What cave paintings illuminate

The cave art near Montignac reminded me that in the grand scheme of things, I’m a total prima donna as an artist. I do appreciate a quiet room with a view, please, and the assurance no one will bother me for an hour or two, and a decent computer, and tea with honey. My fragile ego is hurt by rejections or simply being forgotten by the editors to whom I’ve applied for recognition. Other contemporary writers I know are even touchier and fussier. But those beautiful animations sponged onto limestone fourteen to seventeen thousand years ago? They required preparing candles by smearing reindeer fat on concave rocks and lighting juniper wicks (which smoke white). Minerals had to be ground to powder. Soft bits of hide could apply the paste of water and pigment, or lines of color blown through hollow bones–more prep work. Cro-Magnon artists studied the shape of the rocks, releasing bison or horses from the cave’s own curves, rather than imposing their own visions onto blank canvas. Then their grand museums fell into disuse, many of their paintings just silting away unless a layer of clay prevented seepage, as in Lascaux’s closed galleries. In those that survive, certain symbols may constitute signatures–of individuals, or of clans?–but no one can read them anymore. Oh, probably plenty of the artists were irritable and full of themselves, I’m sure, but what’s left of them is a spiritual submission to materials and landscape. There are no cave self-portraits like those in the Musée D’Orsay (or, ahem, in any blog). Hardly any anthropomorphic figures at all, and those deformed. Just beautifully evoked animals processing peacefully into the caves’ darkest reaches.

imageWe are now in the second half of a family adventure in France. During the first week in Paris, we ate baguettes and sorbet and toured every museum we thought our thirteen-year-old could possibly tolerate (the poor kid felt the need to avert his head from every female nude, so he developed a semi-permanent crick in his neck). I gave a reading in the wonderful Poets Live series, meeting the poet-organizer Pansy Maurer-Alvarez and having great but too-brief conversations with two of the writers sharing the stage (really, one end of a medieval cellar under an Irish pub): the terrific poets Sabine Huynh and Jennifer K. Dick. My French translator (isn’t that phrase glamorous?), Jean Migrenne, made a drive of more than two hours to come and hear me, and I had the pleasure of speaking with him for a little span, too. The whole experience felt charmed. In the next few days, in addition to waiting on line at the Eiffel Tower etc., I also did some legwork and writing toward a critical project–more on that another time.

Then we put poetry aside for a bit for three days in the Dordogne, visiting the reproductions at Lascaux II and miraculously getting 4 of the 78 visitor spots per day allowed in the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume–the last site of multicolored prehistoric cave paintings in the region still accessible to nonspecialists. The region’s food is amazing and we also spent an afternoon canoeing down la Vézère, so the weekend was perfect, really. imageNow we’re in Angoulême and I’m relaxing with the kids while Chris conducts research at the comic book museum. This is why I have time to write, being a prima donna who does not want to type after long days tromping through museums. Well, I do have a poem going about the cave paintings, but I’m doing much more note-dashing than actual writing during this leg of the trip. The children seem to be of the opinion that they deserve nutella crêpes every two hours, which cuts into my auroch-sketching time considerably.

See? Excuses, excuses, and I don’t have to grind up any ochre, even. Well, I’ll consider these weeks the equivalent of staring at herds and drawing hind-quarters with a stick in the sand. You have to stock your head with images, think things through, before you head into the cave, right? And even so, cave-painting is a mysterious business. No one really understands why people do it, or where the shadowy animals of their imagination may be heading.

Next stop, Brittany, cider, galettes. Then home before Independence Day. Since art is on my mind, too, I’ll mention a mid-July event: see here for notice of a reading at Writer House in Charlottesville. I’ll be talking about Carolyn Capps’ exhibition there and reading some poems based on her work.

West Chester, Walt Litz, Gwendolyn Brooks, and taking the purple veil

“The last thing I thought I’d be doing today is talking about Walt Litz,” Molly Peacock marveled to me. I’d admired her work from a distance but never met her until last week, when we ended up sharing a few lovely breakfasts at the Faunbrook B&B, before panels at the West Chester Poetry Conference. Over berry parfaits, I learned that her partner, Joyce scholar Michael Groden, had studied with A. Walton Litz decades ago. Walt was first reader for my own 1994 dissertation on Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, H.D., and Gwendolyn Brooks. Molly and I didn’t realize, as we spoke, that Walt had just died nearby, in a Princeton hospital.

I don’t know how many dissertations Walt directed, but I meet his former advisees all the time. At the 2012 T. S. Eliot society meeting in St. Louis, braver scholars were stripping down for a chilly dip at the Phlebas the Phoenician Pool Party. I was swapping Walt stories with other resolutely-clothed modernists and acquiring the name of his nursing home. Nervous about calling, I mailed Walt a note afterwards, but I never heard back.

In his glory days, Walt was a powerhouse of a department head, as well as one of the biggest names in the field. By the time I met him in 1990, he was growing frailer, but he was still fostering networks, dispensing favors, and teaching popular courses. He would take me to lunch at the Annex, a little basement restaurant near Firestone Library, before his three-hour afternoon seminar on the Modernist Long Poem. When I arrived at 11:30, the waitress would be whisking away two martini glasses and serving him a civilized glass of white wine and a boiled egg, though he couldn’t really eat much anymore. I’d order a grilled cheese and we’d chat. The Spenserian Tom Roche, lunching alone at a nearby table, would listen without embarrassment and sometimes chime in. Omar Pound might stop by and massage my shoulders in a totally inappropriate and disturbing way, trying to engage me in conversation about Lorine Niedecker. I was Persephone—treated royally but still trapped in a weird and slightly sordid academic underworld.

Even boozed up, Walt taught memorably; I still quote him in my own courses. I also served as T.A. for a couple of rounds of his undergraduate lecture course on modernism. He basically blew the dust off yellowed old notes before reading them aloud—a way I would never teach—but they were interesting notes. And then, in 1993 I think, he collapsed at the podium; an assistant professor named Doug Mao, who has since become a leading modernism scholar himself, took over the lectures; and Walt was ushered into retirement. I was one of the last students he helped with one of his legendary hire-this-person phone calls. In the winter of 1994 I had a campus visit at Washington and Lee. W&L still employs old guys who don’t want to work with women, but back then it employed many old guys who would openly say, “I don’t want to work with women.” English was fending off an EEOC lawsuit and needed to diversify pronto. I was told later that Walt, a genteel southern man who knew how to sound all the right notes, reassured them I was competent but not especially volatile, a safe compound to introduce to the department’s chemistry experiment. “She’s pleasant to work with,” he reported, “but she is not a doormat.”

I’m grateful to Walt for giving me good advice—about conducting archival work, negotiating my job offer, and a million other matters—while granting me space to follow my own stubborn muse. When I told him I didn’t like Four Quartets as much as the early Eliot, he smiled and said, “It’s a poem for middle age. Wait a couple of decades.” When I wanted to write about Gwendolyn Brooks, he was not pleased, but he nodded. His one response to that chapter, framed as compliment/ comeuppance, was also the most shocking thing he ever said to me: “You almost make it sound as if she were worth writing about.” I was too young and green to understand his prejudices, his generosity, or the potentially terrifying extent of his power. I just knew how to get along with alcoholic old guys, being my father’s daughter. Further, while my father was terribly pained by my independence of opinion, Walt seemed indulgent of it; I was grateful for some academic fathering that was mostly angst-free.

Molly Peacock & Marilyn Nelson, taken by Allison Joseph, who also rocked the house
Molly Peacock & Marilyn Nelson, taken by Allison Joseph, who also rocked the house

And how strange that Walt died while I was unpacking at Faunbrook! As I wrote last week, the last time I attended West Chester, my alienated alcoholic Republican father had just died at the Philadelphia V.A. Hospital and I was waiting for details about his funeral. So this will forever seem like the Dead Patriarch Conference to me. The event itself is full of men who operate in a sexist and racist way, as well as better folks trying to take deep breaths and maintain a positive attitude. I had stimulating conversations with old friends and new, but I also observed one distinguished poetic statesman onstage who kept egregiously passing over the raised hand of a younger African-American woman to call on older white people. I attended a number of moving readings and generative panels (Marilyn Nelson was particularly stunning), but I also saw members of a closed club congratulating each other ad nauseam.

You learn from the bad as well as the good, though. One of those breakfast conversations with Molly Peacock will haunt me. Echoing what female actors say about Hollywood, she told me that her metaphor for turning fifty as a woman poet is taking the purple veil. She observes others of her generation ceasing to be sexually desirable to the fifty- and sixty-something men in power, and therefore becoming invisible when it comes to the honors that waft towards some men in the same age-range. Some women pass through it by seventy or so, though, she said—good roles exist for grande dames and grandmothers. In the anniversary panel for A Formal Feeling Comes, the fix she prescribed to women was criticism-writing: don’t be afraid, she said, to frame the standards you’ll be judged by.

I wonder, as I march through my own forties, if I’m spending too much time blog-writing when I should be bombarding high-circulation magazines with my prose. Lots to ponder. In the meantime, thanks to all the West Chester attendees who were open, wise, and thoughtful. And thank you, Walt, wherever you are. I really am tremendously grateful for all you taught me. Even though I learned just as much from my paper mentor, Gwendolyn Brooks. Who is definitely, permanently, transcendently worth reading.

*

I’m not sure how soon I’ll post again because I’m off to France shortly: if you’re lucky enough to be in Paris next week, check out http://poets-live.com/. Also, I forgot to mention last week that The Receptionist and Other Tales made Ms. Mentor’s summer reading list for campus novels—woo-hoo!

Poetry, suspense, and reading Maria Hummel

She stared at the screen until her eyes ached, willing an email to flicker into existence: would the prospective poetry publisher like her new manuscript? See, that’s an example of raising suspense in prose, but good poems do that too. As Stephen Dobyns writes in an excellent essay, “Writing the Reader’s Life,” only discovered by this belated reader last week:

“The energy in a work–meaning whatever keeps us reading–comes in part from (1) the balance between what we know and what we don’t know and (2) how well the writer has made us want to know. A failure in much writing, especially poetry, is that the writer has not created sufficient tension, has not done enough to make us want to know. A failure in much writing, especially poetry, is that the writer has not created sufficient tension, has not done enough to make us want to know. If the writer takes the reader’s interest for granted, then he or she will fail.” (in Poets Teaching Poets, ed. Orr and Voigt)

In case you were in suspense after my last blog post about procrastination, I did in fact have a great writing week last week. I drafted a new chapter about “Suspense” in lyric poetry, focusing on House and Fire, a first collection by Maria Hummel. I started tracking her work in May 2012, when I spotted the amazing ghazal “One Life” in Poetry. Ghazals aren’t really supposed to be narrative–or at least linear–but this one raises several kinds of suspense: why does she stop believing in heaven? what happened in the accident? what’s the matter with her son and will he be all right? There’s also the beautiful formal suspension of rhyme and refrain, and the drama of how she handles the ghazal’s other requirements (if you know the form, for instance, you’re always curious to see how a poet includes a signature in the final couplet). Maybe perversely, after reading “One Life” I became anxious about Hummel’s real son’s well-being, and followed hints about it through individual poems in various magazines and, finally, this May, through her book. Maybe this isn’t what Hummel wanted me to want to know, but I did. Somehow she generated quickly in me that weird, not-quite-justified level of identification that turns a mild-mannered professor into an embarrassed but desperate poem-stalker. As a mother whose son has had a scary hospitalization or two, maybe I was especially primed for it, but I also think Hummel is just really good. (All the sons involved, by the way, seem to be okay, and mine is nearly ecstatic that it’s finally June.)

As I hoped, drafting this chapter helped me plan for this Saturday at the West Chester Poetry Conference. I’ll be speaking about genre, plot, and time and reading a little from “The Receptionist” in the panel “Narrative and Non-Narrative in the Book-Length Poem” (June 7th at 3:15). I’m looking forward to poetic conversation but I also feel a little strange about going. Last time I attended–in June 2012–my father had just died and I was in suspense about his military funeral, because his young widow, officially next of kin, wouldn’t tell us when and where it would be (shortly after the conference and nearby, as it turned out). I was also waiting on copies of The Receptionist and Other Tales: the long narrative poem at the heart of it was inspired in part by the bad behavior of certain administrators at my home institution, one of whom was still my dean, and while the book is truly fictional, I was quite worried about fallout. While at West Chester, I got the call that this toxic dean had been demoted–this is quite the punchline, so wait for it–TO MY DEPARTMENT. Where he still lingers. So even though the 2012 conference was full of wonderful events and meetings, including Natalie Gerber’s excellent seminar on free verse prosody, it still makes me sick to my stomach to remember it.

As for my opening tease about my current poetry ms, Radioland, this one largely about my father: don’t know yet. The publisher asked to see it exclusively in January and still has it, promising me a verdict by mid-June at the very latest. I felt relaxed about the process all spring. While I’d be honored to publish with this press, I feel strongly hopeful that someone will eventually want this book. It would just be nice to deliver it to the world sooner rather than later, I told myself. Now, though–probably because I finally have time to think–I’m getting seriously antsy. But, dear reader, both of us are just going to have to dangle a little longer.