About Lesley Wheeler

Lesley Wheeler is the author of Heterotopia (Barrow Street Press 2010), Heathen (C&R Press 2009), Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920's to the Present (Cornell University Press 2008), The Poetics of Enclosure: American Women Poets from Dickinson to Dove (University of Tennessee Press 2002), and the chapbook Scholarship Girl (Finishing Line Press 2007). With Moira Richards, Rosemary Starace, and other members of a dedicated collective, she coedited Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-po Listserv (Red Hen Press 2008). A professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, she has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the American Association of University Women, and the Fulbright Foundation.

Memorializing enslaved people at Washington and Lee

WandLMy seriously talented students are justifiably proud of their liberal arts college. The academic opportunities are excellent. Professors are dedicated to working closely with undergraduates in small classes and frequent office hours. The campus itself is lovely, staffed by friendly people, set in a charming small town, and surrounded by soft blue mountains. So the members of my winter course on African-American Poetry had mixed feelings when, as a January homework assignment, I asked them to read this timeline of African-Americans at Washington and Lee. They expressed pride about some entries, particularly the opening paragraph about John Chavis, the first African American to receive a college education in the United States; he completed his studies here in 1799, when we were still Washington Academy. Most entries dated from the 1800s up through the Civil Rights era, however, are shocking.

While my students read in and wrote about a rich poetic tradition–so much of which concerns history and memory–I asked them also to blog about a set of connected questions. Some of them came into the room already acutely aware of how race affects their academic and social lives, but I hoped everyone would begin to tune in to the prejudices that remain poisonously present here, not necessarily because we’re a southern institution but because we’re an American one. Wanting them to perceive also how racism can root deeply in a place, even in the bricks and mortar, I instructed them to take a walk, look around the physical campus, and analyze what implicit lessons art, architecture, and other elements teach about race at Washington and Lee. I limited blog access to class members, hoping to allow greater frankness. At the end of the class we decided to keep those limits. Students submitted lively posts I wish I could share more widely, though, on the sometimes-blinding-whiteness of this place–the “iconic white pillars” of our colonnade looming up out of the snow. “Whose tradition is it?” they asked, stepping back for a critical consideration of our buzzwords, and “Where’s the love for John Chavis?”–noting the prominence of statuary of white male slaveholders. One student remarked that the fraternities and sororities resemble plantation homes. Many of them noticed, too, that race isn’t the only elision: start counting portraits, for example, and you see how overwhelmingly white and male are the figures whose contributions we honor.

So how could we modify the implicit curriculum delivered by Washington and Lee’s physical campus? In particular, what commemorative work should we be doing on behalf of the enslaved African-Americans in W&L’s history? The timeline is an outstanding contribution, but most students have never seen it. It seemed to us that we need a range of monuments and events: some fixed or recurring, like statues and MLK Day programs, and some changeable. Student tour guides and Lee Chapel docents could have more to say about race here. There is curricular work to do and perhaps orientation programming. I’d love to see a permanent video exhibit in a major building, sampling a range of visual documents and texts (even poems–plenty of writers have studied here, including Christian Wiman and Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon). Our neighbor, the University of Virginia, is working on commemoration.  A pamphlet, some exhibitions–I know they don’t right the wrongs of the past. But they feel important to me just the same.

Of course, my class shouldn’t decide the scope or kind of remembrances we construct. That should be a big conversation involving many different constituents. On the other hand, the best work isn’t always done by committees. Sometimes artists and activists need to jolt the conversation. For now, I’ll let my students do it.

Junior Gingy Dixon observes: “On the lawn of the Colonnade stands an obelisk in honor of John Robinson, a man whose ‘donation’ of slaves is central to our university’s history. In Washington Hall, many artifacts and pieces of art related to George Washington sit in shiny display cabinets or hang below tasteful spotlights for visitors to admire. I take no issue with our school honoring its namesake benefactor and this nation’s first president, but I do take issue with the negligence of the people who built this hallowed institution and those who dared to bring about change… Wall plaques in Washington Hall bear etchings of influential monetary donors throughout the University’s history, which is fine, but it should also bear the names of the slaves who provided as crucial (if not more crucial) a service. They were treated as objects and not people because of their skin color, and therefore deserve to have their names displayed as prominently as the people who freely donated their money. Being a veritable institution of honor means honoring the past – ugly as it may be… if we own our history, we maintain our honor. Doing anything else is just weak.”

And from senior Brittany Lloyd, a Civil War buff and former Lee Chapel guide as well as a pretty damn good English major: “Remembering sometimes has to be gory and brutal and uncomfortable. It is easy to forget. It is vital to remember.”

AWP Haiku

Note to future self:/ skip panels on publishing/ and self-promotion.

I used to wonder/ how to break in. Now I want/ to write good. Backwards?

Rita Dove talking/ about anything is worth/ ten hummus buffets.

That’s as far as I got with seventeen-syllable crystallizations of my experience at this year’s annual meeting of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. You can tell I’m still delirious.

I missed a lot, having suffered some airport disasters en route and arriving twelve hours later that expected, but the thing is, you ALWAYS miss a lot at AWP. Attractive panels and readings are nearly always running simultaneously, and besides, there’s the bookfair, and the fact that human neural tissue rapidly becomes saturated–outdoor walks and episodes of hotel room decompression are crucial if you want to absorb even a fraction of the events running from early morning until midnight. Even if you pace yourself you at some point end up staggering through the exhibition room, arms full of books stored up for solitude, like a “drunken squirrel,” my friend Ellen aptly observed. Ellen was exuberant, though, her red hair lighting up the bookfair, and she even knew just where to go for lunch (Lotus for fabulous and cheap Vietnamese food).

I found myself thinking a lot about this during all those fragmentary conversations with friends in noisy rooms: who was thrilled to be at the AWP and who was thrown into existential crisis by the weird parade of it. One rhapsodized about getting her book signed by Ann Carson (to which I say: damn you, Chicago storms!). Another smiling, successful poet said, “Inside I’m…” She put her hands up next to her head like a specter from Munch and screamed, discreetly.

Iris bought me an absinthe cocktail at Ling and Louie’s called a Forbidden Dragon and beamed out positive energy: sitting next to her I was suddenly talking about how being here was a privilege and fizzing over with panel ideas. Another friend asked me how to handle people constantly overlooking or dismissing your achievements, and while I talked about making sure people know about your publications, and laughing merrily and referencing her eight peer-reviewed articles when they suggest that maybe publishing something would help her get a job, I know I answered her inadequately. After all, later that day I was in a post-teaching-panel Q&A and received an answer that I found a little condescending. I repressed my urge to stand up and shout: I’m a full professor at a teaching-based institution whose full classes receive rave reviews! Let me show you my state teaching award!!–This is one of my many reactions to AWP, every year. Seeing so many good writers striving to be seen, heard, and read fills me with cosmic despair. Any one of us is very unlikely to ever be the It-Girl.

The only thing that brings me back from the edge is refocusing my ambitions. Write as urgently and craftily as you can, I tell myself, so what’s on the page will hold up if the spotlight falls on you. Of course, NaPoWriMo is highlighting for me how poetry-writing is not really happening right now. The projects I feel most drawn to require archival legwork, that long slow hit-and-miss process of reading around for understanding and inspiration, and I’ve had little time for it.

So, what’s left? Service to poetry: buying, reading, listening, reviewing, celebrating, teaching, writing criticism. Cultivating receptivity.

Moments of clear, grateful reception: a fantastic panel on occasional poetry with Rita Dove, Richard Blanco, and others, who discussed how the challenge of the occasion redefines the how and why of poetry, tunes you to the intimate moments in public occasions, reminds you that people really do want poems, sometimes. A panel on black masculinities in which Tim Seibles read a new poem comparing a baby’s feet in utero to little crickets. A childbirth poem by Kevin Young in which he used “crocused” as a verb–he was really stunning. Carolyn Forche’s right hand fluttering over the podium to hypnotize us. Friends leaping from behind book tables to hug me, as if they were actually happy to see cranky me, swollen from travel and pho and poetry-bibbing.

 

Teaching Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

Teaching a single-author poetry book is a different enterprise than assigning poems from an anthology. There’s a lot more information to sift and process: the future greatest hits are interspersed with poems that may be harder to absorb; ordering, epigraphs, and subsections suggest new meanings; there’s an arc to read for, a set of through-lines to discover. Those carefully composed slim collections, though, are my favorite way to encounter a poet. Maybe it’s all that intensive concept-album-listening I did as a teenager. I love to consider lyric fragments as part of a larger design.

In most of my undergraduate poetry courses, I assign at least a couple of these volumes, often recent ones I want to study more closely. I typically place them in the second half of the semester, after close-reading skills are sharp enough to stay in balance with the larger thematic readings students often prefer to do. One I taught recently was Evie Shockley’s 2011 the new black, a brilliant book to close a course on African-American poetry because it’s so historically-minded, so diverse in its strategies and affiliations, that it has a scholarly or critical quality.

The very last book we read together, though, was Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, and for our last session I used an assignment I describe in the essay “Mapping Sea Garden,” collected in Annette Debo’s and Lara Vetter’s book Approaches to Teaching H.D. In short, I ask students to track some element of the volume and find a way to represent its recurrence on a single page. Then, for part of a class, each student brings his or her “map” (often a graph, list, or chart) up to the document camera, projects it, and talks through what he or she learned in the process.

I share a few visually striking ones below with the students’ permission, but they employed a wide variety of conceptual and graphic approaches, as fits such a complicated and visually-oriented book. The first presenter tracked animal references, which turn out to be quite prominent–he divided them into “predators” and “ruminants.” Others made lists of sensory references (there’s a full range, less tilted to vision than you might expect); emotions (they cool over the course of the book); or types of human interactions (strangers outnumber friends or colleagues). They were attracted to motifs such as rain, blossoms, and mouths. All of those strategies highlight important aspects of the book: its vividness, sense of danger, preoccupations with speech and wayward feeling.

citizen word cloud Cynthia Lam wrote down every woman’s name, counted its recurrences, and created this word cloud. “Serena” dominates, even when you count the possessive and the full name, “Serena Williams,” separately.

citizen stencil

The next, by Anna Kathryn Barnes, with its stencils and handwritten notes, seems to me to document a very personal process of reading–that experience of words and images lodging in your mind, haunting you, for reasons that may be idiosyncratic.

citizen skullsThe same is true of the third piece pictured here, with its temporary tattoos of flowers and candy skulls. Its creator was thinking of masks, pronouns, and personas, but the swirling quotes also convey an emotionally charged encounter with Rankine’s challenging book.

Citizen body

A final favorite is more intensely blue in the original than my photograph–the reader wrote down all Rankine’s uses of the word “body” and discovered how often the word “blue” appeared in conjunction with it.

Onto their last assignment now, self-chosen: each student has to write a review of a book published by an African-American poet in the last 15 years, and the poet has to be someone whose work we haven’t studied together.  I’m excited to hear their presentations today.

As far as my own work for National Poetry Month: oy. I did manage to get a poetry submission in, and I wrote an unusual number of words for a weekday during the teaching term, but my writing impulses were totally perverse. I worked on a hybrid critical-personal essay I’ve been cooking up concerning Claudia Emerson’s Pharaoh, Pharaoh. I started drafting this blog. I also wrote the first scene of what might be a NOVEL. Here’s hoping I’ll at least experience that phenomenon of accidental productivity through misbehavior…

Intention / haplessness

As usual, I’m tripping over my own sleepy feet into National Poetry Month, knowing I should have a WRITING PLAN but instead feeling indecisive, half-awake. April is when W&L’s winter term ends in a flurry of meetings, receptions, and papers; exam week and spring break, which are relatively calm, occupy the middle; and by the last 10 days or so I may or may not be teaching one of W&L’s hyper-intense 4-week spring courses, meeting 15 undergraduate poets for a couple of hours daily and otherwise grading and planning like a demon. It’s rough to establish a writing schedule during those transitions, but on the other hand, it’s a moment when the earth is all churned up inside and out, and those are fertile poetry times for me. I get much less done during winter’s still darkness.

I began observing NaPoWriMo in 2012, drafting a poem every day that April, and it was an amazing season: I wrote some good stuff and made real progress as a writer. It was also my first spring in two years, because of a six-month stay in New Zealand where the seasons are flipped, so I went from light-starved to ecstatic sun-worshiper in the most intense attunement to spring I’ve ever experienced. In May, my father died, so I wrote furiously all summer and fall, too. Those poems form the core of my next book.

April 2013 was less successful, even though I spent part of the month at a writer’s retreat, perhaps because I didn’t need the release so desperately. In 2014 I shifted approach and wrote a long poem in a section per day, using Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale for prompts. I recently revised “Propagation” for a contest submission. It begins, as the excerpt below shows, with a middleaged woman about to walk into the woods for a solitary hike; she may or may not be accidentally pregnant, but she’s also unhappy and trying to figure out what to do next. I loved researching the local wildflowers as they bloomed on our back campus as well as experimenting with different forms and styles from day to day. The first section is below, just to give you the scent of it.

The deal I’m striking with myself now: as of tomorrow I have to spend at least 20 minutes per day working on poetry. I can write, revise, or just read and think and plan, but I have to prioritize it, including during the AWP. Even if your life is nuts in April, it’s a good discipline to remember that you can carve out little blocks of concentration for what’s important. You just need to make really living your life–as opposed to checking email or hitting snooze or whatever else gets you into trouble–non-negotiable. Wish me luck.

1

An edge will sharpen later:
  bright lot / chilled shade.
Now, at April’s front door,
  the woods begin
imperceptibly.
  Wizened sycamores
crook twig-fingers—come in, come
     in—but their kitchen
vents through a thousand
  seedy chimneys. No
green shingles yet
  divide the interior
from ruminating stars.

  Inside me another
brambled sleeping world:
  another boundary to breach.
Anger / desire. Inside
  me a felted bud may
be fattening. Embryonic
  summer. Infant
premonition of forest.

Postcard for Jean

Today I’m thinking of my much-loved Aunt Jean, who died at her home in England this morning. I came to know her best in 1988, when I stayed with Jean, my Uncle Pete, and my cousin Nigel in Cyprus for three weeks. I was studying abroad at the University of Southampton and, during a long term break, my friend Mary Beth and I decamped to the Mediterranean Island where my uncle was stationed on a British military base. They lived in a large, cool house with views of the sea. That trip remains one of the greatest adventures of my life. Jean and Pete drove us up mountains, through blooming orange trees, and through every interesting ruin around–I loved everything about the place.

Paphos

It’s funny to look back at these old pictures–Jean and Mary Beth in Paphos, Jean and Nigel clambering around on the rocks–and remember that the kind-hearted, warmly-smiling woman taking such good care of other people’s children must have been younger than I am now. Jean and Nigel

JeanEgypt

Towards the end of our trip, she encouraged us to take a brief cruise from Cyprus to Israel and Egypt. We barely had money for it and shared some pretty austere windowless bunks in the bottom of the ship; we were also the only Americans aboard, though there were Canadian UN peacekeeping troops, I remember. That’s 20-year-old me–I bet they don’t let you climb pyramids anymore.

I took my own kids to visit Jean, Pete, and Nigel in 2006, when I was conducting research for Heterotopia, a poetry collection concerned with my mother’s childhood in wartime Liverpool. There were bowls of stone and wooden eggs Jean had collected over the years. We also took a walk during which my young daughter was stung by nettles. Jean stopped and showed her what nettles looked like, and also pointed out dockweed growing nearby. When she plucked some dock leaves and rubbed them briskly over Madeleine’s legs, it seemed to soothe her–or at least she was distracted by the spectacle.

The poem below was written shortly after that visit and eventually appeared in Heterotopia. I’m not sure why I imagined myself hatching out of Jean’s eggs, but I know I always felt a few degrees happier around Jean, a little more trusting in the world’s potential goodness. I hope she’s in some kinder country than illness now, and wish I could send her a thank-you note.

Inland Song

In some kind houses the doors
never quite shut. Every table
hosts a bowl of eggs—wooden ones
or striped stone, cool to touch.

What could grow in such an egg?
A day becomes a story becomes a bird,
a lost seagull who shrinks each time
I describe him. Watch him fold

his filigree wings, crawl into
the shell. His song wasn’t much,
but he tries to swallow it,
as if he can retreat

to an ornamental state
of potential. This is not possible,
even in an inland village named
Barnacle. Just brush your fingers

over the eggs as you leave,
memorize the feel of the grain.
The paths are thick with nettles,
but if they sting, rub the blisters

with a fistful of dock. Pain
and consolation grow next
to each other, in some kind
countries. House and wing.

Lucidity, difficulty

As a grader of zillions of undergraduate essays, I hate the word “relatable.” I never let “universal” sneak through a poetry class without interrogation. I understand why some critics mock the word “accessible,” as if poems could be built to code with wide ramps and handrails. Relatable to whom? People don’t have equally easy entry to literature’s many universes. Asali Solomon, author of the great new novel Disgruntled, observed to me on Friday that while there’s contemporary poetry she approaches with goodwill yet still doesn’t understand, she gets the experimental work of Harryette Mullen.I’ve had similar experiences, and so have you: one kind of obliquity alienates, while another attracts, intrigues, or even makes deep sense. It’s changeable, too. A book that repels you now might be just what you need in 2025, providing we survive the zombie plague AI-takeover eco-apocalypse.disgruntled

Solomon was part of a panel discussion here Thursday with Helena Maria Viramontes. (Evie Shockley was prevented from coming by what had BETTER be Virginia’s last snowstorm of 2015.) The title of the event was “At the Crossroads of Literature and History” and one question we posed to the visitors was how each thought of audience. Part of what Solomon answered, if I’m remembering right, is that she wants to involve us in the world of her West Philadelphian character Kenya, but not explain that world. That is, some readers may receive the story with delight, seeing their own experiences there, and for others the book will illuminate unfamiliar territory. But the book isn’t necessarily for one kind of reader more than another.

Now that the contract is signed-sealed-delivered, I can publicly announce that my own next book, Radioland, is scheduled for September 2015 publication by Barrow Street Press, the same folks who did a beautiful job with my second poetry collection, Heterotopia. Most of the poetry they publish seems more experimental or difficult than mine, in my own imperfect judgment: I’d say their list has an intellectual character throughout a pretty good range of styles. The editors nudge me gently, respectfully towards intensifying rather than clarifying poems, if that makes sense. I think they’re right, so as I finalize the manuscript I’m paring away a few of the first-person pronouns and other bits of language that are probably implicit. It’s like boiling down stock, only for months or years rather than a few steamy hours.

I like the book better the more time I spend with it, but I am aware that all this sauce-reduction will make the poems more challenging. I ponder the cost/ benefit analysis constantly, because I firmly believe that while playing to poetry insiders is an effective short-term game, it’s short-sighted. “Intense” is good but “off-puttingly obscure” undercuts the ultimate value of one’s own verse AND does a disservice to poetry generally. The more poets aim to please a rarefied audience, the smaller our audiences will deservedly be.

I don’t think there is a universal sweet spot for me or anyone else, as far as judging levels of difficulty. As I started off by saying, accessibility is idiosyncratic. I did just finish reading a poetry collection, though, that I could recommend to anyone. Sometimes I buy or order a very good book and then don’t pick it up for ages; it’s revealing to me that I sank into Jeannine Hall Gailey’s brand-new The Robot Scientist’s Daughter as soon as I had a free hour. Her previous three collections were good reads, sources of pleasure unalloyed by irritable puzzling, complex but not alienating, so I (rightly) trusted this would be too. RSD

Look at a book’s layout and much becomes clear, even if it’s only a given author’s resistance to clarity as a literary value. In this case the cover art in itself is readable; the title and subtitles imply a narrative grounding; there are discursive notes naming research sources at the back. Even more unusually, an introduction by the poet describes her upbringing near the Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee, where her father consulted on nuclear waste clean-up. Gailey situates her poems in several contexts. Her poems tell an urgent story about the long term dangers to the natural world and to human health of nuclear power. They also vividly invoke the beauty of Appalachia even as it is rendered toxic to human and nonhuman residents: I particularly loved all the natural detail about wasp nests, identifying mushrooms, brewing carcinogenic sassafras tea. Her lush green childhood seems idyllic but at so many junctures is nearly fatal. Gailey also teases out resonances between her own life and the conventions of science fiction, too, in a way that’s political and playful, for she’s obviously a fan as well as a canny critic of the genre. But I’m not a critical wizard to see these things: she signals her affiliations and commitments clearly.

I know from Gailey’s blog that it took her a long time to place this book, which strikes me as pretty weird. This collection will interest many kinds of readers, plus she’s a smart self-publicist who will do lots of readings and get the word out. She’s particularly good at drawing in audiences who are not poetry insiders. And she’s a sane and pleasant person—these qualities all seem like the ones I’d look for, if I were a book editor. Did Gailey’s investment in reaching a wide variety of readers actually make her publishing path harder, I wonder?

When I was twentyish, my poems were obscure because I wasn’t doing the work of thinking them through, or wasn’t willing to reveal what I really did think. Teaching undergraduates made me put a premium on clarity, but during the last ten years of building a poetry-publishing career I’ve felt a lot of these little nudges back towards a more elliptical voice. Force sustained through every necessary word in a brief space: I value that. But I never finish a poem now, even a highly condensed and/or formally experimental one, until I know what’s urgent about it and could state some version of the crux in simple declarative sentences. My intentions are embedded in the work. Is that my sweet spot?

I don’t know, but then, the difficulty of figuring out the best way forward is what drew me to poetry in the first place. There is no way to become expert; I will never be sure of myself.

The important stuff

On Thursday afternoon of last week I thought I’d organized all my obstreperous administrative ducklings into a row and marched them off into a soft-focus sunset. Or, if that metaphor isn’t working for you, you could say I was heading into Washington and Lee’s weeklong break with a clear desk and a nearly-empty email box, ready to produce a stellar grant application for the NEH Public Scholar Program (due 3/3, yikes) and prepare to give a talk and a reading at Roanoke College on 3/24 and get my final revisions of my poetry manuscript to my publisher and relax and read several books and, oh yeah, maybe do a little work on current writing projects.

Well, THAT was foolishness. A minor bomb dropped on Friday at noon, and since these bombs often have my name painted on the side like I’m Wile E. Coyote or something, here I am shifting personnel around again on my mental chessboard, spending hours reorganizing our course offerings and conferring with colleagues. In the face of unanticipated bureaucratic responsibilities, triage: of all the NON-department-head work I meant to do this week, what’s the most important?

The rational answer is the grant, since that deadline is the soonest and its success would have the biggest potential impact on my life. I’m working on it. But I’ve also slept in some and read aloud excruciatingly funny passages to my son from Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, a book Deborah Miranda gave me last fall and which I found again this past Sunday under a pile of papers. Both kids have been home due to school closures and now, for Cam, a bad head cold. Lawson’s memoir is hard to read aloud, because you start weeping with laughter and can’t see the pages, but this almost-futile exercise still goes on my important list. I’m hyper-aware that our family will change when Madeleine goes off to college next September, so I find myself treasuring non-productive interactions with my kids, like our rambling dinner discussions about presidential politics and time travel.

Teaching feels important too, but breaks from it are helpful. Poems and essays have been harder to believe in, and therefore to heave into being. I’m rarely as poetically productive in the winter as in other seasons—maybe my muse is a hibernating bear—but I’ve had a particularly intense existential despair about it in the past few weeks. You know, the usual poet thing: what’s the point of striving at an art so few people want to read? I’ve gotten over such fits of reasonable bleakness before, so I presume I will again. I tell myself the despair is triggered by bad weather, or steroid withdrawal (the sciatica is finally somewhat better), or exhaustion at the prospect of promoting another book later in the year. At any rate, poetry has always wandered back, so I don’t really fear it’s abandoned me forever. And as I reread the Radioland manuscript, too, while I do keep finding improvements to make, I also think: you know, this is good work. I can help it find its way in the world.

While I ponder my menagerie of ducklings and bears, here is a guest blog on some other important stuff for the Tahoma Literary Review. It refers to a poem, “Sticky,” in their current issue. You can download a free electronic copy of the issue here (or order the print version). Thank you, kind and supportive editors of the world. Now this coyote, super genius grant candidate, has to make like a roadrunner after the fellowships, dodging work-missiles along the way: wish her luck.

The Unbeliever Takes a Hike

The Unbeliever Takes a Hike

Winter is a cracked path, all the plush of moss
and needles, mulch and soil swept away
by the god of water. I have no choice

but to sit down or follow it, so I follow, day
after heathen day, sometimes watching my feet
lest I trip on an exposed blade of shale,

usually muttering, indiscreet,
since no one is listening. Once in a while
the sheen on the creek will interrupt

my monologue, its coppery greens will spill
into the air and I remember about
the world. Its shadows crowd, its leaves fall

with no display of self-regard, no doubt
that spring will come again with crocus,
clouds, and frilly tender feelings. Devout

branches pray their red beads with breezy hocus-
pocus: they believe in the slanting sun, its power
to bring them to life when it wishes. So, I focus:

I can at least believe in looking. I stare
over the bank’s edge, where the burble has skin
like a cold pudding, and see filigreed feathers,

ice shaped like a dove, like some spirit-sign,
where two bare branches dangle in a cross.
The creek looks back at me, without design.

I recently included this poem from my first collection, Heathenin a winter-themed reading at the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival. Afterwards an editor said, hey, we may want to link to it when we publish you later this year, so I went looking for the poem online. It turns out “Unbeliever” was a Poetry Daily selection years ago, but it has now rotated out of the archive, so voila, this blog post hereby resurrects its virtual body.

I must have first drafted it at least seven years ago, but it’s a touchstone poem for me. “I can at least believe in looking” remains a mantra: I can rarely fix what’s wrong with the world, but at the very least I can attend to the lives and scenes around me, the beauty and the suffering. I still take that particular walk by Woods Creek all the time, and I really did see an ice-cross one day while I was thinking about my own irreligiousness. And terza rima remains my favorite inherited form for its propulsive energy, although I almost always skid through it on some pretty dicey slant rhyme.

I had forgotten, though, until I dug through my old computer files, that right up until I finalized the book manuscript, the poem had a different last line:

Chills. All this nature a prank to take me in.

The earlier version is more cynical, isn’t it? I have a hard time with endings so last-minute fussing around is typical, but in this case I’m particularly glad I reimagined it. For one thing, the revised ending is just truer: the natural world has its own agency, but not of a malicious kind. To think that the ice-cross was all a big set-up, a mind-game: that’s pretty hubristic. Poe in the snow

A larger point, though, is that to increase the openness of a poem is often to make it a better poem. I know this is true when writing about human relationships: when I can manage to acknowledge the humanity (and maybe the sacredness?) even of hurtful people, that generosity complicates and enriches the work. Why shouldn’t that principle be the same in representing human relations with the nonhuman? I’m still not sure I arrived at the best possible endpoint in “Unbeliever”–the Frost reference seems heavy to me now–but “the creek looks back at me,” yes, that acknowledgement feels right. We’re both burbling along, minding our own business, and then we notice each other. Maybe we can’t really know each other’s “minds,” but there’s a flow or a moment of connection, no more or less imaginary than any other relationship in my life. That’s close enough to god for me.

 

Pain, pleasure, and Spottswood Styles

Ghosts of poetry: once, on the current site of Washington and Lee University’s theater, there stood a brick house with a stone fireplace “so large that we could burn whole railroad ties without having them cut.” It belonged to Spottswood Styles, 1869-1946, “Lexington’s Negro Poet.” I’m quoting from volume seven of the Rockbridge Historical Society Proceedings, provided to me by Tom Camden, Lisa McCown, and Seth Goodhart, who staff Special Collections. An introductory note signed “A.B.H.” informs us that Styles, one of fourteen children and father of ten, was born west of town near the Lucy Selina Furnaces, to John Robert Styles, formerly an enslaved person who worked forges that supplied iron to the Confederacy. Spottswood Styles probably obtained only an elementary school education, but he was a good mechanic who provided for his family by working at a “wood, coal, and machinery yard,” and he directed his creative energy in all kinds of ways. Deborah Sensabaugh, who wrote about Styles for the Lexington News Gazette in 1990, cites a grandson’s recollection of how Styles rechanneled a small stream from Woods Creek and “placed little waterwheels that turned mechanical items.” There were swings and see-saws, too, and “carved wooden men with jointed arms.”

Styles is the man with a child on his lap, according to the Rockbridge Report

Styles is the man with a child on his lap, according to the Rockbridge Report

Styles’ poetry was read aloud in church and published in the newspaper. Like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Styles wrote both in vernacular and standard English, and was particularly cited locally at this time of year for a piece called “Dat Ground-Hog Day.” “Some say I’m Juverstetious,” it begins, a comic error reprised suggestively in the next stanza: “Well, yes, I’m superspecious.” Several lines down he rhymes “Door” and “Low” to highlight the intensity of the accent. It’s an appealing poem that resonates strongly with the trickster tradition Henry Louis Gates, Jr. identifies in African-American literature: not only is the Ground-Hog an underground character whose “Ebry Little Sign” needs attention and decoding, but he even prognosticates an upsurge in coal and wood orders, benefitting the author’s business interests. (Tom also sent me a 1997 ad from the same paper sponsored by Herring Real Estate. “In Honor of Black History Month and Spottswood Alexander Styles, a Lexington Poet,” the ad quotes a drastically changed and standardized version of the “Ground Hog Poem”—I can guess why someone erased the dialect, but I’d still very much like to know who did the rewriting.)

I don’t have access to the ledger in which Styles transcribed his poems, and maybe it doesn’t even exist anymore, but it would be fascinating to examine the source of the few poems preserved by the Historical Society. (Sensabaugh says Styles wrote his poems on delivery tags for coal customers, too, but those must be long vanished.) An essay prefacing the short selection, by Houston Barclay, is fond but condescending: “What would our history be without the Negroes who added so much to our way of life!” Hmm. More tactful is a comment from Robert Frost, who visited the university in 1941 and remarked of Styles, “His work, judging from the few samples I have seen, shows a very poetic mind.” But genuinely, I like this work, and have so appreciated these glimpses of a talent who lived a few blocks from me but in a profoundly different world. The vernacular poems are spirited, sly, and very much in conversation with nineteenth and twentieth-century verse: they are, in short, a pleasure to spend time with.

In a more solemn mood, “Uncle Henry,” recounting Styles’ grandmother’s story of a son sold down the river, gives testimony of pain. His grandmother responds to this terrible rupture in her family by praying, “Lord break the Chains of Bondage, and set the Captives free./ Bring back my boy, dear Jesus, be merciful Lord unto me.” In the final couplet, breaking the chains of his own quatrains, Styles observes: “‘Twas at Appomattox Virginia when God through Grant had spoken,/ And General Lee gave up his sword, the slavery Chain was broken.” Writing from Lexington soon after Lee-Jackson day with its parade of flaggers, I feel relieved by this alternate vision. Styles honors Lee, not Grant, through the title “General,” yet God speaks via Union forces. This heathen could almost say: amen.

I’ve been haunted by the nineteenth-century U.S. South lately in my reading, my teaching, and the historical flashbacks enacting themselves around me. I’ve also been managing my own small, personal pain—as the doctor just confirmed, sciatica. But there’s been a lot of joy lately, too. It was such a pleasure to take my class to Special Collections—Tom handed around an 1802 New Hampshire edition of Phillis Wheatley, for heaven’s sake. What a privilege.

And at the doctor’s office, the nurse said she’d been waiting for me to have another health problem for months, because she’d fallen in love with Mary Oliver’s verse and could explain the experience only to me. She and I had previously talked about poetry helping to make contemplative space in life, I guess—as she put it, “one of those crumbs you drop sometimes, not knowing where they’ll lead.” She had said she was intimidated by poetry and I answered that everyone is entitled to like what they like, although it can be hard to find the poetry that will really help you. She then went on vacation and took a yoga class with a teacher who read aloud “Why I Wake Early.” Afterwards this nurse who didn’t really read poetry bought the book, memorized the poem, and now says it to herself every morning, cultivating gratitude and kindness with the help of Oliver’s lines. “We run around chasing things,” she said, “but you can find what you need if you just stop.”

It moves me to have played the tiniest role in that discovery—Mary Oliver and the yoga teacher really deserve the credit, and the nurse herself does, too, for being open and thoughtful despite a million pressures to the contrary.  Maintaining openness despite pain is the trick, isn’t it? This winter, I seem enmeshed in surprising connections. Juverstetious, too, and alert for signs.

*For the story of unlikely coincidences behind the photograph, see The Rockbridge Report. The woman who must have been his wife–I don’t know her name–has been appearing in my dreams.

Family syllabus

Reading is often a business of following trails for the love of it. In preparing to discuss Paul Laurence Dunbar with my African-American Poetry course last week, I reviewed Meta DuEwa Jones’ wonderful study The Muse is Music—inspired by that book’s introduction, in fact, I extended our conversation about Dunbar’s vernacular verse by playing recordings of “When Malindy Sings” by the Fisk Jubilee Singers (1909) and the jazz singer Abbey Lincoln (1961). Jones quoted an essay called “Dunbar Lives!” by Elizabeth Alexander, so I looked it up and it’s wonderful, too. Alexander describes her father reciting Dunbar’s “The Party.” The 19th century poet was on her 20th century “family syllabus.” The same is true, she discovers, for lots of other African-American poets, although reading Dunbar’s work in school seems to be rarer.

I reported Dunbar’s influence to my wonderful students then surprised myself by asking, “What was on your family syllabus?” Blank looks.  I don’t entirely believe them; I bet some of their parents and grandparents said, “oh, you have to hear this song/ watch this movie/ read this book,” even if there wasn’t any oral recitation happening in the rec room. I’m sure my spouse and I are more professorial with our kids than many parents, but privilege and education are only part of what might drive family members to share the art they love. My mother and grandmother received half as much formal education as my father or I did—around ten years vs. twenty-plus—but they transmitted much more culture than my father, with the result that, growing up on Long Island and in New Jersey, I felt more connected to my mother’s Liverpool than I did to my father’s childhood home of Brooklyn. My mother handed me books she grew up on, including Austen, the Brontës, Shakespeare, Tennyson, and much odder bits of British children’s fiction (one of these days I have to find and reread Captain Marryat’s Children of the New Forest). My grandmother also brought books from England (I’m pretty sure Enid Blyton collections were packed in those suitcases alongside the chocolates), and she taught me old songs like “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.” Neither of them recited poems unless in half-remembered fragments, but my mother recalls the childhood entertainment of her father’s rendition of “Casabianca.” I memorized poems for fun back then, including nursery rhymes and songs from Tolkien’s books; it didn’t seem so weird.

Well, my mother grew up without electricity or indoor toilets, much less television, so through her I’m a generation closer to a necessary, vibrant oral culture than many Americans my age, and perhaps multiple generations closer than most of my students. My own kids were never interested in learning my grandmother’s songs (my off-key singing helped discourage lessons), but they hear Louis Armstrong recite “The Night Before Christmas” every year, and I whiled away many hours of baby-care by singsonging rhymes I’d learned by heart decades earlier. And, by accident and design, sometimes successfully and sometimes to hoots of derision, we introduce them to books and movies and music that shaped us. Sometimes we track down references together: after watching Boy in New Zealand, for example, we showed them Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” In a more deliberate way, I read aloud authors I’d loved as a child—Lewis, Le Guin. We played Joss Whedon’s television canon (delight!) and my collection of David Bowie on vinyl (not so much!). My husband indoctrinated the kids in arcane superhero lore and makes CDs of Not to Be Missed Songs of the New Wave. An exclamation such as “What? How can you not know Billie Holiday/ The Matrix/ ‘Kubla Khan’?!” still interrupts dinner pretty often, and out comes the laptop or the anthology. I’m not sure to what extent these family texts teach them who they are, except they surely know they’re nerd-spawn.

I’ve introduced poems, though, less often than you might expect. Setting out a family literary syllabus with educational intent rarely works. My children did not want to hear Yeats before our Ireland trip, although they showed more interest afterwards. My recommending a novel can guarantee the kid won’t read it. Bringing up a poem in a spirit of play, as Alexander’s father did, is much better. What I enjoy most of all is helping my kids follow their own leads. They don’t read a ton of poetry at school, but there was one memorable night they realized they’d learned slightly different versions of an Emily Dickinson poem. I explained about her variants then they immediately launched into an argument about which word choices were better. Voila! Instant English class!

This was a rough week for me—I’m enjoying a bout of sciatica and by the time evening comes, I’m exhausted by pain. (Yoga, heat, and rest this weekend have helped a lot.) It’s been a pleasure, though, to talk books through the haze. A few days ago, Madeleine explained over pasta why Toni Morrison is her favorite author (“the way she gets into the heads of even the most terrible people—a lot of my moral education has come from her. Plus, the sentences”). I suggested to my son, who was between books, that he might be old enough now to enjoy Lev Grossman’s novels, and he announced that, nope, he planned to remain loyal to Austin Grossman, “the superior twin” (every conversation also occasions sibling rivalry). And while taking a practice AP test, Madeleine became distracted by the beauty of “Dover Beach” and wanted to talk to someone about it, so I read it aloud and chatted. “You have a good poetry voice,” my son commented, while apparently absorbed by Terraria on his phone.

And Friday morning, after a week skim-reading a book required for her English class, Heart of Darkness, in a rage over its offensive treatment of Africans, my daughter came downstairs and remarked, “I read this amazing essay by Chinua Achebe and I feel much better.” She resolved to reread Conrad more carefully, adding, “I didn’t know famous authors wrote criticism, too.” “So your teacher didn’t assign the Achebe essay?” we asked. “How did you know about it?” Apparently she just went looking.