The Yield

It is no secret that I love a good Christmas poem. Last year I shared my pagan-titled “Mother Night,” and in 2012 I wrote about some of my favorite Thomas Hardy Christmas poems.

The seventh-century British poet Robert Herrick is one of the guiding spirits of my new book, Druthers, so I thought this year to share his wonderfully weird “Christmasse-Eve, another Ceremonie”:

Come guard this night the Christmas-Pie,

That the Thiefe, though ne’r so slie,

With his Flesh-hooks, don’t come nie,

To catch it

From him, who all alone sits there,

Having his eyes still in his eare,

And a deal of nightly feare

To watch it.

When I first read this poem, I felt a shudder of astonishment at the term “Flesh-hooks,” which I thought a Herrickian metaphor for hands. The joining of cold hard metal to soft warm flesh turned Hardy’s thief into a clever cyborg. But “fleshhook” is actually a Biblical term: “And the priests’ custom with the people was, that, when any man offered sacrifice, the priest’s servant came, while the flesh was in seething, with a fleshhook of three teeth in his hand; And he struck it into the pan, or kettle or caldron, or pot; all that the fleshhook brought up the priest took for himself (Samuel 2:13-14 KJV). Is Herrick, vicar of Dean Prior in Devon, author of His Noble Numbers, implying that, if not carefully watched, the priest will take the Christmas-Pie for himself? Will he pull the meat out of the mince?

Attentive to this worry the guard in Herrick’s poem has “his eyes still in his eare.” What a wonderful description of the auditory nature of a midnight vigil. The instinct up, our ears as eyes, we drink to the dregs our “deal of nightly feare.” And indeed, how many of us as kids listened more intently on Christmas night than any other night of the year! For hoofs, for bells, for the wanted intruder and the rustle of paper . . .

As a childless adult it can be a challenge to recapture that magic. In my poem of Christmas, “The Yield,” (from my 2009 book Clampdown) my seasonal disaffection is disrupted by a Hardy-esque experience: the sight of a small industrious mouse preparing to weather an oncoming storm.

 

 

The Yield

Cold to the Christmas bluster,

which I believed “all bloated commerce,”

I morning-gazed not half-awake

out the low distorting window panes

scarcely secured in the rotting casements

of this old Sears catalog bungalow.

I was careless of the scene I watched.

It spoke, I thought, a dreary death,

aloft, monotonous cottony white,

below, twig-littered lifeless brown—

before the impending pinch,

a snow-portentous silent stillness

in a maddeningly quiescent landscape.

A thumb of silvery fur ensnared

my visual stupor, it was a mouse

scooting across the perilous ground

that lay between the rustic lean-tos

of brittle nut-brown maple leaves.

Image-gripped, but how to name it,

this will to live in little things?

Upon such monumental nerve

we build and break our wage.

Wholly unaware of me with cup

of tepid tea, well-fed antagonist

needled toward wonderment

by the pertinacious gathering

of this tiny attic resident, who,

apropos my fancy, went about

his fretful setting up of store

while seeming to mutter under

his breath “a big storm’s coming!”

He was right. Come midnight

and the ribboned pine-wreaths

hung upon the wooden doors,

this artless morning theater

was dressed foot-high in drifts

of blue-tinged starlit snow.

Today as I harbor in that same bungalow, bracing for several more “weather events” many of those “rotting casements” have been replaced by efficient vinyl windows, and many of our “attic residents” have been exiled as a result of new insulation. What hasn’t changed is the power of snow to enchant the dreary theatre of winter. Born and raised in Southern California, I don’t think I’ll ever stop being seduced by the beauty of Maine’s snowy vistas.

 

 

 

In Memoriam

How dreamlike on this quiet, cloudy Friday to realize that it was but a week ago that I was surrounded by very dear and talented friends—a warm gathering of writers—many of whom I have been in dialogue with for over twenty years. It was the midpoint of the National Poetry Foundation’s conference on Poetry and Poetics of the 1990s. It was time for our famous lobster banquet. I was giddy with the company, exhausted, happy. As the banquet wound down, but before the evening readings, I shared the Power Point presentation that I, with the help and support of Kevin Killian, had been rushing to finish before everyone showed up in Orono. Steve helped as well, playing the role of sound engineer, clipping and fading the songs I had chosen as accompaniment.

You’re not coming to Orono?

Once I had the idea to do an Oscars-style In Memoriam to honor the poets we had lost, I couldn’t let go of it. I also knew that I needed Kevin Killian to help me. But when I called him to discuss it, he said that due to another commitment, he wasn’t coming to Orono. This news made me quite hysterical. I burst into tears and exclaimed, “but I wanted to do an Oscar-style In Memoriam slideshow with you!” Luckily Dodie came home later that evening, and though I don’t know exactly what transpired, Kevin called back to say “we’re coming.” Now everything was in place to make my dream a reality. At the start of the work, I sent Kevin about nine names to honor. Can you think of others, I asked? He sent me back a list of what seemed like hundreds! Kevin had the idea to represent the interim since the last NPF conference in June of 2012. He also suggested that I sometimes show the image of a writer as older first, younger second.

We’ve lost so many over this past five years. Yet I knew, for all the care, we would overlook someone. We did. I was grateful when, after the presentation, Jonathan Skinner said, “Dennis Tedlock,” and Miriam Nichols, “Benjamin Hollander.” Hollander had even come to Orono to read his work in the early aughts. Then there was the embarrassing realization that I had made a slide for Bill Knott but forgot to include it! How was it possible to be so careless? The rush, the flurry of work. I learned from Juliette Valéry that Joseph Gugliemi had died. That I hadn’t known. There are no doubt countless others. Any such memorial is instantly dated. Jack Collom died just as our conference was coming to an end. Neither Kevin nor I meant any disrespect toward those not represented here. All the makers are missed.

This tribute was shared with over a hundred poets and scholars in Orono, Maine during the NPF’s 1990s conference lobster banquet on Friday, June 30, 2017.

Ron Silliman encouraged me to put it online. He also noted that “people laughed when they saw Rod McKuen, but he was part of the Berkeley Renaissance!” Indeed. Death can both alter and codify our impressions.

I’m happy to share this melancholy labor. My hope is that it can remind us of some of the great artists and poets who have been a part of our community, and who we dearly miss.

Hunting Class

Poet Robert Adamson

“Hunting in Maine is not obviously riven with centuries of class and privilege” writes Helen Macdonald in H Is for Hawk, a book that, though recommended with high praise by Robert Adamson almost two years ago, I’ve just gotten around to reading. I could plead “lack of time,” but the truth is I have a habit of resisting books that get a lot of attention in the press. It’s a perversion, but one I can’t seem to shake. Though many such books peak and then fade into oblivion, there are probably some (there must be!) that are “for the ages.” I can’t say for certain that Macdonald’s book will take its place alongside such great bird-of-prey literary masterpieces as “The Windhover,” “My Mother Would Be a Falconress,” and The Peregrine, but it is quite good.

Macdonald’s goshawk Mabel

For me the book held two big surprises: the first was that, while largely reviewed as a book about Macdonald’s grief for her father, it is more accurately described as a book about her relationship to a dead author: the emotionally complex Arthurian, T. H. White. The second surprise was that late in the narrative Macdonald travels to Maine to visit an American hawking friend. “There are no vast pheasant shoots [in Maine] where bankers vie for the largest bags, no elite grouse moors or exclusive salmon rivers. All the land can be hunted over by virtue of common law, and locals are very proud of this egalitarian tradition,” writes Macdonald. This trans-Atlantic cultural difference concerning hunting, though easily apparent, had never occurred to me. Perhaps because I neither hawk nor hunt.

Yet one can’t live in Maine and stay completely ignorant of hunting culture. Steve and I had only been here a few months when our then neighbor, a teacup-sized woman in her sixties with a neat hairdo, proudly told us that she’d secured a coveted moose-hunting permit that year and thus had a freezer filled with moose sausage, ribs, steaks, and other tasty bits. In ensuing years, I learned about the traditions of Maine hunting from stories students wrote. Their personal narrative assignments often included hunting anecdotes, especially when it came to writing about Thanksgiving, which is a hunting holiday in Maine. When families, food, drinking, and guns gather, the inevitability of eventfulness augments. I remember one story a student shared in which her wheel-chair bound Vietnam vet uncle shot a deer through a bathroom window while sitting on the john. I was so stunned by the image I neglected to ask: why on earth had he brought his rifle into the bathroom?

This particular kill was no doubt illegal, because there are laws about how near to inhabited homes you can hunt. Before we moved, the real estate agent who tried hard to undermine my dreams of a “cozy cottage” by driving us around to a series of dark, shabby capes, shared a fait divers that had recently shaken the region: a beloved local had mistaken a woman out hanging laundry for a deer and shot her to death. She had been wearing white gloves. I was so stunned by the image I neglected to ask: if it was cold enough to wear gloves, why was she hanging laundry outside?*

In describing the differences between British and American hunting, Macdonald quotes a hunter from a 1942 article published in Outdoor Life: “One of my grandfathers came from northern Europe [to the US] for the single reason that he wanted to live in a country where he could try to catch a fish without sneaking onto some nobleman’s property where the common people were excluded.” I think of the chauffeur-communist’s discomfort in those hunting scenes in Downton Abbey, or that scene from Renoir’s send up of the aristocracy, The Rules of the Game, in which the servants walk ahead of the nobles acting as “beaters,” hitting trees with sticks in order to rouse the prey. Guns, horses, riding kits, all very elegant, and stately. And very old world. When the privileged hunt in America, it’s embarrassing. Dick Cheney misfires and shoots Harry Whittington. Quail are released a few feet in front of him and he misses. A dentist goes to Africa and kills the lion everyone loves. It’s tacky and unappealing, and culturally inexplicable.

While hunting in the United States may not be “riven with centuries of class and privilege,” it might be—insofar as it has become connected to the debate over the second Amendment—be riven with something else: distrust of giving working, poor, and underclass rural people access to “free” food—the kind of unprocessed food privileged people like myself now pay dearly for in fancy restaurants serving delicacies such as “locally sourced” moose prosciutto and elk jerky. Doubtless there are rich people in the United States who own guns and hunt—especially in Texas or out west—yet I imagine they do so for sport, not food. I’ll admit, however, that when the issue of gun rights comes up—and I know hunters are always cited as “good” gun owners—the “poster child” that arises in my mind’s eye is a white, working class Mainer. The kind of person with a freezer full of deer or moose meat, the very same who would have either worked on or been chased off the estate of a nobleman in centuries past. But sometimes I also see a teacup-sized woman in her sixties with her small L. L. Bean-booted foot atop a downed 800-pound moose.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*this part of the story turned out to be apocryphal

 

John Donne, Dodie Bellamy, and the fear of Ayre and Vapours

As the bizarre statements about giving more “choice” to the sick come floating in from the anti-choice party hell bent on destroying Obamacare, I just happen to find myself easing out my evenings by reading two works about sickness: John Donne’s twenty-three meditations titled Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and severall steps in my Sicknes and Dodie Bellamy’s When the Sick Rule the World. They are speaking to each other in fascinating ways.

Enthralled by the Renaissance trope of the body as a microcosmic copy of the larger world, Donne’s Devotions often draw parallels between the sick body and the sick polis. His brilliant record of the perspective-altering powers of illness transforms his fever and spots into a faith emergency, an alchemy Frank O’Hara would later translate into “Meditations in an Emergency,” in which the threat is the “sicknes” called heterosexuality. Donne is greatly consternated by his state. When the physician comes to apply dead pigeons to his feet to “draw the vapors” from his head, he threads his fume to Virgil’s rumor: “That which is fume in us, is in a State, Rumor, and these vapours in us, which wee consider here pestilent and infectious fumes, are in a State infectious rumors, detracting and dishonourable Calumnies, Libels.” In empathy I feel a weight of dry grey feathers scratching at my tender arches. As Donne’s vapors drain he dutifully exercises an incredulous self-rebuke: “did I drinke in Melancholly into my selfe? It is my thoughtfulnesse; was I not made to thinke?” Donne believes he is the cause of his own suffering for not having dumbed it down.

We “assist the sicknes” and “make the sickness the more irremediable” not by bad habits, but by “sad apprehensions.” Sinfulness, melancholy, too much thinking, a triumvirate missing from those who are suffering in “When the Sick Rule the World.” “There is no such thing as a hypochondriac;” writes Bellamy, “there are only doctors who cannot figure out what is wrong with you.”

The narrator of her sly satire is just sympathetic enough with the weird world of the “sick” she portrays that we aren’t quite convinced that she’d be altogether unhappy that “perfume will be outlawed” when the sick rule the world. “When a student comes to class wearing perfume,” she writes, “my nose runs, my eyes tear, I start sneezing; there’s nowhere to move to and I don’t know what to do.” What do you mean there’s nowhere to move? Aren’t you free? Just move to another state! Or so says the congressman to those who cannot get coverage for pre-existing medical conditions in their home states.

My disbelief at the callousness of “right to be sick and go without insurance” arguments notwithstanding, as I dip into the world of Bellamy’s allergen-beset bourgeois I feel a kind of petulant libertarianism, my human empathy replaced by a Miss Piggy-like insistence on my need to wear perfume. I’m naked without it. It is true that I, a “well” person, blithely defy the oddly verbose sign outside of a certain building where I work: PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO WORK IN THIS BUILDING THAT ARE ADVERSELY AFFECTED BY FRAGRANCE AND REFRAIN FROM WEARING PERFUMES. Who are these people? Why don’t they come forward and identify themselves? Am I the reason they are sick?

Pre-modern medicine’s apprehension about vapors, foul air, and effluvium was responsible for years of blindness to other channels for the spread of illness. The so-called “miasma theory” that 19th-century British physician John Snow contested, proving that polluted water not foul air was spreading cholera in the Broad Street neighborhood of London. The sick in Bellamy’s story have a pre-modern aversion to vapors and air. Their scripture might be the Talking Heads’ “Air,” with its repeated line, “Air can hurt you too.” They cannot abide smells of any kind. Preparing to attend a meeting of the sick, the narrator spends $30 on fragrance-free products, but her ritual cleansing fails. A TSA-style sniffing by the gate-keepers of the sick community reveals an odor that gives one of them “brain fog” and the narrator is forced to swathe her head in comic bandanas. “What will not kill a man if a vapor will?” writes Donne, “so neere nothing is that that reduces us to nothing.” He fears that it is “halfe Atheisme to murmure against Nature, who is Gods immediate commissioner,” yet he marvels that the “Ayre that nourishes us, should destroy us.”

As someone who grew up in a region that had “smog days” instead of “snow days”—a free day off from school, but don’t leave the house!—I understand the fear of poisonous air. Yet a world cleansed of all smells would flatten time and destroy Eros. The nose is the organ of memory and curiosity and hunger. “With what deep thirst / we quicken our desires / to that rank odor of a passing springtime!” exclaims William Carlos Williams in his Rabelaisian paean to his boney nose, “Smell!”  What would such a “tactless” ass of acquisitive greediness do when the sick rule the world and “roses, gardenias, freesias, and other fragrant flowers will no longer be grown,” and the “sick will travel in packs commandeering porcelain-lined fragrance-free buses.” Despite their myriad aversions and sensitivities the “sick” in Bellamy’s story are a surprisingly vigorous, social bunch. None of them have actual diagnoses, they bear no resemblance to people who are, by conventional definition, sick. Rather, they have an identity based around the things in the world that they must avoid. Sickness as a vocation.

Bellamy’s community of the sick seems unfamiliar with the extreme isolation Donne’s fever creates. “No man is an island,” the Devotions most famous assertion, was written by a man islanded by illness. “As Sicknes is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sickness, is solitude; when the infectiousness of the disease deters them who should assist, from coming; even the Phisician dares scarse come.” I think of those stories we all read about Ebola victims being denied company even in death. Their corpses were toxic.

Sickbed literature tends to be a literature of solitude. The Death and Letters of Alice James, Keats’s Letters, or Ernst Pawel’s beautiful meditation on Heinrich Heine’s wretched last years, The Poet Dying. The communality and mobility of the sick in Bellamy’s story marks the phenomenon she’s satirizing as something new: her sick no longer must hide in the shadows like sexual deviants, or be locked away in sanitariums. They have been liberated. They have their own community, and when they rule the world “[p]retending to be sick will be a capital offense.”

Because Donne’s illness occasioned his meditations, I am thankful to it, and to the fact that he defied the physician’s orders not to read or write. Though penned in solitude, Donne’s metaphorical parallels between the human body and the body of the state populate his sickbed. Man is a little world with “inough in himself, not only to destroy, and execute himself, but to presage that execution upon himself.” I think of Bellamy’s sick bonding over the dangers of cellphone towers and electromagnetic fields. Yet for Donne “home bred” vapours—those we conjure with our “sad apprehensions”—are far worse than any foreign poison: “What Fugitive, what Almes-man of any forraine State, can doe so much harme as a Detracter, a Libeller, a scornfull Jester at home?” How very prescient and wise are the poets.

 

 

Diabolical Mimicry, Plagiarism by Anticipation, and a Simply Divine Convergence

 

On our last trip to New York, to see L’Amour de loin, Steve and I made our customary visit to The Strand. Fantastic things can happen in this stiflingly over-heated survivor from the golden age of bookstores. This visit was no different. Adjacent poetry we ran into New York School scholar Andrew Epstein and his family, visiting from Florida, only seconds after Steve had bumped into Alan Gilbert, an old acquaintance from the 1990s poetry world, back when arguments over the value of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, or whether you studied at Brown or Buffalo, seemed tantamount to the mid-century literary brawls of Manhattan’s mandarin set. It’s amazing how a big city can become quite small when you edit yourself into a rarefied field of interest. Social serendipities discharged, Steve and I carted our armloads of books to the check out, paid, and left them to be shipped home, already anticipating that gorgeous moment when, having nearly forgotten our excesses, a big box arrives on our Maine doorstep. Included in this recent parcel was The Collected Verse of Noel Coward. Not Coward’s song lyrics (I already own that volume), but his poems. Yes, apparently all throughout his long life Mr. Coward “derived a considerable amount of private pleasure from writing verse.” I shelved the bright red hardcover and didn’t give it another thought.

Until last week. An epic home renovation coming to an end, we had the opportunity to move some books. Always a pleasure. I took Mr. Coward’s verse off the shelf and began dipping in. Though he is decidedly a much better lyricist than poet, I did find pleasures in his mostly light verse thanks to the usual tonic of his strong, arch, and “irretrievably ‘period’’’[1] style, the same that comes through much of his writing, but especially through his memoirs, Present Indicative (1934) and Future Indefinite (1954). Many years ago these books saved me from some rather baroque prose habits I had fallen into while writing my memoir, The Middle Room. Stuck around chapter ten, my sentences becoming longer and longer, I found I had lost the ability to ignore any detail or event, no matter how trivial. A compulsive read-through of Coward’s memoirs schooled me in just how delightful it might be for a reader, bogged down in the minutiae of my narcissistic reveries, to come upon a sentence as simple as: “The days and weeks went by.” And thus Noel Coward, already a lifestyle icon, become an icon of literary finesse.

You can imagine my delight, therefore, when deep into my reading of Coward’s verses, my eye fell upon a poem titled “Convalescence” which just happened to bear an uncanny resemblance to my own poem, written decades afterwards, “Dividend of the Social Opt Out.” In shape, structure, and sentiment, the two poems share an identity, down even, in some cases, to word choice! Knowing that I had never before set eyes on Coward’s “Convalescence,” I had no other recourse but to label this simply divine convergence as an exemplary case of “Plagiarism by Anticipation.”

A term playfully embraced by Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), “Plagiarism by Anticipation” is the idea that a writer from the past can anticipate, and therefore plagiarize, the literary works of the future. As Jacques Roubaud put it, “authors that predate the founding of the Oulipo who, drawing on Oulipian matter, reveal themselves to be copiers of the Oulipo.” So, for example, when ancient Greek writers wrote lipograms (avoiding certain letters), these writers were said to have plagiarized the popular Oulipoean constraint by anticipation.

Yet this formula of the past copying the future actually predates Oulipo. It refers to a theory certain early Christian apologists supposedly used to better explain the many overlaps between paganism and the gospels. The overlaps (baptism, virgin birth, resurrection, etc.) were explained as “tricks” demons played to test our faith, thus “Plagiarism by Anticipation” was also referred to by the more dashing term of “diabolical mimicry.” These terms were used in the nineteenth century by Theosophists Madame Blavatsky and G. R. S. Mead in support of their creation of a syncretic Gnosticism. However, a quick web search of “plagiarism by anticipation” or “diabolical mimicry” will lead you instead to The Jesus Mysteries, a popular 1999 book in which the writers confer upon the “desperate claim” that “the devil” plagiarized Jesus the distinction of being “one of the most absurd arguments ever advanced.”

I disagree. I think “diabolical mimicry” is an ingenious and charming claim, that is if you take it lightly. And there is little evidence that it was ever advanced in the way the gleeful “debunkers” would have us believe. None of the early apologists cited—Irenaeus, Tertullian, Justin Martyr—ever used the terms “plagiarism by anticipation” or “diabolical mimicry.”[2] Their ideas were more in keeping with the Testament of Orpheus. I refer here not to the wonderful Cocteau film of the same name, but to a third century document in which the first poet bears witness to “the single and eternal pattern of the universe.” The Testament supports a popular Hellenistic legend that when a young man Orpheus traveled to Egypt to study with Moses, after which he rejected polytheism in favor of a single god: “He is the one” Orpheus writes, “self-begotten, and all things are brought to pass by Him.”[3] This chapter proved far less enduring in the poet’s mythic biography than his infamous backward glance.

From Christian apologists to Noël Coward. An unusual journey indeed. And yet, in another divine convergence, during the writing of these musing I have been felled by a very nasty cold. Thus it is from my bed, in a quiet, empty house, cat beside me, that I seek my “hyperlinks” and final turn of phrase. This ghastly illness has, as Coward put it, given me “time / to invent a little rhyme.” I post “Convalescence” below, with a link to my “Dividend of the Social Opt Out.” Judge for yourself whether Noël devilishly hid his poem in the archives that the future may discredit the “virgin birth” of my little homage to the secret pleasures of the introvert.

Convalescence

To have been a little ill
To relax
To have Glucose and Bemax

To be still.

To feel definitely weak
On a diet
To be ordered to be quiet

Not to speak.

To skim through the morning news,
To have leisure,
The ineffable, warm pleasure

Of a snooze.

To have cooling things to drink,
Fresh Spring Flowers,
To have hours and hours and hours

Just to think.

To have been a little ill
To have time
To invent a little rhyme

To be still.

To have no one that you miss

This is bliss!

—Noël Coward

[1] In After Babel George Steiner, using Private Lives as his example, makes a very compelling case for what he calls the “irretrievably ‘period’’’ style of Coward’s dialogue. Thus I chalk up my attraction to Coward as one of my long list of nostalgic passions, a term I use throughout The Middle Room.

[2] For a helpful and measured look at this issue, click here.

[3] Friedman, John Block. Orpheus in the Middle Ages. Harvard UP, 1970. 13-15.

Thirty Years Ago Today

Steve, New Year’s Day breakfast 2017

As 2016 turned into 2017 my husband Steve Evans reminded me that this night was in fact the thirty year anniversary of the New Year’s Eve that could, from a certain perspective, be said to be the beginning of our relationship. In honor of which I decided I would share an edited excerpt from my memoir, pulled from the chapter titled “New Year’s Eve,” and describing real events that took place at a party I threw in my San Diego apartment on the last night of 1986, the first morning of 1987.

from The Middle Room

Rodefer, accompanied by two friends from Berkeley, was one of the first to arrive. In the presence of these out-of-towners he augmented his nonchalance and increased his poetic asides such that, where on a normal night he might mention “Visions of the Daughters of Albion” and move on, tonight he threw in several passing references to “Jack” Donne and “Andy” Marvell, as though he had just downed a few scotch and sodas with them at some mid-priced hotel bar. He prodded me on the issue of Steve, demanding: “Where’s Evans?” “Why isn’t Evans here?” holding his cigarette between his middle and fourth fingers and up by his face like a girl. I was relieved of this taunting by the arrival of Helena, attired in a perfectly fitted black rayon dress and black seamed stockings, her golden hair, smelling of the rose-hip conditioner she used, neatly parted in the middle and brushed straight over each shoulder.

Chuck and Scott came next, and then Jack, followed by a bohemian cortège, four or five boys who brought their own beer, ignored the central group, and instantly set about rifling through my albums and commenting on their relative merits as though customers in a record shop.

Flushed with alcohol and the swish of my black taffeta, I remained undaunted when Steve showed up in the company of Marianne Binken. [Read more…]

Opera Update

UMaine Today’s December issue has an article titled “The Making of an Opera” about my collaboration with Beth Wiemann on Until the War Is Over, the opera about H. D. and D. H. Lawrence we workshopped some scenes from last summer on the University of Maine campus.

Last summer’s set, about to be dismantled

Just as this story was at press Beth and I found out that Until the War Is Over had been selected by the John Duffy Institute for New Opera to be workshopped in March 2017 by a select group of professionals from the opera world (including Paul Cremo, Dramaturg and Director of Opera Commissioning Programs from the Metropolitan Opera). The Duffy Institute “seeks out and supports the work of opera composer/librettist teams by providing professional mentorship and a professional process for the development of their new work, with the intent to see the works through to full productions.” What a privilege to have the opportunity to keep improving and refining this work!

A Poem from Christmas past

From my 2009 book Clampdown, this Christmas poem with a pagan title, Modranicht.

Mother Night

Right before the darkness turned around
and began to head in the other direction,
I had a dream that you and I were decorating
the Christmas tree and I asked you,
as we hung the aging trinkets—the crippled
pine-cone elf, the dry construction-paper Santa,
the several odd souvenirs from cultures
both Christian and un-Christian,
bought by my well-meaning parents
in homage to that naïve dream
formerly known as the “family of man”—
“How much goodwill would it take
on this cold mid-winter’s eve
to renew the genuine warmth
we used to feel towards one another?
How many prayers of peace,
or mummer’s carols, how many joyous songs,
with saturnine themes and themes solemn too,
how many earnest petitions?”
After untangling the string of mini-lights
with uncustomary ease, we passed
the neat lasso of green wire around
the sticky sap and slightly prickly needles.
With a confidence not unbecoming,
you looked me in the eyes and said:
“For you I guarantee that, by the end
of the season, sympathy and tender care
will outreach judgment and critique.
Two late-century soldiers will meet
in the desert, lay down their arms and embrace;
Martin Luther, out walking at midnight
will be awestruck by the elegant stars
peeking luminous through the German trees;
holly & ivy will grow up through the snow—
the burning bush, the drops of blood—
and Father Christmas, astride a goat,
Kristkindl, Christ child, abolitionist,
a jovial elf, slender pipe in hand,
will rouse the Union soldiers to their
grim task again; and then, in homage
to these, and other half-reasoned-out rituals,
you and I will go hand in hand,
and hang a sprig of sage-colored mistletoe
on the arc of the new bassinet.”

Delirious I awoke from these words,
got out of bed, and tip-toed to the living room
to sneak a peek at the tree. There was thin silence
and the smell of pine. In the uncanny snowlight
the enchantment of the expectant scene
was no less powerful than when, as a child,
I had been entranced by the magical appearance
of the festive packages under the tree.
“Time of the wheel,” Yuletide,
the old solar tricks and the hopes
of what the New Year might hold in store:
dreams fulfilled and heavenly peace or,
it struck me, as a tractor-trailer passed
and shook the darkened house, perhaps
we’re on the eve of some fortune
less propitious. On this cheerless
point of suspicion, the folk personages
on the Christmas tree, with their frozen smiles
and arthritic postures, seemed, as they bobbed
their heads up and down, to agree with me.

“Mother Night” was written during Christmas of 2002, a few months before the start of the Iraq war. It was first published in Explosive magazine 9 in 2003, and will soon be included in an anthology of that same magazine.

The Darkness Surrounds Us

 

Imagination’s Fit

img_0932I was surprised to feel an unexpected emotional consonance between November 9, 2016 (2:30AM) and September 11, 2001. A realist stun gun. Gaping mouth, chills, fear. An imagined film reel of spectacular violence. Ballooning. A wholesale readjustment of the world one thought to have known and understood. A creeping in of an unreal “reality.” And for some more than others, the unavoidable sensation that one’s physical body was anew a liability—will these borders be respected?

My imagination ill-fitted to this news and thus was slow to accept it. It began to throw a fit. I will not be coopted by bullies, it said. That’s what they do, bullies, they force you to think about them when you fall asleep, they haunt your dreams, they greet you upon waking with a knowing snigger. They capture your imagination. That’s their power. They pick on competent and successful people who follow the rules and prefer to avoid conflict. If you’ve ever been bullied, you know this to be true. And then there’s the shock of realizing that you are actually afraid of someone you’ve never respected. You doubt yourself.

I’ve always loved Pete Seeger’s version of “Die Gedanken Sind Frei” (My Thoughts Are Free). I listened to it with the utmost belief in the power of the mind to stay free, even when the body is imprisoned. But my belief in the mind’s power to stay free is not as strong as it used to be. The imagination, the poet’s stronghold, has a porous and democratic nature. It is vulnerable to fascists and bullies. “My thoughts will not cater to duke or dictator” Seeger sings. But it takes an enormous discipline of mind to keep them out. A lock down of the imagination. Death to the poet.

I wrote my mid-length poem “The Occasion” (Clampdown, 2009) about an evening “a few days after the start of the war,” in this case, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I had been trying to find a way to write about that moment in a way that might capture the confusion, sadness, frustration, and divisiveness of it. But my voice was uncertain and I felt myself going silent. Then I came across John Greenleaf Whittier’s long poem “Snow-bound.” “How strange it seems, with so much gone / Of life and love, to still live on!” A perfect fit. I admired how Whittier’s narrative structure allowed for several distinct voices, how he set a scene and let the drama unfold. I tried to do the same. My narrative tells of a failure to come together, of a group of people, well-meaning, good-intentioned, imaginative people, poets, failing to find a common ground: “The war at hand had taken all our thought /and all of our imagination.” It was difficult to say anything, trapped as one felt in some perverse consensus:

                                                            The designs
of the past had marked us, for better or worse,
and no amount of preparedness or cash
could serve to save us when like targets we
stepped out into speech, powerless to know
the future or which way the tide of common
prejudice, though it be shaped by the uncommon
few, would turn at any given moment.

I’ll admit to a smallness: the worry that in this new clampdown the power of the imagination will find no quarter and all poems, obliged to resist, will cease to construct those habitable spaces of future hope we so desperately need to live. I do not care to write the poem or say the name of evil. Against the possibility that such a plea is mere “obfuscation of social and political realities in the interest of imaginative transcendence” (as Jonathan Culler reminds us many said of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”), I return to Adorno’s conception that, as Culler summarizes it, “there are other ways to participate in the social than to represent it.” I must believe that poems can speak important truths that transcend their historical moment. Time, again, to dust off Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” the oddly specific title of which belies its continued relevance: “I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”

A final thought: “The Occasion” was much about the inability to find a consensus even among friends. About the disruptive nature of ideological confusion. Since Tuesday I’ve experienced something quite different. A kind of lovely and spontaneous solidarity among the like-minded. All of us who are deeply saddened and angered by the outcome of the last election. People simply wanting to be in rooms with each other. To share. To catch a glimpse and say, with eyes, no words, “I know, me too.”

You can read my poem “The Occasion” here.

 

Those Analog Days

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I first listened to The Rolling Stones on a machine that looked like this!

To my mind, one of the best things the internet has done for poetry is to provide heretofore unprecedented access to the poet’s voice. Sites like ubuweb, PennSound, and Archive of the Now invite us to take our poetry in through the ear. The advent of the short clip, or poem “single” (as Charles Bernstein calls it) makes it so easy to sample a poet’s work, or even to compare different performances of the same poem.

This is a monumental change. Many of us remember how precious recordings of poets used to seem: passing around bootlegged cassette tapes of the 1965 Berkeley Poetry conference or of Spicer’s Vancouver lectures; cherishing the limited (but precious!) Caedmon catalog, John Gielgud reading T. S. Eliot, Stein’s few portraits, etc. Filching covertly from archives.

Thanks to Paul Blackburn (who died on Sept 13, 45 years ago) and many others, there were lots of recordings floating around in those analog days, the problem was how to get your hands on them. I wont ever forget finding a dusty old reel-to-reel spool, not even in a box, moldering away in my late colleague Burt Hatlen’s bottom desk drawer. On that fragile tangle of shiny brown tape was a reading Robert Duncan gave in Orono, Maine in 1971. As a legendary talker, Duncan’s is a case in which the “audio oeuvre” is arguably as important as the printed page. Through his recordings we can experience the humor and charm of his uniquely syncretic mind, which can sometimes come off as rather solemn in print.

Recently it seems that the Poetry Foundation has really upped its audio game. I have been a guest on PoetryNow (I love the cool Pegasus/Headphones icon for this series) and Poetry Off the Shelf, but those are just two of a longer list of audio offerings to be found there. There’s also Poem of the Day, Poem Talk, Essential American Poets, and a few others. Time to stop by and have a listen!

If you’d like to listen to my poem “Orbit Music” on PoetryNow (4 minutes).

If you’d like to listen to my comments on The Inner Life in the Age of Social Media on Poetry Off the Shelf (16 minutes).