It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall

The dark threw its patches down upon me also, Walt Whitman wrote in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Nearly as often as he reflects on his own tingling senses, Whitman, it turns out, writes about distance and solitude, sometimes expressing pain about it and reaching for touch across impossible gaps. “It avails not, time nor place–distance avails not,” he insists. We can be together, apart. This violent week has proven again that in my country, unity is a fiction. Some U.S. citizens are protected by police; in overlapping territory, other U.S. citizens are murdered by police. I admire Whitman’s desire to heal damage and division, but I can’t love my country the way he did.

Yet the fellowship of writers in other places, even other times, helps my heart. I wrote last week about feeling rested by the kind intelligence of Ned Balbo’s new book The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots, and before that the pleasure of revisiting Martha Silano’s Gravity Assist. Silano also has a powerful poem in the issue of Shenandoah that will debut on June 5th; I’ve been proofreading it and appreciating the authors we’re about to publish. I also have thanks to give to many writers, editors, and event programmers who have recently shown me generosity.

First, here’s to writer and publisher Rose Solari for praising The State She’s In in the Washington Independent Review of Books. First official review and it’s a beauty!

A couple of new pieces about writing as a practice: Massachusetts Review, in conjunction with an essay of mine about Millay they just published, recently put up a “10 Questions” interview about the how and where of research and drafting; in both the interview and the essay itself, I talk about finding camaraderie with dead women poets, in this case wondering how authors I admired bore children or refused to. Next, Celia Lisset Alvarez has started a blog series at Prospectus about writers’ first publications. In “Unbecoming Hubris” I post about daring to write my first novel and some of the comeuppances I experienced before holding the book in my hands. This is a good place, too, to say thank you to my spouse Chris Gavaler for “My Unbecoming Spouse,” a post about book covers and messing with Audubon’s cross fox.

I have a couple of recent poems full of cosmic dread in Sweet. And if you’re in the mood to listen, I have recorded readings here for the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival and here for the Social Distance Reading Series hosted by the Vermont School and Green Mountains Review.

My school year has wound down now and I have a lot to catch up on, especially in deferred publicity work for my books–and being sad and worried makes it hard. I’m wondering if my deferred spring 2020 readings should happen in spring 2021, not this fall. As usual, I’m prone to dark crises of confidence, too, but good to know Whitman suffered them before me. The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,/ My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre? I feel ya, Walt.

I’ll close with a hopeful poem from my own new collection, one I wrote with the stupidity of U.S. politics in mind. The spell I’m trying to weave won’t soothe anything except maybe a reader’s blood pressure for a minute, but hey, sometimes a moment’s glimmer is the best we’ve got.

State Song

Because I call you, wind strips trees
of little limbs they did not need.
The streambed tilts a muddy ear

and I pour words into its drain, the cup-
shape someone’s heel dug filling up
as if with rain. Because I call us

together, the mountain blushes. A curtain
parts, dissolves into rags of steam. Sun
and clouds pattern fields with roving

spotlights. Because I call you, power
thrums the ground. Now is the hour,
gilded, grand. I call this dazzle ours.

Hope, ambition, and other tricky green things

“Let him who is without my poems get assassinated!” Walt Whitman wrote, when the self-published 1855 Leaves of Grass didn’t make much of a splash, despite the three glowing reviews Whitman himself wrote and published anonymously. I’m reading him for a 4-week, all-remote Whitman and Dickinson seminar I’m teaching right now, and bonus: it helps to know that even a famously self-celebratory poet had bad days. Next up: discussion posts plus selfies of students reading “Song of Myself” on the grass or at least next to something green. After that sprawling long poem, I’ll have the pleasure of talking with them about a great cryptic recluse poet, who seems pretty well-suited to this moment. I’m both having fun with the class and anxious about it. It’s really hard to read social cues over Zoom as I usually depend on doing in person, and I suspect some of them are nervous about the queer theory part of the course, which also counts for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. My mantra is that I’m doing my best, and so are they, and we’re lucky to have this interlude of fun reading in a spring that continues to be shaded by sad and worrisome news.

It’s hard to say yet whether April was the worst month for the pandemic in the US, but I’m still glad it’s over! I tried to kick the poetry-writing part of my brain into gear, attempting to write a poem a day and share drafts with a small group of friends. What I wrote was neither great nor daily, but it felt like a productive practice and a way to feel connected across distances. I also devoted time and energy to getting word out about The State She’s In, although time and energy both seemed to be in short supply. (It’s a book about gender and ambition, among other subjects, which is another reason why I’m finding Whitman interesting to reread.) Maybe I’ve set myself up better for May. April’s unpredictability was getting me down so I organized my May class better: M/W for online discussion forums, T/Th for Zoom discussions, and Fridays and weekends, I hope, for poetry revisions, submissions, and publicity.

Any of you poets trying to submit work have probably noticed, too, the rush of editor verdicts lately. I’ve had some acceptances and some rejections (without wanting to assassinate anybody). It probably helps me stay philosophical that another April task was to reject some damn fine poems submitted to Shenandoah (650 subs for 12-15 spots). There was much hair-tearing and teeth-gnashing on my part, truly, so I now mostly see people who reject me not as nepotistic demon kings but as other stressed-out people making hard calls. Spring journal issues are also busting out all over. Thanks to About Place for including my poem “We Could Be” in their “Practices of Hope” issue, which is full of good writing and very well-timed. I’m grateful also to the print journal Cave Wall where the last two poems from The State She’s In were just published: “Invocation” and “No Here Here”–which are also poems of hope, or at least I aspired for them to be, because that’s what I’ve needed most in the past few years and I’ve been guessing others crave the same. Not to deny the bad days–it helps, as I said, to have company in them–but to imagine them gusting through me and not sticking.

More Virtual Salons are coming soon, but in the meantime, consider checking out the ROCKED BY THE WATERS: Poems of Motherhood anthology Facebook Live launch reading, hosted by the English Dept. at Normandale Community College in Minneapolis, MN, May 7, Thursday, 7-8 PM, CST. Reading with me will be Kris Bigalk, Teri Cross Davis, Camille Dungy, Rebecca Foust, Hedy Sabbagh Habra, Athena Kildegaard, and others (note that’s 8 pm for friends on the east coast of the US). This book is also well-timed! It’s a wonderful collection, full of literary luminaries and just plain luminous poems speaking to many experiences of mothering and being mothered, the losses as well as love. No matter what you’re able to read, write, or do these days, I hope you’re well and enjoying sparks of optimism once in a while.

Watch me listen

Thomas_Wilmer_Dewing_-_The_Hermit_Thrush_-_1890

On Saturday I met my daughter at Union Station in D.C. and we ended up at the National Portrait Gallery, standing in front of paintings until our feet ached. I’ve done the rounds there a few times but don’t remember seeing “The Hermit Thrush” (1890), above, by Thomas Dewing. I love those postures of keen, blissful listening. And the precision of the figures against the passionate blur of a landscape–they’re immersed in that meadow, melting into it as they listen.

Being a poet and poetry critic means focusing on verbal rather than visual representations of listening. The song of the hermit thrush is important near the end of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” but what I thought of first was an earlier poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”–one of Whitman’s elegies for Lincoln. For Whitman, the thrush’s song is a “carol of death,” and yet he hears praise in it, and his own song echoes it.

“O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call,
I hear, I come presently, I understand you…
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy,
Covering the earth and filling the spread of the heaven…”
Why does Whitman’s poem, with its fragrance of lilac and cedars, absorb me more deeply than Dewing’s painting? Vision presupposes distance, while sound enters your body through the ears’ uncloseable portals–but after all, a poem in print only pretends to sound, or at least, I only sound it mentally. A poem is, most days, a visual artifact. Maybe the answer lies in me, not any quality intrinsic to the artworks. After all, I wrote and drew and painted furiously as a kid, but poetry was the art that stuck–I’m just a reader more than a gazer. In any case, I do love Dewing’s luminous rendering of a practice so central to my life. (Not that I’ve ever heard a hermit thrush specifically, except here.)
Lately I’m cocking my ear to piles of criticism and theory, as I brush up the now-complete manuscript of Taking Poetry Personally and try to decide if I’ve missed some source that deserves a respectful endnote. I’ve also been listening to my own heart’s rhythms. “Premature ventricular contractions,” the Holter monitor told me, which rarely means anything serious, but it’s uncomfortable to have an unhappy bird in your rib cage. I’m logging symptoms and activities to see if I can get a handle on triggers (caffeine?) while I wait for the cardiology appointment. Tick, tock, nix my tea and I will balk.
I recommend Ecotone‘s new Sound issue loudly, by the way, especially for anyone who’s obsessions echo mine. And I’m looking forward to doing some listening of my own next week at the Virginia Festival of the Book. Here’s where you can hear me:
Tuesday, 3/15:  Author Talk with Lesley Wheeler and Chris Gavaler,  5 pm, Leyburn Library Book Nook, Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Refreshments served.

Thursday, 3/17: Together and Apart: A Poetry Reading with Gary Dop, Erika Meitner, and Lesley Wheeler, New Dominion Bookshop, 2 pm, for the Virginia Festival of the Book.

 

Poetry’s chronodynamics

So if poems are time-travel devices, they ought to travel sideways and forward as well as backwards. I recently hosted a reading by Natasha Trethewey, who definitely points her universal remote towards the past in Bellocq’s Ophelia, Native Guard, and Beyond Katrina. I’m teaching the latter two books in various courses and our conversations focus on memory and monuments. Her poems about Louisiana’s Native Guard, Gulfport, and her mother offer various ways of honoring history. Sometimes she reinhabits, recreates lost moments; sometimes she considers how impossible it is to do so.

Beyond Katrina also demonstrates concern and commitment to the present and future, especially to survivors of Katrina’s devastation and to the damaged, disrespected natural environment of the Gulf Coast. Trethewey does not, however, project herself into the future as constantly and vividly as she does into the past. I’ve been rereading Native Guard looking for tomorrowland and even instances of future tense are entangled with history as fate (“my native land, this place they’ll bury me”). Dreaming conjures alternate timelines in a few poems, but generally Trethewey is concerned with how the past inhabits the present. She voyages constantly between the two like the obsessed historians in Connie Willis’ time-travel novels.

I’m trying to read poetry as speculative fiction, a genre closely associated with the future. If poetry looks mainly backward, where does that put my argument? There is a fair amount of poetry addressed to the future through children. Some poets prophesy revolution (Langston Hughes), their own deaths (Emily Dickinson), or environmental apocalypse (W.S. Merwin just for starters).  And the sort of remembering Trethewey does is very much about the future, though indirectly.

The most uncanny, haunting lyric projection I can think of is in Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose…Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt.”  Here’s the spaceship/ TARDIS (n.b. Eric)/ multidirectional time travel device I’m looking for, and it’s an incredibly powerful one. Whitman’s ferry as De Lorean.

How else do lyric poets speculate? What am I not thinking of?