The Land of Overwhelm

I talked to my friend Carla this afternoon while I took my second walk of the day. After a sunny morning, the sky was overcast and the air felt close. Before I was finished I swear I felt a drop of rain. Carla said she was struggling a bit: “Maybe it’s the pandemic. But it’s not just that.”  I have been feeling antsy and, frankly, a little crazed, myself. Today I looked at the sky and reminded myself of how much impending weather plays with my moods.

I am finished with my mystery novel and poised to get it out to agents. Poised to begin in earnest with typing the new mystery (so far scribbled into various notebooks). I’m also making a valiant effort to pull together a poetry manuscript. My present writing mood is an anxious grieving coupled with a feeling of being about to burst … maybe into bloom. I’m not sure yet.

My youngest daughter is in California with a friend. “Do you know there’s a pandemic?” I asked her, and she said, “Can we use your car?” Right now she’s staying with an old friend of mine, who–like me–has an empty nest and a great need to mother somebody. She talked the kids into canceling their hotel reservations in San Diego and spending three more days with her and her husband. So that makes me happy. It makes me happy that Emma was in the ocean today and saw five dolphins and a pelican. Despite everything else going on in the world, there are also dolphins.

Who knows why (or check “all of the above”) but this weekend I have spent a bunch of hours reorganizing one of my writing spaces. On Friday afternoon, I decided to move a big file cabinet from a corner of the playroom downstairs to my “zoom room” upstairs. First, I had to empty it. I found records for my 1981 Datsun, a copy of my wedding invitation, and six months of bottle-feeding and diapering records that we kept when our twins were born — from July 12 to mid-December 1993. (Good grief, what were we thinking?)

I also found drafts of novel openings that never went anywhere, short stories I had forgotten I ever wrote, tons of old Creative Writing Program journals, and stacks and stacks (and stacks) of poetry. I had kept every program for the old Castalia reading series, and other people’s poems from four years of Professor Bentley’s workshops–four quarters per year, labeled and dated. 

From all of these, I kept copies of my poems with Nelson’s comments on them. I kept a handful of the Castalia programs and a copy of the news article about his death, at age 72, of cancer. I kept my wedding invitation.

I felt a little like Theodore Roethke in his “Elegy for Jane.” (If you don’t already have it memorized, click on the link to hear Roethke read this 22-line poem for his student.) Or, I don’t mean his experience in the poem, but the story Nelson told us: that when Roethke came across his student Jane’s poems in his office files, he gave the bundle of papers a kiss and threw it into the trash.

I threw most everything into the recycle bin. So many people I will never see again. So many poems that I thought someday I would make the time to reread. Maybe I didn’t feel like Roethke. I felt more like Jane, as though I were a ghost, “waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.”

But I also felt lighter. I felt a little more able to move forward. Or to imagine moving forward.

Before I finished for the day, rain began. The dark swooped in a little earlier this evening, along with that smell that is partly rain, partly chill, and partly the scent of woodsmoke. It reminded me that even in the “Time of Corona” (as another friend calls it), one season is ending and another tiptoeing into the room.

Carla’s right. It’s the pandemic, and it’s not the pandemic.


Alice Fulton’s Barely Composed

[This post has been updated. 4/18/2018]

Where to begin? Well, after getting a comment (below) from Alice Fulton, I revisited my other books by her. And she’s right! So she didn’t give me a business card that said “word mechanic,” but she read a poem about some other poet giving her a business card.

Even so, reading her latest book, Barely Composed (Norton, 2015), I can still her crawling under the lines to tinker with the parts. She is a wordsmith of the first order.

Fulton has always struck me as unconcerned with making sense. (Though see the comments.) I think this is because I have always been overly concerned with making sense, with being linear, with telling a story. Reading her work challenges me to be more playful, to take more seriously poetry’s higher calling to something beyond mere “sense.”

And Fulton does play! She plays with  clichés and colloquialisms, tosses in science and politics, and somehow gets away with it all (masterfully). Although these poems predate the 2016 presidential election, their refusal to be linear seems to me strangely fitting for our times, and prescient. (As in “Peroral”: “It’s like a prison that makes itself at home in you, / like so not worth it, so not mattering, and so / fair King of Not, you self-release, secede, sowing / misgivings as you go.”) When her dying mother shows up in the book, even sideways references signaled to me the ways in which the poems offer an alternative way to understand what cannot be understood. These poems, in particular, depict for me a world that has been shaken and shattered and glued back together–maybe–but by a person unable to remember where everything goes.

Once you give up trying to make sense of the poems, the lines begin to sizzle and hum. My initial feeling was that I would not be able to read Barely Composed straight through; then I realized that reading it in one sitting was a very good way to read it–total immersion was what finally helped me drop through my resistance and into the sheer admiration that I felt for Fulton from the very first time I encountered her. The final poem, “End Fetish–An Index of Last Lines,” underscored and clarified for me how Fulton’s individual lines pop with emotion and nerve, and maybe some incantational magic as well.

So here is a poem for you to try out for yourself–a sonnet located near the end of the book:

There Are a Few Things I Need to Get

to sleep. A dreamboat of submersible iron,
a sea that rocks, narcotic clock. I need
our feelings to glide and turn in unison, silversides.
Snow gristle, stenciled trees, an ice-breaker
escort–who needs them? Spring’s your favorite season.
You like its green lotions. Touched by its soft tissues,
you don’t miss the jilted winter. Still,
the figure eight motion of lacing a skate
is soothing. A forever effect. Like everything
you do. I’ve plunged past my crush depth. I can tell
by the way paint flashes and my protective
rubber mask melts on my face. It’s not your doing
I like, it’s you. You and your green emollients. Now let us chill.
After we’re exchanted, we come all so still.

In 2016 Fulton was the Roethke reader at the University of Washington. She signed Barely Composed for me, and wrote: “With thanks for your generous spirit tonight, and gratitude for your presence across the centuries.”

You don’t always have to know what a thing means to appreciate it. And I do.

Guest Poet

On occasional Friday mornings I am able to meet with two other poets and spend an hour or two writing, and talking about writing. One of those poets is Darby Ringer. We first met in Nelson Bentley’s workshop a million years ago or so, and whenever I read her poem, “On Raven’s Wing,” I can hear Nelson say, “Send this out IMMEDIATELY to some lucky editor!”

The image, by the way, is borrowed from Loren Webster’s blog, In a Dark Time…the Eye Begins to See, which I began following for the reference to poet Theodore Roethke, and kept following for the birds.

On Raven’s Wing

He’s a half full gunny sack,
his eyes, black and burning.

He’s slow to wake,
sees raven’s wing in a dream,

follows its black shape,
the green line of its path.

He walks along the incoming tide,
squints into sun,

picks up a bone and throws it out to sea,
slicing the seaweed air.

With another bone, he carves a mask
to honor his Haida clan.

He returns to the beach,
carves and throws,

throws and carves
a thousand carving slices.

The tide curls over rocks,
takes his raven, his breath,

his life, a crescent of bone.
He plants himself on this spit of land.

And the tide keeps coming, taking.