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…]

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

 

What Goes Around

Please_Excuse_coverThe YA anthology Please Excuse This Poem, which includes my poem “The Fountain,” is just out from Viking Penguin. The editors, Brett Fletcher Lauer and Lynn Melnick did a great job. Some gems so far: “Talk” by Terrance Hayes, “We Fall in Love with Total Strangers” by James Allen Hall, “Mistakes,” by Shane Book, “Bleeding Heart” by Carmen Giménez Smith, “Rape Joke,” by Patricia Lockwood (it really deserves all the attention, it is that good).

“Most poets begin writing poetry in secret,” writes Carolyn Forché in the introduction, “As with love . . . there is a first time and it is remembered.” I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I certainly remember writing my first poem. I was twenty years old, long past my teenage years. I was only fourteen, however, when I first encountered Carolyn Forché. Here’s an abridged version of the story excerpted from The Middle Room:

When I was nearing my fifteenth birthday and she on the cusp of her fiftieth, my mother took a fiction workshop taught by a young poet named Carolyn Forché. Though twenty years apart in age, Jo and her teacher became good friends. Carolyn, captivated by Latin America, was interested in my mother’s stories about living in Mexico during the 50s and 60s, and Jo, ever hungry for literary companionship, was captivated by Carolyn’s intensity.

Mom_Dad_Mazatlan_50s_web_sm
My mother and father in Mazatlån in the 1950s

All of a sudden “Carolyn,” as my mother called her, became a constant presence in our house. She could be felt hovering over the typewriter in that my mother suddenly no longer cared for writing humorous Thurberesque prose that took for its subject matter life’s absurd moments, but instead wanted to write about the agony of her lonely life during the last few years of her marriage to my father. She could be felt in the air of our living room as a thick white smoke hovering above little ashtrays filled with cigarette butts that suddenly started to appear like film noir extras on the heavy Mexican coffee table next to piles of Time and Sports Illustrated. She could be felt in the grave urgency of words such as “political prisoner” and “refugee” which came through our foyer without stopping to pause over the big fat yellow paperback of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago which had stood brooding on the bookshelf for as long as I could remember . . .

“The Return,” a longish narrative poem in Forché’s 1981 book The Country Between Us, is dedicated and addressed to my mother. In wrenching detail, it tells the story of Forché’s difficult readjustment to the United States after visiting El Salvador. The poem lists acts of unspeakable torture, poured into my mother’s empathetic ear:

                            you took
my stories apart for hours, sitting
on your sofa with your legs under you
and fifty years in your face.

How strange to read this portrait of my mother—written by a rising poetry star when I was just a teenager—now that I have “fifty years in [my] face”! This convergence of factors makes Forché’s presence as “godmother” to Please Excuse This Poem feel, in my case, strangely apt. In her presence I’ll forever be an adolescent, that girl who, “hot, puffy and flustered with wind from riding my bike,” was instinctually aware that when she and my mother were drinking wine, deep in talk, “no matter how wildly I gesticulated in the squeaky language of my fifteen-year-old life, I would not be heard.”

Forché with my mother, Josephine Crum. 1989, about 6months before Jo died of breast cancer.  Photo credit: Tracy Meehleib
Forché with my mother, Josephine Crum, in fall of 1989, about 6 months before Jo died of breast cancer.

A decade later my mother would be dead, and Forché on her way to becoming a major proponent of the “poetry of witness.” Her landmark anthology Against Forgetting collects poetry of courage written in extreme circumstances, poetry that speaks back to historical horrors before which many feel powerless (is adolescence such a horror?). Reading such work, I feel powerless. To which perhaps Forché would justifiably say to me, as she did my mother:

It is
not your right to feel powerless. Better
people than you were powerless . . .

Photo credit: Tracy Meehleib

Invisible Ink

Looking through my letters from the early 90s in the Archive I came across a few that had been written on a computer and printed with an early printer, probably dot-matrix. Among them letters from Jeff Derkson and Dennis Denisoff. Some twenty years on it is as if these letters were written with invisible ink—they are so very faint I can barely make them out. I wonder if the digital files fared any better?

Montana bound

I’m looking forward to going to Missoula this week as part of the President’s Writers-in-Residence series at the University of Montana. I’ve heard such good things about the MFA there.

My associations with Montana are few. When I was about seven years old my family drove to Helena, Montana to visit my great aunt Hetty, widow of Dow Moxley. It was said that I resembled Hetty, which is strange now that I realize she wasn’t a blood relative. Did this journey to Helena predispose me toward Helena Bennett? My other association with Montana is that chilling scene in Twin Peaks when Leland suggests Mattie “go back to Missoula.” Did he punch a painting?

There are so many interesting poets teaching in Missoula: I know fellow Brown alum Prageeta Sharma, and Karen Volkman a bit, and I’ll be meeting Joanna Klink for the first time. And then there’s Professor Robert Baker, author of books on modernism and philosophy, and on Oppen and Char. His pedagogical influence is pervasive. Or at least that’s the way it seems. When poet Josh Corey came to the University of Maine, the subject of Prof. Baker arose. Josh had been as impressed with him as had a new colleague of mine, Sarah Harlan-Haughey. She’s a Medievalist who studied at Montana and Cornell before joining the faculty here in Maine a few years ago. It turns out she’d taken multiple courses with Baker, and gone to Cornell at his encouragement. Last spring I read at Case Western University. While there I met yet another person who had been transformed by Baker’s classroom, poet Sarah Gridley.

Could this be the same Bob Baker Steve and I met in the early 90s? [Read more…]