Commencements



“I, too, am not unhopeful,” Saidiya Hartman said to Wesleyan University’s Class of 2019 during a long, hot ceremony on a bowl-shaped lawn. Soon-to-be-alumni/ae in the audience, including my daughter, wore robes of Handmaid’s Tale scarlet. I was turning scarlet in the sun, wondering what we were all on the threshold of.

I loved Hartman’s oration, which was deliberately weird. She analyzed the genre of the commencement address and explained why she wasn’t going to fulfill its conventions by offering advice towards a shiny future that it’s currently impossible to believe in. Her beautiful lines sounded more like poetry than persuasive rhetoric. I scribbled down some fragments, like “the gift of bare uncertainty that hurls you into adulthood.” The longest chunk I captured: “These remarks are really an elaborate ask. Speculate how the world might be otherwise…we pause in anticipation of the world you might make.” As she then pointed out, the expectations attached to commencement addresses were sucking her in after all: how can a speaker, and just as importantly, a teacher, address such a cusp without a glimmer of curiosity about what comes next?

After the cap-tossing and the toasts, my family of four headed to Cape Cod for a few days, to take a breather and contemplate other borderlands. We stayed on Lieutenant Island, which is only an island for 1 or 2 hours a day, when high tide reaches the salt marshes and makes it impossible to cross the wooden bridge. I drafted a couple of commencement-themed poems there, and we took lots of walks and ate lots of delicious seafood. Also, to be unsocial-media-ish: I had nightmares, and my daughter was sick, and plenty of bad news penetrated our bubble. It’s good to have all the ceremonies behind us, and I’m really proud of what my children have achieved. I feel grateful, as well, for so many lovely moments–long breaths poised on the water’s edge, not looking forward or backward–but I can’t say my heart is peaceful.

We’re home again now, trying to get sorted for a summer of work, about which I am a little anxious, always, but not unhopeful. I have writing and revising to do as my graduation sunburn peels; my son is doing math research for a W&L professor; and my daughter will soon be teaching in a summer camp while she applies for policy-related jobs in D.C. (employment leads welcome!). In the meantime, anyone in the Charlottesville, Virginia area can look for me at 2nd Act Books on the downtown mall on Sunday, June 9th. I’ll be reading there with Sara Robinson from 2-4 pm. I promise a few writing prompts toward the possibility of a peaceful, productive summer. A wild dream, I know.



Amazing Poet-Thing #1 (2018, first series)

thing alone

Thing-Poet admits to moments of feeling like a geographically-isolated pariah wearing outdated costumes ill-fitted to her post-change, orange, lumpy physique.

thing map2

The cool poet-parties occur at League Headquarters far away, and she is not invited. So it was fun, this week, to give a talk and a reading at the first residency for the brand-new Randolph MFA, which was full of superheroes.

thing fly2

That’s in Lynchburg, Virginia, so she didn’t even have to fly. There was an awful lot of car-time, though, for Poet-Thing and Comics-Man, between zipping over the mountain to the residency, picking up their son in Ohio, and driving two cars to D.C. so they could help their daughter move out of summer housing and into a dog-sitting gig (she’ll be home, too, before too long, which is wonderful, although it also means that summer is winding down, which is less wonderful).

thing read

So during this last quiet week, Poet-Thing hopes to do lots more reading and writing and playful working–some of it involving poetry comics. Quiet-work play, after all, is one thing rural Virginia is good for.

Coniferous forests of hard thinking

When your child takes a summer internship in Siberia, you think, hmm, THAT’s a long way for a teenager to go to escape parental interference. Maybe you made the normal adolescent struggle for independence a little difficult?

Parents can follow their kids now through multiple technologies and social media platforms, and I do. With trust, and love!–but it doesn’t give a twenty-year-old a ton of room. I went to college only an hour from home, but without cellphones or email or Facebook or any other mode of mutual visibility, just a payphone at the end of the hall that, occasionally, someone would pick up after twenty rings. That could be hard, but also a huge relief.

I’m not saying M. went to Siberia BECAUSE the word is synonymous for “as far away as possible.” She’s long been fascinated by all things Russian, studying the history, literature, and politics. But my eldest has finally, ingeniously escaped my range!

So I’ve been sending my thoughts so far east it’s west again, in between revising mss, organizing submissions and queries, recovering from an annoying back injury (totally unrelated, I’m sure, to stress over packing my child off to the Altai Mountains for six weeks), and building up new research for an August conference in Amsterdam, which has involved the usual leaps and dead ends, excitement and wailing. You know–the coniferous forest of hard thinking, prowled by tigers of self-doubt. The tundra of isolated work, wondering when you’ll find a settlement. Supply your own ridiculous poet-parent Siberian metaphor here.

altai kraiI’m also watching my phone for updates from the countryside south of Novosibirsk, but trying not to appear desperate for them. I’m happy to report that a twenty-first-century voyager can text even from Siberia, and that, from what I can judge, my daughter is having a fabulous adventure. She’s teaching English to kids and working hard to learn as much Russian as possible (from a teacher with a Kazakh accent). The locals are friendly and her fellow interns are a cheerful group of Brits from Bristol Uni (though most of them leave soon, with a couple of new interns coming from other countries). The lowlands have been balmy and beautiful, and they’re heading towards a new camp, higher in the mountains (have you seen The Eagle Huntress?). The stresses are sleep deprivation–it’s light all the time–and food, but neither is dire. M. has become a connoisseur of kasha, preferring the barley-millet version served at lunchtime, with its tantalizing flavor of “burnt electrical cord,” over the less describable breakfast variety. What she can’t get behind, not surprisingly, is the meat–“myaso,” I think, in my alphabet. (“What kind of meat?” Blank looks: “Just myaso.” Ah, mysteries.) I wish I’d insisted on packing another bag of almonds.

From the present wilderness, here are a couple of new reviews, a micro of Niall Cambell’s First Nights up at the Kenyon Review, and a longer one of Athena Kildegaard’s Ventriloquy at Valparaiso Poetry ReviewBoth collections are very much worth your time.

For now, back to the quiet life. Well, quiet on the outside. Here’s a glimpse of the current menage, with Chris helping me rearrange a poetry ms, the still-at-home child eating American food in a Doctor Who shirt, and Poe making sure no recyclable grocery bags wing off to Russia, or the next room.

summer 2017