Monday, August 31, 2009


The raspberry canes are bowed from the weight of ripe fruit, some overripe, blooming with mold, but most of the fruit is good to eat. Of all berries, I love raspberries the most and the second crop of alpine strawberries that comes in the fall just before frost.

Usually it's confusing to come home after being away--Provincetown is another country--but not this time. It's brilliant and cool, and I have new books: "High Wind in Jamaica," "Children as Artists," which I bought for two dollars at the Provincetown Library book sale, and "A Rage for Rock Gardening," which I read about on Mark Doty's blog. All three are compact books that snug into one hand.

The once creaking, wobbling, sagging dining room chairs came back re-glued and reupholstered from Jose's shop. I don't hate the material I chose--a black and white Greek key design--and the job didn't break the bank. Last time we did it ourselves--too long ago to tell you. I don't like to number the years.

I've already taken a manuscript to the photocopier and made a meal with whatever was at hand: spaghetti with peas, Sicilian eggplant, handfuls of chopped parsley, and olive oil, raspberries for dessert. My fingers are still stained with berry juice.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


The storm began last night. By noon the rain came down in rattling gusts. I spent the day inside, reading "The Master" by Colm Toibin, and painting--watercolor--while rain came down through the vent in the bathroom ceiling. At home it must be coming down the chimney, as it always does in a northeaster, a storm that seems to weaken and then comes back stronger.

Tonight we'll have supper at the cafe at the Mews, and pack for our trip home. I once heard Seamus Heaney call Provincetown, "the Left Bank of New England." The Left Bank when the phrase meant Bohemia.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Two Angels: Provincetown

I call the angels "Pearl" and "Rust." Pearl is a boy painted white; his hair is bleached to ash. He will move if you drop money in the blue glass jar. Otherwise he is as immovable as Rust. Do you have a favorite?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sailing to Provincetown

Last night I waited for our friend A. to arrive at our place for drinks before dinner. He was sailing from Wellfleet to Provincetown. I scanned the harbor from our terrace and saw a boat heading to shore. It had three sails and a white hull. I knew A. had recently bought a large boat, and I thought this one might be it. I called him and left a message on his cell phone. If he had answered I would have waved the red bandana I held ready to signal, but I thought, That's a large boat for him to sail single-handedly. What a land-lubber I am! The boat was a three-masted schooner, too large for a crew of one.

A. arrived at six as promised. The trip had taken four hours; by car it takes twenty minutes. We sat on the terrace, while the dropping sun turned the lighthouse pink and the sailboats amber, and drank a Bordeaux, Chateau de Brondeau, 2006--a wonderful wine--under twenty dollars--from University Wine on Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge. John fished big green olives stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes out of the narrow jar. A. talked about "Julie and Julia," comparing the slow time of the 1950's, when Julia Child and her husband Paul were in France. He could come home for lunch; they could converse; she took eight years to finish "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." They never seemed rushed, unlike the contemporary couple in the film--Julie is always frantic.

We exchanged dreary publishing stories, but nothing could ruin our mood, not the failure of A.'s friend to place her novel, nor our failure to get a table at the Mews. A. led us to The Mayflower where we ate fish and clams. A. asked if we would walk him to the shore and see him off. The three of us went down a dark narrow cut between buildings on Commercial Street and walked to the dinghy. A. turned the boat over, dragged it to the water, came back to say goodnight, touching my shoulder. There was a sliver of a moon. The tide was low; he had to haul the little boat out past a sandbar before it would float. We saw the oars flash. He was on his way. He would sleep in the sailboat anchored off shore, and in the morning sail back to Wellfleet.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Provincetown: Morning Walk

We took the Beach Forest Trail. Near the beginning of the walk we saw what looked like a pond covered with ice or feathers: acres of water lilies so covered the pond that the effect was uncanny.

Odd things caught my eye: a live tree, green-leaved, that was no more than the thickness of a board carved with a heart with a hole it it; a looped tree trunk.

In shady patches hungry mosquitoes came out. I broke off a small branch from a beech tree and used it as a switch--we had forgotten the insect repellent. I twitched the branch against my back, used it for a tail, and wasn't bitten.

It's taken a least a thousand years for soil to form over the dunes so these plants can grow. All of it will be washed away some day, but not yet. The high winds have kept the trees low. The crowns of black oaks were never so close.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Our List: Glamorous Perils

John and I have a list in progress of things that thrilled and intrigued us when we were kids. We saw them in movies and comics. Every Saturday afternoon I went to the movies in Passaic, either the Capital, the Central or the Montauk, and would come out shocked and disoriented because I passed from cool darkness into hot, bright, dazzling light.

None of these things did we ever see in real life: avalanches, boa constrictors, leg irons, galley slaves, flogging--galley slaves were always flogged--flaming arrows, trap doors, moats, periscopes, shrunken heads, railway handcars, etc. You must have had movie-produced perils of your own. I'd like to see your list.

"Sweat boxes" are on ours. The Little King, in the comic of his name, would sit inside a metal box to sweat in order to lose weight. He was chubby.

We're going on with our list, laughing as we add another peril, for a while not thinking of more possible dangers close at hand.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Submit: Let's Not

Have you picked up on the rude tone of most literary-journal guidelines for submission? Submission, all right! I hadn't thought much about the rude tone until I found welcoming guidelines on the website for Poetry London, and compared them with those from Ploughshares, which are typical of many journals.

At Poetry London, Colette Bryce (above left) asks that poems be sent to her; she tells us that she and Martha Kapos (above right), the assistant poetry editor, read the poems and confer about them. I believe her when she says she is "always interested in work by unpublished poets." She also writes: "Postal submissions are welcome and are all carefully read." Poets are encouraged to send up to six poems, a generous amount.

In contrast, Ploughshares' guidelines are replete with threats: I quote their "RESTRICTIONS"--caps and red ink are theirs; the bolding is mine:

Send only one manuscript at a time, either by mail or online. Do not send duplicate or multiple submissions. There is a limit of two total submissions per writer per reading period, regardless of genre, whether it is by mail or online. Do not send a second submission until you have heard about the first. We will cross-reference our databases periodically, and if we find more than one active submission, or a third submission (or more) during the reading period, all submissions will be immediately and summarily rejected unread. Simultaneous submissions to other journals are amenable as long as they are indicated as such and we are notified immediately upon acceptance elsewhere. We do not reprint previously published work.

SUBMISSIONS BY MAIL: Mail your manuscript in a page-size manila envelope, your full name and address written on the outside (at least an inch down from the top, to account for USPS barcodes). In general, address submissions to the"Fiction Editor,""Poetry Editor," or"Nonfiction Editor," not to the guest or staff editors by name, unless you have a legitimate association with them or have been previously published in the magazine. Unsolicited work sent directly to a guest editor's home or office will be ignored and discarded; guest editors are formally instructed not to read such work. All manuscripts and correspondence regarding submissions should be accompanied by a self-addressed, 44¢-stamped #10 envelope (S.A.S.E.) for a response; no replies will be given to domestic addresses by e-mail or postcard. For international submissions, please include a stamped International Reply Coupon (I.R.C.) with your self-addressed envelope, or provide a valid email address for us to respond with. Send a recyclable copy of your manuscript; manuscript copies will not be returned.

Why do we put up with such rudeness? Humiliated, hectored, lectured-to writers speak up!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Heat Wave

Today the weather is fruit-fly spawning, eye-smarting, sweat-springing hot; everything coated with a hard, sharp, coppery glare. We don't have central air conditioning, but two upstairs rooms have window units. They're on full blast, the doors open so cold air blows into the hall, which would otherwise be a heat funnel. Every other door is closed, the windows too; the blinds are drawn; our dim rooms are cooling down. John is watching "The Sopranos." Tony is having a bad day. He never has a good day. Nothing changes for Tony. That's why I can't watch the program, though I'm not above watching the worst schlock.

I went out of the cool house into the scorching garden. There's a second crop of raspberries. We'll have pints! As soon as it rains, these firm green incipient berries will swell. The black-eyed Susan is standing up to the heat.

I cut some ferns, immediately soaking the cut ends so fronds wouldn't wilt. They're in the white vase next to other pale cool things, except for the little red sack that's filled with useless money from the pre-Euro years. Later I'll paint with watercolor. I'll fill my dipping jars with ice water.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Lady in White: Describing

If I were to teach writing again, I'd call the course, "Description," and ask my students to do nothing but describe. Louis Agassiz is reported to have put a student in a room with a fish in a tank, pen and a notebook; the student was to observe the fish and take notes for three months. Even if I could, I wouldn't follow Agassiz's example, but I would ask my students to observe and write. I'd like them to forget themselves, and look outward.

If we gaze long enough, our prose may open to metaphor.

Early this morning--and it's always, as I've said, at three o'clock--I read again Henry James's story, "The Beast in the Jungle." It made me shudder even more this time around. James is so good on the life not lived. He also lets himself go in this description of May Bartram:

"Almost as white as wax, with the marks and signs in her face as numerous and as fine as if they had been etched by a needle, with soft white draperies relieved by a faded green scarf on the delicate tone of which the years had further refined, she was the picture of a serene and exquisite but impenetrable sphinx, whose head, or indeed all whose person, might have been powdered with silver. She was a sphinx, yet with her white petals and green fronds she might have been a lily too--only an artificial lily, wonderfully imitated and constantly kept, without dust or stain, though not exempt from a slight droop and complexity of faint creases, under some clear glass bell."

She's fated to die, of course, seeming already like an apparition. She might have lived--all the white and pale green turned to pink--if John Marcher had understood how much she loved him, and loved her in return. But now I'm straying from description.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Ticket to Ride

I like public transportation. It leaves me free to watch people. The other day when I took the bus to Harvard Square, which I can pick up at the end of my block--I take the #77--I saw a young woman reading Aristotle with her iPod plugged in; I wondered what kind of music was streaming into her head. She was dressed for summer--sandals, sleeveless dress. Her dark hair was swept up from her neck, and her legs were bare. Next to her on the seat was a plastic shopping bag; printed in silvery letters across the bottom, a quote from Longfellow: "Thy fate is the common fate of all,/ Into every life a little rain must fall." There were silvery raindrops on the transparent bag. She may be taking a course at Harvard's summer school, I thought. Not once did she look up from her book.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cather's "Two Friends": Street in Moonlight

Some readers of fiction have no patience with description of place, and skip ahead to the action, the point where the plot resumes, speeding along on its smooth tracks. For them, finely written description is superfluous. Not for me: I linger. Cather's description of a street scene in "Two Friends" may be a chance excrescence thrown off by the plot, like a spandrel, the space created when an arch is erected. (Stephen Jay Gould in his brilliant essay on the spandrel explains why some biological events seem to have no use. They are by productions of a successful adaptation, like the seemingly useless spandrel. The arch is necessary; it must be there for support; the spandrel is not, but artists find a decorative use for the empty space.)

Yet Cather's story would flatten out and gray without its rich description. Each night the friends sit talking in a matrix that reveals the pleasure of their friendship:

"One could distinguish their features, the stripes on their shirts, the flash of Mr. Dillon's diamond; but their shadows made two dark masses on the white sidewalk. The brick wall behind them, faded almost pink by the burning of successive summers, took on a carnelian hue at night. Across the street, which was merely a dusty road, lay an open space, with a few stunted box-elder trees, where the farmers left their wagons and teams when they came to town. Beyond this space stood a row of frail wooden buildings, due to be pulled down any day; tilted, crazy with outside stairs going up to rickety second-storey porches that sagged in the middle. They had once been white but were now grey, with faded blue doors along the wavy upper porches. These abandoned buildings, an eyesore by day, melted together into a curious pile in the moonlight, came an immaterial structure of velvet-white and glossy blackness, with here and there a faint smear of blue door, or a tilted patch of sage-green that had once been a shutter.

The road . . . in front of the sidewalk where I sat and played jacks, would be ankle-deep in dust, and seemed to drink up the moonlight . . ."

The failure of Trueman and Dillon's friendship drains the moonlight from Cather's story, and the loss registers more strongly because once they had sat and talked in a place "flooded by the rich indolence of a full moon, or a half-moon set in uncertain blue."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Duck Tour

Today we're going on the Boston Duck Tour with our grandson Matty. In the past when John and I used to see the Duck Tour pass, we'd sneer and make quack-quack sounds, but as soon as our friend Alan told us he was taking his granddaughter on the tour, we thought, What a great idea. A perfect tour for a four-year old. We'll ride in an amphibious vehicle that will go from the street into the Charles River.

It's cloudy today; there will be showers, but the tour goes rain or shine. I'm glad it's not too hot, and I won't be making quack-quack noises or groaning at the canned spiel. Have I ever mellowed! But I'm drawing the line on amusement parks. Matty likes roller coasters. Not for me. I get vertigo when I'm two feet off the ground.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


When we cleaned out the chest that we recently sold, we found some of our son's toys. They are more than thirty-five years old. I've washed them and put them out in the sun to dry. "Baby Boy," which our son liked the best, looks as happy as he did years ago. The dog's lashes are still black, and the cat still stares at us with green eyes. I'll see whether the toys appeal to our grandson, who adores trains.

I confess I like to haunt thrift shops. Today I found a hallmarked sterling silver spoon, and a knife made in England with a faux mother-of-pearl handle: twenty-five cents each. This cup with its little gold arcade is my favorite for tea; the plate is decorated with a fine gold outline of a bird. When I rummage, I feel the pleasure of the hunt, and happily part with a few dollars. I never buy anything padded or upholstered: I'm afraid of bedbugs. We now hear a lot about bedbugs. I used to think they only appeared in Russian novels, along with brain fever.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Last night while John and Steve were lapping up corn chowder I entertained them with imitations of the voices that used to bleat, throb, and explode across the courtyard of our apartment house when I was growing up in Passaic. Our neighbors would shout questions: What do you think I'm talking about, what do I mean, what kind of person would do a thing like that? They would shout their own answers, prefaced by, I'll tell you what I mean. Some day you'll have kids of your own and then you'll suffer, they would scream. If they expected remorse, they didn't get it. Their children would shout back, savagely: Drop dead. Or they would weep in breathless shrieks.

In the midst of my routine, which had John and Steve laughing into their soup, I heard someone calling my name, and looked out the window. It was our neighbor; he asked me to come out. He was in the driveway, his wife, and children, and their friend with him. I went out. They were all looking in the same direction. There was a hawk perched on the telephone wires--those spurred claws on the wire. The hawk barely moved. They had seen the hawk eat a bird in the driveway. We kept watching. No one said much, and when we did speak we kept our voices low.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Corn Feast

Steve's coming to dinner, and we will eat corn chowder, followed by corn on the cob. I could make corn pone or corn bread or hush puppies, and corn pudding for dessert, but I won't. There are plenty of other themes worthy of obsession that require less work.

I followed poet Rebecca Loudon's recipe for corn chowder, which she has posted on her blog, "Radish King."

When I read Rebecca on food, I knew her palate was the real thing, sensitive and adventurous as Colette's, and I was right: the chowder is delicious! Here's her recipe:

Veggie (not vegan) Corn Chowder

1 summer morning thunderstorm after a long dry spell, hail if possible
2 cobs of really fresh corn not frozen or etc.
1 or 2 regulation sized Yukon gold potatoes (this chowder should be more corny than it is potatoey)
1 regulation sized onion
1 cup of dry white wine
2 cups of veggie stock
1 cup of heavy cream
1 leek
2 stalks of celery
1 sprig of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf

Dice the celery and the onion.
Wash the sand off your leek, dry it, then slice the white part into thin rings.
Heat a blob of butter and a blob of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot.
Sauté the veggies until they are clear.

This would be a good time to dice your potatoes to a manageable smallish size. Leave the peelings on unless you get frantic about stuff like that.

Then shuck the corn and cut the kernels off with a very sharp knife. I usually break the corn cobs in half then cut the kernels off in a bowl because they make a mess and go flying everywhere. After you cut off the kernels, scrape the cobs with the back of a knife to get out all the sweet milky corn goodness. Don’t cheat on this part. It’s what makes this chowder so yummy.

Add 1 cup of dry white wine to the veggies and let it reduce by half.
Add the veggie stock and bring the fire up until it boils.
Toss in the potatoes and corn and corny milk stuff.
Lower the fire to a simmer.

Once the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes, add the cream, a teaspoon of cumin (you just have to trust me on this), a bay leaf if you have one, and a sprig of fresh thyme if you have one of those. Salt and pepper to taste. Turn the fire to low and let the chowder simmer for at least a half hour.

Once you're ready to serve this, drizzle it with a wee bit of very good virgin olive oil and sprinkle it with chopped flat parsley for looks.

Serve with a good crusty piece of bread. I’m making baguettes today because I don’t have time for brioche.

This is good even if the sun is out.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Swim and Picnic During a Catastrophe

Last night, when my eyes snapped open at three in the morning, I turned on the bedside light and read Willa Cather's short story, "Neighbor Rosicky." One fourth of July, during a drought, Anton Rosicky takes his two sons to the horse tank at the windmill, and the three of them go into the cool water naked. The preacher comes and asks him to join the other farmers and their families, who will be at the church to pray for rain. The preacher acts as if he's never seen a naked man before. Rosicky does not go to church. He tells his wife they should all have their supper in the orchard. They eat fried chicken, biscuits with plum jam, and drink their homemade wild-grape wine. His wife Mary tells the story of that Fourth of July: "The wind got cooler as the sun was goin' down, and it turned out pleasant, only I noticed how the leaves was curled up on the linden trees." She asks Anton about the corn. Wasn't the hot wind hard on the crop? Anton tells her there is no corn. "'All the corn in this country was cooked by three o'clock today, like you'd roasted it in an oven.'" He says they will have no crop at all. "'That's why we're havin' a picnic.'"

I closed the book, turned off the light, and fell asleep thinking of the Rosicky family, the scorched crop, the cool horse tank, the picnic in the orchard. I don't have wild-grape wine, but today I'm going to put aside a bottle of good red for hard times, that and some jam.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Spectral Sky

Twilight: August 7, 2009, Arlington, Massachusetts

Change of Style

It was time to replace the soiled rug that's been down for twenty years in a room we use every day. John and I finally agreed the rug had to go. He also wanted to get rid of the chest that served as our coffee table. I wasn't so sure. We had had the chest since 1965. John found it in a building about to be demolished in the South End of Boston, and carried it home to our small apartment on Harwich Street--the building's long gone--with the help of a friend. The chest is very heavy and may have been used for tools. We once saw a similar one underground in the subway in Boston.

Our marriage and our possession of the chest are almost contemporaneous, but I was surprised at how easily I adjusted to letting the chest go and wondered what else I could cast off.

We're thinking of replacing the chest with the Noguchi coffee table first produced in 1948. The glass-top table looks light, though it probably is as heavy as the chest. There are no sharp corners, no place to store things. The wing-shaped glass top seems to float. Maybe I'll make it a symbol of the next period of our marriage. Maybe not. I don't want us to be too light or smooth or transparent. No chance of that. Even after we had made the decision to buy a new rug, we quarreled about how really dirty it was. John ran his foot back and forth across the rug, raising the nap, making the rug darker. "See, it's not dirt," he said. "What are you talking about!" I answered. "You're sure on a short fuse," he said. I had barely raised my voice.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Sweet Corn

We always called it "sweet corn" when I was growing up.  We'd buy it at Richfield Farms in Clifton, New Jersey.  A heavy-set woman with dark hair, flushed face, and plump arms would be seated in front of a bushel basket loaded with corn.  She would rip the husk down part-way to make sure there were no worms and toss the ear of corn into a large brown paper bag.  Summer had begun.

It did today when we bought our first corn at Busa's in Lexington, the variety called "butter and sugar."  (Busa's does not grow "silver queen," a variety I find much too sweet.)  I steamed the corn for five minutes and ate it with salt and pepper--no butter.  We made a supper of corn, broccoli with olive oil; for dessert, cherries.  

I'll be eating corn for weeks, until summer is over, and always buy it from Busa's, which has been in business since 1920.  They sell their corn the day it is picked.

Here is a depiction of Chicomecoatl, the Corn Goddess of the Aztecs.  Accounts I've read say that every September the Aztecs would sacrifice a young girl to the goddess, pour her blood over the goddess's statue, and flay the girl.  The priests would wear garments made of the girl's skin.  I'm glad to buy my corn at pleasant Busa's, hear only the squeak of the husks as I shuck, watch the jiggling pot lid, and eat a peaceful meal. But should we congratulate ourselves for our civilized behavior?  We have our own forms of cruelty.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Sounds and Sweet Airs

Anthony Roth Costanzo is a great counter tenor with a gorgeous voice: honeyed, powerful, rich. On Sunday, at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, I heard him sing the role of the sorceress in Henry Purcell's opera "Dido and Aeneas." Although he played the most evil character in the opera, he sang like an angel, his voice swelling, filling the theatre with sweet throbs: From the ruin of others our pleasures we borrow. The spirit of malice, he destroys Dido, the Queen of Carthage, for the pleasure of it.

Artists often give the best words and music to devils and monsters. Caliban, Shakespeare's monster, adores music, his speech itself a song: "The isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not./ Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments/ Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices, That, if I then had waked after long sleep,/ Will make me sleep again . . . " Milton's devil speaks in magnificent measures: "Farewel happy Fields/ Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail/ Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell/ Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings/ A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time./ The mind is its own place, and in it self/ Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n." Satan's wondrous shield hangs "on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb/ Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views/ At Ev'ning from the top of Fesole."

By comparison, the devils of our own culture are one-sided, cartoonish, vampire lovers like Johnny Depp included. Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) in "Deadwood": you can have him. Tony Soprano mumbles. They don't have lines worth quoting.

Next year Costanzo will be a soloist in Handel's Messiah. Heaven.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Storm, Pig, Picnic

We drove west through rain and green monotony.

Today I fully understand the word "wallow." The pig lay in the mud, snorted up muddy water, dozed in mud. O, happy pig.

We bought tome cheese, tomatoes, bread, and blueberries at the Cooperstown Farmers Market, and had our picnic near the Lake Otsego.