clutch hitting! What a surprise!

This morning I'm feeling as if I've had a teeny-tiny vacation: just a simple evening under a blanket; just a glass of wine with my tomato soup; just a deep sleep in which I did not dream about losing my (long dead) dog in the woods or enact any other terrible self-blaming scenario.

Today maybe I can ride this small peaceable wave a little bit longer.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Yesterday all three of us were home for dinner, so I roasted a chicken, mashed a pot of Yukon Golds, made mushroom gravy and a big tomato salad, and churned vanilla ice cream for root beer floats. Given that I was frenetic all day about work, chores, the election, et al., I don't exactly know why I decided to produce such a giant meal. But by that point my high-strungness had dissipated. An hour's talk with Teresa about Blake helped a lot. So did a long walk with Tom. I feel as if every single day I need to take myself in hand: figure out a way to live. When I first moved to Portland from Harmony, I did the same thing. But then I was fighting depression; now I'm fighting dread.

Anyway: another day, another battle. It's cold this morning, 47 degrees. Over the weekend I filled the woodbox and the kindling basket, dusted off the fire tools and brought them up from the basement. So everything is ready for the first fire of the season. Last night the house was warm enough, what with the chicken-roasting oven cranking for hours. But maybe tonight will be the night I give in to coziness.

Probably I'll cook down some tomatoes into sauce today. I've also got chicken bones to boil into stock, so I might as well fill the stove with giant pots. They can sit there simmering while I'm chipping away at my editing work. The grass needs to be mowed. The endless garden watering continues. I should make an appointment for a flu shot. Maybe I'll look at that poem draft I started on Saturday.

September 15, 2020. In a few weeks I'll turn 56. By then the leaves will be glowing on the trees. Time is a strange companion. Like a corgi puppy tugging at a leash. Like a mosquito on the wall, digesting the blood it just stole from me. Like a word I don't understand.

Monday, September 14, 2020

 I've almost finished reading Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light, but I'm not sure I can finish it. The book is very good, very compelling, but also extremely violent: by which I mean, a many-page description  of a heretic being burned alive, etc. And the problem with historical novels is that I know what the ending will be, and this one will end with the main character getting beheaded, no doubt in present-tense "what does it feel like to get beheaded?" detail. Can you wonder, in this season of dread, why I've become increasingly reluctant to pick up the book? And the next book on my reading list is David Treuer's The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present--also guaranteed to be a heartbreaker.

Finally, last night, I gave in and took a break from my painful list. Now I'm rereading Larry McMurtry's Texasville and feeling much better. I tell you: I was almost driven to P. G. Wodehouse. That's how gloomy my intake has been.

Today I have to work and Tom and Paul do not, so I guess we'll see how that shakes out in this tiny, hear-every-noise house. I am tired from a weekend of harvest chores and get-ready-for-fall deep housecleaning. But it all needed to get done, and it all did get done, and I'm glad, though I hope that next weekend I can maybe have a real day off.

And I did draft two pages of a new poem that is not nearly finished. So that's something too.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Another cool morning, but I managed to sleep late, so I woke up to find sunshine streaming through the windows, grey-green shadows flickering among trees and houses, squirrels bustling across the fence lines, mouths crammed with nuts from a neighbor's black walnut tree.

Yesterday was busy. I dealt with a bunch of work emails and then began a new poem, which was going along swimmingly until the phone rang and the rest of my day began. So I chatted for a long time with my Chicago son, hung sheets on the line, and then girded my loins for tomatoes. From four plants, I collected two bushels of full-sized green tomatoes, a dishpan of half-ripe ones, and a big mixing bowl full of immature ones. Then I tore out the plants, cut them into manageable pieces, and hauled them to the compost bins. I still have one plant left in the ground--a cherry tomato--because the fruit is able to ripen quickly, even in this cool weather.

What to do with all of this bounty? I started with the immature greenies, which won't keep well and have no hope of ripening. I've learned that they make an excellent facsimile of tomatillo sauce, so I diced them, spread them in baking pans, poured in some olive oil, salted them lightly, and roasted them for about an hour, until they were soft and slightly caramelized. Once they cooled, I ran them through a food mill and poured the sauce into several small freezer containers. Over the winter I'll thaw this, add fresh spices or herbs (onion, garlic, hot pepper, cilantro, roasted cumin, whatever), and use it as a finishing sauce in tacos, curries, beans, stews, etc. It adds a sharp, citrusy flavor to winter staples.

In the meantime, I made a batch of red sauce with fruit already ripening in the kitchen: roughly cut-up tomatoes, a green pepper, and a head of garlic simmered for several hours; put through the food mill; and simmered again for another couple of hours. I froze two quarts from that batch.

So we'll see how the mature greenies ripen. I'll have to sort through the bushels every couple of days, removing anything that's starting to go bad, separating out the ones that are reddening. Usually this works pretty well, as long as I keep on top of the job. My hope is that I'll be simmering a lot of sauce over the next couple of weeks. I can use as much as I can make: for pasta dishes, for soup base. I wish I could can sauce instead of freezing it, but this piecemeal ripening means I'll be working in small batches, so canning isn't practical.

While all of this was going on in the kitchen, I was also making yeast rolls and processing a giant picking of Swiss chard. It's a good thing I have a brand-new, easy-to-clean counter as well as a dishwasher that holds a lot of big pots and bowls. I ran it four times yesterday.

In short, I celebrated a full-blown farmwife day, here in my tiny vegetable plot in a city by the sea. 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Autumn is slipping in. Last night, as twilight began to settle over the neighborhood,  I closed the downstairs windows before dark. The cat snuggled down into his blanket. And the kitchen filled with the scent of minestrone and the sound of late-season baseball.

Here's the salad I made: arugula, sliced black grapes, marigold petals, and mint, tossed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and black pepper.

And here's the minestrone: a friend's fresh leek; my own green pepper, hot pepper, carrots, green beans, and tomatoes; a potato, a handful of macaroni, some diced chicken, and homemade broth; salt, pepper, and parmesan; before serving, garden basil scissored on top.

Today, things will be changing in the garden. It's time to tear out the tomato plants. The leaves are showing signs of fungus, which I don't want to spread to the fruit. So into the compost bins go the vines, and a bushel of green tomatoes will ripen in house. The summer's drought significantly delayed all of the high-summer vegetables; I got far fewer eggplants and peppers than I did last year, and tomatoes have ripened very slowly. Garlic and shallots were also small. Even so, I've managed to get some sauce and vegetables into the freezer and the cellar. And the kale crop has been stellar. We'll be eating it all winter.

Tom has to work today (blah). So maybe, while Paul's sleeping and I'm alone downstairs, I'll manage to do a little writing before I start ripping out tomato plants. And I do need to start some prep work for my upcoming Carruth-Kenyon workshops. I'm told there are just 3 spaces available in the November session. Let me know if you're interested in joining us. The cost is only $150.

Friday, September 11, 2020

After a day of fog and dense humidity and brief spattering rains, I woke this morning to coolness. It's Friday--time to drag the recycling bin to the curb, time to make chicken and vegetable soup for dinner, time to read Blake and go for a long walk along the cove. Also, time to edit someone else's fat book, which means that those last couple of items on the list might not actually get done.

I've barely written anything lately, other than last weekend's Shelley essay and these daily letters to you. But I did spend an hour yesterday copying out Blake poems. I'm really grateful to Teresa for inventing our distance poetry-reading project. Every other Monday I have to be prepared to talk to her about poems: it's on the schedule; I need to make sure I get my homework done. If you can find a friend to do this with, I recommend it highly. Two people: a shared reading project: one regular probing conversation. Writing has been difficult for me during this crisis, and reading Rilke and Blake with Teresa has been a considerable help. It makes me feel as if I'm still a working poet: maybe not writing a lot, but nonetheless thinking hard about the art and the craft.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Another morning of dense fog, the cloud-weight so heavy that it's falling from the maples like false rain.

Today is my little sister's birthday, and I'm feeling melancholy about her being so far away in Vermont, where I haven't set foot since last winter.

Oh well. No point in bemoaning what we're all suffering through. I have a bright, clean kitchen, and the most beautiful zinnias in town, and a version of employment, and housemates who like my cooking, and a bossy, handsome cat, and as many books as a small-town library.

The shadow of the election is unnerving, though. More than unnerving: Terrifying. Every morning I have to figure out again, and yet again, and yet again, how to manage the day's dose of dread.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Fog hangs thick over Portland, Maine, and the wet air smells like the sea. Here, in my lamp-lit room, the cat is lying on the floorboards in his silly inside-out position--back feet in the air, head twisted like an owl's; and I am sitting in my accustomed couch-corner drinking black coffee from a white cup-and-saucer; and Tom is upstairs, sighing and heaving himself out of bed; and Paul, who got home from work around midnight, is still sound asleep.

On the coffee table (which is really just a beat-up old chest) are four fat books: Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light, a volume of William Blake's collected poems, David Treuer's The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, and Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. In the corner are a violin case and a mandolin case. On the mantel are several large odd stones, a glass swan, a carved stone head, an empty vase, two beeswax candles made by a son's ex-girlfriend, a treasure chest, and a handsome broken clock.

Such is my milieu, at 6:15 on an early September morning, in this year of pandemic and fire and cruelty and protest and indifference and national decay.

Today I will plod through my accustomed rounds: house work, desk work, garden work. I'll cook something-or-other for dinner involving the fresh leeks my friend sent me from up north. I'll pray for rain.

Here's a poem that came out in Vox Populi last year. It's a September poem. I thought it might echo for you.

A Listener Sends Six Letters to God, in Autumn


Dawn Potter

Dear Sir, he wrote at dawn,


I am requesting your kind attention

to a perplexity, which is this:

that I believe I may be hearing

what otherwise cannot be heard,

and I am finding it necessary to become

a vessel for pouring this sound into the atmosphere,

if only I may have your assistance in the matter.

Dear Sir,

I pray you, accept this request

with all seriousness and haste.

Yours most truly,


and, with great care, he signed 


A Friend.




Dear Sir, he wrote at dawn,


Today I trudged down the muddy lanes

that snake alongside the sluggish canal

or suddenly veer away, to writhe

among the narrow houses and shops

elbowing one another against the dingy



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


You see I am avoiding

what I need to say.

Despite undue haste, I remain


The bubble fell, and blotted.


Your Servant.




Dear Sir, he wrote at dawn,


For three days now I have been writing letters

to you. I trust you know that they are always

the same letters, though my words are different.

I am practicing my scales, and my hands are dirty,

and the piano keys stick in the humid air.

Nonetheless, I am


Here a fingerprint appeared.




Dear Sir, he wrote at dawn,


Last evening, I walked, again,

along the canal and I felt

the crackle of my letter to you

as it lay inside my hat, I felt

the snag of the letter’s fold against

my hair, which, I admit,

is neither clean nor combed.

It was necessary to mail the missive.

The question was:

where were you most likely to receive it?

I chose to drop the paper into a farrier’s mossy well,

and perhaps you now hold it

in your dry, your supple hand.

Reveal to me a sign.

My landlady is importunate.


I am your humble


Here a small hole appeared.




Dear Sir, he wrote at dawn,


In truth I am becoming weary of this chore.

I distrust myself.

Last night, while I was at the piano,

my landlady pounded the butt end of a rusty musket

against my chamber door.

To all appearances, she hates my sonata.

Perhaps you, with your finer ear,

will despise it also. I cannot pinpoint,

in these waning days, what, if anything,

I trust.

Yours, in difficulty,


and now the handwriting became a broad scrawl


One Who Attempts Clarity.




Dear Sir, he wrote at dawn,


Persistence is a reckless master.

This will not be my final missive, it will not.

Maintain your vigilance. Hunt for notes

tied to the highest twigs of trees.

I have torn the sonata into shreds

and floated them in the canal. They

are not the letter I meant to write.

I believe you understand.

A breeze blows across the piano strings

and the machine strums its private tunes.

They are not mine. Perhaps they are yours.


I do not hear my own in any gale.


Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Tom finished the kitchen tile project yesterday, and it is gorgeous. His eye and his skills are a marvel. I am so lucky to have a partner who knows how to make things. The photo is early-morning dark, but you can see the grout lines and the beautiful glow of the glass.

While Tom was tiling, I ambled into town to get my hair cut. Then I came home and I visited a bit with one of my favorite young people before she and Paul went off on a walk. And then I sat in the breezy backyard and finished my Shelley essay. The focus is on his idiosyncratic use of the sonnet form as a way to contain and shape his fury. It will appear in a couple of weeks in Teresa Carson's poetry newsletter, as part of her series on writing political poetry. If you want to be added to her email list, let me know and I'll pass on your contact info to her. In the meantime, if you're a teacher using this or other political poetry in the classroom, I'd be glad to share it with you.

Yesterday was such a pleasant, easygoing day that it was shock to wake up and discover that over the weekend two of my former students--kids I've known since babyhood--were arrested up north for domestic violence. They were separate incidents; I don't know the details, though I can make some guesses. Tragedy runs deep.

Monday, September 7, 2020

With the dark coming in so early, and the evenings cooling, the fire pit has taken on new charm. Last night Tom grilled lemon-marinated chicken breasts in the failing light, while I made stewed kale and a corn salad in the house. Then we sat at the little table, tucked close to the embers, and ate our meal, drank mugs of tea, stared up into the maple canopy silhouetted against the navy-blue sky.

Today Tom will finish the final stage of kitchen tiling: the grouting. I'm getting my hair cut this morning and then I'll come home and do whatever housework is possible to do during a house reno project . . . which is to say, not floors but maybe some dusting or closet cleaning. I'm also hoping to make some progress on the Shelley craft essay, which was on hiatus yesterday while I was mowing and trimming and grocery shopping and such.

A reminder: my October writing retreat is sold out; my November writing retreat is now half full. I am so excited about these sessions, and I hope you can find a way to join us.

Sunday, September 6, 2020


Stage 1 of the backsplash tiling is done! Today Tom will grout and caulk it, and I should have waited till he was completely finished to share a photo of his work, but I couldn't resist. As I was marveling "This is the fanciest kitchen I have ever had!" Tom brought me back to earth with "No. Your other kitchens had cupboard doors." True, but this backsplash does feel as if we've crossed the line into luxury. So pretty! So washable! Who needs doors?

Actually doors might be in our future. Tom bought a big table saw, and is starting to plan how to close in part of the basement to make a wood shop. In Harmony he had a whole heated building to himself, but city life is cramped. Living in this house can feel like living on a boat. Everything has to be tucked into its own little locker.

While Tom was tiling, I harvested the last cucumbers and green beans and tore out the plants. In their place, I sowed a final fall crop of spinach and arugula. Then, after watering my new shrubs and the new strawberry bed, I sat down at the little outside table and starting working on my Shelley essay. Despite various interruptions from boys, I managed to get a lot done on it. I'm writing about his sonnet "England in 1819," considering its message in its own time, and its links to ours, and also talking about how Shelley managed to structure his outrage in ways that made it so effective as a political statement. I haven't written prose about poetry for quite a while, and I'm enjoying myself. I don't know why I stopped.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Turns out the plant nursery was having a 40%-off sale on exactly the bushes I was hoping to find. So now two Capistrano rhododendrons are ensconced along the back fence. It's a medium-sized variety--about 6 feet tall at maturity--with pale yellow blossoms that should look beautiful in the early summer gloaming. And I'll be happy to have a couple of evergreens back there--something green to ponder on a raw November afternoon.

So the back garden is underway, and now the new arrivals can rest and revive. They will be my last purchases of the season. In October I'll plant some daffodils, crocuses, snowdrops, and anemones; in April I'll turn my thoughts to perennials--ferns, Solomon seal, and the like. For now I feel pretty satisfied. A fire pit, a little tree, two rhododendrons: they're significant improvements on that barren plain.

Today I'll probably tear out the waning cucumber plant, cut back the cosmos that are falling all over the sidewalk, and otherwise occupy myself outside while Tom's tiling project takes over the kitchen again. At some point this weekend I'll need to freeze kale and make tomato sauce. I never did get to Blake or Shelley yesterday: I was too distracted by rhododendrons. So I might sit outside today and work on their poems.

I apologize if you're bored stiff by all of this plant talk. But my gardens have been, without doubt, my number-one pandemic comfort. No phone, no laptop, no hair-raising news. The simple task to cultivate and tend, to focus on beauty and production. A place to be alone. A place that gives pleasure to a community. Tasks that knit the body and the heart.

The bees were humming about the hive. William raked a few stones off the garden, his first garden labour this year. I cut the shrubs. . . . Wm. wasted his mind in the Magazines. I wrote to Coleridge. . . . Then we sate by the fire, and were happy, only our tender thoughts became painful. Went to bed at ½ past 11.

from the journal of Dorothy Wordsworth, January 27, 1802

Friday, September 4, 2020

Well, Paul passed his permit test yesterday, so things are moving forward on the finally-get-his-license front. While he was DMVing, I went for a walk on some trails circling an old landfill, which exuded an ominous Love Canal feeling--mountain of blank grass imprisoned behind chainlink, burbling rusty water in the culverts--even though there were plenty of small beauties visible: birds, and berries, and sky-blue wild chicory.

And I did get more editing done than I expected, on this slow complicated dual-language project, so maybe I'll be able to take a little time to copy out Blake poems today. Teresa and I are almost finished with our reading-conversation dates about Songs of Innocence and Experience, which have been intense and enlightening. She is so smart and curious, and Blake is so strange and wonderful. But instead of poems today, I might find myself having to wrestle with French footnotes: not exactly my ideal way to brush up on my high school-level language skills, but I'm managing, in an awkward, trundling way. 

I also need to write a small commissioned essay about Shelley, I need to consider my next shrub purchases for the backyard, I have to make beef stew . . .

Yesterday I made the first tomato soup of the season--essentially fresh puree, thinned slightly with broth, sprinkled with breadcrumbs, seasoned with snipped basil and salt and pepper. It is a simple and beautiful thing. On the side were cheese wafers and a green bean and cucumber salad. For dessert: dried cherry ice cream, topped with a few late strawberries.

And I stood in my kitchen and said to Paul: "Can you believe this luxury? A box for heating food! A box for keeping food cold! Hot and cold water, that drains away! Washable countertops! Lights!" When I think of all the centuries, the millennia of kitchens--open fires, no refrigeration, no plumbing, winter afternoons of shadow and darkness--I am amazed. I cook among miracles.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

 I think last night's reading went okay. There were about 30 people in attendance, which seems impressive, really, given the complications of Zoom. It's never easy to feel cozy on that platform, but I guess we're all making the best of it. And it was sweet to see some friends in the audience.

Today: back to editing; maybe a yoga class, if I can argue myself into budgeting the time for it; and then a trip to the DMV so Paul can take his permit test. Yes, at the age of almost-23 he still doesn't have his driver's license, but he's finally committed himself to getting it done. So I will be ambling around the DMV neighborhood, or panting in a hot car, or something, while he fills in the little circles and boxes. 

We got some rain last night--not much, but welcome. So the air is sticky this morning; shadowy, like an autumn dawn should be, and swollen with summer humidity. The sort of day a farmwife's thoughts turn to canning tomatoes. I don't have enough to can, sadly, but I do have enough for sauce, and that will have to suffice.

By the way: the second session of my two-day writing retreat, "New England Bards: Discovering Voice, Discovering Place" (Nov. 14-15), is already half full. If you're thinking about joining us, I suggest you decide quickly as I know the organizer is getting ready to advertise it more broadly. Do be in touch if you have any questions about how the weekend will work.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Things were quiet in the garden yesterday: no visitors, other than the usual cats and insects. Tomatoes are reddening fast, and I expect I'll be simmering a few giant pots of sauce later this week. But the green beans are wearing out and the cucumbers are slowing down. Clearly, vegetable life is making its shift toward autumn.

I yanked something or other in my left hip--a ligament or whatever--which stiffens up at night and whenever I sit. So I've been trying to tend it: going for long walks with my neighbor, doing yoga, standing to write and edit. They're an aggravation, these minor injuries that take so long to mend . . . or instead of mending just turn into weak spots that never quite disappear. No matter what we do, our bodies insist on aging.

Tonight I'll be reading with Linda Aldrich, at 7 p.m. via Zoom (details below, in an earlier blog post). So I'll spend some time today sorting through poems, mulling over what to share. This will be my first reading since the Frost Place conference, and a much more public one. Suddenly I'm feeling shy.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Interesting things that happened yesterday:

1. I was sitting outside talking to Teresa on the phone when a flustered young woman stopped at the head of my driveway and gesticulated toward my garden. I asked Teresa to hold on while I tried to figure out what was up. The young woman struggled to find words, apologized for her lack of English, pointed at a tomato plant. I asked if she wanted a tomato; she nodded, and I invited her to come into the garden and pick one. She did come into the garden, but instead of picking a tomato she carefully collected a handful of tomato leaves. Then she thanked me and continued on her way.

What will she use them for??

2. I fetched the mail and found a small package addressed to Mr. Ruckus Birtwistle. With much amusement, Paul opened the cat's mail and discovered that our friend Donna had sent him this fine gift:

Because Ruckus can't wear it himself, Paul has decided to wear it for him.

3. For dinner I made a spicy fish stew packed with garden bounty: green peppers, hot peppers, green beans, tomatoes, garlic, basil, homemade chicken stock, plus local hake. Potatoes were the only vegetable I had to buy; here's hoping that next year I can fix that problem. Salad was cucumbers, yogurt, dill, and baby spinach; cheddar and black pepper biscuits on the side; homemade blueberry ice cream for dessert.