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DICK ALLEN - SUMMER 2002 FEATURE  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Sharon Olds
Best American Poetry on the Air: An interview and reading with American Poet Sharon Olds. David Lehman hosts this special audio program.

Dick Allen
A Day in the Life of Dick Allen: Lines, images, rhythms, and cross outs.

David Kennedy
Voiceprints (Part 2) - Poetry on CD and Cassette: David Kennedy continues to explore the magical relationship between poetry and voice.

John Kinsella
Extracts from Letters London to Perth-June/July 1993: Sobriety, logic, unbridled passion and lust, all in the latest chapter of John Kinsella's autobiographical series.

Dick Allen

Dick Allen has new poems in or forthcoming from The Yale Review, The Massachusetts Review, Salmagundi, The Sewanee Review, Raritan, and The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, among others. His most recent collection, his fifth, is Ode to the Cold War: Poems New and Selected (Sarabande Books, 1997). He is currently completing three new collections.
A Day in the Life of Dick Allen

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On other days, I teach undergraduate and graduate classes in poetry, seminars in Eastern and Western Civilizations, or courses in international fiction, or I wander (for weeks at a time) the nation's backroads in a green Honda, or throw myself into politics, or listen to bluegrass, or visit museums, or hike hours beside mountain streams, or meditate on a favorite blue marble, or talk and play cards with our minister son and librarian daughter and her husband, but this is by far the most typical day, a writing day

. . . .

. . . . Fifteen minutes with the morning Connecticut Post, the day a gift of warm breezes and sun and work-bound cars rounding Fern Circle. To the left of the house, as I stand in the driveway, the pebbled-glass surface glitter of Thrushwood Lake. . . . Two eggs in an old blackened frying pan, three slices of bacon in the microwave. Outside the kitchen window, a cardinal and three chickadees eating sunflower seeds from the bird feeder. A pair of small mourning doves on the ground below the feeder, pecking at husks. The phrase from Theodore Roethke's "In a Dark Time": "a steady stream of correspondences."

It's about 9 a.m. I write lying on my left side on the bedroom's king-sized bed. The pen is always a Japanese Papermate, black ink. The draft paper is always on a chipped $.68 clipboard I've been using for 33 years, since I was given it while teaching at the Indiana Writer's Conference. Three cats, Tsar and Beijing and Kami, visit here and there for petting or they tussle in the sunlight.

I begin to try writing. A line. Another line. A crossed out line. An image. A cluster of images. A rhythm. More crossouts. A word discovered and put up to the right of the page. A feeling. Some random thought. Something emerging and then it falls over a cliff. Flurries. Ebbs. A wash across a deserted beach. Jetsam. The memory of a birch tree in the woods above Round Lake, New York. Waiting. Tiny sketches to the left of the page of the way a pigeon walks, smoke swirls. Two lines rhyming. Does this poem wish to rhyme? Questions. What am I feeling? What's the mood of the country today? Whose story can I tell? What's trust? Light's been stopped in a physics laboratory. What does that mean, metaphorically, for us? Glances around the room. Shapes. The black, gold, and silver print of oriental fans on the bedroom curtains. The Hindu thousand-mirrored maroon wall-hanging behind the bed—bought from a Tibetan store in Woodstock. Cat Stevens. Tree huts. A walk through the mud. Muddy fields of Vietnam. Break for stretching legs and V-8 juice in a small pale green Coca-Cola glass. And somehow, from odds and ends and tatters and God knows where, the poem begins, takes shape in a line, several lines, a rhyme pattern, until it finds something honest or true or beautiful or a shattering simile that corresponds to something my blood feels and then the poem is one of a score of beginnings that has a tiny chance of being completed.

During this time, I've been lost in what is close to an out-of-the-body experience, in an adventure, a battle, a quest. I look up at the clock on the dresser and almost three hours have passed; it's almost noon. I may have written one good line or a quatrain, or a raw small draft.

My wife, Lori, comes down from her own writing of poems on her upstairs purple iMac. Lunch. Local news or CNN Headline news. So far, the day remains a kind of dreamstate, which is typical and—because this is summer—can extend for weeks. Writing, for me, always occurs in a trance and is always obsessive, utterly consuming. I need long stretches of time. The phone doesn't ring (we keep an unlisted number and have trained our friends and relatives not to call except for emergencies or at a certain specified period in the early evening). We're hermetic. Our social life is nearly nil.

A half-hour nap. The mail, only glanced at and not engaged in, so as not to interrupt the working poem at the back of the mind. Back into the poem. Cardinals in the tulip trees. Bob Dylan singing somewhere, on some barbed-wire fence road. Pompey's Pillar. Redwoods. The Suburu of a sunset, does that make sense? Dissociation. Order and disorder in their constant lovely interplay. The flexing thumb. What's the relationship between branches of the tree outside and Freud's thought-patterns in Civilization and Its Discontents? Classical order but organic sprawls. What does this have to do with Georgia O'Keefe? "Though it may look like (write it!) like disaster." Nanoseconds. Nanoprobes. Bits and bites. What about a junkyard of old computers? Keyboards. Dust on the screen. Lost in the ones and zeros. A butterfly on the open palm of a Japanese woman. Why won't President Clinton go away?

Emerge in two hours for groceries at the local Stop & Shop or Grand Union. Because I'm still half in the poem, everything rings and shimmers and has shadows and voice and nuance. Joy if it's going well, joy to just be out among the "hunks and colors" (Richard Wilbur's phrase) and small details of the world. The smile on the tall woman's face, frost and fingerprints on a freezer door, the lonely mysterious aisles of supermarkets—as Allen Ginsberg knew. The glories. The tragedies of the hardware aisles and the expensive laughter of the cereal ones. Randall Jarrell. Robert Lowell in a dialogue with Robert Frost: "Sometimes I'm so happy I can't stand myself."

Return to swim in Thrushwood Lake a mile or so, with many laps back and forth: backstroke, breaststroke, at the end a final burst of the overhead crawl, remembering when I was a lifeguard and riflery instructor at a YMCA summer camp in the Berkshires. The poem there, pulsating, in a corner room of my mind. Walk a hundred yards to the house. Write more. Copy lines. Cross out. Make a fair copy of what's here so far. Resist impulse to put lines on the computer, for then they might "set" too soon. Where am I?

Supper. Half hour of evening news. Walk in the early evening for a half hour to an hour on the quiet streets of the old Nichols section of Trumbull, streetlights going on, teenagers gathering by the small stone bridge, faint sounds of a hundred TVs; perhaps chatting with neighbors—Barbara Iacovetti at her garden, John Vangor endlessly mowing his lawn, Cindy and Ron Stevenson throwing a Frisbee with their kids. Back to the poem for another hour or two. If it's going well, more joy. If not, anger at self, anger at the world: maybe fifty lines, all slashed away, all from today gone. Sometimes weeks and weeks of this. Everything no good. All washed away, splintered, disappeared. Or maybe a brief few lines stand forth in a meadow, or dance on some Baltimore fire escape. Or something has "sudden rightnesses" and I can see into its future taking place days, weeks, months, years ahead.

9 p.m. One of the few things that can bring me out of the poetry is a mediocre non-intellectual escape movie. Escape into that for two hours, since my beloved ten shots a night of scotch are long gone, and my equally beloved three packs of Parliaments a day joined them in 1999. Twenty minutes of late evening news. And finally, the reward for the day, no more writing for I could ruin the poem now, with one accidental slip of the mind or pen. Three or four hours of reading: a new book on physics, a chapter in a book by the Dali Lama, a twenty pound art book with text and paintings from the turn of the century, books about staircases, books on colors, on clocks, on anything. Our small Cape Cod house holds mainly books, about 12, 000. Re-reading some Richard Wilbur poems. Li Po. Elizabeth Bishop. Baudelaire. Basho. Dante. A short story by Jhumpa Lahiri. An essay by Barry Lopez. Jot down a phrase from the reading. A line. An idea for the poem or for another poem, one I'll begin writing tomorrow, or some time from now, if I can reach the place where it begins to set right, when something locks. If I can re-enter or maintain the trance. If I can live. If I can rightly live.

 

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2002 The Cortland Review