Friday, February 29, 2008

"Exhibit #1"

We are drawn to chapbooks in many ways: some we happen upon by chance, browsing catalogs and recognizing a name. Some come recommended by writers whose judgment we trust. Others are literally pressed into our hands: private efforts, small collections self-published and shared among friends.

I knew Maggie Paul in college: we were in the same MFA program at Vermont. I've seen her once or twice since those days, both times at AWP, though I can't recall which cities. At one, she gave me a copy of her chapbook, Stones from the Baskets of Others. I've been re-reading it today. Here are two poems:

Exhibit #1

He couldn’t turn away
from the sight of the human brain,
that singular universe
glistening in its own juices.

Looking at that wilderness of river and dream
called into question his own sense of divinity,
the radiance he rose into each day.

Here, pointed the docent, is where memory is.
And here resides emotion.

All his life he’d depended on what he couldn’t see—

About the stars, he had the same complaint.

* * *

On Neruda

Like her, he numbered his poems as they spilled out
over the rim of his life, currents always heading
in the direction of Mathilde, in whose hair he saw
stars and vines, whose hands furnished him with
certain dark things to love. His poems
brim with moons, apples, bread, sky.
Like a pomegranate his heart’s center grew
crowded with seeds and stars, which he
sprinkled across his garden as a way
of insisting on beauty, so that now
his voice pulls me into the earth’s core,
the underneath of love, which is more love.

[photo: fern unfurling, 2/24/08]

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Yummy yummy yummy, I've got love in my tummy

Red beans & rice, collard greens and cornbread: my man can cook.

Never mind

Here's a purty flower picture to gaze on: a luminous pink zygocactus I inherited from Lisa Roney when she left Bucknell a few years ago. I don't think it bloomed at all last year, but it's currently gorgeous.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Winter boarder (2)

When I grew geraniums from seed last spring, a few of the laggards never made it outside to the garden, but stayed on the laundry room sill in small pots. This winter, I moved two up to the bathroom window, which gets bright direct sun for a couple of hours. The third plant, which was truly puny, is still in the laundry room and still in its original yogurt cup, but it has finally decided to bloom.
I'm curious to see what color it turns out to be. When I set nine of the others out in a large square planter, they hadn't yet bloomed; I gave a few extras to Jackie next door. Many of my geraniums turned out a garish fuschia or a shriekingly orange-red (too red for my taste; I much prefer the softer, purer red or the near-salmon red-pink ones), while one of Jackie's ended up the prettiest of the batch: a lovely pink-and-white bicolor. For the rest of the year, I glanced through the fence and admired (well all right, coveted) that one geranium.
Little straggler, runt of the litter, you're my last best hope.
[photo: winter geranium, 2/23/08]

Monday, February 25, 2008

[photo: Randy coming in off the lake, 2/24/08]

Weekend update

Twice this week we've heard (and seen) huge flocks of snow geese flying over the house, so on Sunday morning we decided to head out to the Montour Preserve. The lake was still frozen, of course--people were sledding out onto it and walking around. Randy tried to coax me out onto the ice, but I'm a wuss when it comes to the sound of ice cracking--I'd probably keep enough composure to not pee my pants, but just barely.
For pics of the snow geese on Lake Chillisquaque just two years ago (March 10, which reassures me that I was smart not to venture out on yesterday's ice), click here.
While watching the Oscars last night (I can't resist--all that glam), I pieced up a tiny quilt top (just a bit larger than a 5x7 index card, with 48 itty-bitty pieces) in an old pattern: Chinese Coins. I'd been dreaming about this pattern (I mean, literally seeing it in my sleep) and wanted to give it a try. The result is more diminutive than I'd planned (I just start sewing and see how things come out, so planned is a misnomer) but today, looking it over, I'm pretty pleased.
[photo: white pine in snow, 2/24/08]

Friday, February 22, 2008

"The Story of Mist"

This week's featured chapbook is Stuart Dybek's The Story of Mist, a collection of short pieces (stories? prose poems?) published by State Street Press back in 1993. I'm always happy to find chapbooks from this press--they use nice soft paper, wraparound slipcovers, and original artwork. Here's the title piece; it reminds me of a ghazal:

The Story of Mist

Mist hangs like incense in the trees. Obscured trains uncouple in a dusk that is also obscured, and later, a beacon sweeps across the faces of a crowd gathered at the shoreline, standing knee-deep in mist.

In a corrugated shed lit by a misty overhead bulb, a welder, working late, looks up from acetylene, then removes his mask to kiss his wife who’s brought him a cold beer.

Smoke smolders through the projection beam as if the old theater is filling with mist: on screen, gigantic faces gaze out at an audience of shadows.

He holds her to him with his left arm, while extending the blue flame away from them with his right, and she holds the foaming bottle of beer away from them as if it too were a torch. When their mouths touch, her breath enters him like mist.

An endless chain of boxcars slams back together with a sound of rolling thunder, thunder smothered by mist.

She can see the mist rising from the hairs along his skin, and touches them as carefully as she might draw a straight razor along the length of his body.

Listen, in the dead of night, high above the mist, steeplejacks are nailing up the new day’s Christ.
A buoy tolls in the mist like the steeple of a little neighborhood church that has drifted out to sea.
A freighter, sounding a melancholy horn, hoists the moon that it’s been towing from a moonlit slick, and tows it through the mist.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

"angry packet threaded with love"

That’s why I want to speak to you now. To say: no person,
trying to take responsibility for her or his identity, should have to
be so alone. There must be those among whom we can sit down
and weep, and still be counted as warriors. (I make up this strange,
angry packet for you, threaded with love.) I think you thought
there was no such place for you, and perhaps there was none then,
and perhaps there is none now; but we will have to make it, we who
want an end to suffering, who want to change the laws of history, if
we are not to give ourselves away.

: Adrienne Rich, from "Sources: XXIII" in Your Native Land, Your Life

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I can't stop reading this poem

Stroking My Head with My Deception Stick

Someone has shut down the local shimmer
but not the police who thought

it was Sunday and so spent hours
arranging their long and pliant hair.

Constable Jacques is the best man I know
but even he won’t converse with the dead.

The dead are so vain and hungry—
they will straddle your mirrors and swallow

your oak trees with their huge elastic lips.
And then you hear the screaming, not to be found

within the dead, but rather in the tiny
black pot which holds the greater part

of our mass and the difficult
farm where all the hens are black

and black are the wheatfields through which
runs a black and silent wind. Thin teachers

explain to our children, if the farm is a burgeoning
snowglobe, then the screaming’s a legend, like glass.

: Heather Christle, in Third Coast (Fall 2006)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


The brick house is what we always call it: the house we built in the mid-Sixties. I remember the concrete truck's long U-shaped chute poking through the unfinished frame of a basement window, the wet cement rapidly slurrying down, pouring and splatting into the wire-gridded floor area. I remember the unfinished basement steps, how they were open, how I was always afraid to go down them because someone could reach through and grab me.

Thinking about Ginger and Snowball: the time Steve shoved Ginger's tail under the kitchen door, the door to the basement steps, and Snowball bit it nearly off, completely severed but for one stringy white (tendon?) cord. How we caught the cat and wailed. Someone said we had to cut it off. No one else would do it, so I snipped it with the kitchen shears. The cat shuddered violently, a quake I can still feel in my spine, and took a dazed step or two, then suddenly scrambled away.

I flung the tail into the front yard, not realizing that we'd find it again, wanting only in that moment to have it away. The yard, a half-acre at most with an immense sycamore and two large chestnut trees, had become a momentary sea of out-there-ness, not the familiar territory I ranged daily, inspecting plants and bugs, the tiny corn-on-the-cob-shaped castings that I thought were seeds until I watched one slip, still wet, from a caterpillar's anus. I hadn't known I was playing with shit.

This was knowledge before experience: learning the names of trees and birds, collecting seeds, watching a solar eclipse through a pinhole focused on a sheet of paper. I don't even remember what happened to Ginger, only that Mother was furious that afternoon about the tail. Later the facts would reconfigure, polished or worn down in the mind's tumbler, that ceaseless worrying. How we touch and touch, worrying memories, wearing them, wearing them down.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A wintry mix--

--is forecast for late tonight. We've had snow all day: a fine, steady powder; the sleet and freezing rain are due in the early hours. I let my students know yesterday that I don't plan to go fishtailing over the mountain if conditions deteriorate; they're e-mailing their homework in. (See, I can handle myself in this brave new cyber-world.)

So we'll see in the morning.
* * *
Last week, I sorted about 150 poetry books from (half of) the shelves in the dining room and set them all aside to donate. In observing my own "thinning" process, I've noticed that some of the books I'm parting with now are the same ones I couldn't give away just two years ago. For example, I'm willing to part with four or five volumes of Seamus Heaney, but that's mainly because I have his selected poems (Opened Ground). Conversely, I'm completely unwilling to donate my Marvin Bell collection (I have every book, and yes, I still read them).

I started donating books to the poetry library at the Stadler Center back in 1994, just after my fellowship in the Younger Poets Seminar. I had a pretty good job at the University of Houston, and the one thing I loved to spend money on was books. In Houston, there were two Half Price Books stores--in Montrose and in the Rice Village. I scoured the poetry sections a few times a month. Ended up with double copies of a few books, or good hardcover copies of titles I already had in paperback.

I don't know why having my own poetry "library" was so important, but it was a very specific goal: I wanted to be completely surrounded by these books, to have at hand all my favorite poets. There wasn't a room in the house without bookcases. One year, for my birthday, David had custom bookcases installed along one whole wall of my study.

I didn't shun traditional libraries: the Montrose branch, the Carnegie library just south of our neighborhood, the downtown public library, and especially the campus library at UH, where I loved to browse the stacks, pull down books at random, and discover new writers. In my classes this week, we've been talking about technology: how our growing dependence on (or fascination with) so many tools (toys) is changing the way we think, interact, communicate. It's sad to note that students rarely show interest in books. (We talked, for example, about dictionary-browsing; I was trying to describe the pleasure of being distracted during the search for a particular word by random others along the path. They felt that such activity was a colossal waste of time: why meander when you can take a virtual superhighway to a quick "answer"?)

When I left Bucknell, the hardest part was turning over my keys to the Stadler Center, because it meant I'd no longer have access to the poetry library I'd worked for over a decade to expand. I still miss it.

The poetry selection in the Lycoming College library is spotty at best. Naturally, I felt compelled to do something about it. I've already donated 100 books. But what to do with the present culling? They're good books: Brodsky, Frost, Heaney, Levine, Amichai, Levertov, Gerstler, and dozens of others. The ideal destination is still the Stadler Center: I know that, if nothing else, the June Poets will ransack the shelves and read, read, read; they always do. Problem is, I feel like such an exile from Bucknell. I'd keep donating to Lycoming, but I've yet to meet one student there who reads poetry. On the other hand, it's such a small campus; a couple hundred poetry books make a significant impact on the library's holdings. But what's the point of putting them on the shelves if they're never read?

I love books. Love them. But the obsession I pursued in my 20s and 30s--of having them--feels more like hoarding.

In one of Marge Piercy's early books, To Be of Use, the title poem speaks of the longing of everyday objects. I'm trying to remember the exact line (I could look it up if--ha!--I hadn't donated the book), something like "The pitcher calls out for water": the sense is that we honor everyday things when we put them into service. What's the use of unread books?
* * *
One of the books I'm "voting off the island" is a 1987 omnibus volume from Five Fingers Press, titled Three West Coast Women. It features poems from (duh) three writers: Laurie Duesing, Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. We've pretty much all read work by two of these poets--Addonizio and Laux have had good success (Dorianne has, incidentally, signed this copy "For Jim" and "MacDowell '88")--but I never saw another poem by Laurie Duesing. (I could, like my students, simply Google her, but that's not the point: in all my book shopping, we've never again crossed paths.)

So. Here's a poem by Laurie Duesing:

Faux Pas

The cardiac patient waves his flaccid cock
at every nurse. The hysterectomy victim
flashes her visitors. When you are ill,
you are allowed everything.
My father has been dying for 15 years,
an unspeakable violation of etiquette.
Even my mother notices because he keeps trying
to kiss me on the mouth.
He thinks now he can get away with it.
Her lips were always thin
but this is not my problem.
If I move closer to him, she stiffens.
I can be trusted though it’s not for her
I keep my distance—his mouth
is too late and it’s the lesson they taught me
years ago: how to behave myself,
inhibitions they think catastrophe exempts
them from. This is why I will never have children,
why dying is no excuse.

Monday, February 11, 2008


--with a new template and fonts. I've tweaked font colors on posts going back through December (I think) and will fix the rest as I can. Meanwhile, I'm glad that I can finally add blogrolls and such (and not feel like a total idiot).

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Orphaned poem

Dead Letter: August, 1993

The St. Augustine has overrun the blueberries. Again I pull
the knotty runners, tough snapping roots. My scraped hands
bleed. Mint fills the blackberry bed. The berry canes escape,

runners tunneling under, springing up bristled and gangly
fifteen feet away, beneath the fig trees I set too close, because
I was impatient, because I wanted our garden now, not after

you’d gone. Scarlet runner beans climb string teepees. Basils
everywhere. Seven kinds of rosemary. My favorite: a trailer in
near-constant bloom, prostrate, rooting into the mulched paths

at every point that touches ground. No asparagus (its deep
preparation, five-year wait). No grapes, though you wanted
grapes, though I gave in and planted grapes: the vines outran

the trellis, sprawl along the roof I’m too afraid to climb on.
Lemon grass tall and waving in a single season like bundled
flashing knives. Oregano. Pennyroyal. Bay beside the door,

because we tired of hauling it inside in winter. Now, when freezes
threaten, I wrap the tree in quilts, tuck a work light beneath
for warmth. Our darling monster bay. I lost the lemon

eucalyptus. Haven’t tried again. Cilantro’s green all winter.
And parsley. The epazote I tried only once refuses to go away:
knotty seedlings spring up in the daylily beds, in the roses,

through cracks in the concrete drive. More blueberries. A peach
that’s never kept its fruit, just nickel size. An Asian pear. Figs.
A scarlet passion vine I grew from seed, coddling it along for five

months before I set it out, certain two days later it was dying.
Surprised to later find the tendrils snagging roses. That blossom
worth the wait, like the night-blooming cereus I’d started from

a leaf: perfection. You’d have said so. You’d hardly recognize
the garden now.

Friday, February 08, 2008


I was astonished to find Robert Pinsky's First Things to Hand at the new(ish) Borders store a few months back: it was the only chapbook in the entire poetry section (I looked). Sarabande has created a beautiful series with their Quarternote chapbooks, and this collection (which became part of Pinsky's new book, Gulf Music) is an excellent choice for inclusion in the series. I love Pinsky's work. I love his mind, and how he connects to the physicality and history of language, to language as a palpable essence, part of the physical world.

Our wee campus library just acquired a copy of Gulf Music last month; I put a hold on it and they contacted me Wednesday to come pick it up. I've read "Poem of Disconnected Parts" to my students for a couple of semesters since it was first on Poetry Daily--awesome poem--but here's one from the chapbook:



Vulnerable to light,
To the oils of the hand.

The paper sensitive
The dyes ephemeral

The very medium
A trace of absences.

Speed of the years
Speed of the shutter.

The child's father
Crouches level to her

With the camera and so
She crouches too.

Agile the dancer,
Little room

Of the camera, wide
Gaze of exposure—

Shiva the maker
Shiva the destroyer:

The flash of your hammer
Fashions the shelter.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Take me here.

So while internet-skipping, trying to recollect the name of the restaurant that served such yummy Ethiopian food in Baltimore way back at AWP (what year was that?), I ended up at the website for Typecast Press.

Wiping away the drool.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


I've been re-reading Jeffrey Harrison's The Singing Underneath this week, bit by bit as I find time. I'd pulled it from the shelf while sorting poetry books to donate to our campus library (which has a woefully small selection--truly in need of a boost), remembering vaguely that I'd liked the book well enough when I bought it years ago. (The book was published in 1988 as part of the National Poetry Series: the same year as Marie Howe's The Good Thief and Cole Swensen's New Math.)

I've truly enjoyed reading through it again. There's a sense of closure--or if not closure, then a kind of finish--to each of the poems; each is well-thought and well-shaped, formal but not off-puttingly so, and deceptively deft in its shifting. It's easy to see why James Merrill selected this collection. Here's a sample poem from early in the book:


If what we wait to see partly defines us,
then this red bulb hanging in the blue
is a simple model for the heart,
swaying slightly at the end of its string
as I rock slightly, standing next to it,
eyes fixed, waiting for the buzz, the blur
of wings, the body like a tiny seal's
balancing the feeder on its nose.

Surely these moments we stand on tiptoe for
make us what we are as much as pain
and sorrow: the moment the hummingbird
flashes his red throat, the moment he spreads
his tail and swerves off like a fish, a green
streak, then sticks like a leaf to a branch--
the moment he stops in midair and sticks
his beak into that severed artery.

As he drinks, an embolism forms,
like the bubble in a spirit level,
and rises slowly up the tube, a bit
of the outside world going in, a moment
trapped: like one of those clear marbles
in which everything is upside-down, and small.
As the last drop quivers and disappears
with the bird, the heart becomes a mind.
* * *

It's foggy tonight, unusually so: a dense, swirling fog that tempted us to drive home from grocery shopping along the low-lying route (River Road) just for the little-kid thrill of feeling lost in it.
* * *

Thanks to Eduardo. (I put an extra something in the envelope.)

* * *

And extra thanks to Randy, who got my laptop back in working order while I was off grading papers this afternoon.

Monday, February 04, 2008