About Writing, COVID-19, Poetry, rumination

The Next Step

I make myself go outside. It is nice outside, not too hot, but sunny and robin’s egg blue sky. A light breeze to keep the bugs off. To have to “make” myself go out into such temperate loveliness is so absurd. I am glassy-eyed and dimwitted from hours, days, weeks of screen work punctuated by the social media work-distractions which also serve as my sole contact with most of my people these days, and it is a nice day and I have a book of poems to finish reading and it is August and I am sad and frustrated and the fall semester of teaching writing (online) is looming, and winter is coming and so out I go.

There’s some windfall from the remnants of tropical storm Isaias. Acorn-studded bouquets thrown down from the skyscraper oak. Last year’s paper wasp nest gust-scrubbed from the skylight frame.

(I have not been writing poems. These words about the nest and the oak have the vague feel of poetry, but don’t pull me into drafting a poem the way they might have in March. That next step, such a habit, ordinarily such an optimistic impulse for me once I’ve got some initial image/language down, escapes me these last pandemic months. Where I once stepped confidently, almost thoughtlessly, many times before — nothing. Or nothing solid. Air, or something else. Some place I don’t want to tread.)

All those empty chambers

I sit down to read but want to scoot the potted celery over so I can set down my notebook on the picnic table. As I shove the pot over, I reveal a toad. He is not amused. He was not expecting this turn of events.

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The toad scoots back underneath the pot, where it’s cool and safe, for now.

I think about the metaphors I want to make from the toad. The contemplative distance between my wanting to and my doing it is nearly nonexistent. First I consider the sudden exposure, the moments of disorientation and maybe fear, and then the finding again of that cool, dark space. I think about all the time I have spent inside over the last months. Then I’m thinking about how the few times I go out now, masked and skittish, I feel exposed and worried and strange. E(strange)d. And I am lucky enough to have a long-term partner at home, someone with whom to talk and cry and laugh and eat and be. And maybe I should just let a toad be a toad. I do not have a good history of letting toads be toads, however:

Toad
from my chapbook, A Thirst That’s Partly Mine (2008, Slapering Hol Press)

I wrote that poem almost 15 years ago. Maybe longer? I was still teaching Introduction to Literature, which I think I only did my first few semesters on the faculty at my university, where I will start my 20th year in a couple of weeks.

It’s (e)strange to read this poem now, to revisit its long-ago March (or April?), and to think back to this year’s pandemic shut-down right after spring break. Hubris. Being on the lookout. Toad as soothsayer. Spring full of flood, earthquake, astronomical rarities, weather extremes, and my own casual imaginings about what “plague” might descend next. 

*

Later, after reading some poems and pausing to stare at the sky and reading some more poems,  I notice a caterpillar, on the picnic table, making its way somewhere. When I first see it, it is caterpillar-ing confidently forward, like it knows where it’s headed. But when it hits the edge of the picnic table, it seems fully unprepared for the sheer drop, the next steps suddenly gone, suddenly air. It reaches and reaches into the void where the path should be.

If I can’t let a toad be a toad, I also definitely can’t let a caterpillar be a caterpillar. I mean, they transform (!) into moths and butterflies (!!) for crying out loud. They can’t let themselves be caterpillars. They spin cocoons of self-generated silk around their bodies and mutate into a new form, often one dramatically different from their caterpillar embodiment in terms of color and texture.

Out on an errand last week, I wore a face mask as usual, but also happened to be wearing a hat and sunglasses, and I’m pretty sure someone who has known me for 15+ years did not recognize me — they are a brassy, call-to-you-across-the-crowded-restaurant extroverted person who always notices/sees me, says hello/engages in chat when we run into each other. They were oddly standoffish, and it wasn’t until I was back in the car that it occurred to me that maybe this person had not actually known it was me. Had not recognized me.

This didn’t make me mad or upset — instead, it reminded me of when I was new to the area all those years ago, how nobody knew me from Adam, and also about how much I enjoyed, for the first two thirds of my life, the opportunity, given and given again, of being a stranger, being unknown, being anonymous. Being new, and maybe transformed by that newness.

Was I enjoying the notion of (possible) rare anonymity in pretty much the same instant I was mourning spending 95% of my time physically — and emotionally — apart from the world beyond our front door? Was I remembering a more itinerant life, when I rarely lived anywhere for more than a few years? When I was somewhat regularly renewed by…..being new? By being the stranger?

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From Etymology Online

What is my current relationship to estrangement, anyhow?

*

I make myself look at the sky. Then I take a photo of the sky. I am documenting and archiving, which feels like a thing I can do to disrupt the strange stillness of just looking at the unmediated sky. Or observing, without recording, a caterpillar.

I have never succeeded at meditation, as far as I know. (I have also perhaps not tried very hard.)

sky

How long was I outside before I was putting all of it to metaphorical purposes? Did I bring the purposes with me out onto the deck, with my book and notebook and iPad, or were they only revealed to me (like a toad!) after I got out here?

I wonder if there can even be an unmediated sky or caterpillar if I am there looking at it, camera or no. Aren’t I just a camera? I’m not even sure I want to let the caterpillar just be a caterpillar, or a toad a toad, or if that’s even an option, given language, given my hungry, narrating gaze.

*

Two ways I think about ending this writing. First way — another video, with my foolish narrating voice calling a melodramatic play-by-play for an inchworm who, in “the end” (of my documenting/narrative framing) succeeds, survives, makes it across the gap, doesn’t get eaten by the toad, etc., etc.:

Second way — I consider how the caterpillar and the inchworm, in their reaching with the whole front ends of their bodies into the empty air, across the gap, remind me of the first card of the major arcana of the standard Tarot deck: The Fool.

On the left, the Rider-Waite (classic, popular tarot deck) rendition of the Fool; in the center, a more contemporary riff on the traditional Fool iconography in the “Light Seers” tarot deck, and on the right, the Fool from my own tarot deck, the Hanson Roberts. The significant common image: the cliff the Fool’s about to step (or fall) off of.

At Tarot.com (the Hanson-Roberts link above), this is part of their description of the Fool:

“Modern decks usually borrow from the Rider-Waite imagery. Most Fool cards copy the bucolic mountainside scene, the butterfly, and the potential misplaced step that will send The Fool tumbling into the unknown. Don’t forget, though, that the earlier versions of this card represented already-fallen humanity, over-identified with the material plane of existence, and beginning a pilgrimage toward self-knowledge and, eventually, wisdom.”

The gap. The fumble and reach. The unknown. Fools of all stripes, neither fully innocent nor irredeemably fallen, poised to take that tumble or leap or step.

That next step, such a habit, ordinarily such an optimistic impulse for me once I’ve got some initial image/language down, escapes me these last pandemic months. Where I once stepped confidently, almost thoughtlessly, many times before — nothing. Or nothing solid. Air, or something else.

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Summer 2015 Reading Challenge [updated]

IMG_7258Like Ron Mohring, I am responding to Oliver de la Paz’s 2015 Summer Reading Challenge. A good idea I hope will go viral. I can’t resist lists. Here’s the gist — make a list of fifteen books to read between now and the end of August. Three books from your list should be poached from the lists of others. So it will be helpful to keep linking to lists you know of, I guess. As you finish a book, post some kind of…response, commentary, review, what have you.

I aspire to read more than this over the summer, but this feels like a strong start. And I know I’ll be loving reading others’ lists, so link ’em up! I’m adding the ones I know of from time to time below my list.

Here’s my list — 2 nonfiction & 13 poetry:

No Requiem for the Space Age: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture (Matthew D. Tribbe)

The World Without Us (Alan Weisman)

Bluets (Maggie Nelson)

Hoodlum Birds (Eugene Gloria)

The View from Saturn (Alice Friman)

Our House Was on Fire (Laura Van Prooyen)

Talismans (Maudelle Driskell)

Twine (David Koehn)

The New Testament (Jericho Brown)

Bloom in Reverse (Teresa Leo)

Mimi’s Trapeze (J. Allyn Rosser)

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (Ross Gay)

Slant Six (Erin Belieu)

Last Psalm at Sea Level (Meg Day)

How to Be Drawn (Terrance Hayes)

Others who have made lists for this challenge — please add your link in the comments if you join the challenge:

Wendy Call

The Black Sheep Dances

Josephine Ensign

Crista Ermiya

Jeff Oaks

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Making it home, April 1970

Forty-five years ago this month, the “failed” Apollo 13 mission actually became “NASA’s finest hour” because of the incredible creative and technical work done by so many folks to bring the crew back home. The story of Apollo 13, which first unfolded the week after I was born (!) was what first inspired me, years ago, to retell some Apollo space program stories via poetry. In the spirit of turning failures into successes, and in honor of the great feats of Apollo 13, here’s one of the poems.

Trajectories

–Apollo 13

To make it home, they had to keep
hurtling away from Earth, gathered by gravity
into lunar orbit, the dark side never
quite this dark before.

Until the final burn they wouldn’t be allowed
to hold Earth in the window, where it belonged,
to burst towards it rather than let it fade
over their shoulders, shrinking to moon-size.

They had to turn their backs on home
and trust the stripped-down physics
of momentum and return.  They had to surrender
to the old forces and attractions.

To make it home, they had to fly away
from every instinct urging them to turn
around right there, as if the crippled craft
could turn on such a thin dime.

They had to believe in the machine,
that the spindly lunar lander as lifeboat
could do everything it wasn’t designed to do —
like them, it was supposed to go to the moon.

The nature of the adventure shifted
from the journey to the return — coming home
was the new, untried frontier
as Cronkite called the play-by-play.

To make it home, they had to resurrect
the old imperatives, re-enter the race
that had already been run and won,
they had to want to make it home

like they wanted to make it to the moon.

–Liz Ahl (originally published in Salt River Review #38, 2010)

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Catching up on catching up on more (more) reading

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Lucky duck that I am, I was able to spend another four weeks (Jan/Feb) at the Playa Artist Residency program. That’s the pink view from my desk there one afternoon. Once again, I brought some literary journal reading to catch up on — and once again I read some stuff I feel moved to share, to encourage MORE reading. And literary magazine subscribing. And enthusiastic (re)sharing.

Crab Orchard Review continues to be a reliable source of memorable poetry! From the Winter/Spring 2014 issue (19:1), I want to recommend “Deer Rub” by Sara Eliza Johnson, with its sharp couplets of terrific imagery and its canny movement from the deer, widening to a consideration of war at a global level, and panning over seamlessly to a more interpersonal notion of warfare. What a poem!

Another poem I really liked from that issue was “Nuclear,” by Steven D. Schroeder. I just got a kick out of all the wordplay, and how that “play” was part of a larger manipulation of tone that veered from technicolor fifties and sixties imagery and allusion to the philosophical darkness of the nuclear age. It’s also a poem that does some things I aspire to do in poems — and of course it is also interested in history, which I am, and interested in a part of history I’ve also written and thought a lot about. Right in my wheelhouse!

Finally, “Killed Boy, Beautiful World” by Lauren K. Alleyne. This poem articulated so well, so perfectly, the mashup of agony and beauty that is living, especially in a world that can seem full of nothing but death. It’s a poem that ends either in a moment of transcendence, or a moment of surrender. I’m not sure which. But, wow, it’s a poem I’ll be sharing with others for a long time to come.

These poems are not yet available online — eventually, Crab Orchard Review will post a PDF of the issue online, but don’t forget that YOU, TOO, can have great poems delivered TO YOUR HOME by subscribing to COR, or other journals.

Another journal I brought out to Oregon with me from my gigantic New Hampshire home-pile was Measure (8:2) from 2013. For those who don’t know, Measure is a journal devoted to poems written in traditional form(s)/meters, like the sonnet, or rhymed/metered couplets, etc. There were three particularly fun parodies/responses to famous poems. Kathleen Naureckas wrote a kind of rejoinder to Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse,” taking on the point of view of the parents. The first line: “They fuck you up, your girls and boys.” Alan Nordstrom brings us “Sonnet 130a,” again with an interesting switch in point of view — not the “Master,” not the “Mistress,” but their dog. Martin J. Levine re-imagines Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death” as “Stop for Death,” in which Death gets stuck in traffic.

Finally, I wanted to mention a poem from the October 2014 issue of Poetry that I kept paging back to, drawn by the rhythms, the dynamic lines/stanzas/syntax, the sometimes weird images. I’m not sure what else to say about “In the Woods” by Kathryn Simmonds except that it totally had my number.

I’ve gotten into a habit from my youth — I cut these poems out of the magazine pages and scotch tape them into my current writing notebook. It’s nice having good work close at hand. Thanks, poets, for writing it.

About Writing

Holiday Shopping and Beyond

IMG_6371This summer, I spent four weeks working on my own poetry at the Playa artist residency program in Summer Lake, Oregon. While there, I met many talented & hardworking artists and writers. One in particular, poet Charles Goodrich, had brought some of his books with him to share via the common building’s little lending library. I devoured them all, and of course had to buy copies. I bought an extra copy of his most recent poetry collection, A Scripture of Crows, for a former student who I thought of when reading it. Another of Charles’ books, Going to Seed: Dispatches from the Garden, made me think immediately of my friend Tabitha, a master gardener, and so I bought her a copy, too.

I loved giving them these books, especially since it was not particularly likely that either Dan or Tabitha would stumble upon them otherwise. I felt like I had found treasure to share.

For me, writing and reading poetry is largely about making connections. Sure, there’s a ton of solitude at the core of being a writer, but for me, if there’s no community at some point, I start to wonder what the point of making art is. I’m definitely more of a Whitman than a Dickinson. (I love me some Emily, though; don’t get the wrong idea!) My writing wants a reader. My reading wants a conversation. I love the communities that can spring up around the making and sharing of stories and poems. As New Hampshire Writers’ Week draws to a close, I’d like to emphasize the importance of reading and sharing and gifting books.

As this item from the New Hampshire Writers’ Project suggests, an important way to support writers is to buy their books. And at this time of year, many people are shopping for gifts for others. No-brainer, right?  Below, I’ve listed just a few Granite State authors you may or may not have heard of before, along with information about their books. Add your own NH authors with books for sale in the comments! And, here’s what I really want you to do:

1. Buy one or more of these books by New Hampshire authors as a gift for a reader in your life. Yes, you may gift yourself.

2. Consider buying aforementioned books at (or ordering them through) an independent New Hampshire bookseller.

3. Consider requesting that your local/town library order copies of these books, so that many readers — especially those who might not be able to buy books — can enjoy the work of New Hampshire writers.

Happy reading!

Katie Umans, Flock Book (poems)

Pat Fargnoli, Winter (poems)

S Stephanie, So This Is What It Has Come To (poems)

Jennifer Militello, Body Thesaurus (poems)

Lisa Rogak, One Big Happy Family: Heartwarming Stories of Animals Caring for One Another and Angry Optimist: The Life & Times of Jon Stewart  (nonfiction)

Kathy Solomon, Transit of Venus (poems)

Jessica Purdy, Learning the Names (poems)

Kristin Waterfield Duisberg, After (novel)

Martha Carlson-Bradley, Sea Called Fruitfulness (poetry)

Ivy Page, Any Other Branch (poetry) and Creative Writing Workshop: A Guidebook for the Creative Writer (edited with Lisa Sisler)

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Flirting with Robert Frost

Yankees are what they always were.

                        -Robert Frost, “Brown’s Descent”

When the paved road faded away to hardscrabble gravel and ruts on Bridgewater Mountain, my Toyota started rattling like a bad carnival ride and I considered stopping and turning around. No one was expecting me up there, so no one would miss me or wonder where I was. I could just pull off into the next long driveway and make my way slowly back down to the pavement, across Clay Brook, and back to the house I’d moved into a few weeks before. There was still some unpacking and arranging to do – shelving books, finishing the kitchen, hanging the solid old mirrors – and I still had some work to finish on my syllabi for the fall semester. Should I keep going? Turn around?

The pros and cons rattled around in my head as the car rattled up the mountain. Familiar, shorthand arguments I’d played out dozens of times in my life when I moved somewhere new and didn’t know anyone yet. That day, I was still living almost anonymously, in the space before really settling in, before making my first big forays into connecting with the place and the people. I’d met a couple of neighbors, but was mostly spending literally days without speaking to anyone, and not really minding it. Would I stay silent in the comfort of my solitude for a while longer, listening to music and alphabetizing record albums, or would this be the day to step outside and admit that, yes, I actually lived here now? I kept driving. The road got steeper and there hadn’t been any homes for a few minutes – just thick, dense second-growth forest on either side, the occasional stone wall stretching back into the trees, a reminder of those who’d lived here long ago and gone away.

My destination was the Old Town House on top of the mountain, the 103rd Annual Old Home Day Observance in Bridgewater, New Hampshire, population around 700. Old Home Days were a tradition started by the governor in 1899, partly in response to declining New Hampshire population. He came up with the idea of an “Old Home Week,” when those who had been born in New Hampshire and moved away would return to their hometowns to celebrate, reunite, and reminisce with family and friends. A neighbor who had introduced herself while I was moving in told me I absolutely had to come. She had even given me a tour of the “mountain” in her big truck a couple of weeks before Old Home Day, narrating so much history, ecology and gossip that I wish I’d been taking notes or surreptitiously recording her. It was too much to keep track of – the families who’d lived here so long, the community dynamics, the black bear and moose, winter weather. My neighbor’s family had deep Bridgewater roots, and she showed me their land up on top of the mountain – old camp cabins, a broad meadow, and breathtaking views of other, distant mountains, the names of which I forgot as soon as she mentioned them. She seemed to enjoy showing me around, introducing the new girl to the neighborhood. After the impromptu tour, her husband made us Manhattans in enormous tumblers, and then sent me home, a little drunk, with a bunch of cucumbers.

Growing up a military brat, I became an expert at being The New Girl; grew so accustomed to it, I rarely imagined being any other kind of girl. When you’re new, you’ve got every excuse. Out of state license plates make for great ice-breakers, and help forgive the occasional traffic gaffe, and pardon the confused requests for directions, advice, et cetera. I love the permission I’m granted, as New Girl, to be a little wide-eyed, a little fresh-faced. Moving every couple of years growing up, I learned both to treasure being new and alone, a tourist in my own life, and to shed the newness and just plunge forward, as if these kids on the school bus had known me since kindergarten, as if I belonged the way they belonged. But I’m not sure the newness ever fully faded – and if it came close, it was probably time to move again.

Everything my neighbor told me about Old Home Day intrigued me – the fact that it had been going strong for over one hundred years, that families who’d been here for that long (and longer) regularly attended. Now I lived in Bridgewater, and this just seemed like the next logical step. Never mind that I’d only lived here for a month – I’d just head on up with my camera, my Nebraska plates and my New Girl game face, walking my favorite tightrope: armored in my outsider status, yet trying to inch my way inside.

About a week before Old Home Day, I had spotted my first moose, a hulking cow, drinking from a ditch next to the road. She’d slowly lifted her head, a thin stream of water pouring from her wet, round muzzle. I slowed down, and we eyed one another as I crept past, then left her; in my rear-view, she bowed her head again to continue slurping the cool water left by long-awaited showers.

Though I used the moose to mark my arrival in New Hampshire, I had actually seen the moose in Vermont. I had been to Bread Loaf for a friend’s afternoon poetry reading and I was driving home on Route 125, a “memorial” highway to Robert Frost. When I first noticed the signs that memorialize him (the Frost rest area, the Frost “interpretive nature hike” down the road), I scowled a little. Frost wasn’t from Vermont. Wasn’t he from New Hampshire? He’s ours. Ours. The embrace of those vowels, the way I invoked the third person, the “us” I insisted on becoming a part of. Already, in my head, I was defending our ownership of Frost, using Frost as the crotchety old crowbar to squeak my way into the “us” of New Hampshire. He’s handy that way. And Vermont borrows Robert Frost. I guess I borrowed the moose. A fair trade, though maybe I needed the moose more. And truly, Frost is the U.S. of A’s.

I was a student at Robert Frost Middle School in northern Virginia, where my family lived for a three-year stretch. It was, overall, a wretched experience – hundreds of thirteen-year-olds doing time in the purgatory between elementary school and high school. Some days, the teachers insisted that we were grown up now, that we should be more mature and responsible and upstanding. Other days though, we were treated like the babies we suspected we still were. It was horrible. That day at Bread Loaf, I ran into an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a few years. Somehow, we discovered that we’d both attended Robert Frost middle school – so on the drive home, Frost was already on my mind, just a little bit, somewhere in the back.

In high school, as an aspiring poet having just barely escaped middle school alive, I read and dismissed Robert Frost – he seemed too traditional, too old-school, too nice. In college poetry classes, I was similarly unimpressed. I wanted Plath and Sexton. I wanted Ginsberg and Rich and cummings. I wanted to write free-verse poems, work which Frost likened to “playing tennis without a net.” Later, in graduate school, I came around a bit, attracted by the notion that Frost was not, in fact, a sweet, endearing poet-farmer, but rather a skilled (re)maker of his own image and sometimes cantankerous grouch, even in the poems we were taught to love and accept as mere reflections on the rural, natural world. Consider “The Road Not Taken,” one of the “greatest hits,” of high school graduation recitals, offered and interpreted as an invitation to “take the road less traveled by” as some sort of brave, adventurous, morally superior choice in living. At its heart, this poem is more aptly read as pointing to the randomness of choice, with its repeated emphasis that both the roads looked pretty much the same that day; that no matter which way you go, you may find yourself years later, second- or third-guessing yourself. Frost himself admitted that the poem was written to poke fun at his friend, Edward Thomas, who was always berating himself after their country walks, constantly convinced they should have taken a different path. This poem, elevated to some kind of credo by American culture, is just one excellent example of Frost’s grumpy mischief-making. It is recited, on “appropriate occasions,” with the very bizarre combination of wistfulness and grandiosity that Frost was poking fun at in the poem. Starting to read Frost in more depth and with the benefit of more life experience allowed me to make a little more space for him in my personal canon.

From 1911 to 1912, Frost lived in Plymouth, New Hampshire, and taught education and psychology at what was then known as Plymouth Normal School. I, too, had come here to teach – to start my first full-time, tenure-track job as an English professor at Plymouth State College. Among the classes I teach is the poetry workshop, which met, when I first joined the faculty, in the renovated and expanded “Frost House,” where The Man Himself lived and wrote at that time. Occasionally, as I taught my first few classes, I wondered if there was any kind of Frost “vibe” still lingering in the walls or in some dank, undiscovered sub-basement. Is Frost a friendly ghost? As I drafted my first lines about a mushroom growing in my yard, I felt him as a poltergeist, rearranging the furniture in my poetry-house, cackling as I rolled my eyes, shook my head. A poem about a mushroom?

After a few more bone-shaking minutes on the road, I came upon Old Home Cemetery, behind an old stone wall and shaded by enormous trees. Even from the car, I could see that the thin stones jutting from the ground, some at skewed angles, some broken, were very old. A little ways past the cemetery, I came upon the first few cars and trucks parked on the side of the road, and then, around a gentle bend, there was the white Town House with its small front porch. It was late morning, nice and cool for August, and people were already gathering on the green space around the Town House, some on lawn chairs next to coolers, mingling, enjoying the weather.

Inside, benches were lined up, like church pews, facing the front of the building, where there was a raised platform, something like a stage. On the walls were dozens of framed photographs – spanning nearly a century – of the town gathered together on Old Home Day, posing as a group in front of this very building. I studied them, imagining how still everyone must have had to be as those earliest photographs were made, men in summer suits and hats, women in long white dresses with cinched waists, some holding parasols. Beneath the photographs, around the edges of the room, were tables with crafts and baked goods for sale. I bought a brownie and a book from the Historical Society.

As people continued to arrive for the day’s events, I strolled back down the road a bit to the cemetery to take some pictures and poke around. A woman was there with her son, pointing out gravestones with familiar family names, telling him who was related to whom, tracing from ancestors to current neighbors, to relatives, to him. I recognized one family name – the ancestors of the guy who collected my garbage each week. And another – the ancestors of the man who lived down the road from me and worked in the hardware store.

Aside from the neighbor who had given me tour, I didn’t really know anyone at Old Home Day. I met a couple of people who used my car’s Nebraska plates as a conversation-starter. At noon, we watched the hand full of Bridgewater Boy Scouts, who’d camped out the night before, raise and salute the flag in front of the Town House. Following the flag-raising and some remarks, I posed with everyone else for the annual town photograph. Standing for the picture was standing on a familiar tightrope – I was so new, no one knew who I was, and yet I lived in Bridgewater now, so I got to be in the photo, which would serve as the cover of next year’s Old Home Day program. I stood in line for the “Bean Hole Beans,” which had been cooking overnight in huge cast iron cauldrons buried underground. As they had been doing for years, the “bean crew” had come the night before, prepared the beans, dug the pits, started the fires, buried the cauldrons. As they had been doing for years, they unearthed the beans as the rest of us watched, using a rope pulley to hoist the cauldrons from the pits as everyone applauded. As they had been doing for years, the residents of Bridgewater, the “summer people,” and the folks from other towns lined up with paper plates and plastic forks to get their (our) beans and bread. I wasn’t able to stay the entire day – so I missed the children’s games, the annual meeting, the hymns and historic flag presentation, and the evening’s square dancing. But even as I headed down the unpaved road, to Bridgewater’s edge, where my rental house was, I kept thinking about the photograph, about me in it, about having my own tiny part in the enormous tide of years and tradition. I imagined, briefly, fifty years into the future, this year’s photograph framed on the wall of the Town House, with the others.

Reading my recently acquired Bicentennial History of Bridgewater New Hampshire, 1788-1988, I discovered that at Old Home Day in 1915, Robert Frost gave a poetry reading. Further, the book notes that Frost “summered in Bridgewater at Webster Farms for several years” and “wrote ‘Brown’s Descent’ based on a local story.” Even little Bridgewater gets a piece of him. Even me, imagining him there, here – he as a part of the “us” I was continuing to pursue in my first few years as a New Hampshire resident. A New Hampshire writer, for whatever that was worth. Of course, it’s impossible for me to ever truly belong to the “us.” Even if never leave the state again, even if I die here, I’ll still be “from away.”

I love the honeymoon with a place, when romance is still alive, when there is mystery and adventure to be had. During that first year in Bridgewater, in New Hampshire, there was so much that shone in newness for me – the brook babbling at the edge of my yard, the gray flying squirrels living in the walls, the transfer station with its gossip and treasures, the wild turkeys in the field up the road. Tax-free booze. Living in a whole house all by myself, a house with an upstairs and a basement, with a mud room and a garage. The wood stove. The wood pile, with its resident chipmunk. “Live Free or Die” license plates. The town spring, icy cold water perpetually running from its pipe that sticks out of the side of a hill and into an old cement trough. People are always there, filling bottles and jugs. The town common, with its gazebo, on Main Street. It all felt so fresh. Even the heating oil tank in the basement seemed exotic to me – but it was just another enormous, dark, common thing, like the moose I suppose.

I both longed for and dreaded the inevitable time when those new things would become common to me, when the landscape would become a mere backdrop to my daily, normal life. I longed for it because it’s a great feeling – the comfort of a home you’ve been in long enough to take for granted. Growing up, I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to really live somewhere, for a long time, for years, to know and be known in the thick of a place and its people. I dreaded it because, for most of my life, I’ve been the New Girl in nearly every way that matters – the world has shone for me in its strangeness. I have moved through it, always, as a stranger myself, each house or apartment a way station rather than a destination. Most people outside my immediate family remain deeply mysterious to me – so unknowable – distant childhoods, extended families, history I’d never even think to ask about. This is just how most people seem to me – distant, but attractive because of it. I don’t feel isolated by this distance, or, rather, that isolation is just the life I’ve lived, the only way I’ve known to live it.

When I’d lived in New Hampshire for a year or so, people asked me whether I liked it, whether I’d stay. Now it’s over a dozen years later, and I’m still here. I’ve bought a house with a partner I love, achieved tenure at what’s now known as Plymouth State University, made some great friends, and come to love so much about the state and my town. I do like it here, very much and for many reasons, but I’m still baffled by the question – will you stay? – that is mostly one I ask of myself silently, from time to time, when an old itch to move on strikes. Will I stay? For the first time in my life, I could do it, I could stay. But how will I know when I’ve decided that? And how to decide? And why decide? In the spaces between these absurd questions, I can just make out the plaintive, over-rehearsed voice of the high school valedictorian: “And that has made all the difference…” I don’t imagine most people decide to live someplace all their lives; they just do. I know that when things start to feel common, I usually get antsy and start eyeing the horizon. I think I have feared what lies beyond the newness, because, to me, that unexplored terrain has been the truly strange landscape: years unspooling, unquestioned, into a dim and distant future. In Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, poet Mark Doty considers the “fierce internal debate, between staying moored and drifting away, between holding on and letting go.” He puts into words what I’m wondering, at least partly: “how to live in connection without feeling suffocated, compromised, erased? We long to connect; we fear that if we do, our freedom and individuality will disappear.” Settling down. I still can’t imagine it – I feel like I’ve got no frame of reference for it. And yet I think I’m doing it. Or I’ve done it.

I still keep my eyes open for rare moose and all the other sights and sounds and experiences that still ring new to me; I keep my eyes open for the black bear, the “ice out,” the Old Home Days. I say “I live in New Hampshire,” but not “I’m from New Hampshire.” I still roll my eyes a little as I write lines about the mushroom, the chipmunk, the wood pile, the acorns, the sugar maple. And I suppose I continue to nurture a flirtation with crotchety old Robert Frost, who, to be plain about it, was originally from California.

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Catching Up On Reading

Away for writing retreat at Seal Rock, Oregon, I’m working to catch up on a stack of literary journals that I subscribe to. Reading new work puts me in the writing place, for sure. Today I dug into Crab Orchard Review’s Winter/Spring 2013 (Vol. 18, No. 1 — which I don’t understand how I missed, since I already read/enjoyed Vol. 18, No. 2, but, whatever).

CoRCOVERCOR is one of my favorite journals because of the variety of work and the fact that I always find stuff I like by writers I haven’t heard of before. In this issue, as always, there was much to enjoy, but I’d like to call out a few SUPER SPECIAL favorites. Kelly Cressio-Moeller’s “Lovers in the Age of Airmail,” which I thought made really smart use of couplets and concluded with a bang-on image — “rivulets of water gliding / off the blades of a swimmer’s shoulders / when he steps from the sea.” Al Maginnes’ “Elegy for a Name” was a gorgeous and fitting tribute to the late poet Jake Adam York and his important work about the history and memory of the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Ashley Anna McHugh’s facility with the sonnet — especially with full and slant end rhymes — had me rereading “Memento” and “Omen” several times. Aisha Sharif’s writing about the hijab in “The Fitting Room” and “To the White Boy Who Pulled Off My Hijab in 7th Grade Gym” was so memorable — both her poems begin in anecdote but end in a more expansive place, definitely in conversation with the world as well as with the self. Finally, Ocean Vuong’s “Daily Bread,” which interrogated itself and its reader and was well-fueled by sound & senses.

Of the writers above, Vuong and Maginnes were the only ones whose work I had read previously. I am so happy to have some new writers to read and I look forward to reading more from them. Thanks, Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble, and all the folks at Crab Orchard Review, for delivering me regular doses of great reading. If you’d like to check out any of the work I mention above, the issue is available online HERE. If you like what you see, consider a subscription!

 

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Scratching, Eating, Sleeping

What is it that feels so good about having written a poem? How to describe that satisfaction, even when the poem itself is just a draft, still needs some obvious work? I brainstorm metaphors to try to pin it down — scratching an itch, eating a good meal, getting a good night’s sleep. It’s like scratching an itch because, after having written, I’ve attended to something that was nagging at me, something that wanted my attention. I have soothed and quieted the nagging thing. It’s like eating a good meal because there was something empty that got filled, but not just with junk. With something delicious. It’s like getting a good night’s sleep because there’s a clarity at the end of it, a sense of being ready for the (rest of the) day, a pair of clear eyes. A vigor. I’ll bet I could come up with another three metaphors, and another, and another. I’ll bet if I really kept track of it, I’d find that the nature of the satisfaction of completing a poem varied from poem to poem, or maybe across the “lifespan” of my poet-life. The “goodness” of poem-writing is dazzling in its variety. Writing a poem is like pruning the lilac. Like taking out all the trash, every scrap of it, even from the basement. Like making love. Like getting drunk. Like getting sober. Writing a poem feels so good.

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I will still be making poems for you / out of silence . . .

I had a moving and humbling experience this afternoon. I was visiting poet William Matchett, who is a friend of my parents. Like them, he lives on the Hood Canal, in Kitsap County Washington. (He and my father would both want you to know that the Hood Canal is actually a fjord. Consider yourselves edified.) Bill turned ninety this year, and his fourth book, Airplants: Selected Poems, is due out shortly from Antrim House Books. He wrote me a couple of very thoughtful notes (like, actual typed-on-a-typewriter letters-in-the-mail) after reading Luck and A Thirst That’s Partly Mine, and I brought him a copy of Talking About The Weather. Hoping for another letter!

During our visit, Bill brought out a beautiful old leather-bound book, which his mother had given him when he was a student. She had proposed that he fill the blank pages (such luxe paper!) with his own poems. Instead, Bill has, across the span of seventy years or so, invited other poets to hand-write one of their own poems in the book. What a nice idea! And Bill was inviting me to copy one of my poems into the book. I even had my favorite fountain pen (with the brown ink) with me. (“Peepers,” from A Thirst That’s Partly Mine, was the one he requested, and of course I obliged.)

Before he set me copying down my poem at the dining table, Bill opened the book to show me some of what had been written there before.  Some names I didn’t recognize. Others…

Robert Frost’s “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be The Same,” in the author’s own hand. Howard Nemerov. Carolyn Kizer. Jack Gilbert. Heather McHugh. W.S. Merwin, William Stafford.

Gwendolyn Brooks’ “looking” from “Gay Chaps at the Bar.” GWENDOLYN BROOKS, people. The first poetry reading I ever went to (I was 12 or 13 years old) was Gwendolyn Brooks and she blew my universe. She is in my holy canon to this day.

Bill Matchett was on the faculty at the University of Washington for about fifty years. He helped coordinate the annual “Roethke Readings,” which brought well-known poets to campus, which accounted for some, but not all of these poems. Some of the poets had done their copy-work while visiting Bill and his wife Judy at this very house, perched above the fjord, a house named Nellita for the town that used to be here long ago. Others wrote out their poems in Seattle, a few elsewhere. I used my brown fountain-pen ink and my tidy penmanship and copied down my poem. It felt strange and wonderful for my penmanship to be inside a book with the penmanship of all of these poets. It will feel strange and wonderful for a very long time, I think. And I’m just so touched at Bill’s invitation, just a thing he does when a poet visits him, I guess, but with such resonance for me. I felt warmth and connection and, sure, a little fan-girl giddy. I felt like a part of poetry in a very physical, leather-bound way.

John Crowe Ransom. Adrienne Rich! James Wright. Seamus Heaney’s perfect “Mother of the Groom.” Roethke’s “The Waking” taking up a whole page. Richard Wilbur. Galway Kinnell. Stanley Kunitz. A poem from each. Some of the pages had sketches, watercolors, illustrations. One of the illustrations, early on in the book, Bill pointed out, was by a young “Ted” Gorey. Yeah, him. (They met at Harvard where Gorey was roommates with Frank O’Hara!)   

And.

Elizabeth Bishop. She wrote out part of “Sandpiper.” I stared at her handwriting for a long time. I tried to imagine her hand, her pen moving.

And.

And.

And when I turned the page to the gorgeous scrawl of “Then,” by Muriel Rukeyser, I wasn’t ready for it. I audibly gasped. I got inaudibly teary. I was supposed to finish copying my poem, but I kept going back to read hers. Here it is:

THEN

When I am dead, even then,
I will still love you, I will wait in these poems.
When I am dead, even then
I am still listening to you.
I will be still making poems for you
out of silence;
silence will be falling into that silence,
it is building music.

At Bill and Judy’s house in the woods next to the fjord where there used to be a town called Nellita, these words came up at me from that page, from Muriel, right up at me, and all of them were true.

Chapbooks, Poetry

Love in the Wild & Encyclopedia Destructica

Last night I read a beautiful limited-edition chapbook by poet Elizabeth Hoover. It’s called Love in the Wild, and not only does it contain memorable poems, it’s also a great example of the chapbook genre/format. Elizabeth was briefly a student of mine in a summer writing program a hundred years ago, so I’m thrilled to see her succeeding as a writer in a variety of venues and multiple genres.

The chapbook is smaller-sized — about 5×8 inches, about 20 pages of poem. The whole thing is just eight poems — and I must say they were well-selected and well-arranged. The eight poems offer plenty of hearty sustenance, packed as they are with striking images and ideas. Gender, war, violence, race, the politics of place/travel — seriously, Elizabeth is not wasting anybody’s time here! The volume is deceptively slim — inside its pages a rich and difficult world engages and challenges me.

She tells me she made this chapbook, which really is quite a beautiful thing, at a book-making collective called Encyclopedia Destructica. My heart got all fluttery to see a photograph on their gorgeous website — of a bunch of folks gathered on and around a front porch, as if for a party or barbecue — only they are sewing books.

*swoon*

Why does all the cool stuff happen in Pittsburgh? Because Pittsburgh is the coolest. It was pretty cool when I lived there briefly (92-95), but is way, way, WAY cooler now.

Speaking of chapbooks (okay, I was speaking of Pittsburgh, but we’re back to chapbooks), if you haven’t seen it yet, I did an interview this spring with Madeline Wiseman about my chapbook publishing history — this interview is a part of her larger blog series on chapbooks, which I recommend to those interested in thinking more about the genre/format.