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.”
Launching The Woods Are On Fire: New & Selected Poems tomorrow! Today I offer you the tiniest poem in the book, from No Need of Sympathy (BOA 2013). I want to thank BOA for giving permission for me to use 20 poems from a collection that hadn’t been out all that long. That can cut into their sales, so I urge you to have a look at that book, also.
This poem was one of a series of short poems I wrote in response to sculptures by the artist Bill Allen. The poems and pieces were part of an exhibit at the Dennos Museum in Traverse City. I wanted short poems so a person could stand there and read them on the wall.
Worms can replace parts.
They can re-start themselves
if they’re cut apart. And
the slime they leave behind
glues the earth together.
They have no eyes.
Imagine scrunching alone
through life, armless,
legless, and blind
yet so convinced
of your usefulness that it
makes some kind of sense.
Oh, all right. I’ll give you two for the price of one. This is also from No Need of Sympathy. The PBS News Hour used to—before they gave up with the sheer numbers—have a period of silence at the end of the show when they put on screen the name and photo of each person killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. I wrote this after watching that became almost more than I could bear. I think of the great World War I poets, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon. “Anthem for Doomed Youth” is a poem by Owen. I think of the young recruit, just wanting to get out of his small town. He’s so young, it seems as if he’s playing dress-up, going off to war.
Night after night the photos of dead soldiers
go by on the News Hour like playing-cards while we drink
our wine, though we stop for that length of time, of course,
out of reverence, but it’s not enough. The well of
how-not-enough-it-is is bottomless, deeper than TV. Even
if you track back through the Comcast cable, back to
the electrical impulses, you’re not even close to what to do.
Not even if you end up on Main Street in Salisaw, Oklahoma,
and follow the 19-year-old into the storefront full of
uniforms, crisp, medallioned, follow not his vanity
but his hope, his longing for order, for the squared shoulders
of order, his wish for the vast plains of the world
to unroll at eye-level, so he can walk out into the particulars,
the screaming, the blood. Owen, Brooke, Sassoon: what
anthem for the doomed youth this time? His death rests
like a quarter in the pocket, a sure thing. Its arrival
is a few missing lines I fill in, wrongly, because
the mind does that: I have him watching in slow motion,
with love and pity, the flowers beginning to bloom
on his shirt, the sky closing like a book. Sadly, then,
he disappears entirely into my mind, his last breath
easing between my words. There was a book in his childhood.
No, mine. Ducks cross the road, a mother duck leads them
through traffic to the pond. The pages flip so that
the ducks seem to move. They slide into the pond
with the satisfaction of making it through the human
confusion. Our soldier floats like a duck. Like a night-flight
casket. In the photo his eyes, straight-forward, being all
they can be, float on the surface of a pool of uncatalogued
genetic material. One snapshot in time, his eyes were
like that, his mouth. He can’t remember. He never was
like that. He was playing dress-up, then, hoping to make it true,
and did, so true no one could get in a word, in protest.
I went to Fayetteville, Arkansas, for my fortieth high school reunion thinking surely, after all these years, a lot of poems would come to me. But I only got a few. You never know. They’re all in Reunion. I could give you one of those here, but I picked a different one from that book because I thought it might give momentary comfort in these frightening times.
What I’m looking for in a poem has shifted these days. Every poem is political—I could talk about that at length!—but some carry with them an awareness of particular ways of seeing that help us, or at least help us recognize a companion spirit at a particular time. In this case, a mouse.
I admire the way mouse dashes across the top bracket
of the blinds while we’re reading in bed. I admire the tiny whip
of its tail at the exact second my husband tries to grab it.
I admire the way it disappears into our house and shreds various
elements. I admire the way it selects the secret corridors
behind cupboards and drawers, the way it remains on the reverse
side of our lives. The mouse is what I think of when I think of
a poem, or of music, going straight for the goods, around
the barrier of our thoughts. It leaves droppings, pretending to be
not entirely substantial, falling apart a little here and there.
Clearly, it has evolved perfect attention to detail. I wish it would
concentrate on the morning news, pass the dreadfulness out
in little pellets. Yesterday I found a nest of toilet paper and
thought I’d like to climb onto that frayed little cloud. I would like
to become the disciple of that mouse and sing “Wooly Bully”
in a tiny little voice in the middle of the night while the dangerous
political machines are all asleep. I would like to have a tail
for an antenna. But, I thought, also, how it must be to live alone
among the canyons of cabinets, to pay that price, to look foolish
and trembling in daylight. Who would willingly choose to be
the small persistent difficulty? So I put out a spoonful of peanut butter
for the mouse, and the morning felt more decent, the government
more fair. I put on my jeans and black shirt, trying not to make
mistakes yet, because it seemed like a miracle that anyone tries at all.
I looked hard for a photo of a trillium with blood-red markings, because there was one in a poem in the collection. I found one on line and wrote to the photographer, Susan Farmer, to ask permission to use it. I sent her $100, but I think she would have given it to me free. She seemed pretty happy to have it as a book cover. I thought it was perfect.
I’ve been using these posts to go back through the collections included in The Woods Are On Fire: New & Selected Poems, before the book launch next week, Thursday, March 16, from 5-7 at The Corner Loft http://www.cornerlofttc.com/ in Traverse City. I hope you’ll come, if you’re within range. I’ll read, Becky Somsel will play the harp (not at the same time!), and we’ll have refreshments. I’m looking forward to a great party!
Here’s Part II of my romp through past books, toward the launch of The Woods Are On Fire: New & Selected Poems, on March 16th.
Since my first book was obviously a lucky fluke (this is how my mind works), I would never get a press to take another. I sent my second manuscript, Do Not Peel the Birches, back to Purdue University Press (if they liked me once….), but the book didn’t win their contest that year. Alas, woe was me, it was confirmed. I was a flash in the pan. The next year, 1993, I sent my manuscript to several other presses as well, but Gerald Stern, Purdue’s final judge that year, picked mine as winner of their newly established Verna Emery Prize, which was book publication.
Not only that, he came to visit me and helped me revise several poems. “Be wilder here!” he’d say. Geez, wilder. I made several poems a lot better because he said that. I tried to let my mind drift outward, or inward, beyond the poem. What else? What else could be there? I was learning to do consciously what had only happened occasionally and unconsciously before, that is to dig beneath the narrative for the rumbling deep levels.
“Do Not Peel the Birches” was the sign my grandfather nailed on the birch tree outside the cottage. I’d only recently begun coming back to the cottage every summer. So little was changed! I was obsessed with seeing, with seeing what was, with my imaginings of what was, of re-living, re-seeing.
We are without our men, hers dead
ten years, mine far away, the water
glassy warm. My old aunt already stands
half in. All I see is the white half,
her small old breasts like bells,
almost nice as a girl’s. Then we hardly
feel the water, a drag on the nipples,
a brush on the crotch, like making love
blind, only the knives of light
from the opposite shore, the shudders
of our swimming breaking it up.
We let the water get next to us
and into the quick of losses we don’t
have to talk about. We swim out
to where the dock goes blank,
and we are stranded, abandoned good flesh
in a black of glimmering. We each fit
our skin exactly. After a while
we come out of the water slick as eels,
still swimming, straight-backed,
breasts out, up to the porch,
illuminate, sexy as hell, inspired.