Thursday, December 24, 2009

Molt. Rest. Molt.

Here's a poem from Amy Gerstler's terrific new book DEAREST CREATURE, a total pleasure for Christmas Eve. Not exactly in the holiday spirit, but, like this whole book, adventurous, funny, and completely unexpected. The long poem called "Mrs. Monster Pens Her Memoirs" is brilliant.


Chew your way into a new world.
Munch leaves. Molt. Rest. Molt
again. Self-reinvention is everything.
Spin many nests. Cultivate stinging
bristles. Don't get sentimental
about your discarded skins. Grow
quickly. Develop a yen for nettles.
Alternate crumpling and climbing. Rely
on your antennae. Sequester poisons
in your body for use at a later date.
When threatened, emit foul odors
in self-defense. Behave cryptically
to confuse predators: change colors, spit,
or feign death. If all else fails, taste terrible.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sleeping underwater with the maple leaves

See Paul's blog for photos of the fantastic snow here in the Springs today. It started yesterday, later than we'd expected it after the big drum-beats of the weather forecasters so excited to have a "major snow event" to talk about. First some stray swirling flakes, their density gradually increasing, and before I knew it the ice covering the fish pond was covered itself. I thought about the fish down there in the growing dark; just an hour before I'd seen one, sleepless, wandering slowly around under the skim of ice. I wonder if the darkness settling over them -- like a very early nightfall -- sent them all into their winter state of suspended animation at the bottom?

More snow as night fell for us, and we left the outdoor lights on so we could look, and kept poking our heads out to take the measure of it, but truly it didn't seem that much when we went to bed. By morning though -- extravaganza of ornament! Sheer white stretching on through the back garden, everything silent, nothing moving but bluejays, cardinals and woodpeckers. You couldn't tell just how deep it really was until you got outside in it -- which proved to be a daunting project, getting the doors open, stepping out, and immediately sinking in to our knees. Two feet, thirty inches? Now the fish are far down under the thick white that makes their kingdom dark, sleeping there among all those maples leaves I didn't have time to get out of the water.

Thus a snowbound day: reading, writing a little, messing around online. cooking, a nap, and -- just when it seemed that torpor would overcome us both -- bouts of snow shoveling. The body wants to slow down, like the goldfish settling themselves in -- and good thing the body then refuses, and wants to kick up its heels. Or is that the head?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Death and the Zebras

This remarkable poem by the Basque poet Bernardo Atxaga, translated by Amaia Gabantxo, appears in the current issue of the Canadian literary journal BRICK.


We were 157 zebras
galloping down the parched plain,
I ran behind zebra 24,
25, and 26,
ahead of 61 and 62
and suddenly we were overtaken with a jump
by 118 and 119,
both of them shouting river, river,
and 25, very happy, repeated river, river,
and suddenly 130 reached us
running, shouting, very happy, river, river,
and 25 took a left turn
ahead of 24 and 26
and suddenly I saw the sun on the river
sparkling full of sparkly splashes
and 8 and 9 passed me
running in the opposite direction
with their mouths full of water
and wet legs and white chests
very happy, shouting go,go,go
and I stumbled suddenly with 5 and 7
who were also running in the opposite directions
but shouting crocodiles, crocodiles,
and then 6 and 30 and 14 ran past us
very frightened, shouting crocodiles, crocodiles, go, go, go
and I drank water, I drank sparkling water
full of sparky splashes and sun;
crocodile, crocodile, shouted 25, very frightened,
crocodile, I repeated, rearing back
and running very frightened in the opposite direction
I suddenly collided with 149
and 150 and 151,
running, shouting very happy river,river,
crocodiles, crocodiles,
I shouted back, very frightened
with my mouth full of water
and wet legs and wet chest
I kept galloping down the parched plain
behind 24 and 26
ahead of 61 and 62 and 63
and suddenly I saw, I saw a gap
between 24 and 26, a gap
and I kept galloping down the parched plain
and I saw the gap again, the gap again,
between 24 and 26
and I jumped and filled the gap.

We were 149 zebras
galloping down the parched plain,
and head of me were 12, 13
and 14, and behind me
43 and 44.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Serious moonlight

Last night the moonlight in the Springs was an astonishment. It seemed to transform the atmosphere into a kind of vague, milky solid. Warm late November night, and over the mostly gone garden, this almost tangible suspension. In honor, here's Dorianne Laux reading her wonderful poem, "Facts About the Moon," with a video accompaniment.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A poem I would have read had I been there

At tonight's Harvard reading to accompany the "ACT UP New York" exhibit, I'd planned to read this poem by Rynn Williams, from her book ADONIS GARAGE. Rynn died this year, too soon, but she left behind this superb collection, the evidence of a life deeply lived into.

The Forest at the Edge of the World

Today I left groceries by the playground on Hudson
and tried to haul, up toward my block,
a cross section of maple grown too large,
chainsawed into manhole covers. Alphonso,
Super for All Buildings east of the projects,
stopped sweeping. He leaned his bald broom
against the stoop, nudged the wood with his toe.
"Nothing to do but roll it," he said, hands
deep in his pockets. I nodded,
barely believing my luck in the midst of asphalt,
transistor radios, and the wet smell of dogs
as he squatted eye level with the log, heaved it
against his shoulder like a man who bears
a handmade cross for miles on his penitent back.
I saw a kind of glory in his eyes, he understood
the heft of the trunk, nicks in the damp bark.
I stood on the side and righted the thing
and together we rolled this boulder of tree
past the Indian deli, the Russian shoe repair,
the Caribbean bakery. "You can smell the forest,"
he said, as we reached my stoop, wood
in the crook of his neck, sawdust and humus and sweat.
And we hoisted the thing, one step at a time, stopping
only to breathe the scent of sap and after a good half hour
it was filling the whole of my apartment--
the shade, the damp smell, that enormous presence--
light brown rings so perfect my whole life
fell right down inside them, concentric circles,
tree within tree, the single slab a world within itself--
suddenly it was thirty-five years ago:
I stood on the edge of a forest, someplace upstate,
and looked up into the branches of my first
true and majestic tree, in the first real forest--trees
instead of buildings. Oh the breadth of those limbs--
after the taut geometry of elevator, fire escape, lobby,
to see the world through branches to the sun--I believed
the world was mine, there was sap in my veins,
the tree was limitless, the scent of the tree,
the bark and the branch and the six-year-old sightline,
which goes on to the edge of the known world.

I'm not at Harvard

I'd expected to be reading tonight with the wonderfully live-wire Eileen Myles in Cambridge, and I was looking forward to it. The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts has mounted a show called "ACT UP New York," centering on posters and other activist art from the crisis years of the epidemic. I'd planned to read poems by Tim Dlugos, James Merrill and the late Rynn Williams, as well as some work of my own.

But I don't know that anyone had quite considered the exigencies of travel on Thanksgiving week. Penn Station was packed, and when the track number was posted on the board for the Acela to Boston there was a mad race toward the escalator. In the Age of Terrorism, you have to get your ticket checked before you can go down to the platform, which means that the cone of travelers has to funnel down to a narrow line, like cars entering the Holland Tunnel. Lots of big wheeled bags, as much must be carried back to the family gathering. As we get closer, more and more of them wheel over my shoes. Once I'm down the escalator a conductor points to the quiet car, which turns out to be full save for a seat at the back, one of those where a narrow table separates two facings seats. There's a woman already sitting on one side; I ask if the other side is available and she says yes, so I stash my stuff above. But as soon as I try to sit another woman sits down beside the first, and I realize my long frame will not fit: my knees will be in the lap of one of the other passengers. So I scoop up my stuff (not noticing I'm leaving behind my sandwich and bottle of water), but it turns out the doors behind me are shut; there's no way out except back through the crowded car, and the aisle's completely choked by travelers and big rolling bags.

Eventually, I'm back through the crowd, duck out of the train, hurry down toward the other end, head in again -- not a seat in sight, unless I make a famiy with a crowd of kids move their pile of coats and toys and bags. The aisles are still full of the unseated, and suddenly I just can't deal. I turn and walk off the train.

There's another in half an hour, the cheaper "regional" train, running a little late. Once it's called I get back into the funnel again, only to be stopped at the head of the stairs by the Amtrak person who's protecting us from Al Qaeda because I have a ticket for the earlier train. He won't let me on unless I go change it, which would mean waiting through the huge line at the counter. So I'm sunk. I turn back, make my way through the wedge of bodies and luggage, over to the security counter where the handsome bomb-sniffing dogs hang out, and find myself beginning to weep. It's the big wave of all this fall's work and travel and responsibly showing up for all I needed to do breaking over my head. It's Thanksgiving, enough! In my head I am already apologizing: I would love to read for you, I'd like to be there, but I am going HOME, I am NOT going to Harvard.

Perhaps, given that many thousands of people travel via Amtrak at Penn Station every week, and that Thanksgiving week is a predictable crush, maybe they could do a little planning to get people onto the train in a humane fashion? Or add some cars?

Apologies to anyone who's come out to the museum this evening, but I hope the reading's wonderful.

Monday, November 16, 2009

By owl-light

Last night in the Springs I was just getting ready to leave the house, putting some things away, hanging a coat in the closet, when I heard a sound I'd never heard before outside the bedroom window. Over the summer a pair of screech owls woke us up a few nights with their unearthly call -- they sound like a very distressed raccoon, some careening warble of trouble -- but nothing like this. I went outside to listen, and there were the soft notes of the call again. I did a quick web search, listening to owl calls, and found this. If you click on "Typical Male" you'll hear exactly what I heard.

A short-eared owl in our maples! I left feeling sort of aglow with the experience. I drove to the train station, opened the car door, and there it was again, another owl calling over the parking lot. Then, on my fifteen minute walk to the jitney stop, beside the fire station, another owl; on the other side of it, another. Then, by the farmer's market, the next one: Amagansett was full of owls! And they were calling to each other from tree to tree in the warm November evening.

The web page says they glide low over open fields at night, looking for prey. Right behind the trees where I heard them calling there are big open fields -- corn in the summer, and the new organic farm behind the market. I love thinking of the dark shapes of the owls, silhouetted against the stars, flying there a few feet above the earth.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Twilight at the zoo

A great night at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans last night. Two hundred visitors rode the little zoo train through the dark (think squabbling flamingoes and scrambling nutria) back to the swamp, where a cantilvered series of boardwalks carry you above the alligators in their green kingdom, back to a big wooden house like a Cajun dancehall. There they enjoyed wine and good, a jazz trio, and then readings of some of the great poems that will be installed next year around the zoo: Whitman, Dickinson, Roethke, Hopkins, Andrew Marvell, Kay Ryan and many more. Joining me in reading the texts was the luminous Nevada Barr, a mystery writer known for her series of books set in National Parks, who turned out to be a poetry reader of fierce presence. It's always a pleasure to see how much people enjoy hearing great poems aloud; it takes me back to the Favorite Poem Project events, and it's a reminder that perhaps we err in having so many event where poets read their own work. Of course that can be a huge pleasure too -- but something else happens when readings center on the art of poetry, on great work NOT written by the reader. It's a whole different sort of energy, and something about it seems an intrinsic pleasure, even for people who don't know they like poetry.

But I have to say that the truly memorable part for me was getting to the zoo just at twilight, when it was already closed. Not finding anyone to meet me, I slipped through a side gate that the education people use, and walked through the gloaming back to the swamp area. The zoo is well over fifty acres, and the trails and boardwalks loop all around. I was alone with the flamingoes, the big tapirs lumbering across their low plain, the shy alpacas, some haughty cranes, a huge and hurrying flock of -- um, ibis? Squawking, rustling, how many eyes in the shadowy depths of the leaves? Fantastic, to wander alone through those paths toward the welcoming lights shining above the green surface of the swamp.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Five AM, Ronkonkoma train

Taking Long Island Railroad out of the city at five in the morning turns out to be an oddly differently experience than riding the train any other time, as it's full of people who've been out all night and are on their wobbly way home. This morning there were two women talking in the seat just across and one ahead of me. They were bleary, and in a confiding mood. "One man," one said, "all it takes is loving one wrong man, and your whole life is fucked." The other agreed. And in a while she added, "But he's not the one that matters. It's your little girl. A mother is..." Long pause. "How does that saying go? A mother is..." long pause "...a necessity." Concurrence, nods, silence.

A young man, quite drunk, enters the train, speaks to the women, who let him know they're talking to each other and don't want to be flirted with, and then they soften and proceed to flirt with him. He says he's going to Jamaica and he's afraid he's going to fall asleep. They say they'll wake him up and he lies down on the seat in front of me --- immediately out.

At Jamaica, he's still sleeping, and the two women are talking among themselves. I start to head on for the airport, thinking about who's responsible here -- the boy, the two who said they'd wake him, me who overheard? -- and how the guy's going to wake up in Ronkonkoma in an hour and wonder where he is. Another man waiting for the doors to open has heard all this too; he looks at me and says, "Those girls said they'd wake him up."

I think about this and decide it's easy enough to do a good deed. I tap the sleeping man on the shoulder, nothing, tap him again, he opens his eyes. I say, "You wanted to get off at Jamaica, right? This is Jamaica." He looks at me as if I might be an alien abductor. The women, who are talking to each other, pay no attention at all. I leave the train, look back to see the two of them strolling away, but I never see the fellow leave the train. Did the women know all the time he was going to be sleeping a good long while? And did he wake up in the middle of Long Island? The conductors on the early shift must be experts in this.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


OUT Magazine has just published this anthology of essays they've printed over the years, including a profile of Provincetown by yours truly. The cover makes me think of the discussion of the commercial uses of Walt Whitman's work below -- here are some boys together clinging. Well, actually they look like they have just finished clinging, and both do and no not want you to know about it. Do they know whom they souse with spray?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Morning on Sunset Boulvevard, night near the airport...

I've mostly been enjoying the diurnal pleasures of L.A. -- the dry sunwashed greenery of Sunset Blvd to the west of the 405, just beneath the Getty. A benefit for the industrious and excellent Red Hen Press, which celebrated their fifteenth anniversary yesterday at a glittery afternoon reading/lunch/champagne reception, with a room full of wonderful writers; Jamaica Kincaid, Wanda Coleman, Alicia Ostriker, Chris Abani. Today I'm off to read at Claremont College with Alicia and with the charming and very witty Matthea Harvey -- pleasure all around, and Los Angeles is co-operating with suprisingly clear skies, so that all the details of the mountains are visible. Not the way I'm used to seeing this place. And during a Northeastern November, southern California is fantastically inviting.

Daylight beauty aside, I'm posting a noirish photo, an iconic donut stand near LAX. I like how crushingly enormous that vast pastry is.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Salvatore Scibona's THE END

I'm en route to Ashland, Oregon, and it's been a pretty hellacious travel day: a missed flight, serious turbulence, a "wind shear warning," and four hours of sitting around in LAX. The one good thing I can say about today is that I finished the novel I've been reading, THE END, by Salvatore Scibona, which was a National Book Award Finalist last year. Just at the moment any sort of architecture of praise I might attempt to build for it feels inadequate -- the book has that sort of largeness of spirit about it, as well as a remarkable sense of cadence, as well as portraits of people so ferociously drawn they feel indelible. I thought I'd just quote one paragraph here, rather more discursive than most of the book, but a passage which reveals an intimate sense of the space of childhood and the scale of memory.

"Night, for children, was more a place than a time. For a child, to wake in the night and race downstairs toward the bed of parents was to plunge into a forest from which he might never emerge. A man could never hope to fully feel again the deep night in childhood; he could at best recall the fact of it faintly. For a man of his age, nothing could be as vast as the nighttime of childhood except the extension of thought toward his distant past, where flickered, flickered, and evanesced -- My brother and I were on our knees picking the favas when a snake shot up and bit my chin; my father held me under my arms and dangled me over a well -- and the distinctness and the isolation of the flickers, the utter obscurity of what must have happened before and after, imparted to the imagined world in which they had to have taken place dimensions infinitely wider than those of the world in which he now found himself recollecting them."

Walt Whitman for Levis (2)

A while ago I did a post here about the new Levis campaign that makes use of Whitman, sometimes directly and sometimes in spirit, to promote blue jeans. Denim, with its democratic character and iconic associations with America, would be just fine with Whitman, who'd doubtless be wearing Carhartt were he walking the streets of Brooklyn today. A thoughtful reader, though, sent me a link to this commentary on the campaign from another blogger, and it's certainly worth a look. This link also includes a TV spot where you hear in the background the Edison wax cylinder recording of a voice that's probably Whitman reading a bit of verse. I don't agree that this is the most offensive commercial ever produced -- actually I think it's pretty beautiful, taken sheerly as a piece of videography on American themes -- but Webster's points about the folks who bring you Levis are crucial ones. I personally reserve that "most offensive ad" tag for those oil company commercials that show you a shining natural world, or suggest that big energy companies are out to make the planet a marvelous, clean and safe place.

Anyway, the contradictions inherent in the Levis ad (America is noble and cracked, jeans belong to everyone but somebody very rich owns the company, work clothing is the language of the people but you look really hot and sexy in them) all seem present for Whitman, too. How can he be a booster for development and forest-clearing (see "Song of the Broad-Axe") and talk about the nobility of Native Americans"? How can he be at once a spiritual visionary and a tireless self-promoter? How be a sexual radical and an avuncular sage? Do I contradict myself, very well then...

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Madea's Family Reunion

Yesterday I saw my first Tyler Perry movie, and took great pleasure in this completely whacked-out hybrid of a thing. Madea's Family Reunion ends with a wedding in which a Christian couple is united while Maya Angelou reads a poem,people dressed as angels hang from the rafters, a guy who beats up women gets a pot of hot grits thrown in his face, and a black drag queen celebrates the church, Jesus, revenge, discipline and matrimony. HOW Perry manages to throw all those elements into the pot is beyond me; the wildly varying tones ought to wrench the whole thing into incoherence, but somehow it just remains so delicious. And all those mesmerizingly beautiful guys! It's as if Perry puts everything he enjoys (suffering but brave women, muscular and soulful men, righteous old church ladies, uplifting messages about the family, and drag comedy) all in one place, and therefore accomplishes an impossible reconciliation: the upright black family, with its emphasis on unity and moral uplift, is on the same stage with the camp comedy of a wild drag queen and a whole lot of sexiness. And I haven't even talked about the playful reclamation of stereotype! I'm in awe.

The only thing is, I also watched an interview with the writer/director/filmmaker/performer, and it was a little alarming to see how deeply he professes his Christianity, and how much pressure he seems to feel as a public figure.He talked about his own abusive father, which brings into focus the fact that the film both makes abuse a criminal reality (with the hot grits man) and a source of comedy (Madea is always grabbing some miscreant kid and wailing away). Like the relationship between Perry viewing the world in terms of the "saved" and the fallen while still dancing onscreen in huge false breasts and butt under a huge purple dress, this feels bizarrely incoherent. And yet he has this area of safety, in the films: a chaotic, contradictory, multitude-containing stage that I bet Shakespeare would have loved. Go figure.

Cinema re-mix

This is the marquee of the moviehouse in East Hampton on this rainy Sunday. I like how the titles run together. CAPITALISM WILD THINGS pretty accurately describes some of the local bandit citizens with their mansions fueled by Wall Street dollars, and I am sure there's more than one CHANEL INFORMANT around here, too. NEW YORK MEATBALLS are sandwiched between the other options. There seems to be an invitation here to re-edit the movies into new juxtaposed versions, in which one text would comment on the other.

Friday, October 16, 2009

My Diva

It was a total pleasure this afternoon to be part of a reading at the CUNY Graduate Center to celebrate Michael Montlack's anthology MY DIVA, a collection of essays by gay male writers about female figures who've possessed their imaginations. Wayne Koestenbaum read an essay on Anna Moffo, Michael himself a piece on Stevie Nicks, Jason Schniederman read a kind of cautionary meditation on Liza Minelli, and Richard Tayson celebrated an early infatuation with Helen Reddy (who, it turns out, is now a hypnotherapist in Australia). Alfred Corn read a poem in which Billie Holiday figured, and yours truly read a piece about Grace Paley. I'd been feeling that the diva as glamorous and glittery figure had been pretty well explored, in her role as a mirror of gay men's longings for beauty, power and authority. What about other kinds of female figures who might embody different aspects of our interiority? So I decided to see if I could tap into my inner grandmotherly upper West Side Jewish anti-nuke activist. Anyway, the reading and conversation after were welcoming and lively.

One aspect of the conversation I liked was the acknowledgement of the big range of ways in which men think about "divas" -- as "role models," as objects of curatorial interest, as obsessive touchstones, as icons of eros, as emblems of courage, or mirrors of vulnerability and shame.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Produced by void and fire

I've just read a fine new book by Maggie Nelson called BLUETS, just published by Wave Books. It's an essay (though the term fits only loosely, as this is a passionate, lyirca meditation) on the color blue, in short numbered sections the speaker calls "propositions." Here, as a preview, are two consecutive sections:

156. 'Why is the sky blue?' -- A fair enough question, and one I have learned the answer to several ties. Yet every time I try to explain it to someone or remember it to myself, it eludes me. Now I like to remember the question alone, as it reminds me that my mind is essentially a sieve, that I am mortal.

157. The part I do remember: that the blue of the sky depends on the darkness of empty space behind it. As one optics journal puts it, 'The color of any planetary atmosphere viewed against the black of space and illuminated by a sunlike star will also be blue.' In which case blue is something of an ecstatic accident produced by void and fire.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Lost at Sea (continued)

When I left off on the Hart Crane post below I was in a hotel room in Cleveland, and running off to lead a workshop for grad students there. Now that I've been back a few days, I've found myself turning to the materials on Crane that my good hosts in Garrettsville provided: some of his letters, and some interesting essays on the poet's life and work in a back issue of THE HIRAM POETRY REVIEW, which is published at the college in Garrettsville. (Where, by the way, a sandstone statue of James Garfield, a Garrettsville citizen, was recently cleanly beheaded; his incompletely body stands beside a chapel, looking quite lost.) I also re-read Richard Howard's poem on Crane -- with its compelling moments in a cruising area down under the shadows of the Brooklyn Bridge. And I've been thinking of "Voyages" -- Crane's masterwork -- in relation to a terrific chapbook I'm introducing for the PSA by a young St. Louis poet named Haines Eason. The speaker is "Voyages" takes the greatest ecstatic pleasure in being "lost at sea" -- rocked in the ocean of passion, where "sleep, death, desire close round one instant in one floating flower" -- as good a description of orgasm as any I can think of.

Now I think I have to add to what I've said below only a note about the poignancy of Crane's grave. The cemetery in Garrettsville is hilly and sloping. The leaves were turning, and I brought home a few mottled maple leaves fallen near the gravestone. One of our hosts' parents were buried just down the hill, which made it seem like we'd entered into a community. And because Hart's body wasn't there, and because he had no stone of his own but was forever inscribed under his father's shadow, he seemed permanently fixed on the margin: regarded from a distance, and yet still somehow one of their own, forever an Ohio boy yet never entirely claimed.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Lost at Sea: Garrettsville, Ohio, October 2, 2009

The picture above was taken on a bright gray Friday afternoon in Garrettsville, Ohio -- thus the harsh light. You can't see that on top of that same stone is inscribed the name and dates of Clarence Crane, Hart's father, a businessman and candy manufacturer, inventor of Life Savers candy and the proprietor of a shop and restaurant in nearby Chagrin Falls called Crane's Canary Cottage. Hart, of course, leapt from a ship called the Orizaba in the Gulf of Mexico in 1932; his body was never found. Exactly why his name is carved on the side of his father's headstone is mysterious to me; I don't know whether to ascribe it to lean times or family shame about the fate of their notorious ne'er-do-well son.

We had an extraordinarily moving day in Garrettsville. A number of friendly and helpful residents met us for lunch and proceeded to show us around. We'd parked on Main Street, right in front of the tavern that nows occupies the space where Crane's grandfather's maple syrup business stood. He used the roiling waters of the river coursing behind the storefronts to cool his product. Just down the block Arthur Crane's house still stands, a distinguished and solid-looking white frame residence from the 1890s. Next door he built a house for his son Clarence and Clarence's wife Grace, near the beginning of a spectacularly unhappy marriage. Hart was born in the house, in 1899, probably in a small room beside the kitchen. The current owners of the house, Dave and Kym Kirk, are proud of its history, and they welcomed us in and very kindly allowed a whole troop of visiting poets and scholars to wander through.

Garrettsville's position toward Crane seems a somewhat mixed one. There's the plaque in front of the house, but then there's another monument too, on a sidestreet near Main. It's an undersized boulder of very pink quartz, with a bronze plaque affixed to it, and it has a bit of a random look to it, as if it were a well-meaning gesture that has been set off to one side so it won't be too noticeable.

One of Crane's cousins, I'm told, gave quite a bit of money to a local academic institution, after her death, stipulating that the library that would be built with the money would be called the Hart Crane Library. They took the cash and gave the building no such name; apparently some college administrator didn't want the library to be known as "fairyland."

This puts me in mind of William Logan's absurd recent review of Library of America's newly issued edition of Crane; the critic asserted that the poet's life (and thus his work) had been damaged by "too many sailors." Presumably Logan knows the proper number of sexual encounters for good health, but I hope he never fills me in. I joke, but in truth the whole thing just makes me sad; the homophobia that did so much to swallow and erase Crane during his life continued long after his death, but who'd expect it to continue now? Logan has joined the company of Yvor Winters, who thought that Crane's poetry was permanently deformed because it lacked a "great subject" -- i.e., heterosexual love and reproduction. I suspect both critics may wind up being remembered more for these sad revelations of shoddy thinking than for anything else.

(And now I must go teach. More to come on this post later.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Traveling Life

At Penn Station yesterday morning, I went to board my train to New Brunswick, but a huge crowd of people with suitcases blocked the entrance to the escalator. They'd called an Amtrak train on the same track, and when you board Amtrak you have to show your ticket to demonstrate that you are not a terrorist. I had two minutes to make the train. When I made it to the front of the line, the Amtrak official said, "Sir, this is not New Jersey Transit." I protested, she fulminated, I spoke in a fashion which indicated I might become temperamental, she let me go down to the track. I was annoyed at nearly missing my train, but it also struck me that it would have been pretty easy to get past Amtrak security. Does it actually have anything to do with safety at all?

Then I taught my wonderful undergrad class at Rutgers -- a twice-a-week joy -- and jumped back on the train to go to Newark Airport. The rails were rocking and the car warm, my thinking slowed, and the next thing I knew I came back to conciousness past my train stop. Off the train I leap, through Penn Station Newark, which has the aura of a grand civic past fallen into the new century; it could be an old Soviet station in eastern Europe someplace. Onto another train, which slowly rumbles its way to the airport.

Once I get to the station, I'm headed for the turnstiles when some young soldier/cop (who knows?) shouts "Sir!" He's standing behind a folding table and announces he's searching my bags. I say, "For what?" and he replies "Whatever." I want to say, well, in a police state I have no choice, but I don't, since I do plan to get to Cleveland today. He gropes around in my bag for thirty seconds and then says, "I tried not to make too much of a mess" as if by way of apology, as if when I said "For what?" I'd somehow called him on his pretense of purpose.

On to the Air Train. It's not functioning and you have to get on the wrong side, go one stop, get off, then get on the same train again. Don't ask. It's packed. We get over the highway, and it slides to a halt. We sit. The recorded voice says "The TRAIN is not in the station," which is so self-evident that I'd laugh had I not already lost my sense of humor.

Once we arrive, I check my bag, get to security, and set off the metal detector, for no known reason. When I walk through again I'm clear, declared to be no threat: I can go to Cleveland, teach a workshop, give a poetry reading.

My old student/friend Michael Dumanis picks me up at the airport, funny and voluble and full of tales, and I am immediately cheered up and glad I came. Cleveland is unfamiliar and intriguing; Paul arrives later today and we'll read together this evening. Friday we're going to Hart Crane's house, which I didn't know was possible. Saturday Michael, Joanna Klink and Kazim Ali are reading in a botanical garden. I don't have to see another airport till Sunday; I am not suspect till then, or if I am I don't have to know about it.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Introducing Adrienne

Last night Adrienne Rich read at Rutgers. We had a superb day, with my lucky undergrads meeting with her in the afternoon, and then a relaxed and convivial dinner with a number of Rutgers poets and with Adrienne's old colleagues at Douglas College, which is the residential women's college of Rutgers, and a long-established center of feminist studies and literature. Adrienne has a warm, unguarded character; the time with her was a delight to everyone around. Here's the introduction I gave, in a very crowded hall, just before her reading:

Some artists, it seems, can’t help but be pathmakers; they open possibilities for other makers, and possibilities for their culture. Muriel Ruykeser, who opened new directions for American poetry that Adrienne Rich would further explore, wrote the following description of the situation of our poetry in 1949:

"American poetry has been part of a culture in conflict. ... We are a people tending toward democracy at the level of hope; at another level, the economy of the nation, the empire of business within the republic, both include in their basic premise the idea of perpetual warfare."

Sixty years later, those words seem more true than ever, and it seems no accident that those same sixty years mark the career – thus far – of the remarkable poet who reads for us tonight, one of contemporary American literature’s essential voices. Across 19 books of poems and four volumes of essays, Adrienne Rich has given body to a restless intellect motivated by an unshakeable compassion; she is out to get to the root of inequity, of the abuse of power; she is out, as Ruykeser suggested, to make American democracy a real thing, and to dismantle, in her own language, the sources of perpetual war.

So much has been said about Adrienne’s work, and I know that many of you have been reading and thinking about her poetry and her essays in preparation for this evening. So I want to say just two things about Adrienne. First, that she is a former professor of English here at Douglas College, and it is a delight to welcome her back; as a new professor here, her presence here reminds me that I stand in a serious tradition indeed. Second, I want to tell you what I perhaps what I admire most about Adrienne: her profound restlessness. I mean this in two ways. She has never been satisfied, as far as I can tell, in her quest for justice; she has never stopped asking further, looking deeper. As W. S. Merwin put it, “All her life she has been in love with the hope of telling utter truth…” That love, and her empathy with those in this country and in the world who are not in positions of power have not, I believe, allowed her respite; she has never set down that work. And that moral restlessness has been matched by an aesthetic one, as Rich has continued to reinvent her forms. Listen to this stanza from her much-anthologized classic, Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers:

Aunt Jennifer’s tigers fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.

That poem was published in 1951, in the poet’s first book. And this stanza is from a new poem, “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve,” just published in the Best American Poetry 2008. It’s a poem that wants to think about extraordinary rendition, how syntax is broken apart as the torturer and the prison guard remove meaning from the world:

Verb force-feeds noun
Submerges the subject
Noun is choking
Verb disgraced goes on doing

I love knowing that these two stanzas came from the same hand. They represent points along on a long arc of invention, form constantly seeking the words that might serve her work of witness and of change – a work that continues to engage and to enlarge our time. Please welcome Adrienne Rich.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Gate at the Stairs

Two days ago I finished Lorrie Moore's astonishing new novel A GATE AT THE STAIRS, a book that somehow manages to be both funny, excoriating, and utterly wrenching. I feel like I've been on a deeply consuming, unpredictable ride, one that's still resonating with me. Here's one passage, a marvelous lyric flight in which the speaker, Tassie Keltjin, describes her erotic relationship -- her first -- with her boyfriend Reynaldo:

"Often we didn't talk at all. His arms were soft and strong. His penis was as small and satiny as a trumpet mushroom in Easter basket grass. His mouth slurped carefully as if every part of me were an oyster, his, which made me feel I loved him. He would pull away and look at me happily from above. 'You have the long, pettable nose of a horse,' he said, 'and a horse's dark, sweet eyes.' And I thought of all the horses I had seen and how they always seemed to be trying to get their eyes to focus and work together. Their eyes were beautiful but shy and lost, and since they were on opposite sides of their heads like a fish's, one of them would sometimes rear up in skepticism and fear and just take a hard look at you. I felt nothing like a horse, whose instincts I knew were to run and run. I had mostly in life tried to stand still like a glob of coral so as not to be spotted by sharks. But now I had crawled out onto land and was somehow already a horse."

Friday, September 18, 2009

from the Crescent City

In the window of a pharmacy museum in the French Quarter, these medicines: what would happen if you took a dose?

And then, in the sky early this evening after the lightest of rain, other medicine:

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Today we made our first visit to Madoo, the remarkable Sagaponack garden of the painter Robert Dash. He's been working on it since 1967, and its has the quality of a self-made paradise that I love best in made spaces -- that sense of one person eccentrically re-inventing tradition, making a private world. Though this dreamed spaec also opens out into history, and into the social space, since Dash is quite happy to welcome people in, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, from May to October.

The garden feels enormous, because it's a space of forking and divergent paths, because there are wide and open rooms and tiny and enclosed ones, and because you can never see it all at once. It's a green labyrinth, and it echoes the Garden of the Moon in Tucson (a kind of outdoor outsider art folly I described in FIREBIRD), and the Orange Show in Houston (there's a photo album of that on my Facebook page). But it also draws upon ancient gardens with its quincunx beds, and Rennaissance perspective, and Victorian Orientalism and love of the tropic and rare. It's a grand, unlikely, seamless synthesis, and somehow it doesn't look like anything else.

It's such a gift, to walk out of the daily world and into the alternate space of the enclosed garden, the visible, apprehensible artifact of a singular forty-year dream. I don't think it can be captured in photographs -- it's too much a surround for all the senses -- but you can get a little sense of it here.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The wind of the new

I've felt a bit overwhelmed by the start of school, so no post here for a few days. In a household with two teachers, both starting new jobs, there's a definite mood of disruption swirling around in early September, and it's matched tonight by the wind in the Springs, which is tossing the garden wildly. Paul's still in the city, teaching tonight in Newark, and I've come out here by myself to sit still, for what seems the first time in two weeks, and listen to the wind. I'm thinking about how I love the new, and seek it out, to keep things moving, and yet the new -- especially this much new -- is a source of stress too. Even when it's good. The body isn't really pleased with the process of finding its way in a new space, not knowing where the stairways lead. The spirit's excited by the looks on the students' face when they're thinking about a poem,
or how their shy surfaces fall away as they get excited. The body really wants to sleep, these two weeks. The spirit wants to plan and anticipate. The wind outside feels like a wind inside. Tomorrow the forecast is for rain, and I hope it does: a day to stay in,
sort, and attend would be just the ticket.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Big Chief

First week of school, and I've been thinking how, for more-or-less fifty years, the school calendar's provided a structure to my year, that first week of September (give or take a bit) marking a new start, a re-energizing, a setting out. I took a few years off, in my twenties, doing other things, but for nearly all my life September's been the time of fresh beginnings. By now it feels like the academic calendar inheres in the structure of time itself; first shift in the weather, I want some new shoes, a new bag to carry my books and papers to school. As a kid in Memphis and Tucson, I bought big fat-lined pads of paper; I liked that they were called "tablets" because it echoed the slabs of Babylonian clay in my favorite archaeology book. This semester I have a new laptop, courtesy of Rutgers, but the pleasure is essentially the same: something fresh and pretty much empty to write on.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Risk and ruin in the fields

The rainy fringes of the big loose jellyfish of a storm that was Danny descended on the Springs yesterday. It hadn't rained since August began, so the soaking felt welcome, exactly the right kind of rain for the garden: steady, not too driving, going on for hours. (And what does that sound like? Well, you can't talk about gardens without talking about sex, although the rather starched tone of gardening books on the whole would seem to suggest the opposite. Sex, death, time and regeneration are the gardener's great subjects. Also food.)

That last word has me thinking about this difficult summer, and the strapped circumstances of our CSA, Quail Hill Farm. June and July were very cool and wet, and then the heat burst out. If those climactic stresses weren't enough, the deer fence around the hill where many crops are grown -- a double row of stretched white string, following the theory that deer don't like double barriers that prevent clear jumping, and will work to avoid them -- failed. They made a feast. But the saddest of all was the blight, the virus that seems to have taken most of the tomatoes on the East Coast this season.

The vines looked incredible at first, sprawling and heavy with fruit, with a haze of that pungent green tomato-vine smell around them that seems just indescribable; it smells like nothing else. And then came the blight, the stems turning to mush, the fruit tumbling in a heap to the ground, and the ones that weren't already rotten at the bottom didn't have the lush, complex flavor of high summer tomatoes; they were more tentative, not full-bodied, disappointing.

A sadness, the rows of collapsed plants, the treasure all decaying at their feet. They seem to stand for the failures of human aspirations. All that tending, nurture of the seed, water, sun, cultivation, intention, vision of harvest. Heap of ruin. Of course every garden has failure in it (another thing to add to the list of the gardener's themes above), but in my garden failure doesn't loom so large. Some chard destroyed by voles, a mallow turned to ethereal skeleton by beetles: small disasters. At the farm, you can't just cover up the spot or turn away from the rows of voided hopes.

So I am working on remembering that it's a good thing to be face to face with this, the risk that growing anything is. It comes with the deal, part of the contract with earth. And though you might go buy tomatoes grown someplace else, or chemically protected from the blight, that doesn't erase the fact that, on the local level where we all live, ruin abides, waiting to happen. It's strange to think this is the same virus that drove my ancestors out of County Cork, in the 1850s; I'm not sure if my great grandmother Nancy O'Cochran was born here or in Ireland, but I know that she rode in the back of a covered wagon from Georgia to Tennessee, when her parents heard that General Sherman had turned around, and was marching back from the sea, and now they'd have to hide from that terror all over again. They turned their back on one kind of blight, and of course later they'd face others in the millet fields they'd cultivate in their new home.

Meanwhile, here in the East End, there are beets with beautiful concentric spirals inside, squash, peppers and cabbage, big-headed sunflowers from the field on Town Lane, every sort of herb, and garlic with a fierce, untamed, nearly metallic tang.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

the hummingbird principle

I have been seeing an ochre and green hummingbird in the garden since midsummer -- at least I think it's the same one, always solitary, hovering around the bee balm, dipping into the butterfly bush. Sometimes I hear him before I see him, that quick startling vibration somewhere near my ear. Dickinson called one a "route of evanescence" and that seems exactly right -- here and gone, a path of sudden iridescent appearance and quick, gone again. The day before yesterday I spent a good deal of the day working outside, and he seemed to be everywhere, and I started to think of him as a very small and very energetic muse. That night, I bought a hummingbird feeder at KMart, the least offensive one on display -- no huge plastic flower shape, no "art glass," just a clear tube with small red plastic flowers on the bottom to dispense the nectar.

Since hanging it up first thing yesterday, no hummingbird. When I'm watering or weeding, I keep looking; inside, I keep checking the kitchen window. No sign of one. I know it's magical thinking, but I feel I've expressed my desire for the hummingbird, and that did it: whatever we say we want loves to go buzzing spectacularly away. I am waiting for the one-inch wonder to refute this observation.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

If life gives you lemons, paint that shit gold

That headline is from the best t-shirt I saw on sun-hammered 14th Street today, that and (on a short, older man with a dashing white beard) I AM A LOVER OF ALL WOMEN.

Below, NYC scenes: immense Heidi Klumm on the side of the tour bus, corner of 7th Avenue, and just down 14th, the biggest, loneliest fish, in a lighting store. He's about a foot long, though you wouldn't know from this picture. He has two long trailing whiskers which don't show here either. His only companion in his tank is a small white eel; they seem to live in different worlds, though.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The burial ground at Orient, continued

A little while back I posted a photo and a bit of text about a moving burial ground at Orient, at the tip of the North Fork of Long Island, where many slaves who'd worked the oyster ponds there where buried, in graves marked with un-inscribed stones. The white couple who owned the oysterworks, as well as the slaves, were buried there, too.

So I was startled, just today, to come across this poem of Amy Clampitt's. It's one of those vast single sentences of hers, the poem held together through a single, forward-rolling, accumulating act of attention, She uses the Native American name for Long Island as a title -- Whitman's word for the place of his birth, too.


The humped, half-subterranean
    potato barns, the tubers
like grown stones, wet meat
    from underground a bused-in
moved-on proletariat once
    stooped for, where Paumonok's
outwash plain, debris of glaciers,
    frays to a fishtail,

now give place to grapevines,
    their tendency to ramble
and run on, to run to foliage
    curbed, pruned, trained
into another monoculture -- row
    after profitable row
on acre after acre, whole landscapes
    strung like a ither

where juniper and honeysuckle,
    bayberry, Virginia creeper,
goldenrod and poison ivy would
    have rioted, the wetlands
glistening at the margin, the reed-
    bed plumes, the groudsel's
tideline windrows a patina of
    perpetual motion

washed bh the prevailing airs,
    where driven human
diligence alone could, now or ever,
    undo the uninstructed
thicketing of what keeps happening
    for no human reason,
one comes upon this leeward, mowed
    and tended pocket,

last resting place of slaves, each
    grave marked by a boulder
hardly more than a potato's size,
    unnamed but as dependents of
Seth Tuthill and his wife Maria,
    who chose finally to lie here
    with their sometime chattels,
    and whose memory too is now
        worn down to stone.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A descriptive felicity

The garden writer and plant collector Reginald Farrer had a profound effect on English gardening by popularizing plants that thrived in high places. Now Nicola Shulman has published a short biography of him which includes this very pleasurable evocation of his character. Farrer, she writes, was "touchy, reproachful, extremely demanding, painfully solipsistic, disposed to view the rest of the world as a deficient source of comfort. This made him wretched most of the time, but it also allowed him to sympathize to an unusual degree with the exigent requirements of alpine plants."

Monday, August 10, 2009

Fifty-six years on the face of the earth

My birthday, a steamy day, the hottest of the whole summer. I worked in the garden, picked up my taxes in East Hampton (extension, delay, etc.), bought a new sprinkler and an elaborate blue wand for watering, sprinkled and watered, worked on an essay about Whitman's tomb I've been pursuing and thought about his deep fascination with death -- it never dawned on me before that, for a soul with so few borders, restlessly pouring into everything, death must have seemed the deepest respite. If you're everyone and everywhere, what would you lack except being no one and no place? Then, presents from Paul: a cookbook from our local organic farm, a handsome new black and white plaid summer shirt, and a lavish gift certificate from a beautiful nursery in Bridgehampton. Ah! Then we were on the way to the beach when the oddest thing happened -- much shouting and commotion across the street, and I wound up stepping into an assault, one neighbor attacking another. I won't narrate the scene here, as it led to an arrest, and I guess we'll all wind up in court. But it was the strangest outbreak, in our peaceful neighborhood where it's so quiet that, if you walk outside at night, you can hear another neighbor's clock chime as if it were a cathedral. A long process: waiting, talking to the police, giving a statement, waiting some more, signing the statement, feeling shaken by this unexpected eruption. We never made it to the beach. We went out for my birthday dinner, where we had to work a bit to shake off the afternoon. But we were helped by a deftly run and quite delicious Mediterranean restaurant reviewed in the Times yesterday. I had bacalau with the most delicious lentils I've ever tasted. I asked the waiter what was in them; he said, butter sauce. I think there was a little more to it than that, but it remains one of the day's better mysteries.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Visitors number three, four, five and a returning guest

Yesterday our friend Marie arrived at the train station mid-day with her daughter Inan and Inan's friend FeiFei; the house and garden have been filled with eight- and nine-year-old energy. At one point the head of a neighbor girl appeared over the fence; she was standing on her mother's shoulders to peer over because they'd heard the two little girls far in the back of the garden crying Help, help! It was no emergency; they needed a broom or something to sweep spiderwebs out of the playhouse. It was nice to know that, if you screamed, someone would indeed hear you.

All day and evening, the vibrating dyad made me remember aspects of childhood I'd forgotten: very precise needs when it comes to food (clear glass from which to drink milk, no mixing of different sorts of foods, a certain number of ice cubes per glass of water, etc etc), much exchange of dominance, concern with who's copying who, an all-day-long working out of friendship's alternating pleasures and struggles. Tears laughter pleasure frustration all moving freely from one to another. At the bay beach, much concern with sand in the bathing suit, crabs, the possibility of being nibbled on the toes by fish. By ten o'clock I could barely keep my eyes open.

This morning, when we were just waking up Paul looked out the bedroom window and called, There's a deer in the garden! It was the first time we've actually seen one inside the fence. I went running out, and she startled and ran up toward the back, under the big oak. Big liquid dark eyes,a good-sized doe, maybe pregnant? She ran forward again, jumped a stone wall, and then squeezed herself under the gate through a space the size of, well, two shoeboxes, then took off down the lane toward the woods.

She ate the rest of the daylilies, some apparently really delicious black-eyed susans. Impossible to be annoyed.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Visitor number two

Early August and the garden's been filled with very hot color: a tall deep orange daylily with gold centers, beautiful deep raspberry bee balm, bright helianthus and more daylilies in various yellows. I've mostly been an afficionado of paler colors in the garden, but these are inherited plantings, mostly, from the fellow who gardened here last. An interior painter/finisher by trade, he has a really nice color sense, and so I've been liking the carnival energy of these shades even if I wouldn't have chosen them myself.

This morning in my first-cup-of-coffee fog I went out to feed the fish, and was sitting on a bench contemplating the garden when I found myself noticing how calm it looked; maybe we'd moved on past the torrid colors of July and early August? That could be nice, just now, just a complex tapestry of green. But then I woke up enough to realize that two thirds of the daylilies were missing, or their heads snapped over, and it didn't take long to discover the hoofprints in the garden. Eaten in the night: the tender leaves of a Constance Spry rose, some raspberry vines, a prize new daylily whose flowers are nearly white. Early this spring, we built an eight-foot fence in the front of the garden, where deer used to walk in and browse. But a gate, out back, has a two-foot opening beneath it we hadn't deal with yet -- and sure enough, at its base there were hoofprints and indentations. Was it one doe, or several? The degree of damage seems to suggest one hungry culprit -- well, not all that hungry, as she chose only her the things she really relished. We slept through the whole bandit operation, even though that new rose is right beneath the open bedroom window. I admit I like the image, her out there dining surrepititously in the dawn light, while we slept away.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Graywolf is just about to publish EDWARD HOPPER, a book of poems by the contemporary Catalan poet Ernest Farres (imagine an accent over that e, which my keyboard doesn't want to provide you). Farres has written an entire volume of poems based upon Hopper's paintings, and Lawrence Venuti's translation of them has been chosen by Richard Howard (himself a superb translator) as winner of the Robert Fagles Translation Prize.

The brilliant strategy of Farres' poems is to spend very little time describing the image which has triggered the poem; he wants to enter into the inner life of the painting. In this moving, deeply disconsolate poem he does what no painting can do: move in time. The result is a kind of spiritual x-ray of the picture in hand, one that sees deep into Hopper's darkness.


At the hotel a woman in her underwear
pores over a train timetable. An hour later,
in low spirits and bone-tired,
she'll start to pace around the room
leaving a fruity fragrance in the air
that reeks of mustiness.
A week later there'll be no
tangible results. A year later
she'll be the object of caresses.
Another four and no lullabies.
Another ten and the delicate balance
between youth and age will be gone.
Another twenty and she'll cling
to an expansive ethics of listlessness
and Triumph of the Will.
Another century and nobody's
going to remember a thing about her.
In two centuries there'll be
no polar ice caps. When five
billion years go by,
there won't even be a sun.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


I was doing something or other in the house today when Paul came rushing in from his study and said, You've got to come outside, there's a turtle in the pond! To my astonishment, there was a very young box turtle in there, about the size of a red delicious apple, swimming around. A few weeks ago I stopped and rescued one from the middle of Old Stone Highway, and a bit later Paul found a large one way back in our garden, at the base of a large oak tree -- but I had never seen one in the water. I thought maybe he'd slipped in and couldn't get out, so after some discussion I bent down and picked him up. He was completely unfazed, and didn't even withdraw his head and legs into his shell. I set him down on the grass; he turned around back toward the pond,
and jumped in! Very clear what he wanted. He spent the morning swimming, yellow and tobacco-brown shell poking up above the water, his small head held high, then hiding under a shady lip of rock at the edge, dog-paddling a little in place. I built a stairway of stones on the water's edge, as there's no simple way out for a creature that small. This afternoon, when we came back from the gym, he was gone. I would like to have seen him climb the stairs.

After five PM, deposit brains in this slot

Readers of the previous post might be interested in knowing that Whitman's brain is the only part of his body not in the Camden tomb. Since it was "abnormally large" and of obvious interest, it was removed for study by the American Anthropometric Society, an institution that would have interested Whitman, with his interest in phrenology; the Society's intent was to study brains of the finest sort. There it's said to have been dropped and destroyed by a clumsy lab assistant. (Thus sparing Whitman the fate of Walt Disney, whose frozen head, I understand, awaits a technologically-enabled resurrection.)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Do I contradict myself? Very well then...

What a strange place, Walt Whitman's tomb. It's massive. Big granite plinths set into a shady (well, gloomy) hillside, with a huge stone door set ajar through which you can see a group of crypts, six of the Whitmans to be exact, though only Walt's name is chiseled on the stone outside for the world to see. Sometime, thirty or forty years ago, to judge by the style of the stone and the already-worn engraving, somebody placed another stone in front of the tomb, carved with some of the final lines of "Song of Myself":

I depart as air . . . . I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.

This had to be an attempt to resist the monumentality and finality the tomb seems to suggest. But it's a little disquieting, to think that the poem of the 35-year-old Walt sits so uncomfortably beside the tomb the 72-year-old poet commissioned. No grass is drawing nourishment from that chilly chamber, unless it has mighty tenacious and powerful roots indeed!

He is more under our bootsoles, sure enough, than he is in that stony vault, but I might make a temple of granite, too, if I were afraid of disappearing, afraid of my work vanishing with me. Maybe. It's hard to imagine wanting to memorialize oneself in this way. He knew better, the Whitman of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," but how could the man in Camden, stroke-shattered and tired and never-quite-recovered from the War, how could he know that, too?

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"?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Cory Ericson's garden

This cairn is a work-in-progress by Cory Ericson, who lives in Wendell, MA, up toward the New Hampshire border in high deep woods above the Connecticut River Valley. This last week Cory invited us to come out and see his place, after we admired this tower he's building in our friend Dara Wier's front yard out of flagstone and pieces of quartz he pulls out of the woods. There's a light inside, powered by a solar panel, and at night the quartz will glow with a soft, stone-filtered light.

The first thing I thought about at Cory's house and garden was his love for his materials, all found things, especially stones of great character and individuality. He has a profound connection to the mineral world, as Auden did, and he finds garnets, black tourmaline crystals, mica, beryl, schist. Those outbreaks of crystals seem like the thoughts of stones somehow, like outbreaks of energy. He also likes gnarled branches, old bottles, and pieces of metal from the ubiquitous old woodland dumps. He has a heap of rusty iron templates used to make shoes in many sizes; once this pile of scrap stamped out soles and heels, tongues and side-panels. Something strangely elegaic about that pile -- all that old metal meant to makes shelters for human feet.

In the garden Cory's stone walls rise to regular peaks, reminiscent of that famous French house the Surrealists loved by the Postman Chevalier, and more cairns with lights inside. He works unexpected transformations on trees: there are slim maples lashed together into arches, of various sizes. On some trees the slender branches are woven horizontally, sometimes making an arc from one tree to the next. The most amazing of these works is a solitary apple tree whose branches have all been woven horizontally and back in toward the trunk, making the tree into a kind of big complex upswept basket with leaves. It's gnarly and beautiful, and might be something from the garden of a baroque Italian villa.

All Cory's work has a meditative quality about it, the natural and the discarded shaped into objects that are painstakingly assembled, more than a little obsessive, probably impermanent, memorable things with a little loneliness and ache about them, but also with an exuberant flourish, like those crystals in their plain rocks.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Pink changes everything

In Frank Lloyd Wright's plans for the Guggenheim Museum, he tried out a number of colors, including "Cherokee Red" and this lavish flamingo-by-night. Would Fifth Avenue be a different place with a pink Guggenheim?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Vertigo in Amherst

We're in Amherst for a week of teaching at the Juniper Institute. I woke up yesterday morning early, to get ready for the first day of workshop, and when I stood up I felt strangely lightheaded. A few minutes later the room was starting to swim. I lay back down and the room kept moving, especially when I moved my head. I thought this would pass in a moment, but every time I'd muster the strength to sit up again, I'd feel the world start a sickening slide. It wasn't long before I felt the responsibilities of the day just fall away; who could do anything without balance, with a head that felt nauseatingly liquid?

Lisa Olstein was kind enough to take over my class; Paul fetched necessities; by late afternoon I made it to the Health Center to have my worst fantasies (Lyme disease?) allayed. I have an ear infection, related to a sinus infection -- maybe something to do with the summer's wild wave of pollen, or maybe all those books I've been sorting from storage, with their accumulation of dust and molds? I'm medicated and much better, albeit not well. Dara Wier's second floor guestroom feels like such a haven: blue window frames, up in the treetops, outside a slow-eddying tide of green. Inviting books, a pierced tin ceiling lamp, a Scottie dog with an infinite interest in giving and receiving calm affection. Something appealing about recuperating there; I'd like to just lie up in that room all day and read, say, George Eliot. But I'm going to teach poetry workshop instead; send me strength.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Skeins of light and legacy on the East End

This morning we needed a couple of things from the hardware store in East Hampton, which is a little bigger than the closer one in Amagansett, so we drove into town and had breakfast, bought the necessary supplies, and then thought to stop by The Drawing Room, a gallery that had a show up by Robert Harms we'd read about in the Times. Harms spent the last year painting beside a pond in Southampton, and the reproduction in the review was alluringly full of water-light, and I liked that his work seemed in the line of Joan Mitchell, a painter I love.

The show was just beautiful -- vital, watery dramas of color and brushstroke that didn't so much represent the surface of things as enact the motions and layers of that surface. In the white, light-filled little rooms of the gallery, the work just sang.

And then Robert Harms himself appeared, who turned out to be a friend of our pal Eileen Myles, and as we got to talking we learned that it was Robert, a friend of the late Joe LeSueur's, who'd found on Joe's desk after his death the manuscript of a book of reminiscences about O'Hara and his poems. Joe hadn't felt confident enough about the book to publish it during his lifetime, but Robert loved it, and gave it to Jonathan Galassi, who edited the manuscript. And thus we got the best book about O'Hara I know, SOME DIGRESSIONS ON POEMS BY FRANK O'HARA. Its off-the-cuff, casual memories of who was doing what and sleeping with whom and what was going on while a particular poem was composed are wonderful; they give you the texture of the conversation and presence of the man himself.

A painting of Robert's from the Parish Musuem in Southampton called GREEN RAIN is above, and you can read about the show at The Drawing Room here.

There's something thrilling about these artistic legacies being so close at hand: O'Hara to LeSueur to Harms, and here is talking with us on a rainy Thursday morning, while the paintings glow around us.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Bourbon and Dumaine, 9:30 PM, 6/12/2009

To go to the zoo... usually to spend as much time watching people as watching (other) animals. The last couple of days at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, I've been very aware of watching school groups, big roaming packs of kids hurrying from exhibit to exhibit, and also smaller family groups making their way through the heat from the elephants to the cafe to Monkey Hill. So I started thinking about what it is that children actually experience at the zoo, what are they seeing, noticing, remembering?

And thus this question, to anyone interested: What are your childhood memories of a trip to the zoo, what stands out?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What immortal hand or eye?

I'm in New Orleans today working on my zoo project. I toured the zoo with Brenda Walkenhorst, the education director. Brenda told me a great story about how she and her husband evacuated during Katrina with their fifteen animals -- dogs, cats, rats, chickens, guinea pigs, and probably some more I'm not remembering just now. And I thought Paul and I had trouble finding a motel in our dog-traveling days! We wandered around the zoo and looked at a hot island of flamingos. Four giraffes roaming around in a circle (they wanted their dinner) with a combination of grace and ungainliness that's entirely alien to human movement. A Louisiana black bear up to his neck in swamp-water, cooling down. It was so hot I wanted to get in there with him; it looked so inviting, to be swimming in dark water with that brilliant green algae on top.

And: tapirs. Two pure white alligators with blue eyes (hard not to think they were artificial) who live in indoor tanks because they'd perish of sunburn. Jaguars in repose, somehow both placid and tense at once. Curious and lively-faced river otters.

Earlier today I'd been reading Paul Mariani's biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and at the zoo I found myself thinking about the terrific felicity of his descriptive gift. Watching swallows in flight, he notes "the lisp of their wings." Studying carnations, he says they're "powdered with spankled red glister." Oak leaves are "platter-shaped stars." Each of these examples owes some of its sense of accuracy to its artfully built music: that "lisp" is a very precise way to evoke a certain kind of scissoring of wings; "spankled" and "glister" push against each other so pleasingly as to create a sonic equivalent or suggestion of the physicality of that particular red. He understands that what speech can do -- make music -- is a way that it approximates what it cannot: render the nuanced exactness of perception.

After the zoo closed, Carol, another education person, took me back behind the elephant exhibit to meet the two elephants, one in her forties and the other in her thirties, who've been together there for years. They were in their big cool barn, about to dine on hay and a pile of ginger plants; their handler asked them to step forward to see us. I fed them banana pieces -- first giving the piece to the marvelously articulated trunks and then putting one right into a great gray mouth. I stroked their massive foreheads with the odd thick hairs scattered here and there, looked into their eyes which are surrounded by a cluster of long, coarse lashes, splaying out like flower petals. I stood between them to be photographed, and one investigated my left shoe with her trunk; I could feel the very vital muscle of its aperture working my shoe leather, like a foot massage. How to describe them? Thoughtful, unhurried, something emotional in their presence -- I don't know if I mean that they themselves seem to be feeling, or that they provoke feeling in me, probably both.

And then we went into a cool, locked hallway, rather like a kennel -- and there, behind one of the barred doors, was a four hundred pound white Bengal tiger, of astonishing beauty, lying down with his huge front paws flat on the cool floor, and his open and curious gaze turned to us. He'd come inside to escape the heat; he seemed to like us, though when we began to talk about Blake and symmetry, and I recited a line or two of the poem, he stood up, turned around, and lay down again with his rump to us. Oh well.