end-of-semester report

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This is my favorite—as a Jane Austen character would say—prospect in my new house.

It’s part way down the stairs. This is and is not a metaphor.

The photos on the wall to the left are of my kiddos, at the First House, standing at the screen door, looking out. This is and is not a metaphor. These photos have adorned every entryway of every house since then (and if you’re just joining us, there have been many, too many).

The green light was my housewarming gift to myself. I call her Minerva and we have a quick conversation every morning when I go downstairs at 5AM to make my tea: Good morning. Good morning. Another day, another 70 cents on a man’s dollar. Yep. Let’s smash the Patriarchy. Yep.

Beyond that, the warmth of the living room, and my beloved books and bookshelves.

I am grateful for this view, for this house which I purchased ambivalently but with the intention of giving my kids a home for their last few years at home, for the relative peace it holds for me after some very difficult years. I am grateful for my kids and my books, for this lovely green light that makes magic when illuminated:

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I’m grateful to be a poet and a writer, (though, lately, I have felt a long way off from poetry); for whatever kind attention my work has received in the world; mostly, for the quiet mornings at my desk, in lamplight, with the words of others:

______…something

is running across the field,
______can you see it coming
through the yellow grass, can you see it coming
______from the windowpane,
are you closing the shutters, do you think it’s rain? (—Dana Levin)

I’m grateful for the work I do at The Rumpus, for our reviewers and my fellow editors there (which reminds me: here you can read about staff favorites from 2018). I’m grateful for my kitty; wouldn’t you be?:

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This year, I’m especially grateful for a teaching job I love, and for my colleagues, and my students, who, at this point in the semester, are stressed out and exhausted and coming to office hours with their final papers. Like them, I am going in early, skipping lunch, staying late (Unlike them, because I am older and wiser and, let’s face it, a mom, I am reminding everyone to eat and sleep; I am giving out chocolate and throat drops and Excedrin. I am saying, There’s a time to be perfect, and a time to be done.).

I never get through finals week without these words thrumming through me: In the evening we shall be examined on love. They are the words of St. John of the Cross, and the title of a poem by Thomas Centolella:

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Life is hard, even easy lives. This semester, I have lived every day in the “blue of no more daily evasions.” It is not a gentle blue. I often feel like the student who doesn’t even recall signing up for the course who now must take her orals (See: single mother of three teenagers). And like the teacher wracking her brain to find “what unknown quantity / will balance the equation.”

I don’t know, and may never, but I hope it’s the small, heartfelt acts that balance things out after all: Waking early to read and (try to) write even just one word in my notebook. Making the kids a hot breakfast, packing their lunches, because I can, and here they are, hungry. Going in early, skipping lunch, staying late. Cherishing my family and friends. Calling my elected officials again. Writing about books I loved and learned from. Living my small, wingéd, provisional truths; saying them out loud regardless of whether anyone’s listening; abandoning them when they show themselves to have been faulty after all.

I guess this is not your typical end-of-semester report. I meant to come here and say: here’s where you can find a few of my recent poems; here’s a review I wrote; I still haven’t published a book.

Instead it’s this: I’m grateful, my grades are in, my kids are well-fed, I have a gorgeous new red lipstick, I’ve kept my house reasonably clean. This semester, I tried; let’s all keep trying; in the evening we shall be examined on love.

poems for this fraught history

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My sister-in-law and I took the kids to see fireworks the night of July 3. We had a picnic while the Detroit Symphony Orchestra played. Waited for the long summer light to leave the sky. Then watched the darkness spangle and pop, ooohhed and ahhhed with the rest of the crowd.

I love fireworks. They amaze me. My favorites are the ones that pop, then trail off slowly, a thousand tiny lights spiraling down before ultimately succumbing to the dark. But I’ve also always felt (at least as an adult) a bit conflicted about them. They seem a glorification of war. They frighten dogs, not to mention many of the men and women who’ve served in our endless wars. They are, for me, beautiful, magical, and fraught.

This summer, as our country moves further and further away from what we say are our ideals—liberty, equality, justice—, the fireworks were even more fraught than usual. I kept looking and my kids and their cousins sprawled on the quilts we’d laid out for them, the fireworks lighting up their awestruck faces, and thinking of the kids separated from their parents at the border. Thinking of black boys killed by police (Tamir Rice would’ve turned 16 last week, had he not been shot dead at age 12). Thinking of pleas for civility in the face of abominable treatment over centuries. Thinking of kids who, though they may be fairly safe day-to-day, face subtle and not so subtle racism, homophobia, and other forms of bias that make the beautiful, magical, and fraught process of growing up even more fraught.

What to do? Read poems. Here are three that are not comforting, but feel true and so very important. In that way, they make me feel less alone in this deeply flawed nation, this fraught history that we’re all a part of.

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“Tamir Rice” by Sean Thomas Dougherty, whose latest book is The Second O of Sorrow (BOA, 2018):

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(originally published in The New York Times Magazine)

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“American Sonnet For My Past and Future Assassin” by Terrence Hayes, whose latest book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, is just out from Penguin.

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(image from Google Books)

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“How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This” by Hanif Abdurraqib, whose poems and essays are new to me over the last year, and consistently blow me away (check out this poem in the May 2018 issue of POETRY):

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(originally published by the Academy of American Poets)

 

falling faintly, faintly falling

 

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One of my favorite passages in all literature, from the last paragraph of James Joyce’s The Dead:

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

so is blurred / in me

So many good intentions, so few blog posts. But here’s one.

At the final residency of my MFA program, one of the faculty spoke of wanting to live more like a poem asks her to live. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. These days when I read a poem, to the many other questions I ask it—How did you do that? Why break the line after “field”? Couldn’t you live without your last stanza? What made you say “spider” just there?—I’ve added this question: How, poem, do you want me to live?

Here’s a poem I’m living with lately: “I Would Like to Describe” by Zbigneiw Herbert, one of my dearest poets (forgive the somewhat clumsy images):

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I think the poem asks me to live like this:

Use the right words. By “right,” mean accurate, precise, true, interesting, yours.

You will be uncertain.

The poem starts in your body.

Whatever it takes—run around like mad picking up handfuls of birds if you must.

Let it blur in you.

Regarding the white-haired gentlemen: unsubscribe.

Be amazed. Be infinitesimal.

You are of the earth.

Keep going.

Despite pain.

I might be wrong about all of this.

To put it another way: so is blurred / in me.

What poem are you living with these days? How does it ask you to live?

 

an August poem

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I REMEMBER by Anne Sexton

By the first of August
the invisible beetles began
to snore and the grass was
as tough as hemp and was
no color—no more than
the sand was a color and
we had worn our bare feet
bare since the twentieth
of June and there were times
we forgot to wind up your
alarm clock and some nights
we took our gin warm and neat
from old jelly glasses while
the sun blew out of sight
like a red picture hat and
one day I tied my hair back
with a ribbon and you said
that I looked almost like
a puritan lady and what
I remember best is that
the door to your room was
the door to mine.

—from her collection All My Pretty Ones

friday roundup: Whatever in passing

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Spring is trying to arrive; some days yes and some days no.

(I think) I’m nearly finished with my creative thesis and my critical paper.

There are nine weeks of school left for the kids.

We just dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb known to humankind.

There is an app that will wake you up to the sound of birdsong.

I’m not sure what to make of any of it, but here are some things:

no Creative people say no. Women, especially, are conditioned not to say no. And never the twain shall meet.

Someone once tweeted (I can’t remember who, but the words have stayed with me): You will have to say no in order to do your work. It will be worth it. I have said no to lunch invitations, movies, shopping days, volunteer “opportunities,” children, laundry, dinners (as in making them), hairstyles (as in having one), arguments (both having them and settling them), sleep, and more, in order to do my work. I just said no to a second game of PIG on the driveway basketball hoop with my darling girl. “I wish I could, but I have to work today,” is what I said. The more I do it, the easier it gets.

Here are two articles about saying no, and one even gives you some good ways of saying it: One. Two. Spoiler: Even Dickens said no.

reinforcements A friend posted this on Facebook the other day, and it’s now hanging above my desk. In case your will to say no requires reinforcements:

A woman must be careful not to allow over-responsibility (or over-respectability) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. She must simply put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she “should” be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only. —Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Men may also need to be careful about this, but since those who identify as women still do most of the child-rearing, household-running, and the Administrative Caca that comes with those tasks—none of which are ever “finished”—, it’s especially important for the Sisterhood.

Whatever in passing  This morning I read two poems at Poetry Northwest‘s website written and translated by two women—Ye Lijun and Fiona Sze-Lorrain—who said yes to their art. We will never know what they said no to in order to do it, but I am so glad they did, because these poems are exquisite and they kindle in me the desire to keep trying to make exquisite things with words.

You can read them here.

one more thing I recently—and finally—created an author website. If you click on it, it will become more findable. Would you? Thanks. www.mollyspencer.com.

Happy weekend!

shit goes wrong

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I have mostly been writing my thesis nonstop for the last two weeks. A draft is due tomorrow. I should be working on it now (and will soon), but I’m stopping by here to share a link to two of my poems in this month’s THRUSH poetry journal.

They are poems from my first full-length manuscript which is currently making the rounds.

At first glance, they might appear to be poems about love gone wrong—Persephone and Hades, you know the story. But when I wrote them they were attempts to reckon with the reality of serious, chronic illness. Illness that was never going away.

More broadly, I was attempting to reckon with the problem of suffering. Suffering, which—as long as there are sentient beings in existence—is never going away.

Shit goes wrong.

Sometimes something dark kidnaps you and takes you underground through a rend in the earth. You’re down there, you’re hungry, you miss your mother.

But after a while it becomes your life. YOUR life. And so, while you wouldn’t choose it, you can’t exactly wish it away either.

Here are the poems, and make sure to read the rest of the issue, too. Thanks for reading.

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(Note: The first poem is also an ekphrasis of the painting above, View of the Campagna, 1832 by Friedrich Wasmann; oil on paper mounted on cardboard, Hamburger Kunsthalle. You can find a larger image of it here).

today

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my “desk” (once again, it’s a kitchen table)

I am at my “desk.” The kids are at school all day. This miracle last occurred on June 3rd.

I am so happy that three out of three kids came home from school yesterday with smiles on their faces (it was the first day, a half-day).

We are still not living in a house. The duffle bags and their contents, which I thought would need to get us through until mid-July, are going to have to limp along until mid-October. At least.

(Do you know of this book?

I love the book. I do not love not living in a house.)

I have bought duplicates of:

  • More books than I want to think about (sometimes you just need Zbigneiw Herbert, …and… some other books)
  • A chef’s knife
  • MANY OFFICE SUPPLIES. Many.
  • A printer
  • A broom, a rake, a bucket, sponges, scrubbers, rubber gloves

I am *this* close to buying a duplicate Swiffer. I am even tempted by the crock pots of the world, but I refuse. I refuse.

The peaches are ripe. The plums are ripe. The tomatoes are at their peak. You can often find me holding my head over the sink, eating some drippy, delectable fruit of the earth. Bliss.

I hope no one ever looks through  my books and reads my marginalia. “Bzzzt” means: I disagree. Entirely. “Bwhahahaha!” means: I can’t even believe he said that. “ZOMG!” means: Utterly incredible. In a good way.

There are two flies—one big, one small—buzzing around my head. I am, of course, thinking of Emily Dickinson. And wondering why there is no fly emoticon.

I keep reading this poem*:

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[*Please note how he borrows from Emily Dickinson: From her letters, “This world is just a little place, just the red in the sky, before the sun rises, so let us keep fast hold of hands, that when the birds begin, none of us be missing.”]

And I keep reading this poem.

And I keep reading this poem.

And Joanna Klink’s poem “On Diminishment” from the current issue of Tin House. Go get you some. The poem worth the cover price.

And this poem, mainly because my eldest is playing football. I am surprised by this. He has football homework every night. I am also surprised by this. I am formulating a theory about high school athletics and the roots of male privilege (I am not surprised by this, and I am complicit). There’s a game at 4:30. Weather forecast: 88 degrees and stormy. I now own ponchos. I am, you might guess, surprised by this.

I’ve been writing, mornings. I’ve been sending poems out. I’ve been doing both things slowly, as usual.

I’ve been typing up notes from my MFA residency. It’s like learning everything all over again.

I have nearly killed the geraniums I bought a month ago. I am not yet ready to commit to mums. I abhor everything pumpkin spice.

I am glad to be here at this blog, writing something, anything.

I am trying to do this thing called “today,” every day, the best I can.

 

one of my favorite love poems

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“let us all be from somewhere”

It’s Friday. Even though the world has made me feel so quiet lately, has made words seem so powerless, extraneous even. It’s Friday, and we made it safely to Michigan, to the arms of our extended family, to the place on the map where my body feels safest, my heart most at peace. It’s Friday, and though I’ve missed a few and may yet miss a few more, Friday is for posting poems. So I’m going to post a little love poem that I love.

It’s a love poem for a place. A true love poem—one that knows its lover’s faults and foibles. One that loves anyway. It’s funny. It’s poignant. It’s powerful and powerless, extraneous even. I’ve probably posted it before. It’s “A Primer” by Bob Hicok.

 Let us all be from somewhere.
Let us tell each other everything we can.