Writing the motherland

“How many of you,” Betsy asked the audience, “think you know your mother’s mind, maybe better than she knows herself?”

Whoops, I thought, raising my hand. That’s arrogant of me. But trying to read my mother’s mind was one of the most urgent and constant occupations of my childhood and teenage years, and I’ve kept up that imaginative work, writing poems from her perspective in Heterotopiaand eighteen months ago, trying to negotiate her into hospitalizations she was resisting. “She’s English” is one of the ways I’ve explained it to others and myself–meaning concealment of suffering is an ingrained impulse with her, forcing me into detective mode. But of course it’s not just that. Many of my friends report the same frustrated efforts at maternal telepathy. And I pass silence down the generations when I clamp my own mouth shut. Sometimes I so fear saying something wrong to my daughter that I say nothing which is, of course, another harmful message.

Early on, my daughter became my very best mind-reader. “You have a tell,” she coolly informed me when she was seven. “When you lie, you raise the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence.” I was gobsmacked, still am, and think of her every time I try to conceal my own woes but my voice slides up an octave.

borderlands-draftMother’s Day is not far off, but mothering is also on my mind because I just got back from the CityLit Festival in Baltimore, where I was participating in a celebration of Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland, edited by Jane Satterfield and Laurie Kruk. Laurie had flown down from Canada for the weekend and read from her contribution, as did Baltimorean Betsy Boyd and Marilyn Moriarty, a Hollins professor I’d somehow never met. Jane played moderator and finished up with a poem by Rishma Dunlop. It was an intense reading, because it’s an intense book. No Hallmark pink aisle fake news here. Mothering is intensely complicated, as is being a daughter, and the many border-crossings addressed in these pieces tend to fray mother-daughter connections still further. If anyone protests that it’s all sweetness, listen for the tell.

When it was my turn, I talked about motherhood being, for me at least, an occasion for constant dread and peril. I’ve been reading the book in small doses–all the poems first, and now the prose–and it’s clear I’m not alone. I just finished Camille T. Dungy’s essay “A Brief History of Near and Actual Losses,” a riveting account of visiting west Africa with her not-quite-three-year-old daughter, who knows a slave dungeon when she sees one. I recommend it, and the whole collection, strongly.

I remember chasing toddlers vividly, but to my surprise, that constant state of vigilant panic never stops. It just changes. Some of it is totally irrational. I once told my 13 year old not to shower until we got back from our walk in case he slipped and hit his head and drowned, and he really gave me an earful. But the same kid, now 16, has been having migraines forever while we wait for the neurologist appointment, and my daughter is planning a summer internship in Siberia. I can talk myself out of full-bore terror about these scares, but it’s right to be cautious, to keep asking questions and paying attention. As they get bigger and more competent, so does the field of risk.

Anyway, at this lovely event, I met the fear head-on. I chose to read Marilyn L. Taylor’s sonnet “To the Mother of a Dead Marine”–a poem that represents a parent’s nightmare–and “Zebra” by January Gill O’Neil, a fierce encouragement to her son to “Raise those ears. Kick your legs,” triumphing over people who would diminish him. I also read my own contribution to the collection, the alarmingly titled “Abortion Radio,” also collected in RadiolandIt features not just worry but the preemptive guilt I always feel, framed by testimonies heard on a religious radio station on the way back from Lynchburg late one night. It owes something, I’m sure, to the famous and much greater abortion poems by Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton, but I don’t know what. A sense of death’s closeness, maybe. The terrible mixture of power and powerlessness mothers feel.

Abortion Radio

God told me and I did not listen, the tinny
speakers lament. Outside the car, ghost boles
of oaks float by. Brown leaves jump up
from the mountain road, swirl down again. I felt
something pass, I caught it, my baby. Tiny
hands, skin translucent. Every stump resembles
a deer that’s poised to leap. My friend just hit
a doe last night, driving home from a conference,
having missed her son’s bedtime for three
nights running. Her first thought: I killed a baby.
She stood in my office door to tell the story,
her eyes pinking up as she laughed at herself.
Shortwave talk refracts through me while I
tune in a stronger signal. A spouse has put
the kettle on, and children sleep in nests
of pastel belief. The deer my friend struck
lay down by the faded line at the verge of the road.
Its sides fluttered fast and then it died.
It went somewhere. Everyone goes somewhere.

Killing your 18th c specialist darlings

My imaginary English Department was overstaffed, according to fictional administrators. Unfortunately, the first readers of my novel ms said the same thing. One of those professors, everyone said, has got to go. And it was pretty clear who had the least seniority.

I hated firing the poor guy. Jay’s specialty is not, in real life, my favorite literary period. But my character taught what’s called the long eighteenth century, and was the only tenure-track person between the Renaissance and the Romantics. Milton shoring up one end! Austen and Blake straddling the other!

Fictionally bound to a traditional coverage model, I dug in at first and made his presence bigger and more distinct. Turned out he was a burly blond dude from the midwest, young, a little ADHD, the kind of person who sits at your desk and snaps your stapler open and shut when you’re talking. He was shocked, shocked, to realize some colleagues did not regard his specialty as instrumental in the earth’s rotation. He also had a boyfriend in D.C. and a mermaid-shaped lamp in his office. Aside from an occasional panic attack about tenure, he was kind of oblivious, and happy.

I’m clearly egotistically invested in my own world-making, because disappearing him seemed SO MEAN. But I finally sharpened my weapons this week. It felt less like eviction than murder, the science fictional alternate universe kind where no one admits the lost person ever existed. His frozen appetizer pastries vanish from the potluck. Someone else has to spew crackers at the secret meeting and keep time at the public one. A bunch of lines never get spoken, or come out of someone else’s mouth, with fewer exclamation points. And when a crucial piece of information comes in via text alert, it now vibrates the phone of his former partner in crime, the other tenure-track member of the department, Camille. She’s lonelier these days.

Writing this novel was a whirlwind of serious fun. Revising it has required way more hard thinking and finicky patience. This is not an especially long or ambitious ms (80,000 words, one narrator, chronological, and obviously using a kind of workplace I know well–I wasn’t sure I could do it at all, so my plan was straightforward). Yet there are inevitably gears inside gears, so every small alteration requires days of labor, and there have been a lot of small alterations. The bigger ones–changing pacing, replotting–well, they’re that much tougher to implement. You writers of long forms, man: hats off. My experiment was worthwhile even if it goes nowhere, because I’ve learned so much. This poet is now vastly more appreciative of the novelist’s labors.

And how in the hell did anyone do this before the advent of word processing? I guess Jay would know.

Rest in peace, fictional character, now residing only in this blog post. I know the novel’s better off without you, but still, buddy, I’m sorry.

wpid-paradise_lost_12

 

The thing about April

My writing ambitions for National Poetry Month were NOT going well. The end of Winter Term–final classes, visiting writers, grading–doesn’t sound like a good time to reestablish a daily practice, but it has worked for me before. I love spring, when the natural world changes so rapidly from week to week, so when, like this year, I’m not booked to teach our short May term, I tend to feel invigorated and optimistic. Plus, I’d written much less than usual this winter because work was particularly stressful. Partly good stuff, like running a successful search, and partly bad stuff, like being on the receiving end of my university’s familiar old blaming-the-victim culture. But a break is in sight. I thought my chances of making poems happen were decent.

Not so much! Energetically avoiding writing, and especially submissions, for the first half of April did turn me into a dynamo of productive procrastination. I graded with admirable efficiency, got a checkup and a haircut, etc etc. But I avoided the blank page entirely or extruded unsuccessful poems painfully. (That nasty verb “extruded”–I know you don’t like it, but it fits.)

The work is starting to come, finally, and it wasn’t what I thought it would be (meaning, overtly political). Older and more personal material is coming to light. Well, okay.

A frank conversation over lunch with a good friend helped. So did an overnight escape to the Peaks of Otter lodge in the Blue Ridge, where somehow we had never been. The weather’s been gorgeous, sunny days with just an edge left of winter’s coolness, flowers everywhere. We hiked up Harkening Hill, sat on the balcony overlooking Abbott Lake, ate plenty, slept hard. The next morning Chris and Cam climbed the still more strenuous Sharp Top trail while I walked the lake path, a poem coming together in my head. Since then, ideas are popping: oh, I’ve never written about that, or that, or that.

The submissions work is still languishing but there’s hope…and I have some readings coming up, all of which involve new and old friends. All are free and open to the public.

Tues April 18: 7:30 pm, The Colonnades in Charlottesville, VA with Sara Robinson and Seth Michelson

Sun April 23: 5-7 pm, Pale Fire Brewery in Harrisonburg, VA–just one poem here in honor of Leona Sevick‘s book launch for Lion Brothers

Sat April 29th: 3 pm, CityLit Festival in Baltimore, MD (11 West Mt. Royal Ave) with Jane Satterfield, Betsy Boyd, Marilyn Moriarty and Laurie Kruk, in celebration of the anthology Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland

I’ll leave you with just a stanza from a powerful debut collection I read on the balcony overlooking Abbott Lake: The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded by Molly McCully Brown. It begins a poem called “Where You Are (III),” and it sounds pretty much like the painful, hopeful spring I’ve been having.

The thing about the Shenandoah
is everything is always bending
its knees toward ruin or preparing
to rise from the ash.

Oceanicartography

No, that’s not a real word. But last week, certain currents in my thinking converged, all having to do with maps and oceans. On Saturday, we dropped our daughter off at the Charlottesville train station then headed over to Chroma Projects to see a show by an old friend and collaborator, Carolyn Capps, called “Deep Sea Calculations”:

These pieces owe a lot to old-fashioned illustrated maps, but in a way they chart the mind, too–they’re process drawings, in which one image inspires the next in visual/verbal association. I was at the same time preparing to teach Ocean Vuong’s 2016 debut collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, a collection I find attractive but sometimes opaque. The book, reflecting on Vuong’s immigration from Vietnam to the U.S. and a family history of domestic assault, is full of thresholds crossed in violence. In sex, too. He registers a New York School influence through all those curly ampersands and via talky, sexy meditations like “Notebook Fragments,” but Vuong also deploys persona poems, footnoted blank spaces, punctuation experiments, perhaps the shortest “About the Author” page ever–in short, a host of strategies that occlude the poet’s presence.

During our first class session, we focused on the almost-title-track, “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds,” a poem I found intensely mysterious until I happened upon his published note about it (press “more” at the poets.org link). It helps to know that this poem’s perspective follows the trajectory of a bullet, even though the missile’s path transgresses the law of physics, crossing decades as well as geography. It’s a beautiful and disturbing piece, but my class couldn’t make much sense of the ending. How can the “I” lower himself “between the sights” of the gun? Vuong is identifying with both shooter and target for reasons the rest of the book makes clear, yet none of us could see the final image of the “self-portrait.” I confess I was hoping the hunters in the room could explain something about rifles I was missing, but they shook their heads. Usually when I bring a problem to a roomful of smart English majors, we figure it out together, but none of our readings were satisfying to me–except the general one suggested by the phrase “exit wounds,” that this book is a chronicle of absence and damage.

Sometimes you reread a book of poems and it all comes clear; other times it turns to mist in your hands. So for the second session, I deployed a teaching strategy chronicled here: asking students to produce a one-page visual representation of the volume. What else, I wondered, were my students seeing and not seeing, as they charted paths through all the lovely words?

One student, Bailey Brilley, reinvented the cover. The images brilleyhe photoshopped together include an aerial photo of a Vietnam bomb field, a propaganda poster by a Cuban artist, a Pulitzer-prize winning photo of a Vietnamese man’s execution (the arm and gun), and WWII-era beach towel ads depicting troops in the South Pacific.

Dana Gary made a Magritte-influenced wordless broadside for a single surreal pov danaoem, “Queen Under the Hill.” Thomas Ferguson tracked references to hands and aligned them to illuminate their associations with intimacy and violence.

ov thomas

Charlotte Doran found images and articles about the war and the fall of Saigon, streaming “White Christmas” across them as Vuong does, verbally, in “Aubade with Burning City.” Rosy-fingered dawn, and all. These visual and emotional engagements with the poems seem an especially apt way to handle poems that resist rational schema.
ov charlotte

And tomorrow, we all talk to Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street before their public reading–mappers of the ecopoetry’s territory, plus Ann is the author of one of my favorite long poems, Carta Marina, inspired by a phantasmagoric old woodcut-printed map that puts me in mind of Carolyn’s drawings again. And so we sail to the edge of winter term, to tell stories about where we’ve been.