Lay Back the Darkness

If I’d read Edward Hirsch’s “Lay Back the Darkness” before writing my previous post, maybe I could have laid back some of my own darkness. Hirsch read the poem at Davidson a few years ago, but it didn’t speak to me then. That was well before Mom’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. I’m a firm believer that poems open up to you when you need them, and shun you—sometimes quite rudely—when you don’t. Yesterday, watching the video of Hirsch’s talk at Davidson, I […]

One Wild and Precious Life?

Something there is that doesn’t love a post, that sends me off to Facebook, Buzzfeed, and email, even when I know I need to write. It’s been more than two weeks since I flew home to Connecticut to visit my folks, seeing them, for the first time, living in separate quarters: Dad in his new apartment; Mom in assisted living. There was so much to take in that I didn’t even miss the basement. Dad has turned the master bedroom […]

Woman much missed

In Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The Voice,” repetition and rhyme create a haunting echo, sounding out a persistent tugging of desire that can neither be escaped nor fulfilled: Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me, Saying that now you are not as you were When you had changed from the one who was all to me, But as at first, when our day was fair. Read this stanza once, and the earworm will burrow into your mind. […]

Speak to me : Take my hand : What are you now?

When I FaceTimed with my mom on January 5th—her 75th birthday—she was surprisingly “good.” I put that word in quotations marks because I’m uncomfortable with the moral judgment it seems to place on the natural course of her disease. Yet that’s the word that come to mind, and she was really, pretty good: she knew it was her birthday, she said she was 75, and she asked me (un-prompted), “What’s Matt doing?” The question meant that she not only knew […]

Hard Rock Returns to the Panopticon

I’ve been teaching a unit on prisons in my first-year writing course, “Building Stories.” We read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, which offers a persuasive argument about how racial discrimination lies at the heart of the American prison system, even in the absence of explicit racial animus. Alexander doesn’t mention the French philosopher Michel Foucault, but when she describes the way in which our American disciplinary system has “perfected” itself, accomplishing social control in ever more subtle and […]

What Does the Fox Say? Onomatopoeia & the myth of pure language

This weekend my sons have been belting out lines from the Norwegian duo Ylvis’s viral video, “What Does the Fox Say?” Fortunately, a student in my seminar had introduced me to the video last week, so I was able to impress my sons by joining in. “You know that song?” Zac asked incredulously, to which I replied, “Joff-tchoff-tchoffo-tchoffo-tchoff!” Like 3 million others, I found the video to be funny and infectious—an irresistible sing-along song the likes of which I haven’t enjoyed since […]

Playing in the Dark with Whitman

Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is a powerful elegy for Abraham Lincoln—a personal remembrance that also serves as a national memorial, uniting a deeply divided nation in a communal song of praise and mourning. As much as I love this poem, however, I am troubled by it. In sections 5 & 6, Whitman pans out to give us a vast panorama of the U.S., describing the land, cities, lanes, woods, fields, orchards, and streets through which Lincoln’s coffin […]

Self-portraits in painting and poetry

The painting on my home page is one I did when I was a senior at Middlebury College. I was doing a series of small paintings of unoccupied park benches. I was on my second or third sitting of this bench, which faces the mountains to the west of campus. When I arrived at my perch, I was annoyed to find another student painter had inserted herself between me and my vista. I decided to paint her in to my […]

Earth receive two honored guests

Earth, receive an honoured guest: William Yeats is laid to rest. Let the Irish vessel lie Emptied of its poetry. – W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” We lost two great writers recently: Elmore Leonard and Seamus Heaney. It would be hard to think of two celebrated contemporary writers whose styles differ more. American novelist Leonard wrote taught, stark, hard-boiled crime fiction that makes your heart race, while Irish poet Heaney wrote rich, sensory, densely layered poetry […]