Dreaming

Blue Ridge Mountains from Glen Maury Park
Deferred Action
 
Look at the mountain, find my boots, abandon
     walls, look at the mountain. It’s all I do.
The president tweets DACA is dead while
     the magnolia publishes other news: the future
will be pink. Whom should I listen to?
     Beets for lunch. Do not think of my father,
who loved them, as juice bleeds over the salad. Do not
     remember my mother-in-law, whose jewelry I wear,
glassy teardrops strung along a chain.
     She died far away, last verses unheard.
It’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall,
      he plays, the curator of beatness who
visits class with Dylan on cue. Scratches
      under scratches. No one’s allowed to dream
anymore. A student comes by with poems and fear
     of deportation. So many words; so few.
Evening, home, where once I found on the lawn
     a note from neo-nazis. Look at the mountain,
crowned in rose. Where black is the color and none
     is the number, the singer foretold. Still I talk,  
fail to talk, and grant some songs their visas.
     And look at the mountain, its gloomy hunch, its glow.

House Mountain, visible from my desk past telephone wires, is a daily reference point that appears in many of my poems, often as a way to touch base with forces much larger than my own little life. The piece above was in 32 Poems; in the final poem of The State She’s In, now three months old, the same mountain gives me a stern talking to about ambition. This morning House Mountain is invisible behind haze. It doesn’t mind giving me a metaphor for an uncertain, unforecastable future, apparently. Nor does my cat Ursula, who has taken to chasing her tail on a staircase newel. The other day she fell off, busted a lamp, and slid down rump-first behind the upright piano–clearly enacting the state of my brain.

DACA survives, at least for a while: good. A monstrously destructive president slides in the polls: all right. My daughter’s stories of recurring police brutality to Black people in Philadelphia: the record keeps spinning. I’m not writing much these days, but I think the 2020s are going to be another great decade for protest poetry. There were two powerful ones in the New Yorker I flipped through yesterday, by the always amazing Marilyn Nelson and Terrance Hayes. They remind me that I don’t have to be writing; I can just wait out the mists. Being a reader, voter, donator, person at rest: those are all fine, too.

A few good things I’ve been a part of lately: the Practices of Hope reading I participated in a week ago was warm, lovely, inspiring, and pretty much ego-less (recording here, the About Place issue it’s based on here). Verse Daily kindly featured a poem of mine, “Unsonnet,” that recently appeared in Ecotone. I have a gigan about my parents’ pine green Gran Torino in Literary Matters: anybody else old enough to remember those seatbealt-less rides in the “way-back”? Sweet interviewed me here. And I have an essay about teaching in my part of the south in Waxwing (a former colleague calls this place “Confederatelandia”). That one I did write recently–miraculously, really, given how hard this spring was!–but it’s just a 1500-word expansion of comments I would have made on an AWP panel called Teaching in the Confederacy, organized by Chris Gavaler and featuring Lauren K. Alleyne, Tyree Daye, and Gary Dop. Editor Todd Kaneko urged me to keep digging deeper into my own evasions, making it a better piece, but I presume it will be outdated in about five minutes. As I just wrote to a former student, now a professor himself and wondering about how to be a better teacher-scholar during Black Lives Matter, I’m in a constant process of self-renovation these days.

As is necessary. I think about Breonna Taylor every day, and the dreaming she can no longer do.

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.

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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!