There isn’t a train I wouldn’t take

judy

We just returned from the last of a summer of endless road-trips. This one was definitely the saddest: my husband and his sister buried their mother’s ashes this weekend in her family plot in Pittsburgh. That’s Judy, above. Her obituary gives you the basics of her impressive career: after she and my father-in-law divorced in the early 70s, she earned a PhD in Epidemiology and Biostatistics and her work was funded for years by the NIH. The research she talked about most when I knew her concerned alcoholic beverages as a source of estrogen. What her official bio does NOT tell you is that some of this work got picked up by the National Enquirer with the headline “Bourbon Turns Men Into Women.” (Apparently long-time male bourbon drinkers accumulate breast tissue. Beware, or drink up, as you please.)

The obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also tells how Judy helped found the People’s Coalition Against Discrimination in the late 60s. She, Chris’ father, and a few other people got together to make noise about, and eventually sue, the Penn Hills police department for its failure to integrate the force after a brilliantly-qualified African American candidate was shut out (and then accepted to the state troopers). Judy and her fellow activists won, but it was a costly battle, with angry locals spray-painting slurs on their house. (Not expert spellers, the white supremacist vandals accused the Gavaler family of being especially fond of Niger.) One of Judy’s great friends from that struggle came to the funeral and the brunch afterwards; he eventually had to move out of the neighborhood. It’s a more involved saga with some astonishing details but I don’t want to get them wrong. It’s just worth saying that she was a smart, brave woman with a fierce sense of justice, and I give her a lot of credit for who my husband became and, less directly, who my children are becoming.

By “less directly” I’m referring to literal and metaphorical distance between Judy and my children. Judy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years ago, and she was in undiagnosed and partially-hidden decline for years before that, so while my eldest child got to know her, my youngest really didn’t. Even before that complication, Judy suffered many bouts of severe depression which medications could never quite keep up with. She was utterly loving and extremely generous but she basically had few boundaries. While Chris was in frequent touch with her all his adult life, and visited her monthly for the last five years in a facility three hours away, he had to draw some lines between her life and his, from childhood on, just to keep his own life together.

I’m at an age when a lot of friends are losing their parents, and it’s always an intensely emotional experience. Whether love or struggle is in the ascendancy, there’s just so much to grieve. My job this time, though, has been to keep to the passenger seat and help Chris and my daughter get through it. My own relationship to Judy wasn’t all that complicated. She was kind to me and adoring of my husband and kids; I loved her for that and admired her immensely, even though I kept a distance from some of her intensities, too. The dementia was awful and seemed to cause her suffering, so I imagined she was relieved to be released from her broken body. At least, I had a sense of her around the house for a day or two after she died in January, emanating joy. Maybe that’s just what I want to believe, but Judy, if you’re out there, I’m wishing you peace and wholeness and all the empowered freedom you craved and deserve.

Judy gave me a collection of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems in 1991, so I read “Travel,” the poem below, at the brief service. Below the poem are pictures of my spouse and kids at the Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. We often went there with Judy and the kids when we visited town, so we spent a couple of hours with the dinosaurs after the funeral lunch. They’re such grand creatures who have traveled so long to meet us; it was good to remember their company.

The railroad track is miles away, 
    And the day is loud with voices speaking, 
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day 
    But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by, 
    Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming, 
But I see its cinders red on the sky, 
    And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make, 
    And better friends I’ll not be knowing; 
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, 
    No matter where it’s going.

 

Twitter as commonplace book

I’ve done just enough archival work to be fascinated by poets’ commonplace books. It’s been more than a decade since I worked among Marianne Moore’s papers at the Rosenbach, but I was impressed by her fantastically crabbed hand in a series of tiny notebooks, recording quotations she liked. At the Library of Congress, you can leaf through Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sparser notes, mixing drafts, travel plans, and lists of poems that might go together in her next collection. And how I wish Anne Spencer had kept notebooks! Instead, I learned last summer how hard it is to date any of her drafts, many of which must be lost in any case, because she penciled ideas on any scrap of paper or cardboard within reach.

I’m more organized that Spencer, but not by much (you can see one physical notebook

asm-boxtop.jpg
Some notes by Spencer on a pantyhose box

I kept here, and read a reflection about it here). If the internet ever disappears, much of my “archive” will go with it, not that I really expect anyone to care. This blog is the closest I come to an intellectual/ artistic journal, supplemented by Facebook posts. They’re all personal, although I’m performing and curating a version of myself: in these media, I’m honest, but not always intimate. My poetry and creative nonfiction feel much closer to the bone–riskier.

The space that feels most like a commonplace book for me is, of all places, Twitter. Like many other writers, some of whom the future will actually care about, I occasionally jot lines there from whatever I’m reading, or tweet links or photographs of pages. I like following what other poets are reading, too. I suspect if you peruse a year’s worth of some authors’ tweets, you’d only get a partial sense of the media they’re consuming, but that’s true of my 2017 list of books below, too (kept in Word). I can’t keep similar track, after all, of the vast number of posts and essays and magazines and portions of anthologies I read, much less the Netflix series and SNL clips I watch or the paintings I gaze at. It’s just too much. I’m a hungry art-consumer!

terracotta soldier
Art survives empires–terracotta soldiers at VMFA

So, belatedly, here is my very partial new year’s account of myself as a book-reader. I gave the sf highlights in a Strange Horizons’ summary review. In addition to those, I liked Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s first book, Ornament, enough to teach it in a poetry and music class this winter. I was excited by and admiring of all the poetry collections that made the most prestigious year-end lists, but I’d add that David Wojahn’s 2017 collection, For the Scribe, was just as strong as the ones receiving fizzier receptions. Among slightly older collections, Majmudar’s Dothead and Miller’s The Cartographer Maps a Way to Zion were new to me last year, and I loved them. Among nonfiction books, Tisserand’s Krazy probably had the biggest influence on me, and aside the more sf-y novels by Saunders, Hamid, Jones, and others I mention in Strange Horizons, I greatly enjoyed the latest mystery from Livesey, Mercury. Between submitting the review and New Year’s Day, I also finally read Alderman’s The Power, which both riveted and irritated me. It’s definitely a book to talk about. “Chewy,” as reviewers keep writing.

For future record, or for naught (if I remain obscure, or if 45 presses his really big nuclear button and civilization collapses, taking the internet down with it):

POETRY

1/3 Kaufman, Krawiec, Levin, Parker, eds, Intimacy* (teaching possibility)

1/15 Briante, The Market Wonders* (reread for class)

1/22 Blanco, Looking for the Gulf Motel (reread for class)

1/24 Sexton, Transformations (reread for class)

2/5 Camille Rankine, Incorrect Merciful Impulses* (micro-review)

2/7 Kei Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (reread for class)

2/12 Etter, Scar (reread for class)

2/19 Hankla, Great Bear (by local author I admire)

2/21 Evans, Superheroes and Villanelles* (traded books at AWP)

2/25 Shire, Our Men Do Not Belong to Us (reread for class)

2/26 Smith, Life on Mars (reread for class)

3/3 Carson, Autobiography of Red (reread for class)

3/3 Givhan, Landscape with Headless Mama (scouting for teaching)*

3/20 Diaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec (reread for class)

3/24 Vuong, Night Sky as Exit Wound (reread for class)*

4/3 Michelson, Swimming Through Fire (by friend; reread 12/4 for teaching)*

4/8 Hogue, In June the Labyrinth (by friend)*

4/? Satterfield, Apocalypse Mix (by friend)*

4/? Brown, The Virginia State Colony for the Feebleminded (recommended by friends)*

4/30 Sevick, Lion Brothers (local author)*

5/? Campbell, First Nights* (for review; reread 12/3 for teaching)

5/18 Borzutsky, Performance of Becoming Human (Prize winner)*

5/29 Friman, The View From Saturn (bought at conference)

7/6 Dwarf Stars Anthology 2017 (to vote on winners)

7/18 Rauk, Buried Choirs* (comp copy from press I ended up reviewing)

7/19 Willoughby, Beautiful Zero (gift)

7/20 Anderson, Rough (unpublished, to give feedback)

7/29 Wojahn, For the Scribe* (poet I admire)

7/29 Phillips Bell, Ornament* (by a friend)

7/30 Majmudar, Dothead* (heard NPR piece & bought book ages before)

7/31 Campana, The Book of Faces (research)

8/1 Campana, Natural Selections (research)

8/20 Stewart, Cinder* (research)

9/4 Bashir, Field Theories* (research)

9/29 Taesali, Sourcing Siapo* (review)

10/13 H.D., Trilogy (reread for class)

10/24 Pollard, Outsiders* (by a friend)

11/5 Forche, The Country Between Us (for class)

11/7 Michelson, ed, Dreaming America* (by friend and colleague)

11/21 Cooley, Girl after Girl after Girl* (review)

11/25 Smith, Don’t’ Call Us Dead* (in response to reviews)

12/19 Akbar, Calling a Wolf a Wolf* (good reviews)

12/21 Long Soldier, Whereas* (daughter gave it to me)

12/24 Der Vang, Afterland* (NBA list)

12/31 McCrae, The Language of my Captors* (NBA list)  

 

FICTION

1/2 Whitehead, Underground Railroad* (good critical attention/ year-end lists)

1/14 Muth, Zen Shorts (gift from a colleague)

2/4 Gonzalez, The Regional Office Is Under Attack* (Christmas present)

3/5 Goldstein, The Oven (scouting for teaching)

3/6 Gaiman, Norse Gods (for fun)

3/7 French, The Ticking (scouting for teaching)

3/11 Hamid, Exit West* (scouting for teaching)

3/26 Butler, Duffy, Jennings, graphic adaptation of Kindred (scouting for class)*

3/30 Zoboi, American Street (scouting for class)*

4/8 Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo* (fan of his work)

4/18 Livesey, Mercury* (heard at the AWP)

4/23 Kidd, Himself* (reviewed well by author I admire)

5/20 Strout, Anything Is Possible (audiobook on car trips)

5/26 Robinson, New York 2140 (always read his books)*

6/10 Gavaler, Kill the Messenger (unpublished, to give feedback)

6/16 Rash, The Cove (people had been recommending his work for a while)

7/13 Herriman, The Kat Who Walked in Beauty (research)

7/14 Yuknavich, Book of Joan* (good reviews)

7/16 Croy Barker, How To Talk to a Goddess (unpublished, to give feedback)

7/23 Perry, The Essex Serpent* (NYT Times review, I think)

7/27 Gowdy, Little Sister* (NYT review)

8/6 Atkinson, Life After Life (recent classic I’d never gotten to)

8/13 Mandel, Last Night in Montreal (for research)

8/14 Dickinson, Poison Oracle (fan of his work and Small Beer Press)

10/1 Jemisin, The Stone Sky* (for fun)

10/8 Mandel, The Singer’s Gun (for research)

10/15 Mandel, The Lola Quartet (for research)

10/21 Mandel, Station Eleven (reread for teaching/ research)

11/8 Egan, Visit from the Goon Squad (reputation)

12/1 Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God* (for fun)

12/22 Hoffman, Rules of Magic* (for fun)

12/31 Alderman, The Power* (reviews)

 

NONFICTION

1/24 Culler, Literary Theory (reread for class)

2/18 Smith, Ordinary Light* (I love her poetry)

3/10 Rekdal, Intimate (I heard her give a great AWP reading)

6/24 Tisserand, Krazy* (research project)

6/30 McDowell, O’Connell, de Havenon, Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman (research)

7/5 Gailey, PR for Poets (in ms, to give feedback)

7/17 Vetter, A Curious Peril: H.D.’s Late Modernist Prose (research)

7/28 Greene, Time’s Unfading Garden (reread for research)

8/09 Frank, Diary of a Young Girl (rereading because I was in Amsterdam)

8/18 Stewart, A Poet’s Freedom (research)

8/19 Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (reread for research)

9/2 Allen, Our Declaration (first-year reading program)

10/19 Bialosky, Poetry Will Save Your Life* (research)

11/2 Leahy, Tumor* (gift, also by a colleague)

12/2 Sulak and Kolosov, Family Resemblance anthology (research and teaching)

12/23 Johnston, My Life As a Border Collie (by friend)

 

 

Poetry by the Sea, Pt. 1: Edna Rules

“Edna rules!” a woman declared to me in the hotel hallway, waving a vigorous fist. “I mean, Vincent!”

I organized a panel  on Edna St. Vincent Millay for Poetry by the Sea, an annual writing conference in Madison, Connecticut. The other speakers were Anna Lena Phillips Bell speaking about Millay as an ecopoet; January Gill O’Neill discussing the Millay colony at Steepletop; and A.E. Stallings considering Millay as a formalist. Waves were lapping the shore in the big windows behind us. Millay (who preferred to be called Vincent, not Edna) would love the location. I’m already considering whether I can get back here next year. It’s a lovely setting and there’s a lovely vibe here, too, among friendly and talented writers and readers. I’m hoping to post again after the conference ends, reflecting on some conversations I’ve had.

pbs2
Some loot (but I’m afraid I will buy more today)

But in the meantime, I’ll just say how interesting I found that Millay panel. My co-panelists were great and offered perspectives I really wanted to hear–of course they did, I chose them!–but I was also impressed by how lively and engaged the (packed) audience was. And more than a dozen people have come up to me since to tell me about their relationship to her work and their intention to read it again. I’m moved and excited by the enthusiasm.

Many readers of my generation, at least, have mixed feelings about the formalist femme fatale. In my two decades-plus of schooling, right through a PhD in modernist poetry, I never, ever encountered Millay on a syllabus. My teachers generally classed her with the “songbirds”–not innovative, not difficult, not male, not worth reading. And my copy of her Collected Poems was a gift from my mother-in-law, which was another kiss of death; Judy identified with Millay as a sexually liberated woman, and I really, really did not want to hear any more on that score. It wasn’t until the wonderful biography Savage Beauty that I went back to the poetry itself and found it quite different than how it had been billed to me: smart, adventurous, crafty, formally various, and often intensely moving, witty, beautiful. There’s a chapter on Millay’s radio broadcasts, and her other experiments with poetry’s various media, in my book Voicing American Poetry. I also treat her work in an essay called “Formalist Modernism” in the new Cambridge History of American Poetry, but I find myself still returning to those poems with more to think about, more to say. As I’ve written in a previous post, I recently became fascinated with her reproductive history, particularly the pregnancy she terminated in Dorset, England, in 1922, via a regimen of long walks and herbal concoctions administered by her mother. The passages of girlhood, pregnancy, middle age–I am endlessly fascinated by how other women poets have negotiated them.

I’ll leave off for now with a poem from Millay’s 1928 collection The Buck in the Snow. While clearly referring to her stay in Shillingstone, Dorset, she also alludes to an unnamed loss–maybe the pregnancy itself, a vanished lover, or, more generally, the poetic and sexual freedom she felt before 1922 (Millay married soon after and started banking on her popularity by undertaking exhausting reading tours). Her life was charmed in some ways, very difficult in others–like many of us, I suppose. Whatever her sorrow, I agree: Vincent rules.

West Country Song

Sun came up, bigger than all my sorrow;
Lark in air so high, and his song clean through me,
Now comes night, hushing the lark in's furrow,
   And the rain falls fine.
What have I done with what was dearest to me?

Thatch and wick, fagot, and tea on trivet,--
These and more it was; it was all my cheer.
Now comes night, smelling of box and privet,
    And the rain falls fine.
Have I left it out in the rain? - It is not here.
pbs1
Can you name that poet-editor, walking by the sound?

 

 

Toasting successes, fleeing gnats

Even though I’m not teaching this year, I can SMELL that it’s the last week of classes. The campus, lush from an unusually rainy May, is full of giddy, jittery, sneezing students. My colleagues are staggering around exhausted, arms full of ungraded papers. Processing my heavy email load is like trying to get free of a cloud of gnats–they just follow you around, frantically propagating. I’m about to leave town and miss all the noisy graduation parties. When I get back, around Memorial Day, all traces of the academic year will be cleared away, except for a few stray Natty Light cans lurking in the shrubbery.

The chaos inside my house matches the energy of the neighborhood. My anxious 19-year-old, having just aced her first year at Wesleyan, has been interviewing for summer jobs, writing applications, scouring ads (keep your fingers crossed), so there’s been a lot of coaching in the evening hours. My 15-year-old has been taking standardized tests and has his last jazz band concert tonight (though I have to say, there’s no evidence HE is breaking a sweat). Chris is wrapping up this experimental, demanding, but very cool course. I had several blogging, reviewing, and editing gigs due this week, which are nearly complete now, but all this keyboarding with a sprained wrist is no fun.

And Chris and I are packing for our first weekend away as a couple in years and years. Tomorrow we take planes, cars, and boats to Martha’s Vineyard. On Tuesday he’ll fly home for W&L’s graduation, but I go on to Madison, Connecticut for Poetry by the Sea. I am SUPER-excited about this one. Lots of friends in attendance plus poets I’ve never met but want to hear from. So in addition to making lists for the kids of when the recycling goes out, etc., I’ve been preparing notes for a panel discussion on the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Right before I fly home on Saturday, May 28th, I’ll be reading from Radioland IN A GAZEBO. By the SEA.

Poetic report forthcoming, but for the moment, a photo of a bright spot this week–celebrating the birthday of one of my brilliant friends. (I think that’s Oliver Queen in the left background, but what I like best in this photo is how the dude behind me is really into his ice cream.) And hey, the finalist list for the Eric Hoffer Award is substantial, but Radioland is on it–that’s a small good thing. And The Robot Scientist’s Daughter by my friend Jeannine Hall Gailey–with whom I’m just finalizing picks for the SFPA’s annual Dwarf Star anthology–is there, too! Salut!

birthday drinks

All my words small but costly: Emerson, illness, and work

Sometimes there’s a poetry-sized gap in your life. Today I filled it with a vintage stored against future need–Claudia Emerson’s final collection, Impossible Bottle. This was supposed to be one of those golden weeks, too rare even on sabbatical, when I had no big obligations and could just write and revise, but it’s not happening. Presumably the meds will kick in soon, but a sinus infection has made me sleepy and dizzy, plus I’m just tired from doing too much: an unexpected trip to visit my mother in hospital was followed by zooming down bad roads in the dark and rain to a 2-day AWP board meeting in DC (an impressive group–check it out). On the Saturday after, I had a sore throat but couldn’t resist a few hours at the Library of Congress looking at Millay’s papers. Next was writing an interview about Radioland from Frances Donovan’s wonderful blog Garden of Words, a joint signing with Chris Gavaler at Lexington’s Bookery, Bookeryand making soup to bring to my mom on the way to Family Weekend at Wesleyan, which I totally shouldn’t have attended, not only because I was getting sicker but because my son was, too. We ended up leaving Connecticut very early on Saturday to get my son back to a doctor. He was diagnosed with walking pneumonia so he’s still home from school, and from my fainting couch (not really) I’m nagging him constantly (really) about hydration, rest, and make-up work. And above it all I’m deeply worried about my mom, who has an aggressive lymphoma and starts chemo this Friday. Really, who could concentrate?

Emerson’s spare and lovely poems about illness, though, are good medicine. Honestly, while there are a lot of strong 2015 collections I have not yet read, I can’t imagine many are more deserving of notice on the best-of lists than Impossible Bottle. Full of gorgeous ruins and scenes of beauty gone wrong, it has the spiritual quality of H.D.’s war poem Trilogy, although Emerson’s crisis is more personal–instead of bombings, metastasis, and instead of Europe, a vividly evoked Virginia. In fact, a Virginian reader can date many of its poems in relation to public disasters. Our 2011 earthquake makes an appearance as well as the 2012 derecho. But cancer is primary, and outer storms only the “vaguest mirror” to a deeply inward book. The predominance of couplets reminds me of Trilogy, too, although many lines are left single, as if widowed. Formally, “Infusion Suite” is particularly brilliant–these twelve poems feel like a sonnet crown, but they turn out to consist of thirteen lines each. Emerson’s lyric is ominous and foreshortened.

It feels a little false, however, to review this book intellectually, with the critical gaze I’m trained to level at verse. It’s a personal book and, further, I cannot help but take personally, and not only because of my mother’s illness. Claudia taught at W&L in the mid-90s–she was a veteran adjunct professor here as I, ten years younger and much greener, started on the tenure track. Her friendship and example were important to me. I have an essay drafted about that time in relation to her first book, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, but I haven’t managed to polish it up and get it out, probably for the same reason I put off reading this last collection–it all feels too final.

Yet the book itself makes an argument for continuance of the self, for good and ill, through the work we leave behind. In “Well,” for example, she reflects on a relic “more remnant than place,” built by a great-uncle striving for usefulness–but the well draws up toxic water she drank throughout childhood (radon is prevalent in Virginia groundwater, particularly in her family’s region). The fourth poem in “Infusion Suite” concerns a mechanic named Leonard who specializes in repairing “the under-// carriage of a car after a wreck,/ realignment, the stuff nobody ever sees/ and will never notice unless–no, until–// it gets out of whack.” (The latter poem shifts in register to a funny punchline, but I won’t spoil it–go look.) I drew the title of my blog from the same sequence; it refers on its surface level to a game of scrabble. Poetry is work, too, enduring for a little while or longer, but not the only worthwhile kind of labor.

I’m glad, personally, that the speaker of these poems, while immensely sympathetic, is no sainted martyr. “Imagining narratives// worse than my own has become a kind of balm,” she confesses in “Murder Ballad,” and elsewhere Emerson studies bitterness and self-pity and despair. Cancer is an enemy and a metaphor but also just a stupid accident. I find the last line of “Cyst” especially chilling in its examination of awful randomness: “mistake a body can make,” set alone at the bottom of the page, opens up a dark coincidence in language. “Mistake” is “make” with an “ist” or “cyst” in it. Good effort, poisoned.

Praise to good effort! Even though we’re not entirely in charge of where words take us, these are valuable, resonant ones. Impossible Bottle is balm I’m grateful for. Now it’s back to a long list of postponed obligations–reviews, references, book promotion, a conference paper and other prep for the Modernist Studies Association meeting in Boston (see here for info on a reading I’m organizing there). I’ll sign off for now with an image from the Millay papers at the Library of Congress. You need permission to quote from most of the material, but this note to lover George Dillon by Millay (scrawling on her husband’s stationery) is in the “unrestricted” box. It expresses her shock and sorrow at the death of Elinor Wylie. Like Millay, I’d rather my favorite poets continue in life than in words alone, but I guess we have to work with whatever hand appears in the random scrabble pile, that “sorry trough of letters.”Millay on Wylie

Why Edna St. Vincent Millay ate herbs in Dorset

Most of the female poets I read as a young woman had no children, or one. They steered clear of sexual relationships with men or, not having access to birth control, sought abortions. This fact had a terrible fascination for me in my early twenties, especially since the zero-or-one rule also held among so many female literary scholars. I had always been certain that I wanted to bear or adopt children and certain that I need to write. Exactly how difficult would it be, though, to manage both?

Later I met many women poets who, possessed of more choices than the modernists, elected not to have children or raised multiple kids. I also know too many women poets wimageho grieve infertility. I’m luckier than most in that I conceived one child immediately, the other after six months of trying, and never faced an unwanted pregnancy. If I had miscarriages, they were early ones, during that uncertain era when home tests weren’t so prompt. Bedrest from severe nausea and then bouts of postpartum depression didn’t feel lucky at the time, but people took care of me. I’ve muddled along all right since, herding poems and little people. Sometimes those activities nourished each other and sometimes they competed brutally, but I grabbed my good luck by the short hairs and made choices I still feel basically fine about.

I still think, though, about those modernist abortions. When on a recent July morning my spouse, two teens, and I were bound for Dorset beaches in a hired car, I programmed the GPS for a stop in the village of Shillingstone. Edna St. Vincent Millay headed there in July, 1922 with her mother, Cora, and some friends. Edna was sick and broke and unable to write. She was also pregnant after a Parisian fling. Cora Millay, a nurse, helped her daughter have an abortion there.

I don’t have a lot of information about that summer, just what’s in the Milford biography. Back then Shillingstone consisted of a “winding, unpaved street, a few shops and small houses, many with thatched roofs” (238). The group of women rented a house (I don’t know the address but am including photos anyway for local flavor).image Edna turned a hay shed into a studio. Edna’s friends and even her sister back home didn’t know the ulterior motive for the program of long walks on the downs, horseback riding, and stews of wild greens: Cora was searching for abortives listed in an old herbal guide. She did, in fact, induce Edna to miscarry during the first few weeks of the pregnancy.

I’m no botanist, so while I looked up some pictures of alkanet, the key herb in the equation, and went poking along the footpaths, I never found the right blue flowers. I saw dandelions, thistles, and nettles—all named by Edna in a letter as part of the maternal recipe—and trefoil, mentioned in Cora’s notes. Daisies and yarrow were blooming, and mallow purpled every roadside. imageMy own daughter was alarmed that I was even looking, as if medicinal herbs might jump up and dose us against our will. imageTo be fair, it is a creepy errand to conduct with your children. But this is the history behind my own good luck and it should be in my daughter’s rearview mirror, too.

image

Noise, Voice, and the T. S. Eliot Society

Last week, on the night of my birthday, I dreamed that my father phoned from the afterlife. The strangeness of hearing his voice made me think, the next morning, of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s elegies for the voices of lost loved ones: photographs were common then but since audio recordings were very rare, a person’s timbre and accent really did fall silent forever. It wasn’t clear, in my dream, that my father knew he’d died, but I did, and even asleep I was amazed at how he sounded perfectly like himself. I’ve looked at lots of pictures of my father since his death but, although there are probably recordings of his Brooklyn vowels somewhere, I’m unlikely to hunt them down and listen. Even for twenty-first-century me, voice remains more ephemeral than image.

That strange dream-signal was part of the noise I brought to the T. S. Eliot Society’s annual meeting in St. Louis this weekend. Michael Coyle invited me to lead a seminar on sound in Eliot’s verse, which turned out to be pretty fabulous. Members of this small group had prepared papers on Eliot’s poems, criticism, and plays in print and in performance: John Melillo, who wrote an honors thesis for me at W&L ten years ago, now listens for the shifting relations of voice and noise in “The Waste Land,” with Dada playing in the background; Elizabeth Micaković had fascinating things to say about Eliot’s relationship to elocution (I’d forgotten that Emily Hale taught speech!); Fabio Vericat took on Eliot’s shifting relationship to poetic genres as he became more involved in BBC broadcasting; Julia Daniel discussed a recorded performance of Murder in the Cathedral, particularly how Eliot developed the chorus with help from a celebrated expert in choral verse speaking; and actor Michael Rogalski described his work on a performance of Four Quartets. This was an auspiciously noisy seminar: conversation began on the shuttle bus and stayed lively straight through the session and lunch after. We agreed that it had been the best seminar in recorded history and it’s a shame all of you other human beings missed it.

On the second day of the conference, Mike performed Four Quartets. His production-in-progress is fairly spare: a white screen, four white blocks he shifts around, and one actor in a gray suit. The setting, in contrast, was the posh St. Louis Women’s Club, where we had just been served a fancy lunch with monogrammed silver: a large chandelier glittered over Mike’s head as he spoke, white columns framed the space, and he paced on a dark green carpet patterned with vines and roses. Sometimes I was aware of Mike interpreting the poem; sometimes I fell unselfconsciously into the flow of language. The experience reminded me of another lost person, my dissertation adviser and a distinguished scholar of modernism, Walt Litz. I had confessed to Walt that I loved “The Waste Land” but couldn’t get excited about the repetitious, recursive self-corrections of Four Quartets. Walt chuckled at twenty-five-year-old me and reassured me it was a poem for middle-aged people. Well, here I am, getting older, and yes, Eliot’s disclosure of the “gifts reserved for age” is powerful now. So, though, is the noise, in this case the distant kitchen clatter of mostly African-American women doing the luncheon dishes and laughing, as the mostly white audience sat respectfully hushed. That counterpoint seemed important to me.

The “compound ghost” of Walt and my father—I have always associated them with one another, both men paternal to me, and drinkers, and more smart than honest—materialized again during the conference’s Saturday night festivities. While several scholars sang show tunes over a grand piano and others danced barefoot, I talked with a Washington University professor who had helped Walt during his crisis years just before retirement in the early 90s, when I was one of Walt’s final protégés. It turns out that my dissertation adviser, who was good to me but so destructive in other ways, who seemed almost to fall off the face of the earth, is still alive in a Princeton nursing home. If I can find out which, I can still contact him. I’m not sure if he remembers me, though—if I left an impression at all commensurate with his echo in me. He liked me and helped me land a job at Washington and Lee, but whatever I am now, I wasn’t a star then. It came back to me later (through Walt himself? through my eventual colleagues? I can’t remember) that he had called my interviewers, then a department full of men who’d had trouble hiring and tenuring women, and told them that I was “easy to get along with, but no doormat.”

Over the dream-telephone last week, my father said hello and apologized for not calling sooner, mumbling angrily about the doctors who had screwed things up. He also said, “It’s snowing here,” before the line was cut. So much of what we would say to people gets fuzzed out, lost in the snow. Sometimes the message would be so painful that memory’s degradation is a good thing. And sometimes it’s also good, as my own long-ago student so wisely does, to attend to the noise just as closely as the voices.