September is here…

… and, it being the rare First Sunday I could sleep in, I did, and that was delicious. So is the tomato jam a friend canned last summer, which I have put on an English muffin.

A hummingbird explored trying to get in through the left kitchen window earlier in the hour, and I startled a deer when I flung my old pie weights (umpteen-year-old white beans that had become too smelly during last week’s baking) into the compost heap.

September is here, and I inevitably reread Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal during the month. Nazlan Ertan has a fine take on both the love and politics that make it moving (and, in where the politics are concerned, resonate anew, in ways that do not bode well). I have just ordered Autumn Sequel, which for some reason hadn’t stayed on my radar before (perhaps because I was more attuned to other themes when I picked up the biography of MacNeice I read sometime during the last decade). I still own Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers, the novel that introduced me to “September has come and it is hers …” to begin with.

Needing space and cash, I put all my Pilchers except Shell Seekers and Flowers in the Rain into the resale bag some while ago, deeming those two volumes sufficient for future comfort reads. Shell Seekers is more satisfying than say, Coming Home in part because the characters’ touchstones are better integrated. Fond as I am of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” it isn’t integrated into Coming Home‘s central love story as deftly as “September” appears and reappears in The Shell Seekers. Which is to say, just twice in both cases, but in The Shell Seekers, they really count.

Ironically, as a professional editor, I periodically have to discourage authors from quoting from songs or poems, because publication schedules often preclude securing the reproduction rights in time. (“Fair use” doesn’t cover squat where commercial works are concerned.) It makes me sad in part because fiction has so often served as the gateway to poems that now run deep in my veins. Becoming hooked on Dorothy L. Sayers as a teenager led me to John Donne. The stories of Sherlock Holmes (which were responsible for my becoming interested in Sayers, after WEKU broadcast a dramatization of Strong Poison in the slot formerly reserved for the Holmes tales) were where I first encountered certain lines of Shakespeare (chief among them “Journeys end in lovers meeting”).

I just spent the better part of an hour happily revisiting Bill Richardson’s “Bachelor Brothers” trilogy, which was published in the 1990s. As Richardson himself observed, the first book did well and the sequels not so much — with reason, I have to say. I myself found the Solomon Solomon subplot more tedious than entertaining. But all three books contain gems both in the way of funny-moving vignettes and choice quotations, and they introduced me to Margaret Atwood’s “Variation on the Word sleep” and Charles Mackay’s “I have lived and I have loved.”

In quoting the Mackay, Richardson wisely includes only the first ten lines; the poem wouldn’t have gripped me as it did (nor worked within the story it was stitched into) had the final quatrain been present. My subsequent search for the original ended up being a mini-saga — it is not in de la Mare’s Come Hither (which I own, thanks to Richardson’s alluding to it), and it wasn’t until 2015 and an inspired online search that I learned who had written it (and that it is in a different de la Mare anthology).

You could infer from all this that sleep — and well-deserved rest — has been much on my mind lately. Two mentor-friends passed away earlier this year, and I just received an unexpected bequest from a third. All three had lived long, productive lives, and were generous to me with attention and encouragement:

  • David Bevington
  • Nancy Ransom
  • Susan Z. Diamond
  • Not unrelated to all this is a piece Richardson published this year on having “used to be someone” who is now — happily — a part-time dishwasher. I think of my conversations with several friends (especially Joanne) about the jobs we accept and/or choose based on how they balance with our writing and publishing (a)vocations. I’m in the camp of being happiest with a corporate job where the metrics, performance reviews, and compensation operate in tandem with the prowess of my left brain (one of my favorite responses EVER to my editing has been a colleague muttering that I had no poetry in my soul), because the writing’s way more fun for me when it’s separate from what I professionally have to do. That said, there are also those nights where what I’m writing becomes something I have to do before my hamster brain will let me sleep, and then of course I run into the age-old problem of the day job’s demands draining from me some of the energy and stamina that would likely make good writing crystallize sooner (not to mention missed ops and faltering sparks — I look back at my relationships with David, Nancy, and Susan, and in all three cases wish I had done a better job with various projects, proposals, and paths they had a hand in. The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne…). And it’s not just the day job, but the aging house, the aching body, the ongoing friendships to tend (and sometimes mend), and one’s own need for sleep amid the piles on the counter and the porch to attend to.

    (I will make my next post here about something other than Ars longa, vita brevis. I promise.)

    Why Is Soft Science So Hard? [Response]

    Soft Science, Franny Choi, Alice James Books, 2019

    Soft Science by Franny Choi is a collection of poetry focused on the effect of technology and technology-in-media on contemporary lives. One of the threads running through the book is the comparison—and sometimes blurring—of cyborg and women as shaped things molded by the society that uses them. The poems respond vehemently and sometimes violently to Othering in many forms; this is part of what makes the book so powerful and so important. The book is organized according to multiple (imagined) versions of the Turing Test, allowing the speaker (a cyborg? a woman?) to self-express and also to refute the shapes and molds imposed on them. It is representative and slightly a summing-up that the first line of the second poem reads “// this is a test to determine if you have consciousness”.

    But I’m writing this more as a personal response than a review; hopefully the above gives you an idea of whether you’d like to look at the poems for yourself. I picked up the book based on the cover and the title; I want to read poetry about science. The first poem is presented in the form of a table, yes, columns, rows, headers, lines separating each entry and boxing them in. I bought the book because I was completely flummoxed about how to read this as a poem and because I really thought this is the kind of thing I should be reading, all the themes presented are important to me—and when I scanned the table of contents I saw a poem titled “Everyone Knows That Line and Ogres and Onions, but Nobody Asks the Beast Why Undressing Makes Her Cry” and how could I not read that?

    As I progressed through the poems, I learned that Choi has a wonderful ear for alliteration, consonance, and rhyme, and that she uses full and partial rhymes and homonyms to propel her poems forward. It’s wonderful. I loved how over and over the poems take commonplace phrases and play with them, rewriting them, a word at a time, to build into something completely new, or simply casting a different light on the meaning of the phrase by giving it different context. Many many of the poems sing exactly how I love poems to sing.

    But I still have no idea how to read a poem without lineation but with slashes, such as each of the Turing Test poems, such as this bit from the second poem:

    // why do you insist on lying

    I’m an open book / you can rifle through my pages / undress me anywhere / you can read / anything you want / this is how it happened / i was made far away / & born here / after all the plants died / after the earth was covered in white / i was born among the stars / i was born in a basement / i was born miles beneath the ocean / i am part machine / part starfish / part citrus / part girl / part poltergeist / i rage & all you see / is broken glass / a chair sliding toward the window / now what’s so hard to believe / about that

    By the end of the book, I had given up trying to assign meaning to lineation in the poems that used it. I confess, that made them much easier to read, less probing and confusion, more emphasis on the words, but I keep coming back to the fact that lineation is the main difference between poetry and prose and if it means something the reader can’t understand, then what good is it? One could argue that “understanding” and “having an effect” are different things, and I would agree, but I would have liked something for the effort I exerted.

    So, I am very glad to have read Choi’s work and will look for more of it, but, personally, I am even more confused about how to read a poem.

    too early for Happy Lamb

    [July 14]

    Something I like about travel is that it kicks my “everything can become a subject line or poem seed” mindset into a higher gear. I’d thought about stopping by Happy Lamb Hot Pot on my way to South Station, but it doesn’t open on Sundays until noon, and I’d already used up my cutting-things-close quotient yesterday, when I capped my 79-hour work week by setting off alarms at the Southwest kiosk by checking my luggage in late. One failed geocaching attempt and beer request later (Tavern in the Square being out of Lord Hobo Brewing Boom [sic] Sauce, I’m chilling out with tortilla soup, a pint of Devil’s Purse Pollock IPA, and the ideal pair of screens (Federer-Djokovic next to the departing train list) in front of me:

    tennis at South Station

    [July 21]

    … and I was not so chill as Federer came oh-so-close to winning the championship. It was fun, though, to watch and listen to the other occupants of the bar cheer and moan in response to the rallies, the aces, and the misses, and as the set stretched on, the clusters of onlookers on three sides of the bar thickened:

    tennis at South Station

    The night before, I’d ended up walking past St. James the Greater twice on my way from the Silver Line stop to the hostel. [It was past midnight by the time I reached the hostel, I had a 1 p.m. train to catch, and (as feared) I was running on fumes with work still in tow, so I didn’t try to meet up with any friends this round.] That said, if I hadn’t been hauling two weeks’ worth of clothes and music/dance paraphernalia with me, I still might have been tempted to wander around until 2 a.m., to see more and take notes. (One trickle of people included several Asian women holding armfuls of flowers, reminding me of the pageant contestants I spotted two Mays ago in San Francisco, during another walk that ended up being less straightforward than planned.)

    Instead, I scribbled a few lines to myself in Bunk #4 before sacking out and, over two bagels and a bowl of coffee, wrestle-teased them into the start of something more:

    the start of a poem

    the start of a poem

    the start of a poem

    I’ll return to it in August, perhaps. Right now I’m at the Amherst Early Music Festival, and it’s wrenching enough having to choose among things I can enjoy only while here (practicing on lutes and harpsichords in particular), pursuits that would arguably provide larger returns were I to devote myself more fully to them (e.g., building vocal and keyboard chops), time with people, time with trees, time in/on water, time on postcards (to voters, decision-makers, and others),
    and so on. And, like on Friday, sometimes the right move is to nap instead of practice, even when one feels woefully underprepared for, say, playing quartets. Or to seek out a keyboard in a nearly empty building long after nightfall instead of attending a party. Sometimes I feel pangs about the many details that will evaporate from my memory sooner than later because I’m not journaling like I used to — but, even back then, there were poems I started and then lost momentum on. There’s a sliver of me that hasn’t let go of finishing the one about the Christian Science Center pool, keeping company with the Past Mes who put her feet wrong every which where — including just yesterday. (The good thing is that as I get older I have gotten a smidge faster at getting over myself.)

    Surrounding all this, of course, is delight and wonder. I’m mopping my face and neck and cleavage every three minutes, and the little breezes that do make it through my open window feel all the more divine. Someone down the hall is playing their violin. Most of the faculty members and many of the students are accomplished musicians. There are heart-tugging phrases in the Rameau pieces I’ve been inflicting on the harpsichords, and there are encounters with, say, bass recorders that look like contemporary public art:

    faculty concert

    I hadn’t planned on drafting any new poetry during this trip, what with the intensity/immersive pace I knew to expect, so to have a poem insist on getting started — those three pages above — that too is a gift.

    finding the right poetry

    Just saw a post at Sam’s Tumblr that made me thrilled and sad at the same time: one of his readers discovering that they do in fact like poetry now that they’ve found Leonard Cohen.

    When my book was published, one of my childhood friends apologetically said he’d given up on reading poetry and hoped I would forgive him for not buying or reading mine. I wasn’t offended about him not liking my poems — they’re not everyone’s cuppa — but given how many lyrics he’s quoted to me over the years, I’m with Sam: he’s into poetry, just not mine.

    Other people have said to me (or in reviews) that they don’t usually “get” poetry, but that what I write is their speed. (Another frequent reaction I get: “You’re making me hungry!” It does help to like food if you’re hanging out with me, though you’ll lose patience with me if you’re too precious about it, since I’m the kind of gal who likes wine but whose level of discernment pretty much divides it all into two categories — “tastes like wet socks” vs. “tastes good.” Though I do recognize and admire the chops (so to speak) of people who can tell by taste whether a sauce contains flour or cornstarch, or if it was made with butter or oil. It’s not so far removed from my understanding that there are at least three tiers of perception in play when viewers and judges reacted to singers in this year’s edition of Voice France, with me smack in the middle tier: with pretty much every singer, there were commenters who were outraged by the judges’ reaction or lack thereof, usually along the lines of “They were great! Why the eff didn’t the judges turn around?” (or “Why didn’t all the judges turn around?”) And I sat on my hands when reading most of those reactions, because I’ve been around long to recognize that “Well, actually” should be deployed with caution and care: The people venting don’t need to hear from me that their favorite was flat on a few notes or lacked agility or failed to communicate an understanding of the words they were singing. At the same time, as happens every year, the judges got excited over certain qualities and moments I just didn’t hear myself — one semifinalist in particular I found all but unlistenable, but the judges and other audience members were geeking out through multiple rounds over his potential, and he wasn’t so handsome that it could be explained by his looks, so my conclusion is that they’re perceiving him at a level / through a lens I don’t have.

    What is really awesome, of course, is when there isn’t that gap between what one loves and what a beloved might like. I recently recommended René Marie‘s mashup of “Bolero” and “Suzanne” (her father’s two favorite songs) to my friend Carolyn. The next day, she replied, “Loved this. David a room away making breakfast called out ‘Who IS that?'” *glee* So it is with poems. The anniversary of Gwendolyn Brooks’s birth was a couple of days ago. Back in junior high, I copied out “One Wants a Teller in a Time like This” for a couple of people. One sneered. That stung. But some months later, the other showed me the much-read copy he kept in his wallet, and that remains my lodestar these many years later: to make a few poems that people might want to keep with them and to share.

    (Which doesn’t mean I’m above frittering away whole afternoons on bonbons and experiments and throwaways and general goofing off. I’m also reminded of Mika’s talk-through about “The Origin of Love,” where he describes slogging through a year of generating “crud after crud” before the lyrics suddenly, finally gelled.)

    Bracket

    In my WorkFlowy and on the backs of envelopes buried somewhere beneath coupons and lists and public health reports, there are assorted subject lines for VTL posts sketched out in my head while waiting behind trucks or doing laps in the pool.

    Then, when I actually start typing in the WordPress or Dreamwidth window, I inevitably roll my eyes at myself, for if “all the things I mean to write about soon but not today” were an awards genre, I’d have so much metal in my house that the collectors would be rubbing their hands in glee. Not the historians and archivists, but those scrounging for every last scrap they can to get by.

    ==

    What I really signed in to say was: I came across Sean F. Munro and Henry Goldkamp’s “Battle for America” while scooching around for something else, and after reading a few lines was “I’m not closing this tab until I tell someone about this poem, because goddamn.” I am perhaps overly fond of not-really-joking that I contain multitudes, and this poem is a demonstration that “being really fucking angry” and “having basketloads of fun” can occupy the same screen.

    It may be that I am extra-susceptible to enjoying brackets as someone who grew up in Kentucky — the state so basketball-mad that when UK got put on probation folks were shooting at Lexington Herald-Leader boxes, because they could not bear how the newspaper was reporting the truth. Kentucky is also the state that elected Mitch McConnell senator while I was in grade school. Because my big brother will probably see this, this is where I feel compelled also to say that Kentucky has fine dancers, dedicated teachers, some superb museums and hotels, public libraries that lend out fishing poles, and excellent restaurants — I had a terrific time just a week ago at Frankfort’s Bourbon on Main and Serafini, and so did the motorcyclists with me, including the hockey-coaching civil engineer who had flown planes during Vietnam and assessed the wine list with the ease and expertise of someone who really knows his Chiantis and Cabernets. Kentucky is not a cultural desert, but I cannot frown on anyone who might be feeling the urge to milkshake its governor or senators.

    Munro and Goldkamp’s bios indicate that they, too, live in the South (NOLA and MS respectively).

    [Writing this entry has (in spite of myself) demonstrated (to myself) why I don’t actually follow through with blogging most days: 19 years of this has taught me that I will spend far more time on even casual running-my-mouth “hey go read this” entries than I intended to, that twenty rabbit holes will open up within the course of coming up with three sentences, and that I will end up ranting more often than not. And/or that I will nearly melt a colander, discover fridge frost on a bowlful of radishes, and rant for real about oil pulling and detox teas when my man jokes about me sipping shots of sesame oil (because that bottle was on the counter by my glass, whereas I’d already put back the Monkey Shoulder) in the course of cooking and consuming dinner, which was happening between and in the middle of some of the sentences here.]

    On Flexibility (Brief Review)

    Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle, Marilyn L. Taylor and James P. Roberts, editors, Kelsay Books, 2018

    Edited by Marilyn L. Taylor and James P. Roberts, Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle contains more poems in the form of a villanelle than probably any other book you’ve picked up: over 50 villanelles, covering topics ranging from gun laws to cats to bereavement.

    A villanelle is a 19-line poem, composed of five tercets and a quatrain. What makes the form so difficult is that the first and third lines repeat—ideally without modification—alternatively as the final line of the second through four tercets. After the opening two lines of the quatrain, they come together as the closing couplet. Additionally, of course, the remaining lines follow a tight rhyme scheme. (Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is a famous example of the form.)

    In general, the form of the villanelle best supports a topic that lends itself to obsession. In Thomas’ case, it is grief. In Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” it is loss. While I personally wouldn’t put many of the topics covered in this anthology in the obsession category, an incredible poem could change my mind. But my main issue with the majority of the poems included in this anthology is that they feel as if the form is using them, rather than the other way around.

    Specifically, the lines that repeat in the villanelle need to be supple enough to take on different shades of meaning each time they come around again. Unfortunately, I found many of these poems to include repetons that were too specific to change meaning with each tercet. Additionally, that specificity kept them from being able to magnify in meaning when the two repetons appear together again as the closing couplet of the poem. An example of such an inflexible repeton was “Ease my pain, play me part-songs for Delphinia” from Richard Roe’s “Requests for Torch Songs for Flowers Sent to the Villanelle Show”. Contrast that with Barbara Crooker’s “I will not falter, neither will I fail”, from her poem “Diagnosis: Autism”, which, while a bit repetitious itself at least allows for the lines around it to give it a different context as the poem proceeds.

    Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle collects poems with a wide range of topics (so many cat poems!) but I feel it does a better job of showing off poetry’s versatility and applicability to contemporary life than providing the reader with villanelles which, as Dickinson said, raise off the top of your head.

    I hope / there is a heaven copious enough…

    Today’s subject line is from Camille T. Dungy’s “When I Die, I Hope They Talk About Me,” which was published a week after the death of George Bush, which was announced on World AIDS Day, a coincidence not lost on those of us still bitter about how people with AIDS were (mis)treated during his reign. It was a relief to see that I wasn’t the only person digging deep below the fold:

    There is, we learned, as we all must learn,

    always an even worse man willing to take

    the job. I didn’t even know that guy

    had a daughter. When he was breathing

    all I ever heard was son, son, son. But now

    his little girl is headline news, and I have to dig deep

    below the fold to find stories about how

    he turned his back on boys who were quilting

    America’s cities in gay enclaves.

    A poem I (and several church associates) need to spend more time with is Langston Hughes’s “Freedom’s Plow,” which the chamber choir performed yesterday. The arrangement contains only a small section of the poem — mainly the lines in the Harper’s excerpt, which outside of full context can sound really rah-rah (the full poem is a doozy — I tried summarizing it on the fly after-while scrolling through my phone mid-discussion Wednesday, but the gist was “I’m sorry, y’all, this is huge, you gotta read it, yourselves), and a bass singer pretty much said, “I’ll sing this, but it’s BS” after we read through the piece a few days ago. After an intense discussion during the rehearsal, one of the altos who is also a worship associate drafted a statement on behalf of the choir that was reviewed by several other members and read by our senior pastor before we sang the anthem. You can hear both the statement and the song (starts at 9:15) on the recording of the service.

    if the grass wanted to live

    This entry’s subject line is from Mary Oliver’s “Owl Poem,” which I read at my honorary mama’s memorial service in June. I selected the poem for two reasons: Nancy had collected owl figurines through most of her life (many of them are now at Owl’s Hill Nature Sanctuary; I have one next to my bayonet), and it was a poem I read aloud to her when I visited her in February. The story of that visit is at my personal journal. and I will be forever grateful to Mary Oliver — and Kate and Kathy, for buying Blue Horses — for helping us through that day.

    Noncanonical

    The epigraph to Maura Dahvana Headley‘s The Mere Wife is a translation of “The Wife’s Lament” by Ann Stanford. It’s bold and grammar-inverted in a way that makes grief obvious. I immediately wanted to read the remainder; I immediately wanted to read more of Stanford’s poems if this was what her translations looked like. Stanford’s last volume, Holding Our Own, was selected by two of her students and each wrote an introduction to it. One was emotional, the other was distanced; both discussed why, although patronized by May Swenson, Stanford’s work was not collected in the big women poet anthologies of the late 20th century: No More Masks! and The Rising Tide.

    I have long been a fan of Abbie Huston Evans‘ poetry but only recently did I get a copy of Carl Little’s essay “The Life and Poetry of Abbie Huston Evans”. It was occasioned by her death, although it did discuss her antecedents, genetic and poetic, spent some time quoting her poetry and raving about said quotes, and listing other essays which discussed why Evans’ work did not appear in No More Masks! or The Rising Tide even though a poet as famous as Edna St. Vincent Millay introduced her first volume.

    In both cases, the reason listed was political. Neither Evans nor Stanford wrote political or political-icizable poetry. Although, if one needs some help #resisting at the moment, I would point you to Stanford’s “The Weathercock”. And if you need music to convince people the earth—rocks, plants, weeds, trees—around them are worth valuing and working to save, I could pelt you with poems by Evans which do just that.

    A lot of feminist criticism talks about The Canon, what authors are passed down, and who is excluded. And here I find that not even May Swenson, or Edna St. Vincent Millay, unlikely to go forgotten anytime soon, can keep a poet’s work in the barrel of history. Instead, I believe, we are required to exhume the beauty we need and hand it down to others, handful at a time. I hope that you have a moment for Stanford or for Evans. And I hope that when you do, you too find something you were looking for.

    To E.D. in July

    “To E.D. in July”
    by Abbie Huston Evans
    (copied from Evans’ Collected Poems p. 93)

    Emily, lie you below
    And I above, this morning,
    While this same earth you used to know
    Stabs deep and gives no warning?
    It passes me how it can be
    That I instead am seeing
    Light loved by you implicitly
    While you resign your being.

    Tell me truth, did you find heaven
    And your old neighbor, God?
    Or is it nothingness, not even
    A sleep, beneath the sod?
    Did your relentless wish create
    What is from what could be;
    Or found you one grim predicate
    Wherewith nouns must agree?

    Listen: the tide is out again;
    The rock-weed lies out hissing.
    I could weep in the world of men
    To think what you are missing.
    To your low ear I bring in news
    Gathered this same day, giving
    A pocketful from which to choose
    Fresh from the land of the living.

    The sun finds garnets on this ledge
    The tide’s bare hand is slapping;
    And where the grass fails at the edge
    A poplar bush stands clapping.
    Woodpecker drums his hollow log,
    Pond-lillies open slow,
    Shell-pink upon the cranberry bog
    Has just begun to show.

    This morning early, Emily,
    I saw a crane go wading
    About the glassed cove to the knee,
    The ripples round him braiding;
    The cove out of the mist pulled free
    As radiant as a bridge,
    But smokiness blew in from sea
    With the turning of the tide.

    Know kittens still lap creamy milk,
    Know mice still gnaw the rind,
    And like great lengths of waving silk
    Hay-fields blow out behind;
    Barn-swallows scissor down and up
    With tea-stained vests (you know!),
    And hawkweed crowds on buttercup,
    And elderberries blow.

    —Here, take them, Emily, they hurt
    In telling; can you bear
    To hear of elderberries, skirt
    The coasts of sun and air?
    Know all that hurt you once hurts still.
    Need any tell you now
    Night brings the moon, dawn finds the hill?
    Want you such hurting now?