Monday, November 30, 2020

We did get our Christmas tree yesterday morning . . . up at the high school, at the end of our street, where we bought her from some goofy young hockey players and their fundraising moms. She's a real porker--tall and fat and blocking all light from the front window--and for the moment she's sagging in the dining room, waiting for Tom to trim her into a semblance of straightness. 

Paul has today off, so our plan is to decorate tonight. Back in Harmony, of course, we always had the very worst sort of trees--shabby, skinny, weak-waisted little spruces that we cut out of the back forty. But now that we're city slickers, we are wrestling with this Bigfoot. Do we even have enough lights to cover her? Nobody knows.

There's cold torrential rain forecast for today. I think I'll make chili for dinner. In the morning I'll do some editing; in the afternoon I'll talk to Teresa about Byron; in between times I'll mess around with housework and press on with my comic-book project. No poem writing till I get those books done. Still, they're a creative endeavor . . . of a sort.

Anyway, I've got my sonnet workshop coming up this weekend. I'm confident I'll be able to write then.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

For years I've been drawing cartoon birthday cards for my nephews: they love the silliness, and I love making something special for them. So this Christmas they get fancy versions: actual small comic books.

Making them is fun. I am by no means an artist, but I can rough-sketch and I can tell a silly story, which are good-enough skills for the project. My hero is Cat of Action, and I have just finished inking in the tale of his adventures in space, on the Yarn Planet, where he was hit on the head with a radioactive tuna, became tangled up in yarn, and plummeted to Earth. The next episode will take up his fight against his nemesis (Bluejay) as well as reveal his undercover persona (Construction Cat). It's all very dumb but I am trying to maintain a Flash Gordon sensibility and am including plenty of inside jokes about my own cat, which my anthropomorphizing family will appreciate. 

Today I'll be coloring in the book and maybe getting started on the next one. Tom has offered to print off a handful of copies so that I can share them with the whole family. A ridiculous Christmas present; but given the year we've had, why not make people giggle? 

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Yesterday I was surprisingly productive, despite the holiday haze. Though nobody answered the phone at the appliance store, I managed to go to my (virtual) yoga class and muscle my way through my editing stack. I sat at the dining-room table and worked on the comic books I'm drawing for my nephews, and at dusk Tom and I ambled through the neighborhood to check out the Christmas lights. Tom made turkey hash for dinner, while I wrestled with Red Phone setup (current state of affairs: WiFi works; cell service does not). And then we ate our meal while watching Footlight Parade (1934), a wacky Busby Berkeley musical starring, of all people, a tap-dancing James Cagney, who behaves exactly like a gangster even when he's not playing a gangster.

I've got no particular plans for today, other than to solve the Red Phone problem, draw some more comics, simmer a vat of turkey stock, and finish reading David Copperfield. I'm hoping we'll get our Christmas tree soon, but the timing for that is up to our man with the pickup truck.

Next weekend I'll be on the clock again, leading a sonnet-based writing retreat with last summer's Frost Place participants, so I don't mind moseying through this weekend. Plus, it's a treat to have Tom home for four solid days. I do like him.

Friday, November 27, 2020

The kitchen stove managed, with coddling, to hang in long enough to roast a miniature turkey. I carried a plate of turkey and stuffing over to my neighbor, who lives alone, and she gave us a tin of freshly made buckwheat shortbread cookies. The day's biggest football game was canceled because players have Covid. The extended-family Zoom event ensued without serious mishap. We have a pile of leftovers in the refrigerator, very handy for lockdown. And Tom had to wash a lot of dishes. So I guess that's the 2020 version of a successful American Thanksgiving.

Today I'll be phoning the appliance repairman first thing, and dealing with a stack of editing work, and dragging trash to the curb, and trying to figure out why the kitchen floor is so sticky, and catching up on Byron (who is beginning to drive me crazy with his lack of focus), and and and. Tom will be home today, but Paul has to work tonight. I doubt I'll get any of my own writing underway, what with all the comings and goings and bits and pieces and chores and demands, but who knows? What I'd like to do is spend some time outside. After days of rain and heavyweight cooking, I've contracted a severe case of house-bloat.

I think I'll try to make time for my yoga class. And I'll try to sit outside with a notebook. Probably the editing stack can wait till Monday; nobody's going to look at files before then.

It's so easy to wind myself up into a tangle. But, hey, I kept my promise and did not lose my temper over that dicy stove.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Thanksgiving morning. Here in my small northern city by the sea, a cold rain is sluicing from the eaves, pattering against windows, freezing up on sidewalks and streets. Upstairs the boys are deeply asleep. Downstairs the cat and I have curled up in our respective corners, and I'm listening to the clock tick, the furnace grumble. Last night my brain had misty adventures among old piers and seaweed and briny tidepools, and a whiff of dream-salt still clings to me this morning. I wonder what I was doing out there in the mudflats.

Paul and I got a lot of cooking done yesterday . . . before the kitchen stove started acting up. I made a pumpkin tart, simmered and strained giblet and leek stock for gravy, and baked two loaves of whole-wheat bread; Paul made cranberry relish and cut up a white loaf into stuffing cubes. But while I was making dinner, the stove got cranky. I think we can limp through today, but it's possible I may be calling my neighbor to ask, "Um, would you like to roast a turkey?" Another thing to be thankful for: I'm pretty confident she'd say, "Sure!"

It was snowing when I went to the meat market to pick up my turkey. A short line of customers waited in the small shop, all of us masked and carefully separated, but still I felt a holiday cheerfulness: the busy, friendly shopkeepers; the good-humor of the customers, hugging their birds. Even in these dark days, we mustered up a Dickensian glow. And meanwhile a pale snow fell; and when I stepped out of the shop with my little turkey, I lifted my face into the sharp prickle of flake and felt happy.

This will be the tiniest turkey I've ever roasted--just 11 pounds. As long as the stove keeps working, we  should have no trouble getting her done in time for our silly Zoom dinner. Tom is in charge of setting up the webcam in the dining room and arranging the three of us like a sit-com family. James, in Chicago, says he is planning table decorations for his barbecue-chicken Zoom feast. We'll see what my in-laws and sister-in-law's family come up with. The event will be comical and awkward, but everyone is game to make the best of what we have to work with. And if my stove dies, cheese sandwiches and pie will make a fine meal. I hereby declare that I refuse to lose my temper. 

Better days ahead! Happy Thanksgiving to you all! 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

I slept horribly last night; the lights in my brain just would not click off. As a result, I'm feeling more slug-like than expected: not entirely ready to leap into feast prep. Perhaps another cup of coffee will increase my pie excitement.

At some point today I'll have to pick up the turkey from the meat market. I've got that pie to bake, and probably another batch of bread to mix up as well. Turns out that Paul has to work tonight, which is a little disappointing, but at least he definitely has tomorrow off. He's going to grind up the cranberry relish before he leaves, and maybe start the giblet stock and cut bread cubes for stuffing. We've studied our turkey recipe, made a plan for tomorrow's side-dish tasks (Paul: sprouts; Dawn: potatoes), and scheduled our oven use accordingly. Thanksgiving is pretty much the only time I find myself wondering what it would be like to have two ovens. But I am certainly thrilled to have fully operational kitchen counters for this meal. Let the spills commence.

Weather-wise, we've got rain and maybe a little snow on the way . . . so it will be a comfortable, indoor holiday: wood fire burning all day, football murmuring in the back room. I wish James could be here. I wish we could be with our parents and sisters. But we do the best with what we have to work with, and I am very fortunate to have my cheerful housemates. Plus, Tom's parents have planned a Zoom dinner and card party for all of us, which will be goofy and glitchy and very fun. I'll bring a plate of turkey over to my neighbor; I'll light a lot of candles; maybe I'll even dress up a little.

Tending the flame . . . keeping the dread at bay . . .

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

After a day of pelting rain, rolling thunderstorms, and street rivers, Portland has returned to dry land. I went nowhere yesterday. Instead, I spent the day cleaning bathrooms and floors, washing sheets and towels, baking bread, reading David Copperfield, and playing games with Paul.

Today I'll be back to my editing desk, briefly, and I also hope to read some Byron and go for a walk. Otherwise, I'm just hovering before the Thanksgiving preparations begin. Tomorrow Paul and I will make cranberry relish and pumpkin pie, cut up bread cubes for stuffing, fetch home the little turkey from the meat market. It is fun to have Paul so involved; he is gung-ho for a feast.

And it was such a relief to hear that the monster's administration has finally signed off on the Biden transition. Re Biden's eminently respectable cabinet picks: I don't care how stodgy some of them are (and some of them are not stodgy at all). I'm just so relieved at the idea of having government officials who won't be focused on picking pockets and hiding crimes. And think of it: the architect of DACA leading Homeland Security! a climate change leader! a woman as defense secretary! Please, please, let the times be a-changing.

In short, I'm entering our holiday moment with a glimmer of hope about our democracy. But I have deep forebodings about the virus. I fear this next month will be brutal. Stay in your burrows, dear friends.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Anyone who has spent time trying to text me knows all about the long saga of Dawn's Terrible Phone--an ancient device that barely texts, supports almost no apps, refuses to load maps, freezes whenever I try to scroll, etc., etc. I can make calls (usually) and receive emails (usually), but otherwise the phone refuses to comply. I hate phones and don't want to spend money on them, so it's big news that, this weekend, I put in an order for a new (by which I mean refurbished) phone . . . in bright red, because for some reason that model was $25 cheaper than the other. I tell you, things will be modern around here when the Red Phone arrives.

And that wasn't the only grown-up purchase this weekend: Tom and I actually bought furniture! . . . a set of six early-1950s steel and bent wood dining-room chairs that Tom spotted on Craigslist and became misty over. After he hemmed and hawed a bit about whether or not he should give in to his crush, we drove down to Ogunquit yesterday afternoon to try them out, and now we have these:

They are almost the same age as our house, and it's such a novelty to have real dining-room chairs instead of the plastic kitchen chairs we bought two decades ago in Harmony, our solution for something little boys couldn't stain or break.

So it was an activity-filled weekend, what with our beach date, and the two trees cut down (the back garden now looks like a mini-logyard, with a teeny brush pile and a teeny tree-length pile), and the chair shopping, and the phone ordering. I did zero housework, but that's okay: it's pouring rain outside now, and I am not sorry to spend some of it dusting and mopping.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Paul now works during the day on Saturday, so with some open time to ourselves Tom and I decided to spend the morning together at Higgins Beach in Scarborough (pictured at the top of this blog). It was a beautiful mild day . . . surfers were tumbling in and out of the waves, dog parties raced in circles on the sand, a little two-year-old boy shed all of his clothes and trotted back and forth after his older brothers. Imagine: butt-naked at the beach, in November, in Maine. I found a lovely bouquet of seaweed, which I brought home to dry. In David Copperfield, which I've started rereading for the many-hundredth time, small David spends the night in Mr. Peggotty's houseboat, in a little room with a bouquet of seaweed in a blue mug. That's what I want in my room now.

David has been a joy again, as always. Thinking about Pip (of Great Expectations) and David, those two exquisitely drawn boys-to-men: in a way they're forks of the same character. David, so innocent and trusting, so devoted to anyone who has been kind to him, so easily manipulated. And Pip, trying to shed his past, trying to pretend that he no longer needs it, trying to be what he is not.

Today I'm going to go for a walk with a friend; then I'm going to make some book paste and repair some old hardcovers; and then I'm going to start working on the comic books I'm drawing for my nephews for Christmas. In the meantime, Tom and Paul are planning to take down a couple of teenage maple trees that are encroaching on our shed. They've been waiting for exactly the right time to do it: leaves gone, no snow, garden boxes empty (because they'll have to drop them directly into the Lane).  Looks like today is the day. 

Saturday, November 21, 2020

With another lockdown looming, I've been working hard this week to build up supplies . . . food, cleaners, bathroom needs. This morning I'll make another run--for shampoo and such--but we're already basically ready to huddle in our burrow. I'll also be picking up an order from the fish market: steamers for tonight; Arctic char for tomorrow night; hake for the freezer. Next week's turkey feast is well timed too. I can box up leftovers for meals, bones for stock. I've got canned salmon, lots of dried beans and macaroni and rice, plenty of flour and yeast, oils, butter, coffee, tea, plus storage fruits and vegetables: oranges, apples, lemons, beets, carrots, leeks, celery, endive, potatoes, onions, garlic, a yard full of kale, plus the arugula and some herbs are still hanging on. But I should acquire a cabbage today: no lockdown is complete without a cabbage.

I'm back to being obsessed with the food chain. But I'm also back to being glad I know how to stockpile. For last night's I dinner I cooked lamb patties topped with cherry tomato salsa, and served them with stuck-pot rice (a lovely, crispy way to cook rice), cucumbers in yogurt, and homemade chocolate ice cream. It felt good to reach into freezer and pantry, and feel confident that I have the skills to keep the comfort going for my boys . . . as long as we can keep earning. We already know that my unemployment support will fizzle, thanks to Republican indifference. I hope other work opportunities will find me, but things are slow now and I can't help but worry.

Anyway, we carry on. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

Friday again: trash day, yoga-class day, pick-up-food-from-the-warehouse day; also rake-more-leaves and yank-out-frostbitten-garden-stuff day.

I spent all of yesterday morning working on my sonnet syllabus, and I think I'm in good basic shape now for the upcoming class. I plan to talk very little about meter and rhyme, to focus instead on other kinds of pressures moving through the poet's mind and hand. I want us to think about sonnets as enactments, not simply as formal patterns or as exercises in logic. What internal combustion makes a poet need to write a sonnet? 

* * *

Now I'm sitting quietly in my couch corner, letting my brain drift among the poems I read yesterday. Through the closed windows I hear the mutter of city traffic . . . an airplane, the highway, the train . . . In the house the clock ticks, the furnace growls, the cat sighs in his sleep. Sound, persistent as a drip: marking day and night; month, season, and year. A life.

* * *

Sonnet in Search of Poems I’ve Never Written


Dawn Potter

I’ve been meaning to write about a patch of mossy

frogs’ eggs in a vernal pool, about a single contrail

chalking a blue November sky, about the glossy

covers of biographies, about the tortuous tale


of an ant city under a scarred sidewalk, about two

lazy landscapers blowing leaves into a neighbor’s yard,

about falling in half-love with someone else’s youth,

about gobbling pie without a fork, about the barbs


of terrible hedges, about the anxiety of gifts, about my feet,

about the murmur of a radio, about leftovers congealing

in a pan, about oxen, about the loneliness of husking sweet

corn under the stars, about this sad white ceiling.


            But maybe I don’t need to bother inventing.

            Maybe you’ve already imagined this ending.

[first published in Vox Populi]

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Good car news: only the battery! . . . an instant fix, a small bill, and Tina the Subaru is back to business again--although Paul opines melodramatically that she has contracted Carvid-19 and may end up on a ventilator.

It is cold here: 17 degrees now; yesterday a high of windy 30. My neighbor and I went for a long blustery walk on the trails, and hardly anyone else was outside, despite the bright sun. I came home red-faced and hungry, happy to greet a wood stove and a cheerful son proffering a hot cup of tea. Paul had the day off, so I'd decided to make him one of his favorite meals: baked beans. That was a luxury too--an all-day slow oven, the scent of molasses coiling into the air. The fragrance of a storybook New England winter: wood smoke, baked beans, and a sharp wind.

Yesterday I ended up with more dribs and drabs of editing than I expected: as I was telling my neighbor, I'm at the stage with this project of having 10 minutes of work 20 times a day. But this morning I'm editing-free, so I'll be turning my entire attention to sonnets. I'm looking forward to a sweet few hours.

Otherwise, I don't know what I'll be up to. Yesterday I put in a big curbside order at the wholesale warehouse. Early in the pandemic, before masks became a thing, I was using this service weekly. Then, what with masks and my garden, I stopped. But the Covid spike and fewer fresh vegetables are pushing me back into the old ways, and I am stocking up on storage vegetables, freezer meats, and pantry supplies. I will still need to venture out for perishables, but my goal is fewer and faster grocery trips.

Here's a picture of my bean pot. About 50 years ago my mother bought the old girl for pennies at a church rummage sale in Rhode Island. When I was a kid, she was our cookie jar, but then, at some point in my early housekeeping years, my mother gave the pot to me. I assigned her to her old job, and she has been faithful.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Yesterday was going along fine . . . until my car died in the parking lot of the dentist's office, and I had to call AAA, and Paul had to walk two miles to work instead of getting the ride I'd promised him, and Tom had to come fetch me. Battery? alternator? electronic sensor problems? Who knows? But please, please, let it not cost a pile of money.

On the bright side, I did try out a recipe for spicy curried cauliflower soup, which turned out to be excellent. And I do live with beloveds who shrug, roll with the situation, and don't lose their tempers. Sometimes I think that is the secret ingredient to happiness.

Also, I think the time has finally come: I need to write a poem titled "Tow Truck Drivers I Have Known."

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The temperatures are dropping precipitously this week . . . down into the 20s tonight, the teens tomorrow night. The winter garden is still producing kale, collards, arugula, cilantro, and a few other hardy herbs, but time is running out. I feel lucky to have had them for this long--almost Thanksgiving, and still eating fresh salads. I wish I had a little greenhouse so I could keep them going all winter long, but that's not likely to happen. Too many other renovations on the list.

Today: editing, vacuuming, going to the dentist . . . it will be that kind of day. I'd like to take a walk, if the hours allow. I feel a melancholy slipping over me. I suppose it's a winter sadness, this slow floating into the holiday season, when normally I would be planning to travel to see family or to pick up a son at school, planning to figure out how to cram my tiny dining room with chairs. I don't always love the crush of the holidays, but the thought of my older son, alone in Chicago, is painful.

Every day, the virus creeps closer. Every day, I hear of yet another person who has tested positive. Every day, Tom gets up and goes to work, Paul gets up and goes to work. Their simple fortitude is humbling.

[And] I, the desk-servant, word-worker— 

. . .  hold up my end pretty well too; but God,

 the close of day, how I fall down then.


                --from "Emergency Haying" by Hayden Carruth


Monday, November 16, 2020

The weekend writing retreat was so good, in so many ways. Camaraderie, deep feeling, new friends; the excitement of talking in complicated, unexpected ways about what we were reading; and such rich first drafts. I wrote two myself: one ragged, one surprisingly fluid. And the drafts the participants created were stunning. It was such a heady, wonderful weekend.

I'm tired now, of course, as I always am after teaching. It's a high-energy sport, for sure. I think there must be different sorts of teachers, the way there are different sorts of runners. I am a sprinter: striving for full concentration, full attention, full presence at all moments. But probably most sensible teachers are marathoners, who have figured out how to husband their strength for the long haul. How else could they do this work every single day?

I have an editing stack on my desk, but I won't look at it till tomorrow. Today I need to catch up on house stuff; I've got a couple of meetings, paperwork to deal with, the usual accumulations . . . But returning to the everyday feels okay, now that I have two new poem drafts buttoned up in my pocket.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

So far, so good with this weekend's writing retreat. I've got a lovely group of participants . . . compelling conversation, rich drafts, and so different from the tone of the retreat I led in October, though we're using the same poems and prompts. I love that.

We've got another session this morning, and then I'll turn over the back room to Paul so he can watch football and I can go for a walk. The wind is supposed to pick up today, with crazy gusts tonight. I've got a new poem draft to play with; maybe another will rise up this morning. I'd like to walk in the wind and think about them.

My next weekend writing retreat will be in early December: a get-together for this past summer's Frost Place conference participants. I'm going to focus on the sonnet, and I need to get to work on designing that syllabus. But I've got thoughts already . . .

It is such a relief to be teaching again. I have missed it so much, in these months of isolation.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Heavy fog this morning, and 32 degrees, but the sun is beginning to break through. In a few minutes, I'll hoick myself off of this couch, get dressed, and go outside for a quick pre-work walk through the shrouded neighborhood. I'm looking forward to a weekend of poems, but a weekend of sitting will not make my recovering hip flexor very happy.

Yesterday I was invited to take part in an AWP reading: a collaboration via Zoom among several small presses and journals. So that's something to look forward to . . . a way to actually enjoy an AWP event, which I was never able to do in person because I was always so stressed and overwhelmed by the crowds.

Zoom can sometimes turn out to be a plus: who knew?

Well, I need to get off the couch now and go get myself ready for a day of reading, talking, thinking, writing, listening. I am full of delight at the prospect. I hope you have something equally sweet in the offing.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Family health has returned, I'm happy to say. I did bake my black cakes, which came out beautifully this year. Now they are refrigerating comfortably in their brandy bath, and I am turning my thoughts to the weekend. This morning I'll prep for the writing retreat, which mostly means doing yoga, rereading poems and my syllabus, digging the webcam out of the closet, and taking deep and calming breaths. In addition to all of its other pleasures, the last session helped me write two decent poems; I'm hoping for that again this weekend, so I want to be in an oxygen-rich state of mind.

I think we'll be getting some rain this afternoon. Certainly the weather has turned colder. I will bake bread and fill the wood box, and read Byron and Iris Murdoch, and tickle the cat, and laugh with my sons, my dear sons. What a gift they are, in these dark days. In any days. My older son, for instance, has invented a public persona for our incoming Second Gentleman, which involves a four-year-long junk-car restoration project taking place in the driveway of the V.P. mansion. Our patter about this project is greatly amusing us.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Everyone in this household has been sick with some kind of galloping intestinal bug. I was up half the night but am feeling more or less normal now. Paul was well enough to eat ice cream at midnight, and Tom is currently sipping coffee. So presumably we're all on the mend.

My plan was to make Emily Dickinson's black cake today, and I think I'll be healthy enough to face it. I'd been hemming and hawing about whether I should make cakes this year, but the fan base insisted. Given that I am otherwise completely unprepared for Christmas, baking is probably a good idea. At least I'll have one gift to send.

Otherwise, my time will scuttle along in its usual way: reading Byron, reading Murdoch, editing manuscripts, washing clothes, raking leaves. I'm pleased that my intestines are behaving themselves again. I'm admiring the pale grey sky glimmering through the neighbors' bare maple tree. I'm still hanging on to hope about our democracy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Today will be our last unseasonably warm day: after a bit of rain, we're scheduled to drop back into real November temperatures. The weather has been so alluring, though--windows open, laundry drying on the lines, and all the while leaves falling, falling, falling . . . a faint constant shift and rustle, like the sound of carpenter ants eating a house.

I raked leaves for a while, and then I sat out in the Lane, sewing and squinting in the modest sunshine. Next door, the high school girl crouched on her front stoop and listened to her Zoom class while her old dog snored in the driveway. Little Ruckus sat across from me, perched tidily on his own chair, like we were having a tea party. Chickadees and nuthatches fluttered back and forth to the feeders. Everything was shadowed with gold.

I'll be reading Byron this morning, and working on some editing; later, braising a brisket for dinner; probably checking in with my Chicago son, who is in the throes of Covid/job anxiety. Life is not easy for either of my boys right now.

It will be a good weekend to have another writing retreat. And there are still a couple of spaces open, if you want to join us.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

 In The Nice and the Good, Iris Murdoch writes:

There are mysterious agencies of the human mind which, like roving gases, travel the world, causing pain and mutilation, without their owners having any full awareness, or even any awareness at all, of the strength and whereabouts of these exhalations. Possibly a saint might be known by the utter absence of such gaseous tentacles, but the ordinary person is naturally endowed with them, just as he is endowed with the ghostly power of appearing in other people's dreams.

I read this passage immediately after waking from a dream in which I'd been assigned to write Joe Biden's inaugural poem. In the dream I was busily creating a long, drawn-out piece of galloping doggerel in which every stanza ended with some version of the line:

Roy Scheider's empanadas on Chesapeake Bay

When I woke up, I had a hard time remembering who the hell Roy Scheider was, and then it came to me: he played the shark-hunting police chief in Jaws. Well, I guess that explains the presence of Chesapeake Bay. Empanadas, I know, arises from a comical advertisement on the Cincinnati Reds baseball radio station, in which a very midwestern woman asks listeners if they would like "try something a little more advainturous"  (i.e., "empanaidas") at some local chain restaurant. After hearing this, Paul and I spent several days saying "advainturous" and "empanaidas" to each other every chance we got.

So back to Murdoch's "gaseous tentacles." They don't always have to be ominous or soul-destroying, but they do tangle with our rational lives. How would I feel if I were invited to write an inaugural poem? Terrified. Honored. Unworthy. But also excited. In this silly dream, the idea of poetry became an exaggerated exercise in "Casey at the Bat" cadence and the weird nocturnal collisions of memory. It was driven by sound, and details fell into place around the sound. That's pretty much how I compose in real life, though with less obvious absurdity. I'm fascinated by the way in which my approach to poem writing remains consistent, even in dream logic.

This ridiculous dream, this "mysterious agenc[y] of the human mind," forces me into a sort of clarity: how can I speak? which words will find me?

To date, I have received no phone calls from Dr. Biden suggesting that I might like to write an inaugural poem. But if I do, what will I find myself writing?

Monday, November 9, 2020

One sign of my relief over this election? The fact that I let the housework slide this weekend. I did not dust or vacuum or mop. Instead, I worked outside on my dirt pile, took a long walk with Tom, watched a football game with my son, drank beer beside a campfire, read an Iris Murdoch novel . . .  

Of course, the tension is ramping up again, with the Monster's baseless-lies campaign, his cronies' refusal to cooperate or be gracious, the pettiness and the threats; and maybe my housework anxiety will ramp up alongside it. Clearly my brain sees housework as a way for me to exert agency at a time when the world otherwise feels out of my control. And I don't deny that allowing myself this sensation of control has helped to steady me, as annoying as it might be to my over-cleaned housemates.

We had a strangely warm weekend, and the warmth will continue into the first half of the week. I'd like to ride my bike, except that I've got a flat tire that Tom keeps forgetting to pump up. So I'll walk instead, and do some editing, and try to catch up on Byron, and watch the little birds discover the feeding station I've set up in the back garden. This weekend I'll be leading the second session of my "New England Bards" writing retreat, so I'll spend time reacquainting myself with its centerpiece Carruth and Kenyon poems. And I will finish the housework . . . ideally, in a low-key, easygoing way.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

We did it we did it we did it we did it.

The rock that's sitting on my chest for four years has shifted. It's not gone--the pandemic is its own stone--but the weight has eased.

Portland, Maine, is celebrating hard: downtown is crammed with people waving signs and dancing and playing music and honking horns.

Here at the Alcott House, we lit a campfire and cooked hamburgers and sat outside in the dark under the shadow maples. When Paul got home from work, we lifted a glass of Prosecco.

The joyousness feels like the end of a war. Victory Day. I know the Monster has plenty of time left to inflict damage, and that he will inflict it. But we'll get through these last months. We have won.

I thought I would have so much to write to you this morning, but I don't.

I was close to tears, at the sight of Kamala Harris in her suffragette white.

And Joe Biden's favorite poet is Seamus Heaney. 

* * *

Compose in darkness.   
Expect aurora borealis   
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.

Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure   
your hands have known.

--from "North" by Seamus Heaney

Saturday, November 7, 2020

As the election glacier continues its slow devouring crawl, I sit here in Portland, Maine, on a Saturday morning, recovering from an extra-long sleep and watching the sun-shadows quiver on my neighbor's leaf-strewn driveway.

I got most of that giant dirt pile moved yesterday: now I've got two brand-new garden beds waiting for spring, and I still have enough soil left to make one more small backyard patch. I also talked for a long time to both of my sons, and went for a walk in the cemetery with my neighbor, where we were delighted to spot this:

My election tension is ebbing, though I'm still anxious and longing for an official call. As distraction, I'm rereading Iris Murdoch's The Nice and the Good and nibbling away at Byron's Childe Harold. I even did a little revision on a poem. For dinner, I made calzones filled with bacon, kale, sun-dried tomatoes, and mozzarella. And I finally won a cribbage game.

Next weekend I'll be back in the teaching saddle, but this weekend is relatively formless. Maybe I'll sit outside and try to make real headway into my Byron homework. The weather is so mild and sweet. All of these sentences I'm writing seem plain and heavy, like thick slabs of whole-wheat toast. But being an American is exhausting.

Friday, November 6, 2020

The root canal continues, but there is hope, there is real hope. I mean, Georgia! When this race is called I am going to burst into tears, fall on my knees, I'll be shrieking and singing. It's my mother's birthday: can she have a new president for a gift?

Today: yoga, I hope, and then I'll work on moving my dirt pile into the new garden. But I'm also sure I'll be on the phone with James, pacing around the kitchen with Paul . . . if anything, my boys are even more obsessed by these returns than I am.

Elections workers are American heroes.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Watching these election returns is like undergoing major surgery without anesthesia. It is excruciating. At the same time, I have become increasingly heartened by how capable and assured the elections officials have been . . . undeterred by the beastly behavior of the Trump campaign: just continuing to count and count and count.

Here in Maine we're sad; it felt like we really had a chance to get rid of Susan Collins, but no. Paul and I have talked extensively about why she keeps getting reelected; our speculations center around her persona of Nice Maine Lady, and District 2's deep distrust of anything smacking of "from away." Yes, they reelected a Democratic congressman, but he is a military vet who looks exactly like everyone's helpful grandson. Collins's opponent, Sara Gideon, was not born in Maine, is Indian-American, has the teeny little voice of a Valley Girl, lives in posh liberal Freeport . . . you get the picture. Once again, the Maine Democratic Party has made the mistake of believing that coastal liberalism can overpower the intense conservatism of the rest of the state.

Anyway, despite our Collins disappointment, I woke up this morning feeling like we have a presidential chance. Please, Fates: please make it so. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Not feeling able to write much this morning. But I guess we were prepared for this.

It's so painful.

* * *

What Kind of Times Are These

Adrienne Rich

There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Already I feel the tension of this day, and I need to find some way to keep my nerves in check. I slept badly, though I was exhausted. This morning I'll be taking a long drive north for a walk with an old friend, and I hope I can dredge up the energy to enjoy myself. I should . . . I will . . . the cold wind will spark me, as it always does. But lord help us all. This is a terrifying moment.

Still, I feel some optimism. I think he will lose, though he'll flail and scream and scratch and claw as long as he can manage to do so.

I'm sending you love and hope.

Monday, November 2, 2020

The goal is to avoid staring at polling charts.

I'm getting my hair cut today, and tomorrow morning I'm driving north to meet a friend from the homeland for a walk along the Kennebec. So that's two distractions.

I'm still waiting for my editing project to resume. In the meantime I'm reading Childe Harold and a Trollope novel. I might clean out some dresser drawers. I've got to figure out a way to stay calm-ish. I doubt I'll be able to write but that's fine. This is probably a good time to fall back on mindless pap such as crossword puzzles and the British baking show.

I kind of wish my dirt pile was arriving today, and then I could spend hours and hours shoveling. That's exactly what my pinging brain needs.

Here's the little essay I wrote a few weeks ago about political poetry. It first appeared in Teresa Carson's weekly poetry letter, so you may have already seen it. If not, maybe it will give you the urge to write a political poem yourself. I doubt I'll be able to write today, but I hope you can. 

* * *

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. 





Structuring Fury: Form and Politics in Shelley’s “England in 1819”


Dawn Potter


Almost exactly two hundred years ago, the poet Percy Shelley wrote a sonnet excoriating England’s ruling class—a poem that today feels unnervingly modern. It’s easy to transpose the screed’s characters into our own contemporary nightmares: a “despised . . . King”; “Princes, the dregs of their dull race”; “A Senate, Time’s worst statute.” Too many of us are still browbeaten with “Religion Christless, Godless”; too many still “starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field.”

            In real life, of course, the parallels between Shelley’s time and ours are not exact. In 1819, Great Britain was essentially a military state. During George III’s reign, which began in 1760 and lasted until 1820, the nation was almost constantly at war: with France, with its own colonies, with the new United States, with the Napoleonic empire. State money poured into military coffers, swelling an “army, whom liberticide and prey / Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield.” As the military strutted, and the underclass starved, and the king’s madness forced the establishment of a regency government under the deeply unpopular Prince of Wales, the ruling powers—regent, Parliament, cabinet, and church—flaunted their indifference.

            Most of us are already familiar with a contemporary version of this king: he’s the same one that Lin-Manuel Miranda satirizes in Hamilton. I have no way of knowing if Miranda is familiar with Shelley’s sonnet, but his musical certainly draws sardonic parallels between that epoch and ours. Artists are good at making metaphoric leaps, and the politics of the Georgian era are a rich feeding ground for anyone who gets het up about class inequities, the military-industrial complex, the decadence of government, or the hypocrisy of the church.

For me, Shelley’s fury echoes, in large part, because it feels like my fury. But when I’m trying to make a poem, a focus on fury and metaphor isn’t good enough. That’s why writing a political poem can be so hard. When my anger is hot and my metaphorical pen fluid, I tend to lose control of my steering. I veer from one extreme to another: into flippancy, bathos, cynicism, schlock. The ride is exhilarating; but when the poem gets out of the car, it looks pretty sick.

Here, I think it’s important to remember that the best poems aren’t written primarily for readers. Poets write them for themselves. They write and rewrite and revise and tinker and experiment in order to figure something out. If the resulting poem reaches a reader too, well, that’s icing on the cake. So I find it helpful, and also a comfort, to imagine Shelley in process: fiddling with his grammar and syntax, his images and metaphors, his rhymes and rhythms . . . and, along the way, framing his own comprehension of his own beliefs.

My friend Carlene Gadapee tells me that she often teaches “England in 1819” to her high school students because she loves its combination of “control” and “outrage.” I agree: Shelley’s compression of opposites is magnificent; and as a striving poet I want to learn how to create that sensation in my own political poems. So when I ask myself “how did Shelley manage to corral his fury so brilliantly in this poem?” I find myself zeroing in on its structure.

As I’ve mentioned, “England in 1819” is a sonnet. In other words, Shelley chose to force his volatile emotions into the shape of an extremely demanding poetic form. Not only does the form require a specific number of lines and a specific rhyme scheme, but it also obliges the poet to serve up a compressed and logical argument. If he’s writing a sonnet, Shelley can’t just rant; he has to present a reasoned defense of his position. Sure, a poet’s reasoning is not a political scientist’s reasoning: no one expects Shelley to write an objectively argued treatise. Nonetheless, by choosing a sonnet, he challenges himself to use the permutations of thought as a way to bind together high emotion.  

            Yet even though Shelley chose a traditional form to encase his anger, he bent that form to his will. The fourteen lines of “England in 1819” don’t fit into any of the sonnet’s usual rhyme-scheme variations: Petrarchan, English (Shakespearean), or Spenserian. Rather, Shelley allowed his ear to guide him into an idiosyncratic pattern. “England in 1819” begins with a sestet (ABABAB), follows with a quatrain (CDCD), and ends with a pair of couplets that repeat the quatrain rhymes (CC DD). By inventing this pattern, the poet was able to hammer down on a particular cadence—words featuring long e’s and long a’s—and create a stream of powerful, driving repetitions that intensify, in the final couplets, into what might as well be gunshots. I hear them as the Romantic era’s equivalent of Jimi Hendrix’s rapid-fire repetitions in “Machine Gun.”

            Thus, as he sat down to write, Shelley, chock-full of vitriol and eager to shout, made at least two important decisions about how to allow the poetic tradition to teach him to write this particular political poem. He deliberately trapped his fury inside a small fenced yard, one with strict rules about rhyme, meter, and clarity of explanation. He then deliberately bent those rules. As a result, he was able cram his anger against the confines of an adapted space—one that holds it, but just barely. Look at the words that begin and end each line, and see how brilliantly he places “King,” “slay, “blow,” and especially “Burst.” Listen to the cadence of the line “But leechlike to their fainting country cling”—the slow, terrible rhythms of his scorn. The poem enacts its theme. It  feels like an explosion.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The garden has moved into its final phase, before snow shuts it down for good. Yesterday I dug up the dahlia roots, bagged and labeled them, and stored them in the basement. I tore out the last of the annual flowers and carted them back to the compost pile. I still have some color: the lavender and salvia keep blooming; a few late coneflowers are standing tall. Mostly what's left is hardy greens: curly kale, red-stemmed chard, leathery collards, bright arugula, dark spinach. I knew I'd be glad to see them in November.

But stakes are pulled; hoses are in the shed. If it snows, I'm ready.

Tom finished the walkway yesterday, and I began raking leaves into the base layer of the fern-patch-to-be. It's a miracle to have this improvement done before winter. There was so much mud before, such a mess, and now we'll have a sturdy dry path and a water garden to manage the snowmelt. The before and after difference is exponential.

Last night my in-laws called to talk about Thanksgiving, which obviously we cannot spend with them. So they've decided that the extended family should have a Zoom meal together, and they're buying a dinner for James, alone out in Chicago, and are trying to figure out how we all can play cards together. Their optimism and good cheer felt really sweet and uplifting. I thought I might cry when they told me they were buying dinner for J: he is such a concern to me, so exposed to Covid as he is, on that huge film crew, and so far away.

That's the reason I keep writing boring stuff about my garden: because the worry spikes are unbearable.

Two more days till the election. Tom asked me: "If it comes to it, are you ready to riot on Wednesday?" I said yes.