Talking to mountains

claudia corThere’s a mountain I talk to on a fairly regular basis–really, two mountains, Big House Mountain and Little House Mountain. From the window of my study, one shoulders the other nearly out of view. On a clear day, sometimes I can see the difference. Today both are occluded by dull white mists.

Instead of trying to engage a sulky landscape in conversation, then, I’m browsing the last in-print issue–really, two issues–of Crab Orchard Reviewthe first magazine ever to pay me for a poem. I have an essay in the general half, 21.1. The company is brilliant: Kaveh Akbar, Kim Bridgford, Chelsea Dingman, Annie Finch, Afaa M. Weaver, and many others. The prize-winning essay, “Slight” by Kristine Langley Mahler, is a stunner. A spooky poem by Emily Rosko, “A Phase,” seems to be about a lost friend, as is my piece, “Women Stay Put.” I have no objectivity at all about this essay, but I can testify that whatever the end results are worth, it was really hard to write. I’m weaving together meditations on place, friendship, and what it meant to labor, in the mid-nineties, alongside an extremely talented poet who occupied a lower rung in the local academic hierarchy than I did. “Women Stay Put” is a hybrid of personal and critical essay–a memoir of Claudia Emerson that also analyzes her first collection, Pharaoh, Pharaoh.

From that essay, first drafted in January, 2015: “My life is patterned by love and meaningful work, but winter’s dark days make me low and antisocial. Lavender clouds pile onto House Mountain.” I talked to the mountain a lot back then, too.

Thanks to Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble for including me. And I love that the issue I’m in is followed by a themed issue called “Weather Reports,” full of pieces that look backward, like mine, but also others testing literature’s predictive powers. When the issue goes live, look, for instance, for “Spell to Bring the Fall” by Ann V. DeVilbiss as well as poem by Michael Hurley, in which the title slides into the first line: “A Persimmon,” begins “when ripe, can be used to predict the weather.” The poem instructs you to split a seed and examine the shape inside for foreknowledge of winter snow and wind.claudia texts

I predict we’ll have more grieving weather soon, eventually followed by hope weather, although they’ll keep cycling. I predict I’ll photograph these trivial texts from Claudia then finally delete them from my phone, and that no one will ever ask to read them, although people will keep loving her poems. I predict I’ll see the mountain again one of these days, and it will reflect the sunrise, like a mirror.

 

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

Poetry and injustice

I don’t have anything wise and insightful to say about our epidemic  losses of African-Americans to police violence. At the “Black Lives Matter” rally at Washington & Lee on Friday—yes, a rally here, and the crowd was big!—I didn’t speak. African-American undergrads, law students, and community members bore witness to fear and humiliation that are offensively common in their lives: being pulled over without cause, followed around department stores by security guards, challenged in their right to walk their own neighborhood streets. Their testimony was more moving and convincing than anything I could contribute.

I don’t know how much of my slowness to chime in is my scholarly training (don’t speak unless you’ve read EVERYTHING) versus an ethics of carefulness or just personal insecurity—but I tend to keep my strong political opinions on the quiet side. When you speak, you risk being stupid, wrong, even hurtful. I have certainly said my share of seriously dumb things over the years. Not speaking, though, has a huge social cost. The difficulty/ urgency of speaking for others has been a contentious topic in my mid-century U.S. poetry seminar lately, as one of my students reflects in a recent blog post for Shenandoah. I’ve been attracted to Adrienne Rich’s work for decades—I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis partly on her work—because of poems like “Frame,” in which she negotiates between her responsibility to bear witness and the dangers of using others’ trauma as material. Many privileged poets don’t get the balance right, in my opinion, or if they do, they don’t manage to transform the balancing act into poetry. On the whole, though, it seems better to try and fail than not to try at all.

There’s also the perennial question of what poetry can do to help in any case. So many people are talking and writing, and yet so little changes. I am deeply moved by Gwendolyn Brooks’ strategies in “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.” She imagines the white woman with whom Emmett Till was supposed to have flirted changing her mind—recognizing the links between the brutalities white women and African-Americans of all genders endure. Brooks had such a generous imagination and such amazing skill at inspiring others, but we still live in a world where African-American boys are murdered without legal consequence. When I read Danez Smith’s recent and much more fiery call to arms, and to song, I remember: art is a powerful answer to the stupidity of the world. Poets see. It gives me hope, as heated classroom debates give me hope. Hope is small and personal, though, and while it does save lives, violence and suffering still rages in the world around the reader.

“How can a person make poems out of anger?” a student poet asked me recently. He’s hurt and furious and he craves practical advice on how to turn his experience into something positive. I don’t know, I said, but practicing compassion helps me, because it generates complicated language to match a complicated world. When I think compassionately, I know children of any race are seldom loved well enough and may grow up broken; our schools and communities are full of damaging injustice and rarely teach us how difficult it is to be good, how much hard thinking it requires; our biggest decisions are often made in the blink of an eye but can have terrifyingly wide implications; and intensely hierarchical institutions bring out the worst in people.

Recognizing how those forces may act on police officers as well as kids on the street doesn’t mean the abusers shouldn’t be held responsible. I think even fierce, polarizing language can have positive uses. Ultimately, though, I’m on the side of breaking down “us” and “them” into messy complexity. The fact that nothing is simple, though, is cause for another kind of sadness. When the causes are so manifold, where do you start?

So, it was a hard week. I’m grieving, too, for my long-ago colleague Claudia Emerson, killed by cancer. One poison in the early years of that friendship was an institutional one: I had the privilege of being tenure-track while she was hired year-to-year as an “adjunct” professor, a disparity that definitely did not map onto merit, even though in those early days her greatest accomplishments were still ahead of her. She was one of the most important role models in my poetic and teaching life, but our relationship suffered strains because of systemic injustice. Several people told me last week that W&L treated her badly. I know individuals did, and I’m sure in my own panicky obliviousness I missed a lot, but W&L’s badness, if you can describe it that way, is common and persistent. She was undervalued as other contingent professors, here and elsewhere, remain undervalued. W&L hasn’t risen above the deeply unfair system that permeates U.S. academia, but our version is not unique or especially egregious. Even twenty years later, as a department head, I can’t see any fix except to keep saying “the system isn’t right and it damages all of us.” I have an essay to write, I think, but I’m trying not to get too far in until I have time to reread Claudia’s first book, Pharaoh, Pharaoh—the one she finished in an office downstairs from me, with fewer resources than those I enjoyed.

Really, I don’t have to try very hard as far as not-writing is concerned! This will be the last week of classes, followed by a week of exams and meetings, and my schedule is chock-full of student conferences and other obligations like reading job applications and oh, maybe decorating a tree or two. This Wednesday my class will put on a Haiku Death Match in the Elrod Commons Living Room at 11:15 a.m.—if you’re local, stop by. I don’t expect any of the students’ little poems to rock the world, but there will be coffee and good cheer. Poetry is a good church in which to worship, even if when you step out again, the streets are as messed-up as ever.