Lines Composed in Bath a Few Days After Visiting Tintern Abbey

Lines Composed in Bath a Few Days After Visiting Tintern Abbey and Also Nottingham, Coleford, Netheravon, and Miscellaneous Places Viewed Accidentally Because We Forgot to Reserve a Car with Sat-Nav and Had No Map. June 22, 2015.

Twenty-six years have passed!–two advanced degrees,
two mortgages, two beauteous teens raised
to height if not to wisdom since I last
trudged complainingly uphill to gaze
upon the Royal Crescent; since I toured
the Roman Baths at student rates, and couldn’t
find an open pub at which to order cheaply.
Again I hear the angry-baby cry
of gulls and shiver in the English summer
drizzle. Again I fail at navigation
in the passenger seat of a hired car, calling
“Left!” down mazy B roads or into the coils
of roundabouts.

Yet Nottingham was new,
where Zayneb paced me past the trams toward
the castle and back to Wired, weaving the evening
into lace. And the puzzling mossy scowles we found
in a Welsh wood, where Nigel carried Ella
over yew bridges and slick mud, rust-hued.
It seemed a miracle to reach the abbey,
soaked clothes steaming in a sudden blaze.
The Wye rippled along, bright-scaled, as if
it were a sleeping dragon breathing. And next
day, the solstice, we steered past Stonehenge toward
a barbeque, where Boris the boxer chased
the terrier Molly round and round the garden
till she bared her fangs and jumped up on my lap.

If I could see into the life of things
or feel a Presence or hear the still sad music
of humanity, I wouldn’t presume to admit
it; trampling iambs into rubble with
my trainers is American enough.
Plus I’ve learned I’m “misophonic,” meaning
tormented by chewing and ticking and scraping,
and so the sadder human noises tend
to outscratch the musical intimations.
I need a white noise app to sleep, given
how the pigeons carouse and tourists flap.
Yet it’s pleasant to sit in the Pump Room
or try on corsets in the Fashion Museum,
dreaming of Austen heroines, or to look
on ruins overwritten by Romantic
musers, as if their lines still chime in each
damp breeze;–with each new scene a riffling
as of pages, worn soft now. Streets more dear,
and valleys greener, for my poets’ sake.

Apologies to Wordsworth, but this was too much fun to resist. We’re having a terrific trip so far, with a good balance of history, art, food, family, and walking around pretty landscapes. Bath is a great base. Chris is fairly busy teaching his creative writing workshop, but since he has superhuman energy levels anyway, he is still sightseeing with us some mornings and on the weekends, and our flat is so central (North Parade, between the Roman Baths and the cricket grounds) that taking the kids around by myself is simple. It’s a fifth floor walkup, though, so keeping the beauteous teens in groceries carried from Waitrose by hand is the biggest challenge. Here’s the view from the chair by the window beside which I composed these mortal lines.image

For any of you who know my “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand” essay, I’m reprising that experience, too. It was a great pleasure to meet Zayneb Allak and many of her teachers and fellow-students in Nottingham. The reading series at Wired Cafe has a wonderful energy, as do the creative writing staff at Nottingham Trent. And yesterday I drank my pot of chai with Carrie Etter who teaches here in Bath–and who already had a copy of Heterotopia, courtesy of Peter Covino at Barrow Street. Next stop: Liverpool, to read at the Blue Coat!

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.


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


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.

Big Poetry Giveaway 2014

big poetry giveaway 2014So it’s national poetry writing month again, and shouldering aside all the forces that prevent one from concentrating on any project in a dogged way, I am writing. The plan: draft a long poem, one section per day, for thirty days. The rules: I just have to write a little bit daily, at any time, under any conditions, doesn’t matter if I’m cranky or it seems bad, and I’m not requiring myself to share any of it while it’s in progress, though I may. Yesterday, being April’s fool, I performed my duty on our backyard trampoline. I perched up there with my laptop, typing as the sun set, shivering because I’d stepped into snowmelt in stocking feet. This morning I drafted for half an hour at a desk like a proper poet. Updates soon.

Meanwhile, I realized I’m just in time to fling some books at the universe in the Big Poetry Giveaway 2014 (thanks to Kelli Russell Agodon for organizing this!). If you want to be in the running to receive the following two books, just reply to this blog post by May 1st. I’ll then use a random number generator to select a winner, contact you for your address, and mail them to your planet of residence. Last year, I gave away my third and most recent collection, The Receptionist and Other Tales. Working backwards, I’ll give away two second poetry books this time:

heterotopiafrontHeterotopia, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize in 2010, selected by David Wojahn. These poems center on my mother’s childhood in Liverpool, England during the Blitz and the years of privation that followed. Here’s a lovely review by Julie L. Moore in Verse Wisconsin.

]Open Interval[ by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, a National Book Award finalist published by Pittsburgh in 2009. Not only is it an inventive, intellectual, beautiful book, but back in another millennium, when I was a new professor at Washington & Lee, Lyrae, nearing graduation, was my advisee. I’d like to take a tiny bit of credit for helping her get started as a poet, but nope: I just signed her registration forms. I’m going to hear her read at Hollins this Saturday, so if they have copies for her book on sale there, I’ll get her to sign it for you.

See Kelli’s master list for links to the pages of LOTS of other participating poets. Put your name into a lot of drawings and you may have a big pile of inspiring poems to read by the time those cicadas start buzzing (or, southern hemisphere readers, before snow falls).


Some good advice I received from Barrow Street editor Peter Covino about the manuscript of Heterotopia:  stop saying “I remember” so much. After all, he remarked—I’m sure I’m paraphrasing badly—isn’t “I remember” implicit in every poem? I received that comment with chagrined recognition. I’d even published a poem in my first book, Heathen, called “I Remember Last Weekend,” inspired by a friend describing his MFA classmates: their workshop submissions were often based on experiences about five minutes old, because they were, after all, mostly in their early twenties, and hadn’t had much tranquility for recollection yet. My snarky old title anticipated Peter’s suggestion and my subsequent revision program. I’d just forgotten.

This August, I found another bit of lost knowledge stashed and forgotten in a poem’s attic. I’d been having health problems all summer that were escalating from irritating to worrisome: heart palpitations, a persistent cough, and other weirdnesses that I’d been attributing to my increasing middle-aged decrepitude but, well, maybe not. A blood test suggested mold exposure. After I described last year’s flood and extensive renovations to an air quality expert, he said any mold probably wasn’t in the walls but in our old AC units. While I waited for him to come inspect the joint, I worked on old poems, and there it was, in a piece from several years back. I had used my inappropriately racing heart as a metaphor in some rickety ballad stanzas about the onset of summer. A click ensued: I’ve been having palpitations for ages, but only in the hottest months (and the least anxious ones for an academic, which should have tipped me off). When I sleep under a faint cool breeze from the moldy old AC units. Poem as medical history.

Poems can be wiser than their writers in far more significant ways than that. I’m teaching Robert Frost this week in a modern poetry class. He’s an example, surely, of a difficult human being, someone I might have disliked personally, whose poems nevertheless make the world a better place. It startled me, though, to reread his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes” and find such a mysterious description of the writing process there. A poem “inclines to the impulse,” he writes, “runs a course of lucky events,” and lands somewhere the author could not have predicted. He muses about “the surprise of remembering something I did not know I knew.” I recognize this sense of wilderness hovering around the edges of his well-ordered verse—something there is that does not love an iamb. I’d just forgotten.

I suppose all the poets I’m teaching in “American Poetry from 1900-1950” are going to seem strange to me this term, because the second course I’m teaching, on alternate days, is a first-year seminar on speculative fiction. The tales and poems on the latter syllabus obsess over the questions, What’s real? What are the rules? That persistent uncertainty about big problems resonates in me and it’s going to carry over to everything I read. Besides, Millay, H.D., Williams, Hughes, and the rest of the modernist crowd are great enough that if a question’s on your mind, you can probably see an image of it flickering deep in their poetry’s mirror.

Their poems are dirty mirrors, too, speckled by age, the kind that make you look strange to yourself—and the more you know about authors and contexts, the more provocatively filthy the poems seem. Yes, that’s a positive fungus metaphor (my moldy poems will come after my moldy blog posts, because the former take longer to ferment, but expect the motif to propagate). I know my hundred-year-old house will never be entirely free of invisible spore. I presume the spore are present for good reasons, too, even though they got out of balance in my particular secret ducts. I’m not freaked out by their alien proliferation, though I wish I’d noticed the problem sooner, and that it didn’t cost such a fortune to remediate.

I also wish I could clean out the toxins in my workplace as easily. I’m freshly crushed, this September, by the radical reconfiguration of a department I worked so hard to culture. Several individuals moved along of their own accord, for perfectly good reasons, though I miss them; and a former administrator against whom I’d brought complaints, even testified in legal battles, was bumped down into our midst. I can’t be comfortable at department events anymore or even in the halls. No one who has power to remediate the situation cares enough to do so—the trouble I make about it, after all, is almost microscopically small. Conversely, no one does care knows how to clear out the poison.

I can breathe in the classroom, though, and if elements get out of balance there, I can address the disorder myself. The other healthy space is the page: reading and writing can be disturbing and hard as well as joyous, but they’re good occupations. It’s not that these environments are sealed off from the rest of the potentially toxic world—they’re distinctly permeable by everything from market pressures to the Syria crisis to anyone’s lousy mood—but they’re premised on values not evenly respected elsewhere. Reason, fairness, complexity. But the student who is checking her cellphone under the desk, you say, who is cursing, like A.J. Soprano, that “asshole Robert Frost”? I think I can keep even that kid invested in literature’s idealistic questions, but maybe I’m crazy. It’s probably the mold.


My mother divested herself of all kinds of things last year—furniture, dishes, adulterous husband. On one of my visits she loaded me up with a bin of old papers and photos. I quickly divided them into four piles: one each for me, my sister, and my brother, and one for disposal. Then I left my pile in a corner of my bedroom for two months, not knowing what to do with it.

I looked through it recently before putting the stack in the ultimate Place of Repression—our chaotic attic—but plucked out one item for my office. It’s an old black-and-white postcard of Calder High School in Liverpool. My mother attended it as a scholarship girl in the fifties. A few years ago, I wrote a book of poems about Liverpool in that era, published as Heterotopia (“other place”) in 2010. Because I grew up on family stories of Vronhill Street and the Calderstones, that place and time still feels vivid to me: not vanished, just not easily accessible, an otherworld you can sometimes enter through the back of the wardrobe. See? I brought home a postcard.

Stories, poems, photographs can be time-travel devices when they absorb you sufficiently, though like doors to Narnia, the mechanisms aren’t entirely dependable. I’m always hoping to enable that step-into-the-fairy-ring effect, but other contemporary poets can be ambivalent about soliciting reader immersion. I’m currently teaching a seminar on poetry and place and we began with books about the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. All of them conjure up the pre-storm world, the terrible nightmare universe of flooded New Orleans, and the damage remaining. At the moment we’re reading Nicole Cooley’s Breach, in which narrative (a strategy of absorption) oscillates with fragmentation (anti-absorptive, insisting on our awareness of the poems as self-conscious assemblages). There’s a lot to say about Cooley’s compelling collection but for now, a glimpse:

Old Gulf Coast Postcards

Between the already-over and the now-gone, on a corner of the wrecked
downtown, in the Gulfport Pharmacy, my daughter and I spin the black rack—

Broadwater Beach. Biloxi Harbor. Pass Christian where two girls
splash in a Technicolor ocean so blue it burns your eyes.

Last year turned historical: Welcome to Dauphin Island! Greetings
from Waveland! Climb aboard the red and white ship

SS Hurricane Camille, docked at a wooden pier no longer outside.
At The Real Southern Ante-Bellum House, the azaleas

gleam play-doh pink, bunched and bursting off the columned porch.
We spin the rack, and I remember driving to Gulfport with my mother,

beaches my daughter will never see. Harbor, coast, skyline all relic.
Between the gone and the not-recovered, no one

steps out of their house to wave. No porch lights gleam.
Cadaver dogs sniff the dirt. At the edge of downtown, an ancient, twisted oak

lies uprooted, on its side, a sign labeling it Alive.

(online at the Poets for Living Waters site)

“Old Gulf Coast Postcards” works hard to situate us, from title through subtitle to the pharmacy’s location to captioned postcards depicting sites that no longer exist. It also works hard to disorient us through paradox: “between the already-over and the now-gone…between the gone and the not-recovered.” Nobody inhabits this unlocatable heterocosmica (“other world”), she tells us (although heterocosmica is my favorite new word, not one that Cooley uses!). The postcards offer a “Technicolor” vision where flowers bloom in unnatural Play-doh hues. Though these details suggest a childish or idealized perspective, Cooley emphasizes the continuing validity of memory when she ends the poem with an uprooted old tree labeled “Alive.”

I have no idea whether uprooted old oaks—live oaks?—can survive and be replanted, but in any case, I don’t think the poem’s final gesture is quixotic. Cooley doesn’t finish this poem’s final couplet because all fictional or poetic worlds, no matter how vivid, are incomplete. Actual people can’t live there anymore. Its poetic invocation is not mere fantasy, though, because fantasy is never mere. Somebody has to imagine persistence or that tree will certainly die. There’s a reason Cooley alludes to so many fairy tales and fantasy universes in this book. They retain crucial resources when so much else seems to be lost.

Myself the only kangaroo among the beauty

Researching poetic networks is making me feel anomalous. Partly this is just the familiar unfamiliarity of living in a different country, where every friendship is new and you’re never quite sure whether you understand people or they understand you. Some of my disorientation is minor and funny, like realizing in the middle of reciting “Spring-Sick” in Dunedin that oh, I have a northern hemisphere bias: April does not equal spring here. That was during an event at Circadian Rhythm organized by Emma Neale. She smiled down the long room, gave a brilliant mock flight-attendant introduction, and passed out candy in case our ears popped. When Diane Brown read some engaging sonnets about being an Aucklander dating a southerner and the possible local meanings of “southerner” began to explode in my brain, the psychic jet lag caught up with me. I had spent the morning wandering around a cloud-ridden city that reminded me of Liverpool, England; eaten terrific Korean food for lunch; watched the day turn brilliant from the tip of the Otago Peninsula, among yellow-eyed penguins and baby fur seals who gazed back at me curiously; and ended the day in an imaginary airplane, avoiding poems of mine containing swear-words, because New Zealanders are much more polite than people from New Jersey.

Being the featured reader at a poetry event in a city you’re visiting for the first time feels incredibly presumptuous. Here everybody is in the middle of their own long-running conversations, among friendships and rivalries and hierarchies you cannot detect. Even if you research the scene in advance, which I rarely find time to do well, you don’t figure out the important things until you’re driving away, or much later. How can you choose poems that will make those audience members glad they came?

After gawking at the stupendously scenic south island of New Zealand for much of the second half of April, I spent three days in Melbourne, Australia, giving scholarly talks and finishing with a reading among the mirrors and leopard-spotted throw rugs at Animal Orchestra. My visit was initiated by Jess Wilkinson, whom I met in San Diego, California at the Contemporary Women Writers conference in July 2010 (note how I don’t say “last summer”). I attended as many poetry sessions as I could, and so did she. We sipped wine by the hotel fireplace while Linda Kinnahan and Cynthia Hogue told us about the funniest crises they’d had to field as university administrators. We exchanged email addresses; although Jess was just finishing her doctorate at the time, she was hopeful that she could tap university funds to get me across the Tasman while I was down under. She seemed sparkly with delight during the whole conference, although she told me later what a rough year she’d had personally. When I met her again last week she wined and dined me with poets whose terrific work I should have known beforehand and didn’t, but they were nice to me anyway. After the reading I spent an hour talking about birth order, how to get work done, and what one should do with one’s life with Jess’ student, Daniel, and his friend, Hans, who is in medical school and aspires to practice anaesthesiology in disaster zones. Hans said this was his first poetry reading since his mother made him recite verses as a child to visitors, but he connected with Heterotopia after living in England, the Netherlands, Kuala Lumpur, and now Australia. As I anxiously prepared to read to poets whose work is quite different than mine, I could not have imagined Hans as a member of the audience.

Ann Vickery, who has published some of the most important scholarship on poetry networks, arranged a symposium while I was in Melbourne. Her very sharp paper on friendship both overlaps with and challenges my research into that slippery term community; I’m now thinking about whether friendship influences poetry itself more profoundly while community participation shapes the poetry’s dispersal and reception. And what are the boundaries of friendship anyway—is it fundamentally about feeling, the way community comes down to a subjective sense of belonging?  Reading poetry by a person you know has an intimate charge but it’s all refracted through literary imperatives, mixed up with fiction, and anyway, that leaves out most of the basic stuff that entangles you in another human being’s life. Most friendships revolve around shared attitudes towards work and family and politics and religion, what you like to eat and drink, what media you’ll admit to consuming, what you like to do on Saturday. Maybe those relationships are figments too, but they feel less illusory.

Among kangaroos, one’s American weirdness is brightly illuminated. I went back to the hotel after the reading and watched the royal wedding on television while typing in passport numbers for online check-in. I flew to Cairns and came back from snorkelling to pictures of other U.S. citizens cheering the death of an infamous terrorist. I still think that fish are real but the mask is so estranging and all you can hear is your own respiration, a Darth Vader-ish heavy breathing. The animals are watching me watch them and I probably don’t want to know what they’ll tell their real friends about me later.