Saturday, July 25, 2009

late July morning report

-- First monarch of the summer, feeding on oregano blossoms at Quail Hill Farm.

-- Boy in the field with his mother and grandmother, utterly terrified of a wooden pole wrapped in blue plastic which his grandmother identified for him as a scarecrow. He became paralyzed with fear and had to be carried, and was reluctant to be persuaded that the object wasn't a scarecrow.

-- On the way home seven wild turkeys crossed Town Lane in the woods. I stopped; four proceeded, three turned back. (Who says turkeys are dumb?) One of the ones who'd crossed over turned and made a little gobble-call to the stragglers. Keeping the troop together?

Friday, July 24, 2009

summer in Orient, the grave-markers of slaves

Today I drove Paul to Orient Point, so he could catch the ferry to Bridgeport; he's off to teach for a few days at a low residency program at Fairfield University. The day was amazing, since after last night's demi-hurricane the air was clear, and the greens of the leaves seemed all aglow. We had a little extra time, so we drove around Orient, which might be the most beautiful little Long Island village of them all -- pristine rows of clapboard houses along very green lanes, and only a realtor, a post office, a general store and an ice cream shop for retail life. We drove down the main street, followed the curve of the land along a small harbor or bay through moist-looking fields, then along a small patched road to a town beach spotted a placard beside the road. It turned out to mark the grassy path to a small, stone-walled cemetery just where solid ground ended. Here a group of slaves who worked the oyster ponds nearby until the 1830s were buried. A white couple, the owners of this particular oystering operation, had chosen to be buried with them, and their graves were marked by a pair of carved headstone. But beyond those were simply rows of stones -- no carving, no names -- indicating the graves of the the unrecorded ones. The most achingly beautiful spot, and in it these un-inscribed markers.

Monday, July 20, 2009

July evening, out behind the Mexican restaurant, Amagansett, NY

And below, a sign of summer: greenery from the train window becomes linear abstraction:

An unfinished nightmare

On the way back from Seattle, and then again this morning on the train from the city out to the South Fork, I read Dave Eggers' new nonfiction book, ZEITOUN. It's a riveting book, and I can't imagine reading it without absolute outrage; there were a few times I had to shut the book in a fury -- and in fact I wished I'd finished it on the plane, since we didn't get back till well after midnight and I was so stirred by the book it was hard to sleep.

ZEITOUN is a straightforward, reporterly narrative of one family's experience of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I don't want to say a lot about their nightmare here, since I think it's the sort of book best experienced with little knowledge of what's to come. Suffice to say that American racism and xenophobia are on chilling display, and that the sweetness of the central character only makes that bias and stupidity all the more appalling. It seems a particularly necessary book to read in light of the fact that Guantanamo isn't closed, and the administration actually says they might detain people indefinitely who've been cleared of charges. Where are we? Didn't we just elect a president who campaigned on a platform of restoring American justice and humanity? Better than Bush; not good enough yet. You can click here to read about the administration's waffling Gitmo delay.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Goodbye to the west coast

This photo's from our outing to Sequim, WA, which turns out to be the lavender capital of the nation. You wouldn't expect there'd be enough sun on the Washington coast to allow big fields of lavender to thrive, but there they were, glowing in the sun -- for whose appearance we were very grateful. This photo was taken at the head of the Dungeness Spit, looking back toward the Olympic Range.

Tonight we're in Seattle, on the way home from the writers conference. After the spartan lodgings in the old fort on the bluff, this hotel room feels pretty well heavenly: a big firm bed, wireless access, even the cheery banality of the TV, all good. We've been for a walk on Capitol Hill, visited the excellent Bailey-Coy Books, had some Japanese noodles, and now a little rest before heading out into the city evening, a world away from the scene above.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Report from Port Townsend

This is a detail of a beautiful madrone that sits on a up slope of land heading toward the bluff at Fort Worden in Port Townsend. It has incredibly smooth and lustrous bark; "bark" seems the wrong word, more like peel. It's phenomenally pleasurable to run your hands over. The tree grows next to a small, atmospheric castle/tower, built in the late 19th century in recollection of Scotland -- and this could be a Scots landscape, the wide cold water below the bluff, where last night a seal floated with both head and tail raised up, then spied us and suspiciously ducked under. We're here for a writers conference; I'm teaching a manuscript workshop with a serious and articulate group. Paul gave a spectacular reading here. We had superb Japanese food in town. There's a sweet back-to-the-land culture here, and the local food co-op has the most beautiful crooked purple radishes I've ever seen, along with small turnips and orange beets that glow from the inside with radiant well-being. We've been watching a doe who comes every morning to browse the grass in the field outside our window. Our house is a little military family place: a rectangle with two bedrooms (terrible beds) and a kitchen with stenciled cupboards and yellow formica counters. Every time I'm in there I start imagining being a young military wife, 1954, making a pot roast or lemon sugar cookies, trying to imagine the life ahead of me.

Below, the field outside our window, in thin morning fog. The madrone's the big dome of a tree on the right.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Appearances in Manhattan

In the city today for appointments, I stopped for lunch at Chipotle on Sixth Ave and 14th Street. I sat at the counter in the window, an odd place where your knees are basically at a level with the heads of passersby outside. There were two women beside me talking. The younger one said, "I do what they tell me. If they tell me to drive, I drive, if they tell me to kill, I kill. They treat me like I'm their dog."

Her companion said, "Do you think the law doesn't apply to you?" And on they went, talking about murder.

I couldn't help but look. They were reading from a script. Sigh of relief.

For some reason this made me think of the subway car I'd been in on the S earlier. The exterior was completely wrapped in plastic, made to resemble a brick building, maybe an abandoned warehouse bristling with the possibility of dangerous activity. (When did this mode of advertising start? Suddenly buses, cars, vans wrapped up in photo-printed plastic...) What startled me was that the INSIDE of the subway car was wrapped too. The benches had become wooden-slatted seats, the walls were old brick, the windows barred. We rode to Grand Central in a speeding movie set.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Bright boroughs, circle-citadels...

I'm finishing THE ART OF DESCRIPTION, a short book that Graywolf will bring out next year as part of a series of books titled THE ART OF..., each addressing some aspect of the writer's work. I more-or-less finished the book last year, but wanted to go through one more time and polish and fiddle and amend. In one chapter, called "Remembered Stars," I've gathered a group of poems that demonstrate description as an active process, a thinking-through of a problem or question accomplished through a descriptive process. So far, the group includes poems by Henry Vaughn, George Herbert, and Hart Crane. But while I was working on it today I remembered that the Paul Mariani biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins I've been reading referred to a poem of Hopkins' I didn't know, so I went and found it, and good lord, what a dazzle of figuration, what a strange and brilliant sonnet.


LOOK at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
    O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
    The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
    Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
    Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!—
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.
Buy then! bid then!—What?—Prayer, patience, aims, vows.
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs! 10
    Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
    Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

What an amazing performance of excess and exactitude. A "May-mess, like on orchard boughs"! "Flake-doves sent floating forth at a barnyard scare"! And you can see Hopkins thinking, as he moves from his figure of the stars as something he'd doubtless seen -- startled doves scattering in a barnyard -- to think of all of the physical world as a barn, housing the real spectacle, to which all else is simply gorgeous clothes.

And who else would ever imagine referring to the divine housed within its barn of stars as "the shocks"?