Future tense

My father checked himself into the VA Medical Center in Philadelphia a few weeks ago and it’s not clear when or if he’ll be able to leave again. He’s been managing congestive heart failure for a while. Now he needs surgery for a leaky valve and just isn’t well enough to undergo it. Every time I think of him my heart starts racing, triggering a tickly cough that faintly echoes my father’s wet gasping. It’s funny how you can be annoyed by your body’s speech—the symbolism of this sudden ailment is too obvious, like bad writing—but your body refuses to shut up.

May 22, on the train from New Jersey to Penn Station, I review the poems I’ve decided to read in Bryant Park. Then I pick up Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars. Before the Pulitzer, I’d ordered it for the David Bowie/ sf title, read it quickly and liked it but put it away for a while. Recently I started rereading it slowly and had arrived at section two. Rushing past Princeton Junction towards Newark, I open to “The Speed of Belief.” It’s about sitting in a hospital room with a dying father. Soon I’ll be walking through the city at the center of the world—I think Smith and Bowie both live in New York—on my way to the library. I’ll admire the rotunda, pore over the Shelley exhibit, take my turn at the microphone, and then listen to the human voices of poets I know through their smart, kind books: Ely Shipley, Scott Hightower, Richard Blanco. Behind each of them will be a statue of William Earl Dodge, only visible to the waist. I’ll study it, imagining him young and happy and relaxed, and be surprised by his upper half when I google him days later. Stern businessman’s face, bushy mutton-chops.

I will visit my father the next day after a harrowing drive into Philadelphia. Only my sister has been there; his young third wife has never shown up, although she served him divorce papers in hospital, probably afraid of being stuck with his bills. My sister has seen some bad days, but the nurse tells me this is a good one. He’s sitting calmly, sometimes coherent, sometimes disoriented. I see relationships in his newly-gaunt face: a resemblance to me, my siblings, my children, but also to his Swedish mother and grandmother. Martha Carlson’s slanting blue eyes and prominent cheekbones, there all along. Suddenly his dentures seem too big for the smallness of his jaw. “I don’t need much in my old age but I’m not getting what I need,” he says. “What do you need?” I ask. “Peace and quiet,” answers the former sailor who still fights with everyone he meets, whose three ex-wives, five children, and many old friends and girlfriends can’t tolerate his company. He chose life on Mars, is choosing it.

He’s still friendly with his roommate, though; that hasn’t exploded yet. I chat with Harry, who grew up in Puerto Rico and then taught social studies to elementary students in Camden for many years.  Harry lights up when he learns I’m a writer. “Ah, poetry,” he sighs. “Poetry makes life bearable.”

I need to write about Smith’s Life on Mars, although my head’s too noisy today. I resonate like a bell whenever she alludes to Bowie, but there’s a lot more—the poems are skeptical-spiritual, a paradox I love. Certain poems about reincarnation made me wonder if she’s a fan of James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover. And all the science fiction! I’ve been wondering why no one seems to write poems in the future tense, and there on page 7 is “Sci-fi”: “the word sun will have been reassigned/ To a Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device/ Found in households and nursing homes.”

My physical heart is rushing, so part of me wants to know the ending of my father’s sad story. The projection booth in my head, though, is just a big tangle of film, past-present-future looped together. The tangle is upsetting but also sort of beautiful and interesting, at least when I can regulate my breathing, anyway. The soundtrack helps.

Work-work-work life balance

This week, one of the two most productive writers I know wondered aloud, “Is this it? Is the brain case empty now?” as she rapped her skull smartly. Last week, I asked the other one, who is going through a bad time, whether she was writing about it. “Nope,” she pronounced with authority from within her crenellated citadel of books and papers. Both are scholar-teacher-poets with lots of service commitments to the university, the larger profession, and various other communities, and I’ve recently seen both of them drop everything to tend to a family member in crisis.

September and October are always the absolute worst months for me as a writer (northern hemisphere bias alert: I definitely mean early fall and the beginning of school). Maybe it’s different when you don’t have teachers or students in the house; I wouldn’t know. At the office, classes, committee work, and special events force an intense schedule, and there’s all that leftover summer work to finish—the deadlines you didn’t quite meet. At home, the kids are stressed out by transition. They need both firing up and talking down so they can reestablish homework/practice routines and manage to sleep at night. For us, there are two September birthdays, conferences, and book promotion in the mix.

It’s not just time, though, especially where poetry is concerned. There’s a quality of attention I find hard to manage. To write, you have to notice what’s strange, urgent, lovely, or interesting and I’m just moving too fast. All weekend, even: feed the kids, grade the papers, get some minimal exercise, pay the bills, have postponed conversations about practical things like whether we have to take that tree down and what’s that growth on your thumb and what happens this Thanksgiving. Worse, because I’m moving rapidly from task to task, I fill free moments with similarly quick and not-too-difficult activities: check Facebook and email, read The New Yorker. I don’t have a lot of time, but there’s an hour every once in a while, and I don’t spend it on what I care about the most.

I’m drafting this entry early Sunday morning. My task today, having graded the papers and planned Monday’s class, is to prepare comments for a conference roundtable on innovative scholarship. As in, I’m supposed to be someone who produces it and can explain how. This does strike me as funny. My brain case isn’t empty—there are several big questions percolating in there—but at the moment I have too many options and wouldn’t know what to tackle if some power stopped time for a week and sent me to Yaddo or the Beinecke. Or how to tackle it. Would I be aiming my prose at venues with scholarly or literary prestige? Small coterie journals with great editors and no resources? My neglected blog? Or would I just play around? Self-indulgent, apparently pointless experiment has produced some of my better poems, though I revise with several editors’ heads bobbing facelessly over my shoulder like Sylvia Plath’s disquieting muses. I know that if I want to be a better and more productive writer, I have to be ready to waste time, stare at the wall, obsess fruitlessly, ignore responsibilities, and do it again and again.

Someone told me last night at a dinner that he’s going to read poetry when he retires and he has time to savor it. I’m going to look for writing windows sooner than that. Like, maybe, November.

Order, disorder

“I love coming to a marae because everything is orderly.” That was Albert Wendt yesterday at Te Herenga Waka, the marae at Victoria University and the site of a conference I’ve been attending, “Reading and Writing in the Pacific.” A first for me: attending an academic meeting in stocking feet, wearing a blue lei, and listening to papers while lounging on cushions. All those details change the conversation, as does the magnificent space of the wharenui, a talking house covered by carved and woven genealogies in red, black, bone-white, gold. I am not well-read yet in Pacific literature, but the current of feeling at this event has very strong, carrying me along with it. Orderly spaces—not only sacred ones but some homes and schools and poems too—have some mysterious power to straighten out the hooks and tangles inside people. These emotional or spiritual chiropractics, or whatever’s happening, are a little painful, especially as dammed-up confusions begin to break loose. The conference presenters keep choking up and I’m right there with them.

                    On order, from my disordered notes:

Thursday morning, Session 1: Teresia Teaiwa discusses problems with gathering and disseminating oral histories. Intimacy becomes reportage, even gossip, amongst us about them. The result for her own work: she has been writing not about Fijian women soldiers or for them but to them, in the second person. She read a segment written under pressure—her interviewee had terminal cancer and wanted to read Teresia’s take on the material before she died. Audience members blow their noses for a good five minutes afterwards.

I am leaning against an ancestor from Kapiti; I don’t catch his name. His wife’s head, tilted like the moon, has my back.

Genealogies: I know a lot about my mother’s family and almost nothing about my father’s. William the engineer, behind him William the lawyer, and the next layer blurred. William the lawyer’s mother was French-Canadian, and when her ship captain husband died, she and her children moved over the border to Syracuse, New York and married a math professor. Was my grandfather named after his professor-father? Or was he Guillaume, adopted, name changed? I asked my father the captain’s name and he said “something like Le Pongenet.” That isn’t a French name, as far as I can find. L’éponge is “sponge.” Éponger means “to wipe up or absorb a loss.”

Friday morning, Session 3: Tina Makereti describes a belated revelation that she had written her own motherlessness into her novel. But wait: she realizes this makes thematic sense, too—she is writing about the Moriori, an effaced mother culture. Conclusion: “It could still be autobiographical. But I wonder: are we bequeathed our personal circumstances so that we can tell the stories that need to be told?”

Tina talks about being led by the story, surrendering control. Order arises, but it may not be the order you would have chosen, imposed. When a character’s voice started waking her up at four in the morning, she resisted listening for a while. I am so thankful to hear another writer say that. In domestic life, professional life, you fight to keep up that appearance of order: it’s hard to let the chaos flow.

Excess sugars

“At some profound level,” writes Damien Wilkins in “American Microphone,” a very funny story about a dismal public reading, “I think of Americans as dangerously carbonated people.” This confirms my U.S.-Soft Drink Association Hypothesis as to why New Zealanders keep calling me “refreshing.”

Wilkins was the person who told me to look for Emily Dobson’s first book, A Box of Beesthis as I dissolved sugar into a cup of Earl Grey in his office and tried not to get lost in his spectacular view of the harbor, framed by a blooming tree that neither of us could name. Dobson, like Hinemoana Baker (see “Milk and honey,” April 13, 2011), was an MA student at the International Institute of Modern Letters a few years ago. As Damien and I talked about how workshops affect writers, he described how Dobson’s classmates nudged her prize-winning portfolio towards the topic of bee-keeping. Dobson was born into a family of apiarists in Hawkes Bay and, at least as I remember the story, didn’t initially see poetic gold in what were, to her, the ordinary details of childhood. Whether or not this particular workshop tale is quite true, it suggests one positive effect of belonging to a community of smart readers. They help you recognize your most urgently interesting material.

A Box of Bees, based on this portfolio, was published by Victoria University Press in 2005. Its epigraph from Sappho highlights a fragmentary and sensuous quality in the untitled poems that follow, all in couplets (this made me think of H.D., also ambivalent about sweetness). In fact, the poem-cells fit together in a patterned comb. The hive of the family is central to this book; Dobson portrays it as both fragile and dangerously powerful. The speaker also makes many flights outward. Narratives of desire and travel intersect with a portrayal of domestic enclosure. Hives protect but they are also open, and here I return to an aesthetic of porousness or seepage that I keep noticing. There are several examples I could choose—“The blue sign beside the hot road,” for one, involves invading German soldiers, scraps of Greek, and goats in the house—but the best is probably the poem near the end that is framed by the lines:

Sylvia Plath and Sir Edmund Hillary both kept bees.

Oh yes, the air is full of honey and

the seas are dripping honey.

I am saturated with bees.

I have nothing to do with bees.

I have just about had enough

of the whole damned business.

This piece begins by invoking Plath, unsaintly patron of so many women writers, and the New Zealand mountaineer who’s a demi-god in these parts. As Dobson tells us in the book’s brief “Notes,” the rest of the poem collages quotes from The Upanishads and novels by Englishman Peter Ackroyd and Canadian Elizabeth Smart (source of the book’s fiercest swear word) in an artistic genealogy parallel to the family migrations traced here. The language zinging around has travelled great distances before melting into Dobson’s lines.

Seepage becomes suffusion in “Sylvia Plath and Sir Edmund Hillary both kept bees.” Bees have a reputation for diligence and subordination to the good of the community, and this is all a little too sweet for Dobson. Her tone of protest is, in fact, probably what makes me love this poem—I recognize that sick-to-death feeling when you’ve been too immersed in a writing project, plus I’ve been in a polite country long enough to be nostalgic for four-letter stingers. Dobson’s poem struggles against its own debts but is too sharp to get trapped in stickiness.

Family roadtrip, poem on the side

I keep muttering “Somebody loves us all.” It’s the last line of “Filling Station,” one of my favorite Elizabeth Bishop poems, and also the title of Damien Wilkins’ latest novel, a terrific book Chris and I have been reading. I recently pored through Bishop’s Collected Poems, too, to prepare for a seminar on her work. That’s probably why I keep chanting those words. It’s not an obscure blogger’s desperate mantra or anything.

My ten-year-old called me on it. “What does that mean anyway? Does that mean God?” In retrospect, his tone was probably suspicious. He’s a rationalist.

Well, it could refer to God, I said, and then I told him about Bishop’s poem. There’s a gas station, an Esso station, which is an old name for Exxon. It’s run by a family, and although it’s very dirty there are signs that someone has tried to brighten the place up—wicker furniture out front, a doily, a hairy begonia.  That’s a flower, I said. The poem ends: “ESSO—SO—SO— / Somebody loves us all.” I babbled on that the line is mysterious, that it could signify just a wish for love, but that the “somebody” might also be someone in the family, expressing her devotion through begonias, as people do. Bishop lost both of her parents when she was very little, I finished, a little breathless, and took another bite of toast. I looked at my son’s freckled nose and pointy chin, thought about how beautiful he is, and reached over to trim the bruised bit off his apple.

He looked back at me fondly and said, “Esso—so—so stupid.”