Friday, June 27, 2014

A New Poem At Last

Papillons en liberté

         –Montreal Botanical Gardens, May 2014

My wife of these thirty-odd short years
(why can’t there be thirty more?) and I
look down on a riffled pool
that forms from a man-made flume and shines
under man-made greenhouse light.  These butterflies

have hatched in all their many scores.
We watch them dip and rise among
bright, quick-bursting bubbles. 
Spring blooms surround us in pent profusion.
We smile to recall the words of her sister’s son,

now far from the small blond child who spoke them:
Do butterfries fry good? he asked me.
We repeat the cute question as one.
In the wild some of them “fry” 3000 miles.
I know that’s true, but almost think it can’t be:

They’re swept off-course by the paltry air
stirred by their visitors’ ahs and oohs.
Still I know it won’t do, the trite equation
of frail and lovely. They’re tough. It must
be fleetingness that floors me. That’s what shows.

I’ve learned some names today: blue morpho,
and you, rice paper, all but translucent,
and postman, you, whose very name
now sounds so quaint, so obsolescent.
Hello-goodbye. Nice to have met you.

Monday, June 16, 2014

On Bibliodiversity

I recently came on this short reverie, which I'd committed to the page in anticipation of completing a collection of unfashionable essays. Its opinions may well belong to a man of 71 (68 back when he wrote it) who is set in his ways and who bristles at change. In fact, that's exactly to whom it belongs. Make of that what you will.

 On Bibliodiversity

            I am no theorist, nor even a man who thinks well about philosophy, politics, or social policy in their broader avatars.  My testimony, then, is only that of a writer devoted for the most part to ‘minor’ genres.
            There I stood at the top of a small local mountain in rural Vermont, where I live, the snow  deep, brilliant, crossed only by tracks of deer and coyote .  I was 68 years old, and had  just sold my ninth book of poems to an independent publisher, its editor/director the most sensitive and competent I’ve known. 
            There was some satisfaction in that, but just then another project announced itself to me: a book of essays on certain people and landscapes of  Vermont, and of a place in remote Maine where my family has had a fishing camp for four generations. 
            Many of those people would be well over a hundred if they still lived, men and women so attuned to their backwoods environments that in memory I still find it hard to tell in their cases where human nature ends and actual nature takes over. 
            Their culture and particularly their narrative skills have all but disappeared now, none of them left a written account of those lives and times, yet they had meant so much to me as man and artist that I felt I owed them a tribute.
            An evil voice asked, Who will publish a book like that?
            A better voice replied, It’s what you want to write, so write it!
            As it happens, a certain New York house has since that morning expressed interest in that very volume. This is a ‘niche’ publisher, which caters to readers with similar enthusiasms to mine –canoeing, fishing, hiking, hunting.  There appear to be enough of them that  the house can survive on sales alone.
            To most publishers of poetry, non-academic literary criticism, personal essay and short fiction, however, government support is increasingly crucial, and here’s the rub:  the American hagiography of– The Market.  Despite the fact that unfettered U.S. capitalism lately produced disastrous effects at home and worldwide, an article of Market Faith is that  if it sells in plenty, then it must be valuable.  Efforts, especially from the Republican party, to stifle the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, crucial supporters of work that does not meet the market standard of value, are therefore unrelenting.
            Given the Latin etymology of the word, with its emphases on saving and
together, it strikes me as bizarre that the congregants in this faith regard
themselves as ‘conservatives.’
            As I stood on my snowy eminence, I remembered doing so on other hills when I lived farther south in the state.  From there, my prospect today would be onto out-of- scale new houses ... or else much older ones, lived in by single families for generation upon generation but now belonging to relocated suburbanites, who have entirely altered them and their surroundings. These newcomers seem oddly intent on transforming what they fled to into what they fled from.
            In a word, downriver from me a demographic revolution has occurred, native families –the ones so brilliantly limned by Robert Frost– forced out, consumerist culture imported, along with such notions as that no real town can endure without a five star restaurant, and so on.  
            This is conservatism, this sundering of community and tradition?
           A warning about the extinction of upper New England’s hill people may have less glamor than an elegy on the indigenous people, say, of the Amazon basin;  and yet the juggernaut of The Market and of Globalization is assaultive of both.
            Where am I going with such apparent divagation?  Well, the social transmogrification to which I’ve alluded in Frost’s territory  (and in the Latin-American rain forest) makes a lot of money for certain non-local entrepreneurs.  Similarly, if one looks at the best seller list of the NY Times, one finds it dominated by what we call page-turners, books that have scant regard for felicities of style or intricacy of narrative but seek, in effect, to ape the pace, dazzle and formulaic quality of television, film, and now the so-called social networks and video games– in a word, books which, to the delight of large interests, sell in a hurry and in large numbers.  As with real estate, what makes the most money becomes what’s most important.
            And yet some of us keep insisting on writing and reading the ‘minor’ genres, on the related urgency of language both precise and lyrical; we go on living, at least metaphorically, in precious and vulnerable little houses, which may be razed or ‘refashioned’ when the global market’s juggernaut reaches them, as surely it must.
            With respect to writers and readers of  American poetry, for example, these little houses have been and become more and more the sort of little publishing houses that I have stuck with throughout my long career– with one disastrous exception: I once sold a collection of poems to a company,  only eight per cent of whose assets lay in  publishing as we once knew it; the corporation, or so I was told by my excellent editor there, actually had much more invested in food for pets than in poets.
            My book sold well by my measure...but not nearly well enough to avoid rather quick consignment to a shredder; the pages I’d labored on were then turned into paper towel (another of the company’s investments). That fine editor got fired, probably for taking too many books like mine.  The executive officers wanted an 18 percent return, and neither I nor my poetic fellows would be contributing much to that.
            I’ve never had such an experience with a small press ...and yet, as I have hinted, these presses are heavily dependent on financial support not only from individuals of means but also from state and federal governments.  It’s not hard to imagine what may become of them if the dismantlers of such support for the arts prevail.
            Of course it behooves these publishers, along with their writers and readers, to pressure political representatives for aid to our less commercially viable arts. But I suspect, to make an analogy, that just as many more people watched bear baiting in Shakespeare’s time than watched his great tragedies, so today the poet, the essayist, the short fictionist all appeal to constituencies whose political power is paltry when stacked up against The Market or Globalization or– what is for us the same thing in many respects–  the producers of those page-turners.
             Do I sound like a pessimist?  I am.
            Now it may well be that our future lies in the world of cybernetics: online publishing, electronic books, Google, what have you?  I am all but innocent of that world, my own computer, for example, serving me solely as a very high quality typewriter and a machine for sending and receiving e-mail.  So I can scarcely offer an opinion one way or another on such a score.
            If that is literature’s future, however, I may live long enough to miss the feel of an actual book in my hands, the capacity physically to turn its pages, back as well as forth, and to regard favorite old volumes as they in turn regard me from their shelves.  I'll miss  the tiny Woodsville Bookstore across the river in New Hampshire, from which I buy all my reading materials, and with whose cheerful and literate proprietor I share tips on new authors; the chain Leviathans will have forced such a shoestring operation into nonentity.
            As I stand and look out from any local promontory, it is all too easy to imagine an immense, garish and costly modern structure standing in the vista, like some grand Random House looming over the crumbling small houses and shops of my actual, my metaphorical, my spiritual village.


The prose volume I refer to was A North Country Life, since published by Skyhorse early in 2013. 

The Woodsville Bookstore I thought I'd miss somewhere down the road has already vanished. RIP.

Monday, June 9, 2014


This summer, my friend and fellow Vermonter Gary Miller (keep an eye out for his excellent forthcoming short fiction collection Museum of the Americas) will be running a weekly writing workshop for recovering opiate addicts at the Turning Point Center in Burlington. He has asked me, a person living in his own long-time recovery, to visit in July.

Drugs did play a part in my long addictive disaster, but only a comparatively small one. Nonetheless, and though some disagree, I believe addiction is addiction, addictive behavior addictive behavior, and that that behavior is hallmarked by persistent denial that any problem exists. The phrase I could quit anytime is repeated, daily and all over the world, by people who don't have the proverbial snowball's chance in hell of quitting without help.

One has to "bottom out," to recognize that he or she faces a problem unsolvable by his or her own personal resources, before anything like light will show at the end of that hideous tunnel. We must recognize that help is available, chiefly, from those who have passed from their pitiable, hopeless demoralization into a life where hope is a reality and not a mere concept.

I don't know what I'll talk about at the Turning Point next month. I've found it best in such a circumstance to show up– and  to be honest. For one like me, that's harder than it may sound, because it's too dangerously tempting to present a neat, coherent story– which can too often be no more, excuse me, than bullshit. We drunks and dope fiends, after all, have made a lifetime out of bullshitting ourselves, telling ourselves neat and clever stories, ones that have blinded us from crucial truths.

At the risk, however, of self-contradiction, I'll offer a story here. It's from an in-progress collection of short essays, one that deals, precisely, with the curse of denial.

Old Country Song

My pal George and I have been in recovery from booze for about the same span of time. The way he tells his own story, or stories, however, has for some reason always especially resonated with me. He remembers most vividly one particular night, and whenever he does, he says his guts twist again, and mine twist too.

He was playing pool, and he reports how he’d lost all feel for cue and ball. He was shooting with this friendly Indian guy named Dee at a gin mill in Wyoming. It’s easy enough to be friendly when you’re robbing another guy blind. For the five hundredth time he’d run way over his limit of gin. He recalls that the racket inside the barroom seemed loud, then soft, like the sea when it washes in and out.  He always shakes his head, which that night had turned to mush. Again.

He kept telling himself he could play this game, damn it all, if only his normal light touch hadn’t flown south.  Of course he knew it was wrong in the first place to be in that stinking hall, what with his wife back there at the Roundup Motel with their three-year-old son. 

That morning the little boy had said, Wyoming Friday is Japanese Tuesday.  Maybe his wife had told the kid how time changes around the world.  The child was heartbreak cute and all confused.  Who wasn’t? 

By George’s account, a tiny worm, one that could bite, hid under the clack of the balls and that ocean sound. The worm felt like conscience: this had been meant for a family trip. Still, too many years would go by before the damned worm got real big and gripped his neck and sat him down, and chewed right into his pride and broke him but good.

The worm would hiss and growl beside him when that time came; he’d be holding a handle jug of booze, a gun in the other hand; he’d be thinking about putting an end to everything. 

Just a few hours before the pool game, already wasted, his shaky morals gone, he’d tried to talk a barmaid into bedor into his car, actually.  But she’d had her eye on some other dude.  So what the hell?  He didn’t want her. Not now anyhow. 

All he wanted was the lightness of touch again. At various points, he swore he’d stay away from another drink just long enough to get himself straight and get back on his game, and that would mean this mess was over. He’d be there with the family, on vacation, out west. He flat knew the change he needed was coming, and soon. When it did, he’d take his money back and then some; every time he got beat he got surer of that. It was nuts. He was nuts. So he might as well drink. He had to, of course. Christ, it was what he did. 

He was too strong for the fucking tight pockets, strong off the banks, strong each time he hit a lot-of-green shot.  And he always seemed to get stuck behind the 8-ball.  Dee, his two-hour buddy, kept on being friendly, but why wouldn’t he be?  Dee knew the touch was gone, if it ever did exist.

George had to be done with all this. Then he’d haul his sad ass back to his wife and son.  But he kept drinking, putting the balls in the rack, sticking his glass on the rail, and setting himself up for good, hard breaks.