Friday, December 18, 2015

New book

Vermont's new maverick publisher, Green Writers Press, has released my collection of mini-essays (the longest in the book is four pages, most about the length of the two that follow here).

Some of these pieces began as "translations" into prose of certain older poems that had never found their rhythms. I had an intuition –whether accurate or not is for others to judge– that those poems would do better if presented in the more supple format of prose.

Whatever the case, if these attract you, go to my web site,, for ordering information.

Happy holidays!

Storytelling at the Res

Joe hopes he’s a good guy now, but by jollies he wasn’t a good one once. He says he even stole his own wife’s hairlong jewelry to pay off a deal.

I have to smile: hairlong.  

If you need a drink or drug, Joe continues, believe me, you’ll take what you got to take. Go ahead and rob your buddies or, like he just said, even your very own folks.   

Outside, cold rain is coming steadily, but it feels so warm indoors I’m afraid I’ll doze, even though I’m not exactly sleepy, and Joe’s story isn’t boring. Not at all.

There was a time he worked a big saw, he says, and the whole while plastered. It’s a wonder he never got himself or somebody wasted. There was a lot of days like that, and a lot in the joint too.  Once he broke a white cop’s arm with a tire iron. The cop and his pals didn’t like that, you can bet. 

Joe wears a raven feather in his hat, which he jokes about, telling how it shows he’s gotten better, because it sure isn’t no war bonnet. He tries to stay humble is what he’s saying, just that one feather. He prays all his war days are done for.  

Anybody else got something? he asks now. Everyone nods, but afterwards most just look shy and keep their mouths shut, except one guy in the room whose tribal name is See-Quickly, but people call him Jesse. He wears braids and has half an arm missing. He speaks up just enough to say he’s glad he’s out of prison. Again. I hear some scattered applause.   

They’s a bunch of other people not here, Joe says, some of them clean and sober for years. Then they disappear, and then you hear they’re locked up, or else dead.

What about you? Joe asks, looking at me, one of the few white guys.  What you got?

I try to say something, but it seems too hard to come up with anything but that I’m happy to be here, which I guess is true.   

No, no, don’t nobody feel on the spot, Joe continues, shaking his head, which makes his jowls shake too.  He’s just a guy himself with some habits. Like check out this gut– too many doughnuts.    

But doughnuts don’t make you lose it. I want to say that, because we are all in this place for being crazy once.  

You got something more, Jesse? Joe asks. Let’s hear about it. Once you put stuff right out in the open, see, that helps you get it out of your system.  You start in with that, then maybe you can get some healing.    

Jesse says, I don’t even own no hat, never mind some bonnet. I ain’t got shit.    

Joe calls that God’s will for now.     

So when I chopped off my arm at the mill, that was God working his ways on the res? Jesse asks Joe, but he isn’t pissed off; or anyhow he smiles.  

Joe knows Jesse didn’t mean anything bad. What happens, whatever it is, is what happens, he says. You might as well think there’s a reason for it. I mean, check around here. Joe nods his head at everyone in his seat. I look down at the floor when his eyes get to me. We’re supposed to be where we’re at.  I just call that a God deal, even when our asses get throwed in stir, maybe even if we’re killed. What do I know? I don’t know what God is, except He ain’t me. 

I wonder if what he says next might not just be right, and it could include me: we all went to different schools together. 

My trouble is, I want a story, and not just any story, but a knockout like Jesse’s. The fact that I keep looking for that sort of thing means maybe I’m not so much better than I was when I was using after all. I have to be a lunatic or just a fool to have wishes like that, to believe I haven’t been beat up enough to be interesting.

The blue tattoo on Jesse’s stub shows only the top halves of letters; I can’t make out the word they spell.

Surviving Romance

The world swelters, even at twilight on this August Sunday. My great love naps, her hair lank and humid across her forehead. The blunt protrusion of an empty wine bottle from last night’s party, which all day we have forgotten to clear away, bobs above the scratched rim of a bucket, its ice long gone liquid. How tempting it is for me to laze here too in the dank present.

It must be jelly, ‘cause jam don’t shake like that. Big Joe Turner’s figuration from my ancient turntable, the volume low, recalls not some erotic encounter but a dawn from years and years ago, which might seem to urge, Hurry back. I remember mornings then, the streets’ tar not yet a-shimmer with heat. Our family was passing two weeks in a rented seaside cottage.

Just a little boy, I’d race every day to the tide-washed beach to gather jellyfish, which lay bright as jewels in the sand– perfect, intact. I’d carry them home in a bucket, store them down-cellar until dark, then haul them up at about this very hour, stashing them under my bed. It made no sense, except that it did, to me.

Just under my bedroom’s floor, each night I’d hear my father rocking my mother in the bamboo glider. Soon, suddenly and mysteriously, their lively chatter subsided to indecipherable whispers. My crisp sheets wilted; cicadas droned; headlights circuited the walls.

While I slept, those parents drained my treasures into a canal beside the house. I wouldn’t learn they had done that until much later. It seems that the stench from the pail grew pretty awful by ten o’clock. They’d fill the bucket with water from that rank canal, explaining how jellyfish dissolve once they’re out of the sea.

An inexcusable lie, I suppose, but a dispiriting one. Every day, the same dreary routine: dissolution, vanished particularity. It all seemed tragic but unavoidable.

Since then, as for anyone, of course, experience has leached the glitter from other ruses as well. I have at times responded to all that with the same old disenchantment, as if most of what we men and women value will always trickle back to a native, general ocean. One assembles hopes or objects or affections or memories– and they all dissolve.

Yet some things are not so fugitive after all. I note the gray in my wife’s full hair, the slack of her jaw as she slumbers, and each appears a feature of the most beautiful creature I’ve ever imagined. Her length of limb and neck strike me as nigh miraculous.

My senses stir: a breeze comes in, stiffening from northwest now, and the day’s stifling vapor lifts. Outdoors, there is no miasma of mudflat, teeming canal, old fish; I hear no soporific hum of tires on pavement; I whiff the spice of evergreen, the deeper one of dark earth; the comical drone of a bullfrog reaches me from the pond.

I’d felt as though my very flesh were liquefied. Now, as that gathering wind caresses the curtains and my sweat dries, I stand and put a match to a candle on the table. Its slight flame leans inward. I imagine sharp stars. My love’s ring-gems glitter in the subtle light, as drops might on a window screen after rain. She seems a girl in such illumination; her eyes have that star-like glitter too, familiar and dear, as she wakes and smiles.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Remarks on David Rees Evans– and a new poem

Having lately been succeeded as my state's Poet Laureate by the excellent Chard de Niord, I am posting far less regularly here than once. But I will keep at it now and then for those who may be intrerested.

I'd like to comment first on the inauguration of David Rees Evans as the president of Southern Vermont College in Bennington. I had not known this impressive man prior to the ceremony last Friday, so was particularly honored that he asked me to read the title poem of my last collections, "I Was Thinking of Beauty," at the ceremony.

I am so glad to have been on hand for the most compelling inaugural speech I have ever heard.

Southern Vermont College is a small liberal arts institution, 65% of whose students are the first in their families to have gone on to post-secondary education. I had lunch with a number of undergraduates prior to Mr. Evans's investiture, and was impressed by their curiosity, ambition, and charm. The same for such of their teachers as I met. These qualities confirmed my view that the best students are the best students everywhere; they are not all to be found in the so-called selective places.

President Evans pointed out that these supposedly more elite colleges and universities have a way of educating their students to believe that their own successes are part of some natural order of things.
I know the justice of that argument, so to speak, from within, having attended such an  institution. And yet, by way of geography and of sharing hunting and fishing enthusiasms with many excellent people who never dreamed of higher education at all, I learned early on that the self-congratulation of privileged folks like me was not always deserved at all, that the social capital many of us inherited was the defining distinction between us and lots of hardworking, highly intelligent people, ones who often had skills as refined and crucial as any that we could boast. (Try fixing an electrical problem in your house, say, by way of your Ph.D. in art history.) Of course I can scarcely even sketch the president's argument in such short compass; but then again, I could not present it half so eloquently as he did anyhow.

I wish President Evans a long and productive tenure at SVC, a college that is striving to right some of the inequities I have hinted at.


In our house there is sadness that the older son of my wife's little sister is in a direc condition, owing to too many concussions. In his high school years, he was considered one of the best high school ice hockey players in the nation; however, before going on to college (and he'd have had his choice of many as a hockey recruit) he forswore the game, not least because one of his best friends and fellow players had been so badly brain-injured that ti took him an extended period even to be somewhat functional. Ironically enough, our nephew Danny finds himself in the same situation now. He is dropping perforce out of Colorado State, having suffered yet another concussion– in a neighborhood pickup game of all things, with small kids and geezers like me in the mix.

I was a hockey player myself, and have the missing upper teeth to prove it; but I was one of the lucky ones, escaping TBI in the course of my far less illustrious career. The following poem meditates on some of these matters:

         Clear and Cold

I don’t give a damn if that moon over our old valley
Looks twice the size of earth, if it crowds the sky,
Annihilating stars while I drive home unhappy
In a season after afternoons have died–

I will not write one word to praise this light,
Not with my nephew torqued in a hospital bed
By seizures after bashing his head on the ice
In a neighborhood shinny game, for the love of God,

Every college hockey coach in the nation
Had been looking at him with avaricious eyes.
But here he was whooping it up on school vacation
With guys my age and tottering kids on his side.

It doesn’t mean a thing, the stinking moon.
This child, a grown man now, has always been
The soul of sweetness. I couldn’t care less how huge
That fat lump of flotsam is. I’m thinking again

Of how one night, when his allergy to peanuts
Kicked in, the boy was loath to let anyone take him
To the oxygen tent and drugs at our backwoods clinic.
He hated to cause a bother. But he got taken.

The blue of his eyes seemed more vivid then for his fear–
Or ours. His hair shone gold as that ball up there.
And now these spasms, this pain, his parents’ despair.
I can’t rhapsodize on the moon, so candid and clear.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Poem in Honor of Vermont Arts Council's 50th Year

 As it happens, my passing the torch as Vermont Poet Laureate to the gifted Chard deNiord is contemporaneous with the celebration of the VAC's existence for half a century. I will read the following poem on November 2, when, at the Vermont College of the Fine Arts in Montpelier, Chard is invested and a variety of governor's awards for excellence in the arts are presented. The Council has, of course, been deeply involved in all these matters.

It's been a joy and a privilege.

                                    Mixed Figures:
           A Salute to the Vermont Arts Council in its 50th year

A certain girl once longed
                                                to dance, and likewise a boy.
She does, he does. There were women
                                                and men who ached to sing
or play or compose. They do.
                                                Writers and painters and sculptors
and actors all follow old urges.
                                                With every step or word 
or note or dab of color,
                                                each tap of a mallet, each weld,
our mountains record a thrill
                                                along their spines, a throb
that thrums as far to the east
                                                as the long tidal river and westward
to great Petonbowk, the lake
                                                we call Champlain. Our slopes
and intervals arrange
                                                themselves as a series of circles, 

each wider than one before,
                                                and at length as a single circle
around Derby Line and Dorset,
                                                Bondville, Bloomfield, Barre,
Cabot, Cuttingsville.
                                                St. Albans, Saxton’s River.
The rest.  How I mix my figures!
                                                I’m a man at greater loss
for persuasive words than ever ,
                                                seeking to render a force
beyond his skills at depiction.
                                                I jumble our commonwealth’s map,
muddle even the simplest forms,
                                                all that I yearn to capture
so vast and varied– the sounds,
                                                the phrasings, the light, the movement.
Yet my failings don’t really matter.
                                                As King Lear’s blind Duke said,
“I see it feelingly.”
                                                Don’t all of us feel and see it
in this room, this town, this state,
                                                that ineffable amalgam
of Vermonters’ multifold spirits,
                                                which surge through the artist’s existence?
And those who honor that artist–
                                                it’s every bit as alive 
in them. They come from every
                                                walk– every flight of life.
They glide silent into the voices
                                                of horn and string; they shine,
however unnoticed, in brilliance
                                                of marble or metal or pigment; 
their indiscernible steps
                                                enliven the steps of the dancers;
they mutely charge an author’s
                                                forays into expression,
all of us fired and braced
                                                by this crucial collaboration.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

New book

 On November 12, I will launch my new book of essays, What's the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long, with a reading at the Phoenix Book Store in Burlington, Vermont.

The book is nothing if not eccentric, in that it consists of about seventy essays, the longest of which is four pages. Others, like the one below, tend to be in the one- or two-page category. If there is a binding concern in the collection it is this: to what degree does my version of "reality" conform to some other putative version? Clearly the incident I describe in "Short Sad Story," for instance, shows a disconnect in that regard, shows me behaving with inappropriate certainty to a circumstance that I didn't begin to understand.

Please buy the book at your local indie shop or from the Phoenix itself. I prefer avoiding amazon, though, having bought local, you might write a favorable amazon review if so inclined. To use Phoenix, go to

Short Sad Story

As he pushed open the door of room 116 at the Longhorn Motel, I noticed the stranger’s befuddled grin. “Oh, this is–” he mumbled, trailing off, backing out. I had hours to wait before I flew back east from Denver, so, seated at a chipped Formica table, I’d been trying, with small success, to rough out a piece of writing. As if it would help my efforts, I locked the door against further distractions, even benign ones like this petty mistake.

A few minutes later, however, the knob began to rattle. I slid the bolt. “What’s the matter?” I snapped when I saw the same man standing there. “Can’t you read numbers? One-One-Six. That’s me, not you.” The other didn’t appear to hear. He leaned against the door with one shoulder, cradling an ill-sorted bunch of clothes in both hands.

“Get the hell out of here!” I snapped, because he started directly to lean against me. The interloper was a younger but smaller man than I. Putting  my forearms against his chest, I shoved him hard, so that he fell outside onto the lot’s asphalt, a plaid pajama top flying one way, a gravy-stained shirt the other, and a sock landing over both eyes like a flimsy blindfold. Even masked, his face wore that silly smile. It might have been a comical sight otherwise. I relocked my door.

My writing continued to go nowhere at all, so, in spite of the time gaping before me, I decided to repack my own clothes. Then I shaved, though I really didn’t need to. I couldn’t make those minor chores last long, however, and soon I headed for the lobby to grab a cup of coffee from the motel’s vending machine. On my way, I spotted the erratic fellow once more. He was up on his feet at the very spot where I’d bowled him over, his odd bundle of garments re-gathered, the smile still showing, though not directed at anyone or anything in particular, least of all at the one who’d shoved him.

I asked the desk clerk. “What the hell’s the story with that guy?”

“Seems like he’s lost,” the clerk answered. “I gave him the key to room 124, but he keeps tellin’ me he needs to get into 116.”

“My room,” I mused, obviously.

 “I figure he’s drunk as a skunk,” the clerk snarled, turning brusquely back to his affairs.

I went out for breakfast, dawdling for more than an hour over my meal and small talk with the sweet old waitress at a beanery called The Country Fare. When I returned to the Longhorn, I found the showroom-clean, white Ford 150 still parked in front of 116, but its owner was nowhere to be seen. I stepped into the motel lobby again.

“What became of our friend?” I asked. The clerk said he’d found him in some other room, not 116 but not 124 either, the room he’d been assigned. Apparently, all he could say was, “I’m waiting for my daughter.”

In the end, not knowing what else to do, the clerk had called the police. In due course, the cops summoned the EMTs.

I don’t know what happened after that, because I left for my flight, much earlier than I needed to. On the way to the airport in the rental car, seated by the gate, airborne, and all through the long drive northward to Vermont after touchdown, I couldn’t help feeling rotten about having heaved that guy onto his backside. I understood why guilt might bother me as it did; but I couldn’t quite sort out the other ways I felt. I tried to console myself, of course. How, after all, could I have known that the trespasser was not of sound mind?

Yet almost a year later, I still sense that same mix of guilt and whatever else may be. If anything, my trouble of spirit has strengthened, broadened, as if it may last me lifelong. Perhaps at least I can write about it. Maybe I have always written about it in some vague way. Whatever it is.

I remember arriving at our house that night, dog-tired in body and heart, and, right after supper with my wife, going up to bed; but a more powerful memory is of a dream I had some time toward dawn, in which that wonderful wife stood by me and the second of our three daughters before a bonfire we’d lit at the end of our woodlot road. A quiet bliss pervaded the vision, or rather a feeling like the peace that the apostle Paul describes, which passeth all understanding.

For a moment, still pretty much asleep, I guess, I arrived at the warming conclusion that such peace might actually remain in the world even after I left it, and that somehow it could be available to any person sufficiently needing it. Coming to, I felt desolate to recognize my fantasy as just that.

There had been times when I needed such peace for myself, and there would be other times to come. I knew as much. I hoped it would be accessible again, though I understood I couldn’t simply will it into being.

I didn’t think of the smiling man at the Longhorn right away, though shortly I realized I might have.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Why Poetry, of All Careers?

People have often asked me, of course, why I chose poetry as my principal vocation. I like to joke that it's all about money, women, and fame...which is, of course, just that: a joke. The best-selling poets in America would do well to attract more readers than a last-place major league baseball team might draw in late September of a hopeless season. 

So there have to be other motives. I could go on at length about these, but I'll try to distill my thoughts here.

I came to poetry late, not publishing my first collection until I was forty. Prior to that, I had striven to be a conventional academic, though from the start somehow, the whole effort felt a little misguided. I didn’t know why for some time.

In 1970, I was asked to teach a section of Dartmouth College’s first-ever creative writing course, not because of my credentials– I had none– but because the then chair of my department, a good guy indeed, imagined the gig would give me time to finish up my Ph.D. dissertation, as I had not yet done. This would not after all be a “real course,” he assured me, demanding neither class preparation nor any scrupulous commentary on the students’ work.

And yet in teaching that course (I use the verb loosely), I felt the return of an old itch to write, one I’d experienced in my undergrad days, when I composed quite a number of short stories. None of these was created for a course, because there were no writing courses in the early 60s where I went to school either. In the interest of economy, I won’t go into my reasons for responding to that impulse by choosing poetry over fiction. Suffice it to say that I did so choose, and though I have written a novel and five collections of personal essays since, poetry has remained my chief métier.

A different and less good-guy department chair eventually came to me and indicated that, although my rep as a teacher was pretty good, Dartmouth had now become a publish-or-perish institution. When I noted that my first poetry collection was under contract, this fellow, not quite concealing his smirk, suggested that, just as creative writing was not a “real” course, a book of poems did not constitute “real” publication.

I’d finished my dissertation by then. In it, I’d sought to ape the suddenly voguish theoretical posture. For such a reason, it remained an obscure screed, even to its author, whose inclinations were and are, non-, even anti-theoretical. I decided nonetheless to mine the paper for a few scholarly articles (at that time, one didn’t have to compose books to meet the publishing requisite), but on reconsidering my own prose, I felt something very like nausea. I recall saying right out loud, “This is not what I want to do when I grow up.” I resolved to go on writing verse and to let the chips fall where they might.

I was denied tenure at Dartmouth, but was quickly hired at Middlebury, which had something of a history of writer-professors. This was a better fit. But no matter: the real question was, why should scholarship have seemed a pursuit ill-suited to me? I’ve thought the matter over many times. It was not because I felt contempt for scholarly enterprise; indeed, I still value the training I got in world literature, both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student. And I have published a book of essays that –although I hope it’s devoid of jargon and hyper-annotativeness– might legitimately be called a work of scholarship.

No, my choice of poetry had to do with the fact that it more nearly answered to my own mental tendencies. Whereas scholarship, even in its often impenetrable post-modernist avatars, still ultimately depends upon premise and conclusion, upon the dialectical approach, the realm of lyric poetry –at least for me– is roughly described by Carl Jung when he speaks of true psychology as the domain “always ... of either-and-or.That is, lyric can keep multiple perspectives alive within one frame without seeming merely to be a muddle. Perhaps this is what Keats meant when he famously spoke of Negative Capability, the capacity to live with “mysteries, uncertainties and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Negative Capability, so understood, enables me to indulge what another great poet –T.S. Eliot– called the “necessary laziness” of the poet. To use a reductive buzz phrase, it is a right-brain enterprise. To relax the muscular, either/or approach to experience is to open oneself to unanticipated  possibilities, and to let them come as they will.

And to let them come in all their fullness. It may be cliché to say that lyric captures the intensity of certain moments, but so it does for me. This is true, I think, even if the moment that catches my attention never eventuates in a written poem. I know I sound a bit fogeyish to say so (I am in my 70s, and have a right), but the fact that most of anyone’s moments are ephemeral and diffuse seems the more evident in the age of Twitter and (the very word speaks volumes) of the Selfie. For me, the lyric impulse allows me to see certain “deeper” moments, to concentrate them in what I hope, however vainly or justly, may be memorable language. Among the very deepest of those moments in my own experience, for eloquent example, are the witnessing of the births of five children. The plethora of responses to such events could never be catalogued nor exhausted, but one can go farther toward rendering their impact –or so I believe– via the language of poetry than by any other mode of discourse.

Lightning scarcely strikes every day. If it did, I’d write 365 poems a year. But that it might strike at any moment makes me feel alive and attentive, makes me open to all manner of novelty, if I can adequately ignore mundane distractions (and of course I can’t; who does?). It feels that such newness is always available out there, no matter I have been recording my responses for more than four decades now. Until I take the long sleep, I’ll believe that something fresh may be right around the bend.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

I have a new book of personal essays, which will be launched on November 9 at the Phoenix Bookstore in Burlington, Vermont. It is more than a little eccentric, consisting of more than sixty short-short pieces, the longest of which runs to four pages, most running one or two. It is called What's the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long, and will be published by Vermont's own excellent new house, Green Writers Press (not that there is anything particularly "green" sbout this volume).

My excellent rep Dez Peeples has a media kit with more information at

Hope your summer has been as good as my own!


Saturday, July 11, 2015

vacation time

The blog will be on vacation with its author until late August. My vacation is not all leisurely. If you want to see what I will be devoting my efforts to, go to The land trust over which I preside is within sight of closing a deal on the final 22,000 acres of a project that, together with our prior conservation efforts and those of other conservation and government entities abutting us, will protect an area that is the size of Zion and Yosemite put together. That is saying something in the northeast!

My part in all this will, I think, be the most significant thing I did in my time on earth.

Have a great summer!

Sunday, May 31, 2015


This post comprises, by my computation, my third to last monthly column in statewide papers as Vermont Poet Laureate.  As before, I will be taking the summer off from such columns, and my successor will be named in November, this four-year tenure seeming to have gone by, like most things at my age, in a matter of days.

On the 28th of May, I visited the Vermont Arts Council headquarters, where, with a group of peers, the process of choosing the next state poet began. I cannot, of course, comment on the proceedings, but I can indulge in some generalities, all of them connected to my somewhat melancholy recognition that this intriguing ride will soon be over for me.

Let me first applaud the intelligence, dedication, and good humor of the Arts Council staff, from director Alex Aldrich and program director Michele Bailey to everyone with whom I have dealt in that organization. Their very presence makes me proud to be a Vermonter, to live in a state where the arts play such a vital role not only in our economy but also in our daily lives. The Council’s initiative and responsiveness have more to do with all that than many may realize.

The same can emphatically be said of my fellows on the committee, each so obviously committed to getting this thing right, and taking the time necessary to achieve that end.

And yet, to speak again as a Vermont chauvinist, there surely will be no indisputably right choice. As I looked over the list of nominees, most of whom I know at least slightly, I was thrilled that our tiny state is home to so many gifted artists– and dismayed that we’ll be able to choose only one.

Virtually all of these authors were around at the time of my own appointment, which makes me surprised all over again that I should have been chosen in 2011– and humbled to know that I could scarcely have argued with any number of other selections. I will participate in the final vote with a mixture of satisfaction and frustration. With no false modesty, I can say that every nominee is him- or herself a Poet Laureate in some measure, for it is our collective effort to say things that are hard to say: it is that effort that keeps this cherished art alive here and elsewhere. After my time as state poet, I will never view a poem of my own as other than collaborative.

Speaking of collaboration, I’d never have dreamed that I would write text for the state’s first Cartoonist Laureate, the brilliant and gifted James Kochalka. We have just completed our third project. The Vermont Contemporary Music ensemble, having asked five of the state’s composers to write pieces in response to work of mine, performed two luminous concerts as a result. The fabulous young Philadelphia composer Joseph Hallman set my “Suite in Mudtime” to music performed by soprano and string quartet (in this case Vermont’s own 802 Quartet) at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

And of course, still speaking of collaboration, whatever my contribution to poetry’s health in Vermont may have been, it was merely an adjunct to the contributions not only of the great Mr. Frost but also of the poets appointed after the position was reinstated by Governor Kunin in 1988: Louise Gluck, Galway Kinnell, Grace Paley, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and Ruth Stone. That I should be part of that lineage frankly astounds me.

Yes, I feel lucky. And even more, I feel blessed. If I was surprised by the appointment, after these four years, I am scarcely surprised by how much I regret its ending. So I have been in retrospective mode for a spell now, thinking about all the other benefits –and I simply can’t name each one– that I have experienced in this handful of years.

One is the wit I have enjoyed. The first instance, in fact, transpired while I was still on the phone with Alex Aldrich, who had called with the news. I put the telephone to my chest and whispered “I’m the Poet Laureate!” My youngest daughter, still living at home in 2011, corrected me: “It’s pronounced low-rate.” But I have savored the funny remarks I have encountered at the community libraries, 115 at this writing, where I have given presentations on poetry. The proceedings at the three Montpelier spelling bees at which I have been the pronouncer and emcee have at times been downright hilarious. I could go on.

There is likewise the cordiality I have experienced at virtually every stop. (The one and only exception was an unhappy and unpleasant woman in the west of the state who actually interrupted my reading of a poem by standing up and averring, “That’s not poetry!” Her fellows, however, quickly shushed her.)

Librarians are heroes of mine anyhow, from excellent state librarian Martha Reid to all the librarians, in places tiny and grand and in between, in Vermont: to see the care each took with making these events successful enhanced my feelings in this regard, as did the welcome library patrons inevitably extended.

I was regaled with all manner of thank you gifts, from home-baked pies to chocolates to countless mugs (which for the most part I traitorously transported to our Maine cabin in the woods) to precious books to –perhaps my favorite—a salt dish carved from invasive buckthorn by one of the artisans at Bob and Becca Cummings’s wonderful Center for the Expressive Arts in Montgomery.

There were several instances of pathos as well, chief of which was a woman’s giving me a memorial card to her son, dead far too young, with an excerpt of my writing as its inscription. I trust she understood my tears.

But as I suspected would be the case when I decided on community libraries as my venues of choice, I was most taken by the intelligence of so-called “average” men and women in the crowds. I’m an Ivy League brat, but I learned well before I got to college that that league had no corner on brains and/or creativity. There’s a lot of smart people out there, whatever the nature of their formal education.

I met an inexcusably young man in Randolph who read my poems more penetratingly than I could ever do myself. I came upon a dairy farmer way up on the Quebec border who could recite –I quizzed him pretty thoroughly– every single poem in Robert Frost’s “Mountain Interval.”

Again, I could extend my catalog until I ran out of space. Suffice it to say that what I valued most was how these non-specialists instinctively knew what the important questions were, and how they asked them not, as is too often the case in academic contexts, just to show how much they already knew themselves but in fact to elicit such information as I had means to offer.

And the important questions were and are often the most basic: who’s talking? to whom” where are we? why choose form X rather than form Y? If my poems couldn’t answer those questions, I suspected they needed further work (which quite a number of them got).

As I went on in my tenure, I came to leave more and more time for the Q & A portion, because I was most interested in and most instructed by that portion. To all of you who so brightly participated, my profoundest thanks.

Finally, I am grateful to the editors of the newspapers in which these columns have been published for four years now. They tolerated my opinions, and in many cases helped me to make them clearer. And to those who have contacted me, either in letters to the editor (again, one exception, but why dwell on that?) or personally, my thanks too. You have both encouraged me and kept me as honest as I know how to be.

May you all have wonderful summers.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Two New Poems

                           The Owl and I

Once the half-ass cross got burned on our lawn, my mother lit out
for the north to have me. My father was stationed in Gadsden, Alabama
Prior to World War II, commander of so-called Colored Troops,
And he’d invited a few of his men into the house, you see,
A radical thing back then and there in the heart of Jim-Crow Dixie.
So my mother fled giving birth down there, though I don’t have any idea
Why I’d think of this, which, near to her death, she spoke of so many years after.

Why now, on watching a barred owl coast to a hemlock gone dark at sunfall,
Everything else as well going dark around me here where I stand?
Once, at midnight, Mom thought she’d heard a whoop of human anguish
Outside, and wondered whether some soldier was being lynched. My father
Went out for a look but found nothing. My lifelong relations with my mother
Were vexed, I suspect today, in part because between us two
Lay a lot in common. Jews were crammed into cattle cars right then,

But for Dad and his troops, the evil in Europe yet lay months ahead.
Still, real or imagined, that cry of misery stuck with Mom, no matter
No signs of nearby violence turned up next morning. The company
Came en masse to mess: Shit on a Shingle, as the GIs said,
Dried beef on toast. So life went on, at least for a while– more or less.
It ought to bring comfort that I’m where I am, aging but safe, my clan
Constantly swelling as sons and daughters produce their sons and daughters,

And winter, so harsh this year, gives way at last to spring, with snowdrops
Glinting, the freshets making their evanescent cascades through woods.
I recall how my mother loved this season. Why, then, this lonesome mood?
It feels that I’m in some pitch-black tunnel and won’t get out again,
That this, as the saying goes, is it, and all I have at the end
–Of course there can’t be anything to it– is the sorrowful eight-note anthem
Of that lone owl, the sound just now having reached my vexed old head,

Though I’d be foolish to think that song was addressed to any human.


From up here, the valley looks soused
with spring, and whatever I see
seems a gift. Meanwhile, so help me, I wonder
why I never knew a thing
about cribbage. Not that it mattered,
just that back in the ward, my ghost of a roommate,
92 years old,
set up a game to play
with his daughter, who told him they could stay with it
till the Red Sox came on TV.

I gave a huff of relief,
not too loud, I hope, relieved
to know a change was coming
from all those idiot game shows,
the volume turned to headache pitch,
the old man’s droop-lobed ears
even weaker, I guess, than mine.

I lay there fettered: oxygen hose,
monitor, saline IV.
I’d had some chest pains that morning.
Three drawings of blood, all hours apart,
were apparently needed to prove
I’d suffered no incident.
And so, worse luck, I was going to be stuck
for a night with this poor old guy.
The daughter kept saying, “Be patient.”
He’d been in that room for over a month.

So the two of us watched the baseball,
the Sox getting by on breaks,
passed balls and bloops and walks, and squeaking
a victory out in the ninth.
We whooped until he coughed
so hard I rang my buzzer.
A nurse came in and frowned and pinned him.

He choked down a potion that killed
the hack, then fell asleep.
But all night he’d jerk awake and shout,
“Is anybody out there?”
How long can a man be patient?
I wasn’t one to say. I’d be gone
early the following morning,
my diagnosis: heartburn.
Sprung at last, I’ve taken this hike
up a hands-and-knees ridge to rejoice

in a healthy heart. Yes, the world
appears suffused with a sort of grace.
There’s the scent of melting snow,
muddy soil, wet duff.
Gray frogs chortle from vernal pools,
the freshets tinkle downhill,
woodpeckers rattle the air,

new growth festoons the tips of boughs,
and sky is far more vivid
than what we call sky-blue.
 So why on earth should I think about cribbage?
No matter. I wouldn’t set out
before I looked it up–
research, old-style, in a reference book.
Reading, I heard gurneys jangle,
a PA, alarms that signaled
sad souls trying to get up from beds

that they were meant to stay in.
I hear that clamor now,
even these miles and hours away. 
Cribbage seems to have been invented
by John Suckling, near-forgotten
seventeenth-century writer and peer,
said to be “carefree and witty,”

features of poets called the Cavaliers.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Grace of Incorruption

This post is distinctly different from any of its predecessors. In it, I will try to sell you on a book called “The Grace of Incorruption,” written by a great man and a great friend who died in 2010.

When I tell you that the book’s subtitle is “The Selected Essays of Donald Sheehan on Orthodox Faith and Poetics,” you’ll see why I imagine a challenge to my efforts. Not all readers will share even my radical-Protestant Christian vision; still fewer, I’m sure, will share the late author’s Eastern Orthodox Christianity. As one who himself instinctively recoils from the very notion of “orthodoxy,” whether religious, political, or social, I myself seem an unlikely promoter of such a volume.

But Don Sheehan’s example gives me pause, and more. Anyone who knew Don, a professor at Dartmouth and elsewhere and, more significantly, for over a quarter century the director of the Robert Frost Place in Franconia, will remember highly unusual qualities in the man. He was one of those rarest of people who, upon entering a room, immediately change its atmosphere for the better. Don seemed somehow lit from within, and whether you shared his spiritual take on human existence or not, you saw that his was a spirit of all but incomparable kindness and compassion. Not that Don ever confronted you with his faith. Rather, in his manner and his thought, he exemplified the deep values it had produced in him.

Even physically, Don was a striking figure on the streets of Hanover, or anywhere: as a subdeacon in his church, he wore a magnificent, long, white beard, one to put Santa Claus’s to shame. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and dressed with what seemed an almost studied plainness. But that light I spoke of surrounded him everywhere he went.

It is thus all but unimaginable to me that this gentle soul had apparently been, in younger years before I knew him, a street gang hooligan, a motorcycle jockey, a hell-raiser, modeling himself on the James Dean of “Rebel Without a Cause.” Be that as it may, in the opening chapter of “The Grace of Incorruption,” we see that the seeds of his life after hooliganism, his later life of spiritual wisdom, were planted –and in most improbable ways– when he was a mere child.

At nine years old, Don was shot. The bullet barely missed his heart. The shooter was his best friend, and the two boys had come on a big brother’s target pistol. In his recollection of his experience in the emergency room, however, Don emphasizes the serenity he felt on looking up at the strongly built doctor who skillfully removed the bullet. That serenity would recur to him, often in unpredictable circumstances.

For example, a few weeks after the shooting accident, the Sheehan family broke apart. Don’s father was a violent and abusive alcoholic, and Don vividly recalls blood on his mother’s face from the man’s brutal beatings, which were frequent and savage.  In due course, his mother opted to flee her husband with the children. 

Yet before that, according to the introductory essay, there was a particularly brutal episode, the father raging, breaking dishes, terrifying Don’s sister and brother. But Don recounts a miracle, which, along with the hospital episode I just mentioned, seems to me determinative not only of the spiritual tack he would later take but also of his literary views (though to separate these two dimensions is impossible in Don’s case).

“Then I did something that still takes my breath away. I walked across the living room and sat down on the couch right next to him. I picked up a magazine from the coffee table and opened to the first pictures I came to, and I pointed to one. ‘Look, Dad, isn’t that interesting?’...

“No answer. After a moment, I looked up at him, and I found that he was looking down at me. Over fifty years later I can still see my father’s eyes. They were sad eyes, yet peaceful, warm, and profoundly young, with all the wildness gone out and, in place of it, something like stillness. And I felt all at once peaceful, the way I’d felt on the operating table at the hospital three weeks before.

“He looked at me for a long, long minute, and then he spoke. ‘You’re the only one not afraid of me.’”

I call these events determinative because Don Sheehan’s world-view depended upon penetrating to the deepest sort of darkness– from which he perceived a redemptive light.
That light suffused Don’s introductions to visiting poets at the Frost Place, which were famous for their penetration. However diverse the cast of authors in his thirty years there, Sheehan seemed somehow to find the spiritual nugget that made each what he or she was. Many of those poets –and I count myself among the many, having heard his spoken introductions and read his treatment of two of my poems in this collection– were astounded to understand their own work better by virtue of these pre-reading commentaries. With the exception of poet Nicholas Samaras, a fellow in Orthodoxy, none, I believe, would have used St. Isaac the Syrian or Dionysos the Aereopagite as the grounds of appreciation, but none, either, could deny that Don’s church fathers had produced in him a stunningly keen insight.

I think poet and director of the International Writers’ Program in Iowa City Christopher Merrill has it just right in his excellent introduction. “Humility,” Merrill writes, “is the cornerstone of (Sheehan’s) faith; the quality of attention on display in these pages, a form of prayer dedicated to revealing the sacred aspects of literature, is rooted in his belief that knowledge is limited; his observations, drawn in part from his experience of working with a range of poets at the Frost Place ..., shed light not only on the creative process but on the religious imagination. In this book the subdeacon and the professor work hand in glove.”

Perhaps the most compelling of all Christian paradoxes, in fact, shows through here: humility, the trait that Don so personified, is precisely the one that can illuminate our world– and here, our poetry. In the first half of his collection, “Reflections on Life, Literature, and Holiness,” Sheehan examines works by Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Frost, Salinger, and contemporary poets like Jane Kenyon, me, and Samaras, addressing the nature of prayer, of individual liberty, of depression, and so much more. The teaming of churchman and intellectual results, as I say, in unusual and keen readings of all these writers.

I won’t gloss Don’s religious conversion here, since it is so much more movingly recounted by the man himself in the first half of the collection. Trust me: to call it an intriguing narrative is to lack for words.

The second half of “The Grace of Incorruption” enters the majestic domain of the Psalms.  (Don, who commanded classical Greek, in fact translated the Greek Orthodox Septuagint rendering of Psalms.) The psalter is no doubt one of the truly originative and influential collections of poems in the western canon. As Chris Merrill, again, once said at the Frost Place: “It is not possible to imagine poetry in any Western tongue without the imagery, insights, and ideas of the Psalms, the ground of our inheritance.”  No one was more familiar with that ground than Don Sheehan.

The focus of Part Two is particularly on psalm 119 (118 in Orthodox tradition), often called the Wisdom Psalm, and one ingeniously assembled. Overall, it describes the divine plan for creation in a complex, alphabetic-acrostic format. The longest psalm, in fact the longest chapter in the Bible, each of its twenty-two stanzas (all octets) begins with a Hebrew letter and all display a wide diversity of rhetorical and musical techniques. Given the breadth of its scope, it’s small wonder that psalm 119 has so inspired poets from the virtual dawn of our literary tradition. To that extent, any poetry enthusiast, even if he or she be the most committed of atheists, will discover that attention to Donald Sheehan’s brilliant reading and interpretation will repay the considerable effort it requires.

I can’t end these remarks without expressing personal thanks, which I hope, on seeing “The Grace of Incorruption,” you will share, to its editor Xenia Sheehan, the author’s wife, without whom this striking book would not be known to us.  Mrs. Sheehan faced many challenges: her husband died at 70, of what turns out to have been the effects of long-misdiagnosed Lyme Disease, and in the final months of his life he had essentially been reduced to silence by his illness, able only to write tragically terse notes. He had not imagined a volume of these essays, so Xenia Sheehan had to piece them together as well as she could without his guidance.

And as well as she could seems to have been very, very well indeed.