Monday, July 31, 2006

Poems are a better fate than prosing.

Stopped at the bookstore today after a long lunch with a student I haven't seen in a year, I decided to continue building my twentieth-century poetry collection (so scant, so neglected) by buying James Wright's Above the River: Complete Poems. I have a bone to pick with the folks at FSG and Wesleyan University Press for having cast Wright's book into their lot of things to be printed digitally. I don't know if you've yet had an experience with books printed on demand, but mine have been vastly substandard: the type tends to be fainter than usual, as though everything hasn't quite printed--as though it's fading away from itself, and the covers are particularly to be lamented. I don't fully understand what corners publishers cut when they turn to this alternate method of printing, but I'd love it if they could get their acts together and make demand-printed books indistinguishable from regular books.


I'm preparing to leave the officehouse (and its glorious, terrible-heat-index-defeating air conditioning), and so, as is my wont to do, I have opened Wright's volume and dipped in. And so you get a poem from him instead of a prose reflection from me, tonight. And it's fitting, really, given that Wright studied here; he graduated in 1952.

The Quest

In pasture where the leaf and wood
Were lorn of all delicious apple,
And underfoot a long and supple
Bough leaned down to dip in mud,
I came before the dark to stare
At a gray nest blown in a swirl,
As in the arm of a dead girl
Crippled and torn and laid out bare.

On a hill I came to a bare house,
And crept beside its bleary windows,
But no one lived in those gray hollows,
And rabbits ate the dying grass.
I stood upright, and beat the door,
Alone, indifferent, and aloof
To pebbles rolling down the roof
And dust that filmed the deadened air.

High and behind, where twilight chewed
Severer planes of hills away,
And the bonehouse of a rabbit lay
Dissolving by the darkening road,
I came, and rose to meet the sky,
And reached my fingers to a nest
Of stars laid upward in the west;
They hung too high; my hands fell empty.

So, as you sleep, I seek your bed
And lay my careful, quiet ear
Among the nestings of your hair,
Against your tenuous, fragile head,
And hear the birds beneath your eyes
Stirring for birth, and know the world
Immeasurably alive and good,
Though bare as rifted paradise.

--James Wright

It is just so very possible that I would love it if someone's quiet ear cared to hear the birds beneath my eyes.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Driving home, illuminated.

Herewith, my visual record of yesterday's drive. I think that prose of substance will resume tomorrow. (To follow along with your map, start in Amherst, VA. Follow 60-E to Cumberland, VA, observing disused buildings all along the way. Turn around and go back to square one. Then, follow 60-W over the Blue Ridge Mountains to Buena Vista ("Boona Vista"), VA. Take I-81 north to I-64 west. Follow I-64 past the fallen signs at the exit for the West Virginian "mall" that consists of a KMart, up more mountains and near mountaintop cloudcover, until you get to Charleston. Just after you see the gilded dome of the West Virginian state capitol building, swing north on I-77. Follow I-77 north into Ohio, breathing a strange sigh of relief to cross the river and reenter your own state, even though you experienced some serious doubts about living there, while you were away. Love the corn's extreme, stalky bordering of the highway. Love the fields of fog all around you. Love the quiet deer at the side of the road. Love the single firework that erupts silently up ahead, somewhere near the I-77 / I-70 interchange that alerts you to the fact that you're nearly home. Love the moon in the dark, as you always do, always, no matter where you are. Love the end of the drive in quiet and solitude, the camera gone quiet in your lap as you eat up the last miles home.)

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Home again, home again.

Once again, I have nearly completed a post and then lost it. And once again, I have had this experience while pushing the bounds of my own wakefulness. And so, though I hate to say it, you're going to get the merest of safe return announcements from me tonight, to be followed up by images and reflections in the morning. Images weren't uploading earlier, anyway, so the original version of this post would have been completely unillustrated. At least now I can give you the bookends of my day, as my constant promise of more to come. Before I set out early this afternoon, I enjoyed a lovely morning of porch-sitting and coffee-drinking with the recently relocated friend I'd traveled to see (and her three terrifically friendly and goofy dogs). By the time I was drinking cup number three, the shadows on the porch had gotten just so. Near the end of the trip, just as I crossed the Ohio River, a perfect crescent moon appeared in the western sky, hooked me silverly, and led me the rest of the way home. I didn't get a good picture of the moon, so the sunset will have to suffice.

Again, I'll say more about the trip in the morning. You know I'm good for it.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The voyage out.

Off, now, with my new books and my new knowledge and (in a more figurative sense) my new friends. One night a little further south. And then homeward bound, which means my next dispatch should (d.v.) reach you from lovely Gambier.

Just in case you're feeling bereft by this short post, I'll give you a brief text to discuss. I cut Whitman some serious slack here, on the question of his pronouns' gender. I've excerpted from the Preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855):
The known universe has one complete lover and that is the greatest poet. He consumes an eternal passion and is indifferent which chance happens and which possible contingency of fortune or misfortune and persuades daily and hourly his delicious pay. What balks or breaks others is fuel for his burning progress to contact and amorous joy. [...] His love above all love has leisure and expanse ... he leaves room ahead of himself. He is no irresolute or suspicious lover ... he is sure ... he scorns intervals. His experience and the showers and thrills are not for nothing. Nothing can jar him ... suffering and darkness cannot--death and fear cannot. To him complaint and jealousy and envy are corpses buried and rotten in the earth ... he saw them buried. The sea is not surer of the shore or the shore of the sea than he is of the fruition of his love and of all perfection and beauty. [...]

The greatest poet has less a marked style and is more the channel of thoughts and things without increase or diminution, and is the free channel of himself. He swears to his art, I will not be meddlesome, I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains. What I tell I tell for precisely what it is. Let who may exalt or startle or fascinate or soothe I will have purposes as health or heat or snow has and be as regardless of observation. What I experience or portray shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me.
Now, while I drive off into the sunset, you can talk amongst yourselves.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Sometimes there's just no question.

When my computer crashed a few minutes ago--or should I say, when my computer wheezed and sighed and shut down a few minutes ago, since it was nothing so dramatic as a crash--I thought, Well, at least I didn't have anything open that was unsaved.

I've just realized that my entire writing for tonight was still waiting to be posted. And that means, my friends, that you'll have to wait for those deep thoughts, because I'm just not going to be rewriting them right now.

The high points:

I shopped successfully at three used bookstores tonight, and yea, it was good. They were all really good used bookstores. I have not gotten to have such a spree since I lived in Ithaca. (My excellent friend, you will be glad to know that I now own several Ann-Marie MacDonald and David Mahlouf novels!)

I ate dinner at a fine restaurant tonight and had a chance to read the beginning of Kate Atkinson's Case Histories while I sipped my French Syrah and waited for my medium-rare steak to materialize. Dining alone is its own special kind of gustatory pleasure. I feel this way about seeing movies alone, as well.

I acquired a new Bloom bag that turns out to have cost me at least 25% less than the going rate for these bags. Whereas I was happy about the bag before I came back to this room that has come to feel like home, I was downright gleeful to discover this extra piece of information. The bag features enough pockets that I suspect I could lose everything--I could lose it all!--in this one bag. Plus there's a flowered lining.

It was suggested during class this morning that I'm ready to open my own bibliography shop.

Which of these things was my favorite? No one of them is separable from the others. What a good day it's been. And another poem? Two, in fact? Yes, please. Keep pointing me in the right direction; I'm listening.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

What we talk about when we talk about books.

This morning, it occurred to me that you might not have the foggiest idea of what I'm doing down here at bibliography camp. Here's the short overview: my current research project centers on how a certain body of auto/biographical (that slash signals autobiographical + biographical + the things that are a little of both) texts got put together, and I decided toward the end of my dissertation work that it would be a mighty good idea to get some actual, professional training in how to study printed materials, at some point. That point is now. I'm enrolled in a week-long descriptive bibliography course, in which I'm learning how to pick up a book from either the hand-press period (i.e., c1500-c1800) or the machine-press period (c1800-present) and write down a detailed description of its format, collation, signing, and pagination. There's a lot of other material to describe, of course, but this course is the introduction, and so we stop short at pagination and a little bit of transcription (copying out what's on a title page).

These words may mean nothing to you, and so let me practice what I now know and explain myself.
When I'm handed a book in this course--and we're actually handed boxes of six books for each night's multi-hour homework session, which comes fast on the heels of our six hours of lab, museum, and lecture during the day--the first thing I do is start nosing around in the opening pages, trying to ascertain what the book's format is. In bibliography, to determine a book's format is to determine the relationship of the book's gatherings, or folded and stitched pages, to the sheet of paper on which that gathering was originally printed. In the hand-press period, in particular, books were printed on sheets, folded, and quired or gathered. Those gatherings then got stitched together into books; after the stitching, they received some kind of binding, though at that stage things get complicated and beyond our purview this week. There are a few very basic formats. If a sheet has been printed and then just folded in half (imagine the way a greeting card is printed and folded), the book's format is called folio, and we say it has two leaves (each leaf having two pages). If it has been printed and then folded twice, it's a quarto (four leaves, eight pages). And if it's been printed and folded three times, it's an octavo (eight leaves, sixteen pages). If I didn't have class again in 40 minutes, I'd draw you some pictures. For now, take my word for it (and go out looking for diagrams on the web, if you're super-curious). There are all kinds of ways to determine format. Some of the coolest involve looking at the chain lines (the lines left on a sheet of paper by the mold in which that paper was made), which go in different directions depending on how many times the paper has been folded; and looking at watermarks, which end up in different places on a leaf depending (again) on the number of folds. The more complicated formats are things like duodecimos, where there are twelve leaves; and things like sixteenmos and eighteenmos and twenty-fourmos. (We haven't had any from that last group yet, but I have a feeling my moment of reckoning may arrive in about four hours.)

Once I've determined format, I get to determine a statement of collation, which basically involves paging through the entire book, taking notes about its gatherings--where those units of two, or four, or six, or eight leaves are, and how they're attached together. As I've told a couple of people, here and elsewhere, this work is so simultaneously lively and methodical that I feel almost meditative while I do it. I have to keep my mind completely in the game, or else I'll miss the moment when I switch from gatherings of four to gatherings of two, midway through a book, and then switch right back. Or I'll miss the moment when the printer put the wrong signature on a leaf.
Now, the signature of a leaf is the little number or letter that shows up somewhere in what's called the direction line on the page. Generally, it's going to be alphabetical or numerical; one gathering will be signed A, and then the next B, and so on. You may be able to find books in your own possession that display such signatures, especially if you have anything that's fairly old. Look in the center or the gutter (i.e., inner margin) of the bottom of the right-hand pages, and keep your eyes out for the alphabet, or for what looks like a weird, intermittent page number. That's your signature. Printers were not always so perfect about getting every number into a signature, which is where the fun comes in. This morning, for instance, I worked on a book that had two different signatures, one (numbers) for the groups of six in which the book was actually gathered and one (letters) that was obviously left on the printing plates from an earlier, larger format edition of this book. Sometimes individual letters will just go missing, or will get missigned. There's a whole grammar for writing this stuff out, and it looks remarkably mathematical, which is part of the reason I was having all those dreams about math before I came down here. (Now, I'm sleeping so happily exhaustedly that I wake up not remembering my dreams at all.)

I would offer you an example of a formula, but I don't think I have an option of doing superscripts and subscripts, which are everywhere in this stuff. So, you'll have to take my word for it: these formulæ read like a different language. I can show you one signing statement, which is just the string of symbols that alerts a reader to how each of a book's gatherings is signed--what the marks are that distinguish one gathering from the next. This part comes after a statement of format and a statement of collation, and a simple one looks like this: [$1,3 signed; signing $3 as '$*']. (This book, by the way, had gatherings of six leaves, which were signed with numbers rather than letters.) Translated, what that statement means is "the first and third leaves of each gathering are signed; the third leaf is signed with an asterisk added to the number of the gathering." On the page, this means that in the first six leaves (or twelve pages) of the book, which are all stitched together, 1 should be signed (but because it's the title page, it's not), and 3 is signed 1*. In the second six leaves, leaf 1 is signed 2 and leaf 3 is 2*. In the third six leaves, leaf 1 is signed 3 and leaf 3 is 3*. See?

As you who have taken languages may have experienced, learning a new language can be a continually epiphanic experience. At one moment this morning, I sat looking over a somewhat bizarre string of data I had assembled, and I had no idea what to do with it all. I sat and looked, sat and looked, and suddenly, the patterns came erupting into my mind, and I had the notation for them, too. One of my favorite experiences of these mornings has been recopying my messy pencilled ideas into neat, inked versions, just before we go to the lab where we work through our night's work. I am so pleased when I find out I've done my work capably and well. But I'm also so pleased when I find out just how I've done it wrong and can then fix my other errors before it's time to put another formula up on the lab's whiteboard and go to work critiquing it. In some sense, though, I'm an overly distractable bibliographer (which doesn't seem to be keeping me from rocking the house; yes, all of you "told-you-so"ers, you can tell me so when I talk to you again; I turned up here knowing just plenty, and knowing where to find what I didn't already know). I can't help but notice things on the pages that I'm working through, though I notice them in fits and starts.

Yesterday's title, for instance, came off an early page in a music book we were examining. Another book in that group,
The Gleaner: A Miscellaneous Production in Three Volumes, By Constantia (1798), featured a character named "Flauntinetta," whose name ended up in the bottom corner of one page as a catchword, to tell the printer what needed to go at the beginning of the next page. So of course I couldn't ignore a catchword like Flauntinetta and proceeded to read, and then transcribe, the next page:
Flauntinetta, the long incorrigible Flauntinetta, became a widow; and both herself and children were totally destitute!! It was in the moment of her calamity, that the eyes of her understanding being opened, she consequently beheld the revered guardian of her youth, adorned with every virtue which can dignify humanity, and, once more sheltered under the maternal wing, she hath, at length, learned to estimate the value of rational tranquillity.
From then on, I picked up bits and pieces out of that book, as I picked through it, page by page, seeking out the details I actually needed for my homework. "Lucinda was her creditor." "Just returned from a tour of friendship." "The most rapt sensations rushed on my soul, while the poverty of words necessitated me to remain silent" (that's my favorite one). "The experience of every day evinces that humanity is subject to error." "but that pang was transient."

I could offer you more pieces of text, but instead I will draw this writing abruptly to a halt (because it's time to go learn about printing) and tell you that the pictures scattered through this post are also things I've been gleaning from the books, now that I've gotten the all-clear from my lab instructor to take whatever pictures I might want. The guy at the top of the page was my sign, last night, that the books were winning and it was time for me to go to sleep; but this morning, his puckishness is so friendly that I know I misinterpreted him. (It is possible that I had not yet read the right books to interpret his looks.) The volcano in the middle, well, how can you not take a picture of a volcano when it shows up in the middle of a black letter volume? And I just liked this pair.

You'll undoubtedly get more book snippets from me before this week is out; my eye doesn't seem to want to stay fixed only on what I'm meant to see. In other words, I am seeing those things, plus all manner of others. And it will come as little surprise to those of you who know me well that I am utterly in paradise.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

From what do varieties of measure arise?

I take my title (so as not to keep you in suspense) from The Golden Harp, or Boston Sacred Melodist, one of the books I collated for this morning's lab session.

A combination of counting leaves, inspecting papers, feeling animal hides (used for bindings, bien sur), and drinking a good caffeinated beverage after each of these activities has left me feeling expansive beyond myself, desrious of writing at least two poems before doing some homework before having dinner in ninety minutes. So, let me take this quick pause to show you my favorite images from yesterday.

The icon of the "academical village"

Early evening in the Rotunda

My favorite entry in the "I Saw You" column of the Charlottesville Hook's personals section

The view from my dorm room

A somewhat skeptical title-bearer in one of the books I collated (correctly, even!) last night

I have high hopes of getting actual, reflective prose to you all sometime soon. But it might be later than I'd like, rather than sooner. I know you understand. I'm repriming the pump. Expect intense goodness (and/or good intensity) in the near future.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Ways that I loved the 456 miles to where I'm now sitting.

Singing along, for one thing, and in that many miles, one can listen to quite a lot, and then listen to it again. Issuing dispatches from my driving self to my poet and critic selves (by way of my iPod+iTalk combination). Grinning and even laughing a bit to myself about feeling so very much as though I were on the lam, slicing southward alone, even though I was actually driving a longish haul to bibliography camp. Getting sunwashed, just enough to pink-glow my nose and chest and to give me abundance of more freckles on my left arm.

But mostly, looking:

(Mossy and Oak Hill, it turns out, are separate places in West Virginia.)

Later, I'll offer some pictures of where I'm calling from (room 33 on the West Lawn at the University of Virginia, for those of you keeping score at home; room 13 was Poe's, during the short time he was here). You can expect me to be probably at least a day behind, this week, while I'm cramming my head and my fingers even more full of format and collation and foliation and pagination and patterns and pattern-breaking. Here, everyone is a bibliophile. Here, we get to roughhouse (gently) with old books. Here, I think I'm going to start sleeping soundly again, under the enormous fan and behind the screen-shutter-doors of this historic accommodation. In my optimism, I've even brought along the books I haven't been able to make progress in reading, all these intense and far-flinging weeks: Dillard, Ammons, Stern, Whitman, Faulkner, Keats, Plato. In my optimism, I am carrying my poetry notebook and my camera. In my optimism, I've brought my bocce set and my new dress, the black-on-black one with the pockets, and my dangly necklace and my sparkly shoes. For the one thing I know is that one never, ever knows, and there is that Thursday evening antiquarian bookseller expedition to anticipate.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Two sweet songs for my road trip.

I feel no small trepidation about posting poems while this hilarity is ongoing (be sure to read the comments; I defy you not to chortle in your chair, even if you don't know all the originals--or even if you not only know but also revere all the originals). I don't want these two poems to get tagged when I mean them in such great earnest (even though I think that #1 would actually be a great candidate for the joke). But I'm going to brave the danger anyhow, never having been one to let my earnestness get in the way of a terrific joke, or vice versa. (One reason I like the joke so much, by the way, is that it reminds me of a grad school friend who suggested that all dissertation titles should end with the words "Who knew?"--as in, "Figurations of Masculinity in Romantic Poetry: Who Knew?"; "Lacanian Theory Goes to the Movies: Who Knew?"; and so on.)

Without further ado:

The One Thing in Life

Wherever I go now I lie down on my own bed of straw
and bury my face in my own pillow.
I can stop in any city I want to
and pull the stiff blanket up to my chin.
It's easy now, walking up a flight of carpeted stairs
and down a hall past the painted fire doors.
It's easy bumping my knees on a rickety table
and bending down to a tiny sink.
There is a sweetness buried in my mind;
there is water with a small cave behind it;
there's a mouth speaking Greek.
It is what I keep to myself; what I return to;
the one thing that no one else wanted.

The Sweetness of Life

After the heavy rain we were able to tell about the mushrooms,
which ones made us sick, which ones had the dry bitterness,
which ones caused stomach pains and dizziness and hallucinations.

It was the beginning of religion again--on the river--
all the battles and ecstasies and persecutions
taking place beside the hackberries and the fallen locust.

I sat there like a lunatic,
weeping, raving, standing on my head, living
in three and four and five places at once.

I sat there letting the wild and domestic combine,
finally accepting the sweetness of life,
on my own mushy log,
in the white and spotted moonlight.

--Gerald Stern

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Traveling explosions.

Through the night, I slept like a fretful thing. The rain started to fall sometime in deepest dark; I think I woke to it three, maybe four times. After the second of these awakenings, around 5 a.m., I thought I was awake for good. The last time I had that experience was during the summer of my dissertation, when I awoke in a situation that I had, in that instant of awakening, outgrown. That morning, I crept out to the kitchen, made a pot of coffee, watched the blue backyard, and then wrote, wrote my heart out, wrote my heart, wrote my way to my new life.

Today, I did sleep again after 5 a.m.

In my dream, I encountered two celebrities who recently had a child that no one has yet seen; we were in the living room of my high school best friend's house when I asked this famous purported mother about her child. "We're getting a divorce," she whispered to me. Later, I drove my car through a rural place a bit like the roads east of Gambier. No one else was around. As I drove, there was suddenly an explosion and an enormous plume of black smoke beside a farmhouse at the left side of the road. The house's dilapidated barn caught fire. I pulled my car off into the hayfield at the right side of the road--or so I thought; when I returned to it a few minutes later, it was still in the middle of the rural highway I'd been traveling--and ran to find someone who could help. No one could help. I gave up and fled the scene. I spent the rest of the dream--even the part where I went to the strange bar/bowling alley and walked between some children and their horseshoe game's target; even the part where I went to the vintage store and found it staffed by a whole group of people vaguely my own age who seemed interesting but away from whom I walked instantly--wandering, fearful of the police, fearful that I'd be implicated in what had blown up. I should note that when I returned to my car after the abortive attempt to find help right after the explosion, I discovered that several other houses near that stretch of road had also been burned. I should note that the art house movie theater that I discovered in the same town with the vintage store and the bar/bowling alley was showing
Paradise Regained.

I should note that the rural vistas in my dream were the very stuff of hopeless beauty and implacable longing.

I should note that, despite my dream, I managed to get a couple more hours of sleep but that I've now given it up.

Friday, July 21, 2006

How empty can a fullness be?

That's the question for your consideration this evening. I am in high-order bibliographic training right now, suffering lots of my old student anxieties. And today has been particularly wrenching, in a way that you'll understand best, perhaps, if I tell you that when I looked out my car window and saw this image earlier today, it felt like a recognition, the making manifest of a gathering inner blank:

Fortunately, though many things are lost, many others remain, and some turn out to be not so much lost as transmuted, which is its own decidedly non-blank blessing. And so the question pivots on itself to become "How full can an emptiness be?" I think these two are inextricable. They certainly are for me, certainly for today.

I'm hoping that my writing here will be decidedly more full (though perhaps not empty-full) again very soon, but it may get quieter for a little while, first. There are all these book details to know and to wield, you see. But first, there's all this fatigue to be slept away.

Thursday, July 20, 2006


Today, so much heat, smoldering and steaming and sweating the life out of the morning and early afternoon. By noon I was in a second change of clothes. And then the gather, the grumble, the release of a storm. We settled down to a hazy, humid evening; at dusk, the western vista was dark trees on a distant hill, silhouetted in shimmer, the air's own whitened setting. The humidity combined with a strange concatenation of emotion and attention and energy swirling today; it's all left me drawn out beyond myself, threaded too thinly, feeling too much, knowing too little, unable to say enough if even I could figure out what to say at all.

At tonight's poetry reading, I inadvertently managed to ink up my own hand and arms, somehow just right for the text I have always been becoming.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Blooming clematis!

Indeed, such a goodness that tonight's writing gets an exclamation point. On either side of my garage door are little trellises with generally sickly looking vines crawling on them. In the spring, my landlord cut the vines all the way to the ground. They promptly started growing back, once they'd been shorn of all their dead encumbrance. And last night, getting in the car to leave for dinner at my favorite mid-Ohio restaurant, I realized that the western clematis, the one that gets the most light, has bloomed.

The following story has nothing to do with my quiet adoration of these moon-soft flowers, but I'll tell it anyhow: When I was looking at graduate schools, I stayed with a woman who told me about how her mother, a fervent gardener, got so flustered while explaining sex to her that she said, "And then there's your clematis..." leaving my host to say, "I have a flower?" (Just when you thought that rhetoric was so outworn as to be of no use!)

When I moved to Ithaca, I was certain I would be a terrific gardener. I bought pots of yellow yarrow while I was still in Indiana; I spent a few of my first days in town breaking earth and laying down a brick border and weeding and prepping the most beautiful, rich soil I'd ever seen. I planted the yarrow. I planted some bulbs later in the fall. The next summer, I bought coneflowers, zinnias, impatiens, black-eyed susans, gerbera daisies, and some more yarrow. And bee balm. I laid them all out in the bed so that the right plants would be in the shade at the right time, so that the sun-loving things could climb and grow and thrive. I cut beautiful bouquets all summer long. I watered and kept up with the weeding.

But when the summer ended, I abandoned the garden. Because some of the things I'd planted were perennials, I still had plants and flowers the next summer. But the weeds were formidable--the soil was, as I've said, the richest I've ever seen, and my backyard was full of this very strange weed that reminded me of a carrot gone horribly wrong: its roots were hot orange and everywhere. It was impossible to eradicate. And then the strange weedy trees started growing, and it was all over, another of my sad stories of neglected growth.

I bring that old garden up because one of my dreams, when I first moved to Ithaca, had been to plant heliotropic flowers--particularly morning glories--so that I could watch them open and turn toward the sun every day, before folding in upon themselves at dusk. It has recently been pointed out to me that I attribute human emotions, particularly tender ones, to all manner of non-human things. I don't take umbrage with this observation; I believe that I do invest all manner of things with lives and ongoing stories. Perhaps this makes me a personifier. And somehow, the idea of watching the deep purples and blues of morning glories unfold and refold daily made me feel as though my new life in Ithaca would be one of strong tenderness and tenacious delicacy. I never really considered moonflowers. I'm not sure that I'd ever heard of moonflowers.

It is true that I am in love with so many things (including, now, the entry for "misprint" in my ABC for Book Collectors, in which every instance of "misprint" is misspelled: misprimp, mosprint, misprant, &c.). The lightly soft lavender of these flowers' petals has officially joined the list. Fresh blueberries, now available cheap, have been on for nearly a decade. Grilled sirloin sandwiches on seeded semolina bread on the porch at 3 p.m.? New to the list. Grilled mushrooms? On the list since before I can remember. Evening cool after a day when Weather Underground told me the temperature topped 100? Yes, please.

Now it's time to stroll out into that cool, enjoying the freedom to move without perspiring.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Oh, I know it's too soon.

We just had a personals day, after all. But these just arrived, and they are too good not to share.

Monday, July 17, 2006

I make no form of formlessness.

I have told you briefly, before, about how glad I am to have been at Cornell at the same time as Archie Ammons, even if I didn't know him. The semester after his death, I was assigned to his office with several other graduate instructors who were only teaching during the fall semester. I spent a lot of that semester thinking about Archie's absence.

This morning, I came across his poem "Corsons Inlet" in the Poetry Daily Archive (a great resource, by the way). I know that I have read this poem in the past, but it had a lovely, thrilling effect on me all over again this morning, making me realize that I must never really have known the poem before.

In the poem, the speaker recalls his morning walk. Here are two of my favorite bits, along with a link to the whole poem. (My copy of Ammons's Collected Poems 1951-1971 is stuck full of black and white snapshots I took on my way home from campus one snowy, icy evening while I was writing my dissertation. I know that one reason I love Ammons is that he and his verses so loved a place that I have loved so much too.)

from Corsons Inlet

the walk liberating, I was released from forms,
from the perpendiculars,
        straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds
of thought
into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends
                  of sight:

                        I allow myself eddies of meaning:
yield to a direction of significance
like a stream through the geography of my work:
      you can find
in my sayings
                       swerves of action
                       like the inlet's cutting edge:
                  there are dunes of motion,
organizations of grass, white sandy paths of remembrance
in the overall wandering of mirroring mind:

but Overall is beyond me: is the sum of these events
I cannot draw, the ledger I cannot keep, the accounting
beyond the account:

(and then, the end of the poem)

                I see narrow orders, limited tightness, but will
not run to that easy victory:
                still around the looser, wider forces work:
                I will try
          to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening
scope, but enjoying the freedom that
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,
that I have perceived nothing completely,
                that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.

-- A. R. Ammons

You should go read the rest of the poem. I have given you only the briefest of tastes.

The diagrams of formes and impositions I studied today make my head spin; two nights ago, I dreamed that I was sitting a massive math exam--on beyond calculus, even--because that's what so much of this bibliography material feels like to me. It's not an unwelcome feeling. Sometimes I miss using that part of my brain on a regular basis, I for whom numbers and formulae also used to sing.

As if on cue, the buzzer on my dryer alerts me that I should be folding clothes now.

source for tonight's image: New Jersey's Department of State's Archive.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The cool of stars.

We are on our way into the hottest days of the summer this week, the weatherpeople tell us; tonight, my house is a good number of degrees hotter inside than the outside air, and so I'm trying to air everything out before heading to sleep. One lovely thing about days as hot as we've had lately can be (but isn't always) the relief of the evening's cool. Walking home from having done some reading at the bookstore, I realized with pleasure that my bare arms were almost cold, swinging through the night air. And when I arrived at home and got away from the street's canopy of lights and leaves, I realized how profoundly visible the stars are tonight. And so, bien sur, I got out my tripod, lengthened the shutter speed on the camera, and took you a picture. (I took it particularly for you city-bound folks.)

It's not a fantastic night shot, I know. You might have to turn off the lights where you are, if you want to see the stars against all that black. But they're there. Click on the image to see it larger, and you'll maybe see more than just the one near the bottom of the image. And now fill in all those dark spaces with a plethora of smaller, lighter stars, and you'll have some sense of the sky under which I sit tonight, reading about imposition and gearing up for a hot, hot day tomorrow. For now, there's no haze, no heat, no hurry. Just night, and cool, and stars, and a fervent hope for universal clarity and moves toward benevolence.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

A personal matter.

If you were here, and if you cared to hear, I could tell you about what I learned today about hand-press (as opposed to machine-press) books, about chain lines and wire lines on laid paper, about how difficult it can be to determine the format of a book printed on wove paper with no watermark, and about the different ways of producing a duodecimo (or twelvemo) gathering. It has, in other words, been a day of intellectual ferment, one of those days when I actually had to create a tiny octavo gathering in order to understand what an instructional video was trying to tell me about how that format's pagination works. Now I'm on to reading about type--how it's cast, how it's put together, how it's described.

Now, the waning moon is rising yellowly over the fields, into the clear sky that has somehow followed a sweltering, blue-hot day. And because I'm not writing much to you this evening, I'll give you two images, one for decoration and one for amusement. Tomorrow, more.

Friday, July 14, 2006

A farewell and a reunion.

Tonight we had our second tornado warning of the week, which made for some exciting post-dinner, pre-dessert ping pong action in my excellent friends' basement. Unlike Monday's storm, this one actually passed right through Gambier, and though it seems not to have spawned tornadoes, it did pour forth some serious flooding in this area. Now, the stars are back out; my walk home from dinner took me through a world of earnest waterdropping from trees, ceilinged by pale summer stars.

During the afternoon, on my way to the library, I stopped yet again to visit the tree. Sometime between 9:30 p.m. yesterday and 2 p.m. today, the tree crew returned to take away or grind up the rest of the tree's remains. There's not much left. What you can see in this image is the capital from one of the columns on the original version of the building in the background; the building burned in the nineteenth century and was duly rebuilt. The capital has sat under our now-gone tree throughout my relationship with Kenyon. One of my favorite pictures of myself with my brother has us sitting back to back on that capital just after my baccalaureate, those many years ago.

When I talked to her about the tree this morning, my excellent friend suggested a third poem that I will now add to yesterday's group. This one is William Cowper's "Yardley Oak" (1791). The poem is too long to give you in full, but I'll offer a few segments. Alas, there seems to be no e-text of this one to which I can send you; you'll have to hunt down Cowper's poetry in volumes if you want more.

Yardley Oak

Survivor sole, and hardly such, of all
That once lived here thy brethren, at my birth
(Since which I number threescore winters past)
A shatter'd vet'ran, hollow-trunk'd perhaps
As now, and with excoriate forks deform,
Relicts of Ages! Could a mind imbued
With truth from heav'n created thing adore,
I might with rev'rence kneel and worship Thee.
It seems Idolatry with some excuse
When our forefather Druids in their oaks
Imagin'd sanctity. (ll. 1-11)
                    Oh could'st thou speak
As in Dodona once thy kindred trees
Oracular, I would not curious ask
The Future, best unknown, but at thy mouth
Inquisitive, the less ambiguous Past.
By thee I might correct, erroneous oft,
The Clock of History, facts and events
Timing more punctual, unrecorded facts
Recov'ring, and mis-stated setting right.
Desp'rate attempt till Trees shall speak again! (ll. 40-49)
Change is the diet on which all subsist
Created changeable, and Change at last
Destroys them. Skies uncertain, now the heat
Transmitting cloudless, and the solar beam
Now quenching in a boundless sea of clouds,
Calm and alternate storm, moisture and drought,
Invigorate by turns the springs of life
In all that live, plant, animal, and man,
And in conclusion mar them. Nature's threads,
Fine, passing thought, ev'n in her coarsest works,
Delight in agitation, yet sustain
The force that agitates not unimpaired,
But worn by frequent impulse, to the cause
Of their best tone their dissolution owe. (ll. 72-85)
So stands a Kingdom whose foundations yet
Fail not, in virtue and in wisdom lay'd,
Though all the superstructure by the tooth
Pulverized of venality, a shell
Stands now, and semblance only of itself.
Thine arms have left thee. Winds have rent them off
Long since, and rovers of the forest wild
With bow and shaft, have burnt them. Some have left
A splinter'd stump bleach'd to a snowy white,
And some memorial none where once they grew.
Yet Life still lingers in thee, and puts forth
Proof not contemptible of what she can
Even where Death predominates. The Spring
Thee finds not less alive to her sweet force
Than yonder upstarts of the neighbour wood
So much thy juniors, who their birth received
Half a millenium since the date of thine.
          But since, although well-qualified by age
To teach, no spirit dwells in thee, seated here
On thy distorted root, with hearers none
Or prompter save the scene, I will perform
Myself, the oracle, and will discourse
In my own ear such matter as I may. (ll. 120-142)
-- William Cowper

There's more, of course; you can see from the line numbers I've offered that there's much more, and the poem continues beyond this ending. But these are the bits of it that I like best, at least on first read, and that I think you might like picking through. This one is different from what I usually offer, of course; for one thing, it might be the oldest piece of poetry I've put before you. Find the lines whose sounds and ideas you like best.

At least there weren't small children frolicking in the sawdust and woodchips today.

And just yesterday evening, as I headed south to see the tree's stump, I rediscovered an old friend whose eulogy I had also been meditating. Whoever brings him back after he's been away for awhile must, I think, have some kind of link to my brain, in order to know just when I'm getting most fearful that he's gone for good.

Once again, tonight, I feel so exhausted that I could just drop, and so I think I will. A piece of breakfast pie (lemon meringue, a gift from a student who went home today, the summer session over) awaits me in the refrigerator. Such a thing is always good to know before bed.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Requiem for a tree; or, trees I have loved, redux.

Back in March, as you may recall, I told you about my history with sycamore trees, including the enormous sycamore across the street from downtown Gambier. That night, I didn't tell you about Gambier's other extraordinary trees: the Upside-Down Tree (which is, I believe, some kind of beech), the Marriage Tree (which, alas, was split in two during a storm several summers ago; its south half remains, listing and incomplete, loss incarnate), and the giant oak tree (which, as far as I know, never had a name). This afternoon, rounding the corner of the library after a field trip over the county line to eat pie (and to get a quick gander at the outside of a "Toppless Bar"), I realized something was terribly wrong. A crew of men in hardhats gathered in an area demarcated with yellow tape and nylon rope. Limbs already littered the ground. A crane stood by, temporarily disused. And towering above it all, what was left of one of our oldest trees--a tree whose age I've heard as both 250 and 350 years old.

The tree has been leaning eastward and looking vaguely threatened and threatening for no small time. But I was stunned to see a landmark like this one coming down without any announcement to my community. I have sat in breeze and shade under this tree on quiet afternoons and evenings, practicing thinking quietly and doing nothing; I have been photographed under this tree with family members; I have stopped and listened for birds in its highest branches; I have greeted it in passing to and from classes across campus from my office. This tree has been part of my life for more than a decade. Had I known it was coming down this afternoon, I would have sat under it one more time, or embraced it, or given it a kiss goodbye--anything to recognize the strong beauty it has been in my landscape during both of my Gambier lifetimes.

As it was, I made it to the tree's deathbed in time to get some pictures of its last moments, and to hear the cruelly diminutive sound it made when the man with the chainsaw finally completed his cut. I had been about to open my computer and start alerting people to the tree's impending downfall when I realized that it would be impending for only a few more seconds. And then the tree was on the ground, while those angels callously continued their cold frolics, as though nothing had happened.

By this point, I was sitting on the ground, watching and shooting and wanting to shout. Others from the community had gathered around, but there was no collective response, no ceremony. Instead, we all sat and stood silently. I suspect everyone was more than a little bit shocked. This tree was older--by far--than the college.

In recognition of the tree's demise, my young poet friend sent along the poem that came to his mind:

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

-- Philip Larkin

And I remembered the first poem I ever had to memorize:


I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

-- Joyce Kilmer

Even these poems together didn't seem a fitting tribute to the tree, though--especially since I'm not especially taken with the Kilmer poem, if ever I were, though I do like stanzas 1, 2, and 5 quite a lot--and so at about 8:30 p.m., I headed toward south campus, camera in hand, hoping to say a better goodbye. As I approached, however, I found that a summer group that has taken over much of the campus had spilled onto the tree; several ten-year-old boys were standing on and around the stump of what had been majesty, and they were striking it with the longest pieces of itself they had been able to find. I contemplated what would be best to do and decided just to wade into the tree's pieces and ignore the small boys. They stayed out of the way of my picture-taking; when one of them wondered aloud how many rings the tree had, I told him it was probably around 300. Mostly, I wanted to accost the adults who were vaguely watching these children and to tell them to teach the children some respect for this kind of loss. And yet I didn't.

I did do three things, however. I got pictures of the stump, and I believe (though I am no tree scientist) that these pictures suggest that the tree really was ailing, which somehow makes me feel a bit better about its having been felled.

And I picked up a few pieces of the tree for my own safe-keeping.

And I said goodbye.