All Day I Loved You in a Fever: The Poetry of Robert Bly

I was first intrigued by Robert Bly’s poetry when I came across a description of his life and work in Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets. While browsing a used bookshop in New England a few weekends ago, I bought a slim, hardcover volume of his poetry entitled, “Loving a Woman in Two Worlds.” My copy is not only in fine condition, but it is signed and inscribed by the author with a little drawing.

Love poems can so quickly become oversaturated with sappy cliches about lovesickness and heartache. But Bly uses images of mature, sensual, deep, long-lasting love as his inspiration for his collection. His poems are brief and are usually set in nature:

At Midocean

All day I loved you in a fever, holding on to the tail
of the horse.
I overflowed whenever I reached out to touch you.
My hand moved over your body, covered
with its dress,
burning, rough, an animals foot or hand moving
over leaves.
The rainstorm retires, clouds open, sunlight
sliding over ocean water a thousand miles from land.

The sense of contentment and sheer, unadulterated joy comes through in his poem “A Third Body.” A relationship is more than two people, it is how they are together—their history, their jokes, their private moments—that Bly personifies as a third body in this poem.

A Third Body

A man and a woman sit near each other, and they do
not long
at this moment to be older, or younger, nor born
in any other nation, or time, or place.
They are content to be where they are, talking or
not-talking.
Their breaths together feed someone whom we do
not know.
The man sees the way his fingers move;
he sees her hands close around a book she hands
to him.
They obey a third body that they share in common.
They have made a promise to love that body.
Age many come, parting may come, death will come.
A man and a woman sit near each other;
as they breathe they feed someone we do not know,
someone we know of, whom we have never seen.

The final one I will share from this collection describes love as a secret. Not a secret as in an illicit love affair, but instead a love that is quiet and calm and very private which makes it stronger and “unworried.”

Secrets

I walk below the over-bending birches,
birches that arch together in the air.
It is an omen of an open door,
a fear no longer found in the wind.
Are there unions only the earth sees?
The birches live where no on else comes
deep in the unworried woods...
These sandgrains looked at by deer bellies.

In addition to being a talented poet, Bly was also an essayist and translator. I intend to explore more of his work in the coming year.

Signed and inscribed with a little drawing by Robert Bly

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Winter Vocative: The Poetry of William Bronk

My mother and business partner/friend Ken do not like winter at all—the dark, the cold, the short days. I found two poems by William Bronk about the positives of winter in the hopes that it might change their minds….a little.

The First is “Winter Light” which reminds us that we can’t appreciate the light without the dark, which is a good metaphor for life as well:

We see light but we live in the cold and the dark
-----winters anyway. We are aware
that that isn't all there is. We wouldn't have 
it otherwise. How should we not know
and be alive, not be deprived? I saw
this afternoon the whiteness under the dark
clouds and rejoiced that we know the light as much
and even more from gone than when it is there.

And from the same collection, Manifest and Furthermore a poem entitle "Winter Vocative":

Broken sky-mirror,
blue-shadowed snow,
June is far now,

hold while you can; show
bare of branch
stark of stalk:

ache us to know.

That last line...."ache us to know."  Bronk captures what I love about winter, the interesting sky, the beautiful snow.  

Do you send poems or books or quotes to people in your life too?

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Odi et Amo: Darconville’s Cat by Alexander Theroux

The first century B.C. Roman poet Catullus expresses his frustration and torment with his lover—an older married woman—in what is his shortest and, arguably, his most famous poem:

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?

nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate you and I love you.

You may be wondering how can I feel this way.

I don’t know.

But that’s how I feel.

And I. am. tortured.

(Translation from the Latin is my own.)

That last word in the poem is especially striking. In Latin excrucior is specifically referring to the Roman form of torture by crucifixion. Who among us hasn’t felt that torment of mixed emotions when it comes to lost love? Alexander Theroux writes an erudite, funny, and tormented novel about these two opposite, conflicting emotions: “That which produces effects within one reality creates another reality itself. I am thinking, specifically, of love and hate.” Thus begins Theroux’s novel which takes the same ideas from Catullus’s “Odi et Amo” poem and uses 700 pages and 100 chapters to come to the same conclusion: love is torment.

The first half of Darconville’s Cat is Theroux’s exploration of “Amo.” Alaric Darconville, a peculiar, young, academic devoted to writing a book about angels, falls hopelessly in love with one of his students on the first day of his college Freshman English composition class. Darconville is ruthless in his judgement of the people he encounters in a small college town in the south. He is surrounded by silly, boring, poorly educated, shallow southerners and although Isabel Rawsthorne is one of them he convinces himself that she is somehow different. Thoreaux uses literary devices which we normally associate with love to lay out the progression of Darconville’s affair—one chapter is a love letter, another is a series of heroic couplets about love. “Knowledge is often used, mistakenly, in the sense of wisdom. Of such ideas let us soon hope to be rid, for no brainsick questions, mythical intricacies, or the froth of human wit can probe love—you cannot explain it. You point to it with a question exactly when it hasn’t an answer for you,” Darconville writes to a fellow academic about love. He continues, “Love, in any case, means union and what is not union is not love. You will either build a bridge or build a wall. In building a wall you remain the despicable crunchfist you always were, interested in neither projection nor equation but only in acquisition.”

On a quick sidenote, “crunchfist” might have stood out as a peculiar word that had to be looked up and is typical of Theroux’s wide range of vocabulary. Colluctation, concupiscence, and mendaciloquence are just a small sampling of the words he drops into his texts. And in places where he can’t quite find a word that fits he makes up his own. My knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek helped me pick apart some of the archaic words he uses, but a good dictionary is a must if one is to attempt to read Theroux.

Like the sculptor Pygmalion, Darconville creates a vision of the perfect woman in his mind. Although she has thick thighs, isn’t very good at conversation and writes terrible English compositions for his class, he only sees her as perfection—his own Galatea without any flaws. He spends their time together taking her for romantic drives and picnics and he gives her A’s on her terrible essays. But even Darconville’s faithful cat, Spellvexit, knows that Darconville is blinded by his love for this girl: “Spellvexit, who despised philosophy, showed an utter disregard for Darconville’s neautontimoroumenotic pain and preferred to stay outside clacking his teeth at birds until all his blew over.” It’s not clear whether or not Darconville, who was previously enrolled in a seminary, is naive about Isabel or just stubbornly believes in her perfection. Theroux is a master of foreshadowing as he slowly leads us on the long decent towards hate: “Love is centrifugal, hate centripetal. Demons must hilarify as they watch while we are drawn to someone unable, or unwilling, to love us. It is easy to be cruel. One need only not love.”

The second half of Darconville’s Cat is an exploration of his attempts at hatred (his “odi”) and his torment when he sees Isabel for who she really is: young, immature, silly, incapable of loving him. Darconville accepts a position at Harvard University and moves north without Isabel who promises to marry him and join him in Cambridge once he is settled. A decrepit, ugly, misogynist eunuch who is some sort of pseudo-administrator named Dr. Crucifer tries to become Darconville’s mentor and foment his hatred not only of Isabel but also of love, women and relationships in general. Crucifer’s name itself is a nod to Catullus and the torture that Darconville suffers because of love. We get a good taste of Crucifer’s character in Chapter LXVIII entitled, “The Misogynist’s Library” which is an 8 page list of books in his library with titles like Adnil Notrub’s The Kept Woman Who Didn’t Keep Long and Waverly Root’s “Women are Intellectually Inferior.”

I say attempt at hate because, as I was happy to see, Darconville never truly embraces hate or revenge. As hard as Crucifer tries to convince Darconville to channel his hatred and ruin Isabel’s life, in the end he runs from all that ugliness. Yes, Darconville is tormented—so, so tormented. We feel that “excrucior” of Catullus as he flees to Venice and puts his energy into writing. It isn’t a happy ending for Darconville but in the end he avoids hate which is, in itself, a triumph, and heals his soul through his creative process, something to which I can especially relate.

It’s been speculated that Darconville’s Cat is autobiographical and nt the end of the novel the reader is also left with a good sense of Alexander Theroux’s own “Odi et Amo:”

Likes: big words, books, cats, fountain pens, cats, thick thighs, sarcasm, women.

Dislikes: the South, brevity, academia, weird recluses giving him bad advice, women.

Unfortunately Darconville’s Cat is out-of-print and copies are rare and expensive. I got lucky with an ex-library book at a book sale but it really ought to be reissued by a brave, small, literary press. Tough Poets Press has started to publish Theroux’s stories and Truisms. But Darconville’s Cat is even more worthy of a wider audience.

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Packing My Library

I spent the day sorting, cleaning and packing up many of the books in my library. My book room had become so crowded with books one could barely walk into it because of the volumes stacked on the floor. Since leaving my teaching career and life as a classicist behind, I’ve also had to face the reality that I needed to clear out most of my and my late husband’s Latin and Ancient Greek books. I had to be brutally honest with myself and admit that there is very little chance I will look at these highly specialized tomes ever again.

Grief and loss are sneaky things; they creep up on you when you least expect them. I shed so many tears today as I packed up those books. “But why,” I kept thinking. Why? I’m not one to attach sentimental value to things or objects so why were these books making me so emotional?

Walter Benjamin, in his essay “Unpacking my Library” points out, “I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth.” I was hoping that our classics books, many of which are quite old, would find that new home, that rebirth with someone else.

A dear friend pointed out to me in the midst of my packing and cleaning, “Those books have really been weighing on you with all of their actual weight haven’t they?” The classics books in particular made me sad, not because I’m getting rid of them but because they have no real place to go. A famous used bookshop in Boston refused the offer of my collection because such books are “too difficult to sell.” The last vestiges of my former life. Not valuable to any one.

I wiped my tears and packed and cried some more. At the end of the day, though, the sense of calm and peace I felt with this project outweighed the initial melancholy. My massive collection of poetry, NYRB classics, and Seagull books are gleaming at me from their perches. And now I have space to add to my collections.

Habent sua fata libelli.

(Dear books each have their own fates.)

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Comfort, Luxury and Domestic Happiness: Modern Villas

On March 13th, 2020 I walked out of my classroom at The Woodstock Academy wondering when I would be back. How many books should I take with me? When would I see my students in person again? Everything was being shut down so rapidly because of COVID and no one knew how long it would take for things to go back to normal. I could not have imagined that the answer would be never. After a successful 22-year career teaching Latin to high school students, never would I be in that space or be a teacher, for that matter, ever again. Just a few months later, in July of that year, a state police officer arrived at my house late one afternoon to tell us that my husband was tragically killed by a careless driver while he was on the way home from a cross country motorcycle and camping trip.

I took a leave from teaching that fall and I decided to focus my energy and attention on making my home, my daughter and my pets comfortable and safe. I was anxious and scared out of my mind about running our household by myself and being a single parent. During these months of mourning and figuring out a new life for myself, I realized it was comforting and satisfying for me, and my little brood, to do various redecorating, remodeling and updating projects around my house.  One of the first phone calls I made was to a contractor I hired to rebuild my deck and to remodel my master bathroom and bedroom based on my designs.  Many of you have seen the photos on social media of my gorgeous new deck and the love affair that has developed between the contractor and my golden retriever, Phoebe.

The contractor and I realized that we worked very well together so I jumped into designing other spaces he was working on and even helping with demo, painting and other tasks I could manage.  I soon began working for him as an intern and as his protégé and I’ve since helped with, among other projects, two kitchen remodels, two bathroom remodels and a whole house window replacement.  The biggest challenge for me that I still face is doing physical work with another person who has more strength, agility and experience with adeptly using tools.  But my determination and the hands-on experience of learning to use tools, equipment, and picking up new skills has been exhilarating, fun, exciting and humbling. Some days even a little humiliating. Not only have I acquired my own set of high-quality tools, but I’ve put to good use many of the ones that Alan left behind in his workshop.  I think he would be pleased, and proud of me. 

The most exciting part of this story is that my contractor, Ken, has now become my business partner, teacher, friend and mentor and together we have formed a real estate development company, K&M Villa-State, LLC.  Yes, “Villa.”  I couldn’t possibly cleanse myself of my Latin and Ancient Greek studies entirely.  A Roman villa was a farmhouse or a country house which provided the best domestic comforts and luxuries of the republic and empire.  Fully plumbed baths, radiant central heating and mosaic floors were common features of these homes. Catullus’s description of his villa especially comes to mind—a place which, for him, personified comfort, luxury and domestic happiness.  This is how we want individuals and families to feel when they walk into one of our villas.

Ken and I working on building a pergola,

Out of all the things we have achieved so far, I am the most proud of the fact that Ken and I have both worked hard to be a true partnership through excellent communication, mutual respect and encouraging one other’s strengths and having patience with one other’s weaknesses.  Our vision for the business is building single family homes, duplexes and apartments that provide value and comfort to individuals and families in Northeastern Connecticut where, according to statistics in these rural towns, very few new or affordable homes are being constructed.  One unique business strategy that my partner and I have is that we will be doing 99% of the work on these homes ourselves instead of contracting out various parts of the build.  We are especially excited about using ICF (Insulated Concrete Forms) construction on our projects, a product and technique that is both innovative and green.  ICF construction homes are built with polystyrene blocks that are put together like Legos and are separated by plastic webbing.  Concrete is then poured into the webbing between the blocks to form a concrete wall.  This eliminates wood construction and the need for fiberglass insulation and the result is a home that is durable, energy efficient and requires a lot less upkeep.  ICF construction combined with energy efficient propane boilers in all of our homes will lessen the economic burden of excessive heating and electric bills that so many have recently faced.  In addition, bidet toilets will be installed in all of our homes which is not only green, but also saves anyone from suffering through another toilet paper shortage.

Quantum and Phoebe: Our mascots and brand ambassadors.

My biggest challenge has been working on my strength, agility and knowledge of different tools.  In my previous career the focus was solely on the intellect so now instead of collecting classics books I’m slowly trying to acquire most of my own tools. And the plot of raw land we purchased feels like a fitting metaphor for my own life—there are so many possibilities for us to create beautiful things through our vision, enthusiasm and effort.  A lot of effort. 

Just as I never would have ever thought that my teaching career would end so abruptly, I also never thought I would ever own a business of any kind let alone one in real estate development.  I’m eternally grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given in a profession that is largely male and the encouragement I have received to begin this new life, this new career. What motivates me most is the example I am setting for my daughter that success can be achieved even in the face of an awful tragedy.  My partner Ken likes to tease me that my excitement comes from the three cups of coffee I usually have during our morning meetings.  But the truth is that my enthusiasm stems from the prospect of providing others with the pride and sense of security that comes with owning a home that has value and comfort.

I’ll still be reading and writing and blogging, but with a new perspective. 

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