My blurb for NY poet Andre Spears’ new book, Ship of State.

Beautiful is the book that can contain and yet mix and spill myriad and sometimes paradoxical sources and images: Margaret Yourcenar’s “between indefatigable/ hope and the wise/ absence of hope,” Foucault’s “…what we have to rediscover through/ the whiteness and/ inertia of death isn’t/ the lost shudder of life,/ it’s the meticulous/ deployment of truth,” Nietzsche’s “That for which we find/ words is something already/ dead in our hearts,” The Zohar’s “For there is a rose,/ and then there is a rose!”, Gertrude Stein’s “I like anything/ that a word can do,” Baudelaire’s “The poet is like…/ A rider of storms.” And a Zen koan, “Life is like getting/ in a boat that is about/ to sail out to sea/ and sink.”

The quotations run down the left-hand sides of the pages, the story of the voyage on the right, riffing on the Tarot card Death, intimating continuity between life and death, throwing overboard what is no longer of use. The ship sets sail in astral waters off the lost land of Mu (no thing, the gate to enlightenment). When the ship is marooned, captain and crew see they have resisted “joy, love and laughter,” so “[t]he hope is that by mapping/the Heavens, we will discover/the Guiding Sprit to enlighten us.”

Spears knows this is a caper, so he names his characters, for instance, Cowabunga and Tarzan, and juxtaposes ancient and mythical with the contemporary hashtag and psychosphere and the absurdities of the political.

This adventure without end, this section of his dazzling long poem, is enthralling. Here is a seafarer who not only assimilates what is valuable, but groks what to do with it: play.

The Home School

Last week I attended, well, half attended, The Home School in Hudson, NY, because I thought it was time to shake things up. There, I became a student for the first time in decades, & it was useful to note how various poets led their poetry workshops. Harryette Mullen was my favorite, a reminder to ‘be yourself,’ do a sophisticated analysis of a poem yet be simple in your discussion of writing—If you enjoy it, do it, she reminded them. Wild CA Conrad developed/gave ritual workshops every morning which helped ground us, however wacky they seemed, involving touch, sight, fast writing, and listening. Myung Mi Kim was the hit of the week—doing groundbreaking work in poetry—more on that another time. Jorie Graham came up to read & to my joy says she’d be happy to come to my class this year. Adam Fitzgerald’s reading was so fast & contained so many contemporary references--younger generations have access to worlds and languages I do not—but at least that got me thinking about what might happen next. Got all sorts of ideas for my own poetry workshop, so we’ll see this term what happens.

Snow and Dry Stones

From: Paul Nelson
Date: Wed, 14 Dec 2016
To: Ruth Lepson
Subject: Snow and Dry Stones

Dear Ruth,

What a well-written, lucid and important account of Charles Olson you give in Letters for Olson! I saw your name and the names of other friends in the table of contents and flipped around in the book. Some essays are incomprehensible, or at least they were for me. Maybe I could read again, but some do not seem worth the effort.

Yorio Hirano! Yes, and your essay. That you give testimony from Diane di Prima is wonderful. This has been an issue with me and a younger poet who says "of course Olson was misogynist." This is related to one issue that prompted many Trump voters. When you go to ELEVEN on the racist meter for Romney, how can anyone take you seriously when you try for TWELVE on that meter for Trump? Or, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

YES to the poetry of our time that will survive! Yes to multiculturalism! Death to Yepez! (OK, not death, but maybe a bad limp or something.)

Anyway, thank you and Seasons Blessings.


It's Peaceful in Cambridge: The Poetry of Susannah Robbins

Susannah Robbins died on Tuesday the 27th of December. She died peacefully in hospice in Cambridge.

"Amelie's Statement"

one's feelings change.
there could be no definitive
sentence of size,
such statement otherwise....

and so one needs
recursive entries into time
to show one lives.
and that's why one still reads
after life gives
all that one knows is all, and grieves
its own changing
in new growth challenging
perfection, then, in
sight of time, in another's rhyme,
one newly leaves
grief where the grief has been

Can you hear the influence of Yeats, Donne, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Creeley in this complex series of sounds that are the meaning of this beautiful poem that is also very much her own?

It must have been the late 70's or early 80's when Susannah Robbins & I found ourselves in a poetry group together, which often met at Pat Rabby's house in Lexington, sometimes on her screened-in porch. I would pick Susannah up at her place on Shepherd St. and we would talk up a storm. There was something moving about her confidence, her lack of pretention, and her modesty.

She has a subtle sense of sound, she cares nothing for what is fashionable--what is everlasting is her concern, and her poetry is essentially lyrical. At times it's formal, even a sonnet once in a while. For over a decade she wrote mainly in syllabics. She cries and laughs at some remove in her poetry, disciplined and skilled as she is. You can hear a bit of Matthew Arnold's melancholy coming through.

From "Amelie's Composure":

Sitting under the shadow
of trees that are not trees,
a light that is not a light,
love (it is barely love) .....

Always there are stacks of paintings, watercolors, etchings, prints, and drawings in her apartments. Last year she had a show at Neville Place, the assisted living facility on Fresh Pond where she has lived in recent years. She's appreciative of every little stimulus or treat. One day when I went to see her she was in the main room for an art lecture that though well done was nothing new to her yet she was listening with interest, and beaming as she ate the piece of requested key lime pie.

From an earlier time, some of "Amelie Lives":

The tide
I see has no
starting place, running
up as it does freely as
children's hands and again back in confusion,
little disarray, laughing with
themselves half-seen.
The surge of the full
tide against its limit carries
the weight and the rush
as though it were some self-
floating sea
creature, in one with
itself, where all motion is one....

....Unconscious the sea
returns again; somewhere the sand
notes all of this, and sighs in its half-openness
like a child sleeping, half-hearing the rain.

Hear Stephens in "some self-floating sea"? (Why the name Amelie, I asked. It's a combination of the Dutch lieder singer, Elly Ameling's, name, and her friend Amy's, BTW. She is loyal to & incorporates those she has loved.)

Her personification is convincing; it isn't the easy, superficial kind. Nothing in her is superficial.

time, dark as
some lord drunk
with power leaning
from a tower
predicting doom,

my mind nears
peace, here in
this dusk where
all wind leans
as in trust

(from "Amelie Forgets")

Her father, Herbert Robbins, was one of the great mathematicians of the 20th c and she inherited some of his acumen and ability to think logically. And political engagement. She edited two anthologies of political writing, Against the Vietnam War: Writings by Activists and Peace Not Terror: Leaders of the Antiwar Movement Speak Out, which include essays by such notable activists as Noam Chomsky and Staughton Lynd, with whom she is still in touch. Jane Bond Moore's essay in the Vietnam anthology discusses the roles of an African-American woman in the movement. These collections are varied and valuable historical documents.

"At my Harvard twenty-fifth reunion in 1992," Susannah writes in the introduction to the Vietnam one, "There was a symposium entitled 'Vietnam: The Choices We Made.' It was like a memorial service....
"In Harvard Square it seemed that the sidewalk was glass, that below it lay the rubble of the Vietnam War on which American society was built, and that no one was looking down.
"So, I would look down...."

She edited for a living, for example, books on impressionism and cultural illiteracy, novels, and political work. Yet she remains little known and underappreciated.

What does it mean to live Cambridge unrecognized? For her, this was always the place, after Radcliffe, then a PhD at Boston College, (with a thesis on Yeats, "The Perspective of Style"), then a brief stint teaching literature at Vassar. She tells me she feels free here. And that she loved her Harvard professors, for instance, David Riesman, the sociologist and author of The Lonely Crowd, and Hilary Putnam, the mathematician and philosopher. What she loved about her Boston College English professor and thesis advisor, Andy Von Hendy, is that 'he didn't talk. He let us talk.'

Why did she return here rather than go back to New York? Because it's peaceful, she says. Because it had become her real home. She loved living on Shepherd St., then on Oxford St., between Harvard and Porter Squares, loved the little grocery stores--she is sorry to see Evergood Market go--and the proximity to The Harvard Art Museums, where her work is collected, as it is at Vassar and Smith and in private collections and now in the estates of Meyer Schapiro and physicist Victor Weisskopf. Some years ago she had a show at the Cambridge cable station in Central Sq.--the funkiness of the venue seemed right for her.

Recently, when the few of us who visit her had a birthday party for her in her room she couldn't talk very much and lay in bed, sometimes dozing or just listening with her eyes closed, making a remark once in a while; what I keep with me is her loving smile.

There are those who live in Cambridge in relative anonymity, though with talent and accomplishment, and it has been better for them to live here than most other places, since they need to be surrounded by others who are talented and accomplished, if more traditionally successful than they are. Cambridge can accommodate them. If only it could do more for them.

Here is her painting of the building on Shepherd Street where she lived for decades in two rooms.

When I asked if she could say more about Cambridge, she said with typical concision, "It's beautiful." Then she remembered that "some old lady said that the garden in Radcliffe Yard is the closest thing in Cambridge to Heaven." I asked if she agreed. Yes, she answered, and she cried for a moment, maybe remembering better days.

From "Amelie is Honest" (written at Vassar):

In the morning the curtain
is quite quiet. There
sunlight lies, off-white,
warm, lying in loose short folds.

Susannah still sounds like a New York intellectual and retains some of the hands-on way she got at Putney, the school in Vermont where the students farmed as well as got their book learnin'. She grew up around Einstein (in 1952, when her father was at The Institute for Advanced Study), and Aldous Huxley and Alan Lomax in Manhattan, who visited them on 80th and Madison. I asked if her mother, an artist, was as brilliant as her father and she said certainly. Her father was at times social and her mother always, and she looks like each of them.

She has six books of poetry to her name, and, despite little critical attention, has gone on working because that's what she does. "Eclipse of the Moon" is the title poem of her book published by Elderberry Press in 2012. Other books of poems include her etchings and color prints.

Of her Earth, Air, Fire, and Water: A Memoir of the Sixties and Beyond, Howard Zinn wrote, "I am enormously impressed with the quality of the writing and the extraordinary portraits she has drawn of the people who crossed her life's path." She herself is extraordinary, another of Cambridge's unseen, unsung brilliant, and lives with that which means most to her. She just quoted this to me, from the song by Michael Balfe:

I dreamed I dwelt in marble halls
With vassals and serfs at my side....

But I also dreamt which pleased me most
That you loved me still the same.

From "Amelie Speaks with Love":

The gravity of certain
rainfalls is a feeling I
learned early on in spring, the May
love bloomed powerful as a
cherry's dark rind of
bark falling under showers speaking
the final transient language: we.


Never before...

Never before did I think of poetry as history in this personal and communal way, but Let the Bucket Down, which just arrived, is the history of some lively parts of the poetry community in Boston and a record of the feelings and thoughts that often get lost, and is filled with the mastery of craft. There are sections of Margo Lockwood's memoir--she mentions Juliet her daughter & these days I see Juliet on FB now in Calif, and there are damn great poems by Jim Berhle, who used to live here, and there's my publisher Bill Corbett, always showing us how to write about the essential without being sentimental, and Jill McDonough writing poems about teaching in prison, and Joel Sloman writing his days precisely, and Lori Lubeski whose smooth & deeply felt poems always make me want more, and Roland Pease, whose poems I haven't seen for too long--among others here a tiny breathtaking one, & I had already read Patrick Doud's thoughtful interview w Gerrit Lansing, & there's Fanny Howe on the sister of the marathon bombers, and I haven't even gotten to Keith Jones, Amanda Cook, Bridget Eileen, Jess Mynes, Jessica Bozek, Audrey Mardavitch and others--and there's me, on Charles Olson. And T.J. Anderson, whom I quote in my essay, has poems right after my piece. If you want to know what's happening in poetry around here, or to know what's happening around here, buy this journal. Thank you, Joe Torra, you do it all, so we now have issue 3 in our hands.

We need such books.

Camel, ass, lion, pig, donkey, horse, ox, fawn, duckling, osprey, sea snail, snake; infirmary, school, factory farm; bar, travel, underwear, childbirth, solar observatory, sex acts, and “the morning corpse of water”: maybe you can tell from this list of images in this book what Jared Shickling’s concerns are. “Nature’s impatience / homage de / con struck / shun / remains” enacts the breakdown of a world that we are destroying, so at times her syntax and spelling are altered, even to the point of using single letters. “Until I touch you and am unclean myself’’ suggests the ways we separate ourselves, male from female, human animal from other animals. “He has a blemish // he will profane not my sanctuaries.” Religion and archaisms continue to influence us in unpardonable ways. Critiques of factory farms run through the book, the most upsetting of which is a poem in which a worker confesses the horrors of tortures inflicted upon pigs. This is poetry infused with morality; its structure and its subjects are inseparable, because Shickling clearly feels the waste and misuse of the world so deeply. “Emotions mixed like primary colors.” We need such books.

—Ruth Lepson