Fuzzy at the edges

U-Chris

Meet our new kitten, Ursula! We brought her home from the SPCA yesterday and she’s charming everyone in the house (except our other cats, who are scared to death of her tiny rambunctious self). I thought of titling this post Cranky Poet Goes Soft, because that’s basically the mood around here, although I can’t entirely shake a little holiday anxiety. So much to do, as well as paradoxically worrying that I won’t find time to kick back–but at least I’m reading up a storm, catching up on poetry books I haven’t had time for. I’m hoping to post on the books I read in 2018 around the New Year. I’m also prepping like mad for the new term, which starts Jan. 7th; I have to get everything organized early because we decided to go to New Orleans for a few days right beforehand. The kids have never seen the city, and for me it’s been about 20 years, so we’ll just walk around, eat well, hear some jazz. Traveling is one of the few things that makes me really put work away and we realized we were all craving the break.

 

Another bit of good news: I’ll be seeing Portugal for the first time in July! I’m on a panel just accepted to the 2019 International MLA, held in Lisbon, so Chris and I will go together and extend the adventure by at least a few days. The panel concerns poetry and physics, and I’ll be talking about Samiya Bashir’s Field Theoriestwo of the other panelists are people I love hanging out with, my former student Max Chapnick and another dear colleague in the poet-scholar biz, Cynthia Hogue. I will have to write that paper (!), but that’s too far off to worry about, so I’m just happy to have a very cool trip to look forward to.

Other luck at the hinge of the year, as light finally considers returning: Flock has published two of my poems in its new “Vanishing Point” issue, which you can read online for free through Dec. 25th. “List from John Robinson, 1826” was one of their Pushcart nominees, which moves me for all kinds of reasons–it’s a few years old and was inspired by the history of a group of enslaved people at my home institution. You can see the actual document, which is far more powerful than my poetic response to it, here.

And my copy of Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle, edited by Marilyn Taylor and James Roberts, just arrived–my poem “Return Path” is in its pages, as well as gorgeous work by Ned Balbo, Amy Lemmon, Jane Satterfield, Kathrine Varnes, and many others. I’ll close this post with one of my favorites, “Beach of Edges” by Annie Finch (photographed with one of the shells I keep in my office, although Ursula is doing her best to smash them, crash by fascinating crash). I also love the quote from Annie on the back of the collection: “Based in communal dance rather than individual song, spiraling back repeatedly to the same refrains, often moving from obsession to acceptance through the simple movements of repetition, perhaps the villanelle teaches us something about sharing and returning, integrating, and learning to let go: good lessons for our time.” That feels uncannily right about my own few successful ventures into the form–most villanelles don’t quite fly unless you’re willing to participate in that integration, even if it’s painful.

I’m still most dazzled with happiness to have placed my next poetry ms with Tinderbox Editions, but the smaller pleasures are nevertheless ratcheting up the general shine. Here’s wishing you the light and luck you most desire and a peaceful holiday, with kittens.

villanelle

There isn’t a train I wouldn’t take

judy

We just returned from the last of a summer of endless road-trips. This one was definitely the saddest: my husband and his sister buried their mother’s ashes this weekend in her family plot in Pittsburgh. That’s Judy, above. Her obituary gives you the basics of her impressive career: after she and my father-in-law divorced in the early 70s, she earned a PhD in Epidemiology and Biostatistics and her work was funded for years by the NIH. The research she talked about most when I knew her concerned alcoholic beverages as a source of estrogen. What her official bio does NOT tell you is that some of this work got picked up by the National Enquirer with the headline “Bourbon Turns Men Into Women.” (Apparently long-time male bourbon drinkers accumulate breast tissue. Beware, or drink up, as you please.)

The obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also tells how Judy helped found the People’s Coalition Against Discrimination in the late 60s. She, Chris’ father, and a few other people got together to make noise about, and eventually sue, the Penn Hills police department for its failure to integrate the force after a brilliantly-qualified African American candidate was shut out (and then accepted to the state troopers). Judy and her fellow activists won, but it was a costly battle, with angry locals spray-painting slurs on their house. (Not expert spellers, the white supremacist vandals accused the Gavaler family of being especially fond of Niger.) One of Judy’s great friends from that struggle came to the funeral and the brunch afterwards; he eventually had to move out of the neighborhood. It’s a more involved saga with some astonishing details but I don’t want to get them wrong. It’s just worth saying that she was a smart, brave woman with a fierce sense of justice, and I give her a lot of credit for who my husband became and, less directly, who my children are becoming.

By “less directly” I’m referring to literal and metaphorical distance between Judy and my children. Judy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years ago, and she was in undiagnosed and partially-hidden decline for years before that, so while my eldest child got to know her, my youngest really didn’t. Even before that complication, Judy suffered many bouts of severe depression which medications could never quite keep up with. She was utterly loving and extremely generous but she basically had few boundaries. While Chris was in frequent touch with her all his adult life, and visited her monthly for the last five years in a facility three hours away, he had to draw some lines between her life and his, from childhood on, just to keep his own life together.

I’m at an age when a lot of friends are losing their parents, and it’s always an intensely emotional experience. Whether love or struggle is in the ascendancy, there’s just so much to grieve. My job this time, though, has been to keep to the passenger seat and help Chris and my daughter get through it. My own relationship to Judy wasn’t all that complicated. She was kind to me and adoring of my husband and kids; I loved her for that and admired her immensely, even though I kept a distance from some of her intensities, too. The dementia was awful and seemed to cause her suffering, so I imagined she was relieved to be released from her broken body. At least, I had a sense of her around the house for a day or two after she died in January, emanating joy. Maybe that’s just what I want to believe, but Judy, if you’re out there, I’m wishing you peace and wholeness and all the empowered freedom you craved and deserve.

Judy gave me a collection of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems in 1991, so I read “Travel,” the poem below, at the brief service. Below the poem are pictures of my spouse and kids at the Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. We often went there with Judy and the kids when we visited town, so we spent a couple of hours with the dinosaurs after the funeral lunch. They’re such grand creatures who have traveled so long to meet us; it was good to remember their company.

The railroad track is miles away, 
    And the day is loud with voices speaking, 
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day 
    But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by, 
    Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming, 
But I see its cinders red on the sky, 
    And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make, 
    And better friends I’ll not be knowing; 
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, 
    No matter where it’s going.

 

Tough Guide to the Field Guide to the End of the World

field-guide-gaileyJust a postcard here from the end of a very tough term–a cheery note from amid the ruins to show off some good work my students just completed. The last book my composition class read was Jeannine Hall Gailey’s excellent new collection, Field Guide to the End of the World. For a final writing assignment after a series of more conventional persuasive essays, my students had the option of writing another essay, OR writing speculative fiction or poetry based on our readings, OR participating in a weirder project. Imagine, I told the intrepid explorers who chose the third path, that Gailey’s End of the World is a real place. Create a web-based travel guide for tourists wishing to visit it, mining the poems for clues about its character.

As we geared up, Gailey Skyped into my class to chat and answer questions, handling some apocalyptic technical glitches, ALL on our end, like a pro. Lonely planet writer and W&L alum Amy Balfour visited in person to talk about going on assignment and constructing punchy, economical descriptions full of revelatory details. We scoured guide books, noting their stylistic tics, and were trained in WordPress by W&L’s Senior Academic Technologist Brandon Bucy.

Here is the mock-travel-website seven students created. I think it’s hilarious, but more so if you read Gailey’s book, which you totally should (sample poems here, for starters). And according to the reflective essays students submitted yesterday, they had more fun with it than seems quite proper for a composition course. (And here, for comparison, is the travel guide to Gaileyland students from an earlier course created, based on Jeannine’s first collection, Becoming the Villainess. Her books have a combination of light, darkness, and just plain weirdness that makes them a really good fit for this world-building assignment.)

May all your grading be this entertaining. And if it’s not, rethink those syllabi for next term. These students, after all, stretched their writing skills significantly and came to know a book of poetry really deeply. As long as everyone’s working hard, why shouldn’t the end-times be fun?

writ-100
Writ 100 students conferring, and a blackboard in Early Fielding full of topic ideas

Let us hold hands and look

image

In a Bath Teashop, by John Betjeman
“Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another —
Let us hold hands and look.”
She such a very ordinary little woman;
He such a thumping crook;
But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels
In the teashop’s ingle-nook.

I have it on good local authority that Sally Lunn’s is the only teashop in Bath with an inglenook, so Betjeman’s poetic assignation must have occurred here. It’s the oldest remaining house in Bath, according to the plaque out front, and all the guidebooks say one must eat a bun there. We finally obeyed on Wednesday with my visiting cousins, and it was full of Americans–including one of my daughter’s high school teachers, to their mutual shock. It’s a lovely old three-story place with exposed timbers and a low curving plaster ceiling over the narrow stairs.

I didn’t scan for an inglenook because I wasn’t sure what qualified as one, but I just looked it up now: it’s a warm recess by a fireplace. The alliteration in Betjeman’s last two lines gets even more interesting when you learn than angel and ingle both come from Old English via Scots or Irish Gaelic–angel also means fire. I know almost nothing about Betjeman–although he was a poet laureate in the UK, he’s a small-ish figure in the US version of the British canon–but I admire the way character transformation links to linguistic change in this poem. How paradoxical, though, that speaking threatens to break the romantic spell. Language seems to debase love and identity here, and at the same time it carries the flame across great spans of time.

I’m saying goodbye now after a month in Bath, having never figured out what the local accent is, because everyone seems to be from elsewhere–or, at least, changed by long stays in other places. A month isn’t a significant sliver in forty-seven years, so I’m not claiming to have been re-written by the experience myself, as Bath itself has been re-mapped by Romans, medieval kings, and then the grand plans of the Georgians. But I made some wonderful connections here and elsewhere in England. I rendezvoused with family members I hadn’t seen in nine years. I talked and tippled with poets whose work was new to me and picked up more books and magazines than I should have, considering the luggage problem. I did some writing, too, and I suddenly have some new ideas for my youngest poetry manuscript, the core of the book that will come after Radioland. So now I’m off to a picnic lunch by the Avon, and tomorrow morning, very early, we’re dragging our cases onto a coach to Heathrow. Even though I’m returning to work and muggy heat and a small town without Thai food or Roman ruins, I’m feeling nearly ready for the translation.

Lines Composed in Bath a Few Days After Visiting Tintern Abbey

Lines Composed in Bath a Few Days After Visiting Tintern Abbey and Also Nottingham, Coleford, Netheravon, and Miscellaneous Places Viewed Accidentally Because We Forgot to Reserve a Car with Sat-Nav and Had No Map. June 22, 2015.

Twenty-six years have passed!–two advanced degrees,
two mortgages, two beauteous teens raised
to height if not to wisdom since I last
trudged complainingly uphill to gaze
upon the Royal Crescent; since I toured
the Roman Baths at student rates, and couldn’t
find an open pub at which to order cheaply.
Again I hear the angry-baby cry
of gulls and shiver in the English summer
drizzle. Again I fail at navigation
in the passenger seat of a hired car, calling
“Left!” down mazy B roads or into the coils
of roundabouts.

Yet Nottingham was new,
where Zayneb paced me past the trams toward
the castle and back to Wired, weaving the evening
into lace. And the puzzling mossy scowles we found
in a Welsh wood, where Nigel carried Ella
over yew bridges and slick mud, rust-hued.
It seemed a miracle to reach the abbey,
soaked clothes steaming in a sudden blaze.
The Wye rippled along, bright-scaled, as if
it were a sleeping dragon breathing. And next
day, the solstice, we steered past Stonehenge toward
a barbeque, where Boris the boxer chased
the terrier Molly round and round the garden
till she bared her fangs and jumped up on my lap.

If I could see into the life of things
or feel a Presence or hear the still sad music
of humanity, I wouldn’t presume to admit
it; trampling iambs into rubble with
my trainers is American enough.
Plus I’ve learned I’m “misophonic,” meaning
tormented by chewing and ticking and scraping,
and so the sadder human noises tend
to outscratch the musical intimations.
I need a white noise app to sleep, given
how the pigeons carouse and tourists flap.
Yet it’s pleasant to sit in the Pump Room
or try on corsets in the Fashion Museum,
dreaming of Austen heroines, or to look
on ruins overwritten by Romantic
musers, as if their lines still chime in each
damp breeze;–with each new scene a riffling
as of pages, worn soft now. Streets more dear,
and valleys greener, for my poets’ sake.

Apologies to Wordsworth, but this was too much fun to resist. We’re having a terrific trip so far, with a good balance of history, art, food, family, and walking around pretty landscapes. Bath is a great base. Chris is fairly busy teaching his creative writing workshop, but since he has superhuman energy levels anyway, he is still sightseeing with us some mornings and on the weekends, and our flat is so central (North Parade, between the Roman Baths and the cricket grounds) that taking the kids around by myself is simple. It’s a fifth floor walkup, though, so keeping the beauteous teens in groceries carried from Waitrose by hand is the biggest challenge. Here’s the view from the chair by the window beside which I composed these mortal lines.image

For any of you who know my “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand” essay, I’m reprising that experience, too. It was a great pleasure to meet Zayneb Allak and many of her teachers and fellow-students in Nottingham. The reading series at Wired Cafe has a wonderful energy, as do the creative writing staff at Nottingham Trent. And yesterday I drank my pot of chai with Carrie Etter who teaches here in Bath–and who already had a copy of Heterotopia, courtesy of Peter Covino at Barrow Street. Next stop: Liverpool, to read at the Blue Coat!

Travel dictionaries

     That’s how it goes some days,

     don’t you reckon.

     You wander the streets of a city

     that’s no longer your own.

     You look at a map

     and all the words are in German.

     You ask a stranger

     where the hills have gone

     and he bursts out laughing.

          from “Lost” by Bernadette Hall in The Lustre Jug (Victoria U P, 2009)

Every poetry collection I pick up seems to be about miscommunication and displacement—what happens to language as you barrel through time zones. I don’t know if it’s accident, a New Zealand thing, or a widespread twenty-first century poetic obsession. Probably it’s the way I’m reading, what I’m looking for. The Fulbright Scholar sits down to write reports about how the grant changed her work and disorientation ensues.

The books I’ve been reading keep getting recalled to the library (sad consequence of blogging about them?), and I ought to start bringing them back anyway because I only have three more weeks here, but some of them are hard to part with. Bernadette Hall’s The Lustre Jug is in the latter category. I picked it up early on, when I learned that Hall was convening the poetry-focused MA workshop this year, while Chris Price is on leave. Many of its poems arose from six months Hall spent in Ireland, although there are shards of Australia and New Zealand in there as well. Hall is away from home even while in Wellington. I asked her once if she identified with the label “New Zealand poet” and she answered with hardly any hesitation: “I’m a South Island poet” (the book jacket says she “lives in North Canterbury”). I noticed her omnipresence at Wellington literary events all through this southern fall, but it only recently sank in: she may seem local to a visiting American, but she’s a literary tourist too, soaking it all up while she has a chance.  

When I first read The Lustre Jug I was taken with its southern-hemispheric second half. I had been going to open mics and was intrigued by “The Strenuous Life,” a piece that skewers macho poetry readers:

     See how this one stretches up on his tippy toes,

     cranes forward over the high page,

     crooks one leg behind him as if he’s in the starting blocks,

     rocking himself into the finals of the national hurdles.

The poem goes on to quote a sexist remark by a “famous writer,” to which Hall belatedly responds with a very satisfying four-letter-word. I love how precisely observed, funny, and unsparing this poem is.

Books change, though, as if it’s impossible to step into the same poem twice. I recognize myself more now in those Ireland poems—although Ireland is only an imagined landscape for me, where my grandfather’s parents were born, where some favorite poets live or have lived, but where I’ve never been. What seems familiarly strange is thickness of detail in a new place, accumulating in your brain/notebook like receipts in your pocket; the superimposition of two landscapes, absent home and present alienness; the stickiness of place names and other local words. Ireland and New Zealand in this collection; New Zealand and Virginia for me, with echoes of New York, New Jersey, and England (especially from a January-to-July stint studying abroad twenty-three years ago).

“Lost” is the book’s penultimate poem, and like many others here, it’s epistolary, a poetic note to a friend to whom she gave lousy directions (someday soon I’ll write here about poetic dedications). A turn-left-after-the-zebra crossing poem seems to require a place-based orientation, but the setting is cleverly muddled, involving multiple times and cities. Hall describes herself Yeats-fashion as “all flustered, crazy Jane,/ can’t tell my arse from my elbow.” Her directions refer to streets in Prague, Paris, and a couple of places Google Maps isn’t helping me with. She also remembers a winter night in Fidel’s on Cuba—that’s Wellington, for anybody who hasn’t tasted the coffee. Confused yet? “Lost” translates that predicament into a feeling worth extending, parsing, and remembering. It also zeroes in at the end on hieroglyphs for home:

     n gr8 2 gt yr txt:

     ‘loved LOVED Christchurch’