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.