Still life with two relaxed superheroes and a sparkle pen

seuss

Sometimes, if I wake up extra-early, I’ll make a pot of tea and read one of the many bound-to-be-good poetry books stacked on the cyborg (what we call the sideboard, for obscure reasons). This morning I read Diane Seuss’ Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and GirlIt’s full of elegy and ekphrasis, a very rich book I can’t do justice to here. As far as analytic sharpness, I’m tapped out at the moment by teaching and student conferences; I’m just reading receptively, to fill the well. But I’m moved by her poems mourning a father lost in childhood, friends lost to AIDS, and her own lost girl-self. I’m also processing a brilliant reading and visit from Rebecca Makkai, whose much-acclaimed novel The Great Believers concerns the arrival of HIV to Chicago’s Boystown in the eighties. Rebecca was my student here in the nineties; I remember her fierce intelligence well, how she blew in like a wind ready to strip away stupid traditions, as the best of my students do now. But that version of myself feels long gone. All these texts and memories mirror each other fractionally, so my head feels busy with bright shards.

I’m also especially taken by Seuss’s self-portrait series, perhaps because one of my classes is deep in discussion about confessionalism. Here’s one: “Self-Portrait with Sylvia Plath’s Braid.” But I like “Self-Portrait with Levitation” even better: “Embodiment has never been my strong suit.” Here’s to learning to float again, one of these days.

award

May the river/ remember you

bricks

“In Berlin, you can’t go anywhere without seeing stones and markers dedicated to the Jewish and Roma residents who were forced from their homes and taken to the concentration camps,” Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights lawyer, says in “A Lynching’s Long Shadow” by Vanessa Gregory. “And that iconography creates a consciousness of what happened that I think is necessary for that society to recover. In the American South, we’ve done the opposite. We’ve actually created symbols designed to make us feel great about our history, about the 19th century, about the good old days of the early 20th century.”

That quote from Stevenson, also a MacArthur winner and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, really struck me. We should be tripping over memorials for enslaved people here in the south, and for descendants of those enslaved people, who were subject to decades of terrorism while huge portions of white America stood by. Those lynchings were, instead, cheered on by white audiences, who brought their children to the festivities and collected souvenirs (read some basics about lynchings in Virginia here, but know in advance this Encyclopedia Virginia article contains upsetting pictures). It’s not that I think memorials would fix racism. But it’s pernicious how centuries of racist oppression are not just under erasure, where I live. They’re actually celebrated as “heritage” in a way I will never get over.

So what do I do, aside from the occasional march, phone call, editorial, donation? I’ve been deliberating these questions mostly through my poetry and in my classrooms. During our four-week May term this year, I’m teaching African American poetry with an emphasis on history, and the class will culminate in a digital memorial project framed in some way by excerpts of poems. It’s a talented group of students, mostly non-majors, and I’ve been working hard to introduce them to resources like our university’s wonderful Special Collections, but what they focus on will ultimately be up to them. This is a public project, so I’ll post a link in about two weeks, when it’s done.

At the moment, we’re waiting to scrutinize the report of the Committee on Institutional History, which was released to the president last week but not, yet, to the community. We’re also reading Kevin Young’s amazing long poem Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, from 2011. I think my students are struggling with it, much more so than with the shorter poems we’ve read, and I understand why–Ardency is not only long (250 pages), but Young steadfastly refuses to simplify this vast, complicated, powerful story. Instead, the book riffs on the languages and structures of religion, education, and music, with a section each focused on Covey, the free Mendi translator; Cinque, a captive who came to lead the rebellion; and a chorus of survivors on trial, often represented through letters. For a sample from Cinque’s extended “Libretto,” listen to “Choir (Morning).” Or read 1/250th of the book below. (I prefer to link to poems if I don’t have permission to post them, but I can’t find anything to link to. Just read this and buy the book, please. I believe Ardency will be judged one of the top poetic achievements of the century.)

Confession

The rage I have
not felt till now is not

what is, here,
called red–raw, rare

meat it is not.
Instead, steady green.

Is no flowering,
not a sudden thing

but the tallest tree.
Not the swift climb

to the top–or, timber
the chop–

But the termite’s steady rot.
-Kevin Young, from Ardency

Can a poem be a monument? I think so. A book doesn’t have the simplicity of a pillar or the accessibility of a garden, but there’s a public role, too, for the productive difficulties of intensely patterned language. We need to read poetry, alone and together, because it helps us remember (and imagine) what’s lost and imagine (and remember) a way forward.

 

Hybrid H.D.

 

by avon
By the Maury River–closest I’ve got

 

I’ve been swimming around in H.D.’s work since my undergraduate years, on the recommendation of the writer I eventually married. I started with her memoirs of Freud and Pound, trekking up to the sunny top floor of the University of Southampton library to find them, then worked backwards to the poetry, which became central to my 1994 dissertation and then my first book, The Poetics of Enclosure. I’m a poetry professor, primarily, with a deep love for lyric and lyric sequences, so most of the H.D. I teach is from the Collected Poems. But it’s been a 21st century thrill to watch a few of her other books come back into print, midwifed by generous H.D. scholars. The latest is the paperback version of By Avon Riverscrupulously edited by Lara Vetter (published in 2014 in hardcover, but now an eminently teachable $16.95 paperback, folks!).

The reason I use the word “hybrid”: H.D.’s book, like some proto-crypto-creative-writing-PhD-thesis, consists of three longish Shakespeare-related poems plus an extended prose meditation, full of quotes, about Elizabethan verse. Vetter’s introduction explains the project’s origin in three trips H.D. made from Blitz-ravaged London, at the close of World War II, to Stratford-upon-Avon. The first, on Shakespeare Day 1945, was almost a pilgrimage. As Vetter puts it, “Shakespeare is an icon, standing in for England in times of strife” (26). H.D. loved England and was thrilled to celebrate its survival, along with many other pilgrims, by immersing herself in English art and history. I agree with Vetter, however, that H.D. was far from Bardolatrous. By Avon River represents Shakespeare as a genius but also a poacher, implicated in British imperialist violence. Interestingly, too, Shakespeare is not so central to H.D.’s project as her title might imply. The literary-critical part of the book really concerns not so much Shakespeare as his milieu–less-celebrated poets, some very obscure now. And her poems revolve around a character referenced in The Tempest, Claribel, who never even appears onstage. Shakespeare mentioned her, more or less, and then forgot her.

By Avon River is resonating with me in part because of its hybridity. First published in 1949, the book did well–never a given for H.D.–receiving many laudatory reviews. This makes it an important precursor for later literary experiments. As Vetter argues, and as Cynthia Hogue reiterates in her back-cover endorsement, women writers late in the modernist period deserve more credit for their “hybrid works located at the juncture of personal, national, and nationalist concerns.” Hear, hear. But let me add: trying to publish hybrid work, many decades later, is still awful. I haven’t yet placed my creative- critical ms, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, even editors have praised it to me, and every time I reread it, too, having come to doubt myself, I get convinced all over again that it’s strong work. It’s just in the margins between everyone’s carefully articulated marketing plans.

And that connects to something else I appreciate about By Avon River. I read it as the meditation of an artistically ambitious woman nearing 60 who feels connected to Shakespeare (through bisexuality, among other ways) but knows she is not the Bard, not the poet who most indelibly articulates her time and place, if the 20th century even has one. I’m nearing 50 and while remaining as ambitious for my art as any poet you’ll ever meet, I find myself thinking a lot lately about my own unimportance. That’s not entirely a bad thing. It’s a condition I share, after all, with pretty much every other member of the human race. Sane people, I suspect, keep this demoralizing truth in the back of their minds and just keep trying to do their best work anyway.

H.D. writes of the more than 100 Elizabethan poets and dramatists whose names survive: “Not one is negligible” (76). She quotes their verses admiringly anrosemaryd speculates about their lives, respecting what it means to pen even just one poem that lasts for centuries. Their achievements, she insists, “must not be forgotten” (97). She also writes appreciatively of Shakespeare saying farewell to the court, and his own stature, through The Tempest: “there is no hint of bitterness or rivalry. If he is to be elbowed out, he will at least, give at the last, a demonstration of good manners” (101).

H.D. didn’t know if any of her own work would delight readers in 2017, and none of us knows if it will three centuries from now. In By Avon River, I hear her pondering this unpredictability and deciding she can live with it. All poetic effort matters, in the end, because the many strivers make a few shining successes possible. Besides, she’s on the side of the little guys, having vowed to be one of the historians, one of the rememberers. Bless them all.

I read her focus on Claribel in her lovely verses the same way. Maybe Claribel is not the hero of the drama, but “It is enough,/ I live forever” (61). H.D. knew, likewise, by the mid-forties, that she did have at least a small place in literary history. I personally rate H.D.’s work infinitely beyond footnote-status, but it’s bracing to dip into her thoughts about ambition and history and remember that she was just navigating currents, too, at water-level-perspective. Who knows where any of us will wash up?

Poetry & change & cocktail recipes

When someone says, “Poetry changed my life,” you expect to hear of a high-stakes transformation. Former students have told me, for example, how poetry gave them permission to embrace and admit their sexuality. Reading and writing poetry sustains people through all kinds of crises, and hearing it helps people feel moved and connected at weddings, inaugurations, and other happy occasions. There’s experimental evidence that reading certain kinds of stories can decrease a person’s racial prejudices–I expect that’s true of poetry, as well. On a less inspiring note, dedication to poetry has probably strained or destroyed plenty of love affairs and bank accounts.

Most of the metamorphoses triggered by poems, however, are much smaller. You are changed by a poem if you recall some of it afterwards: your memories have been altered. As you read, you might enter a state of happy concentration and experience physiological changes: respiration and pulse calm, so that briefly, your focus and mood shift. Or a poem might provoke an unfamiliar thought, or bring to mind some forgotten association, or prompt you to imagine the scene described. I am commonly changed in all these small, low-impact ways by reading and writing.

This week, however, I can report something bigger. This year has been full of difficult transitions: my eldest went off to college, my baby started high school, my mother got sick, and, not only for those reasons, I am feeling my age. My body has been a royal pain. And all this comes shortly after a series of changes in my workplace, some of them good but others distressing. In September I was definitely struggling with a sense that I had entered the second half of my life and it was going to suck.

So I wrote. My poetry and prose have all centered, more or less, on crisis as I looked for ways to redefine loss as change. A qualification: certainly it’s not always possible, or even a good idea, to revise grief into optimism. Responsible people look backwards as well as forwards and acknowledge what’s terrible as well as heartening. But I’ve been cultivating a sense of possibility all the same, and I swear it’s made me more resilient.

This week I, and others, got tested. A dear colleague suddenly left. Information has trickled out slowly; I’ve been enjoined not to say what I know, but in fact I still know very little. I’m left torn up about it but also with relief that the process seems to have been fair. While I hate the way universities tend to be run by legal fears and not by ethical imperatives–THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING–in this case, I wouldn’t divulge more anyway.* People need to pick up the pieces and I truly wish for everyone involved to heal and flourish.

My point is, the past few days have been totally rotten and my fragile department has taken another blow, but I feel somehow ready to roll with it. Maybe the last few years have just battered into me that life isn’t as stable as I once thought, and I actually learned the lesson. I really think, though, that writing has been at least as big a factor in my restored ability to bounce.** I’ve practiced telling new stories about myself, about middle age, about opportunities that sometimes spring up under winter’s worst ice-lock, and maybe the repetition is actually helping me believe them. It’s all hocus-pocus but I seriously find storytelling, beautiful repetition, and other literary strategies essential for thriving during the long, slow, catastrophic crash that is most anybody’s life.

If you have a less healthy strategy in mind for coping with your own crappy week, here’s help with that, too. Below are a few recipes best shared with people you like. And full of immune-boosting vitamin C! I suppose you should shake then strain them, but life is short–I just put the ingredients into a glassful of crushed ice and stir. Then I nurse it, and myself, slowly along towards a bouncier future.

The Absinthe-Minded Professor: one part each absinthe, elderflower liqueur (such as St. Germain), lime juice, simple syrup. Based on something tasty I drank locally, at The Red Hen.

Screwdriver from Hell: one shot each vodka and pomegranate liqueur (such as Pama), topped with a few ounces of orange juice

Elderflower Lemonade: one part each Deep Eddy’s lemon vodka, elderflower liqueur, lemon juice, simple syrup

BONUS: I’ve been making a version of the above with grapefruit vodka and grapefruit juice, and it’s delicious enough that it really needs its own name. I suggested Vitamin G–too flat–and a friend countered with G-Spot, which I eventually decided was too Ft. Lauderdale. Suggest something good in the comments and if I like it I’ll send you a free signed copy of one of my poetry collections. (Judging will be subjective, arbitrary, and doubtless very irritating.)

*But stop calling it “gossip,” administrators. Gossip is a gendered term of dismissal for the kinds of conversations women need to have to survive the stupidity of life. I do not gossip. I TALK, and I’m not sorry.

**Blogging also represents a deliberate strategy of indiscretion for keeping myself ineligible for upper administrative positions, in which you earn boatloads of money but have to deal with traumatic personnel issues unbolstered by real time for writing and teaching–ugh. So far, so good.

 

Anthroposcenery

Washington and Lee students often refer to their version of Lexington, Virginia as “the bubble,” as if were a protected from the world by those soft, old mountains. It’s not, nor would that be a good thing, and they know that. But seeming out-of-time is part of the attractive weirdness of some universities in the U.S. I know the damages people sometimes suffer even this privileged place, sometimes because of the privilege, and yet I appreciate the fantasy too sometimes as I walk through my gorgeous campus with arms full of library books, thinking poetic thoughts. It’s gothic, as my well-read firebrand of a daughter recently commented. Beneath the floorboards of wonderful intellectual conversations, a heart is beating out an accusation, and everyone tries to ignore the sound. (She really does talk like that and it’s part of why I miss her.)

The uncanny pulse gets louder this time of year, when the town hosts a different crowd every few days–family weekends for the two colleges, or trustee meetings, during which stray piles of cash drift over our academic mission like fallen leaves. Good work depends on that fundraising, so I’m happy it succeeds, but it makes me uneasy, too, because the emphasis so often falls on the wrong things. This past weekend was homecoming at W&L so the streets were rowdy with young alums. The graduates I’m closest to are often skeptical-minded literary types, too clear-eyed for unreserved cheering about a very good college with some very real culture problems. I ask if they’re coming back and many say, um, not my scene, unless they’re a retirement bash for a favorite professor in the offing, or some other content to the weekend than rah-rah-school-spirit. 

So it was unusual but very cool to walk downtown Saturday for a beer with a former student (and football-playing-poet) who became a college counselor and a fierce advocate for literary study at small liberal arts colleges. On the way I bumped into other former English majors, now passionately committed to teaching middle and high-schoolers. All are vocally grateful for those hours talking critically about books, writing and revising essays, figuring out what kind of people they wanted to be. My own elder child, a first-year at Wesleyan University, loves English but worries about focusing on it—will she be able to afford organic vegetables when she grows up? (She is really fixated on the cost of produce.) This question does not make me anxious at all. She’s smart and engaged and will graduate with skills employers want, no matter what undergraduate specialty she chooses. Finding the right path, the kind of job that satisfies employee as well as employer, can take time but I have no doubt others will value her intelligence and fire. My own graduates—lawyers, ministers, physical therapists, doctors, HR professionals, writers, editors, artists, arts administrators, diplomats, FBI agents, teachers at every kind of institution—give me high confidence that studying poetry can lead to a good life, however one measures that. (They could level some pretty smart arguments, in fact, for better ways of measuring of the good life.)

On Sunday, however, I fell into a bleaker mood, worrying about my mother in hospital, so I picked up a little book by Roy Scranton, whose first-year-seminar my daughter can’t stop talking about. I ordered it a few weeks ago, but hesitated to jump in, given the title: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights, 2015). And it is, in fact, a dark book, full of facts and figures about climate change—a rational person can’t deny a catastrophe is unfolding, but most of us prefer fictional televised zombie apocalypse to consideration of how our grandchildren, if they make it at all, might be subsisting on farmed algae in the new temperate zone of the Arctic Circle. That is the future to worry about.

Scranton was deployed to Iraq in 2003 as a private in the US Army. He managed his terror by following advice from an 18th century manual for samurai: Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. He ritually contemplated his own demise in graphic detail, then, “before we rolled out through the wire, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry anymore because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive” (22). He applies the same logic to human civilization: the Holocene is already over; we have to come to terms with living in a different era, with a very uncertain future.

There’s a lot to disagree with in Scranton’s book, but I was moved to watch it turn, eventually, into a fervent argument for the humanities. “Through the ice ages of the past and into the long summer of the Holocene,” he writes, “we carried tools, furs, fire, and our greatest treasure and most potent adaptive technology, the only thing that might save us in the Anthropocene, because it is the only thing that can save those who are already dead: memory” (95). And: “The study of the humanities is nothing less than the patient nurturing of the roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life. This nurturing is a practice not strictly of curation, as many seem to think today, but of active attention, cultivation, making and remaking. It is not enough for the archive to be stored, mapped, or digitized. It must be worked” (99).

When we make literature central to our thoughtful lives, generate new art out of ancient myths, or read poetry to remember the dead, we are working the humanities. I’m glad people fund and value the labor, although I wish we could talk more openly and seriously outside the classroom, as well as in it, about the costs and benefits of the apparent bubble, who’s excluded from it, and how. In any case, it’s good to be part of the heirloom-seeds-relay, so that my students can go on to share their favorite poems in Baltimore schools or embassy outreach classes in the Czech Republic. I’m also grateful my daughter has such a humane, eloquent teacher to plant Gilgamesh and Blake in her brain. We need optimists—hopeful people focused on the practicalities of getting each other out alive—but we direly need our bleak rememberers, too. We lose so much, so constantly.

Credo/ for the new year

Forest view: ranks of slender trunks shoot up vertically in a bid to catch a bit of direct light. The rare anomaly, the difficult-to-spot wolf tree, spreads its limbs horizontally, luxuriously, because it occupied the meadow before all the others grew up around it. I learned the term reading Paula Meehan’s poem “The Wolf Tree” in Painting Rain, where it becomes an emblem for how the past survives in the present—all times coexist always, if you know how to look. Her instructions for finding wolf trees remind me of practicing art or meditation: scanning for a wolf tree involves a counterintuitive process of relaxing one’s focus, becoming fully present, and waiting “until the moment when your attention snags—”

Paula Meehan’s poetry is a wolf tree for me in the woods of contemporary verse. I know it’s better than much of what’s out there, but I’m not jumping to claim that it’s the best and the strongest and should crowd other poetry out of my attention. I just know that when I stare at it, it spreads out branches. It helps me see the forest in a new way, in psychedelic layers.

Meehan came across the idea of the wolf tree while reading “Slashes” in Adrienne Rich’s The School Among the Ruins. Adrienne Rich’s poetry is enormously important to Meehan and to me, but I read it most intensely in the eighties and early nineties, and my attention never snagged on this 2004 collection. I barely understand “Slashes,” really, although I can reason my way through it with the help of Rich’s notes. The title connotation of violence haunts the poem, but she directs our attention first to the slash as punctuation mark used in dates. Various images of connection and division throughout the poem suggest the strange duality of the slash: it can mean “or” (refusing to choose, setting up equivalence) and “and” (forging a joint between terms). From the middle of the poem (WordPress keeps erasing the spacing, but the words come through, at least):

Slash across lives   memory pursues its errands
a lent linen shirt pulled unabashedly over her naked shoulders
cardamom seed bitten in her teeth
watching him chop onions
words in the air   segregation/partition/apartheid
vodka/cigarette smoke   a time
vertigo on subway stairs
Years pass   she pressing the time into a box
not to be opened   a box
quelling pleasure and pain

You could describe something like this
in gossip   write a novel   get it wrong

   In wolf tree, see the former field

For Rich, in this poem at least, the past can be evoked but not told, witnessed but not explained.  I appreciate the ethics of that position but the poem doesn’t help me live. Rather than being beautifully warned against misrepresenting experience, I’d rather have a clumsy explanation of how to get it right.

I talked to Paula Meehan in Dublin last August but ran out of time to look for wolf trees on the grounds of Malahide Castle, where she first spotted one. A week or so later found myself in Coole Park, Yeats territory, trying for a quiet moment in the woods as my kids smashed their noisy way towards the lake. I never got my timeless interval of blissful communion, but some quality of the light snagged my attention and I snapped one picture of the lit-up greenery. Long after we downloaded the photos and arrived home, I scrolled through, chose this one for desktop wallpaper, blew it up on my screen, and finally saw it: a wolf tree, right in the middle of the shot.Coole park wolf tree

 

Maybe some uncanny force guided my eye and hand; maybe I liked the angle because I unconsciously perceived the break in symmetry; maybe the whole thing’s a coincidence. Barring a personalized revelation courtesy of some God/ fairy spirit, I’m choosing “and” over “or,” horizontal over vertical. I believe not in a higher power, but in other powers: not in kneeling and praying, but in watching and listening. Light is still/always everywhere.