Jerry and I have been sick for a week. Not the flu—we were tested for that—but some bug that seems to be slowly responding to antibiotics. I haven’t felt this bad since, dare I say it, chemo. Wracked with discomfort: not nausea, but fever, aching and world-class coughing. I cancelled a poetry reading and a book club event. I cancelled everything. My father—who as you know lives just across our huge lawn—calls every night to check on me and let me know what he’s going to need as soon as I’m better (!)
The cough medicine with codine leaves me in a lovely haze, but of course I can’t write a darn thing in that condition. Except maybe this post. So I read. My greatest comfort is Jacqueline Winspear’s mysteries. Soon I will have read them all, unfortunately. Winspear is a contemporary Brit who now lives in California. Her protagonist, Maisie Dobbs, is a smart, principled, woman who’s pulled herself up by her bootstraps to now run her Private Investigator and Psychologist agency. The stories are set in WWI, between the Wars, and the beginning of WWII. Maisie has been a nurse, lost her first love to the war and then later lost another, her husband, to a plane crash. She’s a complex figure. There’s something comforting to me about these stories. I think it’s partly the more formal manners, the graciousness. But also, with Winspear, you feel she’s in control, you’re in good hands.
I keep several books going at the same time. I’m slowly reading Inside Vasubandu’s Yogachara by Ben Connelly. Vasubandu was a fourth century Buddhist monk and scholar who founded the Yogachara school of Buddhism. You’d have to be deep into this material to want to read this one. I have to read it slowly and put it down often.
I just finished reading Robert Fanning’s (Central Michigan University) new book of poems, Our Sudden Museum. I’ll be talking about his book on Interlochen Public Radio’s “Michigan Writers on the Air” show. It’s such a pleasure for me to run across a book of poems, like this one, that I love. I feel like the discoverer.
Not that I’m not writing anything, but in the last few months, the poems have seemed slight. My energy for them—or maybe it’s confidence—seems to be at low ebb. It could be the complicated effect (I’ve felt it before) of having a new book just out. There’s a certain expanse of my brain necessary for new work to actually want to show up. When that space is absorbed with reading/promoting old work, I can’t write. It’s not good for a writer to be this public. At least for some of us. We thrive in the dark crevices, like mold. Nonetheless, I am giving the new book a great deal of attention and readings. It’s a big book and deserves it. I’ll just gird my loins and do it. You can check my “Events” page to see where I’ll be.
Or, maybe it’s Trump. Maybe it’s conditions. Maybe I’m discouraged, shell-shocked. Or, maybe I don’t have it in me to come at life with brightness and originality any more. That fear is built into the life of a writer. We can write our hearts out, but we can’t say when what we write is going to be good. We can’t control that. Some poets burn through their early lyric impulse. Some turn to less lyric poems. Some quit writing poetry. But some—well, here’s Czeslaw Milosz in “Late Ripeness”:
What a glorious thought.
Another view is that maybe it doesn’t matter, that the unknown is far greater than what we know. Longfellow, in his poem “Nature,” compares the old to a child who must “leave his broken playthings on the floor” and go to bed:
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
Being too full of sleep to understand
How far the unknown transcends the what we know
Jerry reminds me that I have said the same thing many times, that I’ll never write anything good again. This time, confronted with so many of my past poems in one volume, I think, “Who wrote all those? Surely not me.”